Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

by Patrick Bromley
It's hard to talk about a masterpiece.

When it comes to bad movies, critics have a pretty easy job. We can point to all the things that don't work and hopefully find things to say about the flaws that are more than a bunch of cheap jokes designed to make the writer seem superior. Even when I'm writing about Transformers: Age of Extinction or being a complete asshole, I make it a point to take a movie at the level on which it's intended and determine if its succeeds or fails at being what it tries to be. I don't enjoy being negative -- I would always rather like a movie than not like it. It just seems like the bad movies are easier to write about.

A truly great movie like Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer presents a real challenge. It is a brilliant, visionary film, full of bold ideas, strong and well-drawn characters, kinetic action and layered, nuanced storytelling. It is, in short, a masterpiece. But a proper review must be more than just the writer gushing about all the parts he or she likes, right? Even if it isn't, I wouldn't want to publish such a list, as it would spoil too many things about the movie. More and more, I'm encouraging readers to go into great (even good) movies totally cold -- no trailers, no news items, not even any reviews like this one. If you plan to heed this advice, you need only know this about Snowpiercer: it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. It might even be one of the best films period. This is going to be an all-timer.
Here's the premise for those of you sticking around: It's 2014. Scientists launch a substance into the sky to combat global warming, but it ends up freezing the planet and wiping out every life form but the ones lucky enough to board the Snowpiercer, a state-of-the-art train that travels a track around the world on an endless loop.

It's 2031. The poor and downtrodden passengers relegated to the train's tail section are planning a revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans). They need the assistance of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho, a regular of Bong Joon-ho's films), a security expert who has succumbed to drug addiction.

And that's all I want to say. It's all you need to know, really. Sure, it skips a few of the characters, like the cartoonish Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) or Gilliam (John Hurt), who is something of a mentor to Curtis and whose name is not an accident. And it skips talking about a lot of the overt political subtext; the "haves" of the remaining population live in luxury at the front of the train while the poor "have-nots" are crammed into the back, dirty, overcrowded and forced to subsist only on gelatinous "protein bars." The allegory of Snowpiercer is not subtle, but the conclusions at which it ultimately arrives are not exactly what you would expect.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer film is the English language debut of Bong Joon-ho, making him the third prominent South Korean filmmaker to make the transition to Hollywood following Park Chan-wook (Stoker) and Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand). I liked both Stoker and The Last Stand, but both films felt like slightly watered-down versions of their Korean work. Compromises were made. That's not the case with Snowpiercer, which is as bold and visionary as anything Bong has done, if not more so. This is my favorite film of his (though I still have not seen Memories of Murder [I KNOW]), which is impressive considering how much I like The Host. One of the great things about Bong (and several of his South Korean contemporaries, not to make a generalization) is that he doesn't adhere to storytelling convention -- his movies have the ability to surprise us in an era (era) when most Hollywood movies don't. It's a wonderful thing to not know exactly where a filmmaker is taking you but to be able to trust that it is somewhere beautiful and worthwhile.

A few words about Chris Evans, who between this and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is having as good a year as an actor might hope. I wrote Evans off in his early days as an actor, back when he was playing generic teen movie guy in Not Another Teen Movie and The Perfect Score (though a rewatch of NATM reminded me that he gave a much better comic performance than I first gave him credit for). It was his performance in the underrated Cellular that first made me take serious notice of him as an actor, and I've been a fan ever since. Watching him become a kickass supporting actor in movies both bad (The Losers) and great (Sushine) has been rewarding, though not nearly as much as seeing him come into his own as a leading man in the Captain America films and walk away with The Avengers, one of the most successful movies of all time. His work in Snowpiercer is among the best he's ever done, affording him no opportunity to fall back on his devilish sense of humor or cocksure attitude but being no weaker for it. Curtis is grim and determined, but there is more to him than that. Evans is rock solid in every aspect of the character, leading with the strength of an action hero but hinting at the darkness underneath. He's so good.
Everything about Snowpiercer is so good (except maybe the CGI, but if you're complaining about that you don't deserve a movie like this). The movie was at the center of a very public battle between director Bong and Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to gut 20 minutes out of it and add some unnecessary narration even though the movie is not difficult to follow and one of its better qualities is that it respects your intelligence and expects you to keep up. Bong refused to alter his film -- already the highest-grossing movie of all time in Korea -- and, as a fuck-you retaliation, the Weinstein Company dumped it in only a handful of theaters to die. That's never going to happen. Film sites and social media make it possible for us all to get the word out on the movie, and five or 10 or 20 years from now when Snowpiercer is rightfully being called a classic of the genre, the Weinsteins will be remembered as the guys who fucked up the release. I'll give them credit for buying it and putting it out at all. They deserve that much. But if they really are sabotaging the movie's chances, they're on the wrong fucking side of history.
Snowpiercer is my favorite movie of the year. Sure, 2014 is only a little more than halfway done. We still have five months of movies left to go. But I have a hard time imagining I'll see something this original, thought-provoking, thrilling and deeply involving in the remaining months that would supplant this as the year's best. It's a movie I want to see again and again -- to relive its brilliant structure and the way that each car on the train advances the story as the characters push forward, revealing more and more about life on Snowpiercer while managing to shift tones and almost genres in the process. Don't be fooled by the screencaps I've included, all of which make the movie look grey and soot-covered. It doesn't all look like that, though even at its dystopian grimiest it is a movie of tremendous beauty and visual invention.

Like I said, the truly great movies can be hard to write about. There are only so many ways to say "This is brilliant and I love it." If you have any opportunity to see Snowpiercer -- particularly in a movie theater -- you must make it happen. The summer movie season is packed with genre films that typically strive for little more than pop spectacle. Here is a genre film that transcends the genre. It is true art -- masterfully told science fiction destined to join the ranks of Blade Runner and Brazil. Movies like this come around only so often. They are like gifts. Snowpiercer is a gift.

See it now. Be on the right side of history.


51 comments:

  1. I'm seeing Snowpiercer in my own double feature with Chef (which I also haven't seen yet) on Tuesday! I'm very excited now!

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    1. I don't know if I'd call it my favorite movie of the year, but Snowpiercer was at least probably my favorite action movie that I've been able to see this year, and Chris Evans is great in the movie (and for what it's worth, I also loved Chef, too, but that's a bit off topic here).

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  2. I'm almost there with you, Patrick, but somehow the movie just didn't make the leap to great for me. It's very, very good and I'm not quite sure what's holding me back on this. There's so, so much good stuff in it (hell, we could talk Alison Pill's performance all day, or Octavia Spencer casually cracking an egg on a kid's head). But jesus, already this year we've had this and Under The Skin? I'm AOK with that, so far.

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  3. Go see it, people. Don't let this movie suffer the death of a thousand cuts!

    @Joseph Finn - I love all of the "extra" stuff that goes on in those types of scenes. The walk through the train is fantastic.

    Chris Evans's performance reminds me of his character in PUNCTURE; the movie is just ok, but I liked his performance a lot more.

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    1. How about the LAST CIGARETTE ON EARTH (big deal to an ex-smoker like me), burning away unsmoked during Evans' amazing monologue. Except for one quick shot of the long ash, nothing is made of it - so many great little moments left up to the viewer to really notice.

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    2. Sol, YES. It's moments like that throughout--and the way the movie allows those moments to become part of the gestalt of the film, without forcing the viewer's attention--that help give Snowpiercer its emotional heft, I think. So glad you finally got to see it!

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  4. Thanks for this terrific review, Patrick; it put into words so many of the reasons I have not been able to stop thinking about Snowpiercer. So glad you pointed out how much this movie respects the viewer's intelligence. It constantly surprised me, but every surprise is earned by the script; there are no cheap twists. Every tonal shift advances the story. Every new layer peeled back reveals character as well as plot. Its violence is visceral but never feels exploitative; it has a huge heart but doesn't fall into sentimentality. Chris Evans' performance hits every mark for me -- I could (and have, in my own head) talked for hours about the complexities of this character and the nuances of his actions and motivations. For me, the writing, directing, and performance come together in Curtis to create a character that, as you say, is a gift that movie-goers will be unpacking for a long time. This is one of those movies that made me feel lucky to be a person who loves movies - lucky to be a person at all.
    Oh, and note to other persons who are people: YOU MAY NOT LOVE IT as much as me. That's okay. I'm not "overselling;" just talking about my response. Joseph Finn, the fact that you didn't love it as much as Patrick makes me like the movie (and you!) even more... not in defense of Snowpiercer, but in celebration of the subjectivity of real art.

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    1. I only read the first few paragraphs - if you're saying it's a must-see that's all I need to know. Unfortunately I can't find a listing for it showing in Halifax anywhere but hoping that will change soon - a domestic box office of only $1.5M has me a little worried though...

      After The Raid 2's horrible box office I'm starting to worry about the average North American filmgoer - you're the reason we can't have nice things!

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    2. Sorry Jan - that wasn't meant to be a reply specifically to you.

      But while I'm here - hey, how's it going? :)

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    3. Though Snowpiercer's per theater average was very healthy.

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    4. SOL! You never call, you never write...

      Don't lose heart! Wikipedia lists July 17 as the Canada release date. And I agree with Patrick that this is a movie that will be with us for the long haul; I imagine that Snowpiercer will show up in repertory theatre showings or other special screenings in coming months/years. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to rally ALL OF NORTH AMERICA to see it. Just for you.

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    5. Thanks for the heads up Jan - it hadn't occurred to me that there'd be a special Canadian release date - I should have checked!

      And yeah see what you can do about getting those box office numbers up, eh?

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  5. I can say this here because I don't think anyone I work with will read this comment, but I am playing hooky today and catching this at 1:45 :)
    Pretty excited...unfortunately I guess that means Tammy will have to wait ;)

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  6. This is the dragon I've been chasing since Fifth Element

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  7. So, Snowpiercer starts in three minutes and I am the only one in the theater. Not comparing, I actually love it, but thought it was interesting based on your review and comments about the sabotage.

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  8. Wow...
    I don't know that I could form a full coherent sentence right now.
    That was awesome.

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  9. Just got back from seeing this. Absolutely the best movie I've seen this year. I feel like I need another viewing and some time to reflect before I know exactly how I feel about this one.

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  10. I had intended to skip this film entirely after seeing the trailer, the basic premise was just asking for to much from me. However, given the strength of the praise, I decided to give it a try since the showing was only $4. It's certainly not a top of the decade for me at all, but I am glad I saw it regardless.

    I usually do fine with suspension of disbelief but, as the trailer suggested, this film just asks for something so outrageous to me (that society changed as drastically as fast, and the entire idea of the train) that I couldn't get passed it. I could understand if those devices are really only there to form a framework for the actual story it wants to tell, but they are in some manner actually relevant to the narrative and every time it pulled me out.

    Still glad I saw it though.

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  11. I just saw Snowpiercer at The Music Box (the only theater that’s playing it in Chicago!) and there were about thirty people in there. So there’s some hope for the box office. It's great but The Raid 2 is still my best movie.

    In honor of this review, I’ll resist spoilers, but I have to mention a few things. The “teacher scene” was one of the craziest, heart attack inducing laughing moments I ever had at the movies. The payoff is incredible & jaw dropping (in a good way). The action was very creative & visceral especially with the use of the bulletproof glass, the lights, & the sound design. I've also joined the Chris Evans fan club. This is completely different from his Capt. America performances.

    Unlike other movies with the clichéd 99% vs the EVIL 1% message (cough, Elysium, cough), the 99% weren’t portrayed as perfect little angels while the 1%ers are vicious, a certain member of the 1% gave a speech that, at least to me, made some sense to their motives. As a conservative, I didn’t find myself being hit over the head with a sledgehammer (cough, Elysium, cough).

    One day we’ll have to be able to talk about the ending because it can be perceived in several ways. At first I thought it was a happy ending, but the more I thought about it, it really comes off as a downer.

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    1. I have thought about the ending a lot. It definitely was not a happy ending, but it might be the best possible outcome. The opportunity to start over. It won't be easy. Hopefully there are a few more survivors than just those two to make that happen. It would be crazy to think about how the new society would be structured in the next 20-30 years...do they inadvertently, or purposefully, create another society with classes? As it grows, assuming it does, would it be possible not to?

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  12. Saw "Snowpiercer" over the holiday weekend. I'm with Kadath, Bong Joon-ho asks us to swallow a premise (the train and the passengers, let alone the weather) that makes no got damn sense and is just too hard to turn one's brain off and buy any of it happening even in the most far-fetched of post-apocalyptic movie premises. More than any movie I've seen in recent memory (including "Edge of Tomorrow"), "Snowpiercer" feels like a perfect cinematic recreation of what advancing from level to level in an action videogame feels like, for which the moving-from-one-train-cart-to-the-next premise is a perfect fit. Duel to the death with axes one level (in the dark at one point), cutscene in a school room in another, sniper-fire challenge in another level, sneaking-around silently the next, and so on and so forth. The social injustice class plot also feels like the simplistic-but-pretend-deep type you'd get in a Capcom videogame (or, as JK47 keeps coughing, "Elysium"... dude, get a lozenge! :-P), completely missing the whip-smartness and humanity that made "The Host" such a standout from "Jaws" when both movies were constantly compared. And I'm no gore freak, but "Snowpiercer" feels strangely neutered and tame when it's crazy violent moments should be hitting a peak.

    OK, now that I'm done shitting on this nowhere-near-a-classic flick, let me heap some praise on this cast. Holy shit, every performer in "Snowpiercer" is in his/her own movie, yet the combined effect of everyone fending for themselves is strangely addictive as they keep interacting with every new train compartment we get to see. Ko Ah-sung seems to be in a Quentin Tarantino movie, Octavia Spencer is in a "Law & Order: SVU" episode, Song Kang-ho seems to be in "Oldboy" (the good one), Ed Harris seems to be channeling Tom Noonan pretending to be Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton is auditioning for "White Chicks 2" (and killing it every time she's on-screen), etc. Which is why Chris Evans walks away from "Snowpiercer" with a new fan-for-life from me. His no-nonsense role as Curtis is such a departure from what he's done before while feeling strangely familiar (in a 'is that Matthew Fox?' vibe), and I love the way the story and Bong play with the conventions of what a movie hero/savior are what I'll remember the most about "Snowpiercer."

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  13. I totally understand perceptions are different and some folks may not enjoy something as much as others, but the phrase "this nowhere-near-a-classic flick" seems crazy to me. I never felt as though I was in a video game, if anything, the stakes felt so real to me, it was anything but.

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    1. ...and "crazy" was not meant to be a wave off to your thought... I could have probably used a better word. That phrase ( nowhere-near-a-classic flick) just really got my attention.

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    2. That's our Vargas! *cue kooky theme music*

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    3. ^^^ I'd prefer the sad trombone from "The Price Is Right." It encapsulates my life pretty well. :'(

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    4. Dude - I swear to God that's the exact music I was thinking. Whoa.

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  14. Ok, I need to clarify something that I may already know but then again I may not. So please excuse the stupidity of the question and my red cheeks for asking it, Im already thinking im an idiot (i actually have a weird feeling ive asked this before but I cant for the life of me remember the answer)
    but, what is actually being referred to when something is said to be available Video on Demand?
    Its spoken about as though its a single thing. LIke something is released to VOD so if you have access to VOD then have at it. But then looking into it, Netflix is technically VOD but thats not what is meant when referring to VOD. i think. It doesnt seem to be any of the internet services which say they are VOD (itunes, google play, amazon ect). So is it just an american thing? I mean, the UK says it has hundreds of different VOD services, so if something is said to be on VOD, is it on all of them? my point of reference are the internet ones, like netflix and hulu, but they have individual movie lists available.
    Basically what im asking is if I want to watch VOD movies what should I be looking for?

    like i said, im an idiot.

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    1. Hmm...I'm trying to think of a analogy involving kangaroos that you might be able to understand...

      Not being American it's possible I don't fully understand this myself (if someone can think of an analogy involving beavers, help me out) but I'm pretty sure it's a generic term for the on-demand services provided by different cable companies? Like through my cable box, similarly to Netflix or whatever, I can pay to stream movies ranging from the still not out on DVD (which are usually a bit more expensive) to new releases to oldies (that are usually cheaper). So though I think VOD can include Netflix and iTunes but is maybe more particularly used for cable services. I think.

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    2. Yes, in the U.S. most cable providers offer VOD (it's not the actual company name; that varies, but it is a third-party service). It's really just become a shorthand for "you can watch this at home," usually via that cable service, iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. Titles typically hit all of those platforms at the same time (though not always). Hopefully that helps? Sorry if it's been confusing.

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    3. Oh, so its like a Roo-Muster at the cattle station when the didgeridoos gone all boomerang on ya.

      yep, better. it just sounds like it "a thing" that you can get then watch the movies, and while I have netflix but dont usually see the VOD movies on their I assumed it was something different. which it is. but its not something i can get.

      All good, cheers fellas.

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  15. What was in the protein bars? I couldn't figure that out. Anyone know?

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    1. Spoiler...........................................................................................bugs.

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    2. "Hey Patrick".............................................................."Thanks"

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    3. Don't make fun of Patrick's ellipses - they keep the spoilers off the "Recent Comments" tile in the top right! :)

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    4. I was doing a joke from They Came Together. I wasn't making fun of his ellipses. Damn you internet.

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    5. Oh, I'm definitely not making fun! I just think "hope" should always be added to a conversation carefully. In case the heart is not ready for it. IS your heart ready, Sol?

      Because all kidding aside, I found Snowpiercer's ending hopeful (I may be alone in this.) Not "happy," exactly - but hopeful. And the protein bars are a great example of something I admire most about the movie: the way it constantly shifts our perceptions, forces us to reconsider every assumption we've made in earlier stages of Curtis' journey as we move closer to various truths - including Curtis' own truth. First I viewed the truth about the protein bars as horrifying; what we learn later changed my perception and yes, really did make them seem almost a source of hope. This pattern of shifting perceptions happened over and over for me during the movie, in essence creating an emotional response cycle that mirrors the physical cycle of the train. That's some pretty terrific movie-making, in my opinion!

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    6. Yeah well, the joke's on me anyway - my eyes automatically followed the ellipses to the spoiler in question - I can live with it though!

      Jan - I was able to walk past those Oracle thingies from Neverending Story without getting disintegrated by eye-lasers so I THINK that meant my heart was ready for hope or something, but one can never be too sure - good call on the ellipses.

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    7. I understand "hopeful", but I couldn't help thinking that this girl was now on her own with a six year old kid in a very cold world with no help and no clue how to survive outside the train... plus I don't know that the train derailment would constitute hitting rock bottom, so I was waiting for her to do a 180 and start rocking the kronole :)

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  16. Snowpiercer deserves credit for being the anti-Transformers. I appreciate the smart script and the filmmaker's respect for the audience and characters. Hey, it's an action movie that doesn't feel the need to sexualize a young actress.

    It's a very good film with skilled direction, strong performances, entertaining set pieces, and an interesting story. I am not sure about the "masterpiece" moniker, though. For some reason I was unable to get fully immersed in the experience. We'll see if that changes upon a second viewing.

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    1. I rewatched it on VOD today and thought it holds up rather well :-)

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  17. Crazy, I just thought my theater was a place that played Snowpiercer, but I guess it was some limited release. I went back to the theater yesterday to see Tammy (don't see Tammy) and it was gone. They told me it was only there for the week. Insane, but at least Tammy is going to be around for another month or so...

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    1. Still no showings scheduled in my hometown - getting worried now...

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  18. Wow - what an amazing movie. Last week in a huff over Snowpiercer not getting any kind of theatrical release in my whole damn province and with no sign of it on VOD, I downloaded it, but didn't watch it. Last night I decided to try one more thing and yay - there it was on the Playstation Network's movie rental service, so I was able to watch it AND stick to my moral guns.

    It is hard to describe how much and why I loved this movie (and Chris Evans' performance in particular, though everyone was great) so I'm glad Patrick (and Jan and others in the comments) have done it for me. I haven't stopped thinking about it since I watched it - I woke up throughout the night and my first thought (other than "I have to pee") was of Chris Evans' "confession" - when I woke up this morning it was that final shot of [REDACTED] (a fellow endangered traveller) looking into the camera. I want to watch it again. And again. And again. My one disappointment is that, especially judging from the screencaps, the PSN was presenting an unusually dark transfer - I had to futz with my TV settings to really see things properly and I wasn't overly happy with the look (the fact it wasn't nearly enough to hamper this videophile's enjoyment says a lot!), so the blu-ray can't come out fast enough - or better yet, I'd still love to see it in a theatre if the Movie Gods are kind enough to allow.

    Patrick, you certainly didn't oversell it to me - I don't think you could have - and though I can understand that not everyone had the same experience I did, I sure wish they could have!

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    1. Super glad you got to finally see it! I want to see it again, after Adam Riske's prescribed one month of separation.

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    2. Ha - I was thinking the same thing - the PSN download is good for 48 hours so I was going to watch it again but Riske made me think twice...

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    3. I think multiple viewings within 24-48 hrs is fine. When the movie is still fresh you can notice more details. After a month it's good to revisit the whole story.

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  19. I have thought about this movie a lot recently. I am sure this has been discussed, but why does the back of the train exist? We have our 99% because that is life, but if this entitled group of people created this environment, what did this lower class add? It couldn't be solely to produce children that would keep things running since that wasn't they original intent...

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    1. I guess a better way to ask the question (at least in my head) is why would the 1% create the 99%? Unless the point is that regardless of whatever "whole" you have, you can split it up and rank it... but the narrative states they intentionally created the classes.

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