Train to Busan (2016)


Train to Busan (Bu-San-Haeng) is a South Korean zombie flick set aboard a high-speed bullet train. It’s what Snowpiercer might have been had Snowpiercer been any good. Actually, it has a lot more in common with The Host (Gwoemul), also from the director of Snowpiercer, with its central conflict of a regular family threatened by other-worldly adversity.
     In Sang-ho Yeon’s film (another South Korean director!), Yoo Gong plays a self-centered funds manager who’s reluctantly taking his young daughter (Soo-an Kim) to stay with his ex-wife in Busan. As they’re leaving the station, an Infected staggers aboard. Unbeknownst to our hapless passengers there’s a zombie virus playing out in Seoul and the surrounding countryside… and all hell is about to break loose.
     That’s it, and it’s a riot.
     Writer/director Yeon takes the standard zombie tropes and steps everything up a notch with sympathetic characters, classy plot twists, and occasional dollops of humor which go a long way in offsetting much of the otherwise off-putting zombie carnage. The zombies themselves are nasty, scary, and cool, snapping and twitching and gurgling with the requisite rabid desire to feed. “Rabid” is how someone refers to them in the film; it gives them a little more cred than simply undead.
     The film barrels along and it’s to the director’s credit that his two-hour film rarely hits a lull. When it does, there’s something to be learned, some small familial moment to be savored, before the neck bitings and head clubbings and hand slammings start up again. In addition to our “hero” Seok Woo and his daughter Soo-an there’s a pregnant woman (of course) with her burly husband, a teenaged baseball team fronted by a feisty cheerleader, an elderly bickering couple, and the train’s corporate brass… who will prove influential in the final bid for survival.
     Train to Busan is a bit corny in places, but before you can even consider rolling your eyes the action starts up again, skillfully choreographed in close and claustrophobic quarters. Whip-smart and thrillingly delivered, Sang-ho Yeon’s film is a rousing, crowd pleaser of the highest order. It’s the very definition of a mondo midnight movie—magic.

(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth

La La Land (2016)

TWO-STARS 200x50

Well of course movie musicals are fake. They’re faux by design, phantasmagorical by their very nature. L.A. commuters don’t spontaneously exit their vehicles on a backed-up freeway on-ramp and throw themselves wholeheartedly into a communal this-is-the-dawning-of-the-age-of-Aquarius-styled song and dance number. Obviously, it just doesn’t happen.
     But there’s something about the way it happens in La La Land (that opening scene, specifically, and the rest of the movie in general) that feels, well… faker than usual.
     Maybe it’s the songs—they’re not nearly memorable enough for my liking (I can just about recall the dirge-like refrain from “City of Stars” but that’s about it). Maybe it’s the sycophantic self-promotion: “Hollywood doesn’t make Hollywood musicals like this anymore!” Or maybe it’s simply the simplistic storyline that feels too plastic-y: Mia’s an aspiring actress, Sebastian’s a struggling musician, they meet cute and love blooms—yes, way too plastic for my liking, like the painted palm trees on the painted backdrops that are wheeled on and off the backlot.
     Alas, this stylized, wall-to-wall inauthenticity pries out the emotional heart of Damien (Whiplash) Chazelle’s modern-day musical fantasy, leaving it needless and empty. It’s a pretty thing in the foothills and the spotlights, where toes tap and dreams are tapped out, but it never feels real, never for one second.
     On the plus side, the actors are better than the material. Emma Stone is phenomenal in the film—we can likely expect a second Oscar nom and a possible first-time win for this strikingly adept performer—and Ryan Gosling, her song-and-dance partner/co-star, is none too shabby either. As has been pointed out all too frequently, they’re no Fred and Ginger, but they’re smooth and confident and give engaged performances, repeating the winning chemistry they first realized in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
     I oh so wanted La La Land to work for me; I wholly expected it to resonate with me, somehow. I like musicals. I even like contemporary musicals. I loved the revisionist Moulin Rouge! and the edgier-still Dancer in the Dark. I was also mightily impressed by the recent big-screen Les Miz, and I even thought both Pitch Perfect movies to date had their (mostly musical) moments. But in my book, La La… is just So So.

(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth