Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Snowpiercer (2014): Review

Snowpiercer is a 2014 post apocalyptic film. directed by Joon Ho-Bong (The Host) and featuring an ensemble cast including Chris Evans (Sunshine), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Kang Ho-Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), John Hurt (Alien) and Jamie Bell (King Kong). The film is adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.

Snowpiercer is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which an attempt to counter global warming has backfired and the earth has been plunged into an ice age. The only refuge from the elements is an enormous train which perpetually circles the globe and is divided into the rich and opulant classes in the front of the train and the poor and oppressed classes in the tail end. The tail end occupants are led in an uprising by Curtis (Evans), mentored by Gilliam (Hurt), in an attempt to overthrow their oppressive masters in the front carriages, under the leadership of Mr Wilfred (Ed Harris). Along the way they enlist the lockbusting skills of Minsu (Song) but are in for more than a few surprises along the way as hench-woman Mason (Swinton) is determined to stop them reaching the sacred engine room.

Although the post apocalyptic struggle between the classes and the masses isn't a new idea, Snowpiercer feels like a breath of fresh air for both the post-apocalyptic genre and the sci-fi genre. Ho-Bong makes a huge impression with his English language debut and the film is directed with all the visual style you'd expect from one of South Korea's many auteurs. There's definitely a world cinema, slow burn pace being utilised and it can take a while for things to get moving but the film is at its most fascinating when we move into the luxury front carriages. This includes an aquarium, greenhouse, swimming pool, night club and even a sushi bar hammering home the the injustice of the rich and greedy enjoying luxury at the expense of the exploited tail end occupants.

Although there are many fine performances in the film, I have to say the one that blows them all away is Tilda Swinton. Almost unrecognisable as Wilfred's spin doctor Mason, she manages to evoke cruelty, pathos, comedy and a weird sort of pathos often in the space of one line or glance. More a bureaucratic buffoon than a super villain she serves as the perfect foil to Curtis' revolution. The action sequences are spectacularly artistic and one sequence in particular seems to pay homage to the Oldboy corridor scene, with the camera always focusing on the physical elements rather than lingering on gore.

Whilst a little slow to get going and slightly too much lingering around the climax (with Harris proving a bit of a wet blanket), Snowpiercer is a triumph and is yet more proof that the great South Korean directors can make the transition to English language (if proof were needed after Chan-Wook's Stoker). An anti-Hollywood action film with all the satirical and philosophical notes of post-apocalyptic films gone by, Go out of your way to see Snowpiercer!

**** 4 Stars

What did you think of the film? How does it compare to other South Korean works?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Oculus (2014): Review

Oculus is a 2014 supernatural horror film. Directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and starring Karen Gillan (Doctor Who). The film is based upon Flanagan’s earlier short film Oculus: Chapter 3.

Oculus is the story of a haunted antique mirror handed down through the ages and eventually passing into the ownership of the Russell family. The story is told from the perspective of siblings Kayleigh (Gillan) and Tim and is split between the modern day and the early 2000s. In the modern day Tim has recently been released from prison and is reunited with his older sister who has been able to track down the sinister mirror from their childhood. She reveals that her plan is to conduct an all-night paranormal experiment to prove that the mirror is responsible for countless deaths, including their parents. At the same time, events from the pair’s childhood are told in flashback, revealing the true power of the mirror and, perhaps, a way for Kayleigh and Tim to break the curse.

The first problem with Oculus is that it’s a hugely out of date premise. The premise of a haunted mirror is something right out of a 50s b-movie or Snow White and is really hard to take seriously in the modern age when compared to modern genre classics like Ring (98) or Pulse (01). This is made worse by some seriously poor acting and a poor script to work with which does Gillan no favours in her post Who career. Her attempts to portray a psychologically fractured character in the style of a Jack Nicholson or James Brolin fall completely flat and only serve to remind you of those superior performances/films.

The other problem with the film is the split narrative. Playing somewhat like a horror Blue Valentine (2009), the film struggles to build momentum in both timelines as Flanagan can’t seem to decide when, and how to focus on each respective period. One wonders whether the film might have worked better being set primarily in the earlier timeline as the child actors are significantly more competent and the actor portraying the father actually does do quite a good Jack Nicholson impression. These earlier scenes, along with the hallucinations in the modern timeline, were the only parts of the film that managed to summon any kind of dread or suspense in building towards the film’s “shock” ending which, incidentally, felt like a pretty lousy payoff.

While I certainly appreciate any attempt at an original horror property as opposed to a sequel/reboot, taking an extremely tired premise and giving it a fresh lick of “faux-paranormal activity” paint is simply not good enough. It’s a tedious plot that genre fans have seen countless times and is dragged down further by mediocre actors and a frustrating structure. Oculus is a poor effort for Flanagan and a shaky start to Gillan’s Hollywood career, definitely one to avoid.

* 1 Star

What did you think of Oculus? Did the split narrative work for you?