Monday, April 11, 2011

We've Moved!

Hello all...

Just a heads up that we've migrated to a new site. You can now find reviews at


Friday, March 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Paul"

Is this the year of Spielberg nostalgia?

In June, children of the '80s will flock to J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," whose trailer suggests that it will resonate strongly with fans of the Amblin brand.

Until then, we have "Paul," an extraterrestrial comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and littered with homages to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and "Jaws."

Of course, I don't remember E.T. smoking pot or saying the f-word every five minutes. Maybe I haven't seen the special edition.

Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost) are two British nerds visiting the U.S. for a comic book convention, followed by a road trip across famous alien landing sites, such as Area 51. During their travels, a little green man named Paul encounters the duo and asks for their help escaping the government clutches. Sane people would normally run away if an extraterrestrial approached their RV, but as Paul is a laid back, stoner alien voiced by Seth Rogen, the two geeks don't mind a little extra adventure. Along the way they pick up a fundamentalist Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) and run afoul of a government agent (Jason Bateman) out to track Paul down.

A film so full of film references is nothing new to Pegg and Frost, who co-starred in the classic genre mash-ups "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz." Like those two films, "Paul" is written by Pegg and Frost. Yet the film lacks the energy, wit and fun of those classics, settling for lazy gags and crass banter. It's "E.T." by way of Kevin Smith, although even Smith would find the "Star Wars" shout outs a bit too obvious.

Pegg and Frost really have nothing to do here. "Shaun" and "Fuzz" may not be deep films, but they gave the two actors actual characters to play. Despite its zombie film roots, "Shaun's" humor came from the idea of a slacker having to man up and rise to the occasion; "Hot Fuzz's" biggest laughs came from placing an action movie super cop in a tiny English hamlet.

Here, we're not given much more information other than the fact that Graeme and Clive are nerds who like "Star Wars." Clive is supposedly a writer, but nothing comes of that until the end credits. Graeme has a romance with Ruth, but it's mostly obligatory - there's nothing really for Pegg to sink his teeth into.

What's left is a collection of obvious and homophobic jokes (the hotel only has one bed, ha!) or movie references that start out clever and then are delivered with no subtlety. For instance, it's funny when Graeme and Clive buy "Five Tones" fireworks to signal Paul's alien companions - movie fans would get the "Close Encounters" reference. It's not funny to have them remark about how fitting the reference is.

But the majority of the film's gags are of this variety. A few are clever - listen closely to the music in a Western bar, for instance. Some, such as Paul's contribution to 1980s movies, start funny and then go on too long for the joke to work. And others - a character shooting a CB and saying "boring conversation anyway" - just lack conviction and fall flat.

You might notice I haven't even mentioned Paul yet. The truth is, he kind of gets lost in the shuffle. I understand the thinking in bringing Rogen in to voice the alien as a laidback everyschlub. But there's really nothing very interesting or funny about Paul, except that he talks like Seth Rogen. Maybe I'm still recovering from "The Green Hornet," but that didn't help my enjoyment of the film.

As for Wiig, the "Saturday Night Live" star who has been hit-or-miss in feature films, she's given the thankless task of playing a stereotypical and offensive caricature of fundamentalist Christians. There's an intriguing concept in having a character begin to question their faith by encountering something beyond their grasp, but the film plays it for cheap laughs about religion and abandons any attempt at character in exchange for having Ruth be so excited about being "free" of dogma so that she can now smoke and swear all she wants. It's a mean-spirited and unfunny characterization.

When it becomes clear that the road trip can only meander so long before getting stale, the film packs itself full of characters. In addition to Bateman's agent, we have Bill Hader as a psychotic cop, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth's fundamentalist father, Sigourney Weaver as the government head behind the conspiracy and Blythe Danner as one of Paul's oldest earth friends. None of these people are particularly bad - I laughed quite a bit at Bateman's deadpan delivery, Weaver's over-the-top menace and Hader's bizarre antics. But by the time the film gets to the third act, it becomes so stuffed with superfluous characters that it spins off the rails.

The problem is that I've loved Frost and Pegg before. I hold "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" up as two of the last decade's greatest comedies. The two have a wonderful chemistry together, and that does result in some scattered laughs here and there in "Paul." But with its genre mixings and the duo at the forefront, the film obviously wants to evoke the same sense of fun as their previous collaborations, but simply lacks the wit and energy.

The problem may be director Greg Mottola, who has successfully handled buddy comedies ("Superbad") and nostalgia ("Adventureland") before. But Mottola lacks the finesse to seamlessly integrate the lifts from other films with the same flair as "Shaun" director Edgar Wright, who used homage as a way to tell a story; here, the parody feels clunky and obvious, delivered with a shout instead of a sly whisper.

It's disappointing that a cast and crew that has made me laugh very hard before is unable to get more than a few chuckles out of me this time out. But their previous successes give me confidence that they'll return to form in the future; hopefully, "Paul" is just an alien experience to them.

Originally published here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Review: "Rango"

A witty and exciting mashup of Westerns, film noir and whatever else passes through director Gore Verbinski's brain, "Rango" is easily the most original non-Pixar animated film in years. Don't let the Nickelodeon label and talking animals fool you: This is far from standard kiddie fare.

Johnny Depp voices the titular character, a chameleon left stranded in the desert when his aquarium topples from the family car. Following advice from an unfortunate armadillo (Alfred Molina), the lizard seeks shelter in the ramshackle town of Dirt, where he quickly impresses the locals with far-fetched tales of bravery, assumes the name Rango and is appointed sheriff. Although he'd much rather be acting, Rango quickly takes to his new role of protecting the town's lizards, possums and other assorted creatures, and guarding the village's diminishing water supply.

On paper, this sounds like just another fish-out-of-water tale, a popular staple with animated films. But John Logan's script, coupled with Verbinski's outrageous visual style and Depp's love for everything off-kilter, make this something far better.

Rather than parody Western tropes, "Rango" presents itself as a true genre tale, complete with shoot-outs in the town square, a thrilling chase through the desert and a saloon full of shady drunks. There's the shifty town mayor, a dastardly rattlesnake villain and a pretty little lizard to save. "Rango" is not a spoof, but a true Western comedy, respectful of the genre and finding laughs not by poking fun at its cliches but celebrating them and mixing its humor in with the story.

"Rango" could easily be a child's gateway for great movies. In addition to its Western roots, the plot also borrows heavily from "Chinatown," pays homage to "Apocalypse Now" and even makes a nod to Depp's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The film's full of witty references and sly in-jokes that will delight cinephiles, and I imagine adults will get a good chuckle when Rango visits the Spirit of the West, who looks fairly familiar.

The references will likely go over children's heads - I doubt many preteens have watched "Chinatown" recently. But unlike so many recent animated films, which rely almost entirely on pop culture-centric gags, "Rango" will enthrall kids with its nonstop arsenal of gags and action sequences. It should be noted, however, that the adventure gets a bit intense in some parts and parents may be surprised at some of the language flying out of the toons' mouths; it's nothing that violates "Rango's" PG-rating, but hearing cartoon characters say "hell" and "damn" make take some parents off guard.

A visual marvel, "Rango" is beautifully animated, with a bright and diverse pallet for Verbinski to play with. Sometimes the colors pop off the screen, as with Rango, his Hawaiian shirts and lush playscape in the aquarium. Other times, Verbinski bathes the characters in shadows and takes advantage of the film's Western background to have his characters charge through the dust and grime of the Old West. As he proved with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, Verbinski loves bizarre visuals, and Rango's adventures in the dessert give him room to play with some delightfully weird images, like a wind-up goldfish or headless Barbie doll. It's "High Noon" by way of Terry Gilliam.

Delightful and exciting as "Rango" often is, the film sometimes feels ready to topple over. Depp is doing a variation on the eccentric, panicked hero he often plays, but sometimes his jokes fizzle and his character falls flat. The film is so packed with ideas that, at times, it's rather unwieldy and overstuffed. The film also resorts to bathroom humor several times, which should delight kids but will have adults rolling their eyes.

Originally published in the Advisor & Source newspapers.

But how often do we have that problem with animated films these days? Most the time, anything without the Pixar label is struggling to get out a steady stream of easy gags and dated pop culture references. "Rango" is a true original that works more often than not. And those times it fails, it deserves quite a bit of credit for trying something different.

Movie Review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

An intriguing, smart and often silly rumination on fate, destiny and love, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a film that works in spite of itself.

When Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) suffers a crushing defeat during election season, he's ready to throw in the towel. But a chance encounter in the men's bathroom with beguiling beauty Elise (Emily Blunt) reenergizes David and leaves him smitten. When he bumps into the woman on the bus months later, David tries to pursue her, but is surprised to stumble upon a gang of fedora-wearing men stopping his path.

These men, we quickly learn, are the Adjustment Bureau - a team of professionals working for the Chairman (aka Fate) to make sure people don't step out of line with their destiny. David is never supposed to see Elise again and warned about the consequences if he does - and the Adjustment Bureau has supernatural abilities to change minds, cause car accidents and do just about anything to ensure David and Elise are kept apart. But David, so sure of his feelings for this mysterious stranger, feels that the Bureau is wrong, and that he and Elise are supposed to be together.

The concept, based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is interesting. Who among us hasn't wondered whether a different decision in our life - a new route to work, a talk with a stranger - would have completely altered where we ended up? The issue of free will vs. determinism has fueled many films, some of them good and some of them bad.

"The Adjustment Bureau" leans a little more to the former, even as it struggles under the weight of its own silliness. The trouble with a film that so literally deals with issues of fate is that it risks sounding corny and self-serious. Lines like "if he kisses her ... a real kiss ... everything changes" may produce snickers from the audience, and the villains' bumbling throughout the film's first half may be intended to be humorous but comes across a bit clumsy.

The film works much better when it takes the time to go beyond its science fiction trappings and focus on the love story between David and Elise. Damon is one of this generation's most likeable male leads and he brings a real charisma to his role as a politician with a troubled past. He and Blunt have a terrific chemistry together, and their shared scenes are sweet, funny and romantic. The thing that makes the film work, despite some of the plot's clumsiness, is that the actors make the audience want to see the characters together.

Director George Nolfi finds a surer footing for the sci-fi elements in the film's second half, when Terrence Stamp is brought in as an agent assigned to finally shut David down. Stamp brings a sense of intimidation and menace to the film, raising the film's stakes from the earlier moments when David could easily outwit his pursuers. Anthony Mackie also has an interesting role as an agent who finds himself sympathizing with David's plight.

Despite its inherent silliness, "The Adjustment Bureau" is a mostly enjoyable thriller driven by an effective romance. It provokes questions - albeit surface ones - about matters of fate, destiny and sacrifice. It's not particularly deep, but it has a bit more to chew on that, say, the latest Jason Statham thrill ride. Only in its final act, when it devolves into a series of chase sequences and arrives at a limp denouement, does it begin to fly off the rails.

Dick's work has been the basis for a number of films, some great ("Blade Runner"), some good ("Minority Report") and some unspeakable bad ("Paycheck"). "The Adjustment Bureau" falls closer to the middle category - it's not a waste of time, but I wouldn't say it's your destiny to see it, either.

Article originally published in the Advisor and Source Newspapers.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Movie Review: "Hall Pass"

The latest comedy from Peter and Bobby Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), "Hall Pass" has an intriguing premise, a likable cast, a few funny moments and an ending that makes you feel as if the characters have learned something. But as the credits rolled, everything felt a bit flat, bland and false. Its surface charms disguise the fact that the film has nothing at its center for audiences to invest in; it's not a movie, it's a doughnut.

Certainly the idea is ripe for comedy. Two 30-year-old buddies, Fred (Jason Sudeikis) and Rick (Owen Wilson), are happily married yet find themselves constantly ogling women and reminiscing about their glorious single days. Fed up with their horndog spouses, their wives (Christina Applegate and Jenna Fischer) issue the two men a "hall pass": one week away from the restrictions of married life where they're free to do whatever they want.

Not only does the idea have merit, but the Farrelly brothers are working with a cast that should be able to nail this material in their sleep. Wilson is the straight man but brings leftover goodwill from his work in "Wedding Crashers" as weary family man Rick, and Sudeikis - one of "Saturday Night Live's" most consistent current players - is born to play the out-of-touch cad who thinks he still has moves. Applegate is one of the most underrated comedic actresses working, while Fischer doesn't have to do too much more than play the same lovable character she portrays each week on "The Office." A supporting cast including Stephen Merchant ("Extras") and J.B. Smoove ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") is also promising.

Yet the movie falls curiously flat. Rick and Fred hit the town, ready to get drunk and pick up loose women, and the film immediately feels stale and predictable, with many of the jokes landing with a thud. The film's one-liners are uninspired, with lame attempts to pump up the humor with four-letter words going over like lead balloons. The "Hall Pass" week begins with an inspired joke about the guys trying to find women at Applebees, but the film goes nowhere from there - just recycled jokes about how old and unprepared Frank and Rick are for the single lifestyle. The Farrellys, who delivered one of the funniest movie moments of the past 20 years with "There's Something About Mary's" zipper scene, seem to have lost the ability or desire to properly pace a sequence; their major set pieces feel rushed and obligatory, like the brothers are suddenly embarrassed of the immaturity that's been their hallmark for so long.

Sudeikis and Wilson do what they can with the material. I particularly enjoyed Fred's pickup lines at the bar and the way the two offend some rich friends when they pay them a visit. But just as the plot kicks into high gear, all momentum is lost, with big set pieces feeling oddly paced. An unfortunate trip to a fitness center for Rick, and Fred's scandalous visit to a massage parlor feel rushed, with no build up, ending in awkward punch lines or raunchy sight gags.

There have been many adult-themed comedies lately that have bungled the big gags but coasted on the interplay between the two main characters. I'm thinking of films like "I Love You Man" or "Knocked Up." But those films had characters whose depths and interests extended beyond the confines of the plot. Here, all we know is that Fred sells insurance, Rick is a real estate agent and both men think about sex constantly. Without any more depth to their friendship, there's nothing else for the film to coast on but sex gags that fall flat.

There's good material here for a smart, witty and even heartfelt commentary on marriage and relationships, and it would have been interesting to see how else they could find humor in the restrictions Fred and Rick feel in their marriages. Did they have dreams they can't pursue now? Do they have things they'd love to spend their money on but are crushed by budgeting? There's a great wealth of material that could be mined for humor here, but all we're given is the immature, R-rated joke that men are pigs who think about sex all the time. Maybe there's some truth to that, but since the film falls flat on all its sex gags, there's nothing else to string it along, save for Richard Jenkins' small role as a womanizing middle-ager.

I'd be curious to see what the same material would have been like in the hands of someone like a Judd Apatow, who could easily combine wit, crassness and an emotional commentary on the differences between men and women. Instead, we get scenes of Owen Wilson staring at oversized male genitals and Sudeikis having a tryst with an old woman.

The problem further compounds when the Farrellys try to bring the film to a semi-serious and romantic close in the final act. By the time Rick and Fred realize the error of their ways and rush back to their wives, the film wants us to think they've learned something, but the characters are so one-dimensional that we haven't seen a real change, just an obligatory and manipulative resolution. That would be fine if this were a "Dumb and Dumber"-esque comedy, but the scene is staged so that the directors want us to see this as a sweet finale. Even the climax's comedic complications are staged ham-handedly and feel more chaotic than inspired.

To get a glimpse of what this movie could have been, just take a look at the subplot featuring Applegate and Fischer, who begin to experience the pros and cons of their own hall pass. The scenes, sadly truncated, balance the humor and heart that the Farrellys obviously want the rest of the film to have, and hint at a much more heartfelt film. If it were possible, I'd take a hall pass on Sudeikis and Wilson to spend more time with the ladies. They're in the better movie.

Original article posted here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Quick Hits

My initial plan for this three-day President's Day weekend was to load up on some movies I had missed out on in 2010 and have three days of non-stop movie marathons. I decided to be a little more productive and a little less couch potato-ish, but I did manage to see a few movies--some old, some new--this weekend, so I thought I'd write up some brief thoughts on those.

And yes, I'm hoping to get part two of "The Directors" up with my thoughts on "Raising Arizona," but more than likely that feature will gain more speed after I've moved into the new place. Lots of moving and wedding prep going on here.

Anyway, here we go:

Tango and Cash

I know this 1989 Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action-comedy has its fans. But while it has its moments, I have to imagine this was the moment that the wisecracking supercop genre of the late-80s/early-90s hit its breaking point.

Tango (Stallone) and Cash (Russell) are two of LA's top cops. Tango is a sharply-dressed businessman who stays in the cop game "for the action" while Cash has the t-shirt, stubble and haircut of the K-Mart version of Martin Riggs. The two are unorthodox in their methods, playing chicken with a semi truck or crushing a perp's windpipe with a chair to get answers but, somehow, the press heralds them as heroes. It goes without saying that Tango and Cash hate each other. I'll give you five seconds to wonder whether they must overcome their differences and become friends to stay alive.

An LA drug kingpin (Jack Palance) has had enough of the two cops meddling with his "billion dollar business" and pays off the city's legal system to frame the two for murder and put them away in an only-in-the-movies prison where the leaky walls are made of stone and criminals rain flaming rolls of toilet paper down from the ceiling. Tango and Cash not only have to survive in, but escape from, this hell hole and then track down the man who put them away.

The plot is wafer thin--I can't exactly explain how the cops are transferred from their cushy federal prison to this Shawshank-esque nightmare any more than I could tell you how exactly they track down the bad guy to his compound at the end of the film. The script seems to be less concerned with plot mechanics and more about ensuring Tango and Cash have a ready supply of wisecracks at their disposal. There's not a single line in this movie that isn't matched two seconds later with a smart alec remark. Some of these, such as Tango remarking "Rambo was a pussy," are good for a chuckle. Others, such as "I think that with your IQ, you're unarmed and still very dangerous" land with a thud.

This comes down, actually, to the casting of Stallone and Russell, two actors who seem to have very little real chemistry together. Russell seems more at home as the wild card, slovenly detective and the one-liners flow a little easier from him. Stallone, asked to wear fancy glasses and suits, looks out of his league. Whereas Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson were able to deliver one-liners well enough that they felt like extensions of their characters, Stallone's wooden acting here makes it all too apparent the lines were crafted. There's no attitude or panache to the wisecracks; just the feeling that the screenwriters really wanted to have audiences leave the theater with quotes on their tongue. Aside from a funny FUBAR reference, however, it doesn't really work.

The film coasts on some fun action sequences, particularly a brutal "Lethal Weapon"-esque brawl in the prison's laundry room and a very over-the-top, but enjoyable escape from the penitentiary. The flick is definitely part of Warner Brothers' "overkill is underrated" mentality from the late 1980s and indulges in all the excess these films shared. There's a bloody fight in Cash's apartment, the prison is filled with sparking, exploding generators and the bad guy's hideout features monster trucks and halls of mirrors, which the cops destroy with their own pimped-out police RV. It's utterly trashy and ridiculous, but I'm sure every male who ponied up the dough for "The Expendables" last summer probably has a special place in their heart for this flick.

It's definitely a guilty pleasure, and it works much better when focused on the action sequences. Unfortunately, director Andrey Konchalovskiy is convinced he's making an action-comedy, and it's the latter that lands with a thud. The wise cracks hit their mark only about 50-percent of the time. Even worse, though, is the scene where Cash escapes a strip club by dressing in drag or a misunderstanding where Tango thinks Cash is having sex with his sister (Teri Hatcher).

There are slight charms to be had here, as I said. But I've met many who refer to this flick as a bona fide action classic and, I'm sorry, I just don't see it. Stallone and Russell don't have the chemistry to pull of a "Lethal Weapon" buddy comedy and it doesn't have the confidence to be as trashy and guilty as a "Last Boy Scout." It may not be totally FUBAR, but it's far from the best work these guys have done.

The Sunset Limited

I think both Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are fantastic actors who too easily succumb to type-casting. Before waking up this decade and delivering some of his finest work in films like "In the Valley of Elah" and "No Country For Old Men," Jones spent nearly a decade coasting on the Laurels of his no-nonsense character from "The Fugitive," sometimes successfully ("Men In Black") sometimes woefully ("Man of the House.") After Tarantino turned him into the coolest cat in Hollywood, Jackson milked that persona for all its worth, which is how he's turned into a caricature of himself in "Snakes on a Plane" or the current Marvel films.

It's extremely refreshing to see these actors shed their crutches and deliver some of their strongest work in ages in "The Sunset Limited," an HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's two-character play, directed by Jones. Featuring only the two men in one cramped apartment, the film is a powerful acting showcase that delves into some of life's deepest questions, leaving no one with easier answers.

Jones plays White, a professor who attempted to kill himself by hurling himself in front of a train. Jackson is a poor ex-con named Black who saved his life and taken the broken man up to his apartment. Black, an evangelical Christian, feels it's his calling to save White. White, an atheist, not only has no belief in God but no faith in humanity. He reasons that it's not only wrong to assume that we are our brother's keeper, he believes that the very existence of humanity continually proves that people are beyond saving. These beliefs fuel a gripping 90-minute discussion of philosophy, theology, race, culture and the things that keep us going in our darkest moments.

When adapting a one-room play for film, the tendency is to find a way to open up the story to keep the narrative moving and visually appealing. Jones, however, does the opposite and takes advantage of the restrictions McCarthy places upon the story. The apartment is small and constrictive, with outside din often wafting in from out doors. As the two men confront each other and find themselves defending and questioning their own beliefs, the apartment begins to feel smaller, trapping and cornering them so they have nowhere else to look but at the other person. It lends a sense of tension and urgency to the discussions which are, quite literally, life and death discussions.

Jackson has been buried in his cool persona for so long that it's surprising to see him here as a humble, poor ex-con. There's a warmth about Black; he's not portrayed as a lunatic who hears voices but as a man who strongly holds to his convictions and won't be deterred, no matter what you might throw at him. Sometimes he speaks softly and gently. Other times, he mocks and chides White. In one blistering scene, Black launches into a prison story and loses himself in the narrative, Jackson's voice booming and screaming in that way only he can do. It's been so long since he's been this engaged in a performance and it's riveting.

Jones, with his hang-dog face, largely plays the part of a man broken. He has nothing to believe in. He used to believe culture would be his salvation but now he watches it be destroyed by a world that is marching toward oblivion. Jones captures this brokenness perfectly, but also filters in the pride that White feels, the belief that his problems matter more because of the insights his education has offered him. In the film's final moments, he is given a dizzying monologue in which he reveals the reasons for his despair and the strength of his convictions. "The only thing I'll never give up," he says, "Is giving up."

It's a fascinating performance piece, fueled my McCarthy's pitch-perfect dialogue. The writer may be far from his comfort zone of wide vistas and unending Western landscapes in this New York apartment, but his themes of religion, despair, hope and apocalypse are all present here. McCarthy seems fascinated by the way these two belief systems clash against each other and the questions each one presents. Atheists may seem to be the most cultured and intelligent, and yet the end for White is one of cynicism and despair. For believers like Black, their faith has given them hope and a reason for living, a belief that people can be redeemed and the world made better. But faith, by definition, is not always certainty, and the film presents the dilemma of what believers face when their faith is not always rewarded and answers aren't always given to them. "The Sunset Limited" gives us two men with opposing beliefs, neither of whom are willing to back down from their convictions and what happens when those outlooks violently collide.

I found the film riveting, one of the most intelligent and profound looks at faith, unbelief and hope that I've seen in a long time. In some of the strongest work of their storied careers, Jones and Jackson knock this one out of the park.


Perhaps next to the collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the partnership between Tony Scott and Denzel Washington is the most frustrating director-actor team-up in Hollywood.

At times, the two have given us some solid action thrillers, such as "Crimson Tide" or "Man on Fire." Other times, you get "Deja Vu." I don't know what frustrates me more--the tendency that Washington has to coast in these films, playing the same lovable curmudgeon over and over, or Scott's tendency to edit his films like a meth addict.

Their latest collaboration, "Unstoppable" is actually one of the pair's better films. Washington is definitely giving the same performance he's given Scott before, but he's balanced by Chris Pine in a strong co-starring role. Pine is a rookie train conductor tagging along with Washington's engineer on his first day of work. Washington's character has just been given his forced retirement notice and is understandably irked at having to show this young upstart the ropes.

While the two are out bickering on their route, a series of mishaps has caused a train elsewhere in Pennsylvania to start barreling down the tracks without a conductor. This train, the size of the Chrysler Building, is carrying eight cars' worth of toxic, highly combustible chemicals. And, of yeah, if it hits the bridge in the town where Pine lives, it's likely to fly off the rails and eradicate everyone there.

When I first saw the previews, I assumed it had to be a parody. After all, how much can you do with a train? It goes one direction. I actually thought this would be a "Speed 2" descent into self-parody, with ominous shots of the train heading closer and closer to town as people fumbled about what to do.

The final product, though, is actually fairly plausible (although I question of much of this is actually inspired by a true story). Scott fumbles a bit when showing how a lazy conductor loses control of the train, but he gets a great deal of suspense from shots of the train narrowly missing another train full of children or of employees speeding up alongside the locomotive trying to climb aboard. There's a pretty nifty sequence where one worker tries to be helicoptered onto the moving train which, of course, ends in disaster. After all, the train is "Unstoppable."

When he ascertains that the railroad commission intends to derail the train, Washington knows that it won't work. So he decides to catch his locomotive up to the runaway car, hitch onto it and bring it to a stop. It's crazy and dangerous, of course, but this is a Tony Scott movie, so of course it has a good shot at working.

The story moves just fast enough for us to keep from questioning much of it. It's fun, loud and flashy, but Washington and Pine are both likable enough in their roles to keep us invested. Likewise, Rosario Dawson, as a control room manager, keeps things grounded enough for us to maintain our suspension of disbelief. Scott eases up on his editing here and actually delivers some coherent action sequences.

The film relies a bit too much on the perspective of the media covering the train chase; in the film's final hour, I'd say a good 45% of the scenes are shown from the perspective of news cameras. And while I don't disagree that the media would be all over a disaster like this, the omnipresence of news choppers is a bit distracting in many of the action sequences. A romantic subplot between the Pine character and his wife is also a bit cliche.

Still, the people who see this film want to simply see Denzel stop a fast train. They won't be disappointed. "Unstoppable" ain't art, but it does give the people what they want.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Movie Review: "Cedar Rapids"

Original review published at the Advisor and Source.

"Cedar Rapids" may be the first coming-of-age movie about a 30-year-old man.

Played by Ed Helms with the same joyful naivety that he brought to the "The Hangover" and "The Office," Tim Lippe is a successful insurance agent who's never left the small town he grew up in. He believes in the old-fashioned values his firm touts and thinks his dalliances with his elementary schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) are "super awesome."

When the agency's top salesman dies in a compromising situation, Tim is sent to an annual insurance convention in Cedar Rapids to bring home the coveted "Double Diamond Award," bestowed upon agencies that best display the virtues of the association's uptight president. Tim should be a shoo-in for bringing home the gold - his worst curse words are "My foot" and when he saunters up to the bar, he orders a root beer. Tim's boss (Stephen Root) has even taken precautions to team Tim up with an equally straight-laced and mundane roommate (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) for the weekend.

Obviously, it goes without saying that a housewife looking for an escape (Anne Heche) and a hard-drinking blowhard (John C. Reilly) introduce Tim to the temptations of "big city" life. And you've probably guessed that the once uptight teetotaler gets more than he bargained for as things spiral out of control.

What you may not have predicted, however, is how sweet the entire proceedings are.

Much of that can be attributed to Helms, who can do the wide-eyed nice guy routine better than anyone these days. There's an excitement to Tim's first adventures in the city and Helms captures Tim's eagerness perfectly. He keeps Tim childlike and naive, but never dumb. Tim's too focused on his job to drink, too in love with his teacher girlfriend (who tries telling him they're just "having a good time") to flirt with women and too inexperienced at life outside his little hamlet to know what a local prostitute means when she asks him to "party." But he's good at his job, genuinely loves what he does and firmly believes that insurance agents are heroes fighting for the little guy. It's this enthusiasm that makes Tim a character we enjoy spending 90 minutes with.

A lesser movie would have focused on Tim's competition with Reilly's crass, annoying sales agent. And while Reilly is in full "Step Brothers" mode here, spouting off dirty one-liners and hamming it up for the camera, his character is actually revealed to be a good guy, loyal to his friends and living it up in Cedar Rapids because his home life is in the dumps. It's a fun and raunchy role for Reilly, but it's balanced out by genuine warmth.

That's actually a good way to describe the majority of "Cedar Rapids." There are several big laughs to be had as Tim experiences life outside his comfort zone, but very few of the jokes are at his expense. The cohorts he finds himself surrounded by at the hotel are funny to watch - particularly Whitlock, who has the film's funniest moment when he saves Tim from a fight late in the film - but what stuck with me was the sense of warmth and camaraderie among the cast.

It's rare these days that a genuinely good character can be the hero of a film. Hollywood likes flawed heroes and lately it seems that cads, slackers and cons make up the majority of comedic protagonists. Tim's a good character whose innate niceness pulls broken people into his orbit. In addition to Reilly's character, Anne Heche is surprisingly affective as a bored housewife who looks forward to this weekend as her yearly escape from marriage. These characters do some pretty terrible things during their weekend and, yes, pull Tim down with them on occasion. But what's refreshing is how, through his experiences, Tim sees the hypocrisy that surrounds him and rediscovers not only his own integrity but the bonds formed among problematic people. It's a surprising mature subtext for a raunchy comedy.

I'm not saying "Cedar Rapids" is "The Shawshank Redemption." Director Miguel Artera seems to sacrifice subtlety and wit for big, crass laughs too often, and by the time Tim has to be rescued from a drug-fueled party in the sticks, it's begun to run out of steam. Kurtwood Smith's work as the ultra-moral association president is cliche and derivative of any role that has ever called for a crusty dean or camp counselor.

But maybe that makes sense. With its ribald jokes and spirit of camaraderie, "Cedar Rapids" really might be best described as a summer camp movie for grownups, set inside a hotel. It's a funny, surprisingly warm movie and I wouldn't mind spending some time with these characters again next conventions season.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.