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Duel (1971) (TV)
59 out of 66 people found the following review useful:
The ultimate car chase movie..., 9 August 2000

Leave it to prosemaster extraordinaire, Richard Matheson (a favorite of mine and the man Stephen King acknowledges as being his biggest influence), to come up a premise so simple yet so believable and terrifying that the viewer will never look at an eighteen-wheeler the same way ever again...and leave it to cinematic wunderkind, Stephen Spielburg, to do right by Matheson's script and win acclaim in the bargain.

Though some may argue that "Bullit", "Vanishing Point", or maybe even the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" could be called the ultimate car chase movie, "Duel" deserves this designation better because it does something none of the above films can claim. The story literally starts on the road and ends on the road. No location in the entire film is ever out of sight of the highway and, in spite of the brief conversation with the wife, virtually nothing else happens outside the highway. For David Mann (played adequately enough by Dennis Weaver) and the monster truck he's trying to get away from, the road and everything alongside it is their entire universe. Nothing else of importance exists outside of it.

Though it's never mentioned in the film, this would seem to take place on the California highways. When I went out there about eight years ago, I went down roads that seemed to be not too dissimiliar to the ones shown here. They seemed to stretch on forever, no vestiges of civilization in sight for miles. Spielburg uses this setting to great advantage. Being in your car in a crowded city intersection is one thing, but on those highways with nothing but your car and a homicidal maniac in a diesel for miles? The isolation factor that cars naturally produce jumps up a thousand percent. The radiator hose problem made me think of many other times that I had similar troubles with cars I've had. Of course, I never had someone trying to kill me at the time, but...

Anyone looking for drama, character development, or all the other elements that pseudo-critics point out as the mark of cinematic excellence are liable to be disappointed by "Duel". It's what King described in "Danse Macabre" as a Tale of the Hook. It's only purpose is to scare the hell out of you. Damn if it doesn't work. THAT'S the mark of a classic.

10 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
The beginning point of the modern action-adventure film..., 1 August 2000

"The Thief of Bagdad" was my first introduction to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and, as first impressions go, I've not been this impressed with an old-time film star since I watched Fairbanks' cinematic successor, Errol Flynn, begin creating his own legend in "Captain Blood".

The imagination and power of the visual design of the sets by Raoul Walsh make a nice complement for Fairbanks' script. Having read some of the original material from Sir Richard Burton's unexpurgiated translation of the Arabian Nights (that is, the uncensored, unwatered-down version that most of the general public is familiar with), I can honestly say that, while this story is in none of the tales I read, it would have been a perfect fit within Scherazade's many fantastic tales of moral instruction. The language, the situations, the magical artifacts, the transformation of a callow youth into a great (if still wily and underhanded) hero...they all so accurately reflect the atmosphere of those wondrous tales that I have read and enjoyed.

As for Fairbanks himself, there any red-blooded American boy who HASN'T wanted to be like him? Maybe the boys of today wouldn't recognize the name, but five bucks says that they would definitely recognize the attitude and the style. Charming, smart, irresistable to women, tough enough to take on the bad guys, gifted with a physique that borders on the unbelievable...he's every boy's greatest heroic fantasy come true.

All that said, another reason "The Thief of Bagdad" is important AND fun is because it really marks the starting point for the modern genre of action-adventure films. The use of humor is extensive (my favorite bit being Fairbank's method of "touching" a particular bush), helping keep things from becoming TOO serious for it's own good. Then there's the use of special effects, some very hokey by today's standards, but probably state-of-the-art for it's time and still very impressive, considering the time period this film was made. There's also the touch of romance that helps sweeten the tone. Though subsequent offerings have not had as deft a touch as this film does, this would be a logical beginning to that tradition. Finally, there's the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, but I truly doubt that anyone has ever come up with a showdown that relied more on brains than brawn as this one.

Don't let the age of this film offput you. Like it's inspiration, it weaves Scherazade's song with a melody that has yet to be outdone (though it has been matched during subsequent decades).

X-Men (2000)
The next step in the evolution of the action film, 1 August 2000

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face--forever."--George Orwell

I think the above quote suggests that the esteemed Mr. Orwell may very well have been able to appreciate "X-Men". Human bigotry, after all, is as old as human existence. Though the trappings seem to border on the preposterous, can one really say that the film's premise is as outrageous as at first glance?

I'll be frank. I wasn't expecting anything from this film. Though I am a long-time comic collector, I've learned to hate all things X-Men as time rolls on. There were so many times and so many moments were the film seemed to be on the edge of going down the toilet. Heh...guess I should have had more faith. What I've seen this night is the next step in the action-film revolution begun by "The Matrix".

Though the X-Men were created in America, the storyline, science fiction elements, characterizations, and outrageous action actually have their roots in both Japanese anime and the German Expressionist film movement of the 1910's and 1920's. These two seperate schools began to merge in the live action arena with the underacknowledged gem "Dark City". The neophyte movement finally began to hit overdrive with "The Matrix" and, with "X-Men", has finally begun to hit it's stride. I'm not sure what one could call this movement in film (Roger Ebert's term of "visionary filmmaking" is way too vague to be considered definitive), but hopefully, it will define the action genre for the 21st century.

Granted, none of this would mean a thing if the acting or writing weren't top-notch. David Hayter's script is notable for it's lack of verbosity. Taking a cue from the German Expressionist movement, most of the drama is conveyed in images (the shattered gates in Poland, the ominous floating guns during the train station stand-off, Logan holding Maria tight in the hopes of keeping her alive). The dialogue can only be described as adequate. One is not likely to find that many memorable one-liners, but it never becomes so terrible that one winces as he occasionally had to during some of the clunkier lines of "Star Wars Episode One". That said, there are at least a couple of good jokes in the script and Logan sticking out his center claw after setting off (and "turning off") the metal detector is probably the best visual joke. While the plot sets things up for a potential sequel by leaving more than a few loose ends, it doesn't feel forced. Real life is a very messy proposition, after all, and not every square peg is going to fit in the round holes.

There's nothing wrong in the acting department by a large margin. Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier is every bit as commanding as his Capt. Picard ever was. It's a credit to the man's presense that his impression on screen remains formidable even if he is bound in a wheelchair. Sir Ian McKellen offers a believably chilling Magneto, a man burning with old hatreds and the need to do something about them. But the central figure of this saga is undoubtably Hugh Jackman's Wolverine/Logan. He plays the role like a hunted animal, barely civilised and totally reliant on his instincts. Close to him in this center is Anna Paguin's Rogue, a frightened young girl with a power she can't control or understand. Her purpose is to reaffirm the humanity in Logan that he hasn't realized he's been missing. The others make less of an impression, mainly because they're restricted to the use of their powers and their interactions with Logan. Still, James Marsden's Cyclops makes a nice verbal sparring partner for Logan and Famke Janssen's Dr. Jean Grey sets the stage for a potential romantic triangle down the line.

I never thought that I would say this, but I now do hope for a sequel to this film...only, of course, if they can follow up with the same high level of quality displayed here. I X-pect no less.

The Matrix (1999)
"Metropolis" meets "Star Wars"..., 1 August 2000

I have not seen "The Matrix" since it's initial release in theaters in 1999 (I, in fact, saw it twice, a very rare occurence for me). The reason I haven't written a review for it before now is that I wanted time to think about it. The reason I haven't watched it on videocassette is because I'm still waiting on the widescreen edition.

While I am sure most would recognize the second film above (is there anyone on this planet who COULDN'T?), the first may seem unfamiliar. "Metropolis" is widely regarded as the first science-fiction film, dealing mainly in the themes of the dehumanization brought on by the rise of the eras of Industrial Revolution and Big Business. "The Matrix" can be seen as the ultimate updating of that concept, where the fruits of those revolutions have contributed to much of what "Metropolis" foresaw. What is the difference between being a factory worker and an office worker in our day and age? Both require two things that Stephen King in "Danse Macabre" said are the only qualification to be a Hollywood screenwriter: a low-alpha wave pattern and the soul of a drone. Most corporations simply don't care if you live or die. If you don't play the game according to their rules, well, you can always be replaced, rather like a cog in a fine Swiss watch. This is the reality of our age because too many people DON'T want to or can't try some other way.

Which leads me to the real problem in "The Matrix". It isn't, as so many of the short-sighted have said, the machines, it's the people. Morpheus points out that most of the people who aren't clued in to what the REAL situation is simply couldn't withstand the shock. To quote Hamlet's most famous speech, they would rather "bear those ills they have rather than fly to others that they know not of." That doesn't make them evil or stupid. It's simply human nature. Neo himself is not immune to this hard blow to his world, as his initial enlightenment session ends rather badly. That's why most dictatorships on this planet stay in place for longer periods than most Americans sometimes expect. People prefer the devil they do know to the devil they don't know.

Mixing into this basic core is the mythic elements pinpointed by Carl Jung that, while, on the surface, may seem preposterous, actually have a logical explaination. My pet theory is that the Oracle is actually not a human being, but a computer program. The prophecy mentioned could easily be just the end result of a mathematical probability equation, not unlike the psychohistory concept put forth in Issac Asimov's "Foundation" novels. If someone like the One could exist once, it is logical to assume that, with the right combination of genetic factors, such a being would come into existence again. When the Oracle was touching Neo's hand, it was, no doubt, scanning for those factors and found them. Still, it didn't tell him that he was the One; it told him what he needed to know to realize his full potential. After all, the prophecy she told Neo DID come true.

Of course, it helps that this film combined with it's message some of the most impressive action this side of "Terminator". John Woo is the usual one cited in the scenes of slo-mo gunplay, but even Woo owes a debt to the late great Sam Peckinpah, who took the ballet and carnage of violence to new heights while not losing track of the story. The kung-fu sequences are probably the best done in an American film since "Enter The Dragon". Top them off with some of the most amazing SFX in years and you have a truly unique experience.

Characterization, usually given short shrift in most action films of recent years, is central to the plot. Whether you're talking about Reeves' hesistant savior, Fishbourne's wise mentor (easily the best performance in the film), Moss' tough-as-nails Trinity, Pantoliano's weary traitor, or Weaving's chillingly malicious Agent Smith (the most scary machine character since HAL 9000), I never got the impression I was watching cardboard cutouts, but real characters with real questions and struggles. Without this last element, "The Matrix" would have been an empty exercise for me. With it, it's a "Metropolis" for the 90's.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A danse macabre on the futility of human greed..., 31 July 2000

"'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away."

--Percy Shelley, "Ozymadias"

I can think of no better quote than the above to sum up what has to be the closest film to horror that I have yet seen by the late, great master, Akira Kurosawa. The opening sequence alone, with it's haunting dirge, tells how "Throne of Blood" will end. It's just a question of how Washiza gets to that point.

The supernatural elements are strong throughout the film (and eeriely believable), but they do not overshadow the all-too believable elements of human pettiness and greed. The true horror of this film is not that it happens to include dark omens, dire prophecies, and perhaps one of the most malicious evil spirits on record. It's true horror lies in the uncomfortable, unshakable truth of what man's ambition can lead him to.

Kurosawa wisely dispensed with or downplayed most of the events in Shakespeare's original that do not include the central figure of Macbeth, which allowed him to amplify the meanings of the earlier work. Toshiro Mifune is our tour guide on this slow crawl into madness. Though he is excellent in the role, the scene that stays the most in my mind is not about him, but his scheming, power-hungry wife, Asaji. Endlessly, she washs her hands of the blood that she touched the night the master of Cobweb Castle was slain. Though her hands are spotless, she can't keep out the smell of the blood--blood that she helped to spill.

If nothing else, "Throne of Blood" reiterates something many a good horror writer has said before: man can be the greatest monster of them all.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
My SECOND favorite film of vampires..., 31 July 2000

I still say that F.W. Murnau and Max Schreck did it before and did it better in "Nosferatu", but I can't deny that I liked what I saw on the screen with "Horror of Dracula". For me, that is a considerable feat, as most vampire films (including the original, Universal "Dracula" starring Bela Lugosi, whose idea of intimidating was apparently playing stare-eyes with the camera ZZZZZZZ) bore me to tears.

After watching this film, I have no doubts why Christopher Lee is so well remembered for his portrayal of Count Dracula and not just because he happened to put in the most screen appearances as said anti-hero to date. The black cloak clad over his well-over six foot frame lends an aura of menace and intimidation that no other version since Max Schreck has held with such ease. The initial scenes of him showing his charming side are, in my opinion, sorely missed later when he seems to have been reduced to the level of stereotypical vampire on the loose, but I'm willing to overlook this as I descend through the film series. Forget Lugosi; Lee is THE definitive version of the Count.

Peter Cushing, meanwhile, takes center stage as Dracula's driven, calculating adversary, Professor Van Helsing. Here, the script uses an old trick of literature by using the phonograph recording scene to subconsciously ask the viewer that if a man as intelligent and sophisticated as Van Helsing can believe in vampires, than why not the audience? As determined as a bloodhound on the scent of his prey, Van Helsing is not unsympathetic to the suffering of the Count's victims and their loved ones. But, by necessity, he must remain hardnosed and decisive on what needs to be done and not being afraid to tell the parties responsible for carrying out his wishs that this must be so.

The ending suggests the influence of "Nosferatu" (the first instance in cinema were a vampire could be killed by sunlight), but I must admit that it stands, head and shoulders, above what Murnau's film wrought and, indeed, what Stoker's original novel had. Oddly enough, I feel no victory in Dracula's death. Rather, I feel that the world has lost something irreplacable, no matter how brutal that something was. It almost makes me kind of glad that the Count would rise again in several other Hammer sequels...almost.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
The original Commando team movie..., 31 July 2000

"The Dirty Dozen" may have updated the film's premise for the cynical late '60's, but as much as I love that old hard-boiled film, even I have to admit that it doesn't hold a candle to "The Guns of Navarone". Though it may be hard to remember now that the premise has been used so much, the impossible mission theme was NOT a common staple in action films until this movie. The question of whether or not the team is going to pull it off is, for once, not as simple as many other simple-minded movies have made it. There are moments where the mission is endangered by just about everything imaginable: the CO being critically wounded, suspicious enemies, personality conflicts, wrenching moral dillemas, a traitor in the ranks, being captured by the enemy. The storyline plays out like the most extreme manifestation of Murphy's Law: everything that can go wrong DOES go wrong.

The team put together here couldn't be more incongruent with each other. Gregory Peck's world-class mountain climber who becomes the team's reluctant CO, David Niven's hot-tempered, authority-defying sapper, Anthony Quinn's Greek ex-Colonel who has promised to kill Peck at war's end, Stanley Baker's weary soldier who's tired of the unending slaughter, a young Greek national who wants more and more of it...the real miracle is that they manage to get as far and as well as they do. For every step forward, they wind up paying for it. Be it in blood, moral anguish, or pain, no one comes out of this mission unchanged or unscathed. I honestly feel that it is this theme of sacrifice that is the key to the greatness of "The Guns of Navarone".

73 out of 102 people found the following review useful:
The great Richard Burton performance no one saw..., 16 July 2000

It seems to me as though no one remembers this film. In fact, I think that it would be fair to say that I wouldn't have become intrigued enough by it to finally rent if I hadn't seen just the briefest of clips of it on an ABC news broadcast. When I think about it, I realize why should anyone remember it? This was made during the Golden Age of Bond, which this film acts as a dark mirror to. More's the pity, actually, as this was one of Richard Burton's finest performances.

Burton is cast as Alex Leamas, a nerve-dead, aged secret operative operating out of West Berlin. After a routine assignment goes awry, Leamas is sent home and out of the service. He struggles to try to live a normal, average life as a librarian's assistant, but he can't make it work for him (something that is not helped by his chronic alcoholism). This fact is made forcefully clear when he winds up beating a local grocer and is sentenced to jail time. Slowly but surely, he allows himself to be pulled back into the Cold War he operated in, not suspecting or maybe not even caring that his superiors are setting him up for a fall.

One will never mistake Alex Leamas' grey, rainy world for the sunlight universe of James Bond. It offers what is probably the ugliest depiction of the Great Game on film: drunkards, ex-Nazis, Jews, and die-hard Communists swimming like sharks through a fish pond, all of them devouring any who get in their way. None have any more than lip-service loyalty to their fellow operatives, their countries, or maybe even their own ideologies. At it's center stands Burton, playing Leamas as a walking dead man, festering with hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that eventually sends him into the gutter. His devastating parked car monologue alone is worth the price of renting this one from the local video store.

It's bitter cynic tone may have been the film's undoing; rarely have I seen a film so downbeat in it's depiction of humanity. Still, it is not one that deserves to be forgotten.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A great American tragedy, 12 July 2000

I have not read Cooper's original novel, I will freely admit, nor do I ever really see myself working up the interest to actually do so. But I absolutely love this version of "Last of the Mohicans". It was the first movie I ever saw in the widescreen format of video tapes and, after watching it again after about three years of not seeing it, everything I loved about it then still holds true.

The film is no more anti-British than it is anti-Indian. Everybody gets a more or less fair shake. Granted, Day-Lewis and his adopted family (as well as the Munro sisters) get have more to like about them than some of the others, but even the "bad guys" are understandable. Think about it: Maghoa is, without a doubt, a bloodthirsty, hate-driven b*****d, yet considering all he's lost in his life thanks to the Yanquis (particularly Colonel Munro), can you blame him for wanting to take his revenge? I can't. Colonel Munro is a loving father who cares very deeply about his daughters and a commander who cares about his men. Still, the atrocities he's committed in the name of the Crown against Maghoa are disconcerting, to say the least. Horrible though his death is, can one truly say whether or not it is unjustified? I can't. Major Duncan Heyward is an arrogant snob of an English officer, looking down his nose at colonials and Indians alike. But he is no fop in combat, as his reaction to the George Road ambush proved, and, as he proved with his death, under that arrogant exterior is a very brave man. Can anyone say that he truly deserved his fate? I can't.

The thing, to me, that makes this a great film is that, when all's said and done, nobody wins. NOBODY. Of all the eight major characters (Hawkeye, Chingachook, Uncas, Cora Munro, Alice Munro, Colonel Munro, Maghoa, Maj. Heyward), half of them are dead by film's end and everyone has lost at one person they very deeply care about. There's no overarcing evil responsible for these horrors, just human nature, culture clashs, and the insanity that is war. As America today is still very much a country of clashing cultures fighting for supremacy, therein lies the great tragedy of "Last of The Mohicans". 243 years later, we still haven't learned a thing...and we'd better.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
If you liked the other Bogie and Bacall pairing, you'll like this one..., 5 July 2000

It is a sad and ironic fact that, for all the great chemistry Bogie and Bacall brought to the screen, they only made four films together. It is yet another one that "Dark Passage" is the one that is the least known of all of them. Just about any Bogie enthusiast has heard of "The Big Sleep". I would say an equal number at least know about "Key Largo". There may be a few less who know of "To Have and Have Not", but I wouldn't think that many. But "Dark Passage", true to it's name, escapes notice and attention. Why is that?

It is a film that works superbly...provided you're willing to take it on it's own terms. As there's not that many clues or that many suspects, one can't really call this a mystery. Thriller would be a little closer to the mark, though I wouldn't say that it would be dead-on target. As I feel like the best scenes in this film revolve around the romance between Dr. Vincent Parry and Ms. Irene Jansen, perhaps one could call it a noir-romance.

That may seem like an odd designation but bear with me. "Dark Passage" has definite elements of film noir in it (protagonist with the odds stacked against him, night scenes, friends who keep dying) but also those of romance, not the least of which is the theme of two lovers coming together in spite of all the obstacles in their path (most of which are planted by Madge Rapf, played by the underrated Agnes Moorehead). I imagine that it's a concoction that most mainstream critics find hard to swallow, but, thanks to believable and great performances by the ever-great Humphrey Bogart and Ms. Lauren Bacall (in fact, I would say that this is probably the best performance I have seen of hers to date), it makes it seem...real.

As was said in it's original theatrical trailer, "Dark Passage" is "the best yet" of Bogie and Bacall. If you liked the better known pairings between the two, do yourself a favor and see this one.

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