Thursday, November 28, 2013

Three New European Films

Salvo (Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza – Italy/France) 104 minutes

House with a Turret (Dom s bashenkoy) (Eva Neymann – Ukraine) 80 minutes

Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort) (Albert Serra – Spain/France) 150 minutes

Salvo (Saleh Bakri) is a Palermo hit man, meticulous and redoubtable, the sort who you can be assured will track you down. We first see him and his mob boss Randisi (Mario Pupella) anticipate a two-pronged ambush and finish off every last one of their assailants with aplomb. It’s carried out with unnerving, calculated calm, as clinical as a Christiano Ronaldo hat-trick against Sicilian landscape dun and battered in Daniele Ciprì’s bleached-out photography. Next up for the young killer is an equally youthful gangster who has crossed Salvo’s boss. Salvo lays in waiting for him at the man’s grotty beachfront tenement. The only problem is the prey’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco) is also there. This is where the complication arises.

The protracted scene in which Salvo both pursues and hides from Rita is brilliantly claustrophobic, filmed literally à l’épaule, akin to the climax of Silence of the Lambs, even though in this case the film is only beginning. A consummate professional, Salvo finishes off his contract but spares the girl, the first apparent crack in his impervious façade. Salvo takes Rita to a safe house in an abandoned mine, as she is being pursued by Randisi, because she appeared to know more than she lets on about her brother’s operation. Salvo also takes to playing the cheesy love song on loop that Rita was listening to when he first encountered her, drawing derision from his macho colleagues.

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s film has been compared to Jean-Pierre Meville’s late work, particularly Le Samouraï. This is largely because of the sparseness of the dialogue (just as well, as Bakri – a Palestinian – would no doubt have had an overly-telling accent) and the directors pace the action with a similar ease. Salvo lacks Melville’s existential urgency though and it is unlikely the French master would have given too much sway to sentiment, which is what ultimately bogs this film down. The film doesn’t collapse as a result of a blossoming relationship between Salvo and Rita – and despite initial resemblance to Luc Besson’s Leon, it is a far more substantial work ­– but it does peter out. There is just not much you can do with a temperamental switch like this when the film has been so cool and distant for much of its length. Then again, Salvo’s structural impasse may appositely reflect the corner its two heroes find themselves backed into. It is an impressive enough of a feature debut from Grassadonia and Piazza and speaks to the current rude health of Italian cinema but you get the sense that Salvo is a film that winds up being frustratingly undercooked.

At a Q&A session with the great Belá Tarr I attended a couple of years ago, the Hungarian director sidestepped a comparison between his work and Tarkovsky, by saying "in Tarkovsky’s films, the rain cleanses; in mine, it just turns to mud." The rain in Eva Neymann’s House with a Turret performs similar mud-producing tasks, even if the film is based on a short story by Fridrikh Gohrenshtein, the screenwriter of Solaris, and Neymann’s morose style is much more Tarkovsky than Tarr.

In wartime Russia, in 1944, an eight-year-old boy takes a train home to his grandfather’s house, with his ailing mother (Yekaterina Golubeva, a veteran of films by Sharunas Bartas, Claire Denis and Leos Carax, and who was herself in her last days before her early death from cancer in 2011). He is separated from his mother along the way when she is removed to a ramshackle hospital. When she dies, he is left in the charge of his indifferent aunt and feckless uncle, who bring him the rest of the way.

House with a Turret is simultaneously impressive and jaded-looking. The reconstruction of wartime privation and desperation is both deft and rich and Lithaunian director of photography Rimmvydas Leipus’s monochrome images shimmer atmospherically. Dmitriy Kobetskoy incarnates superbly the hunger and determination of the unnamed main character, and despite the film’s relatively short length, you get a clear sense of the scale and interminable nature of the Soviet experience of World War II (or ‘The Great Patriotic War’, as it continues to be known in Russia). So what’s the problem then? Well, if Neymann’s film looks timeless, it is not so much a compliment as an admission that we have seen it all before. It could really have been made any year since 1944. Its constituent qualities are undeniable but much of it looks like it has been culled from Soviet and Russian cinema of the past. When a gruff and brutish yet good-hearted soldier muscles in on the train compartment with his blind comrade, it’s a portrait of Russian man that is no doubt rooted in reality but nonetheless a fall-back for many makers of Soviet and post-Soviet cinema.

Catalan directors are quite a different bunch from other Spaniards, pursuing a more streamlined, formally experimental cinema. Jaime Rosales, José Luís Guerín and Marc Recha are all light years away from the super-abundant aesthetics of Almodóvar, Alex de la Iglesia, Julio Medem or the more earnest concerns of Fernando León de Aranoa and Alejandro Aménabar. No Catalan director is as ‘out there’ however as Albert Serra. The 37-year-old is the new standard-bearer for recondite, demanding cinema, the heir to the late Raúl Ruiz. His films, shot on low-grade digital video with tiny budgets, interrogate the formalised, picturesque portrayal of the past in cinema while managing to be surprisingly beautiful themselves.

Story of My Death is a diptych of sorts, the two parts only vaguely linked, which retell the histories of Casanova and Dracula, two avatars of extreme decadent dandyism. We first see Casanova’s court, a place given over entirely to pleasure – eating, drinking, fucking, and, in one thoroughly disconcerting sequence, shitting – overseen by the ageing goat (Vincenç Altaió) who hides his baldness under a perruque. His is a portrait of a man whose Enlightenment certitude and brazenness is about to give way to doubt and old age (he remarks at one point that he met Voltaire once and ‘it didn’t end well’.)

Casanova yields, in both a narrative and physical sense, to Dracula, similarly unnamed and appearing without the trappings bestowed on Bram Stoker’s creation by Tod Browning’s Universal Studios adaptation. Serra’s Count is charismatic but menacing, as much a cannibal as a seducer; he is avowedly anti-Christian, telling one of the young ladies he preys on that there is no place for Christ in his house. Story of My Death is a historical dialogue between two personages, one real and one fictional, whose characters both overlap and conflict. Despite Serra’s wilfully cheap aesthetic, his images are bestowed with an immense force, the early banquet scenes clearly modelled on Flemish still-lifes, and the later ones carry the nebulous ambience of German Romantic painting. It has to be said that Serra is never likely to reach too wide an audience – his films are far too unyielding in their rhythms and their disregard for story and plot – but for those who have a high tolerance for uncompromising primitivist art cinema, he is well worth discovering.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Heimat and Shoah: Updates

Heimat: Chronicle of a Vision  (Die andere Heimat: Chronik einer Sehnsucht) (Edgar Reitz – Germany/France) 225 minutes

The Last of the Unjust (Le dernier des injustes) (Claude Lanzmann – France/Austria) 220 minutes

Edgar Reitz’s monumental TV series Heimat, which spans much of the German twentieth century and which has been running since 1984, is a major lacuna in my film-watching, and one I intend to finally get around to one of these days. Not that any knowledge of the TV show is necessary to appreciate this four-hour prequel, which is set in the same Rheinland village of Schabbach and centres around the same family, the Simons, that appears in the show. The action is set several decades before the start of the TV series, in 1842, in a region that has yet to be industrialised and where the only hope for many is to up sticks and move to Brazil, where the Emperor has reserved the southern regions of Rio Grande do Sul for German immigrants.

Jakob Simon (Jan Schneider), a bookish youngster, is one person who dreams of an escape, going so far as to learn the Tupi languages of the Brazilian natives, which he has never even heard. Jakob is scorned by his blacksmith father Johann (Rüdiger Kreise), who sees him as a feckless n’er-do-well, in contrast to his older brother, Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt), who returns from military service as the film begins. Johann’s intransigence has driven away his daughter, disowned for marrying a Catholic, much to the chagrin of his wife Margarethe (Marita Breur), who also encourages Jakob in his studies. Jakob though is destined to be forever upstaged by his more assertive brother, who steals the woman he loves, Jettchen (Antonia Bill) and soon begins to muscle in on his dreams.

In one sense, Heimat is solidly old-fashioned film-making – a seamless fresco of nineteenth-century life, a family saga, a portrait of an embryonic modern society. Like Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, the film takes its visual cues from the photography of August Sander (it is striking how similar the two films look, despite being set some seventy years apart); Gernot Roll’s stunning high-contrast cinematography is monochrome throughout with a few key colorised elements interspersed – an incandescent horseshoe, a field of bluebells, a sliver of agate. Reitz has little time for Haneke’s determinism though – the historical aspects of his film are portrayed dispassionately: the legacy of the Napoleonic invasion (and even the 30 Year War, two centuries past, evoked by Jakob’s elderly uncle), the rise of German nationalism, embodied in a boozy group of students who invite Jakob on a raft trip down the Rhine, ultimately radicalising him.

Though Heimat the TV series has been criticised for soft-pedalling the Weimar and Nazi era, Reitz’s depiction of the premodern society in this film is far from the idealised image of the Volk that the Nazis and Prussian nationalists liked to peddle. Life in Schabbach is miserable, its old artisanal society barely subsisting; the region is riven by famine and the village is emptying at a rapid pace, with even the local schoolmaster eyeing a spot on the boat to Brazil. In one of the many powerful sequences in the film, the villagers hold a communal funeral for a dozen infants carried away by diphtheria in the bitterly cold winter, the ground being too frozen solid to bury them until the spring. Reitz is also adept at integrating period detail into his narrative in a way that is fully organic – the sudden halting of a creaking loom alerts the family to the death of its operator and the appearance of a steam engine in the forge – built by Gustav and perfected by Jakob – points to the industrialisation that is about to send the region, and all of Germany, hurtling into modernity.

This latest chapter in the Heimat saga is a wonderfully rich experience, lucid and intelligent, endowed with some masterful filmmaking, and it is at times deeply moving. Reitz presents a sophisticated portrait of the mid-nineteenth century while being more than simply tasteful picturesque. Though the film stands alone admirably well, you wonder does Reitz intend filling in more gaps with further prequels, even if, at the age of 81, he may find time is against him.

The bulk of Claude Lanzmann’s new film consists of interviews he conducted over a week in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the former Chief Rabbi of Vienna, and later the Head of the Jewish council in the notorious ghetto of Theriesenstadt during the Holocaust. Lanzmann omitted the interviews from the final cut of Shoah, for which they were filmed, because it would have added unduly to an already marathon length. Three decades on from Shoah, Lanzmann has decided Murmelstein and the grotesque story of Theriesenstadt merits a film of its own, one that, at just under four hours, runs to almost half its predecessor’s running time.

The title of the film comes from Murmelstein himself, who described himself as such, in self-deprecation, given the opprobrium he faced in both Israel and among international Jewry following the war (the philosopher Gershom Scholem said he ought to be hanged). Theriesenstadt, a concentration camp located in the Czech fortress town of Terezin, has become a byword for barbaric repression airbrushed by good public relations. It was the brainchild of Adolf Eichmann, and was filmed for Nazi propaganda and called ‘The Fuhrer’s Gift to the Jews’, presented to the world as a place of comfort for its inhabitants, despite 60,000 Jews living in an area intended for 7,000. Murmelstein, who liaised with Eichmann in the ghetto, was tried for collaboration in Czechoslovakia after the war but was acquitted and released after 18 months in prison. He ended up a furniture salesman in Rome and, such was his fall from grace, the Chief Rabbi of Rome refused him burial beside his wife in consecrated ground when he died in 1989.

Given he was a community leader (and moreover one who passed up opportunities to abandon Vienna’s Jews when offered work in London upon Anschluss) it was ridiculous that Murmelstein be retrospectively cast as a kapo. He may indeed have been too trusting of Eichmann, despite clear signs of the latter’s brutality – Murmelstein witnessed him leading the destruction of a synagogue in Vienna before the war – but Murmelstein insisted he did everything to save as many Jews as he could. He even says in the film that the embellishment of Theriesenstadt for publicity purposes helped saved lives as, he reasoned, if the Jews in the ghetto were in the public eye, they were less likely to be slaughtered. Not that this spared the lives of those who were put to death after a series of failed uprisings, mind. Murmelstein was, then, one of the Jewish leaders at whom Hannah Arendt took aim, when she said fewer Jews might have been killed had they not had community leaders to place trust in. This is one of two issues in which the film takes issue with Arendt, the other being the famous ‘banality of evil’ applied to Eichmann. Murmelstein, who knew Eichmann better than most (and was, inexplicably, never called as a witness for Eichmann’s trial), says Eichmann was the consummate Nazi, fully aware of the enormity of his enterprise and implicated in more than simply the logistics.

Lanzmann’s film is, for one of those length and such unremitting grimness, incredibly compelling. As in Shoah, he has a keen ability to make the past come to life simply by filming the same locations decades later – in one chilling scene, he recounts, by reading from Murmelstein’s 1961 memoir, the executions of Jewish insurgents in the very same hangar in Theriesenstadt. The only thing against The Last of the Unjust is it is a little too complicit and sympathetic towards its subject – it lacks the dialectical force that made Shoah such a formidable, if at times selective, film. You see relatively little of the abrasive, conceited, and often unpleasant, side of Lanzmann’s character, which helped him coax so many fantastic interviews out of unsuspecting interlocutors in the earlier film. Similarly, Murmelstein’s story is very much an annex to Shoah, which renders The Last of the Unjust a quasi-theological film for specialists of the field. While it is remarkable in many ways, it is a film that can really only be grasped in its entirety by those that have sat through the entire nine-and-a-half hours of Lanzmann’s earlier masterpiece.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis – Joel and Ethan Coen

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA/France) 105 minutes

‘I don’t hear any money here,’ says a music impresario to Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) upon being played the latter’s work. There is, indeed, very little money in the life of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, adrift in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961; impecunious, he struggles between gigs, crashing on the couches of anyone whose hospitality he can abuse. He is the embodiment of that old muso joke: ‘What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless’. For want of a girlfriend, Llewyn sleeps with Jean (Carey Mulligan – as ever, a three-chord performance), the wife of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and is then forced to resort to some ‘creative’ birth control when she falls pregnant.

The Coen Brothers’ portrayal of the nascent, ‘pre-Judas’ folk scene, is admirably rich, with Bruno Delbonnel’s photography capturing New York’s wintry scuzziness with aplomb. Llewyn, though a thoroughly dislikable character – selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-pretty-much-everything – is still someone you find yourself rooting for, probably because we have all had a dear friend as imperiously indifferent to the concerns of others as he. He is wayward and feckless, like another Coen character, The Dude, only with added bitterness fermenting away; Isaac’s performance is perfectly calibrated, like an impudent young Martin Scorsese, and the fact he plays and sings on screen makes it all the more impressive. And Llewyn is certainly no worse than most of the others he encounters – the shrill Jean, the careerist Jim, a morosely taciturn beat poet (Garret Hedlund in a rather pointless cross-pollination of Walter Salles’ On the Road adaptation), an obnoxious jazzman (John Goodman), his manager Mel, who never pays him. This raises the first major problem with the film though – its tone is irredeemably sour, rather than melancholic, as many have contended. If it’s meant to be a love-letter to the Greenwich Village scene, well it’s an odd one, as the Coens are clearly not too sympathetic towards anyone in it.

The film also signposts things a bit too crudely, such as the brief appearance of a soldier-on-leave Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) – supposedly based on Tom Paxton – whose upright discipline is going to get him further in the music business than Llewyn. We hear, in passing, a young Bob Dylan soundalike, whose fame, and later capitulation to rock, would sweep folk music further to the margins than it was to begin with. It’s a fair point to make but it’s a bit obvious, as are the successive jokes involving a friend’s cat whom Llewyn gets inadvertently lumbered with. Then again, recourse to obvious gags has been a feature of the Coens throughout their career.

Inside Llewyn Davis is dotted with references to real-life characters – Jean and Jim carry a clear echo of the embryonic Peter, Paul and Mary; there is a wretched acapello version of ‘The Auld Triangle’ by an Irish quartet clearly meant to be The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) the impresario Llewyn so desperately courts, is modelled on Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Llewyn himself is reportedly based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk, though the similarities are only fleeting – Van Ronk, while he never enjoyed Dylan’s success, can’t be said to have failed in a way Llewyn is destined to and his folk music was far more robust and spirited than Llewyn Davis’ watery brew (it is not a shock to learn that Mr Carey Mulligan, Marcus Mumford, had a hand in the film’s music). Llewyn’s failure, moreover, seems predetermined – the suicide of his former singing partner looms throughout the film but it seems more like a device of convenience than genuine bereavement. Llewyn’s impecunious struggles also appear picturesque and incidental, compared to the vaguely similar Frances Ha, which, for all its limitations, was a far more convincing account of thwarted ambition. Inside Llewyn Davis is a watchable, at times beautiful, film but ultimately suffers from the factitiousness that has been a recurrent problem with the Coens’ work.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Israel and Palestine in two films

Omar (Hany Abu Al-Assad – Palestine) 96 minutes

Common State – Potential Conversation 1 (État commun – Conversation potentielle 1) (Eyal Sivan – France) 124 minutes

Hany Abu Al-Assad’s Omar, which won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes this year, is probably the first film to use Israel’s ‘separation barrier’ in the West Bank (also known, with some justification, as the apartheid wall) as a prop. The eponymous hero, Omar, a young baker (Adam Bakri), scales it daily, to visit his friends Tarek and Amjad, who live just the other side but whom the wall has placed at an improbable distance. Omar runs the risk of being shot by the Israeli Defence Force and on one occasion is routinely humiliated by a patrol, once they are satisfied he is not carrying any weapon or explosives.

Omar joins Tarek and Amjad in a nocturnal sortie against the IDF in which Tarek shoots a soldier at a posting, fatally wounding him. Omar is then swept up in an Israeli raid and he disappears into the sprawling black site that is the Israeli prison system. A pair of cops – both, oddly, played by actors of Palestinian origin – try to wheedle the name of the gunman out of them; one (Joe Sweid) tortures him in scenes remarkably similar to those in Zero Dark Thirty but filmed with far less ambiguity, the other, Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) is more in the ‘good’ vein, and is able to half-coax an admission of guilt from Omar by passing as a Palestinian prisoner. Rami tries to get Omar to work as an informer and, when Omar resists, he turns him out into the world, figuring that the suspicion he has ratted out his comrades will be punishment enough (a similar plot device was used in Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog). Omar strikes a deal, promising to deliver the gunman to Rami within thirty days but he is only buying himself time, as he hopes to marry Tarek’s sister Nadia (Leem Lubany).

Omar is a militant, fast-paced thriller, that is notable for the way it constantly refers to a world outside the decreasing parcels of land Palestinians live on in the Occupied Territories. Omar and Nadia talk about fleeing the place, about going to Paris for their honeymoon, even though they each know it is unlikely. Jokes refer to distant lands, Omar’s younger sister excitedly criticises José Mourinho’s benching of Karim Benzema at the dinner table, an informer pleads for his life, saying he only informed for money to visit New Zealand, because he has never seen the sea. Hanging behind the desk in Rami’s office is a large-format high definition photograph of a beach, clearly intended to tantalise young Palestinians who have never seen the Mediterranean, which lies only twenty miles or so to the west. And as if the eating away of the Palestinian homeland were not bad enough, our hero is subject to even more claustrophobic closure, hemmed in by the suspicions of those in his own community and the demands of the Occupier. Al-Assad, who won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Paradise Now, chooses a radical move to cut through the Gordian Knot. It’s a bold move and one unlikely to win him a second Oscar for its disavowal of a fictitious peace process.

That fictitious peace process has also led to the death of the two-state solution. Twenty years on, the Oslo Accords are in tatters, as Israel continued to violate international law by colonising the West Bank, and discontent with Fatah led to a hardening Islamisation of Palestinian society. The one-state solution has gained increasing ground over the past decade, championed by the late Edward Said and theorised by the likes of Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti. The main reason for its appeal is an acceptance that settlement building is so total now that a territorial Palestinian state, as envisaged by Oslo, is an impossibility. This was acknowledged by Tony Judt following visits to the West Bank in 2004, something which did not go down well in the West, where support for the charade that is the peace process remains a strategic imperative. Even sectors of the Israeli right, such as former Knesset Speaker Abrum Burg, are recognising the reality that Israelis and Palestinians may one day have to share the same binational state.

French-based Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan gathers together a number of people from both the Jewish and Palestinian camps and has them give their views on the possibility of a single state. These range from Omar Barghouti, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, Palestino-Israeli Knesset Member Haneen Zouabi, Israeli academics Ilan Pappe and Ariella Azoulay, Arab rights lawyer Hassan Jabareen, Jewish poet Eliaz Cohen, Palestinian economist Leila Farsakh, Hadash party member Yael Lerer (who also has a cameo role as a lawyer in Omar) and Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy. The interviews are shown in split-screen and are filmed as binomial dialogues. The artifice makes the film more art-installation than anything particularly cinematic but Common State is compelling nonetheless.

You can argue that the principals are all of an intelligentsia far removed from popular sentiment on either side of the divide – it is definitely true that all those interviewed are broadly left-leaning and there is none of the toxic racial determinism so widespread among Israelis or the opportunistic Holocaust denial and anti-semitism that blights some Palestinian discourse. Still, it can’t be denied that this attempt at a ‘potential conversation’ is lucid and intelligent. The one-state solution is dismissed by many as utopian and detached from reality – given how neighbouring communities even in rich countries such as Canada and Belgium can’t get along – but the ideas broached here are about a shift in mentality rather than a project for an immediately tangible state. Roucham Marton, the only interviewee old enough to remember life before 1948, says it was a time marked by more tolerance than the present (despite real atrocities committed by either side) and that she prefers not to talk of love, ‘because love always ends in tears’. Sival, whose criticism of the Israeli state has earned him smears from the likes of French Zionist Alain Finkielkraut, is to be commended for this colloquium. The comments contained within it will seem inconceivable to many who are trapped inside the confines of two-state orthodoxy but in decades to come, it will be these interviewees who, for better or for worse, will be proven right.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-ho

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho – South Korea/USA/France) 126 minutes

Bong Joon-ho, director of the excellent Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother, makes his first foray into English-language film for what is the most expensive South Korean production in history. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a sorry mess. Snowpiercer is based on a mostly forgotten French comic book Le Transperceneige, which started running in 1984, and the production design, which is admirable, borrows heavily from the source material. The opening sequences inform us that in 2014, world governments, in a desperate attempt to offset global warming, smothered the planet in a chemical called CW7, which accelerated the onset of a new Ice Age. All life on Earth has died, with the only survivors having boarded, Noah’s Ark-like, a massive train, powered by a perpetual-motion engine. Now, seventeen years in the future, it travels continuously across the Asian, European and African landmasses on a circuit that had been built by its megalomaniac industrialist owner, one Mr Wilford.

The train is divided according to a binary class system, with those at the head ruthlessly suppressing the proles in the tail. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this division, other than arbitrary pauperisation in the interest of Wilford’s holistic belief of constant order – the underclass does not appear to be retained to do any work, be it slave or indentured. The tail-dwellers, living in squalid, cramped misery, mount a new revolt – all previous ones have been savagely put down – masterminded by Gilliam (John Hurt), a crippled Gandalf-type figure, and led by Curtis (Chris Evans) in which they hope to get to the head of the train and take the ‘sacred’ engine. On the way they enlist the help of train engineer Namgoong (Bong regular Song Kang-go) and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung), both of whom are addicted to Kromul, a drug made from industrial waste that is hugely popular in the front of the train.

Blocking their way is a fearsome army of security guards, led by Franco Elder (Vlad Ivanov – the abortionist from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) and overseen by Mason (Tilda Swinton as a weird cross of Margaret Thatcher with Nora Batty). The first disappointment of Snowpiercer is it doesn’t have anything to elevate itself above your run-of-the-mill apocalyptic drama, even though it clearly fancies that it does. The backstory remains as flat as it does on the page – comics can get away with short-hand like this, films need to flesh things out a bit more. The information that is divulged about the train’s history comes far too late in the film, by which time its possible dramatic impact is vitiated. It is also, for all the grisly scenes of axe murder, and talk of horrific living conditions, not a very disturbing film. Rarely do we get a real sense of menace, and even then, it mostly comes by way of the wordless killer played by Ivanov, whose character is pretty cliched anyway.

The dialogue, despite being worked on by New Yorker Kelly Masterson, is seriously hokey and embarrassing, with Swinton in particular being given some of the most cringe-worthy: ‘Water comes in the mouth, not through the bum’, when she explains how the engine absorbs snow for the train’s water supply. Chris Evans, who played Captain America in The Avengers, is far too lightweight a presence, and too wooden an actor, to carry a film as heroic leader. There are a few efforts at satire, such as a scene where kids are indoctrinated by a cheery schoolteacher (Alison Pill), but these are flat and one-dimensional. Snowpiercer has to recommend it some good production design and well-choreographed action sequences but it is for the most part catastrophically inept. Here’s hoping the talented Bong Joon-ho soon gets back to something smaller in scale and avoid the bombast on display here.