If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
We meet the two very unlikely sisters while each are having sex. Rose Feller (Toni Collette) is a successful lawyer who is sleeping with her boss and thinking of ways it can improve her career. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz) is a party girl and at her 10-year high school reunion--after trying to have a fling in a bathroom stall--she ends up puking instead. Inevitably Maggie gets kicked out of her dad and stepmother's house and winds up on the doorstep of her sister. The Feller girls were close once when they were young girls especially after their mentally unstable mother died. But now their grown-up personalities clash rather dramatically. And when Maggie seriously crosses the line by seducing Rose's new boyfriend the straw is broken. Forced out Maggie stumbles upon some birthday cards from a long-lost grandmother and decides to go hit her up for cash. Turns out Grandma Ella (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a senior citizen's community in Florida that gets its humor from Golden Girls re-runs. Maggie may ingratiate herself within this new environment but isn't any more redeemed by reconnecting with Ella. She still acts like a petulant child. But rather than throwing her out Ella along with the gang of old folk forces Maggie to take some responsibility.
Collette (The Sixth Sense) is fantastic as the frumpy pudgy Philadelphia lawyer who gives up everything so she can walk dogs and lead a simpler life. But she's done this many times before--and honestly is so much better than Muriel's Wedding. Diaz (my personal favorite Charlie's Angel) doesn't need to stretch too far to play a conniving ditz with a heart. This is her There's Something About Mary role albeit a tad more screwed-up with a sister and lost grandma. So that leaves MacLaine as the saving grace for any worthwhile acting in this movie. Despite the obvious shuffleboard clichés--and the occasional leers at Diaz by the old guys around the pool--when the old folk are around the film gets lively and tolerable believe it or not. MacLaine leads the way with the quips and barbs but in a more subtle way than we are used to from this usually eccentric actress. The supporting cast of cranky cronies have some great moments especially veteran actor Norman Lloyd as the blind professor who teaches Maggie a thing or two about manners trust and family.
If this were Nora Ephron directing that would have been one thing but coming from Curtis Hanson the Oscar-winner who gave us L.A. Confidential it just doesn't mesh. Hanson can do quirky (Wonder Boys) he can do adventure (The River Wild) he can do hard-hittin' rap stories (8 Mile) and he can even do scary (Hand That Rocks the Cradle) but why in the world would he attempt a saccharine-soaked female family story that threatens to be a Crimes of the Heart tear-jerker? Screenwriter Susannah Grant who adapted In Her Shoes from Jennifer Weiner's popular bestseller of the same name also wrote Erin Brockovich and 28 Days. She understands strong female characters but there's still a major layer of sugar coating that Hanson can't scrape off. He doesn't tone anything down from Grant's script--not the overly cute dogs nor the embarrassing bridal shower nor the expected moments of guilt-tripping between the ladies. Instead he plods through the paint-by-number script and wraps it all up nicely into a crowd-pleasing film that is ultimately forgettable.
It seems street-smart magician David Blaine's distinctive brand of urban magic--mind reading, sleight of hand and his now famous levitation--caught the attention of quite a few Hollywood hot shots several years ago, including veteran actor Robert De Niro.
Performing his tricks at trendy clubs and restaurants across both coasts, Blaine soon found himself adored by legions of stars--Madonna, Spike Lee, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Geffen. He captured the heart of singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, though they've since broken up, and more recently he's been attached to Cover Girl model Josie Moran.
Now that's a life of which movies are made, and De Niro took notice.
In 1997 the "goodfella" bought the rights to make a film about Blaine's life, and rumors have circulated that Leonardo DiCaprio--a known associate of Blaine's who also happens to be dating a model, Brazil's finest Gisele Bündchen--would star.
Big names, cool project, magic, guys who date models and rock stars--it has all the makings of a potential Hollywood blockbuster. So Hollywood.com decided to investigate the movie, and the people attached to it, in this first installment of our newest column, Hot Projects.
In with the in crowd
It all started in 1997, when ABC gave Blaine, then 24, his first television special, David Blaine: Street Magic. Here's the connection. DiCaprio hosted it. Blaine became an overnight success (the network later went on to produce three other specials, David Blaine: Magic Man, David Blaine: Buried Alive and David Blaine: Frozen in Time), and the Titanic star and the good looking trickster with grunge appeal became buds.
Before he knew it, Blaine was running around town partying with DiCaprio's posse, which included Tobey Maguire, Lukas Haan and skateboarder Tony Hawk. The posse was known for tearing up the New York club scene and obsessing over--you guessed it--models.
But DiCaprio and Blaine reportedly had a falling out. Some sources blamed it on DiCaprio's bratty behavior and jealousy over the attention Blaine was receiving; others rumored it was over a woman. She was probably a model.
Whatever the reason, suffice it to say DiCaprio will not be starring in the film.
"It is not confirmed," DiCaprio's publicist Ken Sunshine said about the role. "It's a lie."
So that's settled. No word yet on who will play Leo.
The De Niro connection
In addition to owning the rights to the story, it's been said that De Niro will star in the film as a magician who takes Blaine under his wing. While MGM Pictures confirmed that Trick Monkey is on their development list, publicists for De Niro's production company, Tribeca Productions, which develops projects in which De Niro serves as producer, director and/or actor, said they had no information available on the film.
Jim Uhls, whose last project was Fight Club starring Brad Pitt, has already written the screenplay.
No one's talking about who will play Blaine's various love interests.
We can tell De Niro's future
Well, we know this much anyway. We'll see several other De Niro projects before this one ever comes to fruition. In Showtime, about cops who go on a reality TV show to boost the department's image, De Niro stars with Eddie Murphy and Rene Russo. That just wrapped last month. Also wrapped are About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, Rachel Weisz, Toni Collette and De Niro, and City by the Sea starring De Niro, Frances McDormand and James Franco.
Along with Billy Crystal, De Niro is also currently in talks to reprise his role as Paul Vitti in a sequel to Analyze This, Analyze This Too.
In 2001 Blaine will bring his magic show to Broadway, and Villard Books publish will his first book, Mysterious Stranger this fall.