Rewind Review: Unstoppable

One of the better ways to examine the progression of cinematic history I feel is to look at similar films and compare them. As I was watching this film, as absolutely enthralled as I was by the collision course that was set up; I got to thinking about The Great Train Robbery (1903). Now, granted, there is little that this film holds in common with a title 107 years its senior aside from trains but consider this.

The audiences in 1903 literally ducked out of the way when a train on screen plowed right at them and similarly ducked when the robber shot right at them. What tremendous progress both technically and with regard to audience sophistication has been made. When you look at this runaway train film, however, many classical techniques are what make it work.

Mainly, the editing puts this film over the top. The oldest and most tried-and-true technique in film. The film does set up the danger: this train with X-thousand tons of haz mats is likely to derail in a town of 40,000 or so, however, a number that large in a cinematic context is abstract. Who do we follow and care for? Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine) who will be chasing the runaway train down and Connie (Rosario Dawson) who is the Supervisor trying to manage the crisis. Yet this doesn’t truly create most of the tension. It’s the cross-cutting that does it. It’s a news helicopter following, the runaway catching speed, showing an on coming train, a switch is made, they nearly hit one another.

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And there are situations similar to this throughout. The film builds tension-filled situations throughout and even the littlest mistake by anyone has consequences.

The characters are basically assembled but as mentioned before there is concern for their well-being and a rooting interest is established. It’s not even the facts that make us identify but how they are conveyed. Will has a skeleton in his closet a terrible mistake he made but we get to know him first before we learn what it is. We learn Frank is a dedicated, very capable engineer and then learn of his job situation. We can see Connie is wise, compassionate and courageous through her interaction with her superior.

The cast is vital when you’re dealing with archetypal characters such as these. You need not only talented actors but also charismatic one who will add and unwritten dimension to these people. Denzel Washington’s dialogue is frequently repetitive but there is a presence and authority to his delivery that adds to who Frank is. Pine has a tough look but a vulnerability which is crucial to his part. Dawson has a no-nonsense-ness about her that is inimitable.

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The film uses news flashes as shorthand to disseminate crucial information and also to raise the stakes as necessary. Thankfully, this tactic which could wear thin if used too much is used just enough. The one place it gets overly involved is the new helicopter becomes too much a part of the action at a crucial point and becomes an obstacle to our heroes.

To cap it off the cinematography and scoring are both very strong and add to the suspenseful ambiance.

Unstoppable is a nail-biter in the truest sense of the phrase and is a must-see for those who appreciate expert editing.

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Best Films of 2014: 10-1

This series began with installmens 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11, and concludes here.

10. Into the Woods

Into the Woods (2014, Disney)

Two years following Les Miserables it was actually hard to imagine watching a traditionally produced musical (Vocals recorded in studio and played back on set for syncing) being anywhere near as effective as the live audio-recording in the aforementioned film. While there are inherent moments where suspension of disbelief must be willful, it’s no different than any other musical once you know “how the sausage is made.” However, when you factor in the fact that I truly enjoy this music, the humorous take on the many fairy tales, and the fact that the cast really knocks it out of the park:

When judging the merits of a cast as a whole it can get complicated. All the consideration of course is about how the cast acquits itself within the work in question. The two biggest factors are usually the depth of the cast and how high the bar is set that the players are clearing. However, it must be acknowledged that when you think you know an actor and you see them surprise you that’s a great joy. That happens on a few occasions in this film. One of those instances is Chris Pine. Yes, having just seen Horrible Bosses 2 I knew he could be funny but his seemingly Shatner-inspired take on Prince Charming along with a good voice make his turn a joy. Meryl Streep is seemingly always in search of the next thing to show that she can also do and knocking one of the showstopping numbers out of the park is quite a boon. The portrayal of the Wolf in Into the Woods can be one of the most problematic, but Johnny Depp is in very good form here. Daniel Huttlestone follows through on one-upping his breakout in Les Mis. Tracey Ullman brings her usual persona and vocal chops the table. Christine Baranski is a very welcome addition to the cast. Lilla Crawford breaks out and is the stage-to-screen transition in this cast. James Corden may get the breakout performer from this cast showing great comic timing, and affable persona and vocals. Emily Blunt now adds leading lady in a musical to the list of things she can handle easily along with action star in the same year. All the cast get kudos for helping to make a traditionally produced (music recorded in studio and played back on set) musical watchable anew.

The editing, in fact, the entire production team depart-by-department excels. The only things that hold it back is that the edit could’ve been the slightest bit tighter in the home stretch, but it’s a film I already revisited and would gladly do so again soon.

9. Dawn of the of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, 20th Century Fox)

Chimpanzees? How many times can chimpanzees, and other apes, really work? At this point it’s hard to say but what Matt Reeves did here was highly improbable. He not only made this one a dramatic, tense, quasi-tragic tale with few missteps he also made images ridiculous out of context work so effectively.

Not only did he do that but he managed a quantum of salvation on the first prequel without retconning the newly begun series, which is highly commendable. It’s impossible to say what the future of this series hold, but this is one of the too rare prequels that proves there can be more than a paint-by-numbers approach to these stories and something vital, important and current can come out of them.

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Marvel)

I may have been one of the few who expected even more than I got out of Guardians of the Galaxy having prepared for that release by starting on the Marvel series when it began. While most were blindsided by all the fun they’d have (and it is) and how cute Baby Groot is (and he is) what may be overlooked is the game-changing effect this installment has on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one which also crossed over to the small screen and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

To say too much more would be to give it away, but I was quite floored with this one and got here and impact similar to those who lauded the first Cap I feel.

7. St. Vincent

St. Vincent (2014, The Weinstein Company)

As will be mentioned below the comedic and dramatic are balanced in this film, and the balancing act is not always an easy one in order to get equal effectiveness from both aspects. In actuality I feel St. Vincent works better with the more serious end of things. While the refreshing aspects of a New Age parochial school philosophy, some redefinition of sainthood do stand out, it is the common tropes where the careful handling of subjects by this film is best exemplified.

It also has a demanding conclusion for its young protagonist Jaeden Lieberher which he delivers on in spades. It may promise the classic manic depressive response (I laughed, I cried) but for me in this case it was true, and thoroughly enjoyable.

6. The Judge

The Judge (2014, Warner Bros.)

It may have looked at worse like award-baiting, or a star-tandem film, but It’s more than just Robert Duvall:

What takes Robert Duvall over the top is not just the exacting version of a crusty persona, not just the battle-weary fatigue of a life that’s fought back hard, but also the quiet truths that moments elicit from him. There is a universal individuality to character that he drives home, a kindness that exudes from beneath his gruffness and a sensitivity that circumstances and age bring forth from him.

And more than just Robert Downey, Jr.:

Robert Downey, Jr. is probably equally as capable as a serious and comedic actor. His sensitive portrayal of an estranged, jaded lawyer earns him a nomination anew.

Even I, likely in the interest of time and economy of words, underplayed his performance. It’s refreshing to see him playing a character who is a flawed, hurt human being without supreme wealth or superhero tools; there’s scarecely a false or wrong moment in the entire film. It’s a film good enough to go from the seeming ridiculousness of him urinating on opposing counsel at the beginning and then have the balance to later strike home with real emotional stakes to walk the tightrope of anticipated mourning and laughing off the inherent ridiculousness of certain white lies parents have to tell their kids as evidenced when Hank washes his father after he’s soiled himself and told his daughter what she needed to hear to not see it.

There are many moments not textbook that work on a number of notes in this film, and its that nebulous area of navigation that pulls it this high up the list.

5. Calvary

Calvary (2014, Fox Searchlight)

Transitioning from Saint Vincent where Brother Geraghty says that Catholicism is the best religion because it “Has the most rules,” to one about a Catholic priest, a good one facing a crisis on several fronts. In confessional his life is threatened in a week’s time. His questioning whether to name the parishioner (Doing so would violate an oath of his calling) and trying to dissuade him, forces him to reflect and question many things about life and faith and the state of the world.

It’s one of two films on this list that are about religion’s role in the modern world, unafraid to tell the stories that dabble in doubt, that do not pander, and lack preaching to a choir but rather represent the dilemmas facing the characters effectively and sensitively. Intelligent discourse on religious topics in this day and age are welcome.

Brendan Gleeson’s best actor turn can be attributed to:

..The seriocomic balance being a factor as well as how much of a load a lead had to factor is ultimately what leads to Brendan Gleeson to the top of the heap. In a tale of a good priest in a world that openly questions the role of religion in the secular lives of parishioners the easy temptation is to write and portray that character simplistically; this priest is anything but the same goes for Gleeson’s nuanced detailed performance.

It’s a film that allegorically reinterprets the passion and plays it in a modern context, but offers heart as well as questions, thought, critiques, humor, along with an example of piety.

4. Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross (2014, Beta Cinema)

When you hear that a film approaching two hours in length is comprised of 14 long-takes it can be hard to imagine sitting and watching it. However, when you take into account the film is called Stations of the Cross (Of which there are 14) then things start to coalesce a bit more.

Earlier this year I wrote a post where I chronicled how in one way or another Hollywood was fighting a losing battle in its attempt to provide faith-based entertainment. Whether it be the fault of the film, or the faithful there has usually been a disconnect. While on the indie circuit films like Calvary have proven that just because a film deals ostensibly with ecclesiastical concerns doesn’t mean it needs to pander or be bereft of intelligence as far too many faith-based films feel they need to be. In following a pattern where I have factored in the US distribution status of a film into choosing the recipient of this prize Stations of the Cross takes the cake here. The transparency with which this film transcribes the fourteen stations of the cross make it accessible and the debate or interpretation and non-judgmental character study make it a film that can be relatable to an audience whether they agree with the application of Catholicism practiced in this film or not.

3. Finn

Finn (2013, Attraction Distribution)

As I’ve done these lists for a few years the numbers on the list have started to take on a significance aside from their numeral. The number three has been a line of demarcation not just of the truly most exceptional of the year, but usually the spot where the most surprisingly great film of the year pops up:

This is a film populated by deceptively hard characters to play: Finn, has to be simultaneously precocious in that he seeks greater meanings in life and his activities, but naive enough to believe in the improbable and even impossible. The deft scripting assists in that regard but van der Hoeven is often the one, as the film’s namesake, carrying the scenes, who needs to connect with the audience and does. Shuurmans has to be simultaneously quiet definitively hurt and guarded. He has to be brusque with his son without ever alienating the audience and he succeeds in spades because as bad as the arguments get it’s always clear he is torn, has his reasons, but believes he’s doing right by his son.

The film flows with such ease that it washes over you like a dream, which is fitting. This is a factor that should also make this film one that’s conducive to revisiting. Considering that this film is repped by Attraction Distribution, who have had a good track record lately of getting European produced family fare seen in both Canada and the US, prospects of the audience for this film widening are quite good. This is most definitely a film worth finding. This kind of beauteous, lyrical family drama has nearly been the exclusive purview of Benelux in recent years. It is a moving, sincere film ought to be discovered, and one of the best of the year to date.

2. A Birder’s Guide to Everything

A Birder's Guide to Everything (2014, Screen Media Films)

One of the reasons that writing a list like this still serves a purpose even with a full awards slate are films like A Birder’s Guide to Everything this film, and the next one down, are full experiences, that are very strong across the board but may not have that standout big enough that earns a “prize” or a “sweep.” I feel I may have even parsed words too much in citing Smit-McPhee’s performance, the heart of the film, in the Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role write-up:

This all is not meant to detract from another sparkling turn by Kodi Smit-McPhee that made A Birder’s Guide to Everything one of the best films of the year,

Those sparse compliments extend to the cast as well:

the cast of Birder’s bring a lot of honesty, humor and heartfelt emotion to their roles

Those things (humor, honesty and heart) matter a great deal, especially the middle one because there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of that in North American films. There is a bit more in indies but not too much. This film delivers those qualities in spades, is wholly engaging and as a side effect brings a nerdy hobby into a cooler light.

1. The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks (2014, Strand Releasing)

By this point I’ve already written about this film quite a bit so it becomes a bit redundant to try and add too much more than I already said in the review:

One of the most fascinating angles this film takes on is naturally the addition of an omnipresent burden or condition that makes the awakening of sexuality, and the self-realization of sexual identity, a bit more difficult. It’s also a quietly made statement about the fact that one’s sexual orientation is merely a part of a person’s identity. When examining the narrative progression in retrospect it’s clear some of his dissatisfaction and desire to find himself, perhaps abroad, has its roots in this as-of-yet unrealized facet of his personality.

And in the BAM Awards post:

When all is said and done the statement The Way He Looks is never overt, but always clear. There are any number of ways you can extrude Leonardo’s blindness into a statement about love, but the film allows you to do that yourself and never says so in so many words. The delicacy of the handling of the story, the warmth it exudes throughout and the investment made in the characters that has you understanding their plight quite well is what makes the film’s conclusion so satisfactory and so well earned.

And to close, it’s a tremendous stride for Brazilian cinema who has submitted some controversial choices for the Oscars. This seems to follow an upward trend and also follows up on the work that North Sea Texas did a few years ago for gay cinema.

Comparative Analysis: How People Like Us and the Lucky One Handle Secrets

SPOILER ALERT: Since this is an analytical piece rather than straight-up review certain plot elements will be discussed in some detail. If you do not wish to know such information please stop reading now.

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I believe what struck me most about People Like Us is that while it shares a plot device with The Lucky One, namely a lie told (or if you prefer information withheld). The reason this struck me so strongly was that while this was one of the major encumbrances of The Lucky One I feel that People Like Us handled it better in many regards such that is allows the film to succeed.

Now, the first way in which the secret(s) and lie(s) in these films differ is that in People Like Us it’s a far more tangible thing. Chris Pine’s character has just discovered that his father had a daughter with another woman. Therefore, he has to process and deal with this information. He had a bad relationship with his father, felt abandoned, but never knew about this. He has to sort it out himself. Furthermore, he discovers this in light of his father’s recent passing, where he is assigned to give her money his father left to her.

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In The Lucky One we understand the plight that Zac Efron’s character has: he feels that a woman in a picture was his lucky charm, the woman being a fallen comrade’s sister. With his struggles to adjust to life as a civilian he goes to seek her out, to what end he does not yet know. Now, he does eventually come to like the woman, and not the dream, and he does help give her closure about what exactly happened to her brother. However, his secret is not only far more nebulous, but is also one he comes much closer to having a chance to say.

Essentially, if a confession in a film is a necessity you’re really walking a tightrope. The longer the protagonist is forced to withhold that information the more precarious he and his plight become. Now, the external and internal conflicts of People Like Us are so well laid out and the different avenues so well-examined that the cat’s-got-your-tongue situations end up being far less annoying in that film than in The Lucky One.

Also, in The Lucky One it’s the kind of weird thing that you can either explain right away or you know you’ll wait on. However, the biggest issue is that he was so close to saying it and he just got motor-mouthed out of his opportunity upon first meeting her. Granted it’s a hard thing to say, but in People Like Us it was hard too but the film allowed the protagonist the opportunity to make the decision to wait on his own with minimal outside influence.

Neither scenario is really ideal for a prolonged secret, however, I feel People Like Us played it better than The Lucky One did.