All aboard for 'Snowpiercer,' and series spotlights classic WWII films

The really great action movies are all about urgency — that life-and-death situation where the stakes couldn’t be any higher and the main character doesn’t have any other choice but to forge ahead. The new multinational co-production “Snowpiercer” has urgency in spades, but it also accomplishes something that’s even more rare.

It feels fresh.

Ostensibly, “Snowpiercer,” now playing at Liberty Hall, is a science-fiction tale that takes place in 2031, after a failed attempt at stopping the global warming crisis leaves the Earth in a permanent state of well-below-freezing temperatures. The only survivors of the planetwide disaster stay alive by remaining in constant motion on a train that circles the globe once each year.

Although it sounds like a post-apocalyptic Noah’s Ark tale crossed with “Speed,” “Snowpiercer” (loosely adapted from a French graphic novel) manages to feel exciting while being about something. Partially, this is because South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) is so skilled at defying expectations.

We’ve seen films about runaway trains before, and it’s a great suspense-building device, but Bong isn’t as concerned about things like logic and plot as he is energy and surprise. “Snowpiercer” alternates between sudden violence, high camp and heavy-handed political allegory with breakneck speed, and even when its disjointed plot mechanics seem a little too convenient, it’s brimming with new cinematic technique.

Herky-jerky action scenes have become the norm in Hollywood, thanks to the adoption of handheld cameras and their natural tendency of mirroring real-life stressful experiences. Let’s call Bong’s style “focused herky-jerky” then, because it zooms in on strategic interactions, maintains the urgency, while also highlighting the cause-and-effect of bodies in motion.

The other reason it feels fresh is because its sense of outrage is matched by the era. The haves vs. have-nots storyline is in the water these days. It taps into real outrage.

Even with broad comic portrayals like Tilda Swinton’s uppercrust school marm parody, “Snowpiercer” stays firmly in the realm of a class-warfare psychodrama.

It’s Chris Evans who grounds the film, as he leads a team of disgruntled "nobodies" on a car-by-car takeover of the train while discovering the massive disparity in wealth and living conditions.

Even in a nothing-to-lose premise like this, however, it often feels like Hollywood movies are just delivering what’s expected. Bong is so off-kilter in his presentation that anything seems possible, and this well-worn genre feels like the first time.

Downtown Classic Film Series Continues

Three of the most famous and awarded American films of all time and one little-seen curiosity from a legendary classic film director will be shown during the two-day World War II Film Festival on July 12 and 13 at the Lawrence Arts Center.

Presented and curated once again by Footprints shoe store, this new installment of the Downtown Classic Film Series gives modern audiences an opportunity to experience classic films on the big screen the way people did when they were released.

Saturday starts at 3 p.m. with Bob Fosse’s stylish 1972 WWII musical “Cabaret,” starring Liza Minnelli as a singer in Berlin who puts on blinders and Oscar winner Joel Grey, who plays an emcee with shifting loyalties.

At 7 p.m., it’s time to return to “Casablanca,” the doomed love story of all doomed love stories. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman utter some of the medium’s most memorable lines, and Michael Curtiz directs it all with a no-nonsense approach that allows the subtext to shine through beautifully.

“Five Graves to Cairo” isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as acknowledged Billy Wilder masterpieces like “The Apartment,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Double Indemnity” or “Sunset Boulevard,” which makes me very curious actually.

This 1943 film, which will be shown at 3 p.m. Sunday, stars Franchot Tone as a British officer stuck behind enemy lines and silent film maverick Erich von Stroheim as head Nazi baddie Rommel.

Sunday night at 7 p.m. is 1946 best picture winner “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which was hugely popular in its time and remains a well-told, multi-layered story about damaged veterans coming home and struggling to fit in.

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