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.
More than 10 000 people are smuggled into the United States for sexual exploitation per the nonprofit organization Free the Slaves. Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article Trade focuses on the attempts of traffickers to smuggle a group of women and children across the U.S.-Mexican border. Director Marco Kreuzpaintner wastes no time introducing us to the two victims he intends to follow from their kidnapping in Mexico to their auctioning off in the United States. Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) is snatched from the street as she rides the bicycle she just received from her brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos) for her 13th birthday. Single mother Veronica (Alicja Bachleda) arrives in Mexico City from Poland believing she’s there to meet with the people she’s paid to arrange her with safe and legal passage to the United States. Only she’s been duped by the traffickers. Adriana Veronica and a handful of other abductees then begin their terrifying journey to the United States under the watchful eye of trafficker Manuelo (Marco Perez). On their trail is Jorge who feels responsible for Adriana’s kidnapping. He risks life and limb to follow the abductees across the border. Once on U.S. soil Jorge crosses paths with Ray (Kevin Kline) a Texas cop who’s trying to break up the trafficking ring for personal reasons. Ray reluctantly pairs up with Jorge to track down Adriana before she and Veronica are sold off to the highest bidder via the Internet. More gentleman than action hero Kevin Kline’s not the obvious choice to portray a police officer hailing from the Lone Star State. Ray’s the kind of law-enforcement bloodhound Tommy Lee Jones can play in his sleep. Heck Kline only halfheartedly attempts a Texas drawl and even then he drops it minutes after his late entrance. This could be overlooked if Kline lent Ray some intensity. For someone on a crusade Kline strolls through Trade without a care in the world. As Trade reaches its inevitable showdown between the traffickers and their pursuers Ray’s faced with a life-or-death choice that would compromise all he stands for. Kline though looks about as conflicted as someone trying to decide what he wants for lunch. Luckily Kline’s presence doesn’t negate the fine work done by Ramos Gaitan and Bachleda. Ramos perfectly captures the guilt of a troubled young man—one embarking on a life of crime—whose ill-gotten gains has cost him dearly. If Ramos offers a study in redemption Bachleda goes to great pains to show the ease with which someone with so much grit and determination can bend and break under the most extreme of circumstances. Gaitan doesn’t endure as much abuse but she’s still one tough cookie. Perez refuses to allow Manuelo to be a mere profit-minded monster—he provides Manuelo with a conscience or what passes for one in his business. Trade is a tale of two countries. While in Mexico director Marco Kreuzpaintner examines the sex-slave trade in an incisive and uncompromising manner. He sheds light on how these trafficking rings acquire their slaves and smuggle them across the border. He puts us on edge the moment Adriana and Veronica fall in their captors’ hands. We’re never sure as to what will happen to them. We know they need to be kept alive. But in what condition? Many of the abductees are drugged beaten and raped. The violence isn’t exploitative—Kreuzpaintner just needs to show the cruelty inflicted upon these victims of the modern-day slave trade. And it only makes us fear more for Adrian and Veronica’s safety. Once Trade reaches the United States Kreuzpaintner and screenwriter Jose Rivera start pulling their punches. Yes there are some moments that make you sick to your stomach. But the moment Kline arrives on the scene Trade gets weak at the knees. There are too many coincidences for Trade’s own good. The sudden death of one character is forced and absurd. And Kreuzpaintner doesn’t know how to extricate Kline from the untenable situation he’s placed in during Trade’s climax. This all leads up to a pat ending one that even the Lifetime TV crowd would find unbelievably spineless.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home the table is quickly set: There’s a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It’s a hefty sum and as we’re then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) interested in collecting the “reward ” a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine Kevin Durand Maury Sterling) a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys Taraji P Henson); a ruthless knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan) himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator’s two buddies (Martin Henderson Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds but they’ll also have to survive Aces’ henchmen (Common Christopher Michael Holley) and each other’s lust for the (blood) money. Not that he’s the proverbial “lead”--no one really is--but Piven in his first true Entourage-afforded role is the story’s central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered Piven’s performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters’ high-octane arcs. Reynolds ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime Liotta who was a perfect fit in the director’s Narc just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun’s at. It’s fine that Affleck’s role is extremely short but out of his crew for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman’s performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys both essentially making debuts simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa especially Keys who plays totally against the pop-queen image she’s built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed and hell you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released too with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair and truth is the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director who burst onto the scene with ‘02’s aforementioned Narc doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but he’s not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional “hero” also has its pluses because you’ll never be able to look at someone’s face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately Carnahan’s spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however you get the feeling he didn’t quite want it to be so forgettable.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
When ordered to fire a long-time janitor named Stavi (Luis Avalos) Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) softens the blow by hiring him to mow the lawn at his apartment complex. Steve didn't provide him with health insurance so Stavi naturally loses a few fingers in a mowing accident and now it'll cost thousands to save the digits. What's a guy to do? Why of course fix the Special Olympics—a suggestion of Steve's degenerate uncle Gary (Brian Cox) who's also in the financial dumps. Former track star Steve reluctantly goes along with the scam and competes in the Special Olympics. His competitors are quick to pick up on his ruse but they decide to help him after Steve explains his motive. He must also try not to disappoint Lynn (Katherine Heigl) the beautiful volunteer who doesn't know of his real identity. What's a guy to do? Take the high road of course. Certainly Knoxville—of Jackass infamy and debauchery—would have no moral trepidation about headlining offensive exploitative crap like The Ringer but stardom beckons him if he only he stops aiming so damn low! His performance here was probably not as easy as it'd seem but it's reasonable to think that Jackass stunts involving a bottle of absinthe and some paper cuts to the cornea quickly eliminated any butterflies. What Knoxville has in spades is that rare charisma to prevent him from ever looking uncool. Then there's Cox the latest revered journeyman to sell his soul on the cheap for a role completely beneath him. Mostly disabled actors round out the cast uttering any and all funny lines but there's something fundamentally wrong when the audience erupts in laughter before the lines are even delivered. Though the Farrelly brothers—directors of There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber--only acted as executive producers of The Ringer their lowbrow stamp is smeared all over. Directing chores were handed over to Barry Blaustein prolific writer of comedies like Coming to America making his feature directorial debut. The Ringer delivers on its promise of frat-dude humor and Blaustein certainly knows how to make his leading man shine—but it does so in cheap sophomoric ways.