The Tourist (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Tourist</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) In retrospect, The Tourist doesn’t look like the kind of film that’s difficult to mess up: Take two hugely popular stars, a picturesque location, and a premise that allows for both a bit of comedy and some action.  Easy!  Yet much of The Tourist plays as an introduction for a movie that never ends up on-screen… and the conclusion seems deliberately engineered to vex anyone still looking for some coherence.  Part of the issue is that the film occasionally presents itself as a thriller when it’s not much more than a romantic comedy and its attempts to play up the thrills are misplaced through a depiction of incompetent police operations, tepid action sequences and half-hearted justifications for the cops and criminals acting as plot drivers.  As a romantic comedy, The Tourist can at least depend on the presence of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, even though only Jolie seems perfectly adapted to her role as an elegant woman with secrets: Depp, on the other hand, seems uncomfortable playing a supposedly normal man thrust in the middle of so many shenanigans.  His specialty as an actor is the oddball character, not the kind of bland romantic lead that The Tourist wants him to play.  What doesn’t help is the unremarkable dialogue: despite the star power of the two leads with Venice in the background, the entire film is barely worth a shrug.  Perhaps worse than the result is the almost-there quality of the film it should have been.  Fans of Depp and/or Jolie may find enough of their favourite to be happy with the results, but anyone wanting something more than celebrity tourism may want to look elsewhere first.

Faster (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Faster</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) Sophistication is overrated in most movies, as so it is that this exploitation revenge film homage is exactly what it purports to be: a straight-ahead action thriller in which a lot of people shoot at each other.  Dwayne Johnson headlines the film as an ex-convict whose first and last task out of prison is to kill those who betrayed him and murdered his brother: His perpetually-angry expression and shoulders hunched forward in unstoppable motion are exactly what the film needs in order to earn its title.  Faster seldom stops, and yet it manages to juggle a few fascinating characters along the way, including one of the oddest, most sympathetic elite assassin in recent memory.  It’s all no-CGI, muscle-cars, big guns, 70s music until the end.  The action isn’t especially well-directed, but the film itself races forward relentlessly, and it scores a few great sequences along the way: While Faster can’t aspire to depth, it does something interesting with its theme of revenge, a few seemingly disconnected radio sermons eventually leading to a satisfying climactic sequence that wraps up one of the film’s subplots.  Alas, it’s perhaps one of the only threads effectively wrapped up in a messy climax that doesn’t quite know how to deal with its tangled-up ball of intrigue: While Faster doesn’t leave us hanging, it doesn’t conclude as well as it could, and the result isn’t as satisfying as it could have been.  This is a shame, because otherwise Faster is a highly satisfying revenge film that doesn’t try to pass itself as anything higher or lower.  It’s a perfect antidote for the Oscar-baiting films currently tripping over each other in a bid for dramatic meaning.

Fade, Kyle Mills

<em class="BookTitle">Fade</em>, Kyle Mills

St. Martin’s, 2006 paperback reprint of 2005 original, 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-93418-1

Kyle Mills may not be a best-selling thriller author, but he’s certainly an interesting one.  His bibliography shows a preference for tackling unusual subjects with an off-beat sensibility:  His best work to date may be Smoke Screen, a low-intensity comic thriller taking place within the smoking industry.  In other novels, he has featured characters poisoning the US drug supply, taking on Scientology-like cults, discovering Edgar J. Hoover’s secret files or publicly helping terrorists.  While not everything he writes is of equal interest, even his most forgettable novels have one or two elements worth mentioning.

Fade won’t rank as one of his best, but it certainly shows the way Mills can take familiar thriller elements and rearrange them in an unusual fashion.  The main character of the novel is, at first glance, the kind of guy you find at the middle of just about every modern American thriller: A super-competent Special Forces operative, a one-man army capable of winning the War on Terror by himself.  Except that Salam al Fayed (“Fade”) has been wounded in action years ago and sent to retirement by a government too cheap to pay for surgery that would avert his eventual paralysis.  When former best friend Matt Egan comes knocking to ask him to perform one last mission, he’s unaware that Fade has nurtured his resentment to a dangerous level.

Most thrillers would then go on to that last mission, to the promise of healing, to friendship between brothers-in-arms.  But this is where Fade goes off the rails: Our protagonist vehemently refuses to accept that last mission.  When the government tries to take him in through a local SWAT force, Fade kills most of them, leaving their team leader (an attractive policewoman) alive.  Contacted again by Egan, he vows deadly revenge against his ex-friend and whoever authorized the botched SWAT raid.

But there’s a further flip in store, because while most thrillers would take painstaking efforts to paint Fade as an outright villain, Mills turns him into a strangely likable anti-hero; witty, desperate for a date with the policewoman he spared, not above acute gadget fever and definitely not deadly when he can be vengefully funny.  Fade, can often be read as a comic novel, especially when a plan for poisoning his enemies turns into a somewhat more lax experience, or when Fade hires colourful mechanics to transform his car into something more spectacular.  There are strong echoes of Smoke Signal’s smirking tone in the way much of the novel unfolds, with amusing dialogue between characters that should hate each other but seem to get along quite well, and unusual sequences that sometimes threaten to veer into absurdity.

As far as simple reading pleasure is concerned, Fade fares well despite the often-tangled web of loyalties the reader is asked to consider.  The novel has a few standout sequences and nice character moments, such as the tense negotiations between Fade and Egan as to whether the latter’s family should be kept out of the revenge equation.  Contrarily to much of Mills’ bibliography, Fade’s intimate focus has little interest for world-shaking theatrics when there’s a character with real problems to solve within the American heartland.

But the tension between the novel’s sometimes-serious plotting and sometimes-silly sequences eventually lands Fade in a narrative dead-end from which there’s only one unpleasant exit.  Its conflicted hero is equally deadly as he is charming, and that helps make the novel’s final moments feel bittersweet.  On the other hand, they’re a further mark of distinction for an author who doesn’t seem to want to play by the same rules of so many other interchangeable modern thrillers pitting reliably white American operatives against just-as-reliably Arab antagonists.

Fade is less predictable than most other novels in its category, and that makes it quite a bit intriguing.  On the other hand, it remains to be seen if that kind of unorthodox approach is what has kept Mills from hitting greater sales numbers.  The danger is always that his Bookscan numbers would dip under what publishers consider to be viable threshold.  Without access to the sales numbers, it’s still easy to note (with some worry) that Mills doesn’t have an upcoming novel listing despite a last publication of two years ago.  Hopefully this is just a blip…

[Trivial bibliographic note, but: The first edition of the mass-market paperback has an error on the copyright page stating that the “St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition” was published in “May 2005”… that is, one month before the release of the first hardcover edition.  Amazon.com has the proper May 2006 release date.]

Tangled (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tangled</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) There’s nothing revolutionary in this latest offering from the “Disney Princesses” factory.  In fact, much of Tangled (marketed as “Disney’s fiftieth animated feature”) seems to be a conscious homage to the best-known films from the House of the Mouse, down to the use of fairy tales, musical numbers, animal sidekicks and evil stepmoms.  But there’s no need to reinvent everything when it’s possible to do the familiar really well, and so Tangled offers a pretty good times at the movie even without necessarily offering anything dramatically new.  The Rapunzel fairy tale isn’t given a reinterpretation as much as homage and the long-haired blonde heroine is easily one of Disney’s most appealing young heroines in a while.  The story is crisply told, the jokes are funny, the animation is top-notch, the action sequences are terrific, the animal sidekicks are used deftly (they have personalities, but they don’t talk) and the hair-related gags are inventive.  For such a fast-paced film, the irony is that one of the best sequences in Tangled comes when the narrative stops and the film indulges in a lovely “paper lanterns” sequence that does much to reaffirm computer animation as an art form.  The weaknesses of the film are easily overlooked: The musical numbers are bland, forgettable and have none of the snappiness of The Princess and the Frog.  But by embracing a fairy tale without ironic distance and forgoing pop-culture references, Disney may have delivered its first film in a long while with built-in longevity as a family classic.  Even Disney-sceptics may be willing to let go of their accumulated resentment and embrace Tangled.

127 Hours (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">127 Hours</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience of watching 127 Hours.  Survival films strike an implicit deal with viewers in that they’re going to spend much of the film’s length feeling acutely uncomfortable, and this one doesn’t soften the experience of spending five days with a poor guy with a hand stuck between a rock and a crevice wall.  Since there’s only one slightly softer component in that mix, you can guess what’s coming… and steel yourself for it.  Director Danny Boyle’s films have been hit or miss as far as I’m concerned, but his impressionistic direction style here works well at presenting the protagonist’s experiences and keeping the film interesting even as it’s stuck in one location.  If 127 Hours does something very well, it’s to put us inside the protagonist’s every solitary experiences from the irresistible appeal of the outdoors to tasting the last of his water reserves: Indeed, when That Scene comes up, it’s easy to end up seeing stars alongside the hero.  James Franco is exceptional as a self-reliant man slowly discovering the limits of insularity: The film depends on him, and his performance is one of the few this year capable of rivalling Ryan Reynolds’ similar turn in Buried.  But 127 Hours is not a downer thriller, and so viewers emerge from the experience thoroughly uplifted.  Despite the fact that the film stays in one location for about two-third of its length and often resorts to oneiric flights of fancy, it still feels taut, tight and unsentimental.  It’s a minor achievement in filmmaking, and it will win over even the sceptics.

Police Squad! (1982)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Police Squad!</strong> (1982)

(On DVD, December 2010) Almost thirty years later, this short-lived TV series still holds up splendidly.  Best-known as the prototype for the Naked Gun! trilogy of police movie spoofs, Police Squad! is an amusing attempt to translate the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker brand of rapid-paced comedy to the TV screen.  The pacing is slower than the films but is considerably faster than most sitcoms and as a result still works pretty well even today, echoing the rhythm of latter series such as The Simpsons and Family Guy.  Leslie Nielsen is great as Frank Drebin, although his TV portrayal is a bit more competent that the film’s doofus character.  One of the ways the series can sustain its rapid-fire stream of comedy is by recycling gags, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re funnier the first or the sixth time: The end-of-episode fake-freeze moments still feel inspired today.  At six episodes, total running time for the series on DVD is slightly over two hours, making it an ideal length for an evening’s viewing.  The DVD contains a generous amount of supplementary material, including three episode commentaries and a gag reel.

Level 26: Dark Origins, Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

<em class="BookTitle">Level 26: Dark Origins</em>, Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski

Dutton, 2009, 406 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-525-95125-4

Some novels are unexplainable, but this isn’t one of them.  It doesn’t take much more than a look at Level 26: Dark Origins’ dust jacket to understand that this is a book about money, the corporatization of entertainment and a repellent vision of the future of prose fiction.  Pompously billed and trademarked as the world “first Digi-Novel™”, Dark Origins’ main narrative hook is entirely external to the story: This is a novel with multimedia extensions.  If you want the so-called “full experience”, you need to log onto a web site and sell your soul to the Penguin Group (or at least engrave your email address in their marketing databases) to watch video segments, email snippets and other assorted miscellanea.

(Actually, it’s even more pretentious than that.  Let me quote from the dust jacket: “Level 26 takes the best features of books, film and interactive digital technologies and roll them all into a raw, dark, and intense storytelling experience we’re calling the world’s first “digi-novel™.”)

This has the sole virtue of feeling new.  But not really; also published in 2009, Jordan Wiseman and J.C. Hutchins’ Personal Effects: Dark Arts also tried to expand the putative “boundaries of the novel” by providing a pouch full of fake credit cards, photos and other documents (some of them with web addresses and phone numbers set up expressly for the book) that meant to provide a supplement to the prose narrative.  Like Dark Origins, Dark Arts (what’s with the Dark fascination?) was billed as a collaboration between an experienced thriller novelist and a creator best known for other kinds of entertainment.  Anthony E. Zuiker created the CSI series; Jordan Wiseman led several Augmented-Reality Games.  It starts to reason that both books would attempt to extend a novel through a mixture of ARG tropes and short multimedia clips.

In both cases, I deliberately approached the novels as their own narratives, ignoring the included or web-accessible miscellanea.  Neither novel did particularly well when considered as just-novels.  Dark Arts was a run-of-the-mill supernatural thriller, with a few good scenes but not much in terms of narrative interest.  Dark Origins, on the other hand, is quite a bit worse… to the point where it’s easy to think that it wouldn’t have been worth publishing if it hadn’t been doped with multimedia supplement and a truckload of hype.  (In an article, Zuiker refers to Dark Origins as the “world’s first interactive crime novel”, which betrays an appalling comprehension of the word “interactive”: Passive consumption, even across multiple linked media, is not interactive.)

Level 26 is underwhelming starting from its very premise: A super-competent retired FBI profiler is brought back in service to track down a super-competent serial killer…  Yes, indeed, “visionary creator” Zuiker couldn’t be bothered to do better than yet another Thomas Harris rip-off as the basis of his “bold new creation”.  If you haven’t yet overdosed on quasi-supernatural serial killers and the tortured profilers who can’t stop tracking them, then Dark Origins may push you over the edge.  All of the usual components are there: The family suddenly threatened by the killer, the inexplicably rich and competent psycho, the elaborate games that the antagonist plays with the police… it’s all there, down to the reluctant ex-boss, regular doses of meaningless gory deaths, kidnapping of the hero’s love interest, final horrific confrontation, and so on.

But Dark Origins can’t leave a clichéd formula alone without adding its own special brand of stupid sauce.  Perhaps the worst is the titular “Level 26”, which presumes a scale of evil from 1 to 25 so finely graduated that we can just imagine FBI psychologists arguing the merits of a 17 rating versus a 16.  (To quote, once again, from the tedious dust jacket: “It is well-known among law enforcement personnel that murderers can be categorized as belonging to one of twenty-five levels of evil, from the naive opportunists starting out at level 1 to the organized, premeditated torture-murderers who inhabit level 25.”) But the “Level 26” nonsense also has to compete with a vision of the world so warped (even by the noir standards of serial killer glorifications) that it includes the presence of Homeland Security goons who follow the hero around with an explicit mandate to kill him if he stops tracking down the serial killer.  With allies like those, why bother having a serial killer?  Few will be surprised to find out that the killer’s formidable resources, available time and multiple competencies are never explained, since narrative coherence and logic were discounted in favour of video clips.  That’s how it goes in Digi-Novels™.

(More pettily, that serial killer is seriously referred to as “Sqweegel”, bringing about unfortunate associations with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.)

For readers who quite like prose narratives and resist the corporate push to commoditize novels like other bits of safe and predictable multimedia entertainment, the creative bankruptcy of Level 26: Dark Origins as a novel is a bit of a balm.  It doesn’t herald anything like the “book of the future” nonsense that had been bandied about by breathless press clippings –This isn’t much more than another curiosity whose interest will go extinct at about the same time the novel goes out of print and the web site is closed down by the publisher. (I’ve got an entire bookmark folder filled with online supplements that didn’t last five years.)

Attempts to reinvent the novel via trademarked multimedia gizmos are doomed to failure for a number of reasons, the biggest one being that it’s useless and expensive: the novel is not a broken form of entertainment, and attempts to shackle it to other audiovisual pieces that –significantly- take far more resources to produce than a-guy-typing-away are curiosities at best, shameless “intellectual properties”-building at worst.  I will note (with some schadenfreudian cackling) that adding a multimedia component to a book’s marketing campaign also increases the sell-through required to break even.  Dark Origins is billed as first novel in series: Given the results, I’m not seeing it going much beyond the contracted-for trilogy.  Unless the marketing database of email addresses ends up being more valuable than the royalties…

So what’s left to say, other than Level 26: Dark Origins is a dull piece of fiction that’s not worth your time as a narrative nor as a “digi-novel™”?  That the commercial intent of the project reeks of desperation?  That Zuiker should leave books alone?  That the business model is flawed from conception? Maybe all of those things, but mostly none of those things: It’s not a fearless prediction that this project will sink without a trace and leave the rest of the industry unaffected.  Meanwhile, go read another novel without multimedia add-ons, celebrity endorsements or unwarranted self-importance: it’ll last longer.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dreams with Sharp Teeth</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, December 2010) Few contemporary writers elicit a variety of reactions like Harlan Ellison.  With his substantial body of work, long personal history and contentious personality, Ellison can be admired and reviled, often by the same people at various times.  Famously cranky, extremely intelligent, extraordinarily outspoken and connected to a variety of subcultures from Science Fiction fandom to Hollywood professionals, Ellison is an ideal subject for a documentary and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, twenty-five years in the making, is meant to offer an overview of the man and his career.  A compilation of archival footage, interviews with Ellison, readings, testimonies from friends such as Josh Olson and Robin Williams and a minimal amount of on-screen captions for context, Dream With Sharp Teeth is not an objective view of its subject: director Erik Nelson is too much of a fan to seriously question the Ellison mythos (although he lets Neil Gaiman come closest to an objective assessment by leaving a reference to Ellison’s career as performance art) and the film is substantially stacked in Ellison’s favour.  People familiar with the Science-Fiction field will delight in spotting appearances by Dan Simmons, Connie Willis (!), Michael Cassutt and Ronald D. Moore.  (Those same SF fans may quibble with how Ellison’s troubled relation with fandom is illustrated by his presence at the 2006 Nebula weekend: The Nebulas are a professionals’ event; couldn’t Nelson go to the fannish 2006 L.A. Worldcon instead?)   But the star remains Ellison… in all of his overblown personality, important friends, nice house and tortured history with Hollywood and the SF&F field.  Is it an interesting documentary?  Sure.  Is it the best possible documentary about Ellison?  Heck no –but documentaries being works of passion, it would be unlikely to see one made by someone who wouldn’t already be a fan of Ellison.  There are so many fascinating things that could be discussed about Ellison dispassionately, but for that, we will probably have to wait for an unauthorized biography.  In the meantime, Ellison fans and SF readers will be happy with the film as-is.  The DVD comes with a set of generally superfluous readings, but also an overview of the film’s premiere (with unlikely guests such as Werner Herzog and Drew McWeeny) and a curiously interesting pizza chat between Ellison and Gaiman, in which Ellison isn’t being Ellison (much) and in which, if you know what to listen for, you can even hear a reaction to Ellison’s 2006 L.A. Con IV fiasco.  As SF fans with poisonously long memories (or even a look at Ellison’s Wikipedia page) will tell you, Dreams with Sharp Teeth only tells a chunk of the full Ellison story –which can’t be solely told by his friends.

The Next Three Days (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Next Three Days</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) One of the keys behind a successful thriller is being absolutely, indisputably, unarguably behind the main character.  Moral ambiguity may be fine for dramas, but for straight-ahead thrillers, it’s better to be on-board from the get-go.  Alas, it’s one of The Next Three Days’ biggest flaws that it never completely allows the audience to get behind the protagonist as he reinvents himself as a criminal in order to save his wife from a life imprisonment murder sentence.  It says far too much about my own views of law-and-order to confess that I spent two-thirds of the film silently disapproving of the hero’s jailbreaking plans.  Even at the end, I was actively cheering for the police to bring them in, and for at least one of the so-called heroes to kill themselves.  Once you’re at that point in moral allegiances, it’s hard to come back.  Part of the problem is also that The Next Three Days leaves far too much time for the audience to ponder morality: At two hours, the film is too long for its own good, and part of the problem is director Paul Haggis’ lack of commitment to thrills: The screenplay can’t decide whether it’s marking time as a ruminative drama or if it’s moving forward as a suspense film, and no amount of clever planning can overcome the lassitude of a film that doesn’t quite know how to get going.  Russell Crowe is fine as a schoolteacher who reinvents himself as a mastermind criminal, but Elizabeth Banks isn’t particularly sympathetic as the object of the film’s affection.  The result is, even if you can go along with the protagonist’s descent into criminality, a bit of a waste of talent for everyone involved: A pile of contrivances amount to little more than a fairly dull way to spend much of two hours.

The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

<em class="BookTitle">The Quantum Thief</em>, Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz, 2010, 330 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-575-08887-0

Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief was easily the most-anticipated first SF novel of 2010.  Helped along by enthusiastic praise by People in the Know (starting with Charles Stross, who not only provided an eye-popping cover blurb, but started talking about the novel months before publication), The Quantum Thief was eagerly awaited; an anomaly given the author’s thin bibliography at shorter lengths –The last first SF novel with so much buzz was Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and it came after several Hugo-nominated short stories.

A quick look at the cover blurb is enough to sustain any enthusiasm: We’re promised an exciting future adventure filled with reliable SF buzzwords from bizarre post-humans to dazzling hard SF.  Charles Stross’s cover blurb is designed to make any jaded hard-SF fan perk up (“Hard to admit, but I think he’s better at this stuff than I am.  The best first SF novel I’ve read in many years.”), and virtually everything else about the book seems optimized to appeal to genre SF quirks.  Almost as an afterthought, we’re led to understand that the plot outline has something to do with a super-competent gentleman thief, a daring prison escape and an even more daring heist.

After reading the book, a few things are still true: The Quantum Thief is indeed the debut SF novel of the year and it does herald the arrival of a major new talent.  It’s invigorating, it’s filled with ideas and it’s firmly steeped inside the core assumptions of the genre.

But you’re going to have to work in order to enjoy it, perhaps a bit more than you may expect.

In-between gevulots, googols, Tzaddikim, Sobornost and spimescapes, there’s enough new vocabulary in The Quantum Thief to make you feel as if you’re learning a new language in order to appreciate the novel.  The opening segment is like being thrown in a lake with vague instructions on how to swim.  For a while, the narrative hovers at the edge of understanding, with just enough connecting tissue to keep going, but with a strong sense of alienation that underscores how different this future can feel.

But this is a classic case of how high-end genre Science Fiction should work: From incluing to demonstrative definitions, SF has developed its own strategies for presenting imagined worlds, and Rajaniemi is playing that particular world-building game as well as anyone else currently writing.  It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that SF readers will relish; indeed, it’s one of the reasons why a lot of us read Science Fiction in the first place.

At least there’s some comfort to be found in the plotting.  While the setting of The Quantum Thief is strange, its heist-based narrative structure is far more traditional: Our gentleman-thief protagonist is clearly inspired by Arsène Lupin, and the amateur-detective going against him cleanly echoes the traditional narrative structure of those novels.  No matter how tangled the technology and its resulting society, the storytelling heart of Rajaniemi’s debut is pure classical form.

Still, I suspect that the main complaint against The Quantum Thief will be that while world-building is a good thing in theory, it’s no excuse to make the novel harder to read than it should be.  Rajaniemi is showing off with this first novel, and his prose style calls attention to itself by being a bit more difficult (dense, verbose, indulgent; take your pick of adjectives) than SF’s usually more transparent standards.  It feels a lot like early China Mieville’s work in how it delights in baroque prose pyrotechnics; but readers will note that current-day Miéville seems eager to strip down his style.

While I have my own reservations about the final result, there’s little doubt that as a debut SF novel, The Quantum Thief is a solid success.  Rajaniemi is writing from the perspective of someone who understands and loves Science Fiction, and so the novel is aimed squarely at other genre-SF readers.  It reminds me a lot of Stross’ own debut Singularity Sky, and considering the progress that Stross has made since then, the parallel suggests that Rajaniemi is a major author in the making.

Constrained to a city on Mars, The Quantum Thief offers only a glimpse at the universe Rajaniemi wants to play with: The inevitable sequels have an entire universe to explore.  Considering that Rajaniemi has already sold an entire trilogy, we can only imagine how good he’s going to be by the time we’ll get to read the third one.

Unstoppable (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Unstoppable</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) Railroad nerds better steel themselves, because Tony Scott’s latest thriller is a feature-length paean to American rolling steel, from lovely shots of moving locomotives to numerous behind-the-scenes explanations of how this stuff actually works.  While it’s true that Unstoppable eventually becomes a competently-executed action thriller, it’s the film’s unusual focus on railroad mechanics that fascinate until the action truly starts.  Loosely adapted from a true story (Search “CSX 8888” for the details), Unstoppable is about a runaway train and what needs to be done in order to bring it to a stop without causing massive damage.  Denzel Washington is as good as usual as a grizzled engineer, Rosario Dawson does well in a role requiring no sex-appeal whatsoever and Chris Pine (stuck with a stock blue-collar character) solidifies his moderate credentials as an action hero.  Meanwhile, Tony Scott deploys but does not indulge in the kind of hyperactive style he’s been using for a decade: his shots of rolling trains can become a bit too frantic to be properly appreciated, but he’s able to keep his worst excesses under control.  Fittingly for its subject matter, the action scenes have the physical heft of colliding metal, the CGI gracefully bowing to physical effects.  Structurally, the narrative is a predictable succession of failed attempts until our heroes step in to save the day: it’s a bit of a bother when some plans are so obviously underdeveloped that we know they’re doomed from the get-go.  The “adapted from real events” presumably doesn’t extend to a few scenes milked for maximum suspense.  Unstoppable is not a particularly refined film, but it delivers on its promise, and the result is a fine replacement for Runaway Train as the film most people will consider to be the definitive railroad movie.

Fair Game (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fair Game</strong> (2010)

(In theaters, December 2010) One of the most unfortunate consequences of the neo-conservative fumbling in Iraq is that, for years to come, they will have to endure I-told-you-so reminders from liberals who were dead-set against the invasion in the first place.  So it is that Fair Game is a politically engaged re-telling of the events surrounding the White House’s public outing of CIA Valerie Plame in retaliation for her husband’s public dissent on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.  The story will be most familiar to those who have paid attention during the Bush administration, but the film does a fair job at contextualizing the issues in a way that should be accessible to those for whom this is a new story.  Righteously angry and not shy about letting some of this anger show, Fair Game is fodder for left-wing moviegoers in much the same way that Green Zone was.  (Extra trivia point for those who remember that Fair Game director Doug Liman directed the first Jason Bourne movie, after which the series was taken over by Green Zone’s Paul Greengrass.)  Shot docufiction-style with a camera that jerks around even in conversation scenes when it doesn’t need to, Fair Game is most fascinating when it offers a deglamourized portrait of real-world intelligence and the way partisan politics bandwagons can destroy people’s lives.  As for the rest, well, the film needs to be taken with a grain of salt, given the usual Hollywood dramatizations to make it all feel more interesting.  Sean Penn continues to prove that he’s becoming a more interesting actor with time, but it’s Naomi Watts who shines as Plame, a rare multi-faceted female character balancing work and family life.  While praise for the film is likely to cut along partisan lines, Fair Game itself is a fine piece of work, suspenseful while reasonably realistic.  It’s a deft dramatization of complex events, and despite a bit of a late-film lull, it achieves what it wants to do.