I get elated whenever I see true science-fiction films being made. It’s tough to the find them, when Hollywood puts out a lot of “science-fiction” films, which mostly are just action or thrillers that involve robots or aliens. True science-fiction uses technological advancements to reflect on the human condition — often sounding the alarm for a particular problem that humankind could plausibly fall into. Snowpiercer (2013) does just that. It sounds the alarm for global warming and the fallout that could befall when trying to fix the symptoms and not the causes. In the film, many countries of the world come together to release a chemical into the atmosphere that will lower temperatures to a more manageable range — except that the chemicals work so well or too much of the chemical was used and the world is plunged into an extreme Ice Age. All humanity is lost — except for the men and women who boarded Snowpiercer, a revolutionary train that is self-contained, whose shell protects against both intense heat and extreme coldness, with trains devoted to sustaining plant life, marine life, and cultural life: especially the nuances of class politics.

Its aboard the train where the social reflection occurs in this science-fiction film. How would a confined ecosystem of human beings aboard a train that cycles the earth over and over again act? My naive hopefulness thinks that if one train contains the last remnants of humankind, there would be friendship and companionship and a kinship, a shared experience of surviving aboard an everlasting train. But no, no, no. I’m much to naive to for human nature. Director Joon-ho Bong, delves into social politics to show a gripping and bleak social construct about Snowpiercer. It seems that even until the end of humanity, class will be ever present. Aboard the train, the wealthy relax and enjoy the front cars of the train, and the scum and unfortunates slum and scrounge in the back of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is one of the poor desolates in the back of the train. He’s taking the time to plan a rebellion, to get his people food and showers and clothes. What’s the point of surviving the end of days when you’re filthy and starving? His trek through the film — and through the train — is a efficient yet poignant way for director Bong to unveil what exactly is on the train. Just as Curtis and his gang finds out as they trudge from car to car, so does the audience, giving us a shared experience with the characters on the screen.

Chris Evans gives a sensitive performance, a refreshing change of pace from his usual super hero or action roles. He particularly shines in a scene in the third act where he describes life at the back of the train when first boarded. He delivers a raw and guilty monologue that’s quite stirring. Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the right-hand spokesperson to Wilford (Ed Harris) who maintains the idolized engine. She creates a hodgepodge of monstrous historical figures with her character, a dogmatic and obstinate woman who sits unflinchingly as a rebellious man’s frozen arm is smashed to pieces in front of his peers. She establishes a look of a frumpy middle-aged woman, almost like an evil school teacher — which, in my mind, linked to another monstrous figure: Dolores Umbridge. Octavia Spencer plays vengeful mother Tanya, whose child was mysteriously taken away from the back of the train. She becomes a voice for the poor and suffering of the back of the train, and she joins Curtis in his mission. An interesting observation to make aware is that the people of the back of the train are very diverse ethnically, while the majority of the people seen in the better compartments of the train are white. Spencer described the people in the back of the train as: “We are all covered in smoke and dirt from years and years of not washing and particles in the air, and we are all the same color if you look at it.” That brings the people together in a common cause, which I feel is pretty effective in the film.

The first two acts play out to leave you with a certain expectation for the third act, which then takes a step in a different direction. It’s quite similar to what happens in the third act of Cabin in the Woods, where expectations are defied and an actual plan and system is revealed that explains what was originally considered chaos. Curtis has a choice to make, to either continue life as usual or to take the helm of the very thing he wanted to destroy. What struck me most about this film is Curtis’ decision. What’s the use of sustaining human life if it comes at this cost?

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 came out when I got my tonsils removed. My mom was in town, and I thought it’d be a great idea to rewatch the first and then see the sequel (I’m all about chronology). Unfortunately, we couldn’t find it at any Redbox kiosks, so I decided to introduce her to the Hunger Games series. Somehow, over time, How to Train Your Dragon 2 lost a substantial amount of excitement for me, and before I knew it, it was awards season and I never saw it. I entirely counted it out of the running, and — BAM! It won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Film. Then, it received an Academy Award nomination while The Lego Movie got entirely left out. Either it was really good or something was going on. Tonight I walked by a Redbox kiosk, and I thought: well, let’s find out!

As you may well understand, sequels — especially animated sequels — attract a lot of skepticism. For the most part, they never build on anything meaningful; they primarily just give the same characters a round two on what happened in the first film. Well, not so with How to Train Your Dragon 2. Turns out that director Dean DeBlois took on the sequel only if he could do it his way, which involved making a second installment in an trilogy. He didn’t want to make a film that regurgitated the same kind of conflicts and resolutions that the first film did. He wanted to make something larger than that, a trajectory that emulates trilogies like Star Wars. For that, this film is a pleasant surprise — and a success. We find lovable Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) 5 years older (and 5 years stud-lier), past his self-conscious issues. He’s a grown man, respected by his father and his tribe, loved by the lovely Astrid (America Ferrera), and companion to the equally adorable Toothless. The village is completely changed, fully accepting of dragons and living harmoniously together. While life seems to be pretty great for him, he’s not dealing with some heavy thoughts: his father wants make him the chief of the village. With that comes thoughts of legacy, competency — and whether he actually wants to do it. These are issues that are more mature than there were in the first film, establishing a more adult tone to the film.

It’s this tone that separates this film from what it is from what it could have been: which was hallow and foolish. From the get-go, Hiccup is older, exploring the world around him — which expands the cinematic world for the audience. It’s not just fun and games at home, there’s a whole world out there. As the movie continues, while many delightful qualities present themselves — like the myriad of darling and unique dragons, the quirky characters, and the gorgeous settings — a darker tone takes hold. Like most second installments of trilogies, things get serious. Hiccup is trying to feel out the duties of his impending role as chief, he tries to grasp diplomacy versus aggression, counsel versus intuition. Personally, he is reunited with his presumed dead mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) — who creates this Nordic empress of a character, as a dragon shepherdess with an engaging and crafted accent. He gains and loses family members, and has to save his village and scores of dragons from a twisted dragon-hater. Everything is stepped up many degrees in the sequel, and it works quite well.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is thoughtful. It’s aware of its potential shortcomings, and it makes the effort to soar above. Everything is presented on a higher level, from the cute stuff to the serious stuff. Dragons get smaller and bigger, hotter and colder. The world is expanded, potentially even bigger in the third installment. It’s not that everything is bigger and better, but that the scope of this series is focused and concentrated — which is much more meaningful. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, there are dragons in this for goodness sake!

Two Days, One Night

Imagine having to go through an emotional breakdown, forcing you to take time off work in order to recover yourself. The strength it takes to prepare yourself to see your colleagues again is staggering. The focus it takes to ignore all the judgement that inevitably will occur is astounding. Now imagine that while you’ve been away, your company realizes that with a few extra hours of work a week, your coworkers can adequately cover your shifts. They give your coworkers the choice to either take a hefty bonus or allow you to continue working. That’s the situation that Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has found herself in the brilliant and subtle Two Days, One Night (2014) directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

The Dardenne brothers offer a hard-hitting look into the financial realities of a small-town small business. Objectively, a company would rather pay 16 employees instead of 17 if they can do the same amount of work. But had Sandra not had her accident, she would still be working at the factory. And while a bonus is certainly attractive, could you really take it if it meant someone else losing a job? The film takes all of these sides and questions, making for an intimate thriller for Sandra. She has to pull herself up by her bootstraps just to function normally after her breakdown, but now she’s forced to push herself even harder to fight for her job — which, if lost, will disintegrate her middle-class lifestyle and impact her already shaky foundation.

Cotillard, known for portrayals of strong, alluring women, challenges herself to explore her meek side. Sandra is ever anxious, slumped in her shoulders and lacking audacity. She has to meet with her coworkers and make the case for her job, but she struggles with the fine line between fighting for her job and begging for her job. The film is not just Sandra’s fight for her job, it’s a fight for her life. She is battling depression and acknowledges the weakened state of her relationship with her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) — giving up would be so easy, which she nearly does. Filmed chronologically, Cotillard lives out the entire journey from beginning to end. Throughout the ninety-minute film, you watch her struggle to find her strength, which she ultimately does in an act of self-sacrifice. Two Days, One Night is a hodgepodge of moral issues, the validity depending on which side of the ballot you support. Each coworker that she meets with has a story, has a need for the 1000-euro bonus — some more legitimate than others. Her journey is more of a walkabout, providing the moral fiber to this tale, as she learns about these people that she works with — and from the information she gains, she finds strength and peace in herself.

Two Days, One Night presents an uncomfortable yet plausible situation, made urgent by Marion Cotillard’s nuanced and masterful performance. From beginning to end, you accompany her through her transformation, introspectively urging her to fight for herself, and enjoying those few happy moments with her rapturing smile. There is a stillness that consumes you when the film finishes, when you realize that happiness does not necessarily come from the goal you originally established. Sandra’s is a story about embracing happiness through the fight, not the victory.

Still Alice

The 87th Academy Awards may well have a Best Actor winner and Best Actress winner both portraying persons with debilitating and arduous illnesses. Still Alice (2014) tells the story of brilliant Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia, happily married to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) with three grown children. Being a master of words, when she starts forgetting words, she suspects something is awry — and she unfortunately is right. She’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But wait, it gets worse: she has a very rare familial form of Alzheimer’s, which means any of her children who have the gene *will* get it. Oof. Chances are that if you’re about to see Still Alice, you more or less know what this film is about, so the experience comes from watching a bright, resourceful woman transform into a shell of a human being, in the span of 101 minutes. Again, oof.

Much like Eddie Redmayne’s role in The Theory of EverythingJulianne Moore scenes were not filmed chronologically, which means she had to switch from one stage of Alzheimer’s to another in the same day. Her knowledge of this woman’s deterioration was so heightened that she was able to find the right stage for each scene, creating what is a heartbreakingly seamless film. Alzheimer’s disease is the cruelest of all diseases, and that despair is featured by Moore’s incredible performance. In many, many instances, a book is usually the better form for a story, but I imagine that one can only go so far in his imagination of a disease like this. It’s profound to the utmost degree to actually see a woman diminish before your very eyes. You see the spark fizzle from her eyes. You see the personality evaporate. You see her presence vanish, as she becomes a ghostly shell of a human being. Only Julianne Moore can achieve such a nuanced and bleak transformation. She is committed 100% and is unyielding — much like the disease she is emulating. Whether it’s from solo scenes where she is speaking to one person or interacting with her family, you literally see Alice disappear into nothing, which is devastating.

The film is well made, using camera dissolves and fades to illustrate Alice’s episodes. While that is something that can be described thoroughly in a book, this way the audience can see her episodes on screen. The music also aides in that respect. The soundtrack is mostly sweeping and melancholic, but when Alice has an episode, the music becomes dissonant and anxious, aurally personifying the panic that Alice is feeling. It’s very affective and even uncomfortable.

Moore is supported prominently by Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is a struggling actor in LA with a history of butting heads with her mother, but she becomes the person who most connects and helps with Alice’s condition. Stewart delivers some of the classic detached twenty-something persona expected from her, but there’s a layer of depth underneath her eyes when she interacts with Moore. While you can see the frustration that Lydia feels sometimes toward her mother, there’s a deeper, thick layer of love that grounds both of them.

I recommend seeing Still Alice only on your best of days, because you may be somewhat functional afterwards. Don’t see it if you’re already sad. Still Alice is a tragic tale whose ending you already know. The experience comes from watching her demise into oblivion and thanking God that your parents are healthy.