The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,
and six more movies

The Neverending
Film Festival

A New Leaf (1975)

All my life I've heard that the comedy team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May was funny, but I've had little Nichols exposure and even less May, so I wanted to see this film, written and directed and starring Elaine May. No Nichols, though.

Walter Matthau plays a formerly-rich bastard who's still a bastard. Broke and desperately looking for a rich woman to marry, his target is May, a botanist who inherited a fortune from her long-dead father. "I have no skills, no resources, no ambition," he says. "All I am, or was, is rich, and that's all I ever wanted to be."

Matthau's cluelessness and bankruptcy are delightful, and I hated him. May the writer doesn't give May the actress much to do, but the character is smart and lovable. Much of the movie looks and feels like Arthur, complete with a smart-ass butler, and I'm certain the writers of that movie watched this one.

It's a formula piece, and if you've ever seen a romantic comedy you'll know where it's headed, but along the way it's funny — 11 chuckles, 5 laugh-out-louds, several smiles. Doris Roberts is here, pre-wrinkles and in a better mood than she was on Everybody Loves Raymond.

"In a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much."

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Ambulance (1990)

Eric Roberts (young and shaggy) pursues a pretty woman (Janine Turner) on the street, who collapses on the sidewalk and is taken away in an ambulance. The ambulance comes very quickly, though. It looks like it's borrowed from the set of Ghostbusters, and it doesn't take her to the hospital they say they're taking her to.

This was written and directed by Larry Cohen, so nothing's going to be ordinary. Soap opera superstar Eric Braeden plays a mad scientist who says he can cure diabetes. The woman's disappearance is investigated by cop James Earl Jones, who quickly confides to Roberts that he once had a nervous breakdown. Roberts drinks a glass of bad milk, starts having convulsions, gets hospitalized, and the guy in the next bed is newspaper reporter Red Buttons. Oh, and Roberts is a cartoonist, works for Marvel, and his boss is Stan Lee. Also, lots of other stuff.

The Ambulance is relentlessly weird but never stupid, and refuses every opportunity to do anything that an ordinary movie about kidnapping people in an ambulance might do.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Cassandra (1987)

An artsy fashion photographer hires a new assistant, despite ominous music telling us that he should hire someone else. His adult daughter, meanwhile, has recurring nightmares that take place in a nearby house, where her parents assure her nothing much ever happened. The daughter is kinda creepy. The parents are also kinda creepy.

The quick insertion on-screen of an eyeball blinking is intended to heighten the audience's tension or discomfort, and it's effective the first three or four times, but the movie keeps blinking at you, and soon it stops being startling and instead made me sigh.

Other than that overplayed gimmick, Cassandra is an effective horror movie, with minimal blood, lots of clever touches, goosebumpy moments, uncomfortable plot twists, and standard-style set-ups that refuse to play out the standard way. I want more horror movies like this, and fewer dumb slasher duds.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Damnation Alley (1977)

As everyone knows from the movies, it takes two military officers turning two keys at the same moment to launch American nuclear weapons. Today our key officers are Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard with an odd mustache. They're stoic when the order comes down, but they do it. WWIII is underway, and since the key officers are deep underground, they'll live to see the results of their work.

With no time wasted grieving for the billions dead, the movie skips to an implausibly-near future where the radiation is considered livable. Vincent and Peppard are driving across the wastelands to Albany NY, because they've received a mysterious radio signal from there, where there are no known survivors. The only way through the wasteland is a 100-mile-wide swath of reduced radiation called Damnation Alley, so it's a road trip movie.

The green-screened visual effects in the distance are unconvincing, as are some of the explosions and all the giant bugs. The fallout, we're told, has screwed up the weather so I guess it's on purpose, but red and green sky with yellow skizzles through it can't help but look fake. Effects are an overrated ingredient in sci-fi flicks, but this movie has lots of effects and most are cheesy, so it detracts from the drama, which is a little brittle anyway. It's from a novel by Roger Zelazny, a fine science fiction writer. Haven't read the novel, but it's a sin what the movie did to it. The bouncy two-sectioned military vehicles are cool, though.

Vincent was a winning actor who briefly flourished as a B-level movie star, but I always thought he was B+ or even A-. Peppard is Peppard. Paul Winfield plays the black best buddy, so you know he's doomed, but if I had my druthers I'd have put him in Peppard's role. 

Verdict: MAYBE. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Near Dark (1987)

A young couple meet and flirt, and they have so much in common — he's shallow and an ass, she's philosophical but a kook. She bites him, because she's a vampire who lives in an RV. The movie is mostly about that young couple, but I hated them both within the first ten minutes, and hated them more as the story progressed, and thus the movie gave me no-one to give a damn about.

Lance Henriksen plays the girl vampire's father, and I wish the movie had been more about him. Music by Tangerine Dream. Written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who's made several movies I liked (Point Break, Strange Days). There's nothing much here, though.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Robert Shaw leads a team of baddies who've stolen a New York subway train, taken its passengers hostage, and are demanding One Million Dollars in ransom. Walter Matthau is the transit cop on the phone, listening to Shaw's demands. 

Transit cops usually deal with "robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness, illness, vandalism, abusiveness, sexual molestation, exhibitionism," says the movie. They don't see many hijackings, and even the idea seems ludicrous, but Matthau springs into action like he knows what he's doing.

Pelham 123 shouldn't be as good as it is. It's mostly set on a subway car, with the lights at half power. The best lines are delivered over the radio, with bad guy Shaw and good guy Matthau never in the same room. Nothing much is revealed about any of the characters. The most action-packed sequence has cops in a car on the streets trying to figure out where the subway car is going, but of course they can't see it; it's somewhere underneath them. And yet, there's tension all the way through.

Martin Balsam is memorable, and Jerry Stiller is funny. Directed by Joseph Sargent, who always did good work, but usually on television (The Fugitive, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, etc).

All the top-billed performers are white men, but there's ethnic color in the supporting cast, and even some allusions to feminism, so it feels like New Yawk. The 1960s subway control room is amazingly analog.

Verdict: YES, and for me it's a BIG YES — I'm kooky about public transit, and the subway system is the real star here.

♦ ♦ ♦

Where Have All the People Gone (1974)

Peter Graves goes camping and spelunking with his family, and the world basically ends while they're in a cave. Since they were in the dark, they think it was just an earthquake, but when their radio goes quiet and the film in their Polaroid is ruined, they begin to understand.

This was made for television, but you'd never guess it was anything else. It feels fake and forced, builds to a mini-climax for commercials every 15 minutes or so, and the only unusual element — presumably because TV advertisers didn't want to be associated with the politics of nuclear destruction/disarmament — is that it's a post-apocalyptic film where the world wasn't ruined by WWIII, but by an all-natural solar flare.

Most frustrating to me is the lack of a question mark in the title, and that people ask "Where is everyone?" and even "Where are all the people?" but nobody ever actually asks "Where have all the people gone?"

Verdict: BIG NO.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  

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