July 29, 2009 11:27 pm

Film releases: Overload on the underground

Stranded underground train; streets cordoned off by police; commuters walking to work. It sounds like an average major-city rush hour, but in The Taking of Pelham 123 it is presented as high drama. And do we mean “high”.

 
John Travolta in 'The Taking of the Pelham 123'

Super-dude sociopath: John Travolta

This is a Tony Scott film, a unique and formidable category. Ridley’s little brother – English-born, but who still maintains the English are phlegmatic? – boasts a herky-jerky, colour-saturated visual style suggesting an acid-head let loose on a Hollywood set. Scott’s previous convictions include Enemy of the State, Man on Fire and Déjà Vu. Pelham will have him in the dock again, and again he will plead: “Your honour, I was only doing justice to the story, which I saw as a flaming, delirious, psychedelic tale of good versus evil.”

This is, of course, a remake. The first Pelham (1974) was a soberly compelling thriller, revelling in the ordinariness of its settings, about a hostage-taking train hijacker holding the New York underground to ransom. A menacingly impassive Robert Shaw, wearing a face like a slab of steak injected with Botox, duelled by telephone with police negotiator Walter Matthau, every film buff’s favourite incarnation of a duodenal ulcer. Tension was extracted by putting the screws on the everyday.

In Scott’s version, nothing is everyday. This is a whizz-bang crisis morning from the off: manic cutting, hot colours, whirry-juddering camerawork as John Travolta, super-dude sociopath, and his team “take Manhattan” during the opening credits. Denzel Washington is the point-man at transport HQ, a room with so many blinking coloured wall lights (notionally indicating train movements) that you’d think a disco ball had crashed from outer space. Even when the film narrows to two men talking down a telephone, Scott doesn’t let the camera rest. It whirs, fidgets and caroms around Washington’s talking head, like a panhandler molesting people at a bus stop, while Travolta’s face and physique become ever more motile and glittering: here a Long John Silver eye-glint, there a crucifix earring, at every cutaway a gun-barrel flashing with menace.

It is too much, but if you like Scott, you can argue that too much is better than too little. This movie has a vision and sticks to it. Under the surface there is nothing “everyday” about violent crime (says Scott), even if it seems to happen every day. It comes from some blood-letting metaphysical imperative to create the world in our image, to fashion a designer chaos carrying our personal signature; so why not write the record of it in blood and hyperbole too? If you can stand the pace – and find the stand-back moments to admire Washington’s savvy onscreen cerebrating and Travolta’s electrified, gonzo malevolence (his best performance in years) – you can watch this film happily through and take the required tranquillisers afterwards.

 
Audrey Tautou in 'Coco before Chanel'

Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel invented the plain French look and made it the most chic thing since Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat. In spite of this, or consistently with it, Coco before Chanel suggests there was nothing unusual about her upbringing. It was in line with biopic tradition and almost indistinguishable from the late-filmed Edith Piaf’s.

Born into a Stella Artois commercial at an early age (gold-rinsed rural retreat hazy with peasant to-ing and fro-ing), she started singing and dancing with her sister (Marie Gillain) in taverns. She hitched a relationship with a rich landed gent (Benoît Poelvoorde), then romanced a dashing Englishman (Alessandro Nivola), then took her hat-designing hobby into the sartorial stratosphere. Anne Fontaine, actress turned director, makes this all go watchably, though a little predictably too. We sometimes wish John Travolta would hold up the clothes store or Tony Scott dash in with some frenzied cutting and camerawork. Audrey Tautou (Amélie ) is nice in the main role, if you like a face as pretty as a pain au raisin with an expression playing limited but appealing variants on waif-like ingratiation.

 
'G-Force'

Guinea-pig agents: ‘G-Force’

The week’s 3D offering is G-Force, a tale of guinea-pig secret agents battling crime. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Bad Boys, Con Air) adapts his audience-bombarding style to kiddy fare. But the two kiddies at the press show seemed as pulverised as the rest of us. It may not be Disney/Bruckheimer’s fault – just tragic timing – if every bit of metal debris swirling out into the audience made us think of Felipe Massa. But wit? Charm? Characterisation? Ah well; G-Force tops the US charts. Maybe for today’s computer-gaming sprogs, speed, violence and animation (in all senses) are enough.

 
Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel in 'Rumba'

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel: ‘Rumba’

“Get with it, granddad,” I hear you say. “Your generation would probably prefer an antiquated French mime comedy directed at the pace of an arthritic escargot.” Quite possibly; though in the case of Rumba one would not prefer it by much. At least the stars Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon use care and craft to set up comic sequences: the heroine’s wooden leg catching fire and burning down a house (don’t expect PC attitudes to disability), the shadows separating from their owners to perform a stylish rumba. The film could be cleverer, funnier, better-timed. Où sont les Tatis d’antan? But Gordon and Abel – she an anorexic Tilda Swinton, he a slightly squashed version of John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory’s Girl) – are appealing comic presences.

Crossing Over is a multi-character drama about immigration, directed by Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) as if he has been given this month’s shift on the Robert Altman Legacy Maintenance project. The Bangladeshi girl threatened with deportation after a school essay defending the 9/11 terrorists; the visa adjudicator (Ray Liotta) buying sex from an Australian girl (Alice Eve) with the promise of a green card; the Muslim-American customs agent (Cliff Curtis) overprotective of his endangered sister; and Harrison Ford as the field chief, head down and honourably snorting, like a bull given the security detail in a china shop. Soggy with self-righteousness, over-piled with plots, the film fails to ignite. You don’t just need vanities (socio-political or bureaucratic) for a bonfire, you need kindling and paraffin too.

 
'Land of the lost'

Earnest capers: ‘Land of the Lost’

The week’s worst, though, is Land of the Lost. Will Ferrell capers earnestly through a Journey to the Center of the Earth-style comic romp witless of script, wan of invention and pasty of imagery. (When will High-Definition live up to its name?) Britain’s Anna Friel co-stars. Hers is one green card she could stick in the face of a US customs honcho and say: “No sex, please. Not for this. I’d rather go back and do another stint on Brookside.”

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