Archive for November, 2010

“Ryder looked at him with the absolute neutrality that was the authentic mask of the subway rider, of any New Yorker…” – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (book, p. 9)

So having spent time on a train with Tony Scott & Company several weeks ago with Unstoppable, I decided to take a look back at Scott’s last Denzel Washington film on a train with, The Taking of Pelham 123.  As I like to do whenever I’m dealing with a remake or adaptation, I like to go back to the source as well.  The 1974 version was a film I was more familiar with by reputation, as I only had seen it once before.  And I had never read John Godey’s 1973 best-selling novel of the same name on which both films were based.  The basics of the story are the same in all three: Four men hijack a Manhatten subway train and demand that a large ransom be delivered to them in one hour or they will start executing hostages.

“Granted that stealing a subway train wasn’t an everyday occurance, nevertheless the dispatcher who handled the call didn’t get overly excited about it.  When you dealt with riots, mass murders, catastrophes of every conceivable nature, the alleged theft of a subway train, while it had an intriguingly kinky sound, was thus far nothing to write home about.” – book, p. 92

Godey’s book is pure pulp.  What it has going for it is that New York is the heart and soul of the story.  It shows how the mechinisms of the city work and keep working no matter what the situation.  Sure, there may be a hostage situation, but it’s almost rush hour and the trains need to run on time.  The book gives us characters gallore and spends time with them all.  There is no central point of view in the book.  We spend an equal amount of time with all the characters.  Hijackers, hostages, law enforcement officers, MTA officials, and politicians all get time center stage.  And the city itself is always front and center. One thing to note . . . some of the characters views on race and gender may bother readers. 

“For a rarity, political advantage and his best instincts coincided.  The balance of praise against censure would be favorable.” – His Honor, the Mayor (book, p. 149)

The first film was made soon after the success of the book.  Like the book,  it is set firmly in its time and place.  This first adaptation was done by Peter Stone (perhaps better know to some readers as the Tony Award winning “book'” writer of the Broadway musicals 1776, Woman of the Year, and Titanic).  The film was directed by journeyman Joseph Sargent.  New York, the character, is changed slightly from the book version.  The film traffics more in surface stereotypes.  For example, the hostages only seem to exist to represent a cross-section of the city (the black power militant in the book becomes a pimp, etc.).  There is no room in the film for the back-story of any of the characters – it is all about business.  The business of the crime and the business of the city.  The film certainly injects more humor into the story than the book.  Walter Matthau as Garber, the transit cop, seems to be channeling his inner Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple.  Robert Shaw is the lead hijacker (this is one year before he would forever be linked to his most famous role of Quint in Jaws).   Here, Shaw plays a former soldier of fortune whose job opportunites dried up in Africa.  He is the picture of calm throughout the heist.  Also turns from Hector Elizondo as one of the highjackers and Jerry Stiller as another of the transit cops.

“It was a messy improvisation, but at least it avoided a catastrophic standstill.  ‘Like the mail has to move,’ Frank Correll shouted, ‘like the show must go on, the railroad gotta keep running.” – book, p. 165

It seems that with each generation we move further away from the book, like a xerox copy of a copy.  In the 2009 film not only are the hostages almost entirely anonomous but so are most of the highjackers.  The focus of the story has been narrowed down primarily to two characters: MTA’s Garber (Denzel Washington) and lead highjacker Ryder (John Travolta).  And this is very much the Denzel/Travolta show.  So first, screenwriter Brian Helgeland condensed almost all of the MTA employees into Washington’s character of Garber (in this version he is an MTA train dispacher – not a cop).  Regardless of the role Washington plays, he always seems to fit in the world of the film he’s in–he always connects with the other actors.  I can see why folks who have acted with him on stage and on screen are such big fans, he is always present and committed (even in a ridiculous film like Pelham, where he actually has to dull his natural, easy charisma).  Travolta, as Ryder, is a cartoon thug.  The movie opens with a shot of Ryder making his way through the rabble of the city street (with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems playing).  All I could think about was that Travolta was a movie star playing at gangster.  There is no residue of his journey from a cut-throat wall street trader to someone who would simply cut your throat . . . well, maybe his watch is a holdover (Ryder is always checking his Breitling watch, which is not surprising since Travolta is a Breitling spokesman – and of course there’s a watches in movies website).  Travolta was a more convincing New York thug as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter.

“The crowd’s antenna, an organ tuned to a permanent wavelength of suspicion, evaluated the departure of the commissioner’s limousine as a prelude to breaking camp . . . in a matter of minutes the crowd ceased to exhist as an effective entity.” – book, p. 246

Although Director Tony Scott is careful to frame the New York skyline in his shots, there is nothing NYC about the film.  For all his research, there really is no feel for time or place.  Maybe the closest Scott comes is casting Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) as the Mayor of New York and NY staple John Turturro as the chief NYPD hostage negotiator.  I do think we miss the difference between a 1973 NYC and a 2009 NYC.  Now is a time when one can go to the same chain stores in Times Sqaure as you can in any middle american suburb . . . the city in Scott film lacks any feeling of danger.  The Disneyification of NYC.

Believe it or not, the car crashes in Scott’s film were in the ’74 film as well (if I had not been familiar with the older film I would have bet money that Scott added the car crashes into the new film).  That is one of the only places in the story that you cannot accuse Scott and Helgeland of trying to raise the stakes.  However, it remains a Tony Scott film, so the camera moves all the time (and considering a large part of the film is just Washington and Travolta talking to each other on the radio, it is amazing how active Scott keeps the camera).  When the camera is not moving, it is only because there is about to be a freeze frame to tell us how much time is left on the ticker or because a cut is about to happen.  When the camera lingers at all, it is on one of our stars.  The film and story has been edited down to be a chamber piece about Washington & Travolta.  Subtle this film is not.

“But, finally, nothing changed.  Greater than its individual parts, rising above provocation, never losing sight of its purpose, the crowd maintained its character inviolate.” – book, p. 225

If one can put aside the lack of political correctness, I guess the book is an okay read.  At least I didn’t feel like I wanted my time back after reading it and it was a pretty quick read.  The 1974 film version is better remembered than revisited, and it was the source for Quentin Tarantino’s color-coded character naming scheme in Reservoir Dogs.  Nevertheless, it does not hold a candle to other iconic 70’s NYC thrillers like Dog Day Afternoon or The French Connection.  The ’09 version of Pelham is a lesser version of Die Hard. Yawn.  As ridiculous as Unstoppable was, at least it only had to compete against the real life events that inspired the film, whereas Pelham is haunted by its well-known predecessor.  Even the Beastie Boys give the ’73 version a shout out in their song  Sure Shot, the video directed by the always entertaing Spike Jonze.  Now that Unstoppable has left the station, Tony Scott plans next to remake the Walter Hill 1979 NYC gang epic classic, The Warriors.  His plans include updating the story and setting it in LA.  Can you dig it?  I just can’t see how this is a good thing.



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On Deck: Dark Days

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

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“We’ve began to wonder whether we should shoot a C.B. De Mille-like intro to get people in the right mood.” – Steven Soderbergh on his film Schizopolis (from his book Getting Away with It, p. 60)

“In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault , not ours.  You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” – Steven Soderbergh in the introduction to the film Schizopolis

What to say about Soderbergh’s Schizopolis

“It’s about two people who can’t communicate . . . as crazy as it gets, it’s not actually an obscure movie to me.” – Steven Soderbergh

It deals with language…

“A linguistic experiment filled with exacting gibberish and feeble musings about failed communication.  It winds up illustrating the very emptiness it mocks.”  – Janet Maslin in her NYT review of Schizopolis

It pays tribute to the work of many of Soderbergh’s favorites, like Richard Lester & Jean-Luc Godard…

“Soderbergh’s offbeat intelligence is tantalizingly evident even as he sinks the film with shallow tricks.  And he tries so many gambits here . . . that the effect ought to be more exhilarating . . . ”  – Janet Maslin, NYT review of Schizopolis

Soderbergh plays with the conventions of cinema…

“At the time I was interested in the contract between the filmmaker and the audience.  What’s the fine print?  What are you allowed to do and not to do?” – Steven Soderbergh

I have always been interested in process… and failure…

“A lot of people who write about art don’t understand the importance of failure, the importance of process.” – Steven Soderbergh

And I wish I’d enjoyed myself more while watching it.

“In the end, this is an experiment more likely to be admired in the abstract than appreciated at close range.” – Janet Maslin, NYT review of Schizopolis

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This is the 2009 Tony Scott remake starring Denzel Washington.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

available on Netflix for Instant viewing

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Since I went and saw Unstoppable last week, I thought I would go back and watch the Pelham films.  This is the 1974 original.

To watch the preview – Click HERE

To buy a copy of the film – click HERE

To buy a copy of the book on which the film is based – click HERE

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“Brief, desultory discussion of forthcoming manuscript’s inception, purpose and potential audience.  Self-deprecating remark.  Amusing anecdote with slightly serious undertone.  Awesome display of ego disguised as humility; joke about same.  Transparently hollow thanks to contributors and collaborators.”  – Steven Soderbergh (from Getting Away with It – Introduction, Part Three – aka Another Note from the Author)

If you are someone who finds the tone of the above author’s note amusing, then run out and buy yourself a copy of Getting Away With It.  I can see how the style of this hybrid film interview/diary could get real old, real fast for some folks.  However, I liked it.  As someone who does read the notes and footnotes of a book as I go along, I enjoyed the layered jokes within.  Take this first footnote as an example:

“The ‘author’ is in the habit of assuming the reader shares his exact experiences, interests, and knowledge.  We will try to minimize the irritation this would induce in real life (if you shared a meal or a plane trip with the author, for instance) by providing background information whenever possible.” – Page 1, Getting Away With It

As someone who is fairly new to this whole writing-things-down thing, this is a lesson that I try to keep in mind as my mind races ahead of my fingers.  Soderbergh’s footnotes added another level of deconstruction to the book that both pushes it over the edge while also capturing the spirit of both of its participants, Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester (the subject of Soderbergh’s interviews during much of the book).  This book was part of what Soderbergh termed his “reawakening”.  He explains: “I was trying to figure out how I had drifted so far off course . . . I was unhappy with the process and the work I was doing.  I wanted to get back to the way I felt when I first started making films.  I remembered that one filmmaker I connected with most was Richard Lester – the playfulness and gentle skepticism his films have.”

The book’s publisher Faber & Faber has a whole series of books about film directors.  The books are generally fashioned as “Scorcese on Scorcese” or “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” however this book departs from Faber & Faber’s typical “on” approach.  Instead, Getting Away With It is a series of interviews Soderbergh conducted with director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, How I Won the War, Petulia).  When Soderbergh started the project he intended it to be a straightforward Q&A book.  But, he ultimately decided to intercut the interviews with selections from his diaries.  Soderbergh’s hoped “to portray the process of what it’s like to be a person who happens to [make films] for a living as opposed to a portrait of a filmmaker.” 

“I didn’t mind being an art-house failure.  I just didn’t want to spend my whole life there.” – Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh was at a key juncture in his career while he was working on Getting Away With It.  It was 1996 and he was six years removed from the acclaim and accolades surrounding his first film sex, lies, and videotapes.  When asked about his frustration in his 1996-97 diary entries, Soderbergh said: “I was frustrated then because I was searching for a place for me to be within the business . . . I really wasn’t sure where I was headed.”   His films after sex had all been disappointments.  Even films the critics liked failed to find an audience.  And Soderbergh had just shot two films that were proving difficult to sell (Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy). 

“If I failed, I was fucked.” – Steven Soderbergh on making Out of Sight

At the end of the book Soderbergh receives the Out of Sight script.  This is where book leaves us.  With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that although Out of Sight was not huge at the box office, it did put Soderbergh back on the map as a commercially viable filmmaker.  Soon thereafter Soderbergh achieved his Act II success with the Oceans films, along with dual Oscar nominations for Erin Brockovich and Traffic (he won for Traffic).   While making Erin Brokovich, Soderbergh recalled a lesson he learend from Lester: “Tossing things off, instead of being labored about what you do.  I’m serious about what I do, but I think there’s a real benefit to not being precious and working quickly and going strictly on instinct.  It’s something I lost and I absolutely got back from him.”

Part of what I appreciate about Steven Soderbergh is that he has continued to balance his projects.  His success with some of his projects has allowed him to be offbeat and quirky.  Whether you liked Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience is besides the point.  I don’t like all his films.  But I view his work in its entirety, not just as individual pieces.  And I also love that he actively produces other people’s work.  While I have mentioned before that if I had my own movie studio Michael Winterbottom would be one of the first directors I would try to employ, an offer to Steven Soderbergh would not be far behind.

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Reporter: “Are you a mod or a rocker?”

Ringo: “I’m a mocker.”

  • From the press conference scene in A Hard Day’s Night


MTV: “You’re the Father of MTV.”

Lester: “I demand a blood test!”

  • Richard Lester (director of A Hard Day’s Night)

You could call A Hard Day’s Night a feature-length music video.  Or a musical fantasia on pop stardom—Beatlemania filtered through the lens of the French new wave.  This is what we get from Richard Lester’s 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night – a faux day-in–the-life of The Beatles.  Filmed in black & white, it was an artistic and commercial success.  Before the film even opened, United Artists had already made their investment back from soundtrack sales.  The film was embraced by audiences, from the intelligentsia who could deconstruct it, to the casual fan who just wanted to see John, Paul, George and Ringo sing some songs like Can’t Buy Me Love.

The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was very careful about who was approved to work with The Beatles.  He had signed them to a three-film deal with United Artists just before The Beatles blew-up with their appearance of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963.  United Artists had no idea how long the phenomena would last so they were eager to cash in while they could.  The Beatles wanted the film to be different from other pop music films of the time.  Director Richard Lester, an American living in England, had done a short film with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan called Running Jumping & Standing Still.  It was the style and tone of this short that led The Beatles to select Lester as the director for their film debut.  The script was written by Liverpool native Alun Owen, who was  able to craft dialogue that was natural for the boys.  The episodes of the film allowed The Beatles to do things they did in life.  Lester thought what was most important was that The Beatles were allowed to be natural; to be themselves.  And that is part of the film’s success.  People also loved the music.

The plot exists only as a frame to hold the many episodes.  Sure we have the Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s “other” grandfather subplot (I started to view him as almost a Mephistopheles like presence in the background but I think that was just me).  Basically all we are asked to do is to follow the John, Paul, George, and Ringo (playing themselves) as the band is running around and preparing to appear on a television special.  It is one big episodic romp . . . with musical numbers.

The filming of A Hard Day’s Night was completed on a compressed schedule – the film began shooting in March 1964 and was released to the public in July of that same year.  When the completed film was shown to United Artists executives there was total silence in the room.  A former UA executive said, “No one knew what to make of it.  Then [UA executive] Bob Benjamin said, “I don’t know what that was about, but I think we’re going to make a lot of money.”  Film critic Andrew Sarris has called A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies”.  That about sums it up.

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