DUEL (1971) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Duel (1971)
Rated PG
(for sequences of action, some terror, a suggestive reference, and some language)
Released: November 13, 1971
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott (voice of), Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell

Day 2 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

Steven Spielberg was asked to make Jaws at age 28 because he made this movie, masterfully, at age 24.

While technically not his feature film debut (it was made for TV, not theaters, debuting on ABC in 1971), Duel became the movie that would launch Spielberg from his years of episodic television to the big screen (eventually, anyway). And he did it by taking this thin “Man vs. Machine” construct and elevating it to Hitchcock levels of thrills and suspense.

Based on a short story by novelist Richard Matheson, Duel is about a salesman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) who, while on a rural two-lane commute business trip across the California desert, is chased and terrorized by the driver of a large fuel tanker truck. Mann’s sole offense seems to have been passing the slow-moving behemoth but nothing more, causing the driver (who we never see) to relentlessly chase Mann, cat-and-mouse style, barreling toward Mann’s car in attempts to run him off the road at high speeds.

Layering this primal hunt are subtle yet clear themes: Pollution (the specific choice of the oil tanker, belching exhaust, with “FLAMMABLE” emblazoned across its back), Emasculation (played out through Mann’s hen-pecked calls back to his wife at home; his inability to confront his violent pursuer), and post-war PTSD (Mann is a Vietnam vet, and his traumatic experiences there still haunt him here).

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Mann is a guy who avoids confrontation, as a survival tactic, but the unknown driver of this truck won’t let him. (The model of Mann’s car is, with ironic intention, a Valiant.) Duel becomes the arc of a person, psychologically damaged, who learns to regain his courage and backbone again. With a name a bit too metaphorically on-the-nose, it’s about Mann becoming a man again. The title, too, can be read with multiple meanings. The external “duel” as well as the internal one, plus Mann’s “dual” sides in which the latent one (courage) needs to overcome the oppressive other (fear).

The original cut for TV was a tight 74 minutes (with commercials, it aired for 90). But after it was so well received the producers saw an opportunity for overseas box office, so additional scenes were shot in order to flesh it out to feature length. Amazingly, instead of watering down this one-trick premise, the additional scenes only ramped up the tension and expanded the underlying themes.

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This further revealed Spielberg’s budding talent. Yes, the script is laudably inventive in the unique devices and scenes it constructs, drawing out this sadistic game, but the palpable terror that results is all derived from Spielberg’s taut direction. Indeed, in lesser hands, this would’ve been limp and/or forced. The real miracle here is how Spielberg not only maintains suspense for an hour and a half, but that he actually cranks it up.

Keeping the driver hidden the whole time was a decisive stroke (an idea that Matheson wrote into the script, which Spielberg smartly kept and maximized), turning the truck into a monstrous, soulless beast. This instinct would serve Spielberg well in Jaws, too, when he began to run into problems with that production’s mechanical shark.

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Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.

NOTABLE TRIVIA:

  • The film’s score, by Billy Goldenberg, owes nearly everything to iconic composer Bernard Herrmann and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Strains of Psycho can be gleaned especially. He experimented heavily, however, with African instruments and eerie sound effects, rather than just a straight traditional orchestra.
  • Richard Matheson, the writer of the screenplay and short story on which it was based, was a novelist whose other most famous film adaptations are Somewhere In Time, What Dreams May Come, and I Am Legend. He was also a writer for TV’s The Twilight Zone.
  • While Dennis Weaver was known for TV westerns and similar roles, it was a bit part in Orson WellesTouch Of Evil which convinced Spielberg that Weaver was the right guy to embody Mann’s anxiety, panic, and fear. The studio wasn’t as convinced, and it wasn’t until the night before shooting began that Weaver was finally signed.
  • At one point, Weaver’s Mann stops an elderly couple in a red car for help. Spielberg, who would later be the Executive Producer of Back To The Future, had that moment re-created with Marty McFly.
  • Unit Production Manager Wally Worsley was a legend in the business. His career began as an assistant director on The Wizard Of Oz in 1939, and he would work again with Spielberg on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.
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Director Shane Black Casts “The Rock” As Doc Savage

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Studios have been looking for the next Deadpool. Sony may have found it.

Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by action comedy maestro Shane Black (The Nice Guys, Iron Man 3, screenwriter of Lethal Weapon), Doc Savage promises to have that perfect mix of wild, unpredictable comedy with high octane action, all jacked to gonzo Rated R levels. And who better to portray The Man Of Bronze than The Rock?

Having debuted way back in 1933, the character of Doc Savage pre-dates even Superman (1938). For those unfamiliar, think of Savage as a comic book superhero version of Indiana Jones. Back in his early days, Doc followed and encouraged a virtuous moral code (as all heroes did). With the success of Deadpool, that will most certainly shift toward Rated R sensibilities under the direction of Black, although the character itself has already evolved over the decades as well.

Interestingly, Savage not only debuted before Superman, but apparently Superman’s creators blatantly stole key traits from him. Consider:

  • Man Of Bronze/Man Of Steel
  • Clark Savage/Clark Kent
  • Savage had his own Arctic “Fortress of Solitude” hideaway

What makes Doc Savage a particularly great fit for Shane Black – a writer of sharp wit and narrative complexity – is that Savage is a character trained both physically (by his father) and mentally (by a team of scientists) to be the ultimate human specimen of strength and intelligence. I don’t know if you could find a character better suited to Black’s sensibilities.

No release date has been set for Doc Savage, but it will be released by DC Entertainment through Sony Pictures.

AMBLIN’ (1968) – 30 Days Of Spielberg

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Amblin’ (1968)
Not Rated
(brief partial nudity; brief marijuana use)
Released: December 18, 1968
Runtime: 26 minutes
Director (and Writer): Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Levin, Pamela McMyler

Available on YouTube (click here), and below.

Day 1 of “30 Days of Spielberg”

This is the one that started it all.

Okay, sure, Steven Spielberg already had a few shorts and even a feature length 8mm movie under his belt as a kid in suburban California, but it was Amblin’ – an independently financed 26-minute short that was made when Spielberg was 20 years old, marking his first work to be professionally produced on 35mm – that launched Spielberg from obscurity to a studio contract. And movie history.

Playing like some “distant cousin” companion piece to The Graduate but with a sincere spirit rather than a sardonic one (and shot six months after that seminal film’s release), Amblin’ tells the carefree story of two young drifters – one male, one female – as they meet and then, well, amble down a California desert road, walking away from responsibility and toward nothing in particular.

From the start, we see in Spielberg’s shot compositions that he’s thinking on a much bigger, grander scale than his simple little story would suggest or even call for, while still keeping the tone funny and personal – and doing it all with no dialogue. Out of the gate, the young auteur displays a capacity to not only maintain character and intimacy within a broader visual ambition; he actually uses cinematic scope to capture character and intimacy. Suffice it to say, Spielberg was already making as good or better a film than most of his professional counterparts of the time.

It’s no surprise, then, that based on Amblin’ alone, Universal Studios exec Sid Sheinberg signed Spielberg to a long-term deal, making Steven the youngest person to ever be given such a contract.

And why wouldn’t he? Watching Amblin’ even now, it’s clear that this upstart prodigy doesn’t need to be taught anything. He just needs to be given money and good material. The brilliance of Amblin’, which is as much a free-form Beatles/Monkees-esque plotless jaunt as it is a specific and precise filmmaking vision (complete with a wide emotional range, from the comic to the romantic to the pogniant, and even with cultural commentary), is that it’s far from conventional yet entirely accessible. That’s an exciting combo for a studio head.

Specifically with Amblin’, Spielberg showed that he could capture the zeitgeist of his generation while doing it with an assured grasp of timeless cinematic language and beauty. More broadly, it shows the potential to take creative risks that can still pay off with audiences. There’s no denying that Spielberg has lived up to that promise.

Wonderfully shot and with a keen eye, Amblin’ doesn’t yet boast the first appearance of any signature Spielberg visuals. Or if it comes close it’s in the stark silhouettes, a motif not specific to Spielberg certainly but one he’s employed – beautifully, even magically – over the years, including here.

NOTABLE TRIVIA:

  • Spielberg’s Director of Photography for Amblin’ – a fellow filmmaking student – was Allen Daviau. Though they parted ways for nearly 15 years, Daviau and Spielberg would reunite for three of Steven’s films in the 1980s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, and Empire Of The Sun. Daviau would also shoot the two best-looking films of director Barry Levinson’s career: Avalon and Bugsy.
  • When Spielberg formed his own development and production company, he named it Amblin Entertainment. The first film to brandish the Amblin Logo – which is the iconic image of Elliott and E.T. bicycling past the moon – was Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple. Amblin Entertainment continues and thrives to this day.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of strong violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images)
Released: May 27, 2016
Runtime: 144 minutes
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I seem to like the superhero movies that most people don’t, yet I find the ones embraced by audiences and critics alike to be fairly dull and uninspired – even cynically constructed.

If you’ve seen the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate for X-Men: Apocalypse (it’s not good), then you can guess where I landed. The consensus is that it starts strong but limps to the finish. That’s only half right, and thankfully not about the second part. Not only did I really like this entire entry in the X-verse, but when stacked up against the other Superhero Battle Royales of the past two months (Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War) it’s the best of the three – and not just in a general sense. X-Men: Apocalypse is better at executing the core elements that all three movies share: balancing a high volume of characters, coming to blows over philosophical differences, and actually convincing us that these differences aren’t just philosophical but personal.

The title X-Men: Apocalypse has a dual meaning. Yes, the fate of the world is at play (natch), but it’s also a direct reference to the film’s villain. The prologue opens with a 5500-year-old flashback, in which we see the origins of the first Mutant (a.k.a. the titular Apocalypse) in ancient Egypt. He’s awesome in the legitimate sense of that word, omnipotently possessing all strains of mutant power. Flash forward to the early 1980s (when this latest prequel takes place) and we find the core X-Men team disbanded as a result of the previous film’s events (a succinct classroom slide show gets you up to speed if you haven’t seen that movie or, if you’re like me, barely remember).

These mutants live throughout the world, incognito amongst normal humans, trying to live normal lives. A few, though, are captive; circus freak side shows, forced into cage battles for spectators. We know this won’t last for long, but having them dispersed is more than some perfunctory baseline starting point. Their lives – along with a new teen, a.k.a. Cyclops, struggling to control a power he doesn’t understand – are actually explored at some length, creating a psychological basis for each character (Magneto continues to be the most compelling), and how they’ll respond to Apocalypse when he inevitably re-emerges from his dormant state of the past five-plus millennia.

Though the stakes are indeed apocalyptic (even Stan Lee’s cameo is serious, not goofy), for the first hour it’s not so much the world that hangs in the balance but, rather, the mutants place in it. And that’s really interesting. Not just their role in society (as we’re seeing with the Avengers) but as a species. Their crisis of identity isn’t political; it’s existential.

Consequently, the conflicts and differences between them are inherently more personal. They’re not clunky contrivances (see: Manchurian Winter Soldier) or resolved through insipid sappy coincidences (see: My mom’s name was Martha, too!). Motives for fighting each other are more substantial. Showdowns in the current DC and Avenger movie mythologies – which pitched themselves as being about irreconcilable philosophical differences – actually relied heavily on misunderstandings and covert manipulations.

This movie doesn’t pull punches like that. These X-ers understand and disagree with each other on very clear terms, for very different ways of looking at the world and their place in it, and Apocalypse’s manipulations aren’t covert; they’re brazen, on the scale of a God complex. So when these X-ers brawl, it’s more than some glorified wrestling match between super-siblings that, deep down, still love each other. The intent, quite simply, is to kill. The script substantiates these divisions, and the actors completely and totally sell them.

There’s not enough space here to do justice to how good this entire cast is, so I’ll be unfair and highlight three: Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), and Sophie Turner (Jean Grey – and also Sansa Stark from Game Of Thrones). These three are potential stars-in-the-making, and they make the best of their showcases here. (It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg has already snagged Sheridan as the lead for his upcoming Ready Player One.)

If director Bryan Singer (who returns for his 4th X movie, continuing from the previous Days Of Future Past) has mastered anything, it’s juggling so many characters. That is to say it doesn’t feel like he’s juggling them at all. There are a lot of characters here, but they don’t feel like they’re competing for screen time, nor does the balance feel delicate or mandatory. With depth, motivation, and agency, they’re not merely pawns in a plot machine. At this point, most superhero movies feel obligated to balance large ensembles, but no one’s doing it better than Singer.

Another strength: this is Universe building that doesn’t feel like Universe building. It’s because Singer stays focused on this moment in time. He’s not distracted by how his narrative needs to connect to the next two or three down the road. And if you’ve missed previous chapters, no worries; Singer laces in just enough flashbacks on a need-to-know basis, and does it in a way that feels valid and organic (even character-driven), not crass shoe-horned expositing.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the mixed returns that the titular villain yields. By no fault of Oscar Isaac who plays him (according to Singer’s exacting vision, no doubt), Apocalypse can, at times, be a pretty glaring melodramatic miscalculation. The more maniacal he gets, the more you’re reminded of the cheesy traits that long kept comic books marginalized as an art form and not taken seriously.

Even so, Isaac is able to bring a chilling menace, too, that’s truly formidable. The less operatic he’s required to be, the better Apocalypse is. Also, Singer ingeniously uses Apocalypse beyond being a destructive catalyst and extends his purpose to causing some of these young mutants to evolve from their nascent stage into the full-fledged powers (and look) fans know them by. That was a clever stroke on Singer’s part, and a cool one. Not as clever are the religious symbols and references. They’re not offensive, mind you, just flip.

X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t just brooding and serious; it’s also a highly entertaining trip to the movies. Evan Peters (Quicksilver), in particular, brings a hip goofiness to the mix while, as Professor Xavier, James McAvoy is given several opportunities to display his more subtle comic instincts when around an old romantic flame. The film also boasts not one but two set pieces that will be highlights of the entire summer season: the spectacularly conceived Quicksilver “rescue” sequence (both in scope and wit), as well what unfolds when, er, “Weapon X” is let loose.

Oh, and did I mention that, just in terms of pure cinema, this is really solid blockbuster moviemaking? There, I just did. In an age when comic book movies are obnoxiously corporate, the X-Men brain trust of Bryan Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg brings passion (rather than just a business plan) to their franchise, and that’s increasingly rare. The result is a tentpole that goes beyond completing a checklist, allows room for surprises, and isn’t afraid to actually put things on the line.

Disney Mulls Live Action LITTLE MERMAID

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What a report / Isn’t it neat / Wouldn’t you think Disney’s collection’s complete / Wouldn’t you think they’re the brand / The brand that has…everything

Apparently not. Or, more likely, they know we want more.

After 92 million first-day views of the new Beauty and the Beast live action teaserDeadline.com reports that Disney is exploring the possibility of making Ariel part of our world.

It’s far from official (no cast or creatives are currently attached), with many aspects to consider. Perhaps chief among them is what it would take to pull off an authentic underwater environment – with characters swimming, talking, singing and “dancing” – for the amount of screen time that would be required.

Also in the mix: a competing live action Little Mermaid take, produced by Universal, starring Chloë Grace Moretz and written by Richard Curtis (Notting HillLove Actually). While that production would likely beat Disney’s to theaters, it seems nothing could hamper the Mouse House’s production other than Disney itself. As a property, Disney’s The Little Mermaid is too beloved to be perceived as an also-ran. Reports also suggest that Universal’s adaptation would hew more closely to the darker tone of Hans Christian Anderson‘s original fable.

If you’re keeping track, here’s a list of some of the high profile live action titles that are currently being prepped for production by Disney:
  • Cruellawith Emma Stone in the title role
  • A Wrinkle in Time, with Ava DuVernay (Selma) attached to direct and Jennifer Lee writing
  • Dumbo, with director Tim Burton and writer Ehren Kruger
  • sequel to Mary Poppins with director Rob Marshall (Into The Woods), starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Maleficent 2, with Angelia Jolie set to return in the title role and Linda Woolverton writing
  • Tinker Bellwith Reese Witherspoon developing and set to star
  • The Jungle Book 2, with director Jon Favreau returning

New FINDING DORY Trailer Shifts From Laughs To Feels (VIDEO)

If the first trailer for Finding Dory focused on the funny and the familiar, the second one – see below – wants to remind you to bring tissues, too.

While still peppering in some new laughs, Finding Dory Trailer #2 makes a pitch for the emotional jugular, emphasizing by trailer’s end that this journey for Dory is to find the parents she’s never known.

Danged if I didn’t get a little lump in my throat.

Pixar’s Finding Dory opens nationwide on June 17.

Original STAR WARS Story In One Single – and Lengthy – Infographic

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You’ve never experienced Star Wars like this before.

I haven’t had the time myself to take it all in, but this new way of telling an old story is massive and basically mind-blowing. A 34-year-old graphic artist from Zurich – Martin Panchaud – has created an online scroll of infographic imagery that tells the entire story of Star Wars: A New Hope (hence the URL address SWANH.net)

Panchaud describes his inspiration:

  • This long ribbon reminds me of the ancient Chinese script rolls that had to be rolled in and rolled out simultaneously in order to be read. I like this stretch between ages, cultures, and technologies.

In actual numbers: it’s one story, in one piece, and 123 meters in length. That’s 403.5 feet to you and me here in the States.

Click here to behold its glory (it may take a bit to completely load, depending on your connection speed). And then click here for Panchaud’s glimpse at the “making of”.