It is the oldest question in cinema. What is the difference between high trash and high entertainment? The answer: almost none. “Rubbish on rails,” you could cry of Unstoppable, a thriller about an unmanned runaway freight train threatening northern Pennsylvania with its toxic chemical cargo. But headlong transport and headlong hokum have long been sure-fire partners. Think of Speed or the car chase from Bullitt; think of that first paying audience screaming at that first locomotive coming at them from the screen, 11 decades ago in Paris, France.
Unstoppable is based on a “true story”, claim the credits, though the story goes unmentioned in the press handout and may be as true as the “true story” behind Fargo, a famous Coen brothers bluff. What matter? Our hearts are in our mouths and our nails between our teeth for most of this movie, once an inept driver has stepped from his engine to change a point – as the half-mile-long train starts rumbling from the yard – and forgets to fix the brake or dead man’s handle.
Next thing: the soundtrack is thundering with intensifying doom, the rescue duo despatched in a six-axle boneshaker (Denzel Washington as the veteran driver, Chris Pine as the rookie) exchange high-speed backstories in a race between character infill and environmental apocalypse, and director Tony Scott (the adrenal Limey of Top Gun and Crimson Tide) performs his incomparable camera shtick. The acid-trippy arabesques around talking heads – Scott never allows a static close-up when the lens can pirouette around Washington, Pine or Rosario Dawson as the superbabe yard chief holding things together in the control room – vie with the beetling aerial shots of the “Stanton loop”, a nasty curve that will derail anything going over 15mph, or the ditto shots of golf links where fat-cat railway shareholders shout into their mobiles: “What about the stock devaluation?”
Trashy? For sure. Most shameless of all are the TV bulletins coming live from guess-where in a 20th Century Fox film. Fox News (shimmering logo prominent) belts out the calamity updates – boldly sidelining its hourly Sarah Palin featurettes – and we the audience still eat out of the movie’s hand.
What I loved about Unstoppable is its crude, delinquent grace. It looks gorgeous, cinematographer Ben Seresin’s grainy-saturated colours lending a fauvist oomph to the Pennsylvania landscape. It sounds terrific, with every roar, screech and grind quality-amplified. Even the actors, with their unwieldy spoutings of train lore and their cockamamie character inlay (dad Denzel has missed daughter’s birthday; short-span spouse Chris is sorting divorce papers), come shining through. For Unstoppable, and the gonzo Hollywood action cinema it represents, isn’t really quantifiable, let alone criticisable, as realism. It is abstract expressionism for the popcorn set. It is a delirium tremens, garish and tremendous, executed on the garage floor, or in this case shunting yard, of the populist imagination.
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If Unstoppable embraces its inner trash, The American strains to disdain and distance it. George Clooney, doing existential gloom as in his last europhile pomposity, Solaris, joins director Anton Corbijn, the photographer turned feted-by-some film-maker (Control), in producing an Italy-set assassination thriller desperately keen to be tagged “art”.
Where Tony Scott’s camera had the DTs, Corbijn does inert tableaux icy with enigma. Aerial shots of ribbony roads; overlapping facial close-ups Bergmanesque with portent. Of Clooney we know nothing save his gun-trading profession: he wanders Europe selling rifles and sometimes using them. (This character makes you long for a tripey backstory.) He meets an equally impenetrable bimbo (Thekla Reuten) on an undisclosed killing mission. For variation he beds a prostitute (Violante Placido), who turns out to be – this film is so navel-gazing it doesn’t recognise a cliché coming at it with bells and whistles – a tart with a heart. The nullities grind on in the hilltop Abruzzo village where everyone speaks in the dead-zone tones of the Europudding.
The final scene, striving for tragic consummation but more redolent of an ersatz-bucolic TV commercial with ideas above its station, deserves a place in Great Crummy Film Endings.
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London Boulevard, scripted and directed by ex-Scorsese scenarist William Monahan (The Departed), is better only by its cheeriness. Every actor in this gangland geezerama does a “turn” as if it is party time at the Cheeky Mockney Club. Colin Farrell is the London ex-jailbird bodyguarding wilting-lily film star Keira Knightley. He gets involved with gang lord Ray Winstone, in much the way a coffee bean gets involved with a grinder. But Farrell has allies in David Thewlis’s camply epigrammatic actor – Knightley’s gay friend and fixer – and Ben Chaplin’s bedraggled Artful Dodger, who looks and sounds as if he has spent his life being thrown out of Oliver! auditions. Weird. But diverting.
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Michael Rowe’s Leap Year, which won the Cannes Camera d’Or for best first feature, proves, if you were beginning to doubt, that people still make good grown-up films. An expatriate Australian in Mexico City, Rowe brews an aromatic tale of love between a dumpy live-alone (Monica del Carmen) and the sexy sadist (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) she welcomes into – be prepared for grisly double meanings – her heart.
A single room in an apartment block is furnished with the sticks and tics of loneliness. Laura is a freelance journo filling up time by day – eating from cans, window-spying on neighbours, cellphoning family, friends and potential employers – and filling up herself by night. She uses sex like a service station for passing studs. She knows that and after a fashion likes it. But something in her contentedness is also despair. That is the spell of this film and its dramatic locus: the space in life where “happy enough” isn’t quite happy at all, where it starts to curl into the foetal, fatal yearning for an eternal repose, an eternal closure.
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Is the Millennium Trilogy over? Can we go home? The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest completes a saga that has notched up half the hours of Wagner’s Ring. It has done so while perpetrating the oldest commonplace of conspiracy thrillers: scum rises to the top (in this case ex-communist European sociopaths). In the final instalment the baddies get rounded up, the goodies congratulate each other and the punk heroine (Noomi Rapace) gets out of hospital, where – if plausibility belonged anywhere in this scenario of nonstop hits, muggings and doings-over – every character would be permanently invalided.
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“Education, education, education.” Tony Blair said it three times and Britain is still waiting. Waiting for Superman, a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), says the word umpteen times and files the same answer. This spirited, crusading film counts the children left behind in today’s America and asks if waiting for a caped crusader is the only option. Either that or tell the teachers’ union to stop closing ranks around duds and losers. You know you’re in an endangered superpower when a vice-president who spells “potatos” without an “e” is followed two decades later by a president for whom the plural of child is “childrens”.