Capone's Art-House Round-Up with SNOWPIERCER, BEGIN AGAIN, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT reissue, and GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
A lot of people are using works like "crazy" and "insane" to describe SNOWPIERCER, the latest visionary work by the great South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (THE HOST, MEMORIES OF MURDER), but the truth is that, although some truly outrageous and exaggerated things happen during the course of this film, by the time it's over, it all feels quite inevitable and weirdly prophetic. Based on the 1982 French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” from writers Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand and artist Jean-Marc Rochette, SNOWPIERCER tells the story of a planet dealing with soaring temperatures due to global warming. In a rare show of solidarity, the world attempts to cool the planet by shooting a chemical into the atmosphere.
But rather than drop things a few degrees, it sends the planet into a premature Ice Age, killing everyone in the world. Anticipating this is, the forward-thinking Wilford (Ed Harris) spent years building a 60-car train on a track that goes around the world (taking the scenic route). On this super-train are passengers from all walks of life, including the poorest of the poor in the back cars and a whole host of amenities and rich people to enjoy them toward the front. After years of being used and abused by the 1 percenters, the back-of-train folks decide it's time to rebel and storm the engine room at the front of the train or die trying. This has been attempted before, but never in such an organized manner, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt).
The film is quite simply the dirty masses moving from one car to the next, but what they are met with at each new door is more shocking that what they have just passed through to get there. Sometimes they are greeted with bloodthirsty security teams, other times they are met with something jarringly serene, like an aquarium that completely encompasses the passageway, or a peaceful garden, with a single old lady drinking tea as its caretaker. After a while, you start to find yourself eagerly anticipating what will come next, and wondering which of the seemingly endless number of huddled masses will die next.
And there are certainly plenty to choose from, including the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and the great Kang-ho Song (THIRST; THE HOST; THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD) as a criminal who is freed by the rebels because he knows how to jimmy the locks between cars. His girlfriend is the equally bizarre Ah-sung Ko (also from THE HOST). Representing the front-of-car elite are Wilford's second in command Mason (Tilda Swinton, complete with the nastiest false teeth she's ever worn and a total lack of compassion for the dregs of the train).
With each new train car—each representing an alternate, twisted take on food preparation, education, warfare, technology, zoos, relaxation and partying—the herd is thinned and the mind is expanded gradually, until the surreal and horrific nature of this entire journey is fully revealed. It's one of the strongest varieties of social commentary in film that I've seen in quite some time, and the entire endeavor moves from pure violence and action to a creature built of philosophy. It's an incredible transition to watch, and the idea that anyone would attempt to cut this seamless, organic story is preposterous, bordering on insulting to Joon-ho.
SNOWPIERCER is aggressively intelligent, whacked out of its mind, and loaded with some of the coolest performances you're going to see all year. It shouldn't surprise you that the film is the highest-grossing film in South Korean history, and that's because it's that rare combination of pure entertainment and unashamed commentary on the present day. Don't let that scare you; let it thrill you. And for god's sake, let it inspire you to buy a ticket.
I had to watch the latest work from writer-director John Carney twice to really understand what I was responding to in Begin Again, his first musically oriented film since ONCE. Both films are about lost souls who find each other, make beautiful music together (literally), and eventually build up enough strength in the other to set them on a slightly clearer and more hopeful both into whatever is next in their lives. With both works, it may not be the ending you're hoping for, but it's still a perfectly acceptable and hopeful way to leave our heroes.
In the case of BEGIN AGAIN, Carney has shifted his focus from real musicians playing characters to actors pretending to be some manner of musician. A fully scruffy Mark Ruffalo plays washed-up music executive Dan, who has just been fired from the record label he helped found (with partner Saul, played by Mos Def). He gets loaded and ends up at a low-grade open-mic night where he hears the recently dumped Gretta (Keira Knightley) perform a perfectly lovely song about heartbreak, and he becomes inspired by her. Up until recently, she'd been the girlfriend and writing partner to Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), a rising rock star who was lucky enough to have his music placed in a popular film and is now poised to record his first real album.
Dan convinces Gretta to let him record an album, which they will in turn give to his old label in hopes of signing a release deal. They concoct the idea of recording all of the songs in different great locations around New York City in one summer, letting the ambient noise and occasional siren or car horn be part of the recording. Most of the music is supplied by former New Radicals central figure Gregg Alexander, and his greatest gift is his ability to be versatile, making each song fit the situation, whether it's a song of great personal sorrow or an uplifting rocker. Director Carney and his ONCE star Glen Hansard also contribute tunes here and there, but it's Gregg's uncanny ability to capture a moment that saves the day.
"From what?" you might ask. Ruffalo's Dan is a little too perfect a mess to be believable. He rants about how record companies (his included) have gone from nurturing musicians to worrying about how they dress in their videos. Every time he says something to Knightley about one of her songs "going right to the top," I cringed. We know and he should know that that in no way interests her, and they come off sounding like empty promises from a drunk. Dan also has issues with his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), who is trying to grow up too fast. Thankfully, she finds a sympathetic ear in Gretta, who steers her away from dressing like a skank to attract boys, a lesson apparently her mother (Catherine Keener) doesn't see the need to teach her.
Anyone who already thinks Adam Levine in a world-class douche bag will probably either have that image confirmed by BEGIN AGAIN or will appreciate the fact that he was bold enough to play an asshole boyfriend rather than try to make himself a good guy to improve his image. Levine is quite convincing as the confused young rocker who allows the industry and all of its temptation to seduce him. But he's downright hilarious when he attempts to work his way back into Gretta's life after he unceremoniously dumped her. He's the classic case of not being a bad guy, but doing bad things all the time.
Carney has made many other, non-musical films in his career, but few if any have played or been recognized outside of his native Ireland, so these lovely musical pieces are his sweet spot, and BEGIN AGAIN is a flawed but still perfectly watchable drama with catchy and heartfelt tunes and strong performances from all. Knightley's voice is simply gorgeous and perfectly suited for these wistful songs of love, loss and newfound strength. BEGIN AGAIN is a classic crowd pleaser, destined to be attacked by critics as something less than ONCE (which it is), but there's certainly plenty here to enjoy and settle into quite comfortably. Not everything has to be perfect to get the job done.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
If I have to sell you on this rare opportunity to see this beautifully restored version of the Beatles' first foray into film on the big screen, then maybe you have some issues that I can't help you resolve. And to hear those songs blasting from a great sound system, forget about it. The Richard Lester-directed, black-and-white (looking as crisp as it ever has) A HARD DAY’S NIGHT finds John, Paul, George and Ringo traveling to and prepping for a TV appearance, with seemingly everyone and thing pulling at them to be in the right place, when all they want to do is run around, have fun, make silly jokes (puns are a second language with these four), and play music.
It's been a while since I've seen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, and even longer since I've seen it on the big screen, but I'd forgotten just how nuanced Paul McCartney's performance actually is and how terribly tragic Ringo's put-upon persona really grabs you. And the supporting actors, especially Wilfred Brambell as Paul's impish, troublemaking grandfather and Victor Spinetti as the television director who spends every moment leading up the broadcast in a state of uncut anxiety, are a complete blast to observe.
Perhaps most impressive is Alun Owen's keen script, which gives the feeling of being improvised but is really the product of spending time with the Beatles and capturing their speech patterns and rapid-fire delivery. The screenplay works to the band's strengths as personalities as well as musicians. And then there's the music, beginning with the title track and blazing through "I Should Have Known Better," "Can't Buy Me Love," "All My Loving," "Tell Me Why," "And I Love Her," George Harrison's "Don't Bother Me," "If I Fell," "She Loves You" and more, every one of them worthy of singing along.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT remembers how to have fun and be silly without being dumb or nonsensical. And by the end of the film, each of the band members has had at least one singular, identifying moment that brought out a trait or behavior that is more telling than any biography could ever be. The film remains extraordinary for its simplicity and, most importantly, its tunes. It's as if Lester were trying to make the story as catchy as the music. In both cases, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT succeeds to perfection.
GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA
Writer Gore Vidal was one of the 20th century's only true renaissance men, moving effortlessly from stage, screen, essays, novels, history and political criticism of unparalleled ferocity. He was also a bit of a snob, but the type who earned the label because he usually had the distinction of being smarter than anyone else in the room. And director Nicholas Wrathall's provocative documentary GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA paints as even handed a portrait of the late icon as one can expect in a film in which those who oppose Vidal are treated like villains (usually with complete justification).
There's no denying Vidal's power and eloquence as a writer, but for a film about him, the highlight is his absolute control of the spoken word. As a pure debater, there were few better, and watching Vidal rip into the likes of William F. Buckley (the two were frequently paired on television during the Vietnam War era) and a drunken Normal Mailer is like witnessing a great fencer slice his opponent's heart from his chest. Equally impressive were the historical figures whom Vidal called friends, including the Kennedys, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Tennessee Williams, and so many others. But being his friend didn't necessarily protect you from his critical eye. The film has the late Christopher Hitchens as one of its chief interviews and supporters of Vidal. But a falling out between these once close friends (that almost feels like it happened just off camera as the film was being shot) brings out a nasty streak in Vidal that seems to have resulted from Hitchens throwing his support behind the war in Iraq.
Openly gay for most of his adult life, Vidal suffered the indignity of homophobia even from his peers at times, leaving him a little shell-shocked at times but eventually leading to some of his greatest writing and speeches about the natural state of being gay. The film focuses a great deal on his relationship with longtime live-in companion (in name only, apparently) Howard Austen, and the intellectual bond they shared made both of them excel later in life.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA is a wicked and keenly observed biography of a man for whom there was and is no equal. One of the world's great popularly know intellectuals, Vidal was as comfortable at a political forum as he was on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." He was a surprisingly adept impersonator (his Ronald Reagan was especially nasty), and had a sense of humor that could be devastating, especially if you were on the receiving end of a particularly vicious barb. The film gives us examples of all of this and more, and makes us realize that he could be the life of the party or the fly in the ointment, depending on his mood. The doc is a both a real treat and a true learning experience.
-- Steve Prokopy
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