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.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Based on the beloved children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs tells the tale of Flint Lockwood an eccentric young inventor who spends his days in a makeshift laboratory building monkey-thought translators spray-on shoes “hair unbalder” serums and other strange creations. Regarded as a troublemaker and a nuisance by the residents of the small town of Swallow Falls Flint dreams of one day making something that will win their respect and earn him a place alongside the Edisons and Da Vincis of the world.
Flint thinks his latest invention a machine that turns ordinary water into gourmet meals at the touch of a button just might do the trick. But his big unveiling goes predictably awry when his machine launches like a rocket through Swallow Falls laying waste to the town square before eventually disappearing into the stratosphere.
Just when it appears that the townsfolk have finally had enough of Flint’s antics salvation arrives in the form of cheeseburgers raining from the sky thrilling the throngs of hungry people below. Success! Flint’s machine actually works — albeit not quite in the manner he originally intended.
WHO’S IN IT?
Lending his voice to the character of Flint is Bill Hader a Saturday Night Live regular who’s appeared in small roles in a ton of high-profile comedies including Tropic Thunder Pineapple Express and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Anna Faris (The House Bunny) co-stars as Sam Sparks a weathergirl whose bubbly on-screen persona masks a keen intellect she’s terrified to reveal — lest she be branded a “nerd” and shunned by the community of shallow talking-head news correspondents.
Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell voices the sleazy manipulative Mayor Shelbourne a wildly ambitious politician who eyes Flint’s invention as his ticket to higher office. James Caan (The Godfather) plays Flint’s well-meaning but emotionally distant father Tim a blue-collar fisherman who can’t find a way to relate to his brainy offspring. And fans of A-Team and Rocky III will instantly recognize the voice of Mr. T as Earl Devereaux the tough-minded town cop whose job is devoted primarily to preventing Flint from inadvertently destroying the town. Rounding out the main cast is Neil Patrick Harris (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Flint’s trusted monkey assistant Steve.
The animation of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is truly a joy to behold. With each successive meal that falls from the sky comes a brilliant new array of patterns and colors all of which burst from the screening in dazzling 3-D. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller rightly recognize the visual potential of the source material with its endless variety of colorful food items and serve up a delicious buffet of brilliantly-rendered set pieces.
But the film isn’t just a bundle of digital eye candy. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising about the film is the script’s sharp wit and clever observations which help make the experience enjoyable on a cerebral as well as visceral level.
Lord and Miller who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay did a generally solid job expanding the relatively thin source material for the big screen but the story still feels weak at times. It’s just engaging enough to keep you interested but not quite enough to make a lasting impression.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is something of a culinary rollercoaster. As food first begins to fall from the sky you might find yourself feeling a bit hungry. But as the plot progresses and Flint’s machine starts to spin out of control bombarding the town with every kind of slop imaginable don’t be surprised if your stomach starts to get a little queasy!
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When a strong-willed business woman is suddenly told she might lose her job and be deported to her native Canada she impulsively forces her ever-loyal executive assistant into a shotgun engagement in order to get a green card and stay in the country. The plan gets complicated when the mismatched twosome must go to meet his family in Alaska and convince everyone including a pesky government investigator that their impending marriage is the real thing.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sandra Bullock has never been more appealing in the kind of “tough boss” role normally associated with male actors. The Proposal turns the usual romantic comedy tables around giving Bullock lots to play with — and she certainly makes the most of it painting a hilarious picture of an attractive and surprisingly vulnerable business exec caught in a situation spiraling out of control. Ryan Reynolds’ sitcom expertise is put to good use in the role of her willingly unwilling assistant who must join her charade or risk losing his job. This is Reynolds’ best outing as a rom-com lead yet and he shows he could own the genre if provided the right material. Stealing the movie from both of them however is the irrepressible Betty White who plays Reynolds’ saucy Grammy. Once again the Golden Girls alum proves she has comic timing second to none.
Knowing the standard romantic comedy setup just isn’t going to cut it anymore director Anne Fletcher (Step Up 27 Dresses) turns The Proposal into more of a screwball farce letting the laughs fly without forcing them on us. She’s helped by two game lead players who really know their way around this well-worn genre and provide just the right balance to keep this merry soufflé from falling apart. The breathtaking remote locations (Massachusetts oddly enough substitutes for Alaska) don’t hurt.
No matter how inventive the script it’s pretty obvious where things are going to wind up in any romantic comedy. But The Proposal despite following the standard blueprint still manages to keep us guessing until the very end and that accounts for most of the fun.
A scene in which Bullock and Reynolds accidentally run into each other sans clothing is hilarious worthy of the best farceurs. A close second is a sequence involving a little dog a menacing eagle and a cell phone. Classic stuff.
BEST REASON TO PLOP DOWN 10 BUCKS?
After 60 — count ‘em 60 — years in show business with six Emmys and numerous TV series to show for it Betty White at age 87 still proves there can be second third and even fourth acts in life. She gives a movie star turn here that shows everyone how it’s done.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
As an alternative to big summer action flicks and gross-out comedies The Proposal is definitely the date movie du jour.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Not to be confused with the 1979 ghost story The Changeling this Changeling is a horror story of a very different stripe. Based on a long forgotten case buried deep in the L.A. crime files this true tale revolves around the mysterious 1928 disappearance of 9-year-old Walter Collins. Set in an election year and with heavy political pressure on city officials and a corrupt LAPD they find a child five months later who they claim is Walter and arrange to reunite him with his mother Christine (Angelina Jolie). Only problem is she says this is not her kid. When she asks the police to continue trying to find her son she finds herself victimized and accused of being insane and unfit for not going along with the PR campaign informing the public that the police have solved the case. With the help of a community activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) she begins to fight the city and the police who try in every way to silence her even committing her to a mental institution. The film details not only her valiant quest to right a wrong and find her real son but serves as a probing indictment of the police state 1920’s Los Angeles had become. As in her searing portrayal of the pregnant Marianne Pearl in last year’s A Mighty Heart Angelina Jolie once again connects with her maternal side. In another challenging role she must exhibit a wide emotional range going from fear to anguish to anger to pure resolve in an effort to uncover the mystery of her son’s abduction. Splendidly outfitted in ‘20s garb Jolie delves deep into the soul of a woman who dared to go against the grain and challenge a corrupt police department in Prohibition-era L.A. She’s simply remarkable in the most intense determined and heartbreaking role of her career. As the man who helps out in her cause Malkovich is perfectly matched to Jolie. As the merciless Captain Jones who heads the investigation to find Walter Jeffrey Donovan (TV’s Burn Notice) is properly frustrating and imposing while Colm Feore gets the evil side of his LAPD police chief down pat. Nailing her few scenes Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) plays a fellow psycho-ward inmate who helps Christine when she is institutionalized. Particularly impressive is Eddie Alderson as the 15-year-old nephew of the serial killer who leads police to a grisly crime scene and his uncle played a bit over the top by Jason Butler Harner. And filling out their juvenile roles nicely are Gattlin Griffith as Walter and eerie Devon Conti as the young man impersonating him. Clint Eastwood knows his way around ominous foreboding material so it’s no wonder he was instantly attracted to J. Michael Stracynski’s immaculately researched script. After Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River Eastwood exhibits a strong understanding of the dark side of human nature. Changeling fits right in with his oeuvre and he delivers yet another superbly crafted and acted film -- one that exists on two separate levels as a look at the corruption that crept into the LAPD of the era and as an impassioned journey of a woman trying to find a happy ending for herself and her son. Shot with the director’s usual ease Eastwood seems comfortable letting the almost unbelievable facts of the story speak for themselves and remarkably didn’t change a word of Stracynski’s fascinating screenplay. He doesn’t have to. The fact that it’s a true story that all really happened is simply incredible by itself. This is an unforgettable triumph for everyone involved.
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.
Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise) thought she had the perfect life with lawyer husband Charles (Steve Harris): a big house lots of creature comforts and a stable--albeit staid--marriage. But Helen's world shatters when Charles tells her on the eve of their 18th wedding anniversary that he wants a divorce and literally kicks her out of their spacious mansion to make room for another woman. Devastated she runs to her beloved pot-smokin' gun-totin' grandmother Madea (Tyler Perry) who lets Helen know she's a proud beautiful black woman who nonetheless should whoop the bastard's ass. As hurt as she is Helen really just wants to pick up the pieces and move on if she can. She finds guidance and empowerment from her family and friends including new friend Orlando (Shemar Moore) a drop-dead gorgeous construction worker whose sweet and sincere ways more than help Helen get through her pain. And he cooks too. Really there's no contest.
The main cast members aptly portray their roles formulaic as they are. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) as the grievously wronged wife has the toughest job trying to convey all the crazy mixed-up feelings Helen has for the ex-husband while trying to jumpstart her life. Steve Harris (TV's The Practice) as the callous husband and Shemar Moore (TV's The Young and the Restless) as the too-good-to-be-true suitor represent the two opposites sides of the coin. Even Cicely Tyson makes an appearance as Helen's invalid mother who seems just a little too healthy to be in a nursing home. But it's Tyler Perry who turns out to be the true mad black woman. The film comes alive when he's onscreen either playing the outrageous Madea--complete with wig makeup and padding--or Madea's brother Joe a lecherous old coot. Perry even gets to play it straight as Helen's kindly cousin Brian who has a junkie for a wife (played by Tamara Taylor with the usual vacant twitchy neediness). It would have been a long hour and a half without him.
Perry obviously writes from the heart having struggled through his younger years to become a well-known playwright. And with music video director Darren R. Grant at the helm Diary of a Mad Black Woman has all the best intentions. It's certainly a buoyant portrait of African-American life and culture that also speaks to anyone who has had to grapple with betrayal and hurt at the hands of those they love. But the stage-trained Perry somehow misses the subtleties of writing for film. Diary doesn't know what kind of genre it wants to be jumping from raucous comedy á la Big Momma's House to mind-numbing drama á la Waiting to Exhale. The characters don't have any complexities and are drawn very black or white. It also takes an awfully long time for our heroine to figure out what direction she's going to take when we could tell her in the first 30 minutes as to whom she should end up with. In the meantime we must endure several melodramatic set pieces filled with elaborate speeches about revenge love relationships redemption religion and all that which are meant to hit us hard with their poignancy. Perry might consider keeping the highfalutin writing for the stage and think about an acting career in film.