Frenetic ‘Pelham’ gets heft from cast

Posted June 18, 2009, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3, directed by Tony Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, 95 minutes, rated R.

The brisk new Tony Scott thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” is a remake of the 1974 original and like that film, it takes place mostly in the bowels of New York City, specifically its subway system, which long has carried its share of baggage, particularly in the wake of 9-11.

Since then, the talk has been tense. When and if terrorists strike that city again, would they take their underground war literally to the underground, either by releasing toxins into the air that would kill people, or arming themselves with bombs with the intent to do the same?

By their very nature, subways always have been a dicey proposition — and perfect fodder for movies. Scott understands this and employs it, using the unknown of what lurks below to bolster our fears with pleasurable jolts that aren’t much of a stretch. Well, at least not too much of a stretch.

From Brian Helgeland’s script, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” begins with a crazed faction of American terrorists led by the mysterious Ryder (John Travolta). Together, these men hijack a subway train, take their share of hostages and demand $10 million for their release within one hour. If the mayor (James Gandolfini) can’t come up with the money in time, Ryder promises that one passenger will die for every minute that passes beyond the one-hour limit.

Their point man is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a transit officer with an unfortunate past that led to his own demotion within the Transit Authority itself.

Adding to his run of bad luck is that on this particular day, it’s he who’s in charge of the route taken by Ryder’s hijacked train. And so when the train fails to move along its path, Garber reaches out to speak to its conductor, finds himself connected with Ryder, and suddenly is in the position of hostage negotiations.

Assisting him to that end is John Turturro as one of the city’s key hostage negotiators, but since Ryder wants nothing to do with him, the weight of saving 18 lives comes down to Garber, who must keep his wits about him while he reasons with a madman. Meanwhile, money is hustled across Manhattan to reach its destination in time, with plenty of harrowing car and motorcycle races threaded throughout for action.

About the action. Scott long has been a director who relies on slick, quick-cut editing to drive his films, and “Pelham” is no exception, particularly in the opening credits, which are so hyped up, they’re distracting to the point of being annoying. The good news is that eventually, the busy work being done in the editing bay is taken over by movie, which absorbs the false sense of momentum rapid editing provides with real momentum propelled by the story and the characters themselves.

Lifting the movie further are Travolta and Washington. With his goatee and fake tattoos, it’s safe to say you’ve never seen Travolta quite like this before. He’s hardcore, and it works. As for Washington, he infuses the movie with the kind of humanity it needs to ground it. And so, while the movie had a few problems with logic, it’s nevertheless worth a look.

Grade: B

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

WALTZ WITH BASHIR, written and directed by Ari Folman, 87 minutes, rated R. In Hebrew, German and English, with English subtitles.

Ari Folman’s Academy Award-nominated “Waltz with Bashir” is about the ramifications of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre that took the lives of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children during the Lebanon War.

It uses animation not only as a means to generate the film’s stunning imagery — you’ve never seen a war movie quite like this one. More profoundly, it employs the animated form as a means of underscoring the surreal and hallucinatory aspects of war, and all the varied difficulties of coping in the wake of it.

As such, it takes a medium best known for pleasing tots and uses it to inform its story and characters in ways that real life couldn’t.

This isn’t new (Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” did it, as have others) but the way it’s handled here is something of a contradiction — a beautiful-looking film about an ugly, unthinkable event. If Folman had chosen to tell his story via live action, it goes without saying that the film’s mix of horror and bloodshed would be anything but beautiful, but it is here. And what are we to make of that? In this case, one shouldn’t assume any disrespect on Folman’s part — the dark color palette he chooses alone is enough to suggest shame.

Folman based his script on his own experiences as an Israeli soldier in the Lebanon War, and what he has created is a film geared specifically toward adults that carves into the subconscious and explores what doesn’t want to be remembered or revealed. For Folman, it was this: He and his fellow soldiers knowingly allowed Christian Phalangists to enter a Palestinian refugee camp and embark on a killing spree.

The movie begins with a jolt of terror. Twenty-six dogs — all ravenous, wild and hungry for blood — are seen rushing through city streets, their fangs bared, their eyes burning orange against gray coats sharp with angles only animation could create. Their target is a man named Boaz, who awakens to question why he continues to have this recurring nightmare.

For counsel, he goes to his friends, including Folman, who now must confront his own lack of memories surrounding the war. Bizarre dreams erupt and with them, the pull for answers and the need to face the darkness he himself has buried. This is key: Even if he didn’t fire one bullet himself, by standing silent so that massacre could happen, how much blood does he have on his own hands?

It’s a question for the ages, and it’s just one of the reasons why “Waltz with Bashir” is so relevant to the here and now.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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