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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Rewind Review: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the latest film and franchise attempt from Chris Columbus. While there definitely are some very strong positives to this film there are a few drawbacks as well.

The film is built upon standard story elements both of our age and the fantasy genre, but at least it puts them to good use. For example, it’s a quest film, however, that is openly addressed when Percy is getting volunteers to help him. His mother is married to a jerky man, who is Percy’s stepfather, and Percy has a learning disability which both fit neatly into the plot in very creative ways. Not so creative ways are the ticking clock which is introduced to indicate that Zeus needs his bolt back by the summer solstice, the reason he needs it back is never established. The trio is somewhat Potter-esque and the necessary mentors are all in place to aid in the unwitting heroes’ quest.

The cast for the most part is very strong with a few glaring exceptions. The film is carried well by the young leads particularly Logan Lerman who has to play both awkward teenager then embracing and capable of living up to his demigod status. Perhaps more important is Brandon T. Jackson, who plays Percy’s protector and provides much of the comic relief in the film and he steals the show. Alexandra Daddario is also very capable in the role of Annabeth.

The supporting cast brings the inconsistency. You have the stark contrast of the brilliance of Uma Thurman‘s short turn and Rosario Dawson‘s charmingly sinister appearance contrasting with the wheezing-in-an-attempt-to-sound-older Pierce Brosnan and Catherine Keener, who is not as effective as she was in Where the Wild Things Are.

The CG in the film is solid albeit a little more inconsistent than desirable. Medusa’s head for example could look convincing or bogus depending on the angle its seen from. However, the Hydra and the water-work were spectacular.

The film is a funny and action-filled piece of escapism, which includes some very well-choreographed swashbuckling. It also wastes no time in diving into the tale and letting us know there could be war.

The film is rather entertaining despite a few head-scratchers like why Percy doesn’t make a run for the entrance to Olympus when the true nemesis is heading at them; instead they just wait for him to land. Or why the entrance to Olympus is atop the Empire State Building (At least in diegetic, non-inferred terms).

On a side note not really impacting interpretation of this film, all seems well and sewn up at the end of this film and there is no apparent opening for a sequel.

Overall Percy Jackson is very enjoyable entertaining, action-packed film which provided laughs and diversion even while flawed.

7/10

Review- Zookeeper

Kevin James in Zookeeper (Columbia Pictures)

Upon hearing about the film Zookeeper one would think and hope that there’s got to be more to it than just talking animals. The good news is that there is. The bad news is that there really isn’t that much more to it. Sadly, the film aside from not being that funny gets bogged down in a transparent and overly predictable love plot that makes the entire thing seem like an exercise rather than an attempt to create.

While the film starts well enough with a humorous and slightly heartbreaking inciting incident of a failed proposal attempt there comes a point where all the cards are laid out on the table and you start to see where it’s heading. Now I harp on this because this isn’t your usual amount of predictability, I’m talking about an experience wherein you can predict how and when all the dominoes of the story will fall with a great amount of accuracy, this lack of the unexpected leads to a lack of joy and a lack of real comedic impact despite the occasional half-hearted chuckle.

When there is a twist, and I use that term lightly here, it’s like a breath of fresh air and what you’re witnessing becomes exponentially more enjoyable than it should be. When you combine two old hat concepts like talking animals and chasing after a dream girl that doesn’t make the story different or unique by default there needs to be a bit more to it than that but the film never quite gets there.

Typically, with material of this ilk the performances can raise it to a level where it ought not be able to reach but that sadly doesn’t happen here. Rosario Dawson, who let me state for the record is a great actress, can’t really elevate the film at all. A majority of the laughs that this film can muster are thanks to Joe Rogan, as our lead’s rival for the affections of his beloved. He is a crazy, over-the-top type of character but at least he’s well-defined and there’s an energy to his scenes. Kevin James’ scenes with him are the best he has really, as a romantic lead and a no-nonsense-business-man he connects less and isn’t as convincing.

The casting of the voices was a bit odd. Cher and Sylvester Stallone are always very obviously themselves and never really become their characters or invisible as I like to call it in voice work. Adam Sandler does well by seemingly impersonating Gilbert Gottfried as the monkey but of course Nick Nolte is the stand out of the voice cast not because he has the most versatile voice but because he’s the strongest actor of the bunch by far.

Of course, in comedies it all comes down to “How funny is it?” If it can hold water as a compelling narrative it can almost be looked at as a bonus. Clearly as a story the film has its failings but it’s really not terribly funny either. It’s the kind of movie that you might see on cable (a lot) and if you had nothing better to do you’d still likely change the channel.

The ultimate failing of this film is that it tried to get a little too cute by creating an excessive amount of symmetry in the story. This symmetry makes the design of the film apparent and instead of being engaged the film just hits you and you just take it. Sadly, there are very few redeeming qualities about this one.

3/10