Drag Me to Hell (well, not literally)

“Drag Me to Hell,” directed by Sam Raimi. Buckaroo Entertainment, 2009, 99 minutes.

I confess to a lifelong love of horror movies–the good old-fashioned kind that tingle the spine with dread, without resorting to gratuitous gore. A truly great suspense film can terrify audiences without a single drop of blood being shed. I haven’t seen many films in this genre lately, however, because most horror films have given way to slasher flicks, full of blood and torture. That’s not my style. I want to be terrified, but I don’t want to be grossed out. I agree with suspense writer Orson Scott Card, who evaluates the effects of dread, terror and horror in this way:

“Dread is the first and the strongest of the three kinds of fear. It is that tension, that waiting that comes when you know there is something to fear but you have not yet identified what it is…. Terror only comes when you see the thing you’re afraid of…you know the face of the thing you fear…..Horror is the weakest of all. After the fearful thing has happened, you see its remainder, its relics…the grisly hacked up corpse.”Continue reading

The Taking of Pelham 123

“The Taking of Pelham 123.” Tony Scott, director. Sony Pictures, 121 minutes. Rated R for language and violence.

In 1994 a quiet, unassuming, former computer systems analyst for a large investment firm built several gasoline bombs out of mayonnaise jars and alarm clock timers, intending to deposit them in subway trains around New York City and then hold the city hostage until his grievances were heard and ransom was paid. He had successfully detonated one bomb and was on his way to delivering another when it accidentally exploded while he was carrying it, injuring himself and 47 other passengers. He is now serving 94 years in Sing Sing.

I couldn’t help but think about the Subway Bomber while watching the current remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” in which John Travolta plays Ryder, a crazed gunman who obviously knows a lot about securities, commodities, and the stock exchange and doesn’t seem one bit happy about how life has been treating him.  At a time when Wall Street traders have become the nation’s favorite enemy, this additional background adds a new dimension to the villain and gives the story a timely and sassy facelift. (Robert Shaw’s Ryder was a mercenary soldier in the 1974 version of the film.) The new film is also updated with technology that could not have been imagined in 1974, including cell phones, internet coverage, streaming videos, online trading capabilities, and even a laptop conversation on Skype between a young hostage and his girlfriend.

The premise of “The Taking of Pelham 123″ is simple: four criminals have commandeered a subway train, taking a carload of passengers hostage. If their ransom demand ($1 million in the 1974 version, $10 million in 2009) is not met within one hour, they will begin shooting the hostages one by one. What is it about planes, trains, boats and subway cars that fascinates criminals and film directors alike? The built-in claustrophobia and the perpetrator’s total control of the situation create a mixture of horror and thrill. Moreover, the randomness of the victims’ fate–why did these people enter this car on this platform at this time–contributes to the audience’s sense of dread. This could happen to anyone, at any time. We aren’t safe anywhere.

In both films, the mayor, who must authorize payment of the ransom, is portrayed as cynical, uncaring, and ineffectual, motivated not by heroism but by his handlers’ concern for good press. James Gandolfini in the current film bears an uncanny resemblance to Rudy Giuliani, and the film even includes a dig at the mayor’s affair and divorce, although the similarity is unjustified; no one can fault Giuliani’s heroic actions when the Twin Towers were attacked by terrorists. Still, we tend to like movies where the men in authority are misguided fools and the maverick “everyman” saves the day.

In the original “Pelham,” Walter Matthau gives a standout performance in what is a tense, gritty, but fairly routine urban thriller. His Lt. Garber is alternately cool and sardonic, funny without being comedic. The 1974 film is worth watching, if only for that final, enlightened freeze-frame on Matthau’s face before the credits roll. (You can watch the original “One Two Three” free on your computer at fancast.com). As his nemesis, Ryder, Robert Shaw is dignified and calm, an upper-crust criminal with a crisp British accent. He could have been the cop as easily as the criminal.

In the remake, Denzel Washington as Garber and John Travolta as Ryder both deliver masterful performances, and there is no question which one is the criminal. Ryder’s character is more fully developed and played to devilish perfection by Travolta, who remains on the edge of sanity throughout the film. He’s the consummate villain: smart, cool, merciless, and unafraid of death.

Both characters have reasons to be angry at the system: Ryder appears to have a beef against Wall Street or government regulation or both; we are never quite sure what has prompted his assault on the train, but it is clear that he feels justified and vengeful. Garber (in this version an MTA employee, not a cop) seems to have just as compelling a reason for revenge; he has been demoted from management to desk clerk after allegations that he has taken a bribe. But unlike Ryder, Garber is willing to trust the system and have his day in court.

These two adversaries are emotionally connected throughout the film, the yin and yang of guilt, forgiveness and revenge. As if to emphasize this connection, both wear a single earring. Ryder’s is a small black cross while Garber’s is a white diamond, a subtle nod to the old days of film making when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black. In this film the guy with the black earring is white, and the guy wearing white is black, an equally subtle nod to the social issues that surrounded the original “Pelham” in 1974. In that film, Garber tries to cover his astonishment that the chief police inspector is black, the men in the control tower have to “watch [their] language just because they let a few broads in” as employees, Japanese businessmen are mocked mercilessly during a tour, the black passenger is a pimp, and Garber mistakenly calls a long-haired undercover policeman, “Miss.”

These issues of race, gender, and ethnicity are largely behind us now, thanks in part to films that forced us to address our own prejudices within the palliative darkness of a movie theater. Meanwhile, new stereotypes have taken their place–the corrupt politician, greedy businessman, and savvy stock manipulator continue to be fair game in Hollywood. One hopes that future filmmakers will realize that these stereotypes are equally unreasonable and outmoded, and will give conservatism and capitalism the respect they are due, with films that are just as entertaining and intense.

The Brothers Bloom

School’s out for summer, and teen comedies abound. Most of them are trite, raunchy, potty-mouthed, formulaic– and immensely successful. “The Hangover” is one of them. Its big-budget advertising throughout the spring made it look clever and entertaining, and its 80% approval rating on rottentomatoes gave it an air of respectability from the critics. Largely a knock-off of the “Dude Where’s my Car?” genre in which several friends must retrace their steps after a night of drunken debauchery, “The Hangover” follows the shenanigans of several young men who wake up from a drunken stupor after a bachelor party in Las Vegas. One is missing a tooth, another is sporting a wedding band, and somebody’s baby is in the closet. Can they retrace their steps and find the groom before the wedding begins? Would they be doing the bride any favors if they do? The film, pushing the well-crumpled envelope of raunch, earned not only that 80 % approval rating on rottentomatoes but $45 million in its first week.

At the same time, “The Brothers Bloom,” a clever, intelligent, well-crafted crime caper, opened in a few grubby art houses in cities like New York and LA,  earning a respectable 62 % rottentomatoes rating but a meager $2 million in its first month. There’s just no accounting for taste these days. If you want to know more about “The Hangover,” go see it yourself. Meanwhile, I’m going to review “The Brothers Bloom.”

The key to a perfect con job is to give the “mark” what he or she wants,  so that when the con is over, the mark doesn’t come back looking for revenge. A good con always relies on persuading the mark to participate in a slightly shady deal that seems to go terribly wrong, so the mark ends up actually thanking the con artist for helping him or her escape publicity or punishment. In a movie about con artists, the audience wants to be conned as well–as much as we pride ourselves in being able to figure it out, we don’t really want to know how it’s going to end until it’s over. Being taken for a ride is the whole point of the film, and we want to enjoy the ride every step of the way.

“The Brothers Bloom” is just that kind of film, one that delights the audience in every scene. It begins with two young brothers (Max Records and Zachary Gordon), dressed solemnly in white shirts and black hats, as they are shipped from foster home to foster home after executing cons in every town. Young Stephen has discovered that people are predictable, and if you plan carefully enough, you can con them into–or out of– just about anything. He’s a storywriter at heart, planning his complex schemes and then bringing them to life. Bloom, who obviously worships his brother, will do anything to please him, but we can see that he yearns to stay put and treat people as friends instead of plotlines.  The two young actors portray these conflicting characters brilliantly.

The boys grow up, with Mark Rufallo and Adrien Brody stepping into the roles of Stephen and Bloom. Their accomplice, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel”), is an exotic Asian beauty who never speaks but can handle anything they ask her to do, from seducing a mark to wiring explosives. Bang Bang provides some of the funniest moments in the film, mostly in the form of bizarre props, deadpan looks, and inexplicable actions performed in the background while the main characters are speaking–as when she methodically peels an apple, drawing our attention to the steely glint of her knife, and then tosses the apple over her shoulder and gnaws nonchalantly on the peel.

A con game works because the scam artist can predict what the mark will do under controlled circumstances. In this case the mark is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric billion-heiress who collects skills (like skateboarding and accordion playing) instead of stamps and crashes her Lamborghini almost daily. She is anything but predictable. For example, if a bicyclist hits the side of your car and goes flying over your windshield, you’ll stop and see if the bicyclist is hurt, right? I knew this film was going to be different as soon as the mark drove away from the injured bicyclist, backed up, drove a few more feet, backed up again, and then crashed over the embankment into the trees. Predictable reaction? Hardly. The Brothers Bloom were in trouble, and that keeps the audience guessing, too.

The caper takes us on an international romp through several European cities as it entertains us  with quirky characters, unexpected twists, comic-book headings, and a jazzy musical score by Nathan Johnson that heightens the off-beat tone. You may or may not figure out the ending, or how many twists will play out before the conclusion. But that doesn’t matter, because the journey itself is so much fun.

However, there is nothing comic-book about the relationships between the two brothers, and that’s what makes this more than a simple takeoff on “The Sting.” One orphaned brother seeks adventure and freedom, the other seeks hearth and home. The story is the classic homeward journey, based (according to director/screenwriter Rian Johnson) on James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The brothers’ names come from Joyce’s characters, Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, and “Penelope” is, of course, a reference to Ulysses’s longsuffering wife in Homer’s “Odyssey” (on which Joyce’s “Ulysses” is based). The film also sports a seedy Faganesque character with one cycloptic eye, “Diamond Dog” (Maximilian Schell). These classical allusions give this film some depth even as its offbeat direction and ragtime score give it a lighthearted tone. “The Brothers Bloom” might not be able to compete at the box office with today’s raunchier comedies,  but discerning audiences (like our readers) may enjoy it much more.