Friday, July 11, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Crazy Train

I remember seeing as a kid The Big Bus, a 1976 spoof of the disaster movies that were all the rage then. Its all-star cast included Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty and the great Ruth Gordon as assorted passengers on the world’s first nuclear-powered luxury bus. Massive enough to accommodate an Olympic-size swimming pool, a bowling alley and much more, the vehicle was naturally targeted by a madman during its maiden voyage.

Taking in the elaborately-designed train at the center of Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, now playing in select cities, I couldn’t help but recall that earlier film. Boasting a nightclub, a spa, an aquarium car (with an adjoining sushi bar no less) and numerous living spaces distinguished by stark differences in class among its passengers, the ice-breaking locomotive is also powered by an inexhaustible energy source as it travels endlessly around a frozen planet Earth in the year 2031. If the train should ever stop, the last remnants of humanity on board will die from exposure to the cold.

Unlike The Big Bus, Bong’s sci-fi spectacle/political allegory is deadly serious with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s arch performance as Mason, the wealthy trainmaster’s somewhat androgynous secondhand man/woman. Sporting Austin Powers-esque false teeth, thick eyeglasses and an elaborate wardrobe, Mason manages to be frightening and hilarious at the same time. Playing things much more despairingly are Chris Evans (Captain America himself), Jamie Bell, John Hurt and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer as the downtrodden inhabitants of the train’s rear. The revolt they launch to force their way to the front, seize the “sacred engine” and upend the system of inequality they have been subjected to for 17 years provides the film’s main storyline, which Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson adapted from a French graphic novel.

The South Korea-born Bong previously made the above-average 2006 creature feature The Host and the excellent, Hitchcockian Mother. He proves himself more than adept here at directing an international cast and crew and primarily in English for the first time. Several Korean actors, including Host alumnae Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song, have featured roles as well. Spencer, who at first glance seems the odd woman out among the cast and not only because she has an Oscar (as does Swinton), gives the film’s most emotionally-affecting performance and also gets to kick some serious butt.

Few of the screenplay’s class-struggle elements are new, and they are driven home in some scenes with a very heavy hand (i.e. drug abuse as an escape from reality, the mystery ingredient in the poor passengers’ protein bars, and cannibalistic references). Bong’s depiction of violence is also given to excess here, with limbs frequently hacked off and blood spraying (albeit stylishly) the interior of train car windows. However, the cast, visual conceptualization, production design (by Ondrej Nekvasil) and art direction (by Stefan Kovacik) of Snowpiercer are so strong that these criticisms end up being fairly minor. Between it, the current Edge of Tomorrow and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opens this Friday but is already garnering rave reviews, 2014 is shaping up to the best year for serious science fiction movies in some time. All aboard!

With Pride and the LGBT film festival season well under way, a number of new VOD and/or DVD releases are vying for gay men's attentions. Most of these shorts and features were standouts on last year’s fest circuit.

Fun in Boys Shorts (Strand Releasing) offers seven highlights from San Francisco’s Frameline event. While they lean toward the comedic, there are a couple of notable exceptions. Alaska is a Drag is the story of a young, black gay man working on the docks of Anchorage (although the movie was mostly shot at the Port of Long Beach, California). Hounded by his co-workers, a new employee offers unexpected friendship. This could easily be developed into an appealing feature. The young cast members’ performances are exceptional. The other more serious short in the collection, Sabbatical, explores a gay couple’s reunion after taking a three-month break apart. It also benefits from strong acting by its attractive leads.

Among the comedies, P.D.A. and the partially animated Desanimado (Unanimated) both fall a bit flat, but Skallamann is a joyous, well-staged musical celebration of bald men while Spooners is an at times forced but still very funny tale about a gay couple shopping for a new bed who are introduced to an unusually high-tech model. Housebroken, about an insecure gay man taken in by a high-maintenance, seemingly straight couple, rounds the shorts off.

Several recommended, gay-themed feature films now available are Cuba’s muy caliente The Last Match (Canteen Outlaws); In Bloom (TLA Releasing), about two young men falling out of love; Getting Go, The Go Doc Project (Wolfe Video), in which a documentary filmmaker’s obsession with a hot go-go dancer leads to romance; and Alan Brown’s dramatic, appropriately fleet-footed Five Dances (also from Wolfe). If there isn’t an LGBT film fest near you, consider renting, streaming or buying these and hosting your own.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Snowpiercer: B+
Fun in Boys Shorts: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.


  1. I've heard so many good reviews of this,now including yours. I'm going to give this a watch this weekend. The concept didn't really do anything for me, but I'm realizing that it's surprising a lot of people. I'm game to try it. Great review.

  2. Alaska is a Drag is such a pleasure - I'm so glad they're making a full length feature of it.


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