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Volume 2, Number 49

This Week's Reviews:  Vertical Limit.

This Week's Omissions:  The Basket, Dungeon & Dragons, Goya in Bordeaux, White Christmas.

Retrospective Reviews:  Taxi Driver.

Vertical Limit

(Dir: Martin Campbell, Starring Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco, Nicholas Lea, Robert Taylor, Temuera Morrison, Stuart Wilson, Ben Mendelsohn, Steve Le Marquand, Alexander Siddig, Roshan Seth, and David Hayman)



When Irwin Allen died in 1991, there was no doubt that his art, the production of big-budget, overwrought action/disaster films, was going to live on through names like Dino Di Laurentiis.  Hell, we were on the verge of Apollo 13, Independence Day, and Twister.

With each passing year, the films that spawned from Allen's films seemed to get bigger and, conversely, took a turn for the worst.  By the time 1998's Armageddon was released we had finally hit a new low.  I can't think of a worse disaster film since Allen's great folly (and Warner Bros. nightmare) The Swarm.

Allen was notorious for bad special effects -- who can forget those dots drawn on the negative to make bees in The Swarm -- but they always had a campy delightfulness.  I blame it on the production values.  Why?   Well, the people behind the disaster films of today lose that campiness with hi-tech special effects that should be saved for finer films like The Matrix (yes, the visuals of Twister were spectacular, but couldn't they have come out on a much better film).

The film follows three people trapped inside of a mountain and the party sent to rescue them.  The lead of the lost crowd is an upstart hiker, who decided not to head back when warned of bad weather because the millionaire in the climb talked him into keeping his respectability as a clmiber.  That millionaire is Elliot Vaughn (Paxton), an airline owner who hopes to climb to the top and wave to a new plane flying by. His obsession puts his life in danger as well as everyone else on and at the bottom of the mountain.

One person that is trapped inside with Vaughn after an avalanche is Annie Garrett (Tunney), who is star climber, gracing the cover of a recent Sports Illustrated (though, based upon some of her fancy footwork in this film, it is certainly hard to believe that she can climb).  Her brother Peter (O'Donnell) leads the troupe that hopes to save them.  Lucky for her that he came to visit at this climb, the two had not been too congenial since he was forced to let their father fall to his death when he and his sister were dangling off the side of a cliff.

There are many more people that make up this party, though none of them really matter to what director Martin Campbell wants us to pay attention to, which is most certianly the mountian and the havok that can ensue.  Izabella Scorupco has been thrown in for some international love interest and a pair of British rogues (Mendelsohn and Le Marquand) have settled in as the comic relief.  The only person with anything to hang on is Scott Glenn's Montgomery Wick, who has hiked the mountain aimlessly after losing his wife on it years earlier.

Martin Campbell is actually a good director.  And, given the right script, he can deliver a fine film.  But he is most certainly one director that only works for the visuals.  I still have high regard for his The Mask of Zorro, which featured a fine (though overlong) script.  On the other hand, his work on GoldenEye, which had the type of dialogue that would fit in well with Mission: Impossible 2, fell flat on its face.  We all know that David Cornenberg take on Basic Instinct 2 will be an important change whether it has a good script or not.  Meanwhile, Campbell is left as the other guy: giving the material and he'll shoot the hell out of it, but don't expect anything there that wasn't on the written page.

And so comes Vertical Limit, another variation on every genre cliche that's fit to print.  This film, like Independence Day and Twister back in 1996, has no bankable star because it is easy to see that the star of this show is its special effects.  Chris O'Donnell and Bill Paxton (who also co-headlined Twister) could not sell a ticket if their lives dependent on it, but they seem to be able to get on the bandwagon for films that a big name like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwartzenegger would ask way too much for.

So we get two-bit stars overacting in a genre that does not fit their personalities.  I happen to like Bill Paxon, but I do not like him in action films where he cannot act near as well as in, say, A Simple Plan or Traveller.   And Chris O'Donnell, well, he has never done anything for me.  If you ask me, even his dramatic attempts (which include Scent of a Woman, Circle of Friends, and the horrendous The Chamber) are always bad.  Even in the huge cast of future stars from School Ties, he was the rotten apple.

But they do not matter in a film like Vertical Limit, where the only meaning to the film is how many explosions nitroglycerine can cause.  Though the action may be pointless (they never do explain how blowing up a hole to get to people in a encavement will help them more than it will harm them), the real problem is that little of it works visually.  Much of the action is set on blue screen, which is so noticable that it makes things only pale for the rest of the film.

There is one scene that does work, a hellicopter landing that pits a propeller against Izabella Scorupco (who looks five times what she was in GoldenEye).   The problem is that the set-up does not work.  It's like they asked for some reason to get an action scene and threw it together when they got to the set.  I, admittedly, maughed much more than I was in awe.

But, what seems to really matter, is that even Irwin Allen would frown on this film.  His films had a pizzazz and a pure showmanship that harkened back to the human melodramas of the 1940's.  This film does not understand that the people are more than just victims of nitroglycerine explosions, but people that are going through the natural hardships that come from being placed in the situation they have been thrown into.  Allen knew it, unlike Martin Campbell and story writer Robert King (Cutthroat Island), and will long be remembered, even if his films were bad.


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Retrospective Reviews:  Since I inadvertently turned out with only one film to review this week, I have appended a review to Taxi Driver.  It kind of works since I did GoodFellas last week.

Taxi Driver

(Dir: Martin Scorsese, Starring Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Norman Matlock, Harry Fischler, Garth Avery, Gino Ardito, Peter Savage, and Martin Scorsese)



Martin Scorsese's 1976 opus Taxi Driver opens with a jazz score showing a slow moving taxi cab.  With this touch, Scorsese sets up the film, one that becomes a wild ride without ever really picking up speed until the finale.

There have been countless anarchist protagonists over the years, but none could compare to Travis Bickle.  His plots and quests are more frightening than they are entertaining (as are the escapades of SLC Punk!), ranging from a decision to kill a senator running for president (Harris) to the journey to save a teenage prostitute from the streets (Foster).

Bickle is one of those characters that are only on the screen and in novels.  It is not necessarily that there are not really any people like Travis, but that such people are not in our lives.  The only time we ever have any knowledge of who else inhabits this earth is when read in the newspapers of their achievements, perils, or mistakes.  Travis Bickle is not a mistake in the city, but a creation of it.  This is not to say that he would be a fine upstanding citizen if in Des Moines, but that his actions would have never been as fierce.  The ill-fated date to the pornographic theatre, the stalking at the presidential rally, and the final vengeful rescue all part of a downward spiral brought on by the city.

Scorsese's first success was titled Mean Streets, but such a title would have been more fit for this film.  Bickle spends long periods of time speaking his hatred for the filth and fury of New York after hours ("I think someone should just take this city and just, just flush it down the fucking toilet").  I still remember seeing this film with someone planning to move to New York and their sudden change of plans post-Taxi Driver.

I was one of the many enthralled by this film upon first viewing, but that adoration was not near as extreme as after a multitude of viewings.  When I first saw this film, I took it as a cynical look at the world, but upon reflection, I have found it to really be the story of a true to life hero.  The film's ending, one that has incited many to scream over its unlikelihood and overall message, is not really what some have called it.  Where Travis Bickle succeeds in his own way, the audience cannot see it as a mistake.  We have come to consider Travis to be the hero of the film.  Yes, his actions are hard to excuse, but far from inexcusable.

Scorsese has never been better.  I know that there have been a great deal of fine films from him since 1976 (many of which have been written by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader -- Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), but none can compare in my mind.  There have been a great deal of film critics' polls citing Raging Bull and GoodFellas as Scorsese's best, but there is no way to pass on Taxi Driver.  The heart of all three films, leads characters that are flawed yet undeniably likable, provokes viewers to hate what they love.  The actions of Jake LaMotta, Henry Hill, and, most of all, Travis Bickle raise eyebrows as to the variants, but nothing is really stated to make them disturbing people.

Paul Schrader has been a fine force in the film world since Taxi Driver, writing the aforementioned Scorsese films Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead, as well as penning Obsession and City Hall.  Now Schrader is more interested in film direction, with hits (Hardcore, Affliction) and misses (American Gigolo, Touch), yet his placement in film history still remains for his work on this film.  It was his second purchased screenplay, one that he wrote during a period of alcoholic depression, and the pain comes through in the lines.

If there is anyone that became an icon, however, due to this film it is Robert DeNiro.  He had performed in some noteworthy fare already ranging from Mean Streets to The Godfather, Part II, but he will always be remembered for his "You talkin' to me" scene at the mirror.  Bogart has Casablanca, Dean has Rebel without a Cause, Monroe has The Seven Year Itch, DeNiro has Taxi Driver.

I have been torn over the Academy Award for Best Actor awarded for 1976.  DeNiro lost that year to Peter Finch for Network, and I really cannot disagree.  Nor can I really agree.  Each performance is a grand moment in film.  These two, along with Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, comprise the five best and most haunting male performances from the 1970's.

And Taxi Driver could also find itself in such a list.  In my personal opinion, it is, without a doubt, the third best film of the decade, only upstaged by the first two Godfather films.


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Reviews by:
David Perry