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My Last Three Movies: Before Sunrise, Ragtime, Snowpiercer

16 Sep

Entertainment 150Before Sunrise (1995)
This is one of the earliest works for Richard Linklater, the writer-director responsible for my favorite film last year, Boyhood. It was a little cult film, though critics love it and it’s still really fondly remembered by film-loves everywhere. I can see why — this is a quintessential Linklater film: the narrative tricks are all meant to strip away anything but the central conceit, and while still a movie it’s really concerned with ideas. It’s as introspective as you can get without being inert.

Here’s the set-up: American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train and convinces her to get off with him and spend an evening walking around Vienna. There, they talk about their lives, loves, and the nature of each as they see them. The bond they share over the evening — especially as it nears its end — deepens and grows more complicated, and the interactions they have with various people in the city only spurs that along. The decisions they make reflect an opening up to one another, and this singular experience.

It’s a great idea, but it took a little while to convince me it was. I spent a little more than half of the movie hating Jesse, a self-involved, smarmy faux-intellectual who speaks like he has these grand realizations. Really, they’re the ideas you have in college, where your knowledge of reality gets its first great expansion. It can feel like your mind has expanded in these earth-shattering ways, but for those of us on the other side it can be a struggle not to roll our eyes.

Celine, on the other hand, is almost immediately fascinating. She has complicated ideas about what it means to be a woman, how that affects romantic entanglements, and what exactly she wants to be. You can see her struggle between the image of independent, willful man-eater and allowing herself to be vulnerable, to deeply love a man and choose a domesticated life. Her bravado up front clearly masks an almost aching desire to buy into a fairy-tale romance, and it’s fascinating to see.

After sunset, as they walk through an alley, Celine opens herself up to Jesse, who in turn drops the cynical act and offers up a bit of himself. Once he stops holding the movie back it becomes much richer, deeper and engaging, and it’s a lot easier to invest in these characters and entertain their ideas. As the movie follows them through the evening, and they become increasingly aware of the fact they’ll need to go their separate ways, the ephemeral, transitory nature of their evening becomes all the more precious and their resistance to it surprisingly touching.

In the end, it becomes a beautiful movie, and even better, a jumping-off point for your own complex, vulnerable conversations. This is a film you have to see with someone you love, or at least someone you love talking to, simply because it awakens in you a newfound love for simple, earnest conversation. I highly recommend this, with a cup of tea or coffee, and a good walking trail in mind.

Ragtime (1981)
Apparently 1981 was an exceptional year for movies, and I had no idea. The Academy Awards were dominated by Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond and Reds. Arthur earned John Gielgud an Oscar, and there was also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Clash of the Titans, Escape From New York and Time Bandits. So many great movies, so many of them threatened with the ravages of time.

My continuing education in 80s film brought me to Ragtime, which was nominated for eight Oscars that year. I had never heard of it, and I’m sorry I hadn’t — this was the movie Milos Forman directed before Amadeus, adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. There are so many great actors in it, from James Cagney in his last film role to an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, it kind of blows you away. But the story and performances are what’s really gripping here.

It’s a sprawling movie that drops you into three different entry points to the story: a rich family in a suburb of New York City is enjoying dinner when one of their servants screams at the sight of a black baby left in their garden; a jealous industrialist shoots an artist over the unveiling of a nude statue he believes was modeled after his wife; a street vendor (Hi, Mandy Patinkin!) discovers his wife (Hi, Fran Drescher!) cheating on him and promptly throws her out. The set up is a bit dizzying; the world is chaotic and full of people, and you’re left to determine relationships and conflicts on your own. The plot does not wait for you.

Things get a bit easier as the disparate plots come together. A musician named Coalhouse Walker arrives at the family’s house, claiming to be the father of the baby; the younger brother of that family becomes obsessed with the model of the nude statue, then with Coalhouse’s stand-off against a volunteer fire department who harassed him, then vandalized his Model T car. Coalhouse slowly emerges as the main character, and his run-in with these racist firemen becomes the focal point all of the other stories revolve around.

The racism portrayed in Ragtime is shocking mostly because you’re exposed to so many different forms of it: the casual, matter-of-fact dehumanization of black people by doctors and the law; the blatant and almost cartoonish idiocy of overt bigots; the frustrating stonewall of institutional racism. It shows how this kind of thinking infects almost every aspect of life, and how difficult it can be for black people to escape it even as they struggle to present themselves legitimately and for white people to even understand it in the face of “sudden” black anger and unwillingness to accept one more insult.

This is an incredibly important idea, that the institution of racism has insinuated itself into the fabric of our society, and that relatively good and decent people can still hold racist ideas or support that institution through inaction or preserving the status quo. Ragtime shows the radicalization of victims of racism, and how they’re pushed to these drastic measures simply to be heard. It’s astonishing how the situation escalates simply because the power structure in place cannot understand what is at stake here, and refuse to stop and listen. That’s the tragedy here.

Ragtime is necessary viewing for understanding the black experience in America. I recommend you watch it. No qualifiers. Just do it!

Snowpiercer (2013)
You’ve probably heard about this movie during the summer of 2013, when it was one of those small independent movies that broke through the pop culture chatter to grab a good portion of the hype that year. Mostly, it was described as a smart and crazy mid-budget blockbuster that was like nothing you’ve ever seen. That part is true. But it’s also an intensely polarizing film that’s doing a lot of stuff all at once, and your reaction to it will largely depend on how you’re interpreting the action.

In the near future, attempts to combat global warming with weather engineering via a chemical called CW7 has gone terrifically wrong. The entire world froze, killing all life on Earth save for a small remnant of humanity huddled aboard a train called the Snowpiercer. The track transverses the globe, and the train is designed to complete one loop every year.

Of course, there’s a class system on the train. Those who paid for tickets or contributed to the creation of the project are in the front. Those poor sods who were “lucky” enough to gain free passage are in the back, packed into dirty cars with nothing but protein bars to eat. One day, after enduring the theft of their children to the front and a rather brutal punishment for fighting back, a revolution is organized. The movie follows this resistance as they move from the back of the train towards the luxurious front and the creator of the Snowpiercer, Wilford.

The microcosm of the train is fascinating. Each new traincar offers a surprise that gives us a little more information about the world that’s developed in the 18 years since civilization has fallen, and it’s endlessly interesting to compare that information to the structure of our own society. There’s a mixture of world-building, very solid character moments and vital action that keeps you engaged through the entire film. It’s really hard to think of a single moment that was wasted.

I loved this movie; the plot was great, the stakes were never far from the top of my mind, and the subtext within the story is something that just blows me away. Like so many films that swing for the fences, Snowpiercer might be too over-the-top for some, and that’s fine. It can be really hard to take something this high-concept and make it feel grounded; I feel that director Bong Joon-ho mixes the familiar and the outlandish quite well, but other people might not.

Still, it’s a unique film that I highly recommend. It’s best watching this in summer; the movie is atmospheric enough that you’ll feel the cold despite the temperature outside, and personally I love the idea of stepping outside and feeling the heat. It’s easy to imagine that quick and desperate measures will become increasingly plausible as the effects of climate change connect and multiply; despite its insanity, it’s insanely easy to imagine the world of Snowpiercer becoming our own.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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