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Column Fri Nov 12 2010

Unstoppable, 127 Hours, Morning Glory, Cool It, Four Lions & The Freebie

Unstoppable

If ever there was a film pairing between director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington (the two have made five films together), you might think that the runaway-train thriller Unstoppable would be that movie. Scott is best known stylistically for a rapid-fire editing technique and basically never being able to keep his camera still. Even the films of his I like (Crimson Tide, True Romance, Man on Fire, Domino) seem like all kinds of overkill. Since Scott does mostly action films, his style doesn't always seem inappropriate, but Unstoppable is only about half an action film and even that half is confined to two, fast-moving trains on the same track going in the same direction. Here's the problem with Unstoppable: it tells us right off the bat that it's based on a true story, which I'll accept. I bet the true story is actually kind of interesting. What Scott has done is loaded this "true-life" plot with jet fuel and thrown a match on it, resulting in a film that feels fake when it wants so desperately to come across as authentic.

Unstoppable starts out beautifully. Denzel Washington plays Frank, a senior train operator in Pennsylvania, who is given the unenviable task of training rookie Will (Star Trek's Captain Kirk, Chris Pine), learning to be a conductor (the guy who gives the operator instructions). They have a simple assignment for the day, so no big deal. Meanwhile, a couple of shining examples of the American workforce (played by Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) accidentally through stupidity allow a train to run out of the yard unmanned with the equivalent power of the pedal to the metal. Their supervisor Connie (Rosario Dawson), whose day job of being hot apparently wasn't paying off, begins what she thinks is the routine process of locating and stopping or slowing down the moving vehicle. But a combination of bad luck, human error, and convoluted writing makes this a train "the size of the Chrysler Building" carrying enough toxic chemicals to take out a small town a rolling missile.

After botching attempts at a controlled derailing and dropping a driver on the train from a helicopter, the company that owns the trains (represented by the thinly realized corporate type played by Kevin Dunn) allows Frank and Will to chase down the runaway train and find a way to slow it down enough to make a potentially dangerous L-curve in the middle of a community. I will admit, some of the action scenes got my blood racing. But in order to get to those scenes, you have to wade through some sometimes laughable sequences, like the horse trailer that just happens to get stuck in the path of the oncoming train. Sure, a train vs. trailer sequence looks great, but, really, it doesn't mean anything. It feels like fat that could have easily been trimmed.

Chris Pine has a backstory that involves he and his wife being separated. Why? I could not figure out what having a wife who's mad at you back home is supposed to make us care about Will. The guy does some pretty heroic stuff in Unstoppable; we don't need trumped up melodrama to make us care. The same goes for Frank's hot college-age daughters who work at Hooters. Why does their existence make an iota of difference to me caring about this very likable man? It's like Scott is looking for excuses to cut away from the far more interesting story just to get a few more reaction shots of people watching the news around town.

Chris Pine is once again solid as a man who got his job through family connections and doesn't have any real experience, meaning all the old-timers instantly hate him. Will doesn't exude the level of confidence that James T. Kirk does, and that's because Pine is smart enough to know that he isn't supposed to. Will is a first-day-on-the-job rookie who makes mistakes and kicks himself for every one of them. He's humble, easily distracted, and just flawed enough to make us believe he might actually die during the course of this story. Okay, not really, but maybe a little. One other notable supporting role is that of visiting line inspector played by Kevin Corrigan, who just happens to be visiting Connie's offices this day and offers sound advice on what the train is capable of. It's kind of nice watching Corrigan not play a role meant for comic relief for once. He's actually pretty good here.

Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback had a story ripe for telling here, and they kind of blew it by piling on too many cliches, plot devices, and characters who simply don't need to be there. Not to overuse the metaphor, but they literally derail their train story by throwing too many layers on it. I did like the final few minutes that find Frank and Will somehow managing to get on the runaway train. There's no getting around that those moments are exciting as hell, but anytime the story leaves the two men or the folks in the control room communicating with them, the story falls apart. I didn't care about corporate greed or family members or other peripheral plot points. When Unstoppable sticks to its central characters and story, it succeeds as a fully caffeinated work of suspense.

127 Hours

This is a film that is so perfect as both a visceral and sensory experience that it's almost impossible to say anything more than, if you think you can handle watching a guy cutting his own arm off to escape certain death, you're going to love Danny Boyle's magnificent 127 Hours. Condensed to a 90-minute package of unwasted moment, Boyle hands us not only one of the greatest performances of the year -- James Franco as real-life mountain climber/guide Aron Ralston--but also something that goes far beyond a simple retelling the facts of Ralston's accident that had him pinned by his arm in crevice well out of the reach of any potential rescue.

Boyle doesn't deny us the highlights of Ralston's almost unbelievable story (adapted from his book by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, who wrote Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire as well as The Full Monty), such as his survivalist skills kicking into high gear. As strange as it may sound, if this accident was going to happen to anyone, it's a good thing it was Ralston, who knew how to conserve the water he had, create a system of straps to make it possible for him to sleep, and ultimately have the fortitude to do what it took to free himself from certain peril. But Boyle is perhaps even more interested in Ralston's mental collapse due to lack of water and looking death straight in the eyes. The filmmakers recreate some of Ralston's hallucinations of the real (his family, an old girlfriend, two girls he met just before the accident) and the ridiculous (Scooby Doo, a rain-triggered flash flood that helps him escape, but not really).

Ralston also did a somewhat thorough job documenting his own dilemma thanks to a video camera and digital camera he brought with him, on which he recorded his surroundings and personal message to his family that he believed would only be seen after his death. I've certainly seen Franco do some fairly remarkable things in his acting career, but nothing quite prepared me for the lengths he goes to to capture this experience. There's a purely fictional moment when Ralston creates both sides of a radio interview with himself that should be shown in acting classes around the world.

Perhaps better than any other filmmaker working today, Boyle (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Trainspotting) had the remarkable ability to to harness the chaos of turmoil, to make it something we can taste and smell and certainly hear. In 127 Hours, the moment I realized just how deep this experience went was during the arm-cutting sequence, which isn't as gory or bloody as you might believe. However, when Ralston hits an exposed nerve deep in his arm and experiences pure pain, Boyle punctuates that moment with piercing guitar feedback, which is, of course, exactly what genuine pain sounds like. It fills the ears and makes them ring for hours. And don't even get me started on trying to wrap my head around what Ralston had to do to himself just prior to cutting his arm so that he was able to preserve his elbow.

People have told me that they love Franco dearly but refuse to see 127 Hours because they don't think they can handle it (maybe they've heard the stories about fainting audience members at festival screenings). To paraphrase Jason Segel, gently remove your tampon and go see this movie (I dare Fox Searchlight to put that quote on their posters). Don't tell me good films mean something to you and then skip one of the best things you'll see this year. This is not a horror film, and the scene that you're so damn worried about only lasts a couple of minutes and is followed by some of the most glorious and celebratory scenes you'll see all year.

The movie is meant to shake you up, but not because of the gore. It's the total experience. Both Boyle and Franco are master craftsmen who are giving us the best work of their career, and they put us deep inside Aron Ralston's fractured mind and force us to wonder how we would have held up under circumstances. I don't think I would have lasted about five minutes. 127 Hours is meant to blow your mind, and give you an experience you so rarely get these days in a movie theater. Without resorting to 3D or vibrating seats or whatever, Danny Boyle puts us in that hole in the earth. The escape route is clear and yet entirely unreachable. I hope if I ever find myself in a similar situation, James Franco is right there next to me showing me where to put the knife for that first cut. You will squirm, but you will be a better person for having seen 127 Hours.

To read my exclusive interview with 127 Hours director Danny Boyle, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Morning Glory

Sometimes, the strength and energy of a single performance is enough to pull a decidedly average film into the above-average stratosphere. And while the new newsroom comedy Morning Glory doesn't strive to be anything like the gold-standard Broadcast News (although sometimes I really wanted it to), star Rachel McAdams, much like the character she's playing, is pushing herself so hard that she improves the run-of-the-mill script and floundering performances of those around her. You can't help but root for this young woman in her struggle to take a fourth-place morning news show and bump its ratings up enough to justify its even being on the air.

McAdams plays Becky Fuller, who has just been fired from her local morning show producer job, but somehow finds her way to the revolving-door position of executive producer of "Daybreak," a New York City-based national show (and competitor to "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and whatever the hell CBS has on) on an imaginary network. She begins her first day by firing the show's male co-host ("Modern Family's" Ty Burrell) because he's a pig but she retains the long-standing female anchor, Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton). Becky has the bright idea of bringing in the station's former evening news anchor, Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), to work with Colleen, since he has two years left on his station contract and no actual work to do since he was booted off the evening slot for being drunk all the time. Although his contract gives him story refusal, it also stipulates that if he refuses an official offer from the station for another news position, they don't have to pay him anymore. So, guess who shows up for work begrudgingly the next morning?

Refusing to play along with the typical morning-show banter with Colleen or report any stories that aren't hard news, Pomeroy's Grumpy Gus persona actually hurts the show's ratings, so Becky counters by making the program even more sensationalistic to gain attention and boost ratings. She sends the weatherman (the great Matt Malloy) on death-defying assignments and encourages her co-hosts to engage in more on-air stunts and bickering. Becky throws so much of herself into her job, she barely notices when a good-looking man working in the evening news offices (Patrick Wilson's Adam) is attempting to charm her. Thankfully, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, Venus) and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) don't force us to endure Becky and Pomeroy falling for each other, because that would be gross. But they do allows us to watch Becky slowly chip away at her anchor's thick layer of bitterness in mostly believable ways. It doesn't happen with one incident; instead, their friendship and mutual respect develops over time.

Even Becky's love story isn't conventional most of the time, as it's pretty much hindered by her workaholic demeanor from the second they start seeing each other. I've been a fan of Patrick Wilson since first seeing him in HBO's "Angels In America" through Hard Candy, Little Children and Watchmen. Hell, the guy was the best thing in The A-Team, and he wasn't even in it that much. But it hasn't been until lately that he's tackled more conventional roles like this one, and I think he adds something less cutesy than a lot of the other actors who seem drawn to these parts. Adam and Becky don't make the perfect couple, which is what makes them perfect.

I've been decidedly annoyed with Diane Keaton in recent years, but I have to admit I liked her in this because I believed her as Colleen, a cross between Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric. And thank God that director Michell (or somebody) got her to dial the zaniness back a few hundred notches. Keaton has clearly studied women who have these jobs and does a great job approximating their combination of bubbly-ness and semi-serious news personality. Weirdly enough, I couldn't get the idea out of my head that if this movie had been made a few decades ago, Keaton would have done a nice job in the Becky role. Ford is a bit more difficult to swallow as the soft-spoken Pomeroy. Although I had issues with his on-air delivery, the real issue is that he relentlessly hammers home the Grumpy Old Anchorman persona. I know he's supposed to be grating and unappealing, but it almost wrecks the movie. I'm not saying Ford can't be funny, but he's not really playing Mike as funny. He's playing him, as one character puts it, as "the third-worst human being on the planet."

The final 20 minutes or so of Morning Glory flounders a bit in search of an ending. I don't think there's any doubt as to the fate of "Daybreak" in the audience's mind, but the way Becky & Co. save the day is a little out of left field, not to mention anticlimactic. I wouldn't count myself as a huge Rachel McAdams fan. She's certainly cute and has never embarrassed herself as an actress, but since Mean Girls and The Notebook, I haven't been that impressed with her choice of roles in such films as The Time Traveler's Wife, State of Play, Red Eye, The Family Stone and Sherlock Holmes. I'm not saying all of these films are bad -- some I quite liked -- but I've never been especially impressed with her work in any of them. But in Morning Glory, she absolutely pops off the screen without being annoying or outrageous or overly cutesy or playing dumb. McAdams portrays a hard-working woman in a position of power who doesn't become a stereotypical bitch boss to gain the respect of those around her. It sounds positively radical, I know, but it works. And for large portions of its running time, the movie works too.

Cool It

If you know the name Bjorn Lomborg then you probably have an opinion about him and his theories on not just the environment but also on how to slow down global warming in a substantive way. Lomborg is a Danish researcher and scientist who believes that the most popular ways people are changing their lives to reduce carbon emissions are a waste of time and government funding. Hybrids, energy-efficient light bulbs, cap and trade policies are all a waste of time in his eyes, and Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was packed with half-truths about both the severity of global warming and ways to reduce the earth's temperature. Lomborg applauds Gore's efforts to bring global warming into the spotlight, but he believes most of Gore's "solutions" would result in a fraction of 1 degree temperature change.

But Lomborg is far from simply a naysayer. In fact, he seems to have more possible (and less expensive) ideas on dealing with global warming than he does complaints about how governments are tackling the problems. And some of these ideas seem like they are right out of science fiction, except they are completely possible. Needless to say, there are many environmentalists who see Lomborg as a threat and a traitor to the cause, but watching director Ondi Timoner's documentary Cool It makes it very clear that this isn't the case. It's actually fascinating to watch someone put down conventional practices on bettering the environment while still very much working toward a better world through some fairly radical theories.

The simple truth is, I don't think Lomborg deals enough with his most passionate critics. I was longing for a debate of sorts, either directly or through editing. Especially among Americans, it's going to take us a great deal of time to unlearn what Gore taught us in his Inconvenient Truth lecture. How many celebrities will stand behind the head of a Danish think tank over a former vice president? Whether Lomborg's ideas become popular or not, they certainly deserve to be heard, and the lecture of his that is presented in Cool It is just as convincing, but lacks the massive screen and PowerPoint presentation. This isn't one of those docs that is guaranteed to make you angry (but it very well might), but there's no way it won't make you a little bit nervous. That's OK every so often. The film opens today at AMC Pipers Alley theaters.

Four Lions

Words almost don't do it justice. Somehow, director and co-writer Chris Morris has created the darkest black comedy about terrorism I've certainly ever seen in the form of his feature-film debut Four Lions. A group of four militant British Muslims plan to cause havoc on the streets of Britain by making bombs, strapping them on their bodies, and taking out as many people as they can by blowing them up. Sounds pretty devastating, right? Except most of the four men in question are complete idiots who can't seem to tie their shoes right, let alone settle on a logical, doable plan and carry it out.

Two of the men travel to the middle east to receive terrorist training... and end up accidentally blowing up the training camp with a bazooka. They race back to the UK, where they pretend their mission is set and the plan making begins. One of the four men is the most out-of-control member of the group: Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert, who really just wants to hurt people and himself. Most of his dialogue is delivered in various screams. His idea for which target to hit to cause a revolution among the Muslim community in England is just crazy enough to work, which is why everyone else in the group rejects it. The leader of the group is Omar (Riz Ahmed), who seems like the most serious member of the group. He's so dedicated to becoming a proper suicide bomber that even is wife and young son are behind him. The Lennie to Omar's George is Waj (Kayvan Novak), who is nothing short of one of the greatest morons in film history. The fourth full-time member of the group is Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), whose dedication to suicide bombing is weak, but he loves the idea of strapping a bomb onto a crow and sending him off to do the dirty work.

The key to Four Lions' success is the writing. Some of my favorite moments are when the four men are attempting to make their suicide videos, which typically end up in arguments about a unified message or the size of the gun they're holding on camera. The movie gets so many laughs after a while that you forget you're watching a film about a self-made terrorist cell, one that intends to kill many people and appears to have the ability to do so. There's is blood and death in this movie, make no mistake, but some of the deaths are so ridiculous that you can't help but bust a gut laughing. The accents get a bit thick here and there, but most of what is happening here you'll get without any trouble. I think I'll stop talking about this movie and simply say that many of you will be grossly offended by Four Lions (at least I hope so); I wouldn't be surprised if walkouts happen. This is a film that gets big laughs by going for the deepest vein and taking no prisoners. I think the "heroes" of this film would be proud to be in a movie like this. Seek this out as it slowly begins to expand across the country this week. In Chicago, it opens today at AMC Pipers Alley theaters.

The Freebie

One of my absolute favorite films from this year's SXSW Film Festival was a little two-person drama called The Freebie (which also garnered high praise at Sundance), written and directed by one of the two leads, Katie Aselton, who just happens to be married to one of the movie's producers, filmmaker Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair and Cyrus, in both of which Aselton has roles). If you've seen any of the films Mark and his brother Jay have made over the years, then you have some idea of the style of The Freebie (which co-stars Dax Shepard, in the single greatest performance of his career, going the straight dramatic approach, while still being charming). Aselton's "script" was really just a six-page outline that she used to direct the narrative, allowing all the actors to improvise their dialogue.

And while The Freebie does have a kind of loose and free-floating feel at times, the story about a loving married couple who decide to each sleep with another person one time in an effort to spice up their suffering sex life feels much more deliberate and guided than other films of this nature have in the past. The film's non-linear structure really brings it to life (congrats to editor Nat Sanders, who also edited last year's magnificent Humpday, starring Mark Duplass), and turns this simple story of a couple over-thinking their relationship and making a bad choice into a bit of a mystery. The emotional rawness of the movie is dead-on perfection, and Aselton and Shepard (playing a character not unlike the one he plays on NBC's "Parenthood") are phenomenal.

As funny and spontaneous as Shepard has been as part of the "Punk'd" gang and in films such as Idiocracy, Zathura, Let's Go To Prison, The Comebacks, Baby Mama and When In Rome, I like this new direction his acting has taken. And Aselton's naturally beautiful and expressive nature make us feel like we aren't even watching an actor have these conversations and go through this pain. Several points in this story are quite difficult to watch. I think it's safe to say I kind of loved this little movie, and as happy as I am that it's opening in Chicago finally, I'm sad to see it's only playing three times at the Gene Siskel Film Center and not getting a full weeklong run, at least. Still, it's well worth checking out, but only if you feel you have a solid foundation with your significant other. I see this film leading to a lot of long conversations you may not be prepared and willing to have. The showtimes for The Freebie in the next week are: Friday, Nov. 12 at 8pm; Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 8pm; and Thursday, Nov. 18 at 8:15pm. I implore you to check this out.

To read my exclusive joint interview with The Freebie director and star Katie Aselton and co-star Dax Shepard, go to Ain't It Cool News.

 

T.J. Miller / November 13, 2010 12:51 PM

Man, don't be so hard on Unstoppable. It's a tight film from start to finish. If you don't like Tony Scott's stye, then don't see the movie. He is his own Genre. Same as if you don't like Nancy Meyers style films, don't go see them. If you go to see unstoppable, go to see a great Tony Scott film, not just a good movie.

cph / November 15, 2010 2:36 PM

Ordinary mortals see a slab of stone. An artist sees a statue of David. That's what Danny Boyle did with 127 HOURS. Ordinary directors would have made a gory "Saw" type movie. Instead, he saw something profound and made something beautiful out of nothing. Thank GOD for artists.

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 29 2014

The November Man, Frank, As Above/So Below, Love Is Strange, Life of Crime, Bound By Flesh, To Be Takei & Me and You

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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