INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

By Marc S. Sanders

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull succeeds on so many levels of storytelling and construction. It stays true to form of its title character protagonist. Indy is not only a hero. He’s also a traveler of history. The film takes place in the year 1957, and director Steven Spielberg delivers visuals that reiterate the time, when the Cold War was on the horizon, and Nazi Germany was behind us. It’s time for the Russians to step up as the big bad.

David Koepp’s script really is quite brilliant as it never loses sight of the times with references to McCarthyism, communist red scare, and flying saucers and aliens directly inspired by the B movie serials of the decade. Even Shia LeBeouf portraying a sidekick to Indy is a model of Marlon Brando from The Wild One.

I’ve mentioned before how simply the silhouette of the famed archeologist with his fedora hat and bullwhip is as recognizable as Batman or Darth Vader or James Bond. Here, Spielberg uses the visual motif against a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb test site, and later against a flying saucer. As noted earlier, Dr. Jones moves with time; truly living up to his famous phrase, “It’s not the years honey. It’s the mileage.”

Harrison Ford maintains the character quite well, still skeptical of what is not literal. He’s not prepared to believe in higher powers until he sees it for himself. Ford conveys Koepp’s interpretation very well.

It’s refreshing that he is paired up again with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (from Raiders), the best of Indy’s female companions. Their sparring remains natural. Allen folds back into her role quite comfortably.

Stalin’s top underling is dispatched with recovering a legendary Crystal Skull and revealing it’s true power. Master character actor Cate Blanchett makes for a great Russian bob haircut villain, with uniform physique. She’s smart but she’s got every fighting skill known to pose great threat.

An infamous scene involves Indy sheltering himself in a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. Majority despise this scene. The phrase “Nuke The Fridge” became almost as iconic as “Jump The Shark,” simply for the audacity of its imagination. After having witnessed the near-death escapes of his past adventures (parachuting from a plane in an inflatable raft, sliding under a speeding truck, becoming “a penitent man” to cross a cavern), what is so wrong with this moment? Heck, Spielberg knows it’s crazy which is why he offers a close up indicating the fridge is “lead lined.” The scene works because it holds true to Indiana Jones’ series of absurd survival.

Besides all of the periodic references, the set design of Kingdom… is spectacular. Looking at the final act of the film, we are treated to a column that opens itself up with ingenuity as sand must pour out of the column in order for the structure to open with a receding downward staircase. Then, there’s a beautiful open sesame moment before entering a circular throne room.

Another earlier moment stages a hidden chamber that is revealed on a large, stone, tilted disc. All of this collectively speaking is truly one of the best set pieces in all four of the Indy films.

A delightfully fun car/motorcycle chase on Indy’s college campus is great as well as there is jumping from bike to car and back to on to the bike before swerving into the library. The scenic background design has to be admired for showing protest signs to Communism on campus. The film never loses sight of where its story is set. Detractors of this film fail to recognize any of this.

Fans also took issue with LeBeouf. Not me. He’s got an adventurous fun side to him. The smart aleck way of Ford’s younger years, but not the same character background. He has fun with swinging from vines and sword fights, in the same vein of a mine car chase from a prior installment.

The story is moved by clues and maps and deciphering a welcome John Hurt who speaks in a gibberish of riddles that stem from a brainwash his character experiences. This is all good for a great pursuit. Nothing is easily revealed. Mayan writing needs to be interpreted; maps need to be read. Stories of legend need to be told. Indy needs to apply his professional knowledge to move forward through the Amazon to his final destination.

I’d argue that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of the most misunderstood and divisive films of all time. People gave up on it too easily, I think. They reserved their approval because of either a ridiculous title (a great B movie title), or LeBeouf’s casting, or Ford’s age, or vine swinging and big ass red ants (a great monster horror scene by the way). I say those folks just didn’t get it and failed to recognize where all of this stemmed from. David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were very aware of what to present. If I were them, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Again, it’s not the years. It’s the mileage.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

By Marc S. Sanders

How much blood needs to be spilled to change the color of an ocean red?  The battle of Normandy during World War II showed quite a bit, and Steven Spielberg more than convincingly duplicates that terrible episode in world history with his war picture Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg earned his second Oscar for direction with this film from 1998.  It’s not only a technical marvel, but it’s a story that tests the nature of humanity when a squad of American soldiers ask themselves if saving the life of one man is worth sacrificing themselves.  Tom Hanks leads the team of recruits.

Saving Private Ryan begins on June 6, 1944 when thousands of American soldiers were inevitable sitting ducks as they washed ashore on Normandy Beach to engage in battle with German forces.  Spielberg’s footage is astonishing.  First of note is the cinematography is wisely washed out of color.  The sky is grey.  The ocean water and sand feel frigidly cold.  The most dominant color is blood red.  The fear displayed on the thousands of extras portraying soldiers, who never look mentally ready for battle, is palpable. 

The shots in this roughly thirty-minute opening do not compromise.  A soldier is seen walking around looking for his arm that has been shredded from below his elbow.  Other soldiers will turn over one way out of camera, but when they roll back into frame there’s a smoking hole where their face used to be.  Deadly head shots come out of nowhere.  Army medics have their hands soaked in bright red blood while trying to use scissors and thread to sew up wounds caked in wet sand. 

The action slows down at one point to focus on Hanks.  We haven’t even gotten to know his character yet, but we realize he is exhausted of this violence.  His hearing seems to deafen for a moment while he watches the horror quickly unfold as he puts his helmet back on only to have blood-stained water shower down over his head.  War is not meant for heroics and glamorization.  War only serves chaos and brutal death. 

Following this incredible opening sequence, one of the most impressive ever to start a film, Captain John Miller (Hanks) receives orders to locate the titled character, a paratrooper named Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon).  The army insists on sending the young private home to his grief-stricken mother, who has recently lost her other three sons in the conflict.  So, Miller recruits a handful of men consisting of fantastic actors like Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi and Jeremy Davies to make the trek across war torn Europe and rescue Private Ryan before he perishes as well.  How is that really fair though?

Any one of these men are sons to a worried mother back home.  The script for Saving Private Ryan by Robert Rodat has the men question why should they risk their own lives to find this one kid?  What makes him more special than any one of them?  Is the United States Army being fair?  Are they using this special mission as a means of propaganda?  Questions like this are irrelevant to the war department.  Just get him the hell out of there.

The journey of Miller’s squad is not just a simple hike.  At any given moment, they will come across a bombed-out town or another regimen who has just experienced their own kind of hell.  Further questions are asked when Miller recognizes an opportunity to take out an enemy battalion.  His own men suggest circumventing around this potential battle.  Miller won’t hear of it.  He’s a soldier.  Yet, after it is done, there is loss of life.  Should he have listened to their warnings or was he right to engage the enemy to avoid another team of allies suffering a terrible fate? 

Other dilemmas also come into play.  Should they escort a family and their young children who have lost their home?  The brutal dialogue of the script says that’s not their job.  Their goal is to take out the enemy and eventually rescue this one man.  Should an unarmed German prisoner be forced to dig his own grave and later be executed for the atrocities he’s committed?

War tests the ultimate limits of man.  What has to be done to allow us to finally, ultimately and justifiably shed ourselves of our humanity?  A correct answer is never provided in Saving Private Ryan.

Amid a series of astonishing battle scenes and images, two parts of the film stand out for me.  Following the loss of one of their comrades, there is disorder within the ranks.  This is where Tom Hanks takes control of a chaotic scene.  John Miller knows his soldiers have placed bets on what he does for a living back home.  Considering the strategist that Miller shows himself to be, its quite startling to find out what his occupation is.  It’s so surprising that Hanks as Miller uses it to temper his men which segues nicely into why Miller honors the mission assigned to him, even if it means risking his own life.  It’s not the best answer to why one man is more valuable than any other, but it’s the only one we are going to get. 

An even more powerful image comes to mind in the third act.  Jeremy Davies plays a Corporal assigned to the team to be a German and French interpreter.  He’s a soldier in this war, but he’s the last one you would want in combat.  As the American forces await the inevitable arrival of a German tank and a large number of troops to arrive, the men assign Davies to hold on to the long chains of ammunition and artillery.  He is draped in bullets around his neck and shoulders.  As the battle engages, shots are fired in all directions, men are quickly dispatched and Spielberg wisely has his cameras follow a helpless, weeping Davies do nothing but run from one end of the street to the other and up the stairs of a blown-out building.  He has all of the power in the world but he lacks the muster to kill and destroy which is what the nature of war demands.  He can even hear a man slowly die by stabbing in the floor above him. Yet, the Corporal can’t even rush to rescue his friend, and slaughter the enemy.  War destroys, but it also paralyzes man to act beyond an intrinsic nature of peace.  Each time I watch this scene, I can’t get past what this poor young man is truly capable of while being utterly helpless at the same time. 

I found Spielbergian techniques in Saving Private Ryan that hearken back to other celebrated moments in his film repertoire.  Tom Sizemore engages an enemy, only for both of them to run out of ammunition.  So, they wind up clumsily throwing their helmets at each other.  Indiana Jones might have done something like this for the sake of some form of slapstick.  Spielberg applies desperation to this scenario however.

The German tank at the center of the third act is somewhat reminiscent of the shark from Jaws.  Before we get an opportunity to see it, a focused Barry Pepper in a sniper’s bird’s nest gives a visual description of how big it really is and what accompanies it.  Later, Miller and Ryan have taken cover in a trench of rubble only to be overtaken by this beast as it careens over them.  The mouth of its cannon seems to come alive just before it blasts out a tower.  It’s just as scary and shocking as even Spielberg’s pictures of fantasy and adventure came before the release of this picture.  Every shot Steven Spielberg provides in any one of his films build towards an intrinsic and organic response from his viewers.  He always works with that goal in mind.  The tank is the tool used here.

The art direction is fascinating in this film as well.  A knocked over chair is picked up before a soldier stands it up as sturdy as he can on top of splintered wood and crumbled stone.  Sand on the beach is blasted up and out, sometimes splattering the lens of the camera.  Ocean water too.  Pockets of afterburn flames will be seen in the distance of a war-torn area.  The tangibility of these set pieces works cohesively with the distressed colors of a weathered and battle-stricken Europe. 

As chaotic as Spielberg demonstrates war to be, the editing is also commendable.  A war movie like this is not an action picture for the sake of escapism.  We don’t need to see the gun that fired the bullet that pierces the skull of a person.  We just need to see the person get a bullet that penetrates his helmet only to blow his head off to understand the unforgiving nature of war.  A man might be dialing up headquarters requesting air support, but he suddenly will not finish the conversation.  Editing allows the unexpected to become all too common in the midst of battle.

Saving Private Ryan is one of the best films ever directed by Steven Spielberg.  He had already shown real brutality not embedded in fantasy with films like The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun and especially Schindler’s List.  Yet, with this picture, small factions of men, seeking world conquest, might have started this terrible conflict, but the movie does not concern itself with those instigators.  Instead, we witness the pawns at the disposal of war.  We see the collateral damage that suffer and die at the hands of unseen powers that be.  With Robert Rodat’s script, Steven Spielberg questions the value of one man versus a collection of men, and how any man, who may physically endure this terrible period in time, can also mentally survive long after it is all over. 

THE BLACK STALLION (1979)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Carroll Ballard
Cast: Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, Clarence Muse, Hoyt Axton
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Fresh
Everybody’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film Starring Animals”

PLOT: After being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in the 1940s, a boy bonds with a magnificent Arabian stallion and trains him to race after their rescue.


Horses are great, but they are not my favorite animals.  That honor goes to the great white shark.  (They fear nothing; the only things they are even cautious around are larger great whites…but I digress.)  I always hear and read about how magnificent and majestic and spiritual horses are.  I have never denied their intelligence, but I never jumped on the bandwagon with folks who believe they are angels on four legs.  And I’ve never really gotten into horse racing, at least not on an ongoing basis.

But there is one movie that combines the mystique of horses and horse racing with poetry, grace, and true art.  Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion is one of the most beautiful films ever made.  The visuals are so good and well-edited that fully 28 minutes of the movie are presented with zero lines of dialogue spoken.  After a fearsome shipwreck, Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) finds himself stranded on a desert island along with a magnificent unnamed black stallion whom he later simply calls the Black.  During this shipwrecked portion of the movie, all dialogue is dropped, and we simply watch as Alec and the Black overcome their initial fear of each other and bond.

It is in these scenes that The Black Stallion truly shines.  There is one particular sequence that will stick in my memory forever.  After some days and weeks alone, Alec tries to get the Black to eat food directly out of his hand.  In a nearly unbroken take, we watch as the Black warily approaches Alec, then turns away, snorting and stomping, then turns back, taking one cautious step after another, getting closer and closer…and it all looks completely organic.  It’s one of the greatest acting performances by any animal in any film I’ve ever seen.  In that scene, the Black exhibits more proficiency at acting on camera than I’ve seen in a few human actors I could name.

When I first saw this movie at 8 years old, I couldn’t fully appreciate the ingenuity of this portion of the film.  All I cared about was how invested I was in seeing Alec bond with the Black.  I didn’t care about cinematic theory and editorial processes and visionary cinematography.  But it’s all there in full view, presenting a visual story clearly and cleanly.  Buster Keaton would have loved this movie, I think.  (At least, the silent portions, I would imagine.)

The Black Stallion piles on one visually exhilarating scene after another involving Alec gradually gaining enough trust from the stallion to the point the Black allows Alec to ride him.  And then they are both rescued and returned home to America, and it’s here the movie seems to stumble just a bit.  After the grand vistas of their desert refuge, the white picket fences and tree-lined avenues of 1940s suburbia is a tad underwhelming.  When the Black gets spooked by garbagemen and runs off, we do get a nice contrast of seeing this semi-mythical creature of a bygone age galloping past storefronts and hurdling fruit crates.

Alec chases the Black and eventually finds him in a seemingly deserted barn owned by one Henry Dailey, an ex-jockey played to utter perfection by Mickey Rooney.  To say Rooney’s performance in The Black Stallion is “natural” is an understatement.  And to older audience members familiar with Rooney’s performance as a jockey in the 1944 film National Velvet, this must have been like seeing the remaining members of the Ghostbusters reunite in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021).  When he trains Alec how to ride the Black, you get this incredible sense of a man tapping a massive reservoir of knowledge for the benefit of the next generation.  I don’t know if I’m accurately describing this facet of Rooney’s performance, but if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean.

As do so many other movies featuring horses (not all, but many), The Black Stallion culminates with a horse race, this one pitting the Black against the two fastest horses in the country.  As we are fed information about how and why this race comes about, I particularly noticed how one phrase was repeated at least twice: “They’ll never let him run…he doesn’t have any papers.”  No doubt there are horse enthusiasts who know what that means.  I haven’t the foggiest clue what they’re talking about, but the cool thing is…it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter now, and it certainly didn’t matter when I saw it as a kid.  It’s enough to know that “papers” are something other horses have, but the Black doesn’t, and that seems pretty important to some people, no matter how fast he runs.  It’s just another way The Black Stallion is constructed to appeal to audiences of all stripes, be they equestrian aficionados or rank amateurs.  There are not a lot of films that can do that, and I don’t know if The Black Stallion gets recognized enough for that accomplishment.

The climactic horse race ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  Formulaic?  Of course.  But what a race!  The cinematography, editing, Oscar-winning sound design, and carefully restrained use of the musical score all combine to create a moment every bit as thrilling as any NASCAR race.  Even now, watching the movie for this review, I fell into the moment all over again, smiling with delight as Alec and the Black pound their way around the track, hooves thundering on the dirt, pumping my fists when Alec discards that pesky helmet and goggles, and those other horses ahead of them get closer and closer…

Any lover of horses owes it to themselves to find and watch The Black Stallion.  Kids will get a kick out of it, but adults will, too, perhaps on another, more nostalgic level.  (That could just be me projecting based on my own childhood memories, but I stand by it.)


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Which character were you most able to identify with?  In what way?
    Well, for me, there’s no question I identify with Alec.  I still remember how I felt watching this movie for the first time.  I mean, I didn’t necessarily want to BE Alec, but he was my entry into the world of the movie.  I knew how he felt when he was trying to convince his mother to let him ride in a race.  I knew what he must have felt at the very beginning of the movie when his curiosity about the Black overcame his very real fear of such a powerful animal.  And I thrilled when he raised his hands in triumph during the horse race.  (Kind of an easy answer, to be honest, but…there you go.
  2. If you were to make a movie starring animals, what animals would you choose, and why?
    …well, as I mentioned before, great white sharks are my favorite animals, but they are notoriously difficulty to film, as shark cinematographer “Three-Fingers” Joe will tell you.  I’d have to go with dogs.  Much easier to train, plus every day they see you arrive on set, they’ll treat you like they thought you’d be gone forever.  My film would be a comedy/sci-fi story involving a cat’s brain being transplanted into a dog’s body.  Maybe get Paul Rudd to do the voice of the dog.  …it’s a work in progress.

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

My father always loved how the ultra-wealthy lived on screen.  James Bond’s encounters with villains hiding out in the most elaborate estates, or the social class stabbings of the women in All About Eve were the fantasies that he wanted to live among.  Dad also appreciated the way billionaire playboy Thomas Crown lived.  Though I doubt Dad would ever suffer from a mild case of boredom like Tommy Crown did. 

The original, 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair begins with an elaborately planned bank robbery. Then begins the chess match between Steve McQueen as the title character and a beautiful insurance investigator who is trying to pin the entrepreneur for the crime, Vicki Anderson played by Faye Dunaway. 

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a caper adventure during its first thirty minutes.  Thomas Crown assembles a crew of five men to don hats and sunglasses.  He coordinates what time they should arrive in Boston, either by plane, train or automobile.  They enter a particular elevator in a bank located in the center of downtown Boston, hold some people hostage and simply walk out the door with over two and half million dollars in cash.  Afterwards, Mr. Crown will take over and make sure the monies are deposited in a Swiss bank account. 

This film is quite outdated by now.  There’s a lot of easy-very easy-conveniences that work for the heist to successfully come off.  Yet, that does not interfere with enjoying The Thomas Crown Affair.  With film editing from Hal Ashby, Jewison directs the heist in rapid split screens.  It manipulates you into thinking the mechanics behind the robbery is more elaborate than it really is.  Thomas Crown orchestrates everything from his luxurious office across the street.  His crew simply hold folks at gun point with one of them driving away with the money.  It’s the pacing of the split screens in halves, thirds and sometimes fourths that keep you alert as the crew arrives at the scene of the crime from all different points. 

After the robbery is successfully committed, the insurance investigators for the bank show up.  Paul Burke is the frustrated one in charge with the loose tie and wrinkled shirt.  He allows Vicki to enter Thomas Crown’s life when she miraculously suspects that he must be the kingpin behind the theft.  Thomas knows what Vicki suspects and then the pair fall in love while trying to hide each other’s hand.  At times, one is playing cat.  At other times, one is playing mouse.

As I said, the robbery is the most exciting part of The Thomas Crown Affair.  Afterwards, the film seems to turn into a picture album or an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous.  McQueen doesn’t offer up much dialogue.  We get to see him play polo, take a flight in his hang glider and play golf.  Dunaway has occasional conversations with Burke trying to figure out how to prove that Crown is the master thief, wearing the most beautifully trendy outfits of the time.  You can’t not pay attention to how sensational Faye Dunaway looks in this picture.  When Dunaway and McQueen share the screen it’s simply an album of romance and escapist adventure.  Tommy takes Vicki in his custom-made dune buggy (personally customized by McQueen himself) along the wind-swept beaches.  They allegorically engage in the sexiest chess match to appear on film.  They tease one another with their suspicions of each other.  Yet, the movie never advances beyond any of that.  Norman Jewison simply wanted to go on a luxuriously scenic New England vacation while shooting this picture. 

I can appreciate the internal dilemma of Tommy Crown.  A bored, isolated and very wealthy man who has everything, and cannot get thrilled with what to do next except to become a moonlighting criminal for one opportunity.  One character trait that I liked was that Tommy will place bets on shooting a golf ball out of a sand trap, and lose not once but twice.  He’ll play chess with the alluring woman who’s pursuing him as well.  Yet, she gets his king in check.  The only challenge he wins at is the one that nobody is legally permitted to play.  It’s a dimension for the character, even if it is not explored with too much depth. 

The Thomas Crown Affair is not the greatest film.  I have seen it a few times as a personal means to stay in touch with my father who has passed now.  He loved to watch how the wealthy lived within the confines of their mansions with their brandy sifters and pocket watches.  When Tommy sits at his grand office desk, I hear Dad saying, “Wow, what an office.”  Dad talks to me when I watch Sean Connery as James Bond or Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown.

The movie features Dad’s most favorite song, the Oscar winning The Windmills Of Your Mind which opens the picture to feature the credits.  Honestly, this is my most favorite part of the movie.  It’s a magnificent song that I could listen to on replay.  The lyrics and haunting melody seem to tease the introduction of a man of mystery.  Yet, Thomas Crown doesn’t turn out to be all that enigmatic.  He’s a quiet fellow who only finds amusement when he comes up with the audacity to pull off what many of us would never dream to carry out.  Yet, once that is over, what is there left to do?  Fall in love with Faye Dunaway?  Well, there could be worse things in life.

Footnote: I share this portion from the eulogy I wrote for dad in September, 2019:

Dad’s favorite song was The Windmills Of Your Mind from one of dad’s favorite movies The Thomas Crown Affair, featuring Steve McQueen as the title character with Faye Dunaway about a man bored with his wealth who seeks adventure by orchestrating a complex robbery simply for the fun of it all.  As dad never slept and was always active, I consider this lyric from the song.

Round like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/On an ever-spinning wheel/Like a snowball down a mountain/Or a carnival balloon/Like a carousel that’s turning/Running rings around the moon.

Dad could never memorize the lyrics exactly but I recall him humming the tune endlessly when I was growing up.  Dad’s life was never ending.  In a spiral, in a circle, always moving and going on and on.  Just 3 months ago we were at the Tony Awards together.  Just this past summer he was reading with Julia.  Just this year he was making plans with Adrienne for Julia’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  Just this year he was accompanying Brian to the shooting range for time together. Just this year he was planning another party at his home for his clients, friends and fellow congregants.  Just five weeks ago, he was driving his Aston Martin, named after the Bond girl from the film Goldfinger. I dare not repeat that name here.

While in the hospital this last month, the nurses would ask him with surprise “You still work?” and dad’s reply was “Yeah.  Don’t you?”  He refused to ever retire.  He said he would never do it because then what would he do with himself.  He never stopped.  He never ever stopped, and I imagine he hasn’t stopped since he reunited with Linda and my grandmother Helen this past Thursday evening.  He is truly a windmill of the mind.

GET OUT (2017)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Low-Budget Blockbuster” [Budget: $4.5 million.  Worldwide Gross: $255 million.]

PLOT: A young African American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.


Many years ago, I attended a wedding in New York.  After the ceremony was over, I stepped outside to watch it snow.  After a couple of minutes of me standing outside alone wearing a tux, a very polite man walked up to me, held out his keys, and said something like, “The blue Buick in the second row, please.”  After I explained to him that I was not, in fact, the valet, he apologized profusely and went back inside, clearly embarrassed.  (I’ve always regretted what I should have done: just taken the keys, gotten in the car, and driven it out of the parking lot while waving goodbye. Yes, I would have returned it, but imagine the look on that guy’s face…!)

I have been lucky and, yes, privileged enough that, in fifty-one-and-a-half years of living on planet Earth, that is only the second time I have ever been the target of overt racism, intentional or not.  I will never ever know what it’s like to have to think twice before walking alone at night while wearing a hoodie.  I’ll never know what it’s like to literally fear for my life when a cop signals me to pull over.  The beauty of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is that it addresses the issue of what it’s like to be African-American today in a way that is so entertaining that the subtlety of the screenplay is only apparent when you watch the movie a second or third time.  Unless you’re African-American, in which case the symbolism and sly satire is not so subtle.

After a brief terrifying prologue, we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in his breakout role) who is about to visit his girlfriend’s parents for the first time.  His girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white.  He wonders if her parents are aware he’s black: “I don’t wanna get chased off the lawn with a shotgun.”  Rose casually dismisses his concerns: “First of all, my dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve.”

On the drive to her folks’ house, a startling and intensely creepy incident/accident occurs followed by a tense moment involving a white police officer asking to see Chris’s driver’s license even though he wasn’t driving.  Rose valiantly tells the officer off for profiling, and he lets them off with a warning.  This is just one of the many ways the screenplay probes and exploits the inherent fears of the average viewer.  Even if Chris had been white, it would still be a foreboding scene.  Because of the additional racial tension, the scene crackles with suspense.

Things get progressively weirder from there.  Chris meets Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), along with their groundskeeper and maid, Walter and Georgina, both of whom are black.  Walter and Georgina’s behavior is just plain odd.  Their sole purpose seems to be to make Chris (and the audience) say, “What the f**k” repeatedly.  Dean directly addresses Chris’s apprehension: “I know what it looks like: a white family with black servants.”  His explanation of why they’re there answers Chris’s questions without really answering them if you follow me.

It would be unfair of me to describe any further plot details.  I’m sure those of you who’ve seen the movie would agree.  But I will issue a SPOILER WARNING for the remainder of the review.  Consider yourself warned.

Get Out is one of the most original, most effective modern horror films I’ve seen since The Descent (2005) and The Babadook (2014).  I have rarely been so glued to a screen.  The way director Jordan Peele ratchets up the creepiness levels is virtually unparalleled.  Here is a first film that rivals M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) in terms of how to manipulate an audience.  Look at the moment when Chris sneaks out of the house for a cigarette, looks around, and suddenly spies Walter, the groundskeeper, running towards him in the night.  No, not running…sprinting.  Silently.  When I watched this for the first time on my own, I literally said, out loud, “What the s**t…???”  I can’t remember when I’ve seen anything like that in a suspense film.

Take the moment when Chris gets involved in a late-night discussion with Missy (Rose’s mom) that turns into an impromptu therapy/hypnosis session.  When Missy calmly says, “Sink,” and Chris actually does, and we see him floating in some kind of limbo, I felt the same kind of transfixed curiosity that I felt while watching Under the Skin (2013).  I had absolutely no clue what was happening or why, and I couldn’t wait until I could get answers.  When those answers come, they are both gratifying and suitably horrific.  Remember those old commercials for the American Negro College Fund?  The tagline was, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  You will never think of that line the same way again after watching Get Out.

Peele was wise enough to include some comic relief in the form of his best friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who works for the TSA and ironically gets closer to the truth of what’s going on at Rose’s house than he or anyone else realizes.  If the movie has a single weak spot, though, this might be it.  Rod is so comic it feels as if he was lifted directly from a romantic comedy.  Sometimes his delivery and dialogue feel a little too much like he’s trying for laughs rather than just being himself.  This is a minor quibble, though…he is funny as hell, especially during a phone conversation between him and Rose.

The bottom line, as if you couldn’t tell, is that Get Out is a sensational movie, containing more levels than “Super Mario Bros.” and more food for thought than a Judd Apatow dramedy.  It’s one of those movies where, if I hear anyone hasn’t seen it, not only do I recommend it unreservedly, but I immediately ask if I can watch it while they watch it for the first time.  Just to see their reactions.


SELECTED QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Do you feel a larger budget would make this film better or worse?
    …that’s a tough question.  As you can see from my 10/10 rating, the movie is just about perfect as it is.  What might change with a larger budget?  A more realistic-looking deer corpse?  A wide-angle shot of…something…burning?  Maybe they wouldn’t have gone with Daniel Kaluuya, or maybe Rose would have been played by, I dunno, Emmy Rossum or Lily James.  So, I guess my answer is, a bigger budget would make this film worse.  The filmmakers made the choices they made because of their limitations, and those choices resulted in a masterpiece of the genre.  It’s like Salieri says in Amadeus when describing Mozart’s music: “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.”
  2. Were you surprised by the ending?  What would you do differently?
    Because of how the very ending of the film is structured, yes, I was surprised by the ending.  In fact, on the blu-ray, we can see the original filmed ending, and it’s what I feel might have been a more realistic ending.  As it is, the new ending is very satisfying on an emotional level, but I will always wonder how that original ending might have been received by general audiences.  Probably not well.  Imagine putting your hero up a tree, story-wise, then setting the tree on fire…but instead of getting him out of the tree, firemen chop the tree down and the hero is falsely arrested for arson.  Something like that can work – look at Body Heat (1981) and the original director’s cut of The Descent.  But Get Out provides a much more cathartic resolution and gets a smile on your face when you walk out the theater instead of shaking your head ruefully.


On the next “episode” of Everyone’s a Critic: “Watch a Film Starring Animals.”  I’m leaning towards The Black Stallion, but stay tuned…

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

By Marc S. Sanders

William Shakespeare’s works will always remain timeless.  His accomplishments are simply magnetic.

If you have any love for live theater, you’ll likely have at least a fondness for John Madden’s Oscar winning film Shakespeare In Love.  I loved the movie.  Perhaps that is because as a moonlighting playwright, myself, I could relate to The Bard’s early dilemma in the film – writer’s block.  It’s a gnawing, aggravating experience to go through.  You have an urge to create.  You just don’t know where to begin.  Believe me Bill, I know what you’re going through.

This likely fictional telling of William Shakespeare’s process of conceiving Romeo & Juliet begins with two competing theaters who have purchased the rights to Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) newest play that he has titled Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter, a comedy of course.  However, he has not yet written one page.  Not only does he suffer through his writer’s block, but William also has to endure the pressure of the theatre companies to stage and cast the play.  Geoffrey Rush and Martin Clunes are the scene stealing theatre owners who pester poor Bill for his script. 

My experiences in theatre allow me to also relate to the frustrations of staging a play.  Casting can be troubling if you don’t have the right selection of actors for the roles to be filled.  Huge egos can also be an annoyance.  Ben Affleck seems perfectly cast for that. (“What is the play, and what is my part?”)  In Shakespeare’s time, women are absolutely forbidden on the stage. As most theater presentations are intended to be comedic, men occupying the female roles only heightens the humor.  Still, as troubling as it is to cast the supporting roles with the available men of the company, including Ethel and her nurse, no one seems right for the role of Romeo. 

A fan of his, and a lover of theater, is Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant.  She musters the courage to disguise herself as a man and attend an audition under the name of “Thomas Kent.”  William is immediately taken with Thomas’ stage presence and upon his pursuit of him, encounters Viola.  They are both immediately stricken with love for one another and soon the writer learns of Viola’s deceit and revels in trysts with her while they maintain the secret for the integrity of the play that he now has inspiration to continue writing to its grand conclusion.  Viola is the muse that William has been seeking.

One problem beyond the usual obstacles in producing a play for performance time comes in the form of Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a snobby cash poor aristocrat, who claims Viola as his soon to be bride as a means of earning a stature of wealth through her family.  Wessex is a demanding and unreasonable fiend of course, and Firth delivers an effectively cruel villain against the heroism found in Fiennes’ Shakespeare.

As the play is rehearsed and the romance between Viola and William continues to blossom, the drama is not left only on the stage.  A grand scene bordering on slapstick occurs when the competing theaters engage in a swashbuckling dual.  Props are tossed, swords are swung and feathered pillows explode.  Later, adventure on the level of Errol Flynn occurs with swordplay between William and Wessex within the theater and its trappings.  Screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard inventively imply that theater, as we know it today, was simply inspired by what Shakespeare encounters in his own life.  When I conduct playwrighting workshops at my local community theater, I always tell the class that you have to “write what you know.”  Shakespeare In Love precisely demonstrates that mantra, even if it is elevated for the theatrics of cinema.  After all, this movie proudly boasts its silly comedy as much as it embraces its romance which thankfully never drowns in sap.

A wonderfully well edited centerpiece cuts between Viola and William’s passion for one another against their stage rehearsals with Viola in her guise as “Thomas Madden.”  In bed, they romance each other with recognizable dialogue, originally written by the real Shakespeare, that then makes its way into William’s pages for his script in progress.  This is where Gwyneth Paltrow really shines as she is momentarily depicted as the lovely Viola and then we see her in the guise of “Thomas,” the naturally gifted actor perfect for William’s Romeo character.  Paltrow’s range with the Oscar winning performance is done so well in this sequence alone.

The final act of the film is joyously assembled.  Behind the scenes, actor and writer William Shakespeare stresses over a stuttering actor who has entered the stage to begin the play.  Can he get through the scene?  What about the poor actor who is stricken with stage fright, and suddenly can’t go on as Juliet?  The audience is left in a rapturous trance with open mouths of silence and tears, following the suicides of the lovers on stage.  Yet, they don’t know if they should applaud at the end of the play.  The actors don’t know how to respond to the applause.  As well, are we given an opportunity to bear witness where the well-known phrase “The show must go on!” originated from?

It’s also necessary to point out one of the most favorite side characters to ever grace a film.  Judi Dench is the staunch and intimidating Queen Elizabeth I.  Arguably, this brief role, that I believe amounts to no more than five and half minutes on screen, carried Dench to not only Oscar glory but a celebrated favorite character actress for years to come.  Dench demonstrates how fun acting can be even if she is wrapped up in layers of 16th century wardrobe and caked on makeup.  Her first scene has her laughing at a poor actor performing with an uncooperative poodle.  Her last scene has her tearing down the romantic gesture of men laying down their coats for her to cross over a mud puddle.  It’s an unforgettable appearance in the film.

I take issue with one element of the picture, however.  Forgive me for going against the opinion of the Academy Awards, but Shakespeare In Love would have been an even grander experience for me had it not been for an overproduced and intrusive original score from Oscar winner Stephen Warbeck.  The music cuts into the film too much.  It borders on obnoxious.  Over and over, I was telling myself, these scenes hold together beautifully without any of the blaring horns and trumpets from Warbeck’s orchestra.  This film has an outstanding cast of actors and often I felt like they were being upstaged by the soundtrack of the film.  There are magnificent scenes with witty dialogue delivered by the likes of Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Affleck, along with Dench, Firth, Paltrow, Fiennes and Rush.  I could literally envision these moments working based simply on their performances alone.  Imagine watching a live stage performance, only elevator music cuts in at the most inopportune times. 

Still, I refuse to end on a sour note for Shakespeare In Love.  It is worthy of a standing ovation.  John Madden’s film is a grand production in cast performance, art direction, costume and makeup.  The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is brilliantly clever and witty as they weave inspired references from Shakespeare’s various sonnets, poems and plays into rich, everyday dialogue. 

Sustaining the value of performing arts can easily begin with a viewing of Shakespeare In Love in a school curriculum.  Even better would be to adapt this film into a stage play.  I think to watch Shakespeare In Love, live on stage, would be a wonderous experience.

CADDYSHACK

By Marc S. Sanders

Do you think in 10 years or even 50 years from now, people will remember that Harold Ramis was one of the funniest writers in film history? Animal House, Stripes, Scrooged, Groundhog Day (I hate it, but I won’t deny its legacy every February 2nd), and Ghostbusters. One film that cemented the stage for his success in the 1980s is arguably Caddyshack, which focuses on the snobs vs slobs at a high-end golf country club known as…ahem…Bushwood. It’s okay to laugh. Your mother is not in the room.

Caddyshack is more or less a vehicle for the comedic talents of Saturday Night Live players to put out their best material seemingly made up on the fly. Bill Murray is the demented grounds keeper tasked with getting rid of a damaging gopher. Chevy Chase seems to be the charmer with a delivery of wit in every word he says. He’s more or less good looking here but just as deliberately stupid as everyone else. Rodney Dangerfield goes beyond his stand-up routines, or maybe he doesn’t. He’s just shoved into the film and let loose to anger and harass the head snob, Ted Knight. Knight is unquestionably the best of the bunch here. He’s got such great timing with his outbursts and delivery. I even love how he pronounces the car maker Audi. It’s more like “ottie.”

Ramis has a thin storyline about one caddy (Michael O’Keefe) trying to win a college scholarship. Meh. So what! Caddyshack works best when it’s just playing for skits and raw laughs. There’s gross out comedy like doodie in the swimming pool, compliments of a Baby Ruth candy bar, and vomiting in cars. Dangerfield’s one liners are fast and loose. The judge’s daughter is a sly minx for the dweeby male cast to ogle, and the gopher footage with Murray is straight out of Looney Toons. I do love the irony of the Catholic priest going out to play 9 holes in the middle of an electrical storm; a prophet who will spit in the face of God. “OH RAT FARTS!!!!”

Caddyshack is not my favorite of Ramis’ films, but it’s become a touchstone in comedy quotes and repeat viewings. It’s stupid and coarse and silly and belongs nowhere in the Parthenon of great filmmaking efforts but it’s a favorite of almost anyone’s for how brash it truly is. It’s an R rated interpretation of The Three Stooges. If not for nothing, I’m sure that somewhere there is an esteemed judge of the cloth who was proud to sentence young men to the gas chamber as a means of “owing it to them.”

Harold Ramis with co-writer Brian Doyle Murray (Bill’s brother) conceived of Caddyshack as a push back against that system of order. Well done, men. Tee up!

FRACTURE

By Marc S. Sanders

When director Gregory Hoblit was shooting this film, did he ever wonder how preposterous this courtroom mystery is?  

This ridiculous effort featuring a tired Anthony Hopkins as a suspect representing himself, and a very green Ryan Gosling as the prosecuting attorney proudly boasts a centerpiece storyline of simply finding a gun used in an attempted murder.  That’s it really.  No nuances.  No subtle riddles.  Just a “what happened to the gun?” plot line.  

It’s any wonder that I had never heard of this movie until I found it on Netflix.

Take my advice.  Find something else on Netflix.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 89%
Everybody’s a Critic Assignment: Watch a Movie “Classic”

PLOT: A small town in California is attacked by Martians, touching off a worldwide invasion.


I admire the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds most when I try to imagine myself back in that era as someone seeing it for the very first time.  For me, 69 years is still an almost unimaginable gulf of time.  In 1953, TVs were not quite a luxury item anymore, but a color TV definitely was.  Little kids still wore coonskin caps and watched The Howdy Doody Show for fun.  The very concept of UFOs was only six years old.  And the Cold War was a direct threat to our national security and our general peace of mind.

Into this culture came a film that, while thoroughly cheesy by today’s standards, nevertheless captured the paranoia of a nation.  Unstoppable creatures from another planet!  Wreaking havoc wherever they go!  Not even the mighty A-bomb can defeat them!  And who could resist those terrifying movie posters?  “A mighty panorama of earth-shaking fury!”  I would have been BEGGING my parents to give me ticket money.

Is a plot summary even necessary for this classic story?  A fiery meteor plunges to Earth near a small California town, but instead of making a crater, it carves a gully as it slides to a stop.  A scientist hypothesizes it might be hollow inside.  Presently, an alien spacecraft emerges from the meteor, bearing a fearsome weapon that looks like a cobra’s head and rains destruction and death on anything in range.  Forsaking Wells’ original vision of Martian tripods, this version presents sleek, manta-ray-shaped spacecraft supported by nearly-invisible electromagnetic currents.  Or something like that. Reports start coming from around the globe of other meteors and other spacecraft, and it quickly becomes apparent they’re not interested in friendly negotiations.  To paraphrase the stentorian commentary that bridges some scenes, this is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

The heroes of this film are Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  To put it kindly, their acting skills are…adequate.  To be fair, they weren’t working with a stellar screenplay, but the filmmakers wisely decided the real star of the movie should be the Martians and the Oscar-winning special effects.  As a result, Clayton is reduced to either giving scientific explanations of the Martians, while Sylvia’s main purpose is to look scared, scream loudly, and fry some eggs for Clayton in the middle of a war zone.  (I’m not making that last part up.  It’s not exactly Aliens.)

Regarding those special effects, sure they’re dated, but consider that, at the time, Hollywood studios regarded effects-heavy films as financial losers.  At least, that’s what they thought before The War of the Worlds.  It did so well that one of the head honchos at Paramount – one Cecil B. DeMille – presented the extraordinarily effects-heavy The Ten Commandments (1956) just three years later…and it broke box-office records.  The current trend is to blame Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) for singlehandedly creating our insatiable appetite for special-effects extravaganzas, but look back far enough and there’s plenty of blame to go around, in my opinion.

Full disclosure: I still prefer Spielberg’s whiz-bang 2005 remake of War of the Worlds with its actual tripods and its CGI explosions and its callbacks to the 1953 original, including a cameo by Barry and Robinson, to satisfy cinephiles.  But this version, while dated, still has enough charm to remain effective.  Mostly.  (My favorite part is when the “hatch” on the meteor starts unscrewing; right about then is when I would’ve bought a ticket to Australia.)


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Best line or memorable quote?
    When Dr. Forrester speculates how the Martians’ death ray works: “It neutralizes meson somehow. They’re the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist! Take my word for it, General, this type of defense is useless against that kind of power! You’d better let Washington know, fast!”  It’s formulaic nonsense that’s only once or twice removed from calling an alien mineral “unobtainium”, but it’s delivered with the kind of conviction that only exists in the movies.
  2. What elements of this film do you feel have helped it become a movie classic?
    On a surface level, I’d say the quaintness of its visual effects.  Comparing them to the films of today is like comparing a paper airplane to the space shuttle.  But its also how the film captures the pop culture of the day.  The War of the Worlds fed on the fears and paranoia of a nation and stuck in the minds of millions of moviegoers and continues to do so today.  The 1953 film was influenced by the Cold War.  Spielberg’s remake was at least partially fueled by a nation’s fear of global terrorism.  Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years, some other enterprising filmmaker will once again send Martians to Earth to lay waste to its cities as a commentary on some future phobia or event.  …perhaps a global pandemic…?  Nah, too on the nose…

FIGHT CLUB

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher’s Fight Club is a deliberately ugly and dreary film. It has to be to evoke the insomnia its narrator (Edward Norton) suffers from, as well as his lonely depression that offers no answers for his purpose to exist or to be loved by another person.

To alleviate his need for something fulfilling, the narrator resorts to attending support groups for men suffering from illnesses and debilitating diseases like testicular cancer. There he meets a former body builder named Bob (the singer Meat Loaf) who has developed floppy breasts after going through hormone therapy. Bob follows the processes of the self help group and embraces on to Norton’s character as a means of support; stuffing his face into Bob’s breasts. The narrator eventually becomes accustomed to this maternal practice and the ritual of attending these meetings as a regular process. However, he feels he is getting upstaged by Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a punk looking girl with dark eyeliner and wild jet-black hair.

Even though Marla and the narrator negotiate who attends what meetings and on what night, Norton meets another punk like reckless character known as Tyler Durdin (memorably played by Brad Pitt) who manufactures and sells soap but also edits film reels, sneakily inserting penis images into family films. Tyler also works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant where he proudly adds a little of “himself” to all the courses that are served.

The narrator only works at a boring desk job where his boss uses any opportunity to look down upon him and chastise him on his performance or appearance, but never recognizing anything further within his nature. The boss could care less about him. Naturally, the narrator becomes in awe of Tyler’s behavior. Tyler is a rebel and offers much more beyond Bob’s comfort. Tyler serves a purpose for the narrator to pursue.

When Tyler challenges the narrator to hit him as hard as he can it eventually leads to a new kind of gathering for both of them, a support group known as Fight Club. Men from all over soon gather underground to partake of letting out their aggressions with bare knuckle fists and wrestling. Anyone attending gets a therapeutic vibe from bleeding and bruising themselves upon one another. The narrator certainly feels better.

Going a step further leads Tyler and the narrator to fight back against a system of order and capitalism. Their philosophy picks up traction and soon a form of revolution is taking place across the entire country. Somehow, the narrator is taken off guard by this new belief system.

There’s a lot to consider and question in Fight Club, though I’m not sure I care for the film as a whole to debate its message. Sometimes it feels like it’s not moving anywhere. Norton’s character learns things about his own consciousness and need to falsely subject himself as a cancer survivor or as an underground brawler because he has nothing else really going for him. I get that, but why should I care or like it?

Tyler Durdin resides in a broken down house on the other end of the city that is leaking from every pipe and it’s electricity could ignite another fire that maybe this decrepit dwelling survived once before. Tyler is happy with his home and happy to share it with the narrator as well as Marla whom he has endless sex with. Tyler doesn’t want the fancy trappings. It’s revolting to even possess such materialism and suck off the tit of a capitalist regime. With the narrator at his side, he encourages a fight against the power of commercialism and wealth. Find a way to destroy the structures of what the country has built itself into, perhaps.

That’s the message of Fight Club. I just can’t lay claim that I cared for the execution of the revolt. I’m supposed to laugh at Tyler’s antics at times like when he steals the gross liquid fat from liposuction patients to manufacture the soap he sells. Yes, we get a moment where the bags of fat leak and splatter all over the place. It was just never amusing for me. I found no symbolism in this passage. It’s just absolutely disgusting. When Tyler happily pisses in someone’s soup, I don’t think it’s funny either. I don’t like Tyler. I don’t envy him or want to be him. I don’t find anything to cheer for with him. I’ve got more admiration for John Bender in The Breakfast Club than I do for Tyler Durdin. I might respect what he stands for to a degree as we are a culture brainwashed by advertising and commercialism. I just don’t care for the actions taken by this so-called martyr on behalf of the self-described unfortunates like Norton’s narrator.

I also find it ironic and quite hypocritical that Fincher’s film is a call to stand up to materialism and commercialism and yet the cast is headlined by Brad Pitt, arguably one of the biggest box office stars of the last 30 years, complete with his name above the title and his image front and center ahead of Edward Norton’s on the film posters that promote the film. Pitt is also the guy you see first, last and all over the middle of any of the film’s trailers and advertisements.

Now tell me, is that not a contradiction in terms?