Nothing but new releases this week, so look out below for thoughts on Snowpiercer, Tammy, Life Itself and Begin Again. Two are superb, one is fun, and the other is a bit of a mess. Stay tuned later this week for the next Summer of Cruise, and maybe other stuff. Hooray for web logging!
Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer had to take a lot of punches in order to wind up in American theaters. It was released internationally last year to great acclaim and considerable financial success, but The Weinstein Company blocked an American release for quite some time. They wanted 20 or so minutes cut from the film, foolishly claiming that American audiences wouldn’t get it. Bong publicly refused to change anything, there was much outcry among film fans, and eventually the film got a limited release with almost no publicity a couple weeks ago. This is an action-packed sci-fi film starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and more, it’s getting rave reviews, but because the Weinsteins threw a fit a large portion of the movie-going public has no idea it even exists. It’s absurd, and more than a little depressing.
In the long run, it may be irrelevant. Snowpiercer seems destined to be a cult classic, and it’s already well on its way. This is a dark, thrilling, funny and surprisingly complex piece of work that takes its premise and runs with it as far as possible. The class symbolism is obvious—the wealthy live in luxury at the front of the train, while the poor barely survive in the back—but Bong never lets his themes overwhelm the entertainment. Snowpiercer hits the ground running and keeps chugging along until it reaches its twisty but effective conclusion. It may not be easy to come across in theaters, but luckily enough it will be hitting VOD this Friday. I encourage you all to watch it, one way or another.
Of all the truly weird things about Tammy, the weirdest might be that Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (who directed) have long considered this to be their passion project. Why is that? What, exactly, are they trying to say with this movie? It’s not terrible, and it has a few amusing moments, but the whole thing is so flimsy and tonally messy that whatever they saw in this material never becomes remotely visible to the audience. In the first half, it’s a road trip comedy featuring McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the second, all the major characters head to a lake house for a Fourth of July party and talk about their feelings. Then the movie is over. At least it’s a sincere, good-hearted film, save a handful of comic setpieces that feel blatantly shoehorned in. (The scene in which McCarthy dances to “Thrift Shop,” for instance.) But the real problem can be traced back to one thing: this movie never really informs the audience who Tammy is or why they should care about her. This whole thing must have started as a good idea, and I so, so wish it was great, but the finished product is a disappointing mess.
Any documentary about the life of Roger Ebert is inclined to receive a positive response from movie fans, but Steve James’ Life Itself is something special. This is not a straight biography, but instead the almost complete story of Ebert’s life and far-reaching influence, all framed by footage of his final weeks. The latter part of that equation may sound needlessly sad, but James plays his cards extraordinarily well. This is a film about the entirety of a man’s life, and it explores the good and the bad in equal measure. Ebert, like everyone, was a flawed individual, but Life Itself celebrates these flaws in its examination of the impact one single life can leave behind. We may be watching Ebert pass away, but we also see the enormity of what he had accomplished. Though it is named after Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself is the perfect title for James’ documentary. It is not about any old life, but a truly complete life finally coming to an end. It also provides further proof that if you stick a camera in front of Martin Scorsese and ask him to talk about literally anything, it will be utterly delightful.
The drama in John Carney’s new film Begin Again never really works, but ultimately there’s so little of it that it barely needs to. Best known for his 2007 musical Once, Carney returns to similar territory here to decidedly mixed but nonetheless charming results. I’m something of a sucker for movies about a group of likable people teaming up to do likable things, and Begin Again’s frequent montages of Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley and their musical band of misfits attempting to record an “outdoor album” all across New York are easily the most engaging portions. As far as the human drama goes, there isn’t much of anything to recommend. It’s mostly a group of familiar character types going through the familiar motions until they are all brought together by The Power of Song, but Carney’s films have a gift for giving those songs the power they require. It’s every bit as rote and cutesy as it sounds, but darn it all if I wasn’t won over anyway.