(On Cable TV, February 2019) Knowing that it was coming from the middle of the bleak 1970s, a time when “urban” was always followed by “decay”, I was frankly expecting the worst from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. How could a movie depicting a hostage taking in the NYC subway be anything but bleak and depressing? Fortunately, this isn’t quite the case: While the film is a slow-burn thriller, it’s not entirely bleak and can even be surprisingly engaging at times. Walter Matthau stars as the city official trying to piece together the elements of a criminal plan before they come to fruition, and the choice of giving this heroic role to an actor like him is indicative of a playful oddball sensitivity that runs through the movie: the characters have colds, are interrupted by visiting Japanese visitors, and one of the hostages stays asleep through much of the excitement. Thanks to director Joseph Sargent, 1970s New York City in this film is grimy but not always bleak and after a relatively tepid first half, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three gets going toward the end with a few good sequences. The musical theme is interesting and complements the interesting period piece atmosphere. I’m always fond of techno-thrillers, and the detail through which the film explains the minutiae of the NYC subway system is absolutely fascinating. In a few words, I had a great time with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely worth watching today even if you’re familiar with its vastly less remarkable remake.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) If ever the news have you down, if ever you start despairing for humanity, if even the nights are dark and the days even darker, then have a look at Fail-Safe and be comforted by the fact that we all made it out of the Cold War and its overhanging threat of a nuclear holocaust. A nightmare put on film by director John Frankenheimer, Fail-Safe is one of 1964’s three delayed reactions to the Cuba crisis executed as thrillers. Unlike Seven Days in May, it’s very much centred on the possibility of nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR. Unlike Dr. Strangelove, it’s not a comedy. Really not a comedy. From the first few unsettling images to the last heartbreaking freeze-frames, Fail-Safe is unrelenting in its fatalistic grimness. It follows an implacable logic in which the worst traits of men, machines and systems all lead to the death of millions. Hope is dangled then taken away and even the usually jovial Walter Matthau here plays completely against type as an implacable academician coolly assessing the logic of mutually assured destruction. Peter Fonda is also quite good as The President facing down a catastrophic scenario in which an out-of-control American bomber mistakenly believe it must bomb Moscow. Asphyxiating and merciless, Fail-Safe is shot is stark black-and-white with very few musical cues, its naturalistic approach making everything feel even worse. Such a situation may not be particularly credible today, but it’s sobering to watch the film and realize that it reflected a real possibility back in 1964. We may have our own issues today, but I’ll take them over the threat of all-consuming nuclear war.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) It does take a while before Charade comes into focus. It begins strangely, with a contrived meet-cute at a ski resort in the Alps that turns into an even stranger succession of events once the heroine comes back to Paris to find out that her husband has died, a large amount of money is missing, and three strangers really hated her ex-husband. The artificiality of the setup is almost overpowering, and even the comforting presences of Audrey Hepburn as the widow and Cary Grant as a mysterious free agent aren’t quite enough to unpack the heavy-handed setup. But as the deaths and double-crosses being to pile up, Charade does acquire a nice velocity, and even answers the questions raised in the first act. Hepburn is adorable as the endangered heroine, despite being too young for the role. Meanwhile, Grant is terrific as someone who may or may not be friendly—he’s occasionally very funny (ha, that shower scene!), and his last grimace of self-revelation at the very end is like seeing a split-second callback to the classic comedies early in his career. Also noteworthy as supporting roles for Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and James Coburn. Great scores and visual design by Henry Mancini and Saul Bass round up an impressive crew. Surprisingly not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Charade is increasingly endearing the longer it goes on, and satisfyingly blends romance, comedy and suspense. It’s well worth watching. Just make sure to give it more than thirty minutes to make sense.
(On DVD, February 2018) I’m hit and miss on most musicals, but so far I’m three-for-three on Gene Kelly directed musicals (plus an honorary mention for On the Town) including the sometimes maligned Hello, Dolly! I’m not saying that it’s a perfect film or even on the level of Singin’ in the Rain: The romantic plot between the film’s two leads is unconvincing, some numbers are dull, Barbra Streisand is arguably too young for the role, the first half-hour is barely better than dull and the film doesn’t quite climax as it should (the biggest number happens long before the end). But when Hello, Dolly! gets going, it truly shines: Walter Matthau plays grouchy older men like nobody else before Tommy Lee Jones; Barbra Streisand is surprisingly attractive as a take-charge matchmaker suddenly looking for herself; the B-plot romantic pairing is quite likable; the period recreation is convincing and the film’s best numbers (the parade, the restaurant sequence) are as good as classic musicals ever get. As with other Kelly movies, it’s a musical that understands its own eccentric nature as a musical, embracing the surrealism of its plotting and the most ludicrous aspects of its execution. It’s awe-inspiring in the way ultra-large-budget movies can be: the parade sequence is eye-popping and the hijinks at the restaurant are a delight. Seeing Louis Armstrong pop up to croon his own take on Hello, Dolly! in his inimitable voice is a real treat. It doesn’t amount to a classic for the ages like other musicals, but Hello, Dolly! Is still a heck of a lot of fun even today, and it’s quite a bit better than what the contemporary critical consensus has determined.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) The premise of The Odd Couple is universal to the point of nearly being a cliché fifty years later: A neat freak and a slob having to cope with each other in a single apartment? Sure-fire laughs. After seeing the same variation a few dozen times, however, it’s not surprising that the original The Odd Couple would feel so familiar. The film seemingly takes forever to establish what seems already obvious, and some plot points (especially during the third act) now feel forced more than organic. Fortunately, other elements rescue the film from those weaker moments: Both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are quite good in the lead roles, and the beauty of The Odd Couple’s classic structure means that the film is almost bound to be satisfying from the beginning to the end. But the film’s biggest asset remains Neil Simon’s terrific dialogue, as witty now at it was then and adding much to the now-standard formula. The result may not feel particularly fresh, but it continues to get laughs.
(On DVD, October 2017) Either they don’t make kids movies like they did, or The Bad News Bears was an oddity even in its time. As we meet our protagonist day-drinking in the parking lot of a neighborhood baseball field, it’s obvious early on that this film goes for hard-luck gritty life lessons. Fortunately, it works even as it’s horrifying by 2017 standards: Seeing kids tag along an adult drinking beer while driving a convertible is the kind of thing that register as a very different kind of funny these days. Walter Matthau is pretty good as the initially reprehensible protagonist—a washed-up failure who learns lessons from coaching a team of early-teen misfits who shouldn’t even be playing in their league. Good character work (especially by Tatum O’Neal as a tomboy with a history and Jackie Earle Haley as a teenage hoodlum) helps a lot, and The Bad News Bears’ fondness for its oddball characters remains endearing even today. The various slurs aren’t so much fun, but given that the film is forty years old at this point, it’s not entirely unexpected. The ending remains a case study in how to transform defeat into a moral triumph. The score is also noteworthy, taking bits and pieces of opera Carmen for inspiration. There’s also an interesting, very American atmosphere to this bicentennial film—the emphasis on baseball helps ground it into a depiction of suburbia circa 1976.