November 5, 2010 10:41 pm

Spooks, spoofs and the surfer’s selection

It is paranoia month at the cinema. Adult movies about panic and persecution mania are good for everyone

Going loco

Chris Pine and Denzel Washington

Book now at the cinema. It is paranoia month. At this time of year, wedged like a slice of Halloween pumpkin – grinning and spectral – between the summer silly season and the Christmas bland-out, the US and the west open adult movies about panic and persecution mania. About dread, apocalypse and timor mortis. You know, those fears and emotions we grown-ups live with 24 hours a day.

I am filled with glee, morbid yet exultant, at the thought of Unstoppable (opening US-wide next weekend), the story of a freight train the length of an upended Chrysler Building, packed with bio-hazard materials, charging unmanned across America. Will it crash? Will it destroy civilisation as modern moviegoers know it? (Armies of pixelled extras shimmering in pixelled cities). In the film, hyped as the season’s hot-ticket action thriller, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine give chase in a second locomotive; Tony Scott, a Brit gone native in Lalaland (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu), directs.

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Nigel Andrews

On another line owned by DramTrak, the US screen entertainment rail network, virtually the same story is told in political drama Fair Game (opening stateside this weekend). This chase is based on reality. The “runaway train” is a married couple carrying classified information or more exactly the truth about classified disinformation – CIA employee Valerie Plame and ambassador husband Joe Wilson, freighted with knowledge of US false intelligence about Iraq/Niger uranium trading – while the pursuing train, manned by Bush administration hit personnel, is sent to derail or destroy them.

The Tea Party probably sees the men in the chasing loco as the heroes. Everyone else will root for Plame/Wilson, alias Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, which marks a topsy-turvy moment in history when a screen audience is asked to like the CIA.

Maybe we owe this mischievous perspective to the involvement of another Brit, the playwright Jez Butterworth, Fair Game’s screenwriter and co-producer. But the most a Briton can do in America’s paranoia season is to twitch the steering gear. The runaway trains will keep running. This week we have Let Me In, a vampire gore drama adapted from Sweden’s Let the Right One In and directed by Matt Reeves, who made the sci-fi monster epic Cloverfield. And I can barely wait for Monsters, all about mutant sea creatures coming ashore in Mexico to menace an American holidaying couple. The setting is an “infected zone”, no doubt caused by the crashing of a bio-hazardous freight train ...

Alarmism is what the cinema was born to. The first public film audience (Paris, 1895) ran screaming from a train coming out of the screen. Paranoia movies are good for everyone. What they say is: “We are all on the same railtrack. We have all bought tickets to an unknown destination. Our enemies are trying to derail us. Let’s cling on and get to where we’re going. Wherever, in the great scheme of things, that is.”

Carry On, Kazakhstan

Tell me it can’t be true: it is too good a story. A Kazakh director, obsessed with the enduringinsult to his nation that was and is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, is making an image-redressing movie. Erkin Rakishev’s My Brother, Borat introduces Borat’s younger sibling, the one that the freelance-offensive Kazakh reporter said was kept in a cage. In Rakishev’s story an American tourist, bent on fact-finding, comes to the family’s village and enlists Borat Junior as a guide to the country. “The skyscrapers, the parks, this is what we want to show the world,” expatiates the filmmaker. “Hollywood, 20th Century Fox and Borat – I’ll eat them alive!”

Is he serious? Or is this another brilliantly disguised joke, a spoof of a spoof ... ? In modern cinema it is becoming difficult to tell. Critics and audiences failed spectacularly with I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s documentary about the turned-out-fictional fall of Joaquin Phoenix.

What was once called the “mockudrama”, a containable oddity (and a likeable one), is now spreading its influence in all directions. My advice: take a pinch of salt each time you go to the cinema. Be prepared to sprinkle it. If the movie comes apart when you hold it by the tale, it’s a fake. But be warned. By the laws of vermiform replication, it might form two new fake movies when you let it go.

Screen Cuisine

Zagat, the restaurant guide survey, has moved into the movie world. I have always found their dining advice to be something like sticking a pin in the yellow pages under E for Expensive Eating. Never mind. In their new book The World’s Best Movies, they publish a poll of 20,773 “Zagat.com” surfers to determine the top 1,000 films of all time.

The top 10? The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Casablanca, Schindler’s List, Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill A Mockingbird, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Lady Eve and Singin’ in the Rain.

Zagateers don’t have much time for Citizen Kane, the usual pantheon topper. (It scrapes through at 13.) The visionary boldness of 2001: A Space Odyssey is swept aside by the populism of Star Wars. As for Eisenstein, Renoir and Antonioni, you’d think they didn’t exist until you notice the ghetto list for foreign movies. Only three non-American films make it to the main top 20: The Pianist (not to be confused with the far superior The Piano), The Third Man and Lawrence of Arabia (the last two both American-co-produced).

Do US moviegoers ever look beyond their own shores? But then, what do you want from a group of foodies asked to be a group of filmies? So I am thinking of launching my own FT reader poll in which I ask you to vote for the films I choose. Pens at the ready. The list will probably be: Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Aguirre Wrath of God, The Silence, The Godfather Part II (even Zagat can be right once), L’Avventura, October, 2001: A Space Odyssey, La Règle du Jeu and The Wild Bunch.

And finally

You bottled out shamefully from the last quiz. The only response worthy of attention was from Gavin Stafford of Hong Kong, who detected a “square” in the question: “What is the connection between Albert Einstein, a credit card and Universal Studios?” Not bad, though the town square in Universal’s Back to the Future is a bit of a stretch and a credit card is surely rectangular.

I provided a clue in the preamble with the phrase “initial question”. The answer was “MC”. MC squared; MC for MasterCard; MC for MCA, the parent company of Universal, in its last-century glory days. So. No more quizzes until you all brain up a bit.

nigel.andrews@ft.com

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