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.
If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.
"In this alarming cinematic event alone you will encounter a terrible fire dim lighting high tragedy a giant snake low comedy man-eating leeches and Jim Carrey " Mr. Snicket claims--and he isn't joking. It is indeed unfortunate times for the Baudelaire children who are left orphaned by a tragic fire that burned down their luxurious mansion and killed their parents. Violet (Emily Browning) one of the finest 14-year-old inventors the world has ever known her 12-year-old brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) a voracious reader and their baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) an excellent biter are now at the mercy of unknown guardians with vague connections to their parents. They include Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) a widow terrified of almost everything but who insists on proper grammar; Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) a kind and warm herpetologist who holds a well-kept secret on the Baudelaire parents' past; and the most malevolent of them all Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) a wannabe actor who sets about a series of ill-fated events for the Baudelaire orphans in hopes of obtaining their vast inheritance. It's almost too much to bear--but these orphans rely on their keen intelligence and unique talents to escape Olaf's clutches.
The distressingly talented if somewhat over-the-top Jim Carrey is tailored made for the ostentatious Count Olaf much like he was for the Grinch in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas--but this time he does it with a lot less green makeup. With a smelly disposition and one giant eyebrow Carrey sufficiently oozes the right amount of villainy as Olaf without getting too "Carreyed" away. Streep also has a marvelous time playing the skittish Aunt Josephine who is so concerned about any fateful event that may befall her inside her house she doesn't seem to realize she lives in a precarious perch above a roiling sea full of killer leeches. Connolly too takes great pleasure wrapping snakes around his neck as Uncle Monty the good-hearted reptile lover. Even Jude Law makes an appearance thankfully only in silhouette as the narrator himself Lemony Snicket. Yet even against veterans such as Carrey and Streep the stoic Baudelaire orphans make the film. They're played brilliantly by Browning (Darkness Falls) Aiken (Good Boy!) and the cute-as-a-button Hoffman twins. Unlike the inexperience of say the young Harry Potter cast when they first started out Browning and Aiken are pros bringing a rather bright and inquisitive yet suitably morose quality to their characters.
"I begged them not to do it. I begged them not to get a good director. I begged them not to cast anyone talented. I begged them not base the movie on any of my books and they chose three of them!" exclaims Mr. Snicket. Good thing the filmmakers didn't listen to Mr. Snicket aka author Daniel Handler because the story of the Baudelaire orphans and their misadventures is too sweet to pass up. It follows along the traditions of other children's literature--from the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling--of absurdly awful things happening to perfectly nice children. Taking from the first three books in the series--A Bad Beginning The Reptile Room and The Wide Window--director Brad Silberling (Casper) expertly creates the Snicket world staying true to the visions and unusual style of Handler's bestsellers. Shot entirely on Hollywood sound stages the film is virtual eye candy dripping with austere sets--particularly Count Olaf's dilapidated mansion and Aunt Josephine's rickety house--that are reminiscent of Barry Sonnenfeld's creepy Addams Family and Tim Burton's bleak Sleepy Hollow (whose production designer Rick Heinrichs designed Snicket). Can't wait to see what they do in the next Snicket installment.
Let's just get through Gigli's plot so we can move on to the fun stuff. A lowly hit man Larry Gigli (Ben Affleck) is hired to kidnap the mentally handicapped little brother (Justin Bartha) of a federal prosecutor for Mob purposes. A second hitperson the comely independent-minded Ricki (Jennifer Lopez) is also put on the case because Gigli can't be trusted to do the job correctly. Holed up in Gigli's apartment the duo clashes at first but gradually form a bond even though Gigli is a chauvinistic jughead and Ricki a tough-nut lesbian. Of course they also form an attachment to their quarry Brian who in his untainted innocence manages to change these two hardened individuals. Now that's over with here's just a sampling of some of the deep and meaningful dialogue that passes between these two lovebirds: Says Gigli: "I am the bull and you are the cow…f**k with the bull you get the horn." Gigli to Ricki: "I'm the Sultan of Slick…the original gangster's gangster." Ricki to Gigli: "You know this might be a good time to suggest you not allow the seeds of cruel hope to sprout in your soul." Then later more from Ricki: "The penis is a sea slug or more like a really long toe. But kissing the mouth…The mouth--the lips the warm moist hole--is a twin sister to the…" Well you get the picture. Even Brian gets in a good one when he chirps spastically "It's not my fault I'm brain damaged!" Can it get any better than this?
Ben Jen what were you thinking? On second thought don't answer that--we'd probably rather not know. This is one time when watching two huge celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck fall in love is more cringe-worthy than romantic in any way. Imagine if you will Lopez as Ricki who having succumbed to Gigli's er charm sprawls herself seductively on the bed in a little kimono robe and tells him "It's turkey time. Gobble gobble"--with a straight face. Or how about this one: "You know I'm not into the whole man thing…but somehow you got through." (Insert audible collective audience groan here). Affleck who stands around looking like he's been hit in the face with a frying pan most of the time--of course without ever mussing his hair--comes off looking even worse if that's possible. His accent fluctuates between that of a Brooklyn thug and Southern California surfer dude. As far as how some of the high-profile cameos in the film got there--including Christopher Walken as a quirky cop and Al Pacino as a mobster who gets to vent in his usual boisterous way--obviously some favors must have been called in. Pacino did win his only Oscar for his performance in Scent of a Woman helmed by Gigli's director Martin Brest. Maybe they all deserve more credit for enduring such utterly banal garbage.
Writer/director Brest has had a spotty career at best. Of a handful of movies he's had a hit here and there (Beverly Hills Cop) and a few failures (Meet Joe Black). But with Gigli the filmmaker reaches the bottom rung. He took big names thrown them in a big-budget crime drama that really wants to be a small talky indie and the end result is more like a really bad play in which all the characters give their own over-the-top soliloquies waxing prophetic about every subject under the sun--differences between males and females being gay vs. straight anger management retardation slopping pie on one's head (believe it). Granted on some level Brest is trying to think out of the box within a formulaic setting and in all honesty Gigli's premise isn't all that dreadful--just hacky. There may have been a somewhat decent movie hidden somewhere in Gigli--enough of movie at least to attract Lopez and Affleck (whose romance began on the shoot). Instead it's a discombobulated jumbled mess of incoherent musings and horrible dialogue that moviegoers just shouldn't be subjected to. We wonder if at this very moment J. Lo isn't saying to her future hubby "Let's not do this again"--but wait they are in Kevin Smith's Jersey Girls. We don't want to know what he's saying.