Sunday, November 14, 2010

Real American Heroes: A Review of Unstoppable

Since seeing 2004’s Man on Fire, I’ve been an ardent admirer of director Tony Scott’s films. In particular, his post-millennial work that exhibits a fascinating synthesis of hyper-kinetic formalism and near art-house experimentalism. Some films have been more effective than others (last year’s Taking of Pelham 123 was a low-point, marred by excessive violence and profanity) but his latest, Unstoppable, is one of the best illustrations of his talent: using a cutting edge aesthetic to tell a timeless tale.

Frequent collaborator Denzel Washington stars as Frank, a veteran train engineer and proud father of two daughters working their way through college. He’s paired with Will (Star Trek’s Chris Pine), a rookie conductor whose temper has sent him through a series of short-lived jobs and placed him in the midst of marital estrangement. But their banter and inevitable camaraderie isn’t the film’s sole focus, even though it represents the majority of the two actors’ respective screen time. Rather, the driving force of the film is an unmanned train carrying hazardous material hurtling through the Pennsylvania countryside. After a series of ineffective attempts to sideline the runaway train by corporate-issued mandates, Frank and Will realize they’re the only people who can stop the train.

In an age where our cinematic heroes seemingly need to be comic book inspired guardians, conflicted cops / soldiers or Jason Bourne mega-men, Unstoppable is refreshingly down to Earth when it comes to heroism. Frank and Will are not genetically mutated or born with supernatural powers. Instead they are flawed, recognizable human beings who acknowledge an impending disaster and leverage their trade skills and industry knowledge, along with a palpable dose of bravery, to avoid it, even though it means putting their lives on the line for a greater good. Their heroism is all the more poignant and inspirational because of their fundamental humanness. Unstoppable is perhaps the most humanist action movie of the past decade.

It’s not a physically demanding role for either Denzel Washington or Chris Pine as the majority of their time on screen requires them to be seated. They aren’t given much room to showboat verbally either as they are handed appropriately demotic dialogue. Yet they manage to make their characters engaging and their situation engrossing purely because they are both strong actors. It’s a testament to their talent that they can do so much in an action movie that gives them so little to do.

The film is shot with Scott’s trademark flair but it all looks realistic and does not bare the blemish of overdone CGI. Of course Scott’s camera roves without traditional reason, but it conveys the length of conference rooms, the confined bubble of an engine room and the slithering mass of train cars in a masterful way that gives you the whole picture without multiple camera setups or traditional cutting rhythms. Given society’s obsession with nanotechnology and ever diminishing gadgets, it’s remarkable to see a film that respects the physical mass and immense weight of massive machinery. With a simple story and a simple visual style (at least for Scott), Unstoppable embodies exactly what a modern, enjoyable, socially conscious action/adventure should be.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

The first Paranormal Activity was an experiment. The sequel, Paranormal Activity 2, is more of a verification of previous results. Fortunately, it still yields the same result: a masterful chiller whose level of scares matches its astounding profitability.

The film’s structure is the same as that of the first, a house’s inhabitants are plagued by a supernatural force capable of slamming doors, knocking over pans and even physical attacks. This time, the lead characters believe their first encounter to have been a burglary and rig their interior with surveillance cameras. Like the original film, the beauty of its style is that we receive long, static takes that give the viewer ample time to fearfully scan every corner of the frame for the slightest movement or abnormality. Some of the scares are virtual replicas of the most frightening moments from the first film but the shift in focus from a couple to a family (complete with daughter, baby and faithful pooch) creates new dynamics and an added complexity to this modernized haunted house tale.

Paranormal Activity 2 peddles its scares on the disruption of the perceived safety of the home space, a notion that can be instantly undermined by even the slightest sound. Given the current housing crisis, it’s hard for me to watch the movie and not wonder if the success of this series is somehow tied to a collective consciousness of fear attributed to subprime mortgages and foreclosures. Or perhaps the films have been subconsciously discouraging the public’s desires to buy bigger and better houses? I was suddenly thankful I didn’t have to return to a large, empty house with lots of nooks and crannies after I exited the movie theater.

Released just over a year after the astounding word-of-mouth success of the first film, Paranormal Activity 2’s plot makes more effort than might be expected to tie together the events of the two films. While the connections perhaps aren’t entirely necessary, and probably don’t withstand intense scrutiny, the inventive connection between the two plots achieves something I thought was impossible, it increases the rewatchability factor of the first film.

While some critics regard the sequel as a stale retread of the first film, Roger Ebert for one, I regard both of these lo-fi spook stories as the perfect antidote to the torture porn tactics that have defined the millennial horror film genre. Even though they aren’t so much films as they are events, I consider both entries terrifying diversions whose craftsmanship and profitability are equally worthy of admiration. They won’t necessarily stand the test of time but they offer above average thrills in the heat of the moment and just enough haunting imagery to bounce around in the back of your head for a sleepless night or two. The film’s Friday night box office haul of $20 million makes another sequel next Halloween a foregone conclusion. The well will run dry eventually, but I’ll happily be on the ticket line for the franchise’s third entry.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lost Time: A Review of Peggy Sue Got Married

"If time is the ultimate object of loss and the one thing that is fundamentally irretrievable, then the time travel narrative poses something of a paradox: it plays upon our nostalgia for lost time even as it portrays time itself as infinitely controllable. But this ambivalence is undercut by the ending of Peggy Sue Got Married, in which the protagonist is sent back to the present. The return to the present reiterates the suggestion of time lost, even if Peggy Sue momentarily feels like she can manipulate it. In this sense, the film points more toward the effects of nostalgia. As Gene D. Phillips recounts, “Coppola had [director of photography] Cronenweth suffuse the movie with bright, saturated colors to give it a nostalgic glow.” But the nostalgia depicted in Peggy Sue Got Married is not the quaint or kitschy presentation we so often see in time travel films or films about the late-50s and early-60s. Instead, it is tinged with futility and regret."

Click here to read my review of Peggy Sue Got Married in Not Coming to a Theater Near You's Time Travel retrospective

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Love & Cinema: A Review of Day for Night

The opening five minutes of Day for Night alone are so densely packed with filmmaking minutiae that it might inflict a migraine upon the unsuspecting viewer. But anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of becoming a filmmaker – even for a second – should seek out Day for Night as soon as possible. The film explicitly illustrates the complexity of the process of filmmaking and the madness of the industry to which it belongs. But at the same time it’s not cynical or jaded enough to discourage budding filmmakers, a quality that channels the infectious spirit of the French New Wave film movement which found Truffaut and other rabid cinephiles taking to the streets and making their films by any means necessary.

Click here to read my entire review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Slippery Pitch: Blu-ray review of The Damned United

"The film looks spectacular in its Blu-ray transfer, and Hooper injects it with a great energy. From the shot framing to the choice of lenses to the rhythm of the editing to the widescreen vistas, the film’s stunning visual flair matches Clough’s bombast and enthusiasm. Even with the great visuals paired to Sheen’s magnetic performance, though, this is still going to be a tough sell for non-football fans."

Click here to read my review at PopMatters

Sunday, February 28, 2010

L'amour fou: DVD Review of Shall We Kiss?

"Shall We Kiss?, a subdued romantic comedy from France, asks the question, is there such a thing as a kiss without consequence? It’s a question for the ages, one that’s been addressed implicitly throughout the years in countless tales of infidelity and explicitly in films like Fisher Stevens’ little-seen Just a Kiss. Shall We Kiss? mulls over the issue for nearly all of its 102-minutes, at first with levity, later with solemn reproach."

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Friday, February 05, 2010

VIVmag article: TV Like it Should Be

The latest issue of VIVmag - a digital luxury publication - is now available featuring my article on Mad Men, 30 Rock and True Blood.

Click here to read the latest issue (my article is in the media section)