Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tracks

I expected this to be the story of a young girl feverish with idealism and countless flashbacks of events and experiences that drove her to flee civilization in favor of desolation. Not so much though.

Before the story even begins, Robyn's family has fallen apart. After her mother's suicide, Robyn's father is deemed unable to care for her. After subsequent isolation by time spent in boarding school, Robyn gives little explanation for her plans to cross the Australian Outback on foot. We know that her father explored the African continent during the 20's and 30's, and surely his stories fired a child's curiosity and sense of adventure. The screenplay doesn't portray Robyn's endeavor as a rash decision, but instead as a lengthy process of training feral camels and preparing for the trip.

Based on a best selling memoir by the same name, "Tracks" follows real-life Robyn Davidson's 9 month, 1700 mile journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. In 1977, she set out with funding from National Geographic ($4000) and help from a photo journalist named Rick Smolan. According to Robyn, sponsorship felt unnatural but she really needed the money for the walkabout to succeed. As for the trip itself, National Geographic influenced the route -- The magazine wanted a beginning, middle and end, not items high on Robyn's list of importance. But maybe part of "succeeding" in life is realizing that you need to make compromises. In an interview, she noted that one of her goals in going to the desert was "to try to understand some aspects of Aboriginal culture". For a part of her trek, she's accompanied by one of the tribal elders as she crosses through sacred areas.

Given this is a mostly historical account, we know that Robyn completes the trip. The photographer (played by Adam Driver) sent by National Geographic to document the journey first strikes me as bit annoying and manipulative. But then we get to know him a little better, and he's both a passionate and supportive cohort. By the the end of the film he seems more invested in Robyn's success than she is, going thousands of miles out of his way to deliver water cans along her trek through the desert.

More interesting than anything else is what this film taught me about feral camels in Australia. I had no idea there were so many. Thousands of dromedary camels were imported from India and other eastern countries during the period of 1870 to 1900. They were mostly used for riding and heavy work during the colonization of central and western Australia, however when automobiles arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, many were released into the wild. Today there are thought to be about 300,000 roaming the country.

The cinematography is the first and foremost reason to see this film, but acting is a close second. Mia Wasikowska was Robyn's first choice for the actress to portray her. I'm also impressed with the screen writing, it doesn't play at all like a true story. Somewhere out there is a forgotten, May 1978 issue of National Geographic sitting on someone's bookshelf, with photos taken by Rick and an article written by Robyn.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: Australia
Language: English
Genres: Drama
Rating: 7/10

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB
Production Notes

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Snowpiercer

Holiday calendar and route of the Snowpiercer.
In the year 2014, climate scientists will finally solve the problem of global warming. Countries of the world will be convinced to seed their skies with large amounts of WD-40 in an attempt to halt rising temperatures. Unfortunately, something goes terribly wrong. In the process of lubricating the atmosphere, our world is plunged into a bitterly cold ice age (or maybe just a really bad snow storm).

But there's still hope for the human race. A young boy with a fascination for model railroads will grow up and build a perpetual motion locomotive. The little engine will pull an obscenely long train of passenger cars on a closed circuit railway encircling the planet once every 365 days. The boy's name is "Wilford" (played by Ed Harris). He's an insane capitalist, and he's here to help. The few thousand, lucky individuals who board Wilford's train just before the world freezes over manage to survive inside of a closed ecological system for 18 years. No one gets on, no one gets off, everything is recycled and ... is that Soylent Green I see on your plate? One of the many mysteries of this film is existence of steak on the menu.

The Snowpiercer is a not a train of equality. It is a free market economy on wheels, where separation of class is conveniently represented by the linkages between cars. At the rear of the train, we have the impoverished workers. At the front of the train, rich capitalists live in luxury and debauchery. For comedic relief, we have Tilda Swinton (a warped activities director named Mason) who wanders the aisles preaching about how passengers should "know your place, keep your place". To drive the point home, she sometimes wears a shoe on her head to illustrate how absurd it is for a caboose to be at the head of the train.

Tanya, Mason, Andrew, Curtis, Grey, Yona (the dumb look on her face is because she's a "train baby"), and Namgoong Minsoo. 

Like any free market economy, there are periodic corrections that must take place. On the Snowpiercer, these corrections take the form of bloody rebellions where car loads of axe wielding, night vision wearing, hooded executioners cull the population and restore balance to the train's delicate ecosystem. I'd like to tell you that there's a point to life on the Snowpiercer, but there isn't. These characters are acting out mankind's last moments on Earth's stage, clinging to a failed economic model once embraced by Western society. There are many points to writer-director Joon-ho Bong's new screenplay however, most of them mocking what our world has become and how it will die.

Some have complained that the director's cut of this film is too long (125 minutes). Nonsense, you just need a more comfortable seat, perhaps in 1st class. The Weinstein Company, US distributor of the movie, is reported to have screened a shortened version that met with colder acceptance from test audiences. Maybe part of what contributes to a feeling of cabin fever is the film's four different sound stages, each built out as either a two-car, three-car or four-car set (click on the images below). Except for an occasional glance outside, audiences are trapped along with cast and crew inside of a narrow tin can for over 2 hours.


Coaches to help you relax: A walk-through aquarium, complete with sushi bar and chef. Fresh fish is served semi-annually. Arboretum with plants and things, a breath of fresh air after your bloody fight to the death five cars back.

Coaches to give you nightmares: The protein car, where all food for the tail section is manufactured. You really don't want to know what's in those purple, gelatinous meals. An elementary school run by actress Allison Pill. With a machine pistol in one hand, and a world map in the other, she'll make sure you get the basics of a good education. You'll learn things like "if you go outside you'll freeze and die". The kids are really excited about her class!

Snowpiercer's screenplay is adapted from the 1982 graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival, 2014
Country: South Korea, USA
Language: English
Genres: Drama, sci-fi, fantasy
Rating: 6.5/10

SIFF
Official Site
IMDB