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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Shaken, Not Stirred

I'm giving Alabama the benefit of the doubt and assuming that when they saw the name "Moore" on the ballot, they thought they were voting for this guy:

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Walter Becker (1950-2017)

It occurs to me that if I could write 200 words about the passing of a comedian I could barely tolerate, I can certainly write one sentence about Walter Becker, a songwriter whose music gave me great pleasure for forty-five years. Here's my favorite Steely Dan song, the title track to their 1977 masterpiece, Aja.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)

Jerry Lewis wasn't so much a comedian as a one-man demolition derby. His gift lay not in building a gag but in destroying it.

He arrived on the scene in the late 1940s, making his television debut with his partner Dean Martin on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town in 1948. At a time when the stresses of the post-war world had turned America into a nation of nervous conformists, Lewis took a maniacal delight in smashing conventions and expectations with broad physical humor and nonsensical gibberish.

Lewis and Martin were a marvelous team, especially in the early days working nightclubs together. Lewis was an anarchist, and Martin served himself up on a nightly basis as a straight man to be wrecked — the guitar to Lewis's Pete Townshend.


The movies tamed them to a degree then in 1956, split them apart. Lewis without Martin was a flywheel without a drive shaft. The Nutty Professor definitely had its moments, but the rest of his solo work was uneven at best. The telethons raised boatloads of money but boy, could they get maudlin.

As a teller of his own life story, Lewis was a consummate bullshit artist. His self-regard was legendary. But he was sui generis and his death is another light gone out.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Triple Feature At The Monkey House: Inglourious Basterds, There Will Be Blood and The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I find myself in times of trouble — and Lord knows, these are troubled times — I turn not to the Bible or the op-ed page, but to the movies.

With Katie-Bar-The-Door out of town on Tuesday, I took the day off and by happenstance, wound up watching a triple feature of films contemplating man's ugliest impulses. I came away with a renewed sense of optimism that if we can't fix the world, we can at least spruce up our little corner of it.

These movies have been around a long while so spoilers abound. No complaining.

First up on the program was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, a film I saw in the theater back in 2009. I hailed it as a masterpiece at the time then haven't watched it since, afraid to find out I was wrong.


I needn't have worried. As with all of Tarantino's movies, there's lots of talk punctuated by cartoonish levels of violence; as with most of his movies, it's absolutely brilliant.

Freed of the need to follow the plot and digest the movie's many surprises, this time around I allowed myself the luxury of thinking and perhaps even more dangerous, feeling. As it turns out, Inglourious Basterds has something to say about our current predicament, although I'd hesitate to suggest it offers a workable solution.

If you don't know the movie, it's set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and follows three broad narratives — that of "the Jew Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning turn), and his favorite prey, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent); a British officer (Michael Fassbender) and his double-agent contact (Diane Kruger); and finally the Basterds of the title, a group of commandos (led by Brad Pitt) wreaking havoc behind the German lines.


"We in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'." Those Germans the Basterds don't kill, wind up with a swastika carved into their foreheads as a sign for the rest of time that they once fought in service of the worst cause in human history.

These three narrative threads converge on a small cinema in Paris where the Reich's leaders, including Hitler himself, are attending a movie premiere.

But that's the plot. It was the message I was interested in this time around. And that is this: Whether you are a true-believer or a shameless opportunist, an enthusiastic volunteer or a pants-wetting draftee, you are responsible for the cause you fight for and you will answer for the damage you do.

As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Something for trolls of every stripe to keep in mind.

The second movie, There Will Be Blood, I had actively avoided for a decade — perhaps because the famous line "I drink your milkshake!" led me to believe it was a comedy about dairy products.


It is, in point of fact, a tragedy featuring petroleum byproducts. Based on Sinclair Lewis's novel Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson gives us the story of Daniel Plainview (the great Daniel Day-Lewis winning his second of three Oscars), a would-be oilman who gets everything he ever wanted and loses himself in the process.

But this isn't a morality play about greed, it's a cautionary tale about that most American of virtues and vices, rugged individualism. Plainview's dream isn't to pile up money — he turns down an easy million, for example, opting instead for the hard, risky work of building a pipeline to the sea. No, what Plainview longs for is to cut the middleman out of his business affairs. And not just the railroads and the big oil producers who take a large cut of the profits, but all middlemen everywhere: friends, family, God, and finally dignity and sanity — anyone or anything upon which he might have to rely.

By the end he's living like a feral cat in a giant mansion, free at last.


Many reviews concluded that Plainview is a monster and maybe he is, but there's a certain majesty in his labors. At least he's making something of tangible value as opposed to the worthless paper products Wall Street's fraudsters and slicky-boys fobbed off on a gullible public.

But crazy Plainview most definitely is, the end for all of us who think we can live without regard for our fellow human beings.

Is There Will Be Blood a great film? Yes, absolutely. Unless it's terrible. The movie is two and a half hours long, is virtually silent for long stretches as it contemplates the West like no one since John Ford, and when people do finally speak, they say nothing of value, which is fine because no one is listening anyway. Like Dunkirk which I reviewed recently here, the characters in There Will Be Blood reveal themselves strictly by their actions.


Do they reveal enough? That is the question. I'd have to see the movie again to decide for sure whether there's as much moving under its surface as I think there is.

Check back here in 2027 for my final verdict.

The third movie on the list, The Grand Budapest Hotel, I have seen again — first on Tuesday then again on Wednesday when Katie-Bar-The-Door returned to town — and in this case, at least, I'm sure it is a great movie, Wes Anderson's masterpiece.


On its surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a shaggy dog story about how a hotel lobby boy (Tony Revolori) became the richest man in Europe. But ultimately, it's a contemplation of grace under pressure, kindness in the face of cruelty, beauty in an ugly world.

Set in the years between the two world wars, Ralph Fiennes plays the lobby boy's mentor, Monsieur Gustave H, the concierge of the Grand Budapest, eastern Europe's finest hotel. Gustave meets his guests' every need, especially the needs of rich, lonely women, not from any motivation as mundane as reflexive servitude or the Puritan work ethic but because he is a civilized man who finds pleasure and meaning in creating a bubble of civilization for those fleeing an uncivilized world.

"You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant ... oh, fuck it."


Like the inchworm measuring the marigolds, Gustave labors unceasingly despite knowing that in the long run it won't make the slightest bit of difference. But what's the alternative? Surrender to chaos and cruelty and death? Hell, no.

If sooner or later we're all going to die, I have written before, can't we at least do it with a bit of dignity and honor and laughter and good company? And in Gustave's case, poetry and perfume and pastry, as well?

As it turns out, Ralph Fiennes is the perfect actor to lead a Wes Anderson film. He can deliver helium-filled balloons of dialogue without puncturing the illusion that he actually believes what he's saying. And in a film like this, that's absolutely vital. One prick of cynicism, and the balloon bursts.

This is Fiennes best work since Schindler's List.

I confess, I haven't much enjoyed Wes Anderson in the past. I have detected underneath the celebrated whimsy of such films as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou a sourness that for me at least curdled his confections and made them hard to swallow.

That, and when everybody is a nut, nobody is a nut, and the whole thing gets a bit tedious.

But here, there's something generous and moving and maybe even heroic in Gustave's devotion to the better angels of our nature.

"Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won't get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower."

Well, some of them anyway.


Cameos by everyone — Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, F. Murray Abraham, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Léa Seydoux, and many others. Excellent supporting work from Adrien Brody, Willem Defoe, Jeff Goldblum and Saoirse Ronan. Tony Revolori as the lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, was terrific. Ralph Fiennes deserved an Oscar nomination at the very least.

The Grand Budapest Hotel was 2014's best movie, Wes Anderson its best director.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Dunkirk (2017): A Review

Yesterday, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I finally got around to seeing writer-director Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster, Dunkirk, in 70mm down at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland.

If you know your history, Dunkirk is a place name that conjures up one of the most pivotal moments of World War II, the evacuation of the British army during the fall of France in June 1940.

Surrounded on three sides by the advancing Nazi armies and on the fourth side by the sea, the British found themselves on the verge of annihilation. Rather than negotiating terms, however, thousands of civilians took to fishing trawlers, tugboats, and pleasure craft, crossed the Channel, and pulled 300,000 men off the beach to safety.

This "heroic defeat" rallied the British people to stand alone against Hitler's armies, a stand now rightly regarded as "their finest hour."


Dunkirk is not a typical history lesson, however, with Churchill and Hitler barking orders at the strategic level.

Instead, the tale is told from three very intimate points of view — a week in the life of a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach; a day in the life of a weekend boater (Mark Rylance) and his son sailing from England across the Channel to rescue said soldiers; and an hour in the life of a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) tasked with protecting sea and sand alike from marauding German bombers.


Each moment is observed in extreme close-up — that is to say, limited strictly to details within the character's immediate line-of-sight or concern — without any backstory, exposition, humor or any other traditional storytelling device to provide context or lighten the load. In that sense Dunkirk reminded me of the interstitial chapters in Hemingway's first short story collection In Our Time where a single paragraph served as a drop of water from which to extrapolate the existence of an ocean.

The movie crosscuts continuously between stories, but not on simultaneous action as you've been taught to expect since the days of Griffith, instead on simultaneous emotions running along converging narrative arcs.

It's an audacious storytelling device, but then Nolan has spent his entire career — from Following to Memento to Inception to Interstellar — playing with chronology and narrative.


The action is intense, the mood desperate. There is no respite, no breather. If you have a fear of drowning in a tightly enclosed space, either alone or with a hundred men screaming out their last around you, this movie may not be for you. If you have claustrophobia or abandonment issues, if you're afraid of heights or fire or the dark, stay home. If you don't like the idea of getting blown up or shot at, rent a nice rom-com instead.

Katie-Bar-The-Door found the experience relentless and a bit exhausting. On the other hand, my fourteen year old niece has seen it three times.


One question that kept buzzing around in my head before the movie, was why Dunkirk? Why now? It's not an anniversary, it hasn't been in the news. Afterwards, I added to that, why such a tight focus on a handful of nearly anonymous characters? Not that it doesn't work, but stripped almost entirely of its historical context, the story becomes an abstract outline — a compelling outline, but an outline nevertheless.

And then it hit me. An outline of huddled masses yearning to breath free, fleeing the horrors of war, hoping against hope for a rescue from across the sea. Stripped of the filigree, Dunkirk is at its heart not a war story but a refugee story. And what are there millions and millions of right now?

Refugees.

It's the great moral and humanitarian crisis of our generation, and our failure to act, our indifference, our outright hostility in the face of a tidal wave of desperation and human misery flowing out of the Muslim world threatens to crack the very foundation of the West as we know it.


Suddenly Dunkirk seemed to me very timely. Timeless, too. If you pull back even farther, you see not just the historical battle of Dunkirk, and not just a parallel to today's world, but the story of mankind writ large — the never-ending battle between chaos and culture, cynicism and compassion, cowardice and courage.

That Nolan can take such a grim story, tell it in such a radically experimental style, and still sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets, well, that's not just genius, that's art.

Dunkirk isn't a perfect movie, only, I suspect, a great one. Stay tuned, it just might be the best picture of the year.