By Marc S. Sanders

Don’t blame Jane Campion.  Blame me. 

The ending to The Power Of The Dog feels ambiguous, but writer and director Campion invites you to think and ponder.  It also helps that I have a good friend who shed some light on how the film actually wrapped up.  I’m grateful because I appreciated the picture even more.  Ironically, my friend didn’t care for the movie.

Technically, Jane Campion directs an absolutely breathtaking film with majestic cinematography and art design of open Montana fields taking place in 1926.  Tech work can only take me so far though, and I appreciated the four different perspectives of the headlining cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Cumberbatch is Phil, a cowboy relic of the Old West.  He’s an expert horseman donned with spurs on his boots, and leather padding on the jeans along with the worn in staple cowboy hat.  He also has a fearful and intimidating temper.  Maybe that’s because his era is soon to be passed by and he’s not designed or updated for anything else.  Plemons is George. Phil’s subdued, business wise brother who knows his way around their Montana ranch, and more importantly knows how to build connections that’ll provide fiscal and political support, while he drives his Ford buggy to get from one place to the next.  Dunst is Rose, the artist of appetizing delicacies and designs who marries George.  She manages the kitchen of her restaurant and can play piano; not exceptionally well but her love for the instrument is what matters.  Her son is Peter, played by Smit-McPhee, a lanky and weak, yet book smart, young adult with his focus on the science of medicine.  He aspires to be surgeon.  So, as the 20th century is now over a quarter complete, these four individuals represent what once was, what is now, what is trending and what will become.

Campion sprinkles her film in more atmosphere than telling dialogue.  The gist of the story is how Phil’s tormenting presence scares both Rose and Peter.  A hair-raising scene occurs midway while Rose attempts to play a song on the piano, only to be drowned out by Phil’s cruel banjo interpretation from the top of the staircase.  Cumberbatch is really scary here as the bear teasing the cub to poke him.  Rose tries again and again to play only to be further interrupted by Phil.  A banjo is an instrument of a bygone era, the Old West.   The piano is the more sophisticated and elegant device to use now within the decorated designs of a reading room.

The future is also upon the characters.  Young Peter purchases a pair of sneakers to wear; not exactly the most appropriate for a horse ranch, nor are his suppressed homosexual yearnings.  Still, the future carries forth as he studies the latest in medicine and surgical practices, whether it is through dissection of a rabbit or studying the most up to date medical journals.

George is the symbol of transition.  He was raised like his brother Phil to be a rancher, but he knows that time has passed.  Currency, technology and longevity are necessary and it is not wise to remain stagnant in a time gone by.  It’s practical to develop connections with the Governor of the state, to drive himself and Rose in a car as opposed to by horseback.  To carry on the family name, it is also prudent he marries and builds a new generation.

I appreciated the subtle visuals and behaviors that Campion weaves into her adaptation from the novel by Thomas Savage.  Over the course of two hours, I was always learning something new, whether it be about the characters or the period setting.  Most telling is the fact that the past can not live in an updated future such as Phil with his suprising and deeply inhibited attraction to Peter.  As well, the future is not going to adjust well to the past like when Peter is trying to learn horse and ranch handling from a teasingly cruel Phil while wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat, white sneakers, and factory tailored jeans.  Furthermore, even if you’re only a frequent movie watcher, you likely are aware that Westerns would pit cowboys against Indians.  Rose demonstrates with her talents for craft how Native Americans are appreciated in this still young new century.  Phil and his ranchers would never imagine such relations to ever exist.

Our history is not comfortable with our eventual future, and our future can not fathom how we ever lived within our past.

Because these two worlds can never mesh in accordance with each other, a loss will have to be committed.  In another storyteller’s hands, The Power Of The Dog, might have resulted in a gun shot, or a stabbing or an illness to eliminate what cannot survive.  As well, long speeches of dialogue would spell out what must cease to continue and what must continue to flourish and go on.  With Campion’s lens, and with Savage’s work, it works atmospherically, however.  The environment of the Montana landscape along with life on a transitioning horse and cattle ranch serve the conflicting time passages and the characters who are relegated to a past, or a present, or a future. 

Don’t watch The Power Of The Dog with expectations of simplicity or quotable dialogue.  I value Campion’s approach to not spoon feed me.  Rather, take in the visuals of the four main characters’ behaviors.  Allow yourself to become more observant of the nature of how things end up.  Powerfully speaking, Jane Campion shows that some people will work well together, while others will crave to blend effectively, and sadly some can never live within another environment or time period, much less someone else’s.

The Power Of The Dog offers a thought-provoking message of loss and reflection while gazing into what’s just beyond.  It’s a very well-made film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Ernie Anderson was the cool voiceover for the ABC television network that would introduce upcoming programs for years. He was a staple of the television industry from the 1970s through the ‘90s. I promise that you or your parents know his sharp, recognizable tempo. So, it makes sense that his son Paul Thomas Anderson would center his multiple story crossover film Magnolia around the television industry, within a 10-block radius in the Hollywood Area. Magnolia presents the off-chance coincidences that somehow happen and the unusual phenomena that can occur when never expected.

Anderson’s three hour epic offers storylines centered around former and present day game show quiz kids (Jeremy Blackmon, William H Macy), the game show host stricken with cancer (Phillip Baker Hall), the drug addicted daughter he’s estranged from (Melora Walters), the dying game show producer (Jason Robards), the producer’s son who is a motivational speaker for men to sexually conquer women (Tom Cruise), and the producer’s gold digging wife (Julianne Moore).

Because the narrative of the film has a biblical theme specifically referencing Exodus 8:2, there are also two good natured guardian angels involved. John C Reilly as a sweet but clumsy police officer proud of his work, and a sentimental hospice nurse played beautifully with bedside sympathy by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Anderson’s film opens with three stories of random coincidence that resulted in the deaths of three different men. More than likely most people would say these tall tales of legend could only occur in a movie. Yet, the voiceover narrator , Ricky Jay, says they did not, and thus begins one specific day with torrential downpours of rain, where all of these random characters will come in contact with a personal experience of monumental impact that will change their individual lives forever. Oddly enough, all these people are somehow connected to one another and are within blocks of each other located near Magnolia Blvd in the Hollywood Hills.

Like Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson directs a film of very weighty emotions that thematically focuses on the sins of fathers that carried over to the futures of their children. The game show is titled “What Do Kids Know?” which likely symbolizes what they didn’t know while at the behest of their parents during their youth. What they know now about their fathers is a burden to bear in insecurities, drug abuse and outright cruelty for the opposite sex. Every character represents some aspect of this ongoing theme during Magnolia. It’s a lot, a whole of information, but fortunately it moves at a very swift pace with an energetic steady cam and dramatic notes of instrumental soundtracks.

Anderson consistently shows different references to Exodus 8:2 by either using the numbers in clocks or decks of cards or temperature readings of the weather or on marquee signs. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt when seeing the film on a multiple viewings.


“But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs.”

Sure. Most recognize the Bible verse as Moses’ decree to Pharaoh to release the Jews from Egypt. I like to think Anderson used Magnolia to release his beloved, but damaged, characters from their own sins or the sins of their fathers. Set them free even if it could be by means of confession, judgment, offering and begging for forgiveness, or journeying towards a personal salvation.

The smart device that Anderson uses is the angelic music of Aimee Mann. Often I talk about how I love when film characters would spontaneously dance. In Magnolia, the cast surprisingly breaks into song with Mann’s confessional number entitled “Wise Up.” It more or less summarizes each individual plight that all the various characters must endure. Magnolia is only an even better film because of Mann’s music.

Magnolia is a beautiful film that I draw many personal parallels from, especially having now lost both of my parents and being by my father’s bedside during his difficult final days of illness.

It is very touching, sometimes funny, and sometimes a difficult film to watch with a belief in random coincidence that is only stronger after watching it.

Like the film insists “we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” After Magnolia finishes, you won’t be through with Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. It’s a film that will stay with you.


By Marc S. Sanders

Robert Redford directed a huge, glossy looking misfire of a political thriller in 2007 with a film called Lions For Lambs, written by Matthew Michael Carnagan.

Preachiness is never fun when it labors on for an hour and a half. I don’t care if it’s Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep or even Robert Redford doing the preaching. If these powerhouse celebrities called me up and asked if they could come to my house for coffee and talk, and when they got there, all they did was spew in circles a political platform of “right and wrong” and “why” and “don’t” and “can’t” and “yes and no,” I’d call the police and have them arrested. Time for you to leave, Meryl! Tom, it’s been real.

In 2007, during the late half of Bush 43’s second term, questions of war with the Middle East was at the forefront during a post 9/11 age. Redford, with Cruise producing, thought it’d be interesting to show three different stories (actually two long winded conversations set around desks, and two stranded soldiers) occurring. A political professor (Redford) tries to open the eyes of a student (Andrew Garfield) with great potential but no drive to make a difference. A Republican Senator (Cruise) sets up his own interview with a liberal leaning reporter (Streep) to boast of a new secret mission he’s championing, and two special forces ops are left stranded (Michael Pena & Derek Luke) in the cold of Iraq, the most interesting of three narratives.

Carnagan’s script goes in circles and it’s likely the politics he questions all lean left. Yet the conversations (Redford & Garfield; Cruise & Streep) become just a lot of back talk. A character makes a point, and the other character makes a counter point. I was hoping for a line like “Meryl, you ignorant slut!” Where are we going with all of this?

The soldiers are the mission planned by the Senator that has now gone awry and follows their outcome as they are left wounded and surrounded by Iraqi forces in the snowy darkness. We learn they were students of the professor who wanted to make a difference by enlisting in the Army. See the connection now; the very thin uninspired connection?

Here’s something for ya. In case, you can’t recognize easily enough, Redford dresses his characters in either shades of Red or Blue. Nice touch with Garfield’s frat boy wearing a RED Hawaiian shirt while Redford has the BLUE denim button down. Cruise gets the shiny RED coffee mug for a prop. Does the film have to be THIS transparent? If so, couldn’t the dialogue have been as well?

Lions For Lambs talks A LOT and tells me nothing. Streep’s reporter is a disappointment. Yet Redford portrays her as noble. She loathes the platform of the Senator she just interviewed and is adamant about not writing the quite revealing story he just laid out for her. How can she be that way? She’s a reporter!!!! Tell the truth. Inform the public, even if it’s not pretty, and yet Redford will have a viewer believe it is righteous of Streep to figuratively break her pencil and unplug her computer while she gripes to her editor in chief. No! This is an absolute betrayal of journalistic integrity. What is Robert Redford, the once producer and star of All The President’s Men, thinking here???

You wanna talk about betrayal? The final moments with Streep really had me puzzled. She takes a thought-provoking cab ride that drives past the Capital, Arlington National Cemetery, the Supreme Court, and The White House (right, dab, in front of it no less). Reader, I’ve been to Washington DC a number of times as recent as this past summer. Where the hell is this cabbie driving to, and what route was he taking????


By Marc S. Sanders

Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is a perfect blend of comedy, action and sweet tenderness. Different facets of what two guys could potentially experience together, especially if they are on an unexpected cross country road trip, pop up unexpectedly. It’s a well-acted film with great exchanges in dialogue that surge with broad comedy and high-octane car chases and shootouts. Yet, there’s even some special quiet moments to appreciate as well. It’s another favorite film of mine.

Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced former Chicago cop now turned bounty hunter who spends his days wrangling up criminals who skip out on their bail. When Eddie the bondsman (a great Joe Pantoliano) asks Jack to bring back Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who skipped out on a $450,000 bond, something as simple as a “midnight run” turns into an excruciating journey from New York to California. The Duke doesn’t make it easy for Jack. He never shuts up and right from the start it doesn’t help that he’s afraid to fly. Well, there’s always the train, right? Plus there’s plenty of time because Jack has five days to get The Duke back into custody.

Not so fast. The mob, led by a silky smooth and threatening Dennis Farina, wants The Duke dead as revenge for embezzling millions of dollars from them, plus avoiding the risk of him testifying against them. The Duke unknowingly served as their accountant. The Feds, led by a just as awesome Yaphet Kotto, want The Duke as their material witness against the mob. On top of all that, Jack has to compete with Marvin (John Ashton), another bounty hunter who wants to bring in the The Duke.

There’s great action in Midnight Run and you can’t get enough of it, but it’s the comedic layers of complications the cast of characters bring on to themselves that serve the film best. Danny Elfman’s music accompaniment primarily on horns with guitar and piano bring out the fun in the best way possible. Great chases with a helicopter and various stolen vehicles while Jack and The Duke outrun endless squad cars are magnificent. Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) is just an entertaining director.

Still, the action is not even the highlight for me. First, the chemistry among all the actors is fantastic. They have such brilliant exchanges of cursing each other out, getting on each other’s nerves, and especially listening to one another as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming match phone call between DeNiro and Pantoliano, or a one on one with Kotto getting frustrated DeNiro. It all works.

Most especially is the pairing of DeNiro and Grodin. They hate each other and then seconds later they’re laughing with each other. Grodin as The Duke, as pesky as he is, plays an unwelcome therapist at times to DeNiro’s Jack as the history of his failed marriage resurfaces and his fall from grace with the Chicago police department comes back to bother him. Jack doesn’t give in so easy to The Duke’s desire to share his feelings. He’d rather endlessly smoke, eat unhealthy food and tell The Duke to “shut the fuck up!” Nevertheless, a bond between the two forms and continues to reshape itself during the course of the film. A great moment occurs when they need to scam a barkeep out of some twenty-dollar bills. You’ll never forget “the litmus configuration” after you see Midnight Run.

I also want to call attention to one of my favorite of so many DeNiro moments in his long career. Midway through the film, Jack reunites with his ex wife and teen daughter that he hasn’t seen in nine years. Like many divorced couples, an argument breaks out among the parents only to be quickly silenced by the quiet intrusion of Jack’s daughter Denise (Danielle DuClos). As Jack waits for his wife to bring him money to help, Brest allows DeNiro to do some of his best acting with this young actress. They can hardly speak to one another. DuClos simply stares in disbelief that her estranged father came home. DeNiro can’t, in good conscience, make eye contact, knowing he’s been the absent parent. It’s too difficult. It is such a humane moment that it grabs me every time. It reminds me that dialogue is not always necessary for a great acting piece. Martin Brest really trusts his actors in this moment. It’s likely my favorite scene of the film and of DeNiro’s career. You can take this scene out of the context of the entire film and still be just as moved by it.

The best action films succeed when the filmmakers care about the characters. When the characters are given depth, then we worry about them. We hope they don’t get killed or taken or arrested, and simply make it home. Midnight Run is that kind of action piece. Had we not cared for Jack and The Duke, movie lovers never would have cared for Martin Brest’s film, now going on 34 years later. It’s a perfect film.


By Marc S. Sanders

F Gary Gray’s 2003 remake of The Italian Job is crackling with cool and sleek film coverage. It is a blend of wit and fast paced action delivering a solid heist thriller. The cast is terrific as well.

Donald Sutherland plays John Bridger, a near retired master thief and safe cracker. He is ready for one last job with his protégé, Charlie, played by Mark Wahlberg. They assemble a team specializing in different skills like Left Ear, played by Mos Def, who overlooks explosives, Lyle or “Napster”, Seth Green, as a computer hacker, and “Handsome Rob,” Jason Statham, the getaway driver. With another member named Steve (yeah, he’s just called…ahem…Steve) played by Edward Norton, they successfully rip off a safe containing $35 million in gold bars from a home located off the straits of Venice, Italy. However, Steve betrays the team leaving them for dead.

Jump to a year later and the team ventures out to Los Angeles with Stella (Charlize Theron), another safe cracker and daughter to John. They have an opportunity to even the score with Steve while also collecting what’s left of the gold bars. Early on, an idea is conceived to use light weight, speedy MINI Coopers to get in and haul away the booty. However, soon they learn that it’s not so easy to just take it from Steve’s house. They will have to apprehend the gold while in transit.

There’s nothing overly special about The Italian Job. I don’t think Gray was looking to achieve an iconic classic. He just made a solid caper flick that’s pure fun. Sure, the thieves would likely get busted. No, the timing of everything from sabotaging the downtown traffic lights and exploding a precise hole in the street for an armored car to fall through would never occur so perfectly. Who cares? This film is a pitch perfect dance in car chase choreography where we get a kick out of watching sporty little red, white and blue MINIs careen through a subway system, down public staircases and through cylindrical tunnels. It’s all done to get your heart racing.

The players are fun but they aren’t putting in much dimension. I doubt they did much research on the specialized skills their respective characters possess. Maybe Theron researched how to crack a safe. She amps up some nail biting in those sequences as Gray edits between high speed motorcycles approaching while she’s quietly trying to concentrate on the lock’s combination.

There are some cute inside jokes. The best being that Lyle insists he is the inventor of Napster (a little dated by now), and the idea was stolen from him by Sean Parker. The real Sean Parker makes a quick cameo as that scene is told in flashback. Seth Green is quite funny in a nerdy kind of way.

I like the cast. Norton plays a good jerk for villain; a real “Frank Burns.” I appreciate the story behind his character. Early on before he betrays the team, each member shares what they are going to spend their money on. Later, it’s revealed that Steve just used what he ripped off to buy everything the other guys had in mind. He’s a killer and he’s a jerk, but he’s also a guy with no imagination or creativity. I like that angle for a bad guy. He’s only just so much of a genius.

The Italian Job is a fun film that is never too intense, and offers great surprises in the step-by-step process of how to pull off a cinematic heist. If anything, it’ll make you wanna buy a MINI Cooper. I came…THIS CLOSE one time!


By Marc S. Sanders

Simon Curtis directs a glimpse into the life of Marilyn Monroe with an exquisitely cast Michelle Williams in the title role of My Week With Marilyn.

The film is told through the perspective of 23 year old Colin Clarke played under dream like naivety from Eddie Redmayne. Clarke embarks on joining the production crew of Sir Laurence Olivier’s (pompously over played by Kenneth Branagh) newest film that he is directing and starring in, opposite Monroe. When Marilyn’s new husband, playwright Arthur Miller, returns to the states, Colin is drawn into Marilyn’s seduction; protecting her from an intimidating Olivier and tolerating her drug and alcohol use.

This film features an outstanding cast of who’s who from Dame Judi Dench to Emma Watson to Dougray Scott, Julia Ormand (playing a past her prime Vivienne Leigh), Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper. An amazing cast and amazing performances all around.

Still, I just wasn’t wild about the film. With her life startlingly cut short, Marilyn Monroe is arguably one of the biggest enigmas to come out of Hollywood, and yet this tiny glimpse into her life just wasn’t interesting enough for me.

Fully aware of her impending doom to come, the sad foreshadowing of pills on her dresser, and her unfamiliar stupors didn’t drive anything for the character. It all becomes repetitious with nothing new to say. Colin’s virginal experience with this celebrity tryst never drives anywhere but back into Marilyn’s bed after he’s requested to appear at any given hour. This occurs again and again. The film just doesn’t progress past these moments. I found myself saying “I’ve seen this already!”

Did Marilyn learn anything from this fleeting moment in her lifetime? Did Colin? Maybe Colin got to witness the dichotomy of the privately ill Marilyn versus her ability to turn on the public charm with curvaceous ease and a wide lipstick smile. Yet, I have to wonder what came of it for Colin, thereafter.

Redmayne is quite good in his naive innocence. He inhabits nearly every scene since the story is told from Colin’s experience. Storywise though, what was the point of all this really?

Williams as Marilyn is astonishing. As good at playing a Hollywood legend as when Cate Blanchett deservedly won her Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. My one wish is that Williams accepted the role with a much more dimensional and nuanced script.

Perhaps because of the mystery that always seemed to surround Marilyn, Williams will never get the chance at playing the bombshell in something better. Marilyn’s life was so dubious and questionable. What filmmakers would be brave enough to truly make claim of how the starlet lived and how she died?

I can wish for another Marilyn portrayal to come one day, with Michelle Williams in the role, but alas I won’t hold my breath.


By Marc S. Sanders

Finally, I invested myself in watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar winning Best Picture The Last Emperor. Honestly, as breathtaking as the undertaking to make this sweeping epic is, it was the first and likely last time I will ever watch the film.

This three hour plus biographical picture focuses on a young child named Puyi, plucked from nowhere to become the next Emperor of China. He is destined to reside in Peking, The Forbidden City amid rich tapestries and deep Chinese culture at the start of the twentieth century. Oddly enough, the would be Emperor is a prisoner of his own surroundings for nearly his entire life. He is forbidden to go beyond the walls of Peking. Later in his adult life, he is a political prisoner and war criminal in the now regarded People’s Republic of China. Puyi was never granted an opportunity to think for himself or act upon his devices. He is forced to become an adaptable symbol to ongoing representations of the country that harbors him.

I watched this film with my wife. The next day we discussed it with my colleague Miguel who regards the picture as one of the best films he’s ever seen. I can not dismiss his viewpoint, but personally the depth of Betolucci’s efforts for maximum authenticity pushed my interest away from the film.

I embrace character arcs in films. It’s what keeps each passing moment of a movie refreshingly interesting. I do not deny the change in the Emperor’s story arc. Puyi changes as his country changes on both a political or militaristic platform. Yet, the film has vague segues in its changes as well.

Characters appear and disappear. Moments in history occur with no build up or explanation. It was challenging to follow who is who, and what has just happened.

Early on, we see how Puyi as a child interacts with his younger brother, Pujie. Much later in the film, Pujie reappears when they are adults. I am not going to pretend I’m a sophisticated enough moviegoer to realize this is the brother we saw as child over an hour earlier in the film. It took some time to realize who this guy was.

I’m also not going to pretend I know enough about Chinese history and culture to comprehend the traditional customs and ceremonies that occur, or China’s relationship that developed with Japan, or China’s significance during World War II.

That’s my problem with the film. Was I supposed to take a college course on Chinese history before watching The Last Emperor? The film is expository for sure, but it presumes the viewer will recollect at what point in history this moment or that moment occurs.

The film flashes forward and back to when Puyi was a prisoner of war in 1952. In prison, he eventually becomes reformed, but it became frustratingly complicated to understand exactly why he was even sentenced.

Following the film, I referenced Wikipedia to grasp the sequence of events. The historical change of this one man certainly merits a film to be made, much like Malcolm X or Born On The Fourth Of July. However, those films had a more comprehensive narration for me and the ongoing changes that the central figures experience are more well defined as the years pass and the people around them change.

The Last Emperor felt unclear to me in its storytelling while still immersing me in a land I’d imagine is unfamiliar to most viewers. For centuries “The Forbidden City” was not open for a public to encounter. If that’s the case, I believe Bertolucci needed to define what he captured much more clearly. Who’s to know what we are looking at, or what significance this setting has if most of the world population has yet to see what is here?

The Last Emperor requires a high threshold of patience and focus to grasp what it presents. It should be seen for the locales that are filmed, which were completely unseen by me personally. You’ll also get some tidbits of Chinese history, for sure.

All I can recommend is not to be so hard on yourself, when you find yourself lost at times in the film.


By Marc S. Sanders

How can anyone not like Mike Hodges’ camp celebration of a savior hero vs a destructive villain?

Flash Gordon was penned by Lorenzo Semple Jr, writer on the 1960s Batman TV show. His first draft is the one and only draft which producer Dino DeLaurentis approved for shooting. A glossy, flashy and fetishistic approach was adopted for the film, and it became timelessly memorable.

What thrills me about the film is its appreciation for the original, pioneering comic strips on which the film is based. Max Von Sydow’s Ming The Merciless is pulled right from the newspapers in his gloss pinks, reds, golds and blacks costume wear. The inflection of his voice is otherworldly from the start (“Klytus, I’m booooored. What do you have for me to play with today?”)

Sam Jones is a level down in the relatable hero of Christopher Reeve, but he’s enjoying every minute of his hero character schtick. He’s perfect for Semple’s playful writing and he looks like a champion.

Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed are great side characters on opposite ends; one distinguished, the other gluttonous and proud.

The best flavor of the film is its soundtrack. Thank you Queen!!! Their musical touch is an early inspiration to some modern Marvel films like Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarök, clearly showing direct influence from Flash Gordon. Freddy Mercury, Brian May and company relish in heavy pounding drums and special effect sounding guitars to deliver a cheerleading rock anthem. “Flash…aaaah!!! He’s a miracle!”

Dino DeLaurentis saw opportunity following the success of science fiction with Star Wars. He produced Flash Gordon with his own style, not as a copycat. The film became a fantasy with characters bleeding rainbow colors, pet midgets, cat fighting concubines, great hall football fighting with aluminum watermelons, weird lizard creatures, hawkmen, half egg-shaped planets, and even a thrilling fight to the death on a tilting platform with protruding spikes, the best scene amid all the camp craziness.

It’s all great. Flash Gordon is the savior of the universe. “He’s a miracle!!!!”


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s time for the murder mystery to maintain an ongoing trend in modern films.  They’re just fun to watch and play with and deduce.  Why do you think the board game Clue has lasted so long in so many households?  Films like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and a recent retelling of Murder On The Orient Express have already whetted our appetites for the “who done it?” tales.  Endless variations of Sherlock Holmes continue to appear.  Even Steve Martin and Martin Short have gotten in on the mystery circuit.  Adam Sandler with Jennifer Aniston, too.  Kenneth Branagh’s second time as Hercule Poirot (following …Orient Express), in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile, is proof positive that the sleuth is the next super hero that movie goers should follow.

Branagh returns to direct his detective character in Egypt, aboard a privately rented boat occupied by the newly engaged couple, Lynette Ridgeway and Simon Doyle (Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer).  As the luxurious yacht makes its way down the majestic river Nile, the couple suspects that someone, particularly Simon’s recent ex-fiancée, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey), is determined to cause harm or even murder towards them.  They ask for the sleuth’s services in uncovering who is scheming against them.  Poirot is on vacation, however, and tells them his services cannot be made available as no crime has been committed.  Yet, he accepts their invitation to board the boat and attempt to relax and recline. 

Naturally, a murder will eventually occur.

Hercule Poirot was not even a character in Agatha Christie’s original novel.  Yet, Branagh seamlessly weaves the detective into an elegant page turner on screen, with a script from Michael Green.  Branagh is a skillful actor/director. 

As this is a murder mystery, there are a wealth of characters with possible motives and red herrings to keep the journey down the Nile tense and engaging.  There’s the doctor (Russell Brand), an aunt (Annette Benning), a nephew (Tom Bateman, returning from Orient Express), Lynette’s housemaid (Jennifer Saunders), a speakeasy blues singer and her niece (Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright), as well as Lynette, Simon and Jacqueline, and on and on.  Branagh wisely moves his camera repeatedly at times across the boat panning over the faces of the cast, as if to the remind the viewer of who are the suspects.  There’s a wealth of information to take in, but this is not going to feel like you are cramming for a final exam the next morning. 

Because everyone could have a motive and/or a background with the murder victim, each actor within the colorful cast has various moments to shine.  There are some great acting scenes going on here that the players share with Branagh, and they don’t come off with similar formulas from one moment to the next.  Each character actor is thankfully unique in both appearance and personality.  It’s not hard to keep up, and while I may have known the ending before seeing the film (having read the book and seen stage adaptations over the years), I don’t believe it’s easy to deduce and solve as a viewer.  Different characters and moments that never occurred in the source material turn up.  There might even be few unexpected deaths along the way.  Branagh also keeps the picture alive with outstanding blues numbers that begin in an underground speakeasy bar in Paris and then play over transitional moments throughout the film.  This picture has a great period soundtrack.

Beyond the well diversified mystery, Branagh treats the viewers to gorgeous scenery aboard the boat, but even beneath the surface of the river and within the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt.  There are spectacular starry night skies and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets to take in with palm trees and wildlife in the desert frames.  Sure, I imagine most of it is CGI, but it’s well done and nothing looks artificial.  Costume work is also magnificent as they lend to the distinctiveness of the suspects.  Whether it is evening wear, or casual garb for post-World War I, each character looks so intriguingly lively and different.

Michael Green’s script even delves further into the Poirot character.  There’s a background to that infamous mustache and tiny goatee.  I recall how people responded to the outrageously grotesque facial hair that Branagh donned in his first film as Poirot.  I appreciated it, however.  His appearance was as unforgettable as the red and yellow “S” on Superman’s chest.  Yet, why go to such great lengths, even if this is the early 1900’s amid an exaggeratingly glamourous murder mystery, to grow a mustache like that? Thankfully, there’s reason given here that draws out a dimension to Hercule Poirot both within a ten-minute prologue, and then implied periodically during the course of the film and wrapping up in a bluesy epilogue before the credits roll.  All I’ll say is that absurd mustache delivers a humanity to the film’s protagonist.

Death On The Nile has already suffered from negative publicity involving controversy with some of its cast members.  Its release was also postponed a number of times due to the pandemic.  Finally, it has arrived in theatres and what a refreshing experience it is to see on a big screen.  It opened to a modest box office response in its first weekend, though it finished at number one.  Normally, I don’t care about rankings at the box office.  How much money a film makes does not lend to the merits or faults of a piece.  However, for this film, I think I do care a little.  I hope it becomes a profitable success only to allow more films of the mystery genre to appear on screen in the future.  I’d certainly welcome another gripping yarn from Agatha, out of service from Kenneth Branagh.  Could And Then There Were None… be next?  That’s the real mystery.

MURIEL’S WEDDING (1994, Australia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: P.J. Hogan
Cast: Toni Collette, Bill Hunter, Rachel Griffiths
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 79% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

For years and years, I had always assumed Muriel’s Wedding was your stereotypical romantic comedy.  I mean, come on, it’s got Wedding right there in the title.  The story involves a quirky young woman, obsessed with weddings, who runs away from home to find a new life for herself.  Who knows…maybe she’ll get married herself?

But what am I saying, of COURSE she gets married…once again, it’s in the title.  So, based on that bit of logic, I never made any serious effort to watch this movie.  The rom-com has never been my absolute favorite genre.  For me to enjoy one, it has to really stand out in some way.  Either it must be REALLY different (Stranger Than Fiction), or it must be a shining example of the genre (The Philadelphia Story), or it must be so well written that it sneaks past my defenses (Jersey Girl – I know, I don’t get it either, I just responded to it, leave me alone).  I never imagined Muriel’s Wedding would meet any of those criteria.  On the surface, it didn’t look like much.

Welp…I was wrong.  Be warned because some story spoilers may follow, though I will do my best to be obtuse where necessary.

The plot: Muriel (Toni Collette, in the role that put her on the map) is a painfully awkward, overweight young woman who lives for weddings.  At the opening of the film, she is one of many women fighting for the tossed bouquet at a friend’s wedding, and the look on her face is of pure religious ecstasy.  She wears a hideous leopard print outfit completely out of place with…well, everyone.

Her home life is one of middle-class desperation.  She and her family live in a hopelessly hopeful seaside town called Porpoise Spit.  Her parents are in a loveless marriage, she and her oldest brother are on the dole (that’s “welfare” to us Yanks), and one of her sisters seems capable of greeting her only with the same phrase over and over again: “You’re terrible, Muriel.”  She has “friends”, but when they’re on their way to celebrate their newlywed friend’s discovery that her new husband is already cheating on her (long story), they tell Muriel point blank they don’t want her around anymore because she’s a drag on their image.  Muriel’s reaction to this news is as pitiful and heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

It was around this time that I started to wonder if the word Wedding in the film’s title was some kind of perverse code word for “suicide.”  What’s going on here?  There’s comedy here, but it’s comedy of awkwardness, the kind of comedy that can be painful to watch.

Through an improbable, but satisfying, chain of events, Muriel steals quite a bit of her father’s money, goes on an impromptu vacation, and meets an old schoolmate, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths, in her film debut), who gets Muriel to open up a little.  For the vacation resort’s talent show, they lip-synch and dance to “Dancing Queen” by Abba in white stretch pants, a scene that must have at least partially inspired the makers of Mamma Mia!  Instead of returning home after her vacation, Muriel moves to Sydney and tries to reinvent herself.  At her low points during this time, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the wedding gowns on display at the local bridal shops…

The rest I leave for you to discover.  One of the joys of this movie is how one thing leads to another in completely unexpected ways.  This was, without a doubt, one of the most unpredictable films of any kind that I have ever seen.  I can’t tell you how delightful it is whenever I find a movie that avoids cliches and narrative pitfalls and continually surprises me.

For example, there’s a scene involving – how can I say this without giving too much away – two people clumsily making out, a broken window, two naked men, and a malfunctioning beanbag cushion that had me laughing uproariously.  And then, just when I thought the scene was over, a curveball gets thrown that made me gasp audibly, as if I were watching footage of a dog getting run over.

The whole movie is like that.  For an hour and forty minutes, I was completely and utterly in the dark about what might be coming next.  The screenplay is bloody ingenious.  It starts with what looks like a generic rom-com premise, leads you down the garden path, then removes the path, and then removes the garden.  There are genuinely tender moments, and moments of delight (Muriel’s reactions during her first date are sheer perfection), and one or two shocking moments, and, and, and…  You get the idea.

Muriel’s Wedding gets high marks for its honest performances and its unfailing unpredictability.  The posters and especially the trailers paint the film as an “uproariously funny” comedy, and it is…at the funny parts.  There are also loads of dramatic surprises, and tender moments, and utterly unexpected plot twists.  It’s one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen.