By Greg Popil
(Note: Absolutely nothing interesting opened last week, so I’ve decided to go back and recap some movies from earlier this year)
Post-apocalyptic movies have become so common in recent years that it’s a shock when one emerges from the pack. Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer” conjures a future that’s equal parts horrifying and surreal. The awesome hook: An attempt to reverse global warming has left the world frozen and dead, with the exception of one train, circling the Earth in a continuous loop like a self-sustained ark. The poor and desolate rear section is kept underfoot by the decadent rich that live in the front cars, until a rebellion led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and aided by a drug-addicted engineer (Kang-ho Song) attempts to overthrow the social order. It sounds fairly straight-ahead, but the increasingly surreal nature of the cars (the school sequence is a delightful shot on indoctrinated madness) and plot twists that add real depth to the characters keep the momentum going. The twisted sense of humor Bong brought to his breakthrough film, the excellent creature feature “The Host” is on full display here (not for nothing is a wise mentor character named Gilliam). The movie falls apart a little bit in the last few minutes, but until then, it’s the action movie of the year.
The Monuments Men
George Clooney is often referred to as an “old-fashioned” movie star, the type of Cary Grant-style actor that can cruise through a role with grace and aplomb (and really good looks). But the old-fashioned label really sticks to Clooney the director; his films tackle issues like McCarthyism and the early days of pro football with tons of style and very little grit. “The Monuments Men,” Clooney’s third feature, tackles his heaviest subject yet, World War II soldiers assigned to rescue priceless works of art from the Nazis, and with a few exceptions treats it like a delightful European romp. In the post-“Saving Private Ryan” era, where the horrors of war have never been more fully realized on film (even “Captain America” made WWII look like hell), this attitude might come off as glib, but it’s kept afloat by Clooney and his excellent cast, particularly the antagonistic relationship between Bill Murray and Christopher Guest veteran Bob Balaban. Those two head up the movie’s best scene, a standoff with a young Nazi soldier that ends with the three of them dropping their guns and sharing a cigarette. Clooney may not have an “Apocalypse Now” in him, but he understands that watching a couple of movie stars that also happen to be great actors having fun is one of the best parts of cinema.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Let’s start by focusing on the positives: they got the turtles right. There’s a mountain of flaws in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” producer Michael Bay’s latest attempt to wring money out of the action figures you coveted in third grade, but after the tidal wave of leaks and rumors that preceded this reboot (the turtles would now be aliens; they were created in tandem by Splinter and Shredder) we should be grateful that the personalities and general chemistry of the main foursome is still intact, and generally still works. What doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else. The movie creates an unnecessary back-story for April O’Neil (a ridiculously miscast Megan Fox) and the awful screenplay features plot holes through which one could pilot an aircraft carrier (pro tip: if it’s sunny and beautiful in New York City, there generally isn’t a foot and a half of snow on the ground 30 minutes outside the city). Director Jonathan Liebsman (“Battle: Los Angeles”) comes up with one fun action sequence, a chase down a snowy mountain in which his overuse of slow motion is finally an asset, and the rest is incomprehensible and chaotic. The 1990 original isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more fun.
Under the Skin
It’s Scarlett Johansson’s world, the rest of us just live in it. The last year has seen her top-line an Oscar-nominated indie (“Her”), an action blockbuster (“Captain America 2”) and a flawed but interesting B-movie thriller (“Lucy”). Each movie saw Johansson increasingly own the combination of power, intelligence and sexuality that made her a star. In the David Croenberg-esque sci-fi film “Under the Skin,” Johansson plays an alien succubus, luring unsuspecting Scottish men to their dooms, so that their skins may be harvested by her race (apparently so they can continue impersonating humans, although it’s never made fully clear). Johansson’s unnamed alien becomes increasingly disillusioned with her mission, finally attempting to go AWOL and join humanity, which proves more difficult than she/it realized. Director Jonathan Glazer has made a slow, surreal movie that is not for everyone (there is an extended scene on a rocky beach that ranks among the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched), but it’s anchored by Johansson’s masterful performance, which echoes David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” in its slight turns away from true humanity.
Seriously, how awesome is Drew Barrymore? So awesome that she can make even a lame Adam Sandler vehicle tolerable. Sandler has been riding a streak of duds that (even for his low standards) rank as some of the worst comedies ever made (if it hadn’t inspired a couple of great “South Park” gags, “Jack and Jill” might rank as a war crime), so it’s a smart move to pair him with Barrymore for the third time, as she is apparently the only female with whom he can costar and treat like an actual human being. The pair play single parents (she of boys, he of girls) who, after a disastrous blind date and a series of events entirely too convoluted to recap, end up cohabitating in a luxury hotel room in Africa with their families. Everything that follows is beyond predictable, but Sandler and Barrymore have real chemistry, and a few fun supporting performances (particularly Terry Crews as a way-too-committed activities director) make the inanity go down relatively easy. It isn’t a great, or even particularly good movie, but it isn’t painfully wretched, and for Sandler that’s a step in the right direction.