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.
As a thinking man’s actioner Ultimatum continues the franchise’s firm grasp on how spy games are actually played. The film starts at the point where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is in Moscow having killed the assassin from Bourne Supremacy in a car crash. He has exacted his revenge for his girlfriend’s death but he is still haunted and needs to know how the hell he got into this predicament in the first place. Plus he’s got a new CIA schmuck Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) after him. Vosen has reopened the Treadstone project--now called Blackbriar--and is using a new cache of highly trained assassins to do his dirty work. Luckily for Bourne he’s got two women on his side: CIA lackey Pam Landy (Joan Allen) who while in the situation room tries to thwart Vosen at every turn; and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) the young logistician who covers for Bourne whenever she runs into him. With their help our intrepid assassin circumvents the globe in typical Bourne fashion so he can hunt down his past in order to find a future. Damon has truly perfected his Bourne alter ego in this third go-around. With his cool demeanor he really makes it all look so effortless--jet-setting around the world fighting enemies off with pens books towels cars whatever he can get his hands on and covertly obtaining the information he needs. Damon is an accomplished actor no doubt able to take on a variety of roles--but he may never quite top Bourne. Damon is also surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast. In both Supremacy and Ultimatum Allen as Landy stands out in the crowd of power-hungry men she works for and with infusing the proceedings with a steely intelligence--and ultimately compassion. Stiles too is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise testosterone-filled environment and her Nicky may actually have more of connection to Bourne than we previously thought. The stellar Strathairn a character actor who can play both hero and villain with relative ease adds the sneaky Vosen to his list of bad guys while Albert Finney makes a brief but memorable appearance as a link to Bourne’s past. Helming his second Bourne installment after getting our hearts pounding with Supremacy Paul Greengrass (United 93) gets it. Although the Bournes sprouted from the furtive mind of spy-thriller author Robert Ludlum the director seems keyed into the whole spy genre as well handing us what feels to be a genuine look at how covert operations might work. From the operations center in which CIA personnel can find ways to tap into a target’s life via any number of ways to the action on the streets Greengrass keeps it moving at a whiplash pace. We’ve now come to expect the seat-clenching car chases along with at least one hand-to-hand combat scene between Bourne and some other super assassin in which Bourne kills his attacker with sheer brute force aided by some everyday item. Still they never seem redundant flowing nicely into the storyline. Greengrass’ filmmaking style however can be a tad jolting at times. He loves putting the audience in the middle of the action swinging the camera around fast-cutting between shots keeping things slightly confusing on who’s doing what to whom. But that real-time look and feel is what makes the Bourne movies unique from other actioners. Could there be room for a fourth Bourne? One can only hope.
Miss Potter is a biopic about Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger)—the literary phenomenon of the early 20th century who created the hugely popular Peter Rabbit books. The film examines how she rose to fame in Victorian England a time when women were only expected to marry and run a home. As the story begins Beatrix 32 is well-adjusted despite being unmarried and living with her well-to-do parents. An accomplished painter she dreams of publishing her pet animal drawings as well as the stories that go with them and in neat small-sized books perfect for children. Of course most publishers scoff but one decides to publish Beatrix’s “bunny book ” as a lark and soon sets in motion a publishing juggernaut. During the process Beatrix also falls in love with her young editor Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) and agrees to marry him much to her mother’s chagrin (he’s a “tradesman ” after all). Basically Miss Potter ends up living the life she wants to lead bucking whatever rigid system put before her. Zellweger is playing yet another English rose but this time without the extra weight. Although not nearly as endearing and quirky as Bridget Jones Zellweger’s Beatrix is still plucky and outspoken willing to stand by her beliefs and forge ahead despite the opposition she faces. In other words Zellweger—who won her Oscar playing a similar part in Cold Mountain—could do this in her sleep. McGregor too seems comfortably fitted for the role of Norman an earnest fellow with good moral fiber a determination to succeed and love in his heart for Miss Potter. Veteran British character actors Barbara Flynn (HBO’s Elizabeth I) and Bill Paterson (Bright Young Things) effectively play Beatrix’s parents with Dad Potter being the more sympathetic and Mom Potter being the uptight battleaxe. And finally Emily Watson who does a nice turn as Norman’s spinster sister Millie. A brash intelligent woman who also speaks her mind Millie thoroughly enjoys life as an unmarried woman and quickly takes Beatrix under her wing. Director Chris Noonan waited a decade after helming the Oscar-nominated Babe before finding his follow-up project setting his sights on Miss Potter. There’s definitely some symmetry to his choice with both beautifully framed films having much of the same sweet-natured sensibilities as well as er animals. Much like Finding Neverland which showed how James Barrie came up with Peter Pan Miss Potter works best when Beatrix is standing up for her rights falling in love and drawing her adorable illustrations her “friends ” as she calls them who come to life and talk to her. Thankfully Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby don’t have the animated characters actually speak—only Miss Potter can hear them--but its still a clever device and definitely brings up feelings of hearth and home remembering those stories all over again. Unfortunately the film stalls a bit towards the end when the scenery shifts to England’s the Lake District where the real Beatrix Potter eventually retired to and helped preserve for future generations. Still overall Miss Potter is a charming look at one of the literary world’s more successful authors who was also a feminist and an environmentalist. Pretty amazing lady actually.
Two cops arrive at an abandoned house where they've heard screaming. They find a woman hunched over and her eyes are plucked out. A seven-foot monster Jacob Goodnight (Kane) then hacks one of the officers in half and cuts the other officer's arm off--but not before he shoots the maniac in the head. That officer Frank Williams (Steve Vidler) recuperates and four years later is assigned to a youth detention program. His first job is to escort some delinquents to an abandoned Blackwell Hotel where a little old historian Margaret (Cecilly Polson) needs volunteers to help her tidy up. Instead one by one the young people become part of the eyeball collection of the psycho who was traumatized by an over-religious mother. Aren’t we all? Yes there is acting in this including from the World Wrestling Entertainment bad-boy Kane who could develop a Freddy Krueger-like franchise as this homicidal religious freak. He grunts and huffs but also sobs and shows a conscience at crucial times. And he's scary not laughable which is always a danger in these kind of films. With what little they have to play off of the supporting team is good especially Craig Horner as an ambitious thief who has maps of all the secret corridors in the hotel. Among the delinquents are streetwise Christine (Christina Vidal) an a--hole bully Michael (Luke Pegler) a tattooed beauty Kira (Samantha Noble) and a seductive shoplifter Zoe (Rachael Taylor). Taylor’s Paris Hilton-like persona makes her one of the victims you can't wait to see get it. Some of the others hardly last long enough worth mentioning even though many of them have characters that are surprisingly fleshed-out before they become popped-out eye candy. See No Evil offers plenty of jump moments squirming gross-out scenes and hide-your-eyes shocks with a plot reminiscent of any of the Friday the 13th or Saw movies. Some of the gore is particularly gruesome and if you don't know what an eyeball looks like when it pops out of your head then you'll certainly have an anatomy lesson here. First-time feature director Gregory Dark known for making music videos utilizes those fast-cut edits muted colors and washed-out tones to create the horror. The camera closes in on bugs flies and even dives into the eye socket of a hollowed-out face. It follows a line of booby-traps in the hotel a jiggling arm that's cut off and even into a hole in the psycho-monster's head which is filled with maggots. Dark is never shy about any of it and gore fans won't be disappointed.
Set up very much like a documentary United 93 puts you right there onboard United Airlines Flight 93 the fourth hijacked plane on Sept. 11 2001 which crashed in a Pennsylvania field just short of its intended target. The first half of the film cuts between the mundane routine of boarding the ill-fated flight to the horrifying events unfolding at the World Trade Center played out in airport control towers as well as the FAA's command center in Herndon Va. and the military's center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. Everyone is scrambling trying to figure out what’s happening while an air of absolute powerlessness hovers over them. Then for the last unbelievably heart-wrenching 30 minutes or so we are back on the plane. We watch as the hijackers wait and wait to make a move and then once they do watch as the passengers realize the gravity of the situation after talking with their loved ones on the ground. The heroism the defiance is palpable. "They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world " Greengrass says in the press notes. And to keep things as accurate as possible Greengrass reportedly interviewed more than 100 family members and friends of those who perished in order to get not only their blessings but an inkling of what might have transpired on the plane. He also gathered facts from the 9/11 Commission Report. He hired flight attendants and commercial airline pilots to play those roles; hired several civilian and military controllers on duty on Sept. 11 including the FAA's Ben Sliney who plays himself; and finally rehearsed and shot his actors in an old Boeing 757 at England's Pinewood Studios. You’ll recognize some faces character actors who’ve been in countless films and TV shows. But the key is to keep United 93 rooted in reality--and to do that you can’t have an A-list star mussing it up. Greengrass is not afraid of making hard-hitting films such as 2002's Bloody Sunday a dramatization of the Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30 1972. With United 93 he has once again documented one of modern history’s most defining moments. Of course the controversy surrounding United 93--whether or not it should have even been made--is all understandable and justifiable. Sept. 11 is still indeed a raw nerve. How can it not be? We are living in a completely changed world because of it and no amount of time can ever really alter that. But you can't fault Greengrass for feeling compelled to tell this story and can only appreciate him for doing his homework thoroughly and giving it to us straight from the heart. Sort of a collective heart I should say since it really speaks to humanity and the ways we are capable of such great courage in the face of such insurmountable odds. Obviously we will never know exactly what happened on the flight but at least we know something monumental took place. Now let’s see how Oliver Stone and Nicolas Cage handle 9/11 in the upcoming World Trade Center.
She's a hip-hoppin' be-boppin' mean ol' nanny who whips a mean stew and your butt for not doing your homework—and now she's back! Alas we don't speak of the Mrs. Doubtfire sequel but rather that of Big Momma a.k.a. FBI Agent Malcolm Turner (Martin Lawrence). Agent Warner has cut ties with the FBI at the behest of Sherry (Nia Long)—who as you no doubt recall is the granddaughter of the real Big Momma—since she's pregnant with Malcolm's baby. But wouldn't you know that he gets sucked back in after a former colleague is killed. Posing as Big Momma he's hired as a nanny to a suburban family the deadbeat dad of which is involved in the murder and a crime plot. She does it all—cooks cleans dances and even runs down bad guys but it's a race against time to stop the potential national security crisis. That is a race against the film's (mercifully) short running time. Although Lawrence's resume includes some of the dregs of comedy it's hard to argue that he is truly blessed when it comes to physical comedy and comedic timing. He continues both trends here this time without the help of the breakthrough actors of the past two years Paul Giamatti and Terrence Howard who yes both starred in the first Big Momma's House. That means Lawrence's urban mania is truly on its own and absurd and juvenile as the film may be even film snobs can't hold back a few laughs at his Big Momma outlandishness. Longreturns for no more than a select few scenes and to provide a minor conflict in the story. The notable newcomer is CSI's Emily Procter as the sterile mother who hires Big Momma. She does a serviceable job as a suburban Petite Momma. Might she be the next Giamatti or Howard to bolt to bigger and better things in time for the next sequel? No.
Big Momma's House 2 is right up director John Whitesell's alley. He's the guy behind such misses—though not necessarily financially—as Malibu's Most Wanted and See Spot Run and he's right at home here. Whitesell doesn't hold back in (literally and figuratively) pulling the robe off Big Momma but he clearly knows that nothing is to interrupt Lawrence's antics not even the thin story line. Aside from that he knows quite well how to execute thinly veiled rip-offs of the aforementioned Mrs. Doubtfire as well as countless other hidden-motive comedies (i.e. Kindergarten Cop Houseguest et al). Because while the main guise is the Big Momma fat suit Whitesell parades the film about as a feel-good/family flick.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.