“The Snowman” Collapses Under the Weight of Its Structure

The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

Let’s not mince words: The Snowman is a grotesque, gruesome gargoyle of a thriller with very little to recommend it beyond some picturesque shots of Norwegian landscapes and architecture, as well as the sight of actor Michael Fassbender (a landscape unto himself), deep in thought. Always a compelling screen presence, Fassbender (Macbeth) does his best with very little, forced to third-act paroxysms of outrage that are powerful because he makes them so, but almost lost in the sheer inanity of the script. It didn’t have to be this way. Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson has previously demonstrated a strong command of brilliant atmospherics married to plot in Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so there was reason to hope that The Snowman might work. I have not read the source novel, by Jo Nesbø, and so cannot say whether the ridiculous, convoluted premise is the fault of the author or that of the multiple screenwriters (or of the fact that there are multiple screenwriters). Suffice it to say that The Snowman is a textbook case of a story that is all over the place except where it needs to be.

The problems begin in the very first scene, shot and cut in a manner that right away leaves us reeling to understand the basic actions of the characters; the visual grammar is a mess (and that is on Alfredson, for sure). We find ourselves in a Norwegian cabin by a frozen lake in winter, where a little boy builds a snowman as nasty shenanigans go on inside. Given the portentous lingering on the coffee beans used for the snowman’s mouth, plus the desperate urging of the boy’s mother to “build a snowman” (plus the fact it’s the film’s title), we understand that, yes, the snowman will matter, later. And when the opening ends in tragedy, we have but to wait for all to be explained. Fear not, there is much exposition to come.

Cut to Fassbender, an alcoholic cop asleep on a bench, vodka bottle in hand. He’s Harry Hole, whom we gather from context is a hotshot detective whose cases are legendary. True, he has an addiction problem, but what self-respecting hero doesn’t have a flaw? Soon he’ll have to put the booze behind him, as: a) women are going missing; b) his ex-girlfriend’s son wants to hang out with him; c) there’s a new piece of police video technology to master; d) a 9-year-old case to explore; e) a new female partner (with mysterious motivations) to get to know; f) insomnia to battle; g) a sub-plot about Norway’s campaign to host the “Winter World Cup” (a winter-games sporting event; h) and so much more, most of it a distraction from what should be the central mystery. It’s as if each writer were given a different task, the whole compiled from the various drafts without any attempt to make sense of the resultant amalgamation.

It’s too bad, as beyond Fassbender there are some fine actors doing good work, among them Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), as that new partner, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (3 Hearts), as that ex-girlfriend. Val Kilmer (Standing Up), as a detective at the center of that past case, is not one of the standouts. Obviously post-dubbed (for whatever reason), he delivers a Razzie-worthy performance that is the icing on the rotting cake of his particular narrative through line. Beyond all of the above missteps, however, perhaps the worst thing about the film is the excess of its violence, particularly (though not exclusively) towards women, who are dismembered with glee by the serial killer at large. Best to let this one go, then, allowing it to melt into the gritty sludge of its deserved destiny.

4 Reviews + 1 Podcast: “Bending the Arc” & “Human Flow” @hammertonail + “The Foreigner” & “Marshall” @filmfesttoday + “Blade Runner” & “Blade Runner 2049” @roughlyspeaking

Since my last omnibus post, I have written, or participated in, the following movie reviews: at Hammer to Nail, reviews of Bending the Arc and Human Flow; at Film Festival Today, reviews of The Foreigner and Marshall; and on The Baltimore Sun‘s “Roughly Speaking” podcast – with Dan Rodricks and Linda DeLibero – an episode on the original 1982 Blade Runner and its just-released sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Here are links to all 5 pieces:


Overlong and Overwritten, “Blade Runner 2049” Still Delivers a Strong Sequel

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, originally released in 1982, was not an initial box-office success, though since then it has earned a well-deserved following for its blend of science fiction, action and metaphysics, as well as for its awe-inspiring production design and in-camera visual effects. Long before the days of computer-generated imagery, Scott and his brilliant team of artists created a near-future dystopian world in which advanced technology co-exists with urban decay, inspiring the wave of 1980s cyberpunk fiction. With haunting music by film composer Vangelis completing the mix, Blade Runner transported us into a gorgeous nightmare where androids and humans battled for supremacy. Along the way, the film asked the big questions about the nature and meaning of life, proving that pop culture can be both terrific entertainment and great art. Through the many versions (various director’s cuts) that Scott has released since then, the aesthetics and narrative of the film have stood the test of time.

Now, 35 years later, we have a sequel, from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), entitled Blade Runner 2049. Set 30 years after the end of Blade Runner, the movie features an almost entirely new cast of characters, with one very notable exception. If you recall, the first installment – a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – told the story of Los Angeles police officer Deckard (played by Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), assigned to hunt androids gone rogue and dangerous. Such agents are called “blade runners,” for reasons left to our own imagination (though the term comes from writers Alan E. Nourse and William S. Burroughs). The only way to tell androids – called “replicants” (a departure from Dick) in this cinematic universe – apart from humans is to run a Turing-like test designed to measure empathy. At the end of Blade Runner, Ford’s Deckard, mission complete, is left wondering whether he, himself, after all he has done, is also a replicant.

We start the new story in the company of agent “K” (Ryan Gosling, La La Land), a blade runner who knows exactly what he is: a replicant – working for the L.A.P.D. – hunting other replicants. At the end of every mission, he is subjected to a series of new tests that “reset his baseline,” checking for emotional anomalies. This is how the power structure retains control of its artificial servants. His boss, played by Robin Wright (Netflix’s House of Cards), treats K fairly enough, though is always aware that he is non-human. Though K looks no different to the viewer, he is subjected to all manner of prejudice and spite from his fellow cops and citizens, derisively called “skinjob” or “skinner.” This may explain his preference, when home, for the company of another artificial construct, this one even more virtual than he: a female hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas, Hands of Stone), who is the perfect lover for a being with intimacy issues. Interestingly, for a race – we humans – that judges replicants on their ostensible inability to empathize with other creatures, we demonstrate an alarming lack of empathy for these clearly sentient entities.

Blade Runner 2049 opens with K arriving at the home of a fugitive replicant of an earlier generation – not so obedient – that he has been ordered to bring in or retire. Played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), this older replicant (and they do appear to age, with time) does not come quietly. After doing what must be done, K then wanders the surrounding grounds, where he finds a box of buried bones, a discovery that upends the carefully delineated lines between humans and machines. For these bones, of a woman who died in childbirth, may not be human, a fact which calls into question everything that holds this hierarchical future together. As K searches for clues, his journey takes him ever closer to the secret of his own origin, and to the answer to the question of whether replicants have souls. Traveling from Los Angeles to  an orange-glowing, post-nuclear Las Vegas, what he discovers – or who – finally links this movie directly to the first one. For there lives Deckard, retired on his own terms, waiting for the day when a blade runner will come for him.

Villeneuve and his writers (one of whom is Hampton Fancher, who wrote the original film) come close to high art before descending into action-film clichés. For a while, they make all the right moves, elegantly exploring new territory in the realm of replicant and human coexistence. Perhaps if the film were shorter (with credits, it’s 163 minutes), they might have excised some unnecessary plot threads (mostly involving the inventor who took over the Tyrell Corporation, which made replicants in the first movie) or characters (said inventor, plus many more), or given our heroes (K and then Deckard) a truly worthy antagonist (as was Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner). The premise – of replicants being more than they seem, worthy of equal value as humans – is compelling, particularly since we can see parallels to the way the hierarchical systems of our own world treat their servant classes. And the cinematography, by Roger Deakins (Skyfall), together with the art direction, led by production designer Dennis Gassner (also Skyfall), is gorgeous (if not quite as palpably visceral as that of its pre-digital predecessor).

The actors are, for the most part, thoughtful and engaging, Gosling, Ford, Wright and de Armas among them. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), as Niander Wallace, the new inventor, overacts and under-delivers, though much of that is the script’s fault. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (Tirza), a particularly lethal replicant working for Wallace, is solid, though her character becomes part of the problem in the final third when we transition to action mode. The hulking Dave Bautista, in that opening scene, delivers one of the movie’s most memorable performances, continuing to prove that there is more to him than just brawn. It is safe to say, then, that there is much to recommend here, despite the excessive length and story flaws. An often-moving examination of the simultaneous discord and harmony between love and intellect, Blade Runner 2049 may lack the aesthetic perfection of Blade Runner, but is still an elegant work of cinematic beauty, rough diamond though it may be.

5 Reviews + 1 Interview (in 2 Parts) Last Week: Criterion’s “Multiple Maniacs” & “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” + “Lucky” & “We’re Still Together” + Interview w/ Peter Bratt & Dolores Huerta @hammertonail + “Battle of the Sexes” @filmfesttoday

Over the past week or so, I had the following film pieces posted at Hammer to Nail: reviews of Criterion Blu-rays of Multiple Maniacs and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; reviews of new theatrical releases Lucky and We’re Still Together; and a two-part interview with director Peter Bratt and subject Dolores Huerta, of the new documentary Dolores (reviewed earlier). At Film Festival Today last Friday, I ran a review of the new film Battle of the Sexes. Here are links to all 7 articles:


“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” Offers More of the Same

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughn, 2017)

One of the finest aspects of both John Wick and the first Kingsman film was the worldbuilding. In each one, we encountered a fascinating secret society that operated just out of sight of the rest of us, in which hidden operatives made and carried out plans to alternately destroy (Wick) and save (Kingsman) the universe. With vivid panache, the directors created compelling characters who strutted their stuff through sometimes-awful mayhem, dapper no matter what (well, John Wick got roughed up a bit …). As soon, however, as the narratives strayed from the foundational design and into violence they lost what made them interesting. Their innovative mojo vanished when guns were drawn and/or fists raised, at which point they became just your average, generic action film, devoid of real personality.

That problem has not gone away in Kingsman #2, otherwise known as Kingsman: The Golden Circle, helmed, as was #1, by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class). While there are some nice new touches in the netherworld of espionage, and a great new villain, at some point it devolves into the same old, same old. There is still a lot of fun to be had, but it begs the question: why must fight scenes all look the same? Where is Edgar Wright, who brilliantly revitalized car chases with Baby Driver this past summer, when you need him?

As this second Kingsman movie begins, our hero, Eggsy – rescued from cockney delinquency the last time around and trained for the independent secret-service agency known as … Kingsman – is immediately (as in, within a minute of the start) attacked by a disgruntled former Kingsman trainee and pursued through London in a high-speed, shoot-em-up drag race that ends in Eggsy’s triumph, or so he thinks. Unbeknownst to him, his attacker – a one-armed man – has left behind, in Eggsy’s vehicle, a mechanical prosthetic that hacks into the Kingsman system and reveals the whereabouts of all the agents, who are then quickly dispatched. The last man standing – with only his original trainer, Merlin, by his side – Eggsy must seek out the source of Kingsman’s demise, a journey that takes him to Kentucky and the sister agency of Kingsman, called Statesman. There, Eggsy joins forces with his American cousins to defeat the movie’s villain, Poppy.

We should say villainess, actually, as she is played with delightfully devilish flair by Julianne Moore (Still Alice). Poppy presides over a drug empire headquartered in Cambodia, her jungle lair designed in bright 1950s diner colors. Moore is one of the bright spots here, the garish design of her hideout complementing her “little-ole-me” false mask of helplessness. To add to the outlandishness of her plan for world domination, she has kidnapped Elton John, keeping him prisoner as her private pop star. The real Mr. John has a lot of fun spoofing some of his songs and flamboyant outfits, and does not embarrass himself.

Every surviving character from the first film (plus one who died) is back for round two: Taron Egerton (Eddie the Eagle), as Eggsy; Mark Strong (Miss Sloane) as Merlin; and Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight) as Harry (the one who died – see poster, above). New additions, on the American side, include Halle Berry (Kidnap), Channing Tatum (Foxcatcher), Pedro Pascal (Javier Peña on Netflix’s Narcos) and Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), most of whom, with the exception of Pascal, are wasted. Inexcusably, the movie sidelines, early on, the character of Roxy – the female rival for Kingsman acceptance in the first film – thereby removing one of the more dynamic relationships from the narrative.

Inventive at times, mediocre through most of its length, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is by no means a total loss, though at 140 minutes it overstays its welcome by at least 30 minutes. Interestingly, Elton John is not the only “John” featured in the film: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays a big part towards the end, much as it did in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Logan Lucky (which, in a strange coincidence, also starred Channing Tatum). What should we read into this doubling? Nothing, except for a failure of imagination. It’s a pleasant-enough little earworm, though, so why not give it a listen?

1 Interview + 3 Reviews from Last Week: Janicza Bravo @hammertonail + “Good Time,” “Wind River” & “Leap!” @filmfesttoday

In the last week, I have written – and had posted – the following pieces: an interview with director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) at Hammer to Nail; reviews of Good TimeWind River and Leap! at Film Festival Today. Here are links to all four articles:


2 Reviews from Last Week: “Ingrid Goes West” @hammertonail + “The Glass Castle” @filmfesttoday

For this Friday, I have nothing new to review (though I am working on a review of Good Time (for Film Festival Today), which has already opened in New York and Los Angeles and opens in Baltimore on August 25. For now, then, here are two reviews I ran last week: Ingrid Goes West (at Hammer to Nail) and The Glass Castle (at Film Festival Today):