U.S.: Tony Scott, 2010, 20th Century Fox
Unstoppable, a blow-you-out-of-your seat thriller about a runaway train -- by Tony Scott, who knows how to make action movies, but doesn't always make them this well -- starts strong, hits the tracks fast, tears out the brakes, takes off like a shot, and then just keeps racing and accelerating, ratcheting up the action and raising the stakes, barreling through Pennsylvania and all of writer Mark Bomback's plot twists and character cues with costars Denzel Washington (the grumpy old engineer) and Chris Pine (the slick young conductor), blasting along with a lung-clutching velocity Die Hard could only dream of, until it leaves you breathless at the last stop.
If you watch this movie and say you weren't excited, then you probably weren't paying much attention. If you think it's the same old Tony Scott -- remembering that last silly runaway remake subway train movie he made -- you're partly right, though this is the wittier, jazzier Tony Scott of Spy Game or True Romance, not the scriptless flash of The Fan and The Taking of Pelham One, Two Three.
We're off on the wild ride we expect: a constantly frantic, slam-bang but neatly controlled race though a familiar but still wickedly exciting thriller-landscape, replete at times with another trainful of all-too-vulnerable schoolchildren, a heroic but futile attempted train-snatch on the tracks, and a gutsy Marine dangling precariously and heart-stoppingly from a helicopter, trying to set himself down on the roof of a train by now, by God, going 70 m.p.h. or more.
Washington is one of those actors who, like the great noir leading men of the '40s -- Bogart, Mitchum, Cagney, Ryan, Garfield, Douglas, Lancaster, Widmark -- is equally good as hero or villain. That dual good-and-evil gift materializes because Washington isn't afraid to show an edge or an attitude in his roles, which is why Frank is a believable old cuss, even when he's hopping on those roofs.
"Unstoppable" is so good on one level, because Scott so fully exploits almost everything you can do with a train on screen. But movies like Unstoppable also work because of the way they're able to mix glamour and sarcasm, reality and fantasy, action and reactions, speed and smarts. (Extras: commentary with Tony Scott; featurettes; digital copy.
Italy: Federico Fellini, 1974, Criterion Collection, Blu-ray
Amarcord is one of the great Fellinis, and like most of his best work, it's both highly personal and utterly fantastic. On the one hand, it seems to be a revelation of the director's colorful, even sinful, past and his unforgettable family. But it's also a wild fabrication, not exactly trustworthy, about voluptuous sirens and orgies at the Grand Hotel and snowball fights and luxury liners glimmering in the darkened ocean and madmen in a tree and midget nuns -- a tall, tall tale that the director is spinning (with his great co-writer Tonino Guerra) to amuse and delight us. He does.
Set in the 1930s in a town very like coastal Rimini, the provincial city of Fellini's childhood and young manhood -- this is an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a randy young man and a picture of life under Mussolini's fascist state, that keeps drifting away from its central figure -- whom we take to be the teenage, red-haired Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) -- to focus instead on the glorious oddballs and wondrous family and bad fascisti he grew up with and among in Rimini.
Chief among those Rimini folk is the city's unofficial queen, the local hairdresser, a belle of everyone's ball nicknamed "Gradisca" (for "Whatever you desire," which she's supposed to have told a prince at an assignation), a sashaying knockout with a sumptuous derriere and a great, warming smile, who has all the male Rimini hearts and a few female ones in the crook of her little finger. The others include many, many teachers at the local school, a pompous fascist leader (Ferruccio Brambella), a huge and randy female tobacconist (Maria Antonietti Beluzzi), a feral-looking blond prostitute (Josiane Tanzilli) and innumerable denizens of the usual Fellini gallery of charming clowns and indelible grotesques.
Leading the Biondi/Fellini family are Titta's wise mother Miranda (Pupella Maggio) and his impetuous father Aurelio (Armando Brancia), along with uncle Patacca (Nando Orfei), an old grandfather (Giuseppe Ionigro), some childish younger brothers, and mad Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), the one who climbs up the tree, keeps shouting "I want a woman!" and has to be ordered done by that feisty midget nun.
It's a bittersweet, very wistful movie -- rollicking at some times, deeply sad at others -- and one of the oddest things about it is the way Fellini tends to depersonalize the narration by handing it to others besides Titta -- to a pretentious historian, a street person -- making it as much a chronicle of the imaginary Rimini as the story of a boy in a crucial rite-of-passage year, the year his family and life change greatly.
Titta's parents, Miranda and Aurelio are a mismatched couple in some ways. She comes from a comfortable family. He was a worker, disapproved of by her parents -- and they eloped. Now he's a hothead who interrupts a fascist rally by playing the world socialist anthem "The Internationale," on his violin in the bell-tower and she's a self-sacrificing matriarch who keeps saving him and who cares for everyone, the best and most moving of all Fellini's mothers, in my opinion. The ending, one of Fellini's most heartbreaking, definitely broke mine -- twice.
Amarcord, released in Europe in 1973, was the best foreign language film Oscar winner for 1974, the year of Chinatown and The Godfather 2. It was also Fellini's last big American critical hit.
Yet it seems to me that Fellini is not only a master painter of dreams, but of life too: that deep well from which all dreams flow. Amarcord, especially, is not an apolitical film. It may be indulgent toward Titta's radical dad, but it's also one of the best pictures we have of life under fascism: of what fascism does to its citizenry, of the way it reduces many of them to phonies, bullies, adolescents and children, living in a juvenile dream of conquest and power.
There is a scene in Amarcord (which means "I remember" in Italian dialect) that is one of my favorite images in all of the cinema. We're in a huge field, in what seems late afternoon. It's the end of Gradisca's wedding day; she's leaving the town that adores her with a big city policeman, probably a fascist too.
People are dancing. Some are leaving. Seated on a chair in the field, an old man with dark glasses and balding, frizzy long hair is playing Rota's music on an accordion, and, as he plays, he suddenly swings his whole body to the music, as if in a transport of ecstasy, pain and oh-so-transient delight. The light fades, but the music goes on.
The moviemaker who made that image, and who made Amarcord, knew what poetry was, what fascism was, what people are. He was no bourgeois buffoon, in need of re-education. He was an artist. (Extras: Italian and English soundtracks.)
The Tillman Story (B)
U.S.: Amir Bar-Lev, 2010, Sony Pictures
Here is a truly terrible yet sometimes inspiring story, told with great reportorial skill by documentary director Amir Bar-Lev.
It's the story of an all-American boy who joined the Army, and of the powers that be and what they did to him, alive and dead -- how he was killed in action, how those officers and generals and government men above him used him for publicity, and covered up the truth of his death, and made a mockery of his family's efforts to uncover it, and finally got up to testify before the U. S. Congress, and said that they'd forgotten everything. The dead soldier's name was Pat Tillman, and if you follow the nightly news, cable or Internet news at all, you've surely heard of him, heard at least part of his story.
Pat Tillman was a great football player with a great profile and a California kid's goofy smile and a mind and body like a steel trap. He grew up with his two bothers, and his parents, and he married a girl, Marie, he met at the age of four, playing soccer, and who was his only girlfriend all his life.
He was an athlete, a daredevil. He became a star football linebacker at Arizona State, a star defensive safety with the Arizona Cardinals, a deadly tackler despite his relatively small size (5'11") -- and he was so moved by the tragedy of 9/11, and so inspired by his family's tradition of service in the American military, that he walked out on his career and millions in prime NFL salary to enlist in the Army and fight in Afghanistan.
There he was killed, and sent home in a flag-draped coffin, and given a posthumous silver star by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and it was explained to Pat's family -- his father Pat Sr., his mother, Mary, his brother Rich, and his wife, Marie -- that Pat, riding the lead vehicle in a convoy that also included his younger brother Kevin, had been caught in an ambush by Taliban forces, and acted heroically to save his men, but had been shot and killed. He became a posthumous media star and was laid to rest in a moving ceremony attended by Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain.
But it wasn't true. It was a lie, a cover-up. Pat had been killed by friendly fire: rifle bursts from the U.S. soldiers in the rear of the convoy, who may have been frightened or excited or trigger-happy, but, in any case, killed some of their own men, including Pat, despite his attempts to identify himself, despite his screams of "I'm Pat Tillman! I'm Pat Tillman!"
The shooters didn't listen.
The Tillmans were smart. They were gutsy. They were an all-American family but they soaked up different influences, listened to different drummers. They were agnostics or atheists, and big readers, and Pat -- a college academic star and another big reader who had been through the Bible, Emerson and Thoreau -- had an appointment with radical writer Noam Chomsky when he returned from his tours.
So dad Pat Sr. and mother Mary (especially Mary) began to dig into the case. They pored over the much redacted files, learned that evidence had been deliberately destroyed, soldiers (friends of Pat) told by superiors to keep the truth from them. They asked question after question of Army men who basically said (without saying) that they should take Pat's medals and his media glory and shut up. It stops here, the powers that be insisted.
The Tillman family wouldn't shut up. They forced an Army investigation, and it was concluded (admitted finally) that Pat had been killed not by the enemy but by friendly fire, and the investigation's head took the fall. (He talks on camera here, and it's obvious that he was screwed over.) It stops here, the powers that be insisted.
But the Tillmans wouldn't stop. They forced a congressional investigation, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a bunch of generals and high-rankers all under subpoena. Kevin, Mary and Pat spoke before Chairman Henry Waxman, and Kevin begged that the truth be told. There were emails and notes proving that the true story had been given to all these men, that they damned well knew it all, these highly placed powers that were.
Yet, one by one, they all testified that they didn't remember, that it slipped their minds, that there might have been a communication sent to them but they'd forgotten it or couldn't recall when they'd read it. They'd forgotten, it seemed, almost everything connected with the case. It was as if some mass epidemic of Alzheimer's had suddenly afflicted all the military brass and their leader, Don Rumsfeld -- who smirked as he testified that he couldn't remember either. You know, I'll bet this guy doesn't forget anything, especially the grudges.
Amir Bar-Lev tells this story with skill, dedication, exhaustive research and the utmost lucidity. He weaves all the strands together. At the end, we really feel we know the truth. The Tillmans may believe they failed in their quest, that Rumsfeld had the last smirk. But they didn't. He didn't.
Listen. Up on the ridge in Afghanistan that day, under fire from his own fellow soldiers, who, like their generals, would "forget" what happened, with the bullets striking around him and others, with death very near, there's a fine brave young man -- a deadly tackler, a brilliant student and a good soldier -- screaming "I'm Pat Tillman! I'm Pat Tillman!"
We hear him.