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Mysterious Skin (2004) August 27, 2009

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Directed by: Gregg Araki

Taking a role only available to independent films, Mysterious Skin pushes the appropriateness of its narrative to near breaking point, dealing in so many awkward issues and difficult themes that it becomes a struggle just to watch, not least review.  Still, with an affective atmospheric approach, and fantastic casting, the film offers you an opportunity to just grit your teeth and dive on in.

Set in the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas, quiet local boy Brian Lackey has grown up troubled, after losing five hours in his youth to what he believes was an alien abduction.  Meanwhile, similarly troubled but infinitely more confident Neil McCormick has discovered his sexuality at an early age after falling for his little league baseball coach.  As both boys reach their late teens, each find themselves searching for answers.  Neil, fed up with prostituting himself out to the local crowd, goes looking for meaning in New York City; while Brian’s search leads him to find Neil, and the buried truth about his childhood.

If the dangerous set-up to David Slade’s dark role-reversal picture Hard Candy [review] had you checking your moral barometer, then expect this film to raise your mercury levels to new heights.  It’s an extremely uncomfortable watch, brought on by a self-imposed obligation to be raw, real, and sometimes downright explicit.  This heavy-impact story style, along with its sombre themes and impulsive characterisation, makes the film difficult to appreciate in any traditional sense.  But just because it reaches into dark places does not mean we have the right to dismiss it.  Maybe more so than usual, it allows you to question what you’ve seen, and exactly how it made you feel.

Reactionary, then, are the first opinions a viewer has on finishing the film.  It’s certainly the case that immediacy is not it’s strong point, and it is unlikely that the slow-burning plot does anything to help this.  Only on reflection can one come to terms with how they really feel about Mysterious Skin - not that the elapsed time will necessarily change your overall opinion, but because it’s hard to see the film for what it is, as you emerge gasping for air after 99 minutes in it dank, dark underworld.  Even the lighter scenes are tainted by an atmosphere that coats the whole film in a semi-transparent oily awkwardness; a constantly uncomfortable mood in a purposefully uncomfortable story.

Luckily, the cast really help elevate this film above its potential classification as a tawdry, low-rent shocker.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands out a mile as the disturbed and emotionally broken Neil, his quiet but confident temperament hiding a wealth of pain displayed through self-destructive actions.  Both here and in Rian Johnson’s Brick [review], Gordon-Levitt proves himself to be one of the finest young actors working today.  Meanwhile, Brady Corbet plays the more reserved lead, his half of the story a less explicit parallel to Neil’s.  He too does solid work, playing the slightly bumbling teen with nervous energy that shows most prominently in his scenes with Mary Lynn Rajskub.  There are also appearances by Elizabeth Shue as Neil’s Mother, Chris Mulkey as Brian’s father, and a difficult but well handled role for Bill Sage as the little league baseball coach of the characters’ youth.

While based on a novel by Scott Heim, the film seems to have lost little of the shock factor in its adaptation by director Gregg Araki.  There are scenes that will disturb and discomfort, although this has become part of Araki’s M.O. if his previous features The Doom Generation and Nowhere are anything to go by.  It takes the themes that have more quietly disconcerted in films like Running Scared [review] and Todd Solondz’s Happiness, but flips the focus back on the children instead of the more obvious plight of the adults.  The narrative plays nicely with a ‘two sides of the coin’ structure, displaying extreme reactions to the horrors of child abuse through characters who are defined, knowingly or unknowingly, by their early life.  As a result of the consistent subject matter, however, the film falls foul of a certain obviousness.  You’ll probably know exactly where the story is going after a few short minutes, especially in the case of Brian and his blackouts.

For a movie as thematically difficult as Mysterious Skin, the value is not necessarily in what you see, but how you feel seeing it.  Here, Araki has made a solid low budget feature (reportedly edited on a consumer-level Apple Mac) that wraps its depressed mood around you with surprising effectiveness.  But while there are moments that shine, there are others - like the decidedly empty ending - that turn the movie into a rather hollow experience.  It’s an interesting watch, and a challenging one at that, but like the implications of its title it’s also ponderous, carnal, and difficult to fully interpret.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) August 20, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 1 comment so far

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Self-indulgent. That dreaded phrase has become close to a slogan for Quentin Tarantino’s latter career.  After fantastic early work in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and his lesser appreciated but arguably greatest piece, Jackie Brown, everything else has been a disappointing slide down the film geek’s reference list.  His love of Asian cinema - especially that of the 70’s - came flooding to the fore in Kill Bill (released as two movies, but essentially one).  This, in turn, heralded his meticulous tribute to American grunge cinema - especially that of the 70’s - in the double-header, Grindhouse (released as one movie, but essentially two).  Inglourious Basterds, with its A-list star and no degree in film history required, may well be the most commercial Tarantino picture of the last decade.  But if you were expecting any less indulgence, prepare to be disappointed.

Opening at a remote farm house in 1940’s rural France, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (AKA The Jew Hunter) is out to uncover Jewish families hiding from the German regime.  One young Jewish girl named Shosanna makes a slim getaway, and retreats to Paris where she begins working at a French cinema.  Years later she is romantically pursued by a German soldier; a war hero who has recent finished shooting a movie based on his experiences.  In order to get closer to her, he convinces the director to hold the premiere at her cinema - a premiere which will have the entire Nazi high command in attendance, including Hitler himself.  Shosanna, working under a false French alias, sees her opportunity for revenge.  Meanwhile a tough group of mainly American Jews named ‘The Inglourious Basterds’ are continuing their own reign of terror, bringing pain and suffering to any Nazi soldiers they come across.  They too have heard about the illustrious film premiere, and hatch a plan to try and end the war with one act of extreme violence.  The only thing standing in their way?  The premiere’s German head of security: Hans Landa, The Jew Hunter.

Looking back at the Tarantino half of Grindhouse (the stylised throw-back entitled Death Proof) it cemented the idea that this ageing hipster director remembers exactly how to play to his strengths, but not an audience’s patience.  His ever elongated discoursive style meant that the film wouldn’t cater to the curious casual cinema-goer - so full of long conversational diatribes that it read like out-takes from a Quentin Tarantino round-table discussion; with Quentin in every chair.  But Tarantino has always enjoyed spectacular success with his dialogue, and it is arguably what makes his films so watchable, even when they are at their most impenetrable in a genre or story sense.  Bound by some reverence for WWII period, he has wisely toned down the jive-talking banter for Inglourious Basterds, but has kept hold of the long scene structure, placing the whole 153-minute spectacle in just a handful of main locations.

As such, we don’t always get the full story, but rather a few small and very detailed sections of it.  It is here where the Tarantino dichotomy begins.  When a scene is in full flow, the movie really works and you find yourself wrapped up in the dialogue, the situation, the tension, the humour; whatever is being attempted probably has your full attention.  Only when the scene finally cuts to a new location, or we transition to a new ‘chapter’ (the movie has five title-carded chapters), does the realisation of awkwardness set in.  It feels disjointed, slow-moving, and at times a little boring; that is, until the next scene starts weaving its magic.  Such a wavering hold on your attention eventually takes its toll, and leaves the inevitable feeling that Inglourious Basterds is kind of a mixed bag - neither supremely great, nor tragically awful.

The film does feature some fantastic performances, most prominently from Christoph Waltz who completely steals the show as the Jew Hunter, Hans Landa.  It helps that he is also the most interesting character, and much more appealing to watch than Brad Pitt’s non-too-bright Basterd Lieutenant, Aldo Raine.  The scenes with Waltz are some of the darkest, most tense, even funniest in the movie, and he creates an introduction in Chapter 1 that the film almost fails to better for the following two hours.  Also worthy of special note are Hunger’s [review] Michael Fassbender as the British operative sent to work with the Basterds, Daniel Brühl as the war hero turned movie star Fredrick Zoller, and Mélanie Laurent playing Jewish refugee Shosanna.  The other Basterds, including fellow director Eli Roth, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, Til Schweiger and Samm Levine, are mostly window dressing.

In fact, there’s a bigger issue at hand than just the Basterds’ lack of prominent moments.  It points to a larger story problem, and one that partially breaks the tension that mounts as the film leads you on its slow build up to the main event; its film premiere showdown.  Tarantino’s script, maybe rightly, lets the heart of the story lie in the tale of Shosanna; her escape from the Nazis, her new life in Pairs, and her ultimate revenge.  Where people will come out talking about Fassbender’s gripping bar sequence or the ultra-violent climax, the film’s juiciest morsel is a short scene that sees Shosanna come face-to-face with her unwitting family’s murderer, desperately trying to contain her fear, all while sharing a polite dessert.  It is truly marvellous, but leads into a second revenge plot that then runs parallel with that of the Basterds.  Tarantino has since explained in interviews how he enjoys the idea that the story defies your expectations, but with no links between the two plotlines, this doesn’t just become a film that de-emphasises the importance of its titular gang, as much as one where they could almost be removed entirely.

In its final form, Tarantino’s self-named Dirty Dozen may not be the film either he nor we were expecting it to be, but there’s little doubting the unique flair it possesses.  Once again, the trademark extended dialogue sequences prove to be both his gift and his curse, with the notable feeling that story and speech were never so at odds with each other in his earliest work.  What played so beautifully in Reservoir Dogs, failed to ignite the same spark in Death Proof, where the story - much like in Inglorious Basterds - was delivered with a haphazard consideration for pace.  There’s certainly a stronger tale to cling on to this time though, and infinitely more interesting characters have been moulded by ten years on Tarantino’s back-burner.  In short bursts, it is classic Tarantino of the best kind; but dare to indulge it two and a half hours of your time, and you may find a less than glorious experience awaits.

Inglourious Basterds is on UK general release from tomorrow.

A Perfect Getaway (2009) August 13, 2009

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Directed by: David Twohy

If the weather is getting you down this summer, maybe you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend your hard earned cash on 97 minutes of sun, sea, sand and murder, in this Hawaiian-set thriller from the writer/director of Pitch Black.  Take heed though, neither the beautiful vistas nor the beautiful people on display can do justice to such inept plotting.

Arriving on their honeymoon in paradise, Cliff and Cydney are out for exploration  during their short stay on the Hawaiian islands.  Determined to take an expedition through the dense foliage to a secluded beach, they pack up their gear and start hiking the trail.  Along the way they meet up with two other couples; firstly, an odd pair by the names of Cleo and Kale, whose threatening demeanour makes the decision to stay with curious holidaymakers Nick and Gina all the more appealing.  News soon spreads that there a two people committing murders in Hawaii - killing couples who stray too far from the beaten track.  Cliff and Cydney decide to press on, but it isn’t long before they’re forced to question whether one of the other couples is hiding something from them

Shot on location in both Hawaii and Puerto Rico, there’s no denying the appeal of such an adventure.  Plus, the cinematography by Mark Plummer does glorious work of capturing the crisp white beaches, cascading waterfalls, and jungle-laden walking trails in-between.  The opening of the movie contains only sly references for what is to come, instead playing up the good-time, everything’s fine, honeymoon perfection that is supposed to lead us into a false sense of security.  Of course, like all contemporary holiday horror stories such as The Beach or Turistas, there’s the nagging wish that they will get to that inevitable downturn point before your interest wanes.  In A Perfect Getaway, this seems to take an awfully long time, and it’s a tepid pace that extends into the rest of the movie.

For the most part, we are supposed to be wrapped up by intriguing speculation over who might be committing the Hawaii murders, as Cliff and Cydney fear for their own safety on the islands.  There are very limited options available, however, and even when the script goes to great lengths to confuse the issue (succeeding, in spite of itself), the actual mystery is rather less mysterious than it might first appear.  You’ll probably be second-guessing the plot from the offset, but it’s better not to worry yourself on this occasion.  In fact, your passiveness may even be rewarded come the muddled conclusion.

You see, the biggest problem in A Perfect Getaway is whether the end of story fits the preceding start and middle.  The topic is left up for debate by David Twohy’s script, which thinks it is covering itself well, but actually requires you to force a point to prove its legitimacy in any resulting post-film arguments.  Whether you agree with it or not, there’s little doubt that you have to be willing to accept some pretty spurious conversational ambiguity for it to make complete sense.  It’s a shame too, because just when things start to get interesting, the film has you asking too many questions to really enjoy the sudden increase in tension.

And it’s here where director David Twohy hits the hardest, especially given his history with the superbly executed sci-fi thriller, Pitch Black.  That film had Vin Diesel’s troubling presence, alien-infested planets, and a persistent flirtation with darkness to its advantage in creating a seat-gripping, tense atmosphere.  Those same attributes don’t translate over to A Perfect Getaway, with neither Timothy Olyphant, Chris Helmsworth, or the slightly against-type Steve Zahn conveying anything like Vin Diesel levels of threat.  They all do a fine job though, and props to Zahn who really needed to switch up his genres after the dire comic depths of Strange Wilderness.

The female cast are often little more than eye candy, especially Kiele Sanchez who hasn’t much more to do than to remind Timothy Olyphant that he is “a man, in full” on numerous occasions.  Milla Jovovich has a bigger role to play, but always seems to get stuck as second fiddle to the male centrepieces.  Only during one scene when left alone with Sanchez does she get a chance to own a piece of the movie - luckily, she grabs the opportunity and runs further with it than all three Resident Evil films [review] have let her.  One notable point about the characters is that Twohy has made one of them a screenwriter, which naturally brings with it the rather cliché opportunity to talk movie conventions and narrative structure as part of the dialogue.  It’s not particularly clever, and way too knowing for a modern audience to take it as anything but foreshadowing - thankfully, they don’t spoil too much.

With such a questionable final turn, by the time the credits role it’s not so much a matter of whether this jigsaw fits together, as whether you even care.  I didn’t - not about who was going to survive, or about who was behind the murders.  Nothing in the slow lead-up to that point allows an audience to really get involved in these people, and so in a similar manner to last year’s Donkey Punch [review], the final act was rather boring, despite the sudden amped-up tension and action quota.  If you really want to experience an idyllic holiday destination, and can switch your brain off even in the face of a plot that begs you to second-guess it, then this movie could have something to offer.  It’s certainly a getaway, but far from a perfect one.

A Perfect Getaway in on UK general release from tomorrow.

Moon (2009) August 7, 2009

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Directed by: Duncan Jones

There’s little to indicate that this latest independent sleeper hit wasn’t a huge gamble for all involved.  With a first-time feature director, a first-time writer, and a sci-fi narrative that’s more exacting than exciting, the film drains every cent out of its ambitious $5 million budget and shoots for the stars.  Or, in this case, just beyond.  Released in timely conjunction with the NASA Apollo landing’s 40th anniversary, Moon, with its subtle combination of low-fi human introspection and upscale science fiction setting, acts to remind us just how lost this once fine genre had become.

Set some time in the future, we find ourselves in the main hub of the Lunar Industries mining operation, located on the far side of the moon.  With a crew of just one, this off-world outfit is extracting Helium-3, a clean and efficient energy source that is periodically sent back to Earth.  Sam Bell’s three-year contract working on the station is almost up, and he looks forward to returning home and talking to someone other than his central intelligence computer, named GURTY.  With just two weeks left, a fault on one of the Helium-3 harvesters forces Sam out onto the surface for repairs, whereupon he crashes his lunar rover.  Waking up back inside the base, Sam finds himself confined indoors with no explanation as to why.  Only on sneaking back to the accident site does he discover what he was being protected from.  Sam is forced to confront his wavering sanity, his lost sense of identity with the world, and, most frighteningly, himself.

Armed with the intent of harking back to a long since forgotten era of science fiction, director Duncan Jones has wilfully created a movie with its roots in both the past and the future; a thirty-five-year-old outlook on a reality now possibly only the same distance ahead of us.  It seems that modern sci-fi has typically been dissolved into other genres, be it the action flick (such as the recent Star Trek reboot [review]), or possibly horror (Event Horizon, Starship Troopers et al.).  The Alien franchise can be traced back to both of these side-avenues, and Jones makes clear nods towards this, although his film is naturally closer to Ridley Scott’s original vision, than the sequels by Cameron and Fincher.

As a self-confessed fan of the whitewashed sci-fi style crafted during the 1970’s, there are references galore in Jones’ film; with the lonely themes of Silent Running, a robotic companion straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a general disquieting emptiness that reeks of Solaris.  But the period authenticity doesn’t stop there.  Commonplace digital effects are swapped for practical ones, character motives are ambiguous without excuse, and an airy atmosphere seeps into the gaps left by the lack of pervasive action sequences.  Moon isn’t a film so much influenced by its lineage, as one crafted in its very image.

Which all adds up to a very odd filmgoing experience in the 2009 summer schedule.  While every other movie is grabbing a concept and sticking to a formula, suddenly here’s a film that doesn’t show its calculations.  As such, it can be a tricky watch, using the first half to set up a number of narrative possibilities - is it a mystery thriller, or maybe a ponderous metaphor for life?  Sam’s hallucinations suggest a hint of claustrophobic horror may rear its head.  Then add to this some fantastic scoring by Clint Mansell that only further mystifies the film’s intentions.  His piano-led theme wavers around the high notes in a enigmatic manner, while the lower melody adds a haunting air, before percussion turns it into the film’s driving force.

Despite this multi-threaded approach to narrative direction, it’s maybe Moon’s biggest flaw that it follows through on none of them.  This ambiguity may well be purposeful, and as genre-defying counter-programming it certainly works, but it also results in a long lead up to a rather lacklustre conclusion.  Even as the final minutes approach, there are hints at some sort of character turn, or possibly a devious twist by either Sam or GURTY, which ultimately never arrives.  The characters are simply without ill will, and while it is undeniably a film about human emotion rather than plot, it could have been so much more.  With such a flat-lining story and a tendency to offer up information without provocation, Moon isn’t quite the character study it sets out to be.  Themes of loneliness, loss and identity are abound, but never entirely dissected during the film’s tight 97 minutes.

Duncan Jones has done fine work in the director’s chair, recreating the feeling of a space walk with slow, purposeful shots and editing.  The special effects, while not up to regular Hollywood standards, are good for the shoestring budget.  Model miniature implementation on the moon’s surface does not go unnoticed, but the backgrounds and general design aesthetic more than makes up for it.  Inside the station where we spend the majority of the film there is a notable scarceness.  Whether this is attributed to money, or a deliberate stylistic choice, it becomes the job of the smaller details to add realism and familiarity - the post-it notes on GURTY, the humanising of the harvesting machines, and Sam’s classic hermit hobbies: meticulous model-making and tending to plants.

And it is as this reclusive spaceman that actor Sam Rockwell really shines.  It helps that the film is almost a one-man show, yet with naught but the vocal performance of Kevin Spacey as GURTY to play off, he also has the responsibility of holding the film together.  Needless to say he is wonderful, bringing a range of emotive states to the role and make them play as a continuous whole.  The film itself further complicates the job by throwing him a performance curve ball that’s too fun to divulge here.  Infrequent appearences by other actors are merely background; the broken communications of people far, far away.  Just like Sam, the audience is constantly isolated from the rest of the world.

It isn’t often that your expectations about where a story will turn are shattered.  For Moon, however, there’s always the feeling that it doesn’t so much take a different path, as take no path at all.  The story (by Duncan Jones himself) and subsequent screenplay by Nathan Parker, deserves merit for its attention to old sci-fi maxims; not least its ideas, something seen increasingly less in modern day interpretations.  The film’s nicest moments are also its least explicit, including the lingering question of programming as a part of human nature.  Although mentioned only briefly at the end, Sam immediately denies it; but is he considering his own man-made existence?  Humans can transcend computational behaviour - but if, like a computer, you confine an entity and deliver consistent input, can you not expect a predictable output?  As a debut film this is an incredibly accomplished piece of work, and, if we’re lucky, one small step - if not giant leap - towards the return of intelligent sci-fi.

Moon is currently on UK limited release.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) August 1, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Cinema, Recently Viewed , 1 comment so far

Directed by: Tony Scott

This fourth Tony Scott / Denzel Washington collaboration comes off the back of the fun but ultimately flawed sci-fi thriller Déjà Vu [review].  It holds true to the director’s recent work, with taught energy in the plot, solid performances for the story, and frenetic visuals on the screen.  Yes, the Tony Scott School of Editing opens its doors once again, providing us a master-class in stuttering motion shots, epileptic cutting and blurry transitions.  It seems that Scott gave up making movies where you could appreciate the cinematography a long time ago, these days you simply experience it, much like the roller-coaster his films so closely resemble.

By that description, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a fun ride.  As a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name (but pre-text messaging and so with a stronger adherence to numeric grammar: “One Two Three”), the film takes us through a couple of hours in the life of troubled transport dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington).  His day running the New York subway control centre is ungraciously interrupted by a group of hijackers, lead by the no-nonsense Ryder (John Travolta).  They detach a full subway car from the rest of its train, shut off power to the lines, and hold all the passengers hostage unless $10 million is delivered to them in one hour.  Unprepared for his role as liaison, Garber becomes the sole voice of communication at the request of Ryder.  And as the time-limit ticks away, we discover that wrongdoing is not confined to just one side of the radio.

It is constantly a treat to see Denzel Washington on screen, and this is no exception.  In a slightly more down-to-earth role, and probably his most common man since John Q, he holds the film together admirably.  It is a two-man show, however, so equally important is John Travolta, who elicits plenty of unhinged menace but has less success with his gangland dialogue - an exaggerated need for the character to end his utterances with profanity often sounds forced.  Joining the fray is a collection of very capable actors, all reduced to bystanders in the wake of the Ryder / Garber showdown.  John Turturro, barely dropping out of theatres after appearing in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, shows up as the government hostage negotiator, while James Gandolfini takes a nice turn as the Mayor of New York.  On the side of the bad guys, Luis Guzmán has an awfully throwaway role as one of the hijackers, and ultimately pays the price for it.

Brian Helgeland adapts the John Godey novel this time around, and as the screenplay adaptor for my favourite of the Scott / Washington flicks, Man on Fire, I naturally had high hopes.  The updated story is interesting, not least to discover the effect of 35 years on terrorist economics, which has caused the ransom money to increase ten-fold.  It’s also nice to see characters take centre stage in an action thriller.  In this case, it gives a platform for both leads to express their flaws, and with the character of Walter Garber currently under investigation for bribery, a neat plot point to explain Ryder’s piqued interest in him.  One of the film’s best scenes involves the awkward outing of Garber’s past, and it serves as a heated moment of comparison between the two otherwise indistinguishable characters.

Meanwhile, Tony Scott maintains form with his rather hyperactive attitude to style.  The much debated over-use of frenzied editing methods employed by Scott may well be his detractors’ greatest asset against him, but they can work to a film’s advantage, bringing an element of originality to well-worn story types.  It worked in Man on Fire, and, to an extent, Domino (where plot and character were flawed), so even if the fast-paced title sequence makes the film feel like it will be hard on your concentration, it at least knows when to settle down and simply tell the story.  Only infrequently do you feel like you’re missing out.  As Walter takes a helicopter ride across town, John Turturro remarks how nice it is to see the city from an elevated perspective: “it reminds you what you’re fighting for”, he says.  As the helicopter turns into the distance, Scott’s jerky cinematography doesn’t award the audience that same luxury.

Despite this, the remake’s most egregious error is not visual, but that it suffers from hostage thriller syndrome.  That is to say, the first two acts of the movie (the stand-off scenes) are attention-grabbing and well executed, with enough genuine threat to slowly inflate the film’s giant tension balloon.  Then, just as we’re reaching the ‘pop or tie-off’ moment, the final act rudely lets go of the end and sends the movie flying off in all directions.  Unbound of its earlier two-location limitation, there is significantly less to hold your interest outside of one prolonged chase sequence.  The ending is particularly poor; a last exhalation of air before the film’s limp carcass drops quickly to the floor.

If you’re the type of person who is inclined to call The Taking of Pelham One Two Three one of the classic 70’s crime thrillers, then there’s probably little for you to enjoy in this 21st century update.  Like many of its kind, everything from pace to profanity is increased, usually at the expense of the original film’s soul.  But they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and Tony Scott doesn’t even make ‘em like they do now, so there were bound to be compromises in this remake.  As it stands, the movie is an enjoyable but forgettable addition to the thriller genre.  It’s a film that’s performed with care, written with pace, and shot like a runaway train.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is currently on UK general release.

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