August 2014

Double Feature: And Now for Something Completely Different

Rick Alber

Last month I had back-to-back movie experiences that bolstered my faith that film houses, our communal means to share the cinematic experience, will long endure. But the same events also demonstrated how quickly our concept of “going to the movies” is changing, not all for the better.

I took in a showing of the very odd South Korean action thriller Snowpiercer, then reveled with other Python fans at a live broadcast from London of the Monty Python stage show, screened at the Century Theatre on Mission Street.

Snowpiercer is a genre-bending, sci-fi thriller with generous doses of comedy and societal criticism that has all of the action and violence of a typical summer blockbuster. But it’s not quite that. The film strings together a series of beautifully shot scenes within a futuristic train hurtling around a frozen Earth. The passengers are the only survivors of a climatic collapse that has nearly obliterated life on the planet. Why the train must keep circling the globe, how it’s able to keep running, and why its designers chose to build a train rather than some other protected environment are questions that Korean director/writer Joon-ho Bong (The Host) and his co-writer Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) spend little effort answering. Instead, the plot focuses on a surrealistic uprising by the impoverished near-prisoners in the back of the train who try to fight their way to the luxurious world of the entitled few up front.

Beautifully choreographed martial arts battles and axe-wielding ensue, accompanied by ominous, screechy violin music, jerky handheld camera work, and some of the most leaden dialog this viewer has heard in ages. Reaching the front of the train — no spoiler there — the movement’s leader (Chris Evans) confronts the vehicle’s owner (Ed Harris) where secrets, grisly truths and plot twists are revealed in dramatic close-up, nearly-improvisational acting.

So I hated it? Not really. Snowpiercer is probably best viewed as an authentic dramatization of a graphic novel. Simple-minded, visually lush, dramatically over-the-top, and stuffed with serious characters one-inch deep. It’s dazzling in a way the latest Michael Bay blockbuster extravaganza is not. There’s enough honest motivation and humanity portrayed to keep you interested in the story while your eyes feast on the scenery. The concept, though ridden with plot holes, is clever enough to help you overlook budget special effects that include exterior shots of a speeding train that looks suspiciously like the Coors Light “Silver Bullet” train stuffed with beer and bikini’d co-eds.

My pessimistic nature sees the melding of graphic novels, Japanese anime, and big-budget filmmaking as a trend in cinema, perhaps reflecting the exodus of “serious” stories to long-form television, and feeding the short-attention appetite of young gen-whatevers. We’ve always gone to movie palaces to be dazzled, but there used to be a greater chance that we’d also be entertained by reality-based adventures of ordinary people. Snowpiercer and films like it (300, Sin City, Watchmen, Kickass) tell exciting stories but not in the way some viewers, like me, prefer.

A new company, Fathom Events, is also having an impact on what we can expect in movie theatres. That’s the outfit that streams “events” like Broadway shows, opera performances, concerts, sporting events, and much more to theatres around the world. They’ve been determining what audiences want for the past few years and seem to be getting better at it. They offer four to 10 events monthly; theatres in most major cities carry the Fathom broadcasts.

The showing of Monty Python’s purported last stage show (1 Down and Five to Go) was an unqualified success. The live streaming attracted a sellout crowd who sang along with the songs, laughed at the updated classic sketches, and applauded after the best moments, though the performers obviously couldn’t hear them. There can be a real sense of community that comes through the Fathom events, especially the ones streamed live, when you know that tens of thousands of other people are also experiencing the same performance in theatres around the country or world. Maybe this is what radio was like in its infancy before music, orations or comedic performances could be recorded. I look forward to Fathom’s continual refinement of this new entertainment option.


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