by Tony Dayoub
Looking for a couple of movies to help you take your mind off the oncoming stressful holiday season? Well, this weekend is your best bet to find such relief with two well executed trifles.
The first is Unstoppable, the fun, mindless, runaway train romp starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, and Rosario Dawson, and directed by Tony Scott (Crimson Tide). Suspenseful is an understated description of this film in which I went in knowing the ending to be a foregone conclusion. Is there any doubt Denzel and his rookie partner will find a way to stop the ballistic juggernaut chugging down its track? No, the excitement is in how they get it done. And Scott, who it's arguable hasn't been at his best since at least Man on Fire (and maybe even since further back), masterfully pushes and pulls the controls on this one, much the same way Washington's engineer employs a Dynamic Braking System in his attempt to slow down the unmanned locomotive. Scott's constantly moving camera gins up the tension without ever falling prey to his tendency of going too tight on close-ups when he's at his laziest. And the director still manages to work in his predilection for varying film stock smartly, using first-person cuts to media coverage with the deliberate purpose of giving the viewer play-by-play expostition and avoiding the thick morass of pointless stock changes which has afflicted Oliver Stone's films.
Washington and Pine make a good team, as Unstoppable explores the relative benefits of what both of their characters have to offer in terms of a resolution. The veteran brings experience and the novice brings fresh thinking, which might seem like a stale idea to discuss in the movie, but when its contrasted with Dawson and her character's boss (Kevin Dunn), where the dynamic is that of the "person on the ground" versus "the guy in the ivory tower," the interplay between all four characters creates a momentum which keeps the movie charging forward as quickly as its MacGuffin. Cliche as the movie is (and it's why I couldn't resist using some cliches myself to discuss it) it makes for a worthwhile 90-minute thriller.
Now for those averse to "dick flicks," I propose an alternative in the form of a "chick flick." The new film by Stephen Frears (The Queen), Tamara Drewe is slowly rolling out its opening across the country (I saw it this past September in New York, but it's just opening today here in Atlanta). This British romantic farce follows its title character as she returns back to her country estate after remaking herself in the city from a once ugly, large nosed, duckling to a stunning writer (in the gorgeous form of Gemma Arterton we all know). Needless to say, men who once denied her are practically falling over themselves to seduce her now, including: a philandering author (Roger Allam) who runs a writer's colony in his neighboring estate; the handyman (Luke Evans) who works for him, whose family once owned Tamara's home; and a visiting rock star (Dominic Cooper) who has two young groupies of his own to worry about. In an American film, this light comedy would have the misfortune of being even shallower as its writers contrive to keep the film's star from giving in to her natural sexual urges, with cutesy scenes of close coital calls between the protagonist, her ideal man, and one of his rivals. Happily, I can say the British have no such reservations when it comes to sex. Tamara sleeps with every one of her men, and the comedy comes from how she juggles them as she tries to figure out who is Mr. Right. Frears even adds a touch of darkness at the climax to give his film some heft.
At a preview screening, the subject came up as to whether its source material should be classified as a comic strip (it initially did appear as such in the British daily, The Guardian) since most of the promotional material handed to us goes to great lengths to characterize it with the euphemistic handle of "graphic novel." Posy Simmonds' Tamara Drewe strip stands out more for its distinctive art and layout than for its story, a riff on Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. My response to its marketing team is to own the film's roots. With the current popularity of comic book-based films, I appreciate the film more for its unique place among movies inspired by such material. And in many ways Tamara Drewe plays like a likeable feminine version of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.