Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs and rides the rails

My 2015 cinema adventure started at the Castro, with a double-bill of train movies.

First up was SNOWPIERCER, the cult hit from last year that sharply divided audiences and critics. You either loved it or hated (or to steal the Mitch Hedberg joke, thought it was just okay.) Or, like me, you somehow didn't see it. Director Bong Hoon Jo (THE HOST, MOTHER) has created something that at the very least I can't stop thinking about. The premise is as outrageous as it is unrealistic--a failed climate change experiment has plunged the world into unlivable cold. Just being outside for an hour or so could kill you (15 minutes can freeze an arm solid enough it cracks under a sledgehammer.) The remnants of humanity live on a constantly moving train, the titular Snowpiercer. Please ignore how this could be--that this train, which completes a circuit around the world every year, has run for 17 years with no track maintenance, without running out of fuel, etc. That's not the point. The point is to put humanity into an artificial living arrangement so we can examine notions of fairness, survival, sacrifice, duty, social standing, etc. Those in the back of the train live in filth, fed gelatinous protein bars and occasionally whisked away to do the mysterious bidding of those living in luxury in the front. It's painfully obvious that this caste system is unfair, and so Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolt, fighting his way from one train car to the next to make it to the engine and take down this unjust system. Along the way Tilda Swinton plays the perfect middle-management baddie, but worse villains than her soon emerge. And then...there's a big turn at the end. I will try to avoid spoilers, but it becomes clear that this isn't as simple as fighting the unjust system. Things are controlled, things are engineered, carefully designed to stay in balance. Because that's what is necessary for humanity to survive. Ultimately the movie isn't about a valiant and heroic fight against injustice. Well, it is, but it's about much more. It's about a question--if gross injustice were necessary to avoid humanity's extinction, is it worth it? And it's the turn to that question that made me initially not sure if I even liked it, but looking back more than a week later, I'm sure I loved it.

And then the second film was RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985.) Jon Voight and Eric Roberts are prisoners in a jail in Alaska (incidentally, I recognized Portage Glacier in one of the scenes, cool!) Cool, tough Oscar (Voight) has a plan to bust out, and young, excitable, won't-shut-up Buck (Roberts) tags along. After their escape, they hop on a train where the conductor conveniently dies of a heart attack shortly after pulling out of the station (see, they're runaways, and so is the train, clever title, no?) Throw in a sadistic warden chasing them down, Rebecca De Mornay as an assistant on the train (who had fallen asleep) and the panic in the control room as they try to keep the train from derailing in a truly dangerous area (like a chemical plant) and you have a pretty wild fucking ride. But amid all the action the heart of the movie is really the relationship of Buck and Oscar, and how Buck goes from hero worship to learning that his hero is actually a pretty big asshole. And ultimately...without giving too much away, Oscar doing a little bit at the end to maybe win back a bit of the hero's mantle. What a ride, what a great movie.

Total Running Time: 237
My Total Minutes: 378,793

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