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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Review- Safe House

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington in Safe House (Universal)

Safe House is a film that in many ways is your standard spy-caper. I will give it credit by saying that it does try to do some different things to slightly alter the equation, however, it is ultimately the bits that are the same old song and dance that really get in this film’s way and trip it up.

To start out with the more positive notes, the film is very watchable and there’s a decent amount of tension due to the kinetic editing style. The beginning of the film is quite creative in as much as the cuts come quickly, but also break chronology such that you are investing in a situation, and getting information later. Eventually, the lackluster nature of the information betrays this artistry to an extent but this facet of the film did its utmost to elevate the piece as a whole.

The editing style was in part a necessity. The cinematography didn’t feature the worst abuses of hand-held camerawork I’ve seen, but the camera is hyperactive in this piece and it can be a turn off to those prone to motion sickness or are aesthetically averse to such things. For the most part it works, but there are points within it where I wish it would relax and the quick edits really salvaged many shots making them more watchable than they otherwise should’ve been.

The script develops a decent story in most respects. The setup and ultimate plot of the antagonist are intriguing enough. The problems come into the storytelling when elements that are overly-trite or too frequently done are brought into the mix in terms of dialogue and certain character’s attitudes. As with any tale of this nature suspension is of disbelief is necessary because there will be moments of absurdity. There are good elements to the scripting but definite issues that overshadow the positives to an extent.

The performances to an extent are also a mixed bag. In the positive column are Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. Washington has thankfully taken to some quieter, more intelligent and less bombastic parts recently as opposed to things like Training Day, where I don’t find him nearly as interesting. He plays this character intelligently, but also gets to layer him. Reynolds has played action before but he also plays in a romance plot here and in very dramatic confrontations with many characters in this film and does equally well in all of them. It’s likely a performance of his that will be overlooked, though it should not be.

As for the problematic performances: One, sadly, is Brendan Gleeson’s, it’s not him in his top form. I’m unsure as to whether the character was supposed to have a slightly faded Irish brogue or if his American dialect was just off in this part, but it influenced the end result regardless. Another is Vera Farmiga and some of the issue is her character. There’s nothing to her. She’s a plot device. She believes what will likely be the official version of the story is really what’s happening, other than that there’s no characterization to her. I’ve liked Farmiga in some works quite a bit and been a bit too hard on other times, so I think when she’s stuck with a character of this ilk she really has a tough go of it.

Lastly, there are some surprising and pleasant twists but one of the biggest ones occurs in the third act and it’s terribly transparent from the start of the scene based on the entire execution, and the scene is far too long and it really detracts from what should be a pivotal moment.

Truth be told, I wasn’t planning on seeing Safe House, I saw it to have a dine-in movie experience. However, I will say that while I didn’t like it it was better than I thought it would be so you may see it differently than I did.

5/10