Stalled Trains

Photo: Stephen Vaughn/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Director Tony Scott keeps the remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 in constant motion. True, the New York subway car being held by gunmen under the command of John Travolta is stopped dead between stations, and humble dispatcher Denzel Washington—who pleads/negotiates/debates/swaps personal stories with Travolta while everyone waits for the ransom to be paid—is largely confined to his desk. But the camera! First, it circles counterclockwise around Washington. Then it circles clockwise. Then it’s back to counterclockwise, this time jumping to close-up. Then it’s clockwise again, except with more urgency, the beads of sweat on Washington’s brow reflecting the periwinkle blue of the subway command center’s monitors, which also tie in nicely with the blue of hostage negotiator John Turturro’s shirt and the lights of the tunnel as dispersed by droplets on the train’s windows. As Scott’s camera continues to circle, hopscotch, swing on the monkey bars, and whoosh around a grid of Manhattan, Washington asks Travolta if he’s a terrorist and Travolta cackles, “Do I sound like a terrorist?” “This is just about money?” “Is there anything else?” That’s the film’s most credible exchange. Watching this Pelham—a money job from its conception—you can believe that there’s no other motivation on Earth.

Has the memory of the original Pelham been sullied? Not really. It’s a broad, artless, pushy film that seems proud of its parade of ethnic cartoon figures, as if to say, “What makes New York New York is that we play our stereotypes to the hilt!” But it was, at least, of its era. Starring the jaded, shambling Walter Matthau and scripted by Peter Stone, Pelham was a New York Jewish comedy writer’s take on the modern metropolis going meshuggener. Scott’s might as well have been set in Toronto. For all the syncopated helicopter shots of the city, no image is held for long enough to give us a true sense of place. Scott has the filmmaker’s equivalent of a neurological condition: When he cuts to a new shot, he can’t seem to remember the last one—and he’s always cutting, circling, fussing with the lighting …

His condition must have been contagious, since writer Brian Helgeland introduces and drops enough plot points to make another movie. The mayor (James Gandolfini, who gets to make a Giuliani joke so that we don’t confuse him with the last, less-charismatic Italian mayor) susses out Travolta’s real motivation and rushes off to save the day—and that’s the last we hear of his plan. A passenger’s dropped laptop sends out images of the captors, who don’t realize they’re on camera—but nothing comes of that information. Travolta’s high-tech 21st-century scheme turns out to be not just preposterous but superfluous, demented: Why would he need to do something so … so … 1974 as hijacking a subway train to do what a lot of hedge-fund managers do before breakfast? Travolta doesn’t suggest a man who cares one way or the other, though. Like everyone else behind The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, he got his money up front.

Woody Allen reportedly wrote Whatever Works around the same time as Annie Hall and made only a few cosmetic changes before he shot it last year, and if that’s true, it’s depressing on too many levels to contemplate. It suggests that even back in the seventies, at his most potent and fearless, he had the soul of a sclerotic old misanthrope. Allen’s protagonist, Boris (Larry David), an out-of-work physics professor, is not a heroic mouthpiece: He’s meant to be a pompous crank, a windbag. But as he bellows his long monologues about cosmic injustice and entropy and the stupidity of religious faith (the phrase “whatever works” is the Jewish shrug that makes tragedy comedy, a sort of “Life sucks—where do you wanna eat?”), it’s only his affect that’s objectionable. He’s the lone character with stature, and there’s nothing and no one with the capacity to take him on—only to insult him or, in the case of women, leave him. Allen’s movies are infused with self-hatred yet completely reinforce that hateful self’s worldview.

It seemed like a good idea to cast David as Allen’s alter ego, and not just because he has the Seinfeld-HBO cachet. As the model for George on Seinfeld and in Curb Your Enthusiasm, he’s too defended (and, later, too rich) to care about social mores and other people’s feelings, and his lack of hypocrisy is refreshing. In small doses, he turns the narcissistic jerk into a hipster. But as an actor he has no equipment for suggesting a conflicted inner life: It’s all just straight to the camera, uninflected bombast. So he depersonalizes the movie. He comes off like a Woody Allen robot: You push its button, and it gravitates to sexy young girls and lectures them on the meaninglessness of life, the shallowness of youth, and the superiority of Beethoven and Fred Astaire to this modern rock noise that all sounds the same. In this case, the girl is an unlikely southern runaway played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is impossibly pretty and long-waisted and channels Holly Hunter down to the cute little upward twist of her mouth. So both characters are like robots standing in for other people.

Long stretches of Whatever Works are confined to Boris’s duplex apartment and play like third-rate Kaufman and Hart. The difference is that theater actors would have had time to rehearse; these poor players rattle off their lines with the stiffness of a busy summer-stock troupe. As the girl’s southern mom, Patricia Clarkson has poise and a smoky delivery that doesn’t hide the crudeness of the writing but lets you, at least, share her pleasure in it. But it’s hard to get past the primitiveness of Allen’s fantasies. In the movie, three members of a devout Christian southern family travel to Manhattan and become, under his Jewish-atheist influence, cultured, intellectual, atheistic, and, in one case, gay. He saves their souls—but they reject him. It’s almost like he’s … Oh, Christ.

After an hour and a half of sighing, wincing, and clucking over the manifold outrages portrayed in Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., I gave up the thought of “reviewing” the documentary and decided, instead, to exhort you: See it. Bring your kids if you have them. Bring someone else’s kids if you don’t. The message is nothing new if you’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (both are in the film). But every frame makes you choke on your popcorn—if for no other reason than the focus on government-underwritten corn and the companies who put it into everything from soda to Midol to the gassy, E. coli–ridden bellies of factory-farmed cows. The sheer scale of the movie is mind-blowing—it touches on every aspect of modern life. It’s the documentary equivalent of The Matrix: It shows us how we’re living in a simulacrum, fed by machines run by larger machines with names like Monsanto, Perdue, Tyson, and the handful of other corporations that make everything. We humans can win, but we should hurry, before Monsanto makes a time machine and sends back a Terminator to get rid of Schlosser and Pollan.

Inflation’s taken its toll since the original Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, in which the hostage ransom was $1 million. (For the remake, it’s $10 million plus a penny.) In the older film, though, maybe the funniest detail is not that paltry demand— it’s the mayor’s response to it. Referring to the fiscal crisis, he turns to his deputy, played by Tony Roberts, and cries: “Goddammit! This city hasn’t got a million dollars!

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Directed by Tony Scott.
Columbia Pictures. R.

Whatever Works
Directed by Woody Allen.
Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.

Food, Inc.
Directed by Robert Kenner.
Magnolia Pictures. PG.


Stalled Trains