TONY SCOTT’S UNSTOPPABLE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Tailor made to director Tony Scott’s aggressive and intense filmmaking sensibilities, his ferocious last action thriller Unstoppable is a wildly entertaining throwback to the mid-to-late-90’s “high-concept” actioner genre that he helped pioneer. Sort of like Speed but refreshingly constructed without a mad-man terrorist character, the film is inspired by true events and doesn’t suffer in the slightest when it comes to a non-existent mega-villain – the runaway train at the center of the film is plenty mean and nasty. Scott, working for the fifth time with Denzel Washington and for the first time with Chris Pine, got two meaty, manly performances from his charismatic leads, and as usual, peppered his film with a terrific supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan [love this guy!], T.J. Miller, scene-stealer Lew Temple, and David Warshofsky all pop up in key roles). Mark Bomback’s lean, fast-moving screenplay injects nice character beats all throughout the propulsive narrative as opposed to front-loading the first act with nothing but background and exposition. We get to learn about the characters as the movie progresses ala a 70’s film, while Bomback and Scott pile on the near-death encounters that Washington and Pine have to contend with. There’s also a quiet little streak of working-class anger running throughout Unstoppable when it comes to the way mega-corporations care more about their bottom line than the lives and well-being of their employees; the subversive subtext is there no matter how much it’s overshadowed by explosions and flipping-cars.

Based on an event that occurred in 2001 where an unmanned train carrying highly-toxic chemicals careened through the Ohio countryside at speeds of up to 50 mph, Unstoppable ups the ante considerably (now a heavily populated city is in jeopardy and the train is chugging along at close to 70 mph) but still stays true to the events that inspired it. Due to simple human error, one segment of a train dislodges from the main portion, and with the gears in forward motion, takes off down the track. Most people won’t know much about trains going into this film (I certainly didn’t) but by the end, you’ll likely have a better understanding of how they work and just how dangerous they really are. Credit goes to Washington and Pine for never over-stating the obvious. They are playing classic men of action who rise to the occasion when they are most needed (a theme running all throughout Scott’s body of work) and they never went over the top with their performances. Pine has a great way of never seeming overly pushy as an actor, possessing a natural quality which makes it seem like he’s being himself at all times. Washington is completely at ease under Scott’s direction and did a nice variation on the same character that he’s been perfecting for the last 15 years. There’s nothing complicated about Unstoppable – how will these train operators (one a veteran, one a rookie) stop the runaway bomb-on-wheels and save the day?

There’s a certain element of predictable eventuality to Unstoppable – it seems inconceivable to think that the train will really crash and eviscerate close to a million innocent people. So without spoiling anything (and there are more than a few surprises in Bomback’s fast-moving script), I’ll say that Scott keeps you invested the entire time, not only by destroying any number of objects that get in the train’s way as it charges towards its destination, but by staying focused on the brass-tacks of the story and never succumbing to cheap humor or stupid side distractions. So it’s no real secret to reveal that the real star of Unstoppable, beyond the train itself, is Scott the auteur. No other filmmaker, to my recollection, has transported their audience directly on a train in the way that Scott does in Unstoppable. Every single shot in the film looks real – viciously, dangerously real. At no time do you feel like you’re watching actors on a set or in front of a green screen, which goes a long way in making the entire movie feel vital and alive. The aerial photography is stunning, with numerous shots of the hard-charging train going neck and neck with helicopters and pick-up trucks that are trying to stop it. Scott, along with the gifted cinematographer Ben Serensin, always managed to keep all of the action coherent and spatially understandable in Unstoppable, without ever sacrificing anything in the style department. They’re aided immensely by Scott’s long-time, go-to editor Chris Lebenzon and his partner Robert Duffy. All of Scott’s kinetic shooting and editing tricks (jump-cuts, rich color palette, on-screen titles, staccato editing patterns) are sampled during Unstoppable, so as a result, some people might get motion sickness, as the camera never stops swirling, never takes a breather, and is always on high alert. It’s visceral filmmaking of the highest order and a further reminder that Scott was the best in the business when it came to this sort of stuff. It’s indescribable how much I miss him as an artist.

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MICHAEL CIMINO’S YEAR OF THE DRAGON — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Intense, mean, and violent, Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon is really overdue for a Blu-ray release. It’s sort of hammy with its dialogue but it’s no less entertaining for being so. Alex Thomson’s bravura cinematography consistently dazzles. The visceral, blazing shootouts feel real and wildly dangerous. The nightclub scenes are electric, clearly paving the way for Collateral/Vice-era Mann. Rourke is both agonizing and heroic, and even if he might not have been truly old enough for the part as written, he was his usual, fascinating self, always a reserve of surprise, ever the actor to keep you guessing. David Mansfield’s evocative musical score heightens the mood and Wolf Kroeger’s absurdly amazing production design is beyond sumptuous — you’d never know that almost the entire film was shot on North Carolina sound stages. The screenplay, co-written by Cimino and Oliver Stone from Robert Daley’s novel, is both on the nose and subtle, cliched and unpredictable, which is no easy accomplishment, while the level of startling and bloody violence is bracing to behold — people get FUCKED up in this movie. Cimino, as always, just totally went for it, giving this explosive if at times overwrought narrative tons of dynamic sequences and individual moments, while also hammering home his distinct visual aesthetic, which here borrowed neo-noir and gangster movie elements to tell a propulsive and engrossing story that feels intimate and epic all at once. The production value on this movie truly is wondrous, I can’t say it enough.

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BOBCAT GOLDTHWAIT’S WORLD’S GREATEST DAD — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I always preferred Robin Williams when he went DARK — stuff like Insomnia (as good as remakes get), Death to Smoochy (brilliant satire), What Dreams May Come (visionary), One Hour Photo (supremely creepy), Good Will Hunting (downbeat but still lovable), and The Final Cut (unnerving) rank as my favorite movies from this legendary comedic actor — but I am not sure anyone was prepared for how screwed-up and obscenely hysterical Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad was going to be. This is a scalding, deeply perverted, and oddly touching little comedy that’s destined to find a huge cult following. The less you know about the story the better, but here’s a small summary: Williams is high school teacher and failed writer Lance Clayton, a single dad who is raising his punk-ass teenage son Kyle (the amazingly nasty Daryl Sabara) and carrying on a secret relationship with fellow teacher Claire (the extremely cute Alexie Gilmore). When Kyle accidentally (and embarrassingly) dies, Lance decides to write a suicide note on behalf of his son. That’s when all hell breaks loose. Again, know as little about this movie as possible before you check it out. All I will say is that it’s one of the sharpest high school satires since Election, and overall, the film has a nasty streak of diseased humor running through its cinematic veins that is extremely refreshing. It’s also a unique film about parenting and family, and while much of the delinquent son’s behavior might putt off some people from even attempting reproduction, Goldthwait’s narrative still has plenty of genuine heart. This is an audacious, unsafe comedy, unafraid to go to some truly bleak places, and always succeeding because of Goldthwait’s ability to cull humor out of the perverse. Williams gives a terrific performance, on par with his career best work in stuff like Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo; when he wanted to knock it out of the park, he really crushed it. This is easily one of the funniest, most transgressive comedies in years, on par with stuff like Observe and Report and Bad Santa.

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ACTRESS SPOTLIGHT: DINA SHIHABI — AMIRA & SAM — BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sean Mullin’s sweet and feisty romantic dramedy Amira & Sam hits all the right notes, and a big reason for the film’s success is the terrific performance from leading actress Dina Shihabi. I love that this film went with its heart in the final act, and I found it to be a touching, sad, and finally hopeful little gem that knew exactly what it wanted to say. That the film believes in the power of love is one of its greatest virtues, as Mullin created two fully fleshed out characters (Shihabi’s co-star is the fantastic Martin Starr) in a relatively short amount of time, lending credence to the notion that great chemistry can propel any cinematic relationship forward even in the briefest amount of screen time. The story hinges on Sam (Starr), an Iraq war veteran who by chance meets Amira (Shihabi), the beautiful niece of his wartime translator, who also happens to be an illegal immigrant. Through a series of potentially life altering circumstances, Sam is asked to hide Amira after a run-in with the NYPD, while an unexpected romance blossoms between the two lost souls. Their “meet-cute” is wonderful and the palpable chemistry that Shihabi and Starr crafted together was playful and sexy. The film feels like a cousin in some respects to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, as it’s a work that operates on multiple levels, with comedy masking some rather upsetting notions of estrangement, and while what happens in the final moments might strike some as unlikely, I believed it because of how well defined the central relationship was and because Mullin clearly had an affinity for his characters.
 
But when you cut to the film’s core, the bleeding heart of the narrative rests in the two wonderful lead performances from Shihabi and Starr, who both inhabit real people in an increasingly stressful yet hopeful situation, one with no easy answers and no pat resolutions by the time the story has come to its conclusion. Shihabi, for her part, knew precisely how to balance her character’s initial frustrations with a keen sense of comic timing and dramatic intent, while never allowing her potentially caustic behavior to overwhelm any portion of her early scenes. She paints a well balanced portrait, in an economical amount of time, of a person who is struggling to find herself in the world, and you gain her sympathy — and empathy — almost immediately as a result of her openness as an actress. Her eyes suggest desire and hope while her body language suggests fear and pessimism, which was crucial for the audience in order to understand how volatile her situation was during the course of the story. And without spoiling anything that this lovely film has to offer, the final moments strike as note-perfect, encapsulating all of the ideas and themes that Mullin had worked so hard to convey throughout his story. Shihabi’s ability to convey hard-fought sincerity while allowing her emotional guard to be slowly lowered by Starr’s smitten potential beau is a further testament to how carefully conceived her character was by Mullin, and how delicately Shihabi pulled it all off. And while Amira and Sam’s road might be fraught with uncertainty, you’re always rooting for them as a couple, which is a pleasure for the audience. This is one of those small, under the radar movies that deserves to find an audience!

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MIKE LEIGH’S MR. TURNER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Mr. Turner is an exquisitely made movie, and on an aesthetic level, it’s a work that consistently leaves one in awe over it’s spellbinding use of color, light, and texture. But I have to be honest – I found this movie to be dry-dry-dry, and while that’s not a terrible thing per se (it’s hardly uninteresting), had it not been for the overwhelming cinematography, I might have not been as engaged to the mildly repetitious narrative. Timothy Spall is indeed fantastic in this film, all primal sweaty and completely ensconced in his role, but the absurd amount of grunting and strange-noise emitting became distracting if not hilarious by the mid point of this two hour and 30 minute film. And make no mistake about it — subtitles were REQUIRED while watching this film on Blu-ray. I’ve watched a lot of British/Irish films before with thick accents — but some of the lines, as spoken by numerous members of the cast (Spall included), were utterly incomprehensible to my ear. So that was sort of an annoyance, because the last thing I want to be doing while watching a film as absurdly gorgeous as this one, is to be reading text dialogue at the bottom of the screen. Leigh is a master filmmaker, there’s clearly no question about that, and this film is miles from something like Happy-Go-Lucky or half-dozen other entries from his diverse and spectacular resume, further reinforcing the notion that he’s a filmmaker capable of telling almost any type of story. But for me, this was the Dick Pope show all the way, as he conjured up one obscenely photographed sequence after another, demonstrating a tactile understanding of how to merge Turner’s lush and evocative paintings into a fully alive piece of cinema, allowing the brushstrokes from Turner’s canvass to spill out into the frame, thus turning the entire film into a living, breathing cinematic painting.

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PTS Cinematographer’s Corner with Ben Kasulke

KASULKE POWER

Photo credit: Hillary Spera
Photo credit: Hillary Spera

Podcasting Them Softly is honored to present a chat with cinematographer Ben Kasulke. Over the last 10 years, Ben has amassed close to 60 credits, and has become one of the leading independent stylists of his generation, having created intense collaborations with filmmakers Lynn Shelton and Guy Maddin, shooting for them such titles as TOUCHY FEELY, YOUR SISTER’S SISTER, HUMPDAY, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM, SEANCES, and KEYHOLE. His work stretches various genres and filmmakers with other big-screen credits including SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, THE FREEBIE, and TREATMENT. He’s also no stranger to television, having shot the first season of the hilarious and critically acclaimed FX comedy MARRIED starring Judy Greer and Nat Faxon, and Adult Swim’s horror comedy THE HEART, SHE HOLLAR with John Lee and Vernon Chatman. Ben has also worked on documentaries and short films, and his most recent project is the upcoming Amazon series RED OAKS for executive producer Steven Soderbergh and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS director David Gordon Green. We hope you enjoy our latest entry in the PTS Cinematographer’s Corner series!

PAUL MAZURSKY’S BLUME IN LOVE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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One of the best things I’ve done all year is get to know the work of Paul Mazursky better, and Blume in Love, the first film where he was the solo writer as well as director, is easily one of the finest films I’ve seen from him yet. Resembling a series of memories, all hazy and restless and sudden and abrupt, this is a magnificent piece of storytelling, with Mazursky’s usual and amazingly perceptive emphasis on the human condition firmly in place. I loved Bruce Surtees’ constantly searching and intimate cinematography, and don’t get me started over how the film begins and ends with the same shot – brilliant! George Segal turned in a challenging and deeply complex performance; the rape sequence in the third act changes the film in a very unique and startling way. Susan Anspach delivered a fantastic, multifaceted piece of acting as a woman torn between intense feelings of love and rage, while Marsha Mason, in her screen debut, was able to paint a convincing and potent portrait of “the other woman,” something she’d be asked to do more than a few times in her career. And I must say, she really enjoyed taking her top off during her heyday! Some of the best scenes of the film involve Kris Kristofferson’s stoner lay-about, as he hooks up with Anspach after she and Segal divorce (due to his cavalier infidelity), and then becomes odd-couple friends with Segal in the most humorous of ways. Mazursky was always interested in people, in faces, in how we all interact and view the world, and I loved how this entire film felt like some sort of scattershot dream, complete with Segal’s stream of consciousness voice over. And I’ll always marvel how films from the 70’s had such an observant style, with shots looking off from the distance, allowing dialogue to be overlapped with images not containing the speaking actors, not to mention how films from the 70’s just STARTED, with no handholding or babying you through the first act. Bill Conti’s score is peppy in spots, pensive in others, and underscores the narrative without overpowering anything on screen. There’s so much casual humor in this film which keeps it from being as depressing as some of the narrative truly is, and Segal carries such an aching, wounded heart, that the film feels caught between sympathizing with him while also scorning him for his thoughtless, sometimes sickening behavior. I wonder how audiences reacted to “the big scene” in Blume in Love, the bit between Segal and Anspach which, on one hand, seems like a pretty obvious example of rape, but then, upon further contemplation (and post-film discussion), I don’t know what to feel, especially since critics at the time seemed to think nothing of it. All I know is – that scene NEVER makes it in a modern film. Whatever it was, it was another indication of Mazursky acknowledging the possibility for human failing, and while not condoning the behavior, it’s clear that he understood how two people could find themselves in that situation, with the same outcome, with the same set of shifting feelings. What a phenomenal piece of work that I can only assume will linger long in my memory banks.

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