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.
Last we heard in last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea (Tyler Perry) was solving social cultural and familial problems. What a busy lady! Well she’s done gone and done it again after a whole new crop of problems pop up that need fixing. This time the conflicts revolve primarily around two sisters Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) both of whom are wary of their financial-minded mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa is deathly afraid to love again after her husband left her and two kids and fears she might’ve met Mr. Right in the form of a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). Meanwhile Lisa is in a physically abusive relationship with Carlos (Blair Underwood) “Atlanta’s most eligible bachelor ” but is afraid to leave him. Madea the antithesis of gold-digging Victoria solves these and many more problems as the family reunion nears. After Mad Black Woman’s surprise box office take last year bigger names were less reluctant to sign on. Accordingly the new actors in Reunion are very solid—borderline stellar collectively. The lone exception is Perry as Madea (as well as a few other characters) whose over-the-topness although expected reduces the air of professionalism from the rest. Underwood is so damn good at being so damn bad as the abusive fiancée Carlos while Whitfield matches him chill for chill in a very icy performance. The relative unknowns/newcomers are the most pleasant surprises however. Aytes has breathtaking beauty that would normally overshadow acting but not here. Anderson whose last film was ‘95’s Clockers is equally beautiful and evocative as a single mother torn. And for the female eyes there’s Kodjoe whom girls will likely fall for even more when they learn he can actually act. Perry wears many hats in Family Reunion: writer director producer star--and oh yeah he also wrote the popular stage production from which the film is adapted. Perhaps Perry’s workaholic attitude contributes to the film’s thematic overkill. There are a number of kinks in the film’s completely uneven story and the way it is told but perhaps the biggest problem stems from the fact that it still feels like a stage play. Sometimes that’s a plus for a film but it’s hard to think it was intended. This feeling is elicited by the sum of the story’s parts. Perry will be in one scene telling the tale of a beleaguered battered woman amid a linear and conventional storyline and in the next scene become Madea in her cartoonish and campy getup dishing out her tough love techniques. No doubt Reunion is an enjoyable play--only if you agree with Perry’s comedic remedies for serious issues.
Princess Diaries 2 picks up about five years after the first movie as Mia (Anne Hathaway)--no longer a 16-year-old ugly duckling but now a self-possessed college grad--is ready to assume her role as princess of Genovia. Bringing her quirky American sensibilities with her she moves into the Royal Palace with her beautiful wise grandmother Queen Clarisse (Julie Andrews)--but soon discovers she'll be ruling the little European country famous for its pears sooner than she thought when the Queen announces her retirement. It's all a tad overwhelming but the capper is that according to Genovian law in order to take the crown she also has to be married--with Genovian parliament giving her only 30 days to find a prospective groom. What you say? An arranged marriage? That's just so politically incorrect. Suddenly Mia is wading through a parade of suitors who'd all like to be her king when all she wants to do is marry for love. Of course there are also factions plotting against her in the form of Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) a blowhard royal who wants his nephew and native Genovian the hunky Lord Nicholas Devereux (Chris Pine) to take the throne. Ah but is Lord Nicholas really as greedy for the crown as his uncle? Maybe so--until he sees how beautiful kind and ultimately capable Mia is at ruling Genovia. This could get interesting--but it doesn't not really.
Hathaway continues to exude that same fresh quality as Mia with the ever-expressive face and affinity for physical comedy. She is certainly appealing to watch on-screen yet somewhere in all that cheerful perkiness one wonders if Hathaway is just itching to be a bad girl--to really get down and dirty to play say an ice pick-wielding femme fatale or even a prostitute with a heart of gold. But alas the young actress has pigeonholed herself into these sugary-sweet roles--and it might be difficult to break out the mold once the real acting bug bites her. Julie Andrews should give Hathaway some advice--she's been there playing the Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapps of the world. The talented British actress has never really shed that wholesome image not entirely (even her raucous semi-nude appearance in her husband Blake Edwards' S.O.B. didn't quite do it) and in Princess Diaries 2 she once again plays a woman with spunk who's very classy but also terribly proper. Oh well guess it really isn't a bad way to be. As an extra bonus Andrews also sings in the film--which to all of us fans who've followed her battle with throat problems is a true delight (even if the musical number she sings in is rather gag-producing). The rest of the PD2 cast could have been plucked from anywhere save for Heather Matarazzo who happily reprises her role as Mia's quippy best friend Lilly Moscovitz.
Director Garry Marshall is a giant sap. Most of his films while usually comedic in some fashion or another have tended towards the maudlin including The Other Sister about a mentally disabled girl who finds love (sniffle); Beaches about a woman whose best friend dies (sob!); and this year's tear-jerker Raising Helen about a jet setter who has to stop her life to raise her dead sister's kids (oh stop it already). Now it's Princess Diaries 2 a follow-up to the original syrupy feel-good comedy. To his credit Marshall is a master at the genre--and doesn't make any excuses if the eyes roll at all the sentimentality. The first Princess Diaries worked well because it was about an ordinary girl who is transformed into a fairy tale princess. With PD2 Marshall has taken the basic romantic comedy structure of a girl meeting a boy who don't get along at first but realize they love each other in the end and applied it to the princess-turned-ruler idea. The film flows smoothly even if you can tell what's going to happen every step of the way--and how refreshing it is to have a film aimed at adolescent girls that doesn't have a mean-girl clique anywhere in the vicinity. Speaking of vicinities where the heck is Genovia anyway? You can never quite tell what sort of mythical European country it's suppose to be with accents ranging from French to British to very American--but it's still awfully pretty to look at.