★★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Denzel Washington), a train engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a rookie train conductor, attempted to stop a runaway train of increasing speed and containing toxic chemicals before it reached a curve in the tracks and killed thousands of lives. A corporate employee (Rosario Dawson) guided them from behind-the-scenes, completely neglecting her boss’ orders of choosing to protect stocks instead of lives. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Mark Bomback, what I liked most about “Unstoppable” was it didn’t pretend to be philosophical or allegorical. It wasn’t even a satire of the media considering FOX News, an easy and deserving target, was covering the whole ordeal. It was simply about a train that was out of control and if the characters didn’t stop it, people would die. Naturally, there were clichés such as Will’s struggle at home involving his wife and not being able to be with his son and Frank missing his daughter’s oh-so-important birthday party. It was obvious the script wanted to infuse some heart in the two main characters so we would care about them when their lives would eventually be in danger. With their acts of heroism, despite their imperfections, we all knew both of them would be forgiven in the end. There was nothing new because its only aim was to entertain. On that level, I thought it was successful. I enjoyed the scenes when the train would collide onto cars and other trains, the cops’ ridiculous attempt of shooting at a target that would supposedly slow the train down but the target was right next to tank full of very combustable gas, and when the train would go slightly off-track as it leaned on one side over another. I caught myself trying to steer the train in the correct direction with my mind so I knew I was involved with all of the insanity. I did wish, however, that Scott wouldn’t have been so transparent with his camera work. He took the obvious path of making an action picture too many times to the point where I wondered if he would (or could) change up his technique. Shaking the camera, blurrying the scene, and increasing the volume of the score is a familiar action picture formula. It would have been nice if the director tried to surprise us my suspending our expectations in the air. For instance, an occasional use of silence or perhaps slow motion during the most critical times could have helped to build some level of suspense. Sometimes taking a risk, whether the outcome be success or failure, might go a long way. It’s better than being one-note and driving some audiences dizzy from all the movements. Still, “Unstoppable” was thrilling, sometimes amusing, and had energy to spare. Sometimes that’s all we need.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express” stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with great logic and acumen. In 1930, a little girl was kidnapped and later murdered in cold blood. Five years later, the murderer boarded a train and was later found dead. Since the train was stuck due to weather, the police couldn’t get to the train. It was then up to detective Poirot to figure out who killed the murderer. (I love the irony.) Aboard the train with him and the murderer were twelve other people (Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Michael York) who came from different backgrounds and had unique personalities. The question is, which one or which ones of them did it? I had a lot of fun with this movie even though I found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters. The dialogue was electric; I loved the way Finney used different tactics of interrogation that matched a character’s type of personality. For the longest time, I had no idea who to suspect but even after the mystery was revealed, I still found myself shocked with who committed the crime. However, I have to say that this movie is not for everyone. Although it is essentially a mystery picture, it is very heavy on the dialogue (the main reason why I loved it) and the whole movie consisted of characters being stuck on a train. The movie also started off pretty slow because it took about thirty minutes to introduce all of the important characters. But I think with a little bit of patience and really paying attention to what was happening, people would find this movie worth their time. “Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, has a wonderful supporting cast that fascinated me from beginning to end. The big names involved in this project really lived up to their reputation because they were able to inject complexity and dimension to their characters even though they didn’t get much screen time as opposed to, say, when they were asked to carry an entire film. This film had nice twists dispersed throughout so it was never boring once the viewer gets accustomed to its style. For a two-hour film and having more than a dozen crucial characters, the pacing was efficient. I wish there are more modern whodunit films are being released in cinemas these days because I’m just a sucker for them (it probably explains why obsession with board games like “Clue”).
Double Indemnity (1944)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This noir classic about a man (Fred MacMurray) who works for an insurance company who plots with a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband (Tom Powers) was impressive through and through. Unhappily married to her husband because she married him only for the money, Stanwyck suggested to MacMurray that they commit murder, collect her husband’s insurance money of $100,000 (assuming the husband dies on a train–a situation covered under the double indemnity clause) and be together forever. Only things started to go seriously wrong when an insurance investigator (Edward G. Robinson) began to feel like the death was due to murder rather than accidental because everything was set-up so perfectly. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character (played by MacMurray) narrated the picture and told the audiences outright how everything was going to turn out. So then the focus turned to the journey of two conniving individuals so blinded by greed and passion, they failed to consider the ramifications of what could happen after the deed was done. Stanwyck’s character was an expert of hiding her true emotions and an excellent liar; MacMurray’s character was obsessed with details and had a natural ability to think ahead. But both of them needed each other and that was ultimately their downfall (in which a train became a perfect metaphor). I thought it was fascinating how we saw the story through the antagonists’ perspectives. With most noir films I’ve seen, the story is always through the good guys’ eyes so watching this movie was a refreshing change. “Double Indemnity,” directed by Billy Wilder, being a noir film, I expected it to have a great ear when it comes to dialogue and a stunning use of black and white cinematography. What I didn’t expect was for the script to be very amusing, especially in the first half when MacMurray and Stanwyck conversed for the first time. It provided a nice contrast with the film’s darkness and cynicism. This movie kept me on my toes because just when I thought the characters were at the crest of the wave and were going to get away with everything, they hit a trough just as quickly and they started to figure out ways how they could survive even if it meant sacrificing one another.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.
Sin Nombre (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The debut of writer-director Cary Fukunaga was loved by critics and audiences alike, but I was not that impressed with it. “Sin Nombre” was about two groups of people–one from Honduras and one from Mexico–who take a train headed to the border of United States and Mexico. The first group was Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family who attempt to move to America to lead a better life. The other was Casper (Edgar Flores) who was being hunted down by Mara Salvatrucha, a gang he was once a part of, because he committed a crime against them. While I do agree that the film was protrayed in a gritty and realistic way, I found it difficult to identify with the main characters. I felt as though they had this wall that lasted from the beginning of the picture all the way to finish line. I understand that their journey on the train was literal and symbolic but I had trouble sticking with it because of that lack of connection between the characters and the characters to its audiences. I felt as though their situation or story was told in a much better way from other films. If Fukunaga had taken the time to cut off some scenes from the first twenty minutes and expand on the scenes when Sayra and Casper were interacting with each other, it might have had something brilliant to offer. Instead, I felt as though the experience can be summarized as merely glossing over the shell of characters who were going through very difficult times without truly getting into why they were complex. Their motivations were apparent (survival and a better life) but the filmmakers failed to take the story to another level. I noticed that the director tried to inject contrasting images and concepts but those weren’t enough to make up for a lack of a strong core. I had high expectations coming into this film and I couldn’t help but feel more and more disappointed as the fate of the characters began to unfold.
The French Connection (1971)
★★★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story, “The French Connection” stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo, a bad cop and a good cop, respectively. The two try to capture a French drug lord named Alain Charnier played by Fernando Rey. Hackman and Scheider consistently collide against each other because they have different ways of dealing with situations. I found this film to be really focused because right off the bat the audiences get to see how Hackman’s character is like: racist, having violent tendencies and not caring about anything else as long as a result is produced at the end of the day. Scheider is pretty much the complete opposite so it was interesting to see the partners’ dynamics in disparate situations of varying level of danger. This film won several Oscars including one for Best Picture so my expectations were really high prior to watching it. Although most people’s arguments when asked to explain why they didn’t enjoy the film was that the plot and the look of the film was dated, my problem with it was its abrupt ending. Just when things were getting really good, the credits started rolling and I was left in the dust. I was simply hungry for more. I had no problem that the movie looked dated because I’m used to seeing older films so that line of argument is a matter of acquired taste. I believe this film must be appreciated because a lot of movies that came after it used “The French Connection” as their template. The most infamous scene in this picture was when Hackman’s character tried to chase after a train. It was really exciting even though it didn’t use a lot of visual and special effects because the concept was rooted in the whole good-guy-must-capture-bad-guy schema. I also enjoyed the fact that there were many silent moments in the film where the images did most of the talking. William Friedkin, the director, was always aware that he was making an astute film for intelligent people so he didn’t result to spelling everything out in order to get a point across. Perhaps with repeated viewings I’ll love this film more and more but I don’t consider it as a great film after watching it for the first time (although it came close).
★★★ / ★★★★
Snow is everywhere in pretty much every scene and it made me feel cold just watching it. Half-way through the picture, I realized that the weather is not just a tool to establish a mood. When I look back on it, it’s really neat how much influence the ice has over the characters. I also liked that it took its time to establish the main characters and the fact there’s no archetype villain in the film. As a result, the characters are that much more complex and interesting. They’re just being themselves but their interests happen to collide and that’s when the conflict starts. The show-stopper here is Emily Mortimer. Like in most of her movies, she’s a seemingly timid woman who possesses a silent power which helps to carry her through with whatever is thrown at her. One minute she’s having fun and the next minute she’s totally mortified with what’s going on. And that observation reflected this film. Brad Anderson, who also directed “The Machinist,” has a talent with shifting the mood from one side of the spectrum to another in a matter of seconds. Not only does it make the picture thrilling, it also makes it unpredictable. Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, and Eduardo Noriega are pretty good in their roles but I thought they were a bit underdeveloped, especially the latter two. But maybe the point is to know as little about them because the film makes a commentary regarding strangers in a different country where one does not speak the language. But the one actor that arguably matched Mortimer is Ben Kingsley. He’s such a mystery from the first scene to the last and I craved to know more about him. His methods are highly questionable, every word of Russian he speaks sounded like a threat, and the way he would look at Mortimer suggests he knows more than he’s letting on. For a film that’s almost two hours long, I was glad that there’s a lot of dynamics at work but at the same time I feel like some characters were not explored enough. I think we could do without the little stops of the train during the first forty minutes, but that’s a really minor complaint. Otherwise, pretty much everything about this thriller worked for me because it made me think not only while it was playing but after as well.