MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

WILMINGTON ON DVD

CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

Unstoppable (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Tony Scott, 2010 (20th Century Fox)

Unstoppable, a blow-you-out-of-your seat thriller about a runaway train — by Tony Scott, who knows how to make action movies, but doesn’t always make them this well — starts strong, hits the tracks fast, tears out the brakes, takes off like a shot, and then just keeps racing and accelerating, ratcheting up the action and raising the stakes, barreling through Pennsylvania and all of writer Mark Bomback’s plot twists and character cues with costars Denzel Washington (the grumpy old engineer) and Chris Pine (the slick young conductor), blasting along with a lung-clutching velocity “Die Hard“ could only dream of, until it leaves you breathless (Phewww!) at the last stop.

If you watch this movie and say you weren’t excited, then you probably weren’t paying much attention. If you think it’s the same old Tony Scott — remembering that last silly runaway remake subway train movie he made — you’re partly right, though this is the funnier, jazzier Tony Scott of Spy Game or True Romance, not the scriptless flash of The Fan and The (Mis)Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

And if you complain about all that talk and babbling backstory between Washington’s Frank Barnes and Pine’s Will Colson, or between Rosario Dawson’s traffic manager Connie Hopper and Kevin Dunn’s greed-crazed creep of a Veep of Operations Galvin, or between Connie and the guys, Galvin and his bosses, and all those TV news people (Fox, local and otherwise) and the nation, all trying to keep up with the action, you’re actually attacking a lot of what makes this movie work so well, move so fast — and what’s more, something that most other action movies should have in their bags of tricks too.

But they mostly don’t. A lot of the new actioners have hollow, unambitious, phony-baloney scripts: plenty of action, but not much room for acting, even the economical emoting we see here. How can you get excited about a riderless train, if it’s being pursued, in a way, by other riderless trains and pilotless helicopters and copless cop cars, and formula heroes and heroines just along for the ride?

The General needed Buster Keaton. But Runaway Train also needed Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. And Unstoppable needs, and has, Washington as Barnes, the crusty old 28-year vet about to be put out to trackless pasture by the corporate cruds of his world — and Pine as Will, the twenty-something, well-connected railroad rookie, who represents everything blue-collar Frank despises, justly, while Frank represents something whiter-collar Will resents and misunderstands, not too wisely or well.

The movie and the actors swiftly sketch these two, and their families (a Hooters scene) and their class backgrounds, their conflict, and the mutual competence and feistiness that both will bring to the tasks soon at hand — and the picture and the guys give that speed-portrait just the right, more relaxed but steady opening style and rhythms, churning under the slowly mounting tension of catastrophe to come.

What goes wrong with the train here, comes partly from the real-life story of the driverless CSX train with a cargo of toxic chemicals that really went racing though Ohio in 2001. And though this story is an exaggerated version of that event, re-set in Pennsylvania, it’s cleverly overdrawn, retaining just enough real-lifey touches and semi-veracity, and just enough heavily-detailed railroad and police rescue backgrounds to keep us from going “Give me a break” at every rest stop. We’ll do it anyway, some of us, but probably with more affection than exasperation.

We’re off on the wild ride we expect: a constantly frantic, slam-bang but neatly
controlled race though a familiar but still wickedly exciting thriller-landscape, replete at times with another trainful of all-too-vulnerable schoolchildren, a heroic but futile attempted train-snatch on the tracks, and a gutsy Marine dangling precariously and heart-stoppingly from a helicopter, trying to set himself down on the roof of a train by now, by God, going 70 m.p.h. or more.

If you think about it for a while, it does begin to seem a little implausible — all those cliff-hangers on one train, and all those Fox cameras trained on all that action for so long, without anyone shoving Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich into the frame. (Maybe it’s still 2001.) But the movie never gives you time to think. If you mull over what could possibly happen, and what did happen (some of which is on the screen, exaggerated), you might go “Hey, whoa….”

But Unstoppable doesn’t give you time to mull. It’s always two stops ahead of you, thirty seconds before the track-switch, one helicopter-dangle above us, and three cars in front of your caboose. You barely have time for anything but a laugh or a “wow.” The movie, like Hitchcock, makes us accept and enjoy the implausible (a slice of life that becomes a slice of cake), not least because Washington, Pine, and Dawson are such good company, and Dunn is the right kind of bad company.

Washington is one of those actors who, like the great noir leading men of the ‘40s — Bogart, Mitchum, Cagney, Ryan, Garfield, Douglas, Lancaster, Widmark — is equally good as hero or villain. (He got his leading man Oscar as a bad guy in Training Day, and his breakthrough part was as another baddie in A Soldier’s Story. That dual good-and-evil gift materializes because Washington isn’t afraid to show an edge or an attitude in his roles, which is why Frank is a believable old cuss, even when he’s hopping on those roofs.

I love trains (wish I could take them more often) and I love a lot of train movies, though usually the more leisurely ones, like Keaton’s The General, and Hitchcock‘s The Lady Vanishes, or the train sections in Hitch’s North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train, in Billy Wilder‘s Some Like It Hot and John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Sidney Lumet’s film of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. But I also like Konchalovsky’s hectic, hell-on-the-tracks Runaway Train; I only wish I could have seen a version of that movie directed by the original writer Akira Kurosawa. (It’s the sensei’s story, after all.)

Train movies tend to be more visually interesting than plane pictures, simply because trains have more space to stage stuff, besides which, all that landscape rushing by outside can become almost another character. “Unstoppable” is so good on one level, because Scott so fully exploits almost everything you can do with a train on screen, except drop it off the Bridge over the River Kwai. (Well, maybe not quite everything. There are no North by Northwest-style upper berth double entendres.)

But movies like Unstoppable also work because of the way they‘re able to mix glamour and sarcasm, reality and fantasy, action and reactions, speed and smarts.  Scott has made some half-dumb or illogical (but sometimes exciting) movies, including Beverly Hills Cop 2, The Last Boy Scout and his and Denzel’s ruination of “Pelham.” And have you seen Top Gun lately? (Or better yet, actor Quentin Tarantino‘s comic-phallic deconstruction of  Top Gun, in Sleep With Me?)

The younger Scott sometimes seems like the actor who brags he can make an audience cry with anything, including the phone book. True maybe, but why keep sticking yourself with wrong numbers like The Fan? The point is that T-Scott can make even a mess of a script pretty exciting, sometimes hellishly exciting. But with a good script, or a decent one, or with very good actors enjoying themselves, he’s that much better. (Anyone is, of course.)

Man, can he keep the speed up. Man, can he shoot (with cinematographer Ben Seresin.) Man, can he cut (with editors Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon). Man, can he score those action sequence knockouts. And man, can he stage one hell of a train chase. This is as good as Tony Scott can do, maybe as good as he’ll ever do.

Of course, Kurosawa could have done it better.
Extras: Commentary with Scott; Featurettes; Digital copy.

CO-PICK (NEW):

You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.-U.K.; Woody Allen, 2010 (Sony)

Here’s Woody Allen with a classy example from his current British period: an ensemble romantic-comedy-drama about writers, infidelity, the occult and big moral questions.

It’s quite good, it’s quite smart, and, as usual with Allen, it offers us those delights of language, wit and canny social observation that most romantic comedies these days ignore.

The direction is light and impeccably balanced. The cast is excellent. Josh Brolin plays a novelist who’s begun to suspect he has only ordinary gifts. (Decades ago, Woody would have played this part.) Naomi Watts — sort of sitting in for the Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow of happier days — is the writer’s wife, who develops the hots for her seductive employer (Antonio Banderas, very good in what might have been a “tall dark stranger” role slated for Javier Bardem).

Meanwhile, novelist Brodin finds an unusual solution for creative block and also falls for the exotic girl next door (Freida Pinto). And Naomi‘s (temporarily) well-off father (Anthony Hopkins in the role Allen might have well played today) takes up with a bouncy, not-too-bright hooker (Lucy Punch, stepping into some old Mira Sorvino shoes).

Is there someone we can honestly like in all of this? Yes indeed. Gemma Jones plays Naomi‘s dotty but lovable mother, a kindly but unhip matriarch who’s developed a passion in old age for séances, psychics and the supernatural — and even a fling of her own.

Sadly, Woody himself seems to have disappeared from his movie (as a player) almost entirely.  He didn’t write himself a misanthropic old codger role (even one that he could have handed off to Larry David), and he doesn‘t play the Hopkins part, with a New York Jewish rather than Welsh/British accent. He doesn’t even narrate this one, and he definitely should have. But at least he wrote and directed it, and without pitching any parts to Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis or Vince Vaughn. Bet they’d have played them.
No extras.

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC & BLU-RAY

Thelma and Louise (Blu-ray) (20th Anniversary Edition) (Four Stars)
U.S.: Ridley Scott, 1990 (MGM)

Thelma is the bossed and bullied trophy-wife of a middle class Arkansas doofus business guy. Louise is her best friend, a streetwise, countrywise waitress . The two take off for a road trip without their guys: Thelma’s neurotic district manager husband (Chris McDonald), and Louise’s  good-hearted. good ol’ boy boyfriend Jimmy (Michael Madsen). It looks like fun — and director Ridley Scott and writer Callie Khouri give their knockout star pair some drop-dead gorgeous backdrops (the fires lit by Adrian Biddle) and a bubbly, irresistible  comic rhythm and tone — until the gals run into good music and bad men at a loud and rowdy Country & Western bar.

There, things go wrong. The fun-loving but too often repressed Thelma is lured outside by a local Lothario (Timothy Carhart), and then slammed against an engine hood, with rape commencing. Gun-packing Louise comes to her pal’s rescue, puts a gun to his ear. But the Lothario (Timothy Carhart) makes one fatal sexist wisecrack too many, Louise blows her cool (partly due, we later learn, to an ugly past), and she shoots and kills the attacker almost by reflex. Now, the ladies, not thinking clearly, are on the run, in the kind of road movie they made so well in the ‘70s, and so often badly afterwards.

As T. & L. race across the desert roads (made up mostly of California locations and a bit of Utah, masquerading as the great American Southwest), they are occasionally harassed by gross truckers, while being pursued by protective Harvey Keitel, as a cop who wants to save them, and Stephen Tobolowski, as a creepy FBI man we suspect probably won’t.

They also meet up with a sexy hitchhiker, a cowboy-hatted, blue-jeaned convenience store robber named J.D. who really rings Thelma‘s bell, played with loopy relish and realism by Brad Pitt. It’s a role that probably should have gotten Pitt an Oscar nomination (matching the ones for  both Geena’s Thelma and Susan’s Louise and the actual Oscar that Callie Khouri’s script won). J.D.  probably made him a movie star instead.`

But though we may dig bad boy Pitt (who turns the screws expertly and makes us dislike J. D. mightily in his last scene), we tend to fall in love with Thelma and Louise. They’re two of the sexiest gal roles Davis and Sarandon (or anybody) ever had. But they’re also characters with whom we sympathize and for whom we root, even though their road movie race to Mexico, to avoid a cop who actually wants to help them, is somewhat ill-advised and senseless. (Then again, much of life is ill-advised and senseless.)

The lead actresses still look and act great. Davis’s Thelma is a beaten-down belle who suddenly finds the inner femme fatale in herself, and David makes that part sing. Sarandon’s Louise is a spunky but wounded woman who tries to be a good person, but keeps getting smacked — and, like most of the best Sarandon roles, she‘s earthy and real and heartbreakingly gorgeous. Together the two of them are magic. The leave-taking scene in the diner between Louise and Madsen’s hard-case but loving Jimmy is one of the most beautiful goodbyes in any American movie — and the last radiantly smiling farewell of Thelma and Louise is even better.

People really loved or hated this movie back in 1991 — and I’m with the latter group. It’s a slightly preachy show, and since both Scott and Khouri intended it as a feminist statement, the script could actually have gone either way, been a dog or a phony as well as a gem. If Thelma and Louise” hadn’t been cast so superlatively well, or if it had been drenched in doom, gloom and messages — instead of getting the seductive, funny, exhilarating treatment Scott gives it, the movie might have worn us out. We wouldn’t have loved the characters as much, and we wouldn’t have felt what we finally do at that rousing cliff’s edge climax.

Along with Chinatown, Point Blank The Godfather movies, Mikey and Nicky, Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Bonnie and Clyde — and another Ridley Scott movie, Blade RunnerThelma and Louise is one of the great neo-noirs. The bright, colorful comedy plays counterpoint to the violence and sadness; darkness and anguish underscore the sunny landscapes through which the unintentional outlaws flee.

It’s the ‘90s equivalent of love-on-the-run noir classics like Nick Ray‘s tender They Live By Night and Fritz Lang’s icy You Only Live OnceRidley Scott, in a very fine and illuminating commentary (Khouri and the stars are also available on an alternative sound track) says he had the most fun on Thelma and Louise of any movie he ever directed. It shows.

Extras: Commentary by Scott, and by Davis, Sarandon and Khouri; Featurettes; Extended ending with Scott commentary; Deleted and extended scenes; Storyboards; Glenn Frey video.

PICK OF THE WEEK: BOX SET

Turner Classic Movies, Greatest Classic Legends: Errol Flynn (Four Stars)
U.S.: Various Directors, 1935-48 (TCM/Warner Bros.)

Errol Flynn was a rascal, a seducer and a dissolute rogue — and, according to his biographer Charles Higham (whom I don’t believe), he may, have been far, far worse. But one look at three of the movies in this box set — the swashbuckling masterpieces Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk — and you tend to forgive him everything. I do, any way.

What does it matter how reckless and selfish a life Flynn led, as long as we can see him, as Irish doctor, rebel and pirate Peter Blood, cross swords with Basil Rathbone‘s villainous Captain Levasseur in  one of the two greatest of all movie swordfights? (The other is also between Flynn and Rathbone, in Robin Hood.)

Or  as long as we can watch Flynn as Robin of Locksley, stride so confidently and stylishly and impudently into the huge castle banquet of Prince John (Claude Rains, with his rotting smile) and heave a dead dear onto the table under the noses of John  and Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone), lounge lazily in his Sherwood green outfit before the lords of the realm, casually insulting everybody — and then outwit and out-fight and out-race all the guards to the moat, to his horse, and to his waiting merry men?

Or see him topple the masts and shred the sails of the Spanish ship in that first great Sea Hawk battle — men, muskets and swords in a turbulent mass of bodies and weapons — and then board the ship with the rest of his cutlass-wielding crew while the third of Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘s magnificent scores on this set, erupts in choral yells  and trumpet blasts?

I’ve seen these three movies, all directed by the maestro of costume adventure and a dozen other genres, Michael Curtiz, over and over again, I watched them again to write this column, and I’ll watch them happily again some time, if I can find an excuse. Or even if I can’t.

So what if Flynn was kind of a jerk at times? (“In like Flynn,” the whole country used to say, sniggering about his alleged erotic prowess.) So what if he once abandoned his best friend David Niven to the sharks? So what if Basil Rathbone was the better swordsman? So what if Humphrey Bogart disliked him? So what if Flynn acted like a cad to Olivia de Havilland, who’d rejected him, and her boyfriend John Huston beat him up one night? (The two combatants later became friends.) So what if Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was the nicer, more inspiring movie swashbuckler/idol, and more of an artist than Flynn?  So what if…? Well, we can’t go on like this forever. As Niven once said, “The (marvelous) thing about Errol was that you always knew where you stood with him. He always let you down.“

Who cares today? When we watch these great, rousing, brilliantly crafted Errol Flynn/Michael Curtz film adventures, we can experience the magic of movies as we were meant to. And Flynn and Curtiz (who disliked each other) become our ideal guides to that excitement, that wizardry.

I’ll make a confession. I would forgive Errol Flynn all his Wicked, Wicked Ways (part of the title of his autobiography) for even the weakest movie in this set, the tongue- in-cheek The Adventures of Don Juan, directed in 1948, after Flynn‘s heyday, by Vincent Sherman (who does a commentary here).

“Don Juan” was made after the war, when the European market for Hollywood period epics had opened again. So Flynn once more strapped on his sword, buckled his swash, leapt on a horse, and looked hither and yon for a lady, a ship, a battle, or Basil Rathbone. The man who had his brains almost beaten in by Olivia‘s lover (and almost beat Huston‘s brains in  as well) was a little older, wiser, more dissolute. But he was still ready for any kind of action, on screen or off.  In like Flynn? It’s all fantasy, of course.

But so what?

Includes: Captain Blood (U.S; Michael Curtiz, 1935) Four Stars. Adapted from one of Rafael Sabatini’s thrilling literary period adventures: along with Alexander Dumas’, Sabatini’s adventure books were the best of their kind. (My favorite is Scaramouche, which Flynn and Curtiz didn’t make.) The then-unknown Flynn, cast because Robert Donat and others turned the part down, plays a doctor turned slave turned pirate of the Caribbean. Olivia de Havilland, in the first of her many Flynn match-ups, is his ideal, noble ladylove. Rathbone and Lionel Atwill are the villains, Guy Kibbee and Ross Alexander are among Captain Blood‘s hearty crew. Blessed also with the first of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wondrous swashbuckling scores, three in this set. Of its kind, Captain Blood is nearly perfect.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (U. S.: Curtiz & William Keighley (and, uncredited, William Dieterle), 1938) Four Stars. Flynn‘s finest hour. Ever. This is the Robin Hood legend turned pure Hollywood, pure Warner Brothers. De Havilland is Maid Marian, attended by feisty little Una O’Connor. Rathbone, Rains and Melville Cooper (as the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham) ooze villainy. The Sherwood Forest stalwarts include Patric Knowles as Will Scarlet (a role meant for Niven), Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck and — just as he once played him for Doug Fairbanks’ 1922 Robin Hood — Alan Hale as Little John. More Korngold. More swordfights! Archery tournaments, where one arrow splits another! If you’ve ever watched this movie and didn’t yearn, for a minute or two, to be Flynn as Robin Hood (or de Havilland as Maid Marian), then I just don’t trust you.
The Sea Hawk (U.S.: Curtiz, 1940)  Four Stars. Another Sabatini novel, this time considerably altered by the pre-Casablanca Howard Koch, into an obvious symbolic saga about the impending war with the Nazis. Flynn is the dashing privateer and scourge of seagoing Spain, Geoffrey Thorpe; Brenda Marshall sits in uneasily for de Havilland (even with O’Connor to help her). The villainy is dispensed by Rains, Gilbert Roland and Henry Daniell. with Hale and J. M. Kerrigan (of The Informer) to buck Flynn up, and Flora Robson flirting with Geoffrey as Queen Elizabeth. Not as good as Captain Blood, but still one of the great sea movies.

The Adventures of Don Juan (U.S.; Vincent Sherman, 1948) Three Stars. Flynn returns to swashbuckling, after his World War II hiatus. And he’s typecast as Don Juan, lover and fighter —  aided by the faithful Leporello (Hale, natch) — who breaks hearts and skulls all across Spain. For a Don Giovanni, he’s an oddly noble fellow, but there’s a twinkle in Flynn, all the same. The Queen (Viveca Lindfors) is one of his fans; Robert Douglas and Raymond Burr are two of his enemies. This has the sometimes reputation of being tired and derivative, Flynn past his prime. Maybe that‘s true but Adventures of Don Juan is still fast, colorful, fun. And what a prime it was!

Great special features in this low-priced TCM set, whose contents are also mostly available in the previous Warners Errol Flynn costume adventure box.

Extras: Commentaries by director Sherman (on “Don Juan”) and historian/critic Rudy Behlmer (on “Robin Hood“ and “Don Juan“); Documentaries on Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk; Leonard Maltin hosting four “Warner Night at the Movies” packages, including original trailers, vintage newsreels, vintage drama, comedy, travelogue and musical shorts (with, among others, Johnny Green) and classic Looney Tunes (with, among others, Porky Pig).

3 Responses to “WILMINGTON ON DVD”

  1. Alex says:

    When Wilmington’s original “Unstoppable” review was posted in Nov. 2010, it was given a four star rating. Now it has a 3.5 star rating. I wonder what caused the drop in rating?

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“That’s the joke of Prune, that we just pretend to be a restaurant. But we’re actually an institute for living. We hide behind the fried eggs, and we hide behind the marrow bones, but really what we’re doing here is trying to change the whole goddamn world, one lamb chop at a time. It’s slow going, but I think we’re getting there.”
~ Gabrielle Hamilton

“I’m into pleasure rebellion,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “I’ve shared all my misery and tragedy but in my personal life I’m a cheerleader, an optimist. That aspect of myself is not shared. Once you are free from trauma, you are going to luxuriate in pleasure and happiness – personal pleasure. A divine gluttony, I should say.”
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