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View From The Couch


DUEL (1971) / THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). Before emerging as the most successful director of all time, Steven Spielberg cut his teeth on TV shows like Night Gallery and Columbo before being handed the reins on Duel, a made-for-TV movie that was so popular, it ended up receiving theatrical distribution overseas. Duel was followed by Spielberg's first American theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express; this in turn led to his assignment on Jaws, and the rest is cinematic history. Universal has finally released these early efforts in Spielberg's career, and while neither rank with many of his later classics, both are highly entertaining tales that hint at the great things to come. Duel, about a businessman (Dennis Weaver) who's terrorized on desolate highways by an imposing truck (we never see the driver's face), gets plenty of mileage (no pun intended) out of its simple premise, with Spielberg exhibiting a firm grasp of the thriller fundamentals that would propel later hits like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And The Sugarland Express, based on a true story about a poor Texas couple (Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) who resort to kidnapping and theft in an effort to get back the child the state has taken away, features real attention to the sort of character dynamics that would serve subsequent titles like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Saving Private Ryan. DVD extras on Duel include a pair of absorbing conversations with Spielberg as he discusses his early years in television, as well as an interview with Duel scripter Richard Matheson and a poster gallery; the only extra on the Sugarland DVD is the trailer.

The Sugarland Express:

FREAKS (1932). Director Tod Browning, who just the previous year had a smash hit with the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, basically shortchanged his own career (as Michael Powell would do with 1960's Peeping Tom) by tackling a controversial movie that turned everyone off with its subject matter -- thanks to the fallout, he would only make four more pictures after this one. With various circus sideshow performers (midgets, Siamese twins, "pinheads," etc.) at its center, this tells the story of how a voluptuous trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) tries to dupe them for financial gain -- and what happens when her scam is discovered ("One of us!"). The debate still rages: Is this film sensationalistic or sensitive? Its various titles (Freaks, Nature's Mistakes, The Monster Show) would indicate the former, but the movie clearly depicts its unusual protagonists in a sympathetic light -- a position made even more apparent by the rarely seen "Special Message" prologue included on this DVD. Regardless, the film was heavily edited upon its original US release and banned in England for 30 years. Today, it's a cult favorite that continues to resonate -- both The Player and Toy Story have paid it homage. DVD extras include an excellent hour-long documentary, audio commentary by Browning biographer David J. Skal, and a discussion of the film's alternate endings. In addition to Freaks, Warner's home theater branch has released a handful of other vintage terror tales (each sold separately). The Bad Seed (1956) is a weirdly absorbing thriller about a mom (Nancy Kelly) who suspects her precocious 8-year-old daughter (Patty McCormack) might be a killer; bolstered by Oscar-nominated turns by Kelly, McCormack and Eileen Heckart (as the mother of a murdered classmate), it's marred only by its final scene (changed from the original stage production), surely one of the stupidest in Hollywood history. Village of the Damned (1960) is an engaging yarn about a town whose children are actually alien spawns; it's paired on the same DVD with its 1963 sequel, Children of the Damned. And Dead Ringer (1964) finds a post-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Bette Davis operating in the same vein, portraying a woman who murders her twin sister and takes over her life.
Freaks: 1/2

KILL BILL, VOL 2 (2004). The inability to notice that the emperor had no clothes -- not even a bandanna -- helped turn Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 into a critical darling and a favorite of fan-boys everywhere: They saw masterful artistry where I saw only monotonous bloodletting. Yet although originally conceived as one movie until the length dictated the creation of two separate flicks, the Kill Bill volumes couldn't possibly be further apart -- in style, tone or content. In Volume 2, the emphasis is on talk rather than action, and because dialogue is Tarantino's forte, it emerges as the superior movie. That's hardly intended as a rave, since it's still obvious that a combined four hours of viewing time is too much to spend on such a trifling effort -- had Tarantino taken the kinetic energy displayed throughout Volume 1 and applied it to the more meaty script showcased in Volume 2, he might have really had something. As before, the chief asset remains Uma Thurman: It's her conviction that ultimately drives this story of a woman out for revenge, and Volume 2 allows the actress to really take the emotional reins of what eventually turns into an off-kilter exploration of -- of all things -- motherhood. It's Tarantino's attempt at a grace note, ending with hearts being filled with love rather than carved out and splattered all over the upholstery. DVD extras include a half-hour making-of piece and one deleted scene.
Movie: 1/2

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