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Jason Wallis ‘Unstoppable’ is an unimpressive action film with redeeming charm

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2010 9:08 am

So I was in the middle of the downtown Stockton movie theater, having just purchased a ticket for Todd Phillips’ comedy “Due Date,” when an advertisement for the Tony Scott/Denzel Washington action flick “Unstoppable” caught my eye.

Of course, I originally had zero interest in subjecting myself to yet another Scott-helmed assault on the senses (if “Domino” didn’t teach me my lesson, then “The Taking of Pelham 123” certainly did). However, it was one of those cool cardboard stand-up ads that features a positive review in its entirety, and I found myself being swayed by Todd McCarthy’s description of “Unstoppable” as an exceptional “blue-collar” actioner that offers shades of political subtext to go along with all the suspense.

Coupled with the fact that critical consensus pegs “Due Date” as a shocking disappointment, this was enough to cause me to alter course for “Unstoppable,” which was starting at the same time. Turns out it was a pretty good decision, and evidence that it is sometimes wise to let down your guard, ignore your own personal biases, and take a chance on a movie that everyone seems to like. “Due Date, unfortunately, will have to wait for DVD.

Speaking of which, we’ll also be taking a look at a few recent titles (two of which are now available on DVD/Blu-ray, and one that will be relatively soon) I’ve seen in the past few weeks and couldn’t pass up the chance to recommend.

They are but a handful of examples of the “social horror film,” a sub-genre that dates back to the 1950s/’60s with films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” but may be seeing a rejuvenation thanks to the increasingly paranoid, distrusting social climate that is gripping every corner of the globe. If this genre takes off the way torture porn did five years ago, we could see some interesting results.

As we saw this summer, there is a crisis in American action filmmaking. The genre has always been (perhaps unfairly) viewed as kind of a joke, but these past several months have demonstrated that, beyond issues with dialogue or acting or plot development, the modern action film doesn’t even offer coherence with any regularity.

From “The A-Team” to “Salt,” the season’s films have highlighted the inability of most directors to creatively and effectively document movement on screen. The nuances of kinetics appear to be completely lost on these people, to the extent that their action sequences are not only unimpressive  — they’re genuinely confounding, largely due to hyper-stylized editing and overly busy camera work.

And Tony Scott, black-sheep brother of decorated auteur Ridley, has long been one of the most consistent purveyors of unnecessary cinematic excess. Surprising, then, that at the height of this creative crisis, Tony Scott is the one who releases the “based on a true story” runaway train thriller “Unstoppable” to remind us all how this sort of thing should be done.

The film is not great, and Scott’s efforts as a director are hardly worthy of passionate accolades. But still, the movie has a minimalist charm to it that’s difficult to resist. It’s 100 minutes long but feels about half that, since Scott keeps things moving at break-neck speed from the opening scenes.

We’re introduced to our blue-collar heroes, veteran railman Frank Barnes (Washington) and rookie Will Colson (Chris Pine), as they set out on what they think will be a routine day. But after some idiot at the rail yard loses control of an unmanned, 10-million-pound, half-mile-long locomotive carrying toxic materials at full speed, the two find themselves on a collision course. After successfully dodging the oncoming train, it’s then up to the reluctant duo to figure out a way stop it in its tracks as it approaches an inevitable derailment in a heavily populated town.

The whole thing is essentially one extended action sequence, and thankfully, Scott never lets his more wild impulses get in the way of telling a solid, unpretentious, borderline-populist adventure yarn. Washington and Pine make for an effective pairing, injecting just enough life into the in-between “breather” moments to move the film along with the smooth precision of a well-oiled machine.

Hell is other people

I’ve always bought into the idea that hell is other people, but as far as I can tell, filmmakers have always been rather reluctant to explore true social horror  — stories predicated on the notion that people may not be who they seem, that your friends and neighbors and even family could at any moment turn against you. Socially based fears are primal and potent, and they may be on the rise given all the recent talk of social breakdown and impending anarchy. Recently, I saw a few films that either touch upon or fully immerse themselves in such anxieties, so I just wanted to take a moment to pass on some quick recommendations.

The first is “The Crazies” (★★★★), released earlier this year to moderate acclaim. It should have been a bigger deal, though, because it’s easily one of the most skillfully assembled popcorn thrillers we’ve seen in ages. Without revealing too much about the unpredictable plot, I can say that the story involves a small town whose denizens begin exhibiting strange and hostile behavior: the town drunk shows up at a high school baseball game wielding a shotgun and must be gunned down; a seemingly stable father locks his wife and son in their home and burns it to the ground. As the incidents begin to mount, it becomes clear to the town’s sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) that something has infected the local water supply  — and whatever it is, it’s quickly spreading. The film is quite literally a roller-coaster ride of thrills, and should not be missed.

Next up is “Dogtooth” (★★★★), from Greek filmmaker Yargos Lanthimos. It, too, preys upon social anxieties, but in a completely different manner than “The Crazies” and, in fact, any other movie I’ve ever seen. Picture what you might get if Atom Egoyan, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke all teamed up to make a family drama, and you might have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. The story is bizarre, involving a man and wife who raise their three grown children on a secretive compound, allowing no contact with the outside world. The tyrannical parents control their children’s lives to terrifying extremes: new vocabularies are invented to encourage complacency; sex is administered to the son by a woman who works security at the father’s factory; and the kids are told that they will know when they are ready to leave home when their “dogtooth” falls out. This portrait of a profoundly dysfunctional “family” is often absurdly funny, but by the time the darker stuff (i.e. forced incest, graphic violence, etc.) rears its head, you’ll be recoiling in absolute horror.

I hesitate to even discuss “Catfish” (★★★ 1⁄2 ) — first, because it’s been a while since I saw it and it won’t be available on DVD until the beginning of the new year, and also because the film’s whole effect depends on the viewer knowing as little as possible about the story before seeing it.

But here goes: Billed as a documentary, the film follows photographer Nev Shulman and his budding long-distance friendship with a young girl he met online. As he gets to know the girl and her family, Nev begins to develop a mutual attraction to the girl’s older sister. But as details emerge to suggest the family is not being entirely truthful with Nev, he and his camera crew decide to make the long drive and surprise the fam with a visit/confrontation.

The hair-raising nature of what they encounter has made “Catfish” into a mini-sensation, but count me among the growing list of skeptics who flat-out refuse to believe there is any way in hell this could be a genuine documentary. But at the risk of alluding to the movie’s closely guarded “secrets,” I will say this: Non-professional actor Angela Wesselman-Pierce, as the Faulknerian matriarch, deserves to win an Oscar as best supporting actress, and it’s her mesmerizing performance that elevates “Catfish” from a dumb stunt to the level of fully realized social horror.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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