Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Unstoppable is a rip snorting, hit-the-ground-running, peddle-to-the-metal kind of endeavour. It’s one hell of a thriller and maybe even the entertainment of the year. On paper it doesn’t sound like much but if what you’re looking for is speeding trains crashing through things as frantic people try to stop them before they strike complete disaster (and why shouldn’t you?), this one’s got just about all your bases covered. You really couldn’t ask for better.

Frank (Denzel Washington) is the old railway man who’s just been served his walking papers. As irony would have it, they come to him the same day that he is partnered up with some new kid Will (Chris Pine) who got the job, not because of his proven skill but because he is young, willing to take the pay and is related to the man who signs the cheques.

Will will be the conductor as the duo make their transport across Pennsylvania; those idyllic PA Mountains providing much of the film’s naturalistic backdrop. Meanwhile, at another yard, a train is sent off on it’s own after two morons, lazily break code in order to make their lives a little easier as one decides to jump out of his moving train to hit a railroad switch and sees the train drive off without him. Everything should be fine in theory, for the automatic brake should kick in, but of course, genius didn’t set the brake properly and the empty train barrels down the tracks at high speeds towards Stanton, and possibly the biggest disaster in PA history.

The advice of the station master (Rosario Dawson, providing so much presence from so little character) is to derail the train which, to add insult to injury, just so happens to be carrying highly toxic and explosive chemicals. There is a large patch of open country before the train hits endless civilization in which to derail the beast but the brass don’t quite take to the idea of wrecking millions of dollars of equipment. Their plan instead is to have a senior railroad man come up from the front and slam on the breaks while a marine is brought in by helicopter to drop down, climb inside and hit the breaks. It doesn’t work out much like that.

So the train barrels on towards catastrophe, destroying everything that is intentionally and unintentionally put in it’s path until Frank, with nothing to lose, decides that he and Will will chase the runaway backwards, catch it, hook it on to their breaks and save the day.

All of this is done with shameless glee by director Tony Scott, who, as with his past indulgences into excess, throws every trick in the book into the mix and then throws in the whole book as well. His camera spins and twirls and goes under the train and over the train and flies around the train with what seem like 100s of cuts per second. And yet unlike films like Man on Fire or Domino, here Scott feels like he has found a home for his aesthetic eccentricities. As the train barrels forward and his heroes barrel backwards after it, Scott manages to create real, clutching the hand-rails kind of white knuckle suspense. There is real danger here. Lives could be lost with one false move. Scott, by keeping thing hectic, never lets up on bringing that unnerving reality home.

Maybe that's because Will and Frank look like real heroes who are chasing a real train that is really out of control. If there are computer assisted effects at work here they are none that can be easily spotted by the naked eye. Thus all of the action feels plausible and for an hour and a half Tony Scott lets us know exactly what it might feel like to be in the midst of sudden death at top speeds. It’s an exhilarating ride. The film doesn’t pack the procedural punch of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 or The Bourne Ultimatum but he still manages to laugh in the face of big, dumb, artificial action movies and gives these kids a taste of how it’s really done.

Unstoppable doesn’t reinvent any wheels, doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before even, but it does it so well that it hardly even seems to matter proving that, sometimes it’s not about breaking the trails, but knowing the old ones better than anyone else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Minutes Review: The Promise: The Making of the Darkness on the Edge of Town

I believe in the power of not knowing. Knowledge may be power but ignorance is also bliss and you know how it goes. It always comes back to Fellini's 8 1/2 for me and those first 10 minutes (maybe the greatest ever put on film) as Guido leaves Earth and flies towards the heavens, the only thing connecting him to reality being the rope around his foot, held by his producer on the beach. I could look up how Fellini did it with a quick Google search but the less I know about it, the more special it is. It's kind of like a magic trick, which is amazing on the principle that something outside of human possibility has happened. Once the trick is explained and the reality is revealed, the magic is gone.

Maybe that's, on an intellectual level, one of The Promise's biggest flaws. The Darkness on the Edge of Town was one of Bruce Springstreen's greatest albums, which, by turns, means it was one of Rock's greatest albums. It's making is the stuff of legend: Springsteen rises to superstar status off the back of his breakthrough album Born to Run, struggles with the concept of being something (an icon) that he doesn't want to be, is embroiled in a legal battle with his manager that keeps him out of the studio for 3 years as fans anxiously wait to see what this boy wonder will cook up next, and so on.

The Promise however, composed of old black and white studio footage as well as current interviews from The Boss himself and his E Street Band members, only proves to make everything about that seminal album (so lean and stripped down compared to its predecessor) seem terribly normal: a bunch of guys in the studio jamming, recording, writing. How could a period of such mundane routine produce such a profound work? Maybe it's a question the film should have left well enough alone.

What's most interesting is Springsteen himself, who, unlike his image as being the working man's rock star, is quite and awkward and introspective; sometimes to the point of being pretentious. He rarely every looks towards the camera, preferring to divert his gaze to the floor more often than not, and is quite, self-reflective and serious. Even on the moments when he cracks a smile or emits a laugh it seems to be one of insecurity and doubt as if he's still the awkward kid who never quite got around to realizing he's one of America's most valuable songwriters.

The film itself, aesthetically speaking, is no more than a feature length bonus feature that record labels used to throw in on special edition albums when record sales were in a freefall. You can't fault the film entirely: someone as mythic and legendary as Springsteen could never be done justice, but you get to wishing that if it was only going to go halfway that it wouldn't have gone at all.

PS - Could Darkness producer John Landau actually just be Steven Soderberg in disguise? You decide.

Monday, November 8, 2010

One Minutes Review: Legion

What's remarkable is not how bad Legion is but how bad the reviews of  it were, in so much as that critics approached it like it was a serious film, up for some sort of serious consideration, to be judged with serious critical tools. Critics said it was too talky; it lost it in the third; it was silly; it didn't have enough action. Really? This about a film in which, I kid you not, angels from Heaven possess the bodies of humans and turn them into profanity spurting creates? It has a spider-like ice cream man for God sake. Have movies become so polished and lifeless that critics can't spot a true howler when they see one anymore?

In fact, Legion is the best kind of bad. Sure, it's garbage, but so is Troll 2 and I'd never warn anyone away from that title. Yes, Legion exists in that special realm of serious films that approach stupid with a straight face and don't even seem to know it. It's the kind of film that doesn't have a brain in it's head but still thinks it's good anyway. Under some sort of strange reverse logic, this may actually make the movie, I don't know, kind of good? It's certainly more interesting that those big, bland, polished, empty-headed turds. Did I mention the ice-cream man?

Why the human race is being infected by angels, which essentially make them into vampire zombies, is never quite explained. Neither is why everyone in the world seems to become possessed except the handful of characters who stay stranded in some diner in the middle of nowhere. Among them is Tyrese Gibson who approaches his zingers with the ferocity of stand-up comedy. How about this nugget after a strange old woman swears up and down, bites a man in the neck and crawls up a wall and across the ceiling: Dennis Quaid can't believe that the woman wasn't killed by the frying pan he knocked her over the head with. Tyrese: "I don't give a f**k how long she been dead - the bitch just walked on the ceiling. She ain't staying in here." What about this one: when asked about the swarm of flies that mysteriously appears, "How am I supposed to know? You're asking me to explain the behavior of a muthaf**kin' pestilence?" Let's not even talk about the man hung upside down from a cross who explodes into a ball of toxic slime. What happened to his guts? Nevermind.

So yes, the movie is stupid, but it's that special kind of stupid that makes you grab your forehead in disbelief that such amateurism could exist in such sophisticated times. Oh yes, and Paul Bettany is an angel who comes to Earth to protect a child who could, for reasons known to no one but him, end the world, two guns at a time. Bettany will also star in director Scott Charles Stewart's next movie Priest as well. It's about a priest who disobeys the church in order to track down the vampires who kidnapped his niece. So there you go.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


To believe in the afterlife is not necessarily to believe in God. It is, instead, to believe in something. That is, after all, the reason we believe in anything isn’t it: in hope that, no matter how things are now, there’s always something better just up ahead and around the corner? Some feel that death is what makes life important. If you think about it, depending on where you stand, it’s also what makes life insignificant. We live and then we die. It’s not glamorous. Maybe that’s why we need to believe in something after death: if this is it, most of us would probably demand a refund. That’s one of life’s little contradictions: the reality of death makes us live a little better while it also means that everything we do here is essentially meaningless. Sure, some could leave a timeless legacy behind but, all the same, at the end of the tunnel there’s only one choice and it’s the same for everyone. Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s newest directorial effort, isn’t much more profound than that, which is, so to speak, about as profound as it needs to be.

The film follows three people whose lives are all affected in some way by death. The first is TV newswoman Marie (Cecile de France) who, while vacationing is caught in a tsunami. By the time she washes up on dry land she is assumed dead but jolts back to life after experiencing a blurry vision of shadowed figures shrouded in bright light. The experience leaves her distracted and having visions of a possible afterlife. Her producer/lover tells her to take a break from work and write the book she’s always wanted to. However, so changed is she that her writing and research begins jeering toward exploring the possibilities of an afterlife.

The second is Marcus (played by twin brothers George and Frankie McLaren) who is taken away from his drug addled mother after the accidental death of his twin brother Jason. Put in foster care and seeking some kind of understanding on why his brother, the leader of the two, needed to die, Marcus travels from psychic to psychic, only to be handed cheap entertainment value and no real answers.

The final is George (Matt Damon), a man who, as a child, had a crippling disease which required surgery that left him dead for several moments on the operating table. After his recovery he was plagued by visions of the dead. He was diagnosed as partially schizophrenic and put on pills, which made the visions go away along with just about everything else as well. His brother Billy (Jay Mohr) makes him into a famous psychic until George cannot take it any more, gets a job as a labourer and starts taking cooking classes. Despite Billy’s belief that George should use his gift to help people, a life focused entirely on death is not a life at all to George who believes himself to be cursed by this burden that restricts him from forming any normal, meaningful relationships in his life.

It is then only natural that these three stories will all converge in one way or another. But this isn’t a film driven by plot gimmicks or convenient red herrings. Instead Eastwood and his writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) play it straight, weaving a subtle tapestry that looks at death honestly and thoughtfully. This isn’t a film about spirits or hauntings, it’s a subtle human drama about how death shapes our perceptions of life as Eastwood gently builds up questions about whether or not the afterlife even exists. Is everything a product of chance or fate? Does the ability to communicate with the dead provide proof of Heaven or God or is such an ability just a condition of the mind to begin with?

What is most remarkable about Hereafter is then the subtly and yet depth with which Eastwood approaches his material: never resorting to pseudo-philosophy or providing answers to eternally unanswerable questions.

Many people will be turned off by this. The human mind has a natural reflex to instantly fill in the blanks and find artistic meaning in everything. “But what’s the movie about,” many will shout. It’s about one scene. I’ll describe it for you. Despite the fact that, because the movie has no twist or deep mystery to discover, this description hardly constitutes giving away anything important, I’ll still throw out a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the film.

The scene takes place between George and Marcus. George has reluctantly agreed to give the kid a reading in order to contact his brother. George acts as the medium but after a while loses the signal. “Where did he go?” The kid demands. “I don’t know,” replies George.

It’s one of those brilliant Clint Eastwood scenes, so subtle that they could be mistaken for nothing and yet are still the heart of the film, concealing such dramatic revelation, in which the faces of two characters, both half obscured by darkness, are intercut. They are physically divided and yet symbolically singled, sharing, for one moment, a common metaphysical bond.

And that’s it, the truth of all three characters: “I don’t know.” That is, after all, to paraphrase Socrates, all we every really know about anything anyway.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Celebrity Connection: Chris Sarandon

These days Chris Saradon looks like this (like he could be an extra on a Pirates of the Caribbean flick). But once upon a time his locks flowed, his eyes gazed and his power of seduction was strong. He's best known as Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride or the talking voice of Jack Skellington in A Nightmare Before Christmas, but back in the 80s, in horror movies like Fright Night and Child's Play he looked like, well:

Could Chris Saradon just be Eric Roberts in disguse? You Decide.