Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

I’m a big fan of the original version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. It was a snapshot in time of New York City in the seventies; a cynical, bloated, bureaucratic mess that was entirely unprepared for a terrorist attack. In fact, there were actually concerns that the movie would inspire real terrorists to take a subway train hostage. The original featured everything from undercover cops to hippies, a crisp military professional turned terrorist to the random accidents of people in stressful situations. It even invented the “color codenames” later used in Reservoir Dogs.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is catnip to movie directors in the same way that single stage sets are to theatrical directors – be it a subway or a stage with just two chairs, this is a film about two men facing off in a battle of wits. The majority of the movie takes place over an intercom between a terrorist and a dispatcher, with occasional cuts to the havoc their conversation causes throughout New York City. And if the terrorist represents the international Other that is a threat to our national security, the dispatcher represents the everyman of New York, our hardworking servicemen and women who lost their lives on September 11. With material like that, it’s no wonder the film has been remade twice.

Director Tony Scott updates the film to modern day sensibilities. The villain, Ryder (John Travolta in full crazy mode), isn’t a mercenary applying crisp military precision to the art of extortion; he’s a (SPOILER ALERT) former Wall Street tycoon – slightly lower on the villain totem pole than industrialists who pollute the environment. The undercover cop moves into action immediately rather than later in the film, because of course New York’s finest would respond quickly to a terrorist attack. And the dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, looking appropriately puffy and slouched) has a more complicated past and a bigger role.

Unfortunately, the film suffers as a result. In the original, military precision was entirely the point. The trains never ran on time, so challenging New York to meet a deadline was both a delicious irony and a sticking point with a former military officer who expects nothing less than perfection from his men and from the negotiators. Here, that point is muddled by a sort of “we’re all into this together” blue collar ethic that Ryder projects into Garber. Their dialogue still crackles, but this simple change dilutes the force of the film.

The four-man team of bad guys is reduced to two speaking parts, with the other two generic thugs. The emphasis is clearly on Travolta and Washington, and it’s refreshing to have a movie that’s not afraid to spend some time letting actors just act. There’s a lot of talking in this film and that’s not a bad thing.

The movie struggles with the modern updates. A live wireless webcam feed gets broadcast to the Internet without government interference (yeah, right). Even though the laptop’s battery dies, it’s mysteriously back on a moment later. And the two teens on either side of the webcam come off as self-absorbed morons.

Because this is a big budget action film, the quiet subtlety of the original version is glossed over in favor of an MTA agent handling a hostage negotiation, wielding a gun, and ultimately engaging in a showdown with the bad guy. Since Ryder has no principles to speak of, the conclusion is particularly unsatisfying.

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a serviceable action film but not a particularly good update of the original. The seventies version was more of a drama with an ensemble cast that was comfortable playing second fiddle to the biggest character of all: New York City.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Quantum of Solace

Congratulations! You've managed to reinvent your Bond franchise after the tired old boy had sipped his last martini, drove his last fast car, and bedded his last exotic hottie. This new Bond is vulnerable and violent at the same time, a wounded animal that was willing to give up the whole spy life for Vesper Lynd, a woman who betrayed him. This is supposed to explain why Bond's such a cold-hearted bastard, and it blazed an exciting if somewhat jarring new path for the Bond films.

The challenge with reinvention is that there is a blurry line between following the new Bond to his logical conclusion and retaining the quintessential elements that constitute Bond. Or to put it another way, if you constantly make Bond different with each film, he's not really James Bond anymore.

Quantum of Solace chose to continue Bond's (Daniel Craig) destructive path from the first film, picking up where Casino Royale left off. Bond tracks the shadowy global conspiracy (Quantum) that has infiltrated Her Majesty's Secret Service. That's right, there's a double agent in double-oh-seven's midst, and only M (Dame Judy Dench) seems to be the least bit concerned about the entire organization being utterly compromised. This is just one of Quantum's many incongruent plot points that are resolved with "LOOK! EXPLOSIONS!" to divert the audience's attention.

Our resident villain is a pop-eyed Buscemi look-alike named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who runs...wait for it...Greene Planet, an environmental organization that is secretly arranging deals for oil. But actually, it's about water. Greene's Blofeld-ian murder signature is to drown his victims in oil. It's not nearly as cool as it sounds.

Bond's supposed lust-interest is an agent named Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who saunters onto the screen in boots and an overcoat. With her bright red hair, Fields seems like a great romantic foil for Bond. When Bond asks her first name, it's "Fields. Just Fields." No Strawberry. And here we come to the problem: Quantum of Solace seems embarrassed to be a Bond film.

Every opportunity for Bond to be suave gets glossed over. He just commands women, like Fields, into his bed. He kills every bad guy he's supposed to capture. When his license gets revoked, he blithely ignores M's commands. When he attends an opera, Bond lurks in the rafters like some kind of murderous roadie. Instead of cleverly tricking the Quantum cabal into revealing themselves, he crashes their secret meeting and then guns down their goons.

In the first film, Bond's blundering and brutal tactics were excusable because he was new. It was a great way to reboot the franchise with the promise that, over time, Bond would transform into the elegant, suave killer we've come to know and love. It's a particularly American approach, the idea that even killers can better themselves through hard work. But with Quantum of Solace, Bond is so bereft of actual development that he gets a proxy instead: Camille (Olga Kurylenko), an exotic hottie whom he doesn't get to bed.

The movie goes south from there: inexplicable bad guy meeting that brings everyone together in one place, flaming deathtraps that Bond brute forces his way out of, and a bad guy who physically can't compete with Bond but tries to make up for it by being really, really nuts. The clear advantage Bond has over Greene is obvious; it's like a jock beating up a nerd at supervillain convention.

In the end, Bond finally meets up with the agent responsible for Lynd's betrayal, Yusef Kabira. SPOILER ALERT: After all the beatings, blasting, smashing, crunching, and punching, the movie concludes with a quippy aside and some hurt feelings.

Are you kidding me? By the end of the movie I was so frustrated that I wanted to see Bond seriously #$% up the one guy who could arguably be held accountable for destroying the love of his life. Instead of using Camille as parable to tell the tale of Bond's self-destructive path, Quantum of Solace should have STARTED with Bond leaving Kabira in a body bag. Or multiple bags.

Now that we've gotten the murderous quest for vengeance out of the way, can we get back to Bond being at least slightly civilized, seducing hot women, and killing dangerous villains with awesome technology? Please?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

After being disturbed by Evil Dead and delighted Evil Dead II, I decided to host a showing of the two movies to share the madness with my friends. We then all went to the opening of Army of Darkness. We were confused (the three films vary widely in tone) but ultimately loved them all, adopting the Raimi clan and The Man, Bruce Campbell, as one of our own in geekdom.

Ever since then, Raimi's fans have been waiting for him to return to his horror roots. Oh, we've gotten hints that he hasn't forgotten us through the years. We caught the Evil Dead II homage in the chainsaw sequence from Spider-Man. Campbell is in just about every movie Raimi produces. And the Oldsmobile Delta 88 makes an appearance in Drag Me to Hell – a big appearance, actually – as it has in every Raimi movie since Evil Dead. The Oldsmobile's arrival signals that Drag Me to Hell is a quintessential Raimi horror film.

Drag Me to Hell harkens back to the golden age of 80s horror, an era Raimi helped spawn, when humor and horror were inextricably mixed thanks to Freddy Krueger's perpetual joke-machine. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a cute blonde loan officer in five-inch heels working at a bank – any social commentary is surely accidental (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) – and when she turns down an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver), things go horribly and hilariously wrong.

Raimi has always been a master of scaring you with things you can't see. He knows how to use sound to freak out the audience, employing the same shrieks and creaks he used in Evil Dead II to represent something from another dimension crossing into our world. Raimi also knows when to use silence as a tool, which just ratchets up the tension – this is the first film where I could hear the movie projector clicking away in the background. He manipulates billowing curtains and floating handkerchiefs with the methodical calculation of a Universal horror theme park, shrieking "BOO!" when the tension is at its height.

Raimi expertly manipulates the audience's affection for Christine. On the surface she's an adorable girl from the country just trying to be accepted by her big city boyfriend's parents. But as we get to know her, Christine comes off as a mewling brat more concerned about her appearance while poor people like Mrs. Ganush are being thrown out on the street. There's a turning point mid-way through the film where Christine crosses the line from being merely pathetic to reprehensible, and from there on out cat-lovers may well begin cheering her demise (I know I was!).

The similarities between Drag Me to Hell and Evil Dead II are striking (SPOILER ALERT!): an unwitting protagonist is cursed; an evil hag attacks; his friends become demonically possessed, flying around the room cackling and dancing like marionettes; the evil "gets inside him" causing him to vomit a huge amount of nasty stuff; there's a fight in a tool shed; eyes show up in weird places; eyeballs fly into somebody's mouth; even the twist ending is similar.

I didn't love this film, though I desperately wanted to. It's probably because I'm not the target audience – Drag Me to Hell is a PG-13 film and although its scares are suitably disgusting, they aren't nearly as gory as other horror movies. In other words, it's perfect for teenagers out on a date. For jaded horror fans like myself, we've seen it all before. The only thing missing is The Man himself.