Tilda Swinton

All good science fiction really needs is a great hook, and “Snowpiercer’s” setting is just that: in a post-apocalyptic icescape, a train holding the last scraps of humanity circles the globe in a never-ending loop. But “Snowpiercer” is more than a mere survival story, and proves to be a brainy, elegant sci-fi tale, using a familiar rags-to-riches arc in creative fashion to deliver one of the year’s best films.

Much like any train, the Snowpiercer is divided into classes, with the social elite in the front of the train and the “freeloaders” confined to the back few cars. Those in the tail are crammed together like sardines and fed saggy protein blocks, and a rebellion slowly begins to brew under the leadership of Gilliam (John Hurt) and his reluctant protégé, Curtis (Chris Evans). Once the inhabitants of the front, represented by the ruthless Mason (Tilda Swinton), go too far, Curtis leads the charge towards the front of the train.

The beauty of “Snowpiercer’s” pointed social commentary comes from the effortless set-up, the class system of the train a potent allegory for the deeply set social divisions that prevail all over the world today. But the film is far from a ponderous treatise on social mobility, crafting a tense, harrowing journey for Curtis and his mangy group of allies. The film’s production design and world-building is remarkable, with the beauty and small details of excess in the train’s front cars striking a strong contrast to the dank pit our heroes are fighting to escape.

Director Joon-ho Bong, making his English-language debut, stages a host of impressive action sequences. The first moment of rebellion is a breathless, exciting explosion of tension, feeling almost accidental in its suddenness, while a showdown with a train car full of masked men with axes is a monumental, impressive fight with several great twists worked in. Bong also displays a knack for making the characters fighting for their lives feel like living, breathing people, and not soapboxes from which he can deliver social commentary.

Coming off of playing the squeaky-clean Captain America, Chris Evans seems relieved to sink into the unapologetically dark role of Curtis, who slowly stumbles into his leadership role, making several mistakes and hard sacrifices along the way. Evans gives a fantastic, conflicted performance here, and even as Curtis reflects on some truly reprehensible steps he’s taken to survive, Evans brings such unfiltered regret and anguish to the role that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Way on the other end of the spectrum is Tilda Swinton’s totally insane performance as the delegate from the front of the train, Mason. She initially appears to be a crisp picture of confidence, but as she finds herself coming into conflict with the rebels, she slowly emerges as a weasel, perpetually squirming to find the best angle for herself. Swinton’s extravagant, cranked-up performance plays beautifully off of Evans’ restrained turn, and she lands some of the film’s biggest laughs. The rest of the supporting cast is equally well-suited to the world Bong creates, with Kang-ho Song playing a stoic prisoner who plays a key role in the rebellion and Ed Harris bringing the film home with his languid, arrogant performance as one of the front car’s shadowy figures.

Harris emerges during the third act, which is the most puzzling aspect of “Snowpiercer.” The film’s finale is a muted affair, casting many of the previous events in a new light and introducing an intriguing morality play before ending on a visually stunning moment that could function as a cynical condemnation or an optimistic view on the future. The film’s final scenes may raise a few too many questions, but the ambiguity is welcome, and it’s a sign of a film’s power if its story is both potent and vague enough to leave ample room for discussion.

“Snowpiercer” is a science-fiction film rich with meaning, but it never gets bogged down in that, always remaining an entertaining, tense journey. Joon-ho Bong does a great job both playing in a new genre and directing in a new language, and his cast delivers terrific performances across the board. In a weekend sure to be dominated by a three-hour commercial for robot toys, “Snowpiercer” is a refreshingly adult alternative, and it’s unlikely that a film this smart, exciting, and original will come along again this summer.

"SNOWPIERCER"
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Genre: Science Fiction
Runtime: 126 minutes

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is gorgeous, gaudy, and unapologetically weird

“Only Lovers Left Alive” is undeniably bizarre and instantly captivating. Jim Jarmusch’s new film opens with repeated cuts between protagonists Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston and a record player. The camera mimics the record, spinning laconically and throwing the audience into the disorienting world where music-loving vampires dwell. The movie takes its sweet time, refusing to develop even the barest hint of a plot until almost an hour has passed, but it’s no matter. Swinton, Hiddleston, and their cast members are pitch perfect, which makes “Lovers” a visually sensational treat to watch.

“Lovers” follows Adam (Tom Hiddleston), an immortal vampire rocker with a lethal case of ennui. He’s spent centuries making, appreciating, and even inspiring music, but beyond collecting obscure guitars, he’s done with the whole thing. He sends his young admirer (a perfectly vacant Anton Yelchin) to fetch a wooden bullet so that he can commit suicide. His equally immortal wife, Eve (the ever-entrancing Tilda Swinton), senses Adam’s intent and joins him in Detroit. Their wide web of contacts also includes a still-living Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a morally ambiguous doctor (Jeffrey Wright), and a mercurial, immature sister of Eve’s (Mia Wasikowska). Rather than providing a direct, typical plot structure, Jarmusch’s screenplay allows these characters to simply exist. They dance, they love, they pose, and it’s somehow always a blast.

The film’s leads never stop being fascinating to watch, delivering performances that are equal parts style and substance. Swinton’s transformative talents are on full display here. She allows no room for doubt that she really is thousands of years old. Watching her stalk the streets of Tangier in a costume borrowed from “Out of Africa” is stunning. She consumes the screen and demands attention with every gesture or whisper. Hiddleston takes a part that could be completely one-note (there does seem to be a surplus of stoic, depressed vampires) and makes Adam’s melancholy brooding authentic rather than motivelessly angsty.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” defies classification. It is a love story, but it stars a couple whose love for each other is so unwavering that there is absolutely no tension in the romance department. It is a vampire movie, but only barely. The characters’ supernatural status seems incidental rather than integral. Jarmusch spends a good third of “Lovers” world-building and putting his stamp on the Nosferatu mythos, but only so he can essentially dispense with the tropes associated with vampire movies as soon as possible. No mortals are bitten or killed on screen, no crosses are brandished, no garlic is worn. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a visually gorgeous mix of camp, experimentation, and pure artistry that, by its finale, proves irresistible.


 

Fantastic Fest 2011: Day 3 Recap

Follow @AlexWilliamsDT for more of our continuing Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”
Lynn Ramsey
Genre: Drama
Grade: A
In theaters Dec. 2011
 
It’s not often that a real Oscar contender plays at Fantastic Fest, but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is exactly that, and if isn’t, it sure as hell should be. Director Lynne Ramsey’s challenging gut punch of a film plays almost like a dream for its first half, freely floating through Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) experiences with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). Something of a free spirit, Eva settles down to start a family with Franklin (John C. Reilly), but hits an unexpected road bump once Kevin is born and she realizes that her son is a malicious, sociopathic little monster.
 
The film’s opening moments are bathed in red, from the curtains in Eva’s rundown home to the seats at her office to the blood that runs down her face after she’s slapped for reasons the film makes the audience wait to find out. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” takes its time arriving at its disturbing climax, and paints a detailed picture of Kevin’s life, with clever edits bridging various moments, all of them underscoring Kevin’s ruthless manipulation of his parents, even as a prepubescent child.
 
Tilda Swinton gives perhaps the best performance yet of Fantastic Fest, playing a mother torn between her biological duty to her son and her gut instinct to get far, far away from this abomination she’s created with expert restraint and fear. Swinton deserves endless accolades for her work here, and co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller both rise admirably to her challenge.
 
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a very hard film to shake, and goes to some very dark places in smart, restrained ways, making its unsettling material feel plausible and terrifying rather than exploitative.
 
“The Devil’s Business”
Sean Hogan
Genre: Horror
Grade: B+
Screens Sept. 28 at 3:15 p.m.
 
Sean Hogan, writer and director of “The Devil’s Business,” came to Austin with horror anthology “Little Deaths” earlier this year during SXSW. His segment of “Little Deaths,” which depicted a young couple kidnapping a homeless girl before she reveals herself to be something much more dangerous than they expected, was the best of the film, a scary, stomach-churning short story that parceled out its revelations in very deliberate and intelligent ways. “The Devil’s Business” is very much in the same vein, a hitman drama starring Jack Gordon as Cully, a first-time assassin uncertain about his career choice and Billy Clarke as Pinner, a veteran sent along to make sure he doesn’t bundle the hit.
 
Over its brisk 75-minute runtime, “The Devil’s Business” lets us get to know Cully and Pinner, and their interplay in the film’s opening scenes is funny and well-written, especially a lengthy, hypnotizing monologue Pinner delivers early in the film. Cully’s nervousness only increases once they find a Satanic sacrifice in a shed in their target’s backyard, and the job spirals into oblivion from there.
 
At its heart, “The Devil’s Business” is a long series of conversations, doling out nice doses of philosophy about the morality of killing and the meaning of life amongst its hard-boiled dialogue and clever turns of phrase. Like Hogan’s segment in “Little Deaths,” the film is smart in how it reveals its various twists and turns, and Hogan’s direction is understated and confident, scary when it needs to be and restrained at all the right moments.
 
“The Devil’s Business” is a fun distraction, a short trifle in a long day of films, but it’s also a well-observed character piece with an entertaining supernatural bent. It’s by no means the best film at Fantastic Fest, but it’s certainly worth a viewing.
 
You’re Next
Director: Adam Wingard
Genre: Horror
Grade: A
No additional screenings
 
Fresh out of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Fest, “You’re Next” played to a rapturous crowd last night at Fantastic Fest. The home invasion genre has always been rather commonplace at the festival, and director Adam Wingard was at the fest last year with “A Horrible Way To Die,” which won well-deserved awards.
 
“You’re Next” opens with a bitter little tease, killing off a couple living in an remote estate before moving onto the main attraction, a family reunion stocked with a who’s who of modern indie horror. The cast includes the likes of AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Ti West (whose “The Innkeepers” is also playing the festival), Joe Swanberg, and legendary horror icon Barbara Crampton.
 
Bowen’s Crispian warns his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) that tensions often flare up when his family gets together, and just as tempers are starting to boil over at the dinner table, an arrow crashes through the window and the family starts shedding members with startling quickness.
 
“You’re Next” moves very quickly and kills off its characters even quicker (and in fairly unpredictable order). While a few of its characters act too stupidly to be human beings, “You’re Next” is mostly intelligently written, with a real eye for subverting the audience’s expectations. When one of the guests makes it clear they have no intention of rolling over and dying, the film moves onto the next level, doling out satisfying kills and plot twists at perfect intervals.
 
Director Adam Wingard juggles a lot of balls with obvious ease. Even amidst the brutality and bloodshed, the film manages to work in a few pitch-black punchlines, and Wingard makes the shifts in tone work very well. He also gives almost every member of the ensemble a great moment, but the film’s clear star is Sharni Vinson’s Erin, a smart twist on the traditional horror film’s protagonist and a noteworthy, thoroughly badass character that earned lots of cheers from last’s night audience. Although the film ends on a bitter, unearned note, 30 false seconds in an otherwise near-impeccable film is not nearly enough to derail things.
 
“You’re Next” probably won’t be in theaters for a year or so, and it’s a real shame. The film is legitimately scary, plays out in unexpected ways, and never cheats the audience, which puts it above most American horror films of the year instantly, and makes it the best film of Fantastic Fest thus far.

Review

Tilda Swinton has a tough day in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” (Photo courtesy of BBC Films)

The evil-little-boy genre is a tried and true offshoot of horror cinema, and films like “The Omen” are classics for a reason. However, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a much more plausible and disturbing film. There are no supernatural forces at work here and no demonic emblems, just a malicious little monster of a boy and the mother caught firmly in his crosshairs.

The mother in question is Eva (Tilda Swinton), a free spirit who reluctantly settled down with Franklin (John C. Reilly) to start a family. The film floats freely through Eva’s experiences with her first child, Kevin (Ezra Miller), beginning with her living alone in a dilapidated house and slowly revealing the details of her agonizing descent to rock bottom.

Before “Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay hadn’t made a film in nine years. Thankfully, her hiatus did nothing to dilute her talent. “Kevin” is a challenging, disturbing gut-punch of a film, filled with nightmarish sequences and smart, subtle performances. Ramsay moves deliberately through Eva’s life, slowly parceling out information about Kevin’s horrific actions even as she draws parallels between the two. While a few of her villain’s creepier moments are a bit too much (particularly a scene where an adolescent Kevin shouts “Die! Die!” at a TV as he plays videogames), Ramsay mostly operates with admirable restraint, telegraphing where the film is going rather clearly, but holding enough back to make the hard-hitting final moments land with maximum impact.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” would flounder if the actress portraying Eva was unconvincingly brittle, or if the various actors portraying Kevin were cartoonishly evil, but “Kevin” is expertly cast and acted. Swinton gives the best performance of here, delivering a tour de force as a mother with no maternal instincts, torn between her biological obligation to and growing rivalry with her son, and Swinton sells every bit of her conflicted character. Swinton’s performance is filled with subtle moments, such as the pure exasperation on her face as an infant Kevin sobs relentlessly or the disappointment in her eyes as Kevin finds another way to break her down, but each moment adds to a larger picture of a bewildered, incorrigibly stubborn woman locked in battle with her own offspring.

Kevin is played by three different actors at different stages of his adolescence, and Ramsay found three uncannily similar actors to portray her titular monster. Miller takes on the bulk of the role as a teenage Kevin, and his expert manipulation of his parents makes for a chilling, memorable role for the young actor. Meanwhile, younger versions of the character, played by Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, are suitably menacing. The film’s sparse supporting cast is rounded by Reilly, whose fatherly cluelessness is offset by Reilly’s inherent likability, making the film’s finale all the more tragic.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a stylistic marvel thanks to Ramsay’s bold color scheme and dreamy (or is it nightmarish?) direction. But the elegant, harrowing duet between Swinton and Miller is the real triumph here. Even when “Kevin” is terrifying, it’s impossible to look away from these intense performances as Ramsey’s film slowly sinks its hooks into you and then refuses to let go long after the credits have rolled.

Printed on Friday, February 3, 2012 as: 'Kevin' delivers chills, horror