Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Transsiberian is a surprisingly effective thriller. Brad Anderson, who has previously directed decent but unmemorable movies, outdoes himself here. I’m always grateful when a movie so masterfully manipulates my emotions. My response to Transsiberian was visceral – I squirmed in my seat, but stopped short of shouting at the screen.
Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are a married couple who just finished their humanitarian work in China. Roy is a train buff, and drags his wife on the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow. They share their compartment with another couple – the smooth Spaniard Carlos, and the young American Abby. Roy, who is too affable, does not notice that Carlos is immediately attracted to Jessie. She instinctively doesn’t trust him. As the conversation continues, we learn that Jessie is a recovering alcoholic and reformed bad girl. Let there be no doubt that she has seen Carlos’ type before. Despite her misgivings, Jessie and Carlos eventually end up alone in the forest. Roy meanwhile befriends a Russian cop (Ben Kingsley) who becomes increasingly suspicious of the foreigners.
Any further discussion of the plot would be criminal. The movie’s strongest asset is its pacing: first taking its time, then quickly ratcheting up the intensity. The final thirty minutes are relentless. Characters make hard choices not based on the convenience of the plot, but on their natures. The performances are uniformly strong. Harrelson, who lately has had some stellar roles, plays Roy as a goofy guy who steadfastly defends his wife. Mortimer, who excels at playing gentle souls, tempers that archetype, making Jessie into a good woman with a wild streak. You get the impression she cannot help herself. Ben Kingsley, of course, can play a role like this in his sleep. The location only adds to the terror. The Russian landscape is harsh and unforgiving (as are the locals).
Here are some other train thrillers worth knowing about:
The General. Buster Keaton movies always brighten my day. Amidst chaos, Keaton maintains his cool and usually gets the girl. Here he plays Johnnie, a southern railroad engineer whose prized train, The General, gets stolen by Union troops. Hopping on another train, he follows the thieves, embarking an a wildly inventive chase. Even after eighty years, the stunts are still exciting, especially considering that many could not be faked. I was particularly astonished when Johnnie sits on the edge of a moving train and knocks a log off the tracks. I would probably pause and think about the danger if I wasn’t so wrapped up in the chase. And of course, Keaton maintains his famous stone face throughout. Keaton will always be my favorite silent comedian. As Roger Ebert once wrote, when choosing between Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, “Only a Frenchman could think it was Chaplin.”
Strangers on a Train. Alfred Hitchcock directed this 1952 adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. Sadly, the novelty of the premise was slightly ruined because I saw Throw Momma From the Train first. Bruno and Guy begin a conversation, and discover they both have a woman in their lives that “they want to get rid of.” Bruno suggests they swap murders – one kills the other’s problem, thereby eliminating motive. Guy declines, but Bruno nonetheless follows through with the plan. Highsmith adaptations are psychologically complex, and this movie is no exception. Watch as the dominating Bruno goads the relatively meek guy. Their relationship is more than a little gay. Hitchcock fills the screen with his trademark style and thrilling set-pieces – the carousel sequence is particularly effective. Sure, the majority of the movie does is off the train, but this is nonetheless my favorite of the director’s perfect murder movies.
Murder on the Orient Express. Between Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet directed this Agatha Christie adaptation that feels more than a little old-fashioned. About a dozen weirdos are on board a train from Istanbul to Calais. An American is mysteriously found dead. With the train stuck in a snow drift, it is up to famed detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) to solve the case. He interviews all the suspects individually, giving each weirdo a moment to shine. Playing a crass American, Lauren Bacall deserves special attention, as does John Gielgud, who plays the murdered man’s butler (the butler didn’t do it). How Poirot solves the case stretches credibility. Then again, the movie’s goal is to amuse, not thrill. Murder on the Orient Express simply gives famous actors a chance to play unusual characters, and succeeds on that level. Besides, it’s always great to see Vanessa Redgrave in her prime.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I demand the money, dickwad.