Sunday, October 29, 2017

Baby Driver (2017): Mini-Review

An empty exercise in style, Baby Driver is a compilation of every heist movie cliche — the big boss, the last job, the loose cannon, the dream girl — set to a 4-star soundtrack.

Skip the movie, buy the record.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

My good friend Mister Muleboy and I met at the AFI-Silver last night to see the classic 1974 heist flick, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, part of film historian Eddie Muller's annual Noir City DC film series. By the Czar of Noir's own admission, Pelham isn't really noir, but this year's focus is on heist films and Pelham is one of that genre's finest examples — it'd be a crime to leave it out.

If you're not familiar with the story, four heavily-armed men hijack a New York City subway train and hold its passengers hostage; their demands: the city must deliver $1 million in cash within the hour or they start shooting the hostages.

Nobody can quite believe someone would hijack a subway train —

"You know me, I'll believe anything."
"A train has been hijacked."
"I don't believe it."

— but the machine-gun wielding hijackers, led by Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue, are serious. Deadly serious.

We pick up the caper already in progress with four men perfectly timing their boarding of a subway train at four different stops with nothing but David Shire's propulsive industrial-jazz score to clue us into the unfolding drama. And then Robert Shaw quietly shoves a pistol in the motorman's face and announces he's taking his train.

Negotiations ensue. On the other end of the tense back-and-forth is Walter Matthau as the deceptively sluggish and slovenly transit police lieutenant Zachary Garber. He's sleepy-eyed, fashion-challenged, politically incorrect and bored stiff with the public relations aspects of his job.

But as the drama unfolds and the stakes are raised higher and higher, he reveals himself to be a precise, pacing, fidgeting coiled spring — a true professional, a perfect New York match for Shaw's dapper English mercenary.

I won't spoil the ending for you other than to say that the last scene is completely surprising, utterly perfect and absolutely fearless in its quiet simplicity. I can't imagine a Hollywood studio now having the guts and audacity to pull it off.

In some recent reviews (here and here), I've been struck by how little backstory and context you can get away with and still have a coherent movie with three-dimensional characters — Hemingway's iceberg principle played out not on the page but on the screen.

The screenplay by Peter Stone (Charade) is based on a novel by John Godey, but while the novel is larded with typical backstories for the villians and their hostages, and cliched interior monologues all around, Stone wisely trusts good casting to flesh out the novel's characterizations.

Pelham reminded me again how a great actor wears his backstory on his face and tells it in his voice, his walk, his gestures or even in his silences.

With a minimum of exposition, Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam (as the sneezy, wheezy Mr. Green) and Hector Elizondo (as the psychotic Mr. Grey) fully inhabit their characters, leaving no doubt about who what and why they are, and giving you a pretty good guess how they got there and where they're going.

Likewise, with the same lack of fuss, director Joseph Sargent tells the story of the city itself. Filmed in Manhattan, Pelham is down there in the gutters with the garbage at a time when a great city had lost faith in itself.

A scene with Tony Roberts as the deputy mayor and Lee Wallace as an Ed Koch-style mayor (four years before Koch actually held that office) tells you everything you need to know about the dire state of the local government. The comic tensions between the terrifically cartoonishly Tom Pedi as the brash loudmouth "Fat Caz" Dolowicz and Beatrice Winde as the new African-American female hire covers changing social mores. And the subway car full of characters identified in the credits only as The Salesman, The Hooker, The Spanish Woman, etc. speaks to the city's changing demographics.

You can practically taste the grime.

But a movie that's nothing more than a slice of the current reality isn't much of a movie. Pelham is also one of the all-time great heist films, intricate in its planning, taut in its execution. There's a lot of humor and a lot of talk but there's never a slack moment, never a word or gesture wasted. You're wonderfully on edge from beginning to end.

A classic.

Four stars (out of four).

End Notes:

1) The four hijackers have code names based on colors: Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey. Quentin Tarantino recycled the idea for 1992's classic Reservoir Dogs.

2) Peter Stone's most important contribution to the film's adaptation was to consolidate multiple police detectives into the single character of Matthau's Lt. Garber, creating the perfect counterweight to Shaw's Mr. Blue.

3) Before the movie, I got to meet film historian Eddie Muller, author and host of TCM's Noir Alley, and whom the great James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) has dubbed "The Czar of Noir." I had just bought his book Gun Crazy about the making of the classic 1950 movie when I turned around and there he was sitting alone at a café table. I asked him if he'd be signing books after the show and he said, heck, he'd sign it right now! borrowed my blood red ink pen and whipped off an amusing little note along with his signature — one of the few times I've met a fellow writer and walked away feeling like anything other than a witless hillbilly dilettante. Thanks, Mr. Muller!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Abridged Audiobook)

We here at the Monkey recently stumbled across this long-out-of-print audiobook version of Hunter S. Thompson's classic exercise in Gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It's heavily-abridged and plays more like a radio drama from some parallel universe where Bob Hope dropped acid and Jack Benny was an axe murderer, but it's highly entertaining in its own right. Much better, in my opinion, than the Johnny Depp movie that followed it.

The late great Harry Dean Stanton reads Thompson's interior monologues and Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin provide the dialogue.

If you've never read Fear and Loathing, it's Thompson's (ostensibly) non-fiction account of a long weekend he and his attorney spent in Las Vegas with a side trip to search for the American Dream.

They went well provisioned:

"We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls."

I say "ostensibly non-fiction" because as Thompson himself later admitted, nobody could have done all the things they allegedly did and lived to talk about it.

As twisted and irresponsible and depraved as their behavior was, though, it was nothing compared to what passed as normal in Nixon's America. "The Circus-Circus," he wrote, "is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war" — the implication being that the Nazis had won the war, just in 1968 instead of 1945.

That's a point of view that seems hilariously quaint in retrospect and I can only imagine what Thompson would have made of our current state of affairs. Oh, well.

Enjoy. Or not.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: I Want More Life, F#cker

Director Denis Villeneuve takes a ninety-minute butterfly and pins its wings to a nearly three-hour running time. All the flaws of the original — minimalist storytelling, elegiac tempo — with none of the magic that made the original a classic.

I suspect even the people most closely involved with 1982's Blade Runner don't know why it worked so well.