Snowpiercer (2013): On a Contradiction Between Entertainment and Meaning

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho Written by: Bong and Kelly Masterson

Is it a coincidence that two of the Korean-helmed films to have made it big in North America are about trains?

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Perhaps not. Trains are a compelling, global symbol. They are at once a piece of advanced technology, and a portal back to the nineteenth century. They are serious pieces of infrastructure, and the subject of timeless children’s toys.

But the reason why both Snowpiercer auteur Bong Joon-Ho and the creators of Train to Busan seem to have been inspired by trains, is the association between trains and social hierarchy. Trains through the ages have been known to offer first-class compartments for higher paying customers. And unlike planes, which are similarly segregated, trains are broken into discrete cars, meaning their social classes truly exist in connected, yet isolated worlds.

Snowpiercer was a hard film for me to get into. I picked it off the shelf at my local library because, like many, I was entranced by Bong’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. But in the first half of Snowpiercer, the two films feel like distant cousins at best. Whereas Parasite is an intriguing multi-genre piece from the start, Snowpiercer starts as a (seemingly) generic action movie. The lighting is droll, the characters are all covered in dirt, and we spend less time getting to know them than seeing them squabble and fight. The only shade of quirk is Tilda Swinton, who plays a whimsical villain who could come out of Miyazaki film.

In fairness, there are many viewers who would be happy to see a cast led by Chris Evans go through a gritty, dystopian brawl. But from my perspective, the first half of Bong’s film is not so much entertaining, but purposeful. The film’s dark opening stands in contrast to a quirky second half. Curtis Everett’s (Evans) band of revolutionaries (a surprisingly eclectic cast of Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell (from Billy Elliot), Ewan Bremner (from Trainspotting) and John Hurt), break out of their dreary train compartment with the help of a father-daughter pair of hallucinogen-addicted engineers (Song Kang-ho from Parasite and Go Ah-sung). This leads them through a series of visually enticing train compartments: a greenhouse, an aquarium and a candy-colored, propagandistic classroom.

Snowpiercer and Train to Busan both incorporate trains and fantasy into their stories, but they do so in profoundly different ways. Train to Busan is a zombie movie, in which the train itself is a very real piece of technology: the train is not cartoonish, even as its characters are. Snowpiercer’s train, by contrast, is itself a science-fiction vision, one that exists within the greater context of  a world that has been frozen over in a desperate human bid to stop climate change.

The difference in what Bong and Train to Busan chose to imagine, connects to the different ways in which the films explore class society. Train to Busan’s protagonist is your typical Hollywood-movie business dad. He wears a suit, exists in the business world,  and works too much to maintain a good relationship with his family. But, despite his corporate ambitions, he is still a member of the middle class, and ove the course of the film morally distances himself from both his past conduct, and the reprehensible behavior of a megalomaniac, train CEO.

Bong’s story, by contrast, rejects reducing class warfare to a battle between individuals: an evil boss, and an upper-middle-class every man. While his story does contain a megalomaniac boss (Ed Harris), his heroes are not individuals, but a collective. And that collective comes from the train’s ugly depths, where they lived in crammed, dirty conditions, and are all but deprived of food.

Many of Snowpiercer’s heroes are underdeveloped, but that’s kind of the point. They are heroes not because they grow morally, or make the brave choice to fight zombies. No, they are heroes because they are oppressed and have the right to resist their oppression. For that matter, Bong is unafraid to make his heroes near morally unpalatable at one point. While I won’t directly spoil Curtis Everett’s devastating, late-film monologue, let’s just say it invokes the misadventures that happened aboard a certain Nantucket Whaling ship.

Trains aren’t the only thing Snowpiercer and Train to Busan have in common. The two films have hauntingly similar endings in which young, female characters bravely walk out into mysterious worlds. In both cases, these girls are not the protagonists of their films. But despite this obvious similarity, the difference between the films remains even in these final moments. The emotional arc of Train to Busan is such that its protagonist’s spirit is honored through the persistence of his daughter. In Snowpiercer, by contrast, the girl from the conclusion is a comparatively minor character with limited ties to protagonist Curtis Everett. She is, however, an apt metaphor for the film’s oppressed class: resourceful, and optimistic in the face of suffering, she emblemizes the hope that even in the most dire of situations, the flame of resistance can burn on.

If given a choice between rewatching Train to Busan or Snowpiercer, I’d probably pick the former. The 2013 film is a compelling story, that entertains throughout its runtime. But what Snowpiercer lacks in entertainment value, it makes up for in political astuteness. Even the film’s sideplot about the engineers relying on the the hallucinogenic drug kronole is politically astute. Echoing the perspective of neuroscientist Carl Hart, Namgoong and Yona may appear inept stoners at some moments, but can become lucid and insiteful at the snap of a finger. Their substance “abuse” is a calculated response to their miserable circumstances, but does not suggest they are otherwise weak in body or mind. 

Connecting the real world with the magic of cinema can be a real challenge. We have been trained to want to see stories of charismatic, well-define heroes, not trouble masses, messily looking for an escape from their misery. Snowpiercer is full of cinematic magic, but its unique commitment to this afforementioned realism, for better or worse, is its defining feature.

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee Written by: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon and Celeste Ballard

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It’s been thrilling for me to return to theatres, as the COVID pandemic has cooled down. My love for film has returned. I guess there’s something to the theatre environment that truly wakes up the senses.

In recent days I’ve seen the quirky, but largely serious drama Pig and the intriguing M. Night Shyamalan horror film, Old. I enjoyed both. Yet it was the third film I saw, the least prestige-y of the three, that left my mind racing with thoughts. That film, was Space Jam: A New Legacy.

And because my thoughts on the film are so chaotic (much like the Looney Tunes themselves), I figured it was best not to write a straight essay, but just to provide a list of quick thoughts. 

  1. The Film Tries to Be Something Different

Space Jam: A New Legacy really could have been a pure fan-service project. It could have taken the same story from the original film, and simply updated the visuals, while replacing Michael Jordan with Lebron James. But Space Jam 2’s creators decided  to take things in a more ambitious, more apocalyptic direction.

Whereas the original Space Jam starts with the Looney Tunes cast being faced with too-silly-to-be-scary villains, paving the way for Michael Jordan to be a cartoon savior, Space Jam 2 takes its time in introducing its cartoon elements. The movie begins with a focus on James and his son Dom (Cedric Joe), and only after truly sending them down a dark path does it bring Bugs Bunny et al. into the fold. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy’s overall quality is very much up for debate. But at very least, its heartfelt experimentalism justifies its existence.

2) The Writing is Not its Strong Suit

“Show don’t tell, show don’t tell!” This mantra is hammered into our heads in high school English and drama classes. Yet time after time, blockbuster movies don’t want to bother with subtlety and burden their characters with overly expositional dialogue.  Prior to going to Space Jam 2, I heard some negative comments about Lebron James’ acting. I don’t think that’s fair: he more than rose to the occasion when he featured in Trainwreck. But simply put, no one is going to look like a good actor when all they’re allowed to say are expositional lines, that no real human would ever say in a serious conversation.

3) The Film is Confused About its Message

The original Space Jam has vague messaging about believing in yourself and supporting your friends and family. The messaging is bland family-movie fodder and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. 

When Space Jam 2 opens, it seems to aim for something a bit more controversial.  A young Lebron James is shown throwing out his gameboy, to prove to his coach that he is willing to put all of his time and effort into becoming a basketball star: possibly lifting himself and his mother out of poverty in the process.

When the film jumps to the present, adult Lebron is contrasted against his sons who despite being strong basketball players, have more of a sense of humor about the game than their win-at-all-costs father.

Whereas the ethos of Michael Jordan was simply: work hard and be the best, for a moment it seems like Lebron James (or at least the film about him) is trying to send a more nuanced message. The film is saying, as great a game as basketball is, one shouldn’t aspire to be like Lebron. One should be able to play the game for fun and maintain a range of hobbies; not fixate on a narrow pursuit of greatness.

But while the film hints at this bolder messaging (which coincidentally compliments the recent discourse about Simone Biles’s backing out of Olympic competitions), it ultimately backs into messaging as bland as that in the original film. Instead of being a critique of sports-work-culture, the film waters down the conflict between James and Dom into whether Lebron respects that his son prefers programming to basketball: whether he can let Dom be himself.

I suppose it would be naive to expect Space Jam 2 to engage in deep social commentary. Yet it still irks me that the story-tellers decided the lesson Lebron had to learn was to respect his son’s different interest. The truth is, many kids wish they could be Lebron James, but by the time they develop that wish it’s too late: some other kid’s parents have been sending him to basketball leagues and having him train non-stop since he was five. If monomaniacal focus is the only way for sports dreams to come true, than Lebron can hardly be blamed for being harsh with his sons as a necessary means to an end. One can and should critique such parenting tactics, but Space Jam 2 does not rise to that challenge. 

4) Nonetheless, The Film has Some Real “So Bad its Good” Moments

As much as I hate the film’s expositional dialogue, it’s genuinely funny when it comes from the mouth of the film’s villain, King Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). Cheadle, fresh off of playing one of the more mild-mannered avengers, does not have a natural villain’s presence. He does, however, have a lot of fun playing the scheming digital villain, who wants to imprison Lebron James in cyberspace, and use him to develop films for Warner Brothers. Al-G Rhtythm also has great style: a sparkling silver suit, and comes with an adorable villain-sidekick.

5) The Looney Tunes Want to be the Muppets

Once Lebron James enters the Warner Brothers computer system, he is introduced to the Looney Tunes: well, one tune. Bugs Bunny lives alone in Tune World, with the other characters having supposedly been tricked into leaving, and trying to establish themselves within other Warner Brothers universes. Bugs Bunny is saddened by this, and teams up with James to get the gang back together.

By telling a nostalgic story of a multiverse populated by a plethora of Warner Brothers characters, Space Jam 2 capitalizes on the success of a number of recent films: 2018’s Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, 2014’s The Lego Movie and, most notably, 2011’s The Muppets.

The 2011 Muppet revival saw Kermit the Frog, like Bugs Bunny, having fallen upon hard times and having fallen out of touch with his old gang. Both films tug at audience heart strings, by painting their ensemble-characters as relics of a lost age. And indeed, in the case of Space Jam 2, this was emotionally resonant. It never would have occurred to me that characters like Bugs, Daffy and Tweety would disappear from the pop-culture landscape, but then again, they do not really hold much ground in today’s media-space.

But try as they many, The Looney Tunes cannot be the Muppets. When the 2011 Muppet movie was written, it could follow up on a long cannon of Kermit having genuine, heartfelt relationships with his fellow Muppets. The Looney Tunes, by contrast, do not care for one another. In fact, with the exception of the first Space Jam movie, they are not a gang at all: just a collection of loosely associated enemies. Bugs and Daffy antagonize each other. Wiley Coyote tries to eat the Roadrunner. Sylvester tries to eat Tweety, etc.

The promise of both Space Jam movies is that they offer the cool-factor of basketball, and the laugh factor of Looney Tunes. But unfortunately, The Looney Tunes brand of comedy is not one built upon a big ensemble working together. As such, while both films have their funny moments, they are not nearly as funny as the presence of the Tunes would lead one to suspect. 

6) The Film Knows its Own Limits

Space Jam 2’s messaging may be underwhelming if one only looks at the Lebron-Dom side of the story. But the plot that takes place within the cyber world is in fact, quite subversive. In making the film’s villain an algorithm who wants to commercialize Lebron James, and mix him into Warner Brothers’s other mega-franchises (like the Looney Tunes and Harry Potter), the film takes a jab at film studios who prioritize profits over thoughtful storytelling. Films such as All the Superheroes Awkwardly Forced into One Movie (aka Avengers Infinity War), might be good, bad or mediocre, but the fact is they sell tickets, not because of their quality, but because of their superficial attributes.

Space Jam 2 is not naive. It knows that you are going to see it because it is a sequel to a popular movie, and because it has Lebron James in it. But while the film absolutely capitalizes off of that mindset (and really leans into it in its visually epic, climactic basketball game), it seeks to remind its viewers that the Looney Tunes are best enjoyed, not as the subjects of a corny melodrama about a basketball player, but from within their own, 2-D animated, light-hearted tune world.

And I mention the animation style, because that is another important feature in Space Jam’s commentary. It always struck me as odd that Disney jumped to the conclusion that people would rather see 3-D animated movies than 2-D ones. Other franchises have followed suit, such as Spongebob, which went for the 3-D approach in the movie Sponge on the Run. In Space Jam 2 the Tunes are briefly presented in 3D. Rather than presenting this as an upgrade, the script makes clear that Bugs and company find this visual alteration is deeply unsettling.

Space Jam a New Legacy has its downsides. The writing is a bit wooden, the humor is a bit lacking, and  corny messages sometimes drown out more interesting ones. But it nonetheless was a key part of my triumphant return to the theatres. The film’s ambitious visuals and surprisingly unsettling horror elements make it a thrill ride from start to finish. Going forward, I’d like to see Lebron get some better acting roles, and Bugs stick to slapstick. But I’m glad this movie was made, and I will absolutely be cheering for Don Cheadle’s long-shot, best-supporting actor campaign.

Black Widow (2021)

Directed by: Cate Shortland Written by: Eric Pearson

In Black Widow the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally tells a story it feels like it should have told a decade ago. When Marvel first depicted the Avengers, an All-Star team of superheroes (who somehow became the subject of the franchise, and not a mere side gimmick), it had four male superheroes to work with. Presumably wanting the team not to be a pure boy’s club, the Avengers awkwardly incorporated a non-super-powered, secret-agent, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff into the team.

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Lacking the glamour of a true superhero, Romanoff did not get her own movie: well not until now, after twenty-three film long, original Avengers film series was completed.

Because Romanoff  (Scarlett Johansson) already received a seemingly complete story arc in the original Avengers films, Marvel had no choice but to go for a prequel in telling her story. So Black Widow (2021), starts with Romanoff’s childhood. Her parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) are Russian secret agents, posing as a suburban Ohio family (an explanation for Romanoff’s unaccented English, and affinity for America). When the family is suddenly ordered to return to Russia, mother Milena (Weisz) is near-fatally injured, which leads to her two children being separated from their parents.

The film than circles to near-present day. Romanoff and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) have been separated for years, but are both working as elite secret agents. When both are imperilled by their former boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), they band together, and reunite with their parents in the process.

One of the strengths of Marvel films is that they are not built on pure action or darkness. Their heroes tend to be cocky (eg Iron Man, Thor) and/or naive (Captain Marvel, Spider Man), in a way that ensures their stories have a healthy dose of comic moments. Of course no formula should be repeated endlessly, but this lack of humor was quite apparent in Black Widow’s first half. Maybe because Romanoff is not a new character, nor one who suddenly acquires over the top superpower, the writers felt no need to introduce with her the same flare they gave to Tony Stark or Peter Quill. Instead, we are thrown right into the fast-paced convolutedness of Marvel’s action-ambitions.

But while Black Widow grants no-humor to Natasha Romanoff’s characterization, the movie as a whole is not without its comedic charm. The film’s second half, in fact redeems it as Alexei aka the Red Guardian (Harbour) and Milena are reintroduced to the film. 

One of the film’s best comic touches is that in its opening scenes, Harbour and Weisz speak with American accents. Once, however, it is revealed to the audience that they are  in fact Russian, they, along with Pugh reemerge with (fake) Russian accents.

And this isn’t the only transformation Harbour and Weisz’ characters undergo. Harbour goes from seeming like a generic, but brave father, to a semi-Quixotic superhero. Yes the Red Guardian does in fact have super powers, having been given the Soviet version of Captain America’s soldier serum. But despite having these abilities, the Guardian nonetheless finds himself being tricked into spending years in a prison, bragging to the much weaker inmates about his glory days, and a (probably non-existant) fight he had with Captain America.

Weisz’s character, Milena, meanwhile, is a strange mixture of mother-figure, sinister-scientist, and that naive-villain-sidekick who doesn’t know whose side she is on. All of these features come out when you see the scenes with her unusual pets.

I regularly find myself revisiting Martin Scorsese’s comment that Marvel films are more like theme parks than real cinema. Some might hear that comment as highly negative: and indeed a used the “theme par” analogy in quite a negative way in my commentary on A Quiet Place Part II.

But in the case of Marvel films, and Black Widow, in particular, the theme park remark can be true but not particularly damning. Marvel films are well made. A few are more than well made and feature memorable acting and storytelling (Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy II and Captain America and the Winter Soldier were standouts for me).  But at the end of the day, what makes them theme parks, is that these films are made to depict a vast universe of pre-imagined characters and do as much with them as viable. 

As a piece of storytelling Black Widow has a number of holes. The first act is a thrill-ride, but is more chaotic than entertaining. Red Guardian and Milena (in particular), meanwhile, are highly entertaining and likeable, but the nature of their loyalties doesn’t really add up. And of course, there’s the weird way in which the film both is and isn’t about Russia and the Soviet Union. Sure, one of its characters is essentially Captain U.S.S.R., but the film is set after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the central feud is not with any state actor, but a seemingly rogue general (as a leftist I suppose I’m grateful for this. If Marvel felt compelled to weigh in on the cold war, I doubt they do so in favour of socialism).

Black Widow has its average moments, and its good moments. Is it the rare Marvel film that can or should stir Oscar buzz? No. But its second half should make it a great experience for most movie goers. Perhaps you too will decide that The Red Guardian is your new favorite superhero.

Critics Failed Us with a Quiet Place Part II (2021)

Written and directed by: John Krasinski

I mostly enjoyed A Quiet Place. It was thrillingly scary and centred around an uncomfortable, yet ultimately well-depicted family conflict. My one qualm with the movie was how it ended. The film sets itself up as a piece of highbrow horror: a film that is more about interpersonal challenges than some monster-in-the-closet. Yet at the end of the film, the monster revealed itself in the flesh, and the characters fought it, not thanks to some clever epiphany, but by shooting it with a  good, old-fashioned gun. 

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A Quiet Place II is essentially the one moment I didn’t like in the original, drawn out into a whole movie. The family from the first film return, this time on the run from those same monsters. And this time, instead of their being one climactic fight at the end, the monster-versus-gun battles are a recurring feature. 

To be clear, I do not entirely blame writer-director John Krasinski for this defect. While it is notable that the original A Quiet Place had three writers, and this time, Krasinski (who’s gone from being recognized as the likeable sitcom everyman from The Office, to the star of the militaristic Jack Ryan series) handled the writing on his own, there’s a structural factor that led to A Quiet Place II being produced. Namely, the first film was a financial success and Krasinski was asked to make a follow up.

Some films are better suited for sequels than others, however. Toy Story spun three good sequels, because Woody’s anxiety about being replaced was able to be spun in several distinct directions. Finding Dory, by contrast, was not a particularly successful sequel. A big part of that, was that Marlin and Nemo’s main neuroses were largely dealt with in the first film. All the sequel could give was a watered-down, underwhelming revisit of their initial, tense relationship.

The first Quiet Place film compelling tied up its sources of tension. Its protagonist, Reagan (Millicent Simmonds) is a deaf girl, who faces unique challenges due to her disability, and also struggles to assure herself that her father (John Krasinski) loves her.

What does she have to overcome in the sequel? Those same challenges, only they are less intense, as the monsters are exactly the same as before, and this time its not a father, merely a father-figure (Cillian Murphy). 

Toy Story was able to spawn four sequels, because the original film’s defining feature was simply that it was about the secret lives of toys. A Quiet Place, was about something far narrower: a family surviving personality-less creatures that attack humans when they hear noise. When told to make a sequel, it seems Krasinski had little choice but to drag the original out.

When I finished watching A Quiet Place II, I felt annoyed with its producers, and wished I had read reviews of the film in advance. Unfortunately, a quick scan of the critics’ reviews led me to be even more disappointed with the profession, than I was with the film.

“The Abbotts venture into the unknown in a meticulously crafted monster movie that leaves us wanting more,” writes Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times

“Krasinski presents these and other such details with lucidity. His direction is so efficient and assured that the three or four rather ridiculous plot elements go unnoticed until well after the movie’s over. That’s how absorbing “Part II” can be.” writes Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe. 

“There are nitpicks – some small, some a little bigger – but mostly, “A Quiet Place Part II” does its job by giving viewers more and leaving them wanting even more. That’s the modern franchise way.” writes Adam Graham of the Detroit News.

“Krasinski is skilled at winding up the tension and not rushing through the moment – he loves a slow push-in shot – and then quickly switching to a high-octane action set-up,” writes Wenlei Ma of News .com Australia

To Ma’s credit, her last passage notes that A Quiet Place Part II is “not as fresh or surprising as the original” but she doesn’t expand upon what this means. And therein lies the problem.

As a critic I generally try to see the bright side in movies: in the past I’ve criticized writers for their bombastic negativity. But my issue here is not with the fact that critics like A Quiet Place II far more than I did. It’s that they seem unwilling to say what should be considered an objective truth. The first Quiet Place film was multi-dimensional, drama. Its sequel is pure-action: it is purely for adrenaline junkies. 

I realize that my disinterest in such adrenaline flicks is not universal. I tried to watch George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead understanding it to be a classic, and halfway through turned it off in boredom. 

Clearly there’s something about Romero (and Krasinski’s) style of filmmaking that appeals to a lot of critics. It’s fine for critics to embrace this in their writing. But they should also realize that there’s a very good chance that many people who enjoy films about character drama, are not also going to like filmed-depictions of wild goose-chases. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese, “theme parks” and cinema are fundamentally different art forms. If you like theme parks, that’s fine, but please disclose that it’s a theme park and not a film you are writing about.

So let me be clear. A Quiet Place II may be a well made horror movie. But it’s not one I would personally recommend: and I suspect many of my readers would agree.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Based on the Book by Cormac McCarthy

I didn’t go into No Country for Old Men knowing much about it. I hadn’t read the Cormac McCarthy novel upon which it is closely based. I didn’t know what it’s story was about or who most of its main actors were. I did know, however, that one of its big stars was Javier Bardem, and that his mop-haired, jean clad character wasn’t exactly a good guy. 

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Having enjoyed films like Joker, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather trilogy, I figured it made sense for me to see another artful depiction of cold bloodedness. And having enjoyed films like Inside Llewyn Davis, O Brother Where Art Thou and Hail Caesar, I had high faith in the Coen brothers’ ability to entertain me.

What I saw, however, was a well shot, well acted movie that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The film failed to establish a main character. Was it Tommy Lee Jones’s increasingly heartbroken cop, Ed Bell? Was it Bardem’s Anton Chigurh? For much of the movie I assumed it was big-hearted opportunist Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin), but that notion was undermined in anti-climactic fashion.

No Country for Old Men felt literary to a fault. It is a story about how life is not a storybook. 

The film argues that there simply are no protagonists and antagonists in real life. Those who are blessed with great “beginnings” and “middles” may not end up with the most poetic of ends. This view is embodied in the character of Chigurh. While he generally aims to end the lives of all he runs into, on occasion he spares his victims because they wins a coin toss. While typical mythology may imply that we succeed through personal growth, Chigurh and No Country for Old Men scoff back that we succeed and die thanks to sheer chance.

No Country for Old Men thus immediately engaging for the sake of being poignant. And that’s only half of why my viewing experience felt so stale. No Country for Old Men also threw me off due to just how psychopathic Chigurgh was. 

Joker’s Arthur Fleck develops his dark side after years of suffering. And even after he acquires it, he is able to turn it off when he deems it morally appropriate. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is depressed and anti-social and eager to express himself with a gun, but is able to balance that part of his psyche against the part that strives for decency and valour. These characters are chaotic and act disproportionately, but they are not simple villains. Chigurh, by contrast is not given the idealism of these figures, nor is he given a humanizing social context like The Corleones. He is somewhat humanized through his vulnerability, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, but only minimally and in the film’s final moments.

The film psychopath who Chigurh most reminds me of is The Dark Knight version of the Joker. Like Chigurh, this Joker is not a complex and tragic figure, but a devoted villain who denies having an origin story; he “just wants to see the world burn.” Yet, when I saw The Dark Knight, my key takeaway was that the Nolan brothers managed to tell a story with a pure-evil villain, that somehow didn’t uphold a tough on crime narrative. How? 

Firstly, it includes a scene where a group of prisoners show moral courage under existential pressure. Secondly, Joker is not the film’s only villain. The film also depicts the fall of tough-on-crime prosecutor Harvey Dent into a villainy of his own. 

The cops in No Country for Old Men are not like Harvey Dent: they are neither valourized as he is, nor do they fall as he does. Ed Bell is presented as a proud, veteran doing his job: an old-school hero of sorts. Yet he is devastated by Chigurh, due to the latter’s unique evil. While, as a Western film, No Country for Old Men is far from anti-cop, it nonetheless foreshadows contemporary conversations. Police insist they exist to protect and serve, yet when it comes to a figure like Chigurh, from who the public objectively need protecting, the police prove useless. And this suggest that those people that cops can figure out how to lock up are not the Chigurhs of the world: but redeemable, three-dimensional people.

No Country for Old Men poetically expresses the violence of our world, and in that sense I see why it is a modern classic. Maybe there’s a place for such pessimism in philosophy and sociology. But when it comes to making entertaining art, it generally pays off to give your story an arc and make your characters three dimensional. 

Soul: Is this the End of Pixar’s Sad Songs

Back when it came out I wrote this review of Soul for Universal Cinema.ca. I build on my past comments on Pixar’s obsession with sadness, and how Soul could represent the light at the end of this tunnel.

For further commentary on Pixar’s “sad” era see my reviews of: Toy Story 4 and Onward

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One Trick Pony (1980)

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In this review published on UniversalCinema.ca I discuss Paul Simon’s attempt at filmmaking. One Trick Pony is considered one of the lows of his career, and while that may be true by comparison, I argue, that at least for Simon’s musical fans, the film is absolutely worth your time. It’s Elvis-movie meets Noah Baumbach.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Directed by: Brenda Chapnick, Steve Hicker and Simon Wells Written by: Phillip LaZebnik

The Prince of Egypt begins with a disclaimer. The text explains that the film took some narrative liberties, but was committed to honoring the spirit of its source: the biblical story of Moses in the book of Exodus. This disclaimer made me wonder what the film would have looked like if it hadn’t honored its source material. Was there a different, more radical film the writers or animators had wanted to make, that management had shut down out of fear of antagonizing religious purists? 

I’ve been told time and time again that the Bible is full of great stories that are foundational to the western literary canon. I’ve never understood this.

While I can accept that ideas like building an arc or getting swallowed by a whale are great sources for inspiration, the Bible’s stories as whole have as always struck me as anti-climatic. Why? Because the aim of the Bible is to promote belief in a single, all-powerful being, God. As such, every Bible story rewards those who show faith in God, and punishes those who sun him. Such a formula hardly allows for suspenseful, mysterious drama.

In an alternative universe, a version of The Prince of Egypt was made in which Moses does not get his orders from a burning bush, and does not win his people’s freedom through reliance on divinely imposed terror. This is not that world. It would seem Dream Works decided that taking God out of Exodus would be going too far. As a result of this constraint, The Prince of Egypt takes on an interesting narrative structure. While the film nominally reaches its climax when, after a rapid burst of plagues, God splits the red sea, the film truly peaks far earlier.

The Prince of Egypt’s main dramatic innovation is portraying Moses (Val Kilmer) not just as the adopted son of Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart), but as the brother of a Pharaoh to-be. Moses and his brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes) engage in princely, mischief. And in their father’s eyes it is Ramses alone who must be sternly rebuked for this folly, as Ramses has an image to maintain as heir to the throne. Nonetheless, Ramses loves his brother and doesn’t blame him for his father’s strictness. 

But fate pulls the brothers apart. When an encounter with his biological siblings Miriam and Aaron (Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum)  alerts Moses to the fact that he is Jewish, he begins to question the morality of slavery. And when another event drives him into exile, he is ingrained more and more in his Jewish identity. 

From a religious perspective, Moses becomes a hero because he hears God and follows His word. To secular observers this can seem a little hollow. Shouldn’t someone do the right thing (ie oppose slavery), because of an internal sense of right and wrong, and not out of loyalty to a deity? 

But The Prince of Egypt’s innovation is to acknowledge that whether or not faith is in the picture, the distinction between hero and villain can be the matter of following a few well placed instructions. When Moses thinks he is an Egyptian-Prince, he accepts slavery. He comes across as kind and reltable, unlike Pharaoh Seti, but then again, so does young Ramses. It is once Moses is informed that he is Jewish, however, that his mind can be reoriented. In this framing, one can entirely substitute Judaism the religion for Judaism the ethnicity. The end result is the same. 

The Prince of Egypt is a beautifully animated film, a great example of the 3-D tinted, 2-D animation of the late 90s and early 2000s. Storywise, it hits various highs and not-so-highs. Following a Disney-esque formula, the film features two high priests (Steve Martin and Martin Short) as villain-sidekicks. The pair resemble the comical Pain and Panic from Hercules, but end up seeming more twisted than Ramses, singing a weird song called “You’re With the Big Boys Now.” It as if the film wanted the type of characters who could be voiced by Martin and Short, but had no ideas what to do with them. The Prince of Egypt desperately wants to be nuanced and perhaps even funny, but achieving such ends when you are afraid to modify your morally-simplistic source is a daunting challenge.

But while the films end is a tad too familiar, its beginning and middle are striking. It cynically postulates about the limited conditions under which heroes can emerge. It tortures viewers with the question of what if the story had been different, and Ramses too had been awoken to the injustice of his family’s rule. He and Moses had been close. Why did one have to end up the hero and one the villain? That is a question that the bible itself does not dare to pose (that task would fall years later on a secular-Jewish prophet by the name of Phil Ochs), and is the reason why The Prince of Egypt cannot just be dismissed as a mere cautious retelling.