By Ian Brockway
One can imagine Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) pulsing with manic manga energy, his head covered with ink-black shooting stars as he traveled to his favorite comic book store absolutely possessed by a graphic novel about an apocalyptic train entitled Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrande and Jean-Marc Rochette.
“Snowpiercer” is the result, produced by the master of Korean suspense, Park Chan-wook.
In a very Orwellian tale reminiscent of “The Hunger Games,” there is an environmental experiment to combat global warming that goes horribly wrong. Most of humanity perishes frozen to death without food, except those who are sequestered in a huge rattling train. The poor are at the tail end of the perpetual machine while the upper classes reside in their own mobile suites at the front.
We spend our time with the impoverished. All is dark, dirty and smelly, in keeping with so many dystopian stories.
There is a big, strapping idealistic young man named Curtis (Chris Evans) a nervous mom (Octavia Spencer) and Gilliam, an aging man of wisdom who has seen it all (played by John Hurt, of course). All of these people are caterwauling in cacophony. Some hobble and wince, bleeding badly, screaming, maimed, and barely able to stand. Babies are hidden in big coffee cans and shoved aside. Some seem lucky enough to eat and scarf up an excremental jello made from a mash of roaches. A man’s arm is sadistically thrust through a porthole in a brutal yank that wrenches the extremity all but loose from the body.
This is a bit overzealous and absurd and after 35 minutes one might want to leap from the movie seat as the eye has little to go on.
But just as squeamishness begins, a shrewish, over the top prime minister enters (Tilda Swinton) to liven things up. This minister is nothing less than a Ralph Steadman illustration in three dimensions, horrible and hissy in her hatred, yet comically apoplectic. Her silver-brown eyes roll and stare in fury. Swinton is a snarling, rabid schoolmarm with steroids.
Curtis decides to lead a revolt. After all, the goon guards have guns with no shells. The train is alternately plunged in darkness and plied with torches, all resulting in a bloodbath that doesn’t add much to the story.
The gang moves through different areas of the train with the chattering minister as hostage.
The upper classes are ensconced in a perpetual smorgasbord of variety. There is a glassed in aquarium that functions as a residential sushi bar. Some of the residents laze forever in smoking jackets and leather settees. Others preen before sunlit cosmetic counters while a Winter Death impassively waits outside.
In the film’s most eerie chapter, sugary faced children merrily express their disgust for the poor in a few Sesame Street-type singalongs, while sitting in brightly toned classrooms.
The gang’s only hope is a zombie-like locksmith brought back from the dead, Namgoong (Song Kang-ho), who wants drugs.
Despite “Snowpiercer” being bloody, excessively rich in grunting and farfetched, it is also poetic and decadent. The verdant green groves of the elitists, punch across the blinding whiteness of snow like haiku.
A megalomaniac with no neck who bears a generic resemblance to many politicians, makes an anxious villain. And for good measure there is a stentorian Ed Harris who effects a man behind a gate persona, appearing as Hugh Hefner in a smoking jacket.
Director Park Chan-wook (Lady Vengeance) definitely leaves his mark as the producer of this film, especially as it has a crafty, psychic siren, Yona (Go Ah-sung), in its ultimate center.
If you can wait out the squishes, squirms and squirts from an ax battle (that would make Mel Gibson turn red) and a jetting or two of blood in a dark orgy of ultra violence, the smooth, rhythmic transitions from one scene to the next, combined with the images of a gray purgatory and an opiate heaven make “Snowpiercer” a matinee that folds upon the eye like disparate origami, in forms that are sometimes predictable and jarring in tone while still others are scarily festive with a giddy sarcasm.
Roger Ebert is probably the single person most responsible for bringing the culture of film debate from the academic realm to the masses. Before Ebert, cinema culture and argument was thought an elitist and snobby art form, inaccessible to the workaday public.
Through his congenial enthusiasm for film and his vibrant weekly show which was co-chaired with critic Gene Siskel, Ebert made film opinions fun and even necessary. At once, both an ingredient and a mirror of life.
“In Life Itself,” a documentary by Steve James, (Prefontaine, Hoop Dreams) we get a solid texture of Roger Ebert, the person, including his wishes, his wanderings, his Shangri-las and his fears.
Eschewing a linear path, the film is a kaleidoscope of Ebert’s life in totality. We see him first in a hospital bed as he fights complications from cancer of the jaw. Ebert can neither speak, drink nor eat— a difficult toxin to accept and a harsh twist of fate for such a glib and verbally flexible man who won the Pulitzer Prize. But rather than wallow, he types away. As he describes it, he was surrounded by words all of his life. Language is Ebert’s constellation and it always will be. In this new beginning, nothing has changed.
It is Roger Ebert’s new chair, connected to his words like an umbilical cord that bring him back as a young man working the sports beat for The News-Gazette as he burned the midnight oil.
In 1963, he became Editor-in-Chief for The Daily Illini, writing a scathing and eloquent lament for the horrendous bombing death of four Birmingham girls at the hands of white supremacists. During the Kennedy Assassination, Roger literally “stopped the presses” as there was a cartoon of a rooster holding a gun adjacent to the murder of JFK spread.
Ebert became a film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and he gained a following for being energetic, honest and brutal, but not acidic, if a film asked for it.
He went to bars, sought the company of hookers, held court, fearlessly bragged and drank more, even to the point of collapse.
Later Ebert would join AA. And he was one of the first to be vocal about his alcoholism.
Language could never steer him wrong.
Ebert met the soft porn wizard, Russ Meyer, became bamboozled by big breasts and wrote a screenplay.
In 1975, PBS approached him to do a TV show. It became Sneak Previews with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Roger looked like a hedgehog in big round glasses and heavy sweater, while Gene came across as a pedantic know-it-all, as far away from the average person as he was tall. Yet, both of them made film accessible and, better yet, entertaining.
The cinema salon, untethered by education or degrees was now in the suburban living room.
The most fun in “Life Itself” comes from the verbal combat between Roger and Gene. Roger despises Gene’s more hard line opinions, while Gene calls him an “asshole.” They disagree on many films from “Full Metal Jacket” to “Blue Velvet.”
It is fun to watch such cellulose burn with Siskel leaping from his chair and Ebert percolating in snarls of fury.
The film hints that Ebert may have been jealous of Siskel’s more outwardly prolific life (e.g. family and acceptance in The Playboy Mansion).
But who knows. As Ebert is an inspiration to a once coke-addicted Scorsese, and a life affirming beacon to Werner Herzog, I think Roger had him beat.
While there is little mention of the bawdy Ebert who no doubt worked closely with Russ Meyer and The Sex Pistols and no mention of the young one who got interested in film through reading Mad Magazine, “Life Itself” is wonderful in showing Ebert as he is.
Above all else it shows a comprehensive and human cinematic mind racing against time to meet the next article.
Roger is spurred on by the voluptual love and full falsetto romance (and who wouldn’t be) of Chaz Ebert and their film savvy children.
While some of the medically intimate details make hard viewing, coupled with Chaz’s flowing tears, “Life Itself” does not dwell in sadness.
Roger Ebert, in a parallel to the physicist Stephen Hawking, has given a quantum leap bringing the often esoteric language of cinema with coherence to nearly everyone worldwide.
This is enough of a gift, but a more lasting one, remains Ebert’s belief that the cinema is an emotive motion-filled and transcendent experience, necessary in creating channels of empathy along with the forging of roots to better ourselves as thinking people, brave in whatever obsessions we might have.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org