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Saturday, May 23, 2009

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE EDGE'' (1997)

Outdoors enthusiasts will find something to relish in the Anthony Hopkins & Alec Baldwin adventure “The Edge” (** out of ****), a grim but familiar alfresco saga of survival that boasts elements of both “Deliverance” and “Jurassic Park.” Despite the considerable talents involved, an uneven screenplay and unsympathetic characters unravel “Mulholland Falls” director Lee Tamahori’s weather-beaten yarn of betrayal and jealousy. Only die-hard Hopkins fans may rate this soggy opus worth watching, while seasoned cinemagoers who know anything about critter movies will smirk every time that Bart the Bear chases our protagonists through the sticks.

The stodgy David (“The Untouchables”) Mamet screenplay whistles up the perennial theme of man versus the wilderness. Fashion photographer Bob Green (Alec Baldwin of “Miami Blues”), his model (Elle Macpherson of “Batman & Robin”), and her bookworm tycoon of a husband Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins of “Instinct”) fly deep in the remote Canadian Rockies for a photo shoot. No sooner has the plane landed and the characters been deposited at a quaint lodge perched on a looking glass lake than you feel the story knuckle up with tension. Something isn’t right between husband and wife. Moreover, the cuckolded hubby shudders at the thought that his wife’s photographer may be clicking with her in other ways that have little to do with setting an F-stop.

When a model cannot report for his shoot, Green searches for a native as a replacement. He finds a picture that lodge keeper Styles (L.Q. Jones of “The Wild Bunch”) has shot of an Indian who hunts bears. Green resolves to track the man down and use him as a substitute. Bob invites Charles to fly with them out to where the Indian lives. During the trip, Charles casually asks Bob, “How are you planning to kill me?” Bob chuckles with incredulity at Charles’ paranoia. Later, a flight of birds collide with their plane. Spiraling out of control, the plane crashes into a lake and sinks.

The pilot dies, but Bob, Charles, and photo assistant Steven (Harold Perrineau of King of New York”) escape from the sunken aircraft. Lost in the desolate mountains where no phones, roads, or Triple-A motor club help is easily obtained, our heroes rely on their scanty knowledge with successful results to real-life situations. Charles is the kind of guy who has more book sense that world sense. Initially, he uses a paper clip and a leaf spinning in a water drenched tree stump to guide them south. But his first efforts fail and he resorts to the nighttime stars to keep them from tramping in a circle. Credit the filmmakers with handily isolating our heroes and not cutting them much slack. Although they dramatically set up their story well enough, a good set-up doesn’t always guarantee an adequate payoff.

The best part of “The Edge” occurs after the crash when these fish out of water arouse the appetite of a carnivorous Kodiak. Out of the woods bounds Bart, a 1,400 pound bear, whose performance can accurately described as grizzly. This huge bear menaces our threesome for the second-third of the action. The scenes featuring Bart as he scrambles after and then stalks our heroes into the night with bloodthirsty results spark a reasonable aura of terror. New Zealand film director Lee Tamahori beefs up the anxiety by photographing his actors in the same shots with the bear. The use of a telephoto lens enables Tamahori to make the bear, actually romping much farther behind Hopkins or Baldwin than it seems, appear as if the beast were nipping at their heels.

Unfortunately, if you know anything about trained movie animals, a subversive thought may undercut those pictorially realistic escapades. Every time that big bad Bart bares his fangs, rears up on his hindquarters, or drools over his next victim, you cannot help but think that off-camera stand his trainer frantically waving a Dolly Madison bear claw at him. Other than the harassed Hopkins, Bart is the sharpest thing in “The Edge.” Bart’s performance is captured in riveting close-ups that sensationalizes his critter villainy. Speaking of animals portrayals, you can see the toll that animal rights activists have taken on movies like “The Edge.” In one scene, our starving heroes trap an unsuspecting squirrel in a home-made cage of twigs, but you never see them dine on the defenseless arboreal rodent. Somehow, the sight of two big, famished guys munching down on a scrawny squirrel doesn’t evoke the epic struggle of man against Nature. Of course, only the na├»ve don’t realize that most of the time, the real animals are replaced in close-ups with puppets or convincing facsimiles.

Once Bart has been slain, Mamet’s script settles down to more serious but less exciting business. Charles’ suspicions that Bob and his wife have been shacking up are confirmed. This is one of the major flaws of Mamet’s lackluster script. Charles’ wife gave him an inscribed watch for his birthday. When he searches the watch case, Charles discovers the warranty along with the incriminating receipt. The receipt contains not only the cost of the watch that his wife gave Bob! How stupid can you be?

Sometimes, these Hollywood movies make their revelations a tad too convenient. This doesn’t say much for the mentality of Charles’ dimwitted spouse. By this time, our heroes have found an abandoned hunting lodge, and Bob has appropriated a rifle. Charles realizes with some regret that he was right all along as Bob orders him to turn around so he can more easily shoot him in the back.

The sense of relief that you experience at the end of “The Edge” has little to do with who survives the ordeal but more with the reprieve you get from the film itself. Even the ending when Charles confronts his wife stirs up any overwrought emotions. The craggy Canadian terrain where “The Edge” was lensed and the optically abetted bear fights cannot redeem the trite man versus man cat & mouse games in the latter half of the movies.

Ultimately, it makes you wonder what audiences did Hollywood aim “The Edge” at, because the film is so spartan and dreary. Despite some moments of genuine suspense, this existential character study flounders about, unsure whether it wants to qualify as a juvenile action opus or a heavy-handed morality parable.

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE TERMINATOR'' (1984)

“Piranha 2: The Spawning” director James Cameron scored his first major cinematic hit with “The Terminator,” (*** out of ****) a gritty, on-the-run, rough-hewn, low-budget science fiction actioneer about time travel with a curious twist. Body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger of the “Conan” movies virtually guaranteed that this 107 minute exercise in murder and mayhem would be a blockbuster with his villainous, straight-faced portrayal of a relentless cyborg that will allow nothing to stand between its programmed objective of executing a woman, Sarah Connor, in the past. According to the Internet Movies Database, sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison took James Cameron to court over “The Terminator.” Ellison accused Cameron of plagiarizing two “Outer Limits” episodes that the former penned, specifically, "The Outer Limits: Soldier (#2.1)" (1964) and "The Outer Limits: Demon with a Glass Hand (#2.5)" (1964). Cameron has stated that these two episodes inspired him to make “The Terminator.” He may also have lifted the idea of "Skynet" from Ellison’s short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." The producers reached an out of court settlement with Ellison and acknowledged the writer in the ends credits. Later, director Franklin Adreon’s “Cyborg 2087” (1966) with Michael Rennie featured a similar plot about a cyborg dispatched back to the past, but it had a different mission. The cyborg in “Cyborg 2087” sought to curb government abuse in the future by going back to the past where free thinking is coming under attack.

“The Terminator” opens in Los Angeles in 2029 A.D., at night while enemy Hunter Killer hovercraft prowl the post-apocalyptic rubble of the city for human prey. Heavy combat vehicles with massive treads on their wheels crush hundreds of human skulls into powder while human survivors exchange fire with skeletal metal terminators with fiery red eyes. A preamble of sorts comes up and sets the scene: The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here in our present . . . tonight. The actual story unfolds at 1:52 AM when a garbage truck driver watches crackling blue plasma-type waves envelope him and his vehicle.

A garbage truck operator is emptying trash bins when a plasma-like web of jagged blue lighting bolts envelopes his vehicle and shuts off the vehicle’s power. He flees when the T-101 Terminator assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears naked out of nowhere. Skynet has sent the T-101 from the future back to the year 1984 to kill the mother of resistance leader John Connor. The naked t-101 saunters up to a trio of punks at the Griffith Park Observatory overlooking Los Angeles. An obnoxious, blue-haired punk (Bill Paxton of “Aliens” and “Twister”) and his friend (veteran heavy Brian Thompson of “Sudden Impact” and “Cobra”) ridicule T-101. The Terminator kills both of them while the third strips off his clothing. Meanwhile, elsewhere in L.A., another naked man, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn of “The Rock”) materializes from the future. He steals a homeless man’s pants, evades the L.A.P.D., and breaks into a clothing store, steals Nike sneakers and a trench coat. Whereas the T-101 wants to kill Sarah, Kyle wants to save her! Not surprisingly, young Sarah Connor doesn’t have a clue that anybody yearns to either murder her or save her life.

Sarah works at a fast-food restaurant. The T-101 finds three Sarah Connors in the L.A. phone book and kills the first two and then invades Sarah’s apartment and kills her roommate Ginger and Matt (Rick Rossovich of “Top Gun”) her boyfriend. Eventually, Sarah discovers what is happening and holes up at a night club called Tech Noir where the T-101 tracks her down. Kyle Reese rescues Sarah and they flee, but the L.A.P.D. capture them and Reese has to cough up his far-fetched story to a by pompous psychologist Dr. Peter Silberman (Earl Boen of “Alien Nation”) who doesn’t believe a syllable of Reese’s saga. Silberman diagnoses Reese as suffering from paranoid delusions and boasts that he make a career out of analyzing the guy’s stories. During Reese’s interrogation scene at police headquarters with Silberman, Cameron and co-writers Gale Ann Hurd and an uncredited William Wisher, Jr., provide audiences with crucial expository information about Skynet and the war with the cyborgs that seek to annihilate mankind.

The bulk of “The Terminator” concerns the T-101’s tireless efforts to kill Sarah while Reese struggles to lead her to safety. During their flight, Reese and Sarah become romantically involved and Reese gets Sarah pregnant with future resistance leader John Connor. Talk about twisted time travel?! Cameron intersperses a flashback to the future where a T-101 (Schwarzenegger’s pal Franco Columbu of “Beretta’s Island”) invades a resistance bunker and goes on a murderous rampage before he is eliminated. Throughout the blazing action sequences, Cameron gradually strips the T-101 down to its alloyed metal endoskeleton. Reese explains to Silberman that a Terminator is a cyborg, half-man, and half-machine that will never stop until it kills Sarah. Everybody at the police station regards Reese as a fruit cake with his unbelievable story until the T-101 shows up with an arsenal of weapons and shoots up the premises, killing at least 17 cops. Reese and Sarah escape, hid out in a motel where they build pipe bombs, but the resourceful T-101 finds Sarah’s mother, kills her off-screen, and imitates her so that it can learn Sarah’s whereabouts. Another ramped up chase ensues with the T-101 caught in a blazing 18-wheeler. The fire scorches its entire body in the last 15 minutes so that all that remains is the skeleton. Reese dies blowing the skeleton in two. The torso of the T-101 continues to stalk Sarah until she crushes it in a tool manufacturing factory so that only the hand and forearm, which appears in the sequel “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

James Cameron has more road trip action in this thriller than actual science fiction, but the action-packed scenes more than deliver their quota of thrills and chills. One of the earliest scenes in a pawnshop has the T-101 gathering an arsenal of hardware from an unsuspecting clerk (Dick Miller) and then killing him instead of paying for it. The “I’ll be back” scene at the police station massacre is probably the best scene in this supercharged little spine-tingler. The irony in the last scene is that Sarah Connor destroys the T-101 in a machine press.

The chief science fiction element in Cameron's film is the use of predestination paradox where it appears the history is being altered, when in fact, it is really being fulfilled. Cameron rehashed much of the "Terminator" action in the sequel, but he made the Schwarzenegger more sympathetic by having him serve as young John Connor's bodyguard. Ironically, again, this $6-million plus movie (remember the ABC cyborg series "The Six-Million Dollar Man?")wasn't that original because cyborg type characters have been around in fantasy literature as early as Edgar Allan Poe's writings. Nevertheless, "The Terminator" put cyborgs on the marquee more than "The Six-Million Dollar Man" ever did and eventually inspired the "Robocop" franchise.