by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Werner Herzog
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Filmmaker Werner Herzog is granted a rare opportunity to film a documentary inside France’s Chauvet Cave, where the walls are covered with the world’s oldest surviving paintings, dating back some 30,000 years.

Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some amazing places, including London, England, where we toured the famous Tower of London.  When I lived in Virginia, we used to visit colonial Williamsburg, where some structures and artifacts exist from the 1600s.  But at the Tower of London, we saw walls and structures that have existed since the 1400s.  Six-hundred-plus years old, man!  Wild!  We saw Anne Boleyn’s final resting place.  THE Anne Boleyn!  Was buried right there.  Freaky.

Then we traveled to Greece, and that really put the zap on me.  We walk to the Acropolis and a tour guide tells us, “And that rock over there is Mars Hill, where the apostle Paul preached to the Greeks over two thousand years ago.”  TWO THOUSAND YEARS.  And in a museum, we saw artifacts dating back to 5,000 BCE, objects that were so old the archaeologists weren’t even sure what they were for.  Religious totems?  Toys for children?  Purely decorative?  Who knows?  I love this kind of thing!  Looking at things that have survived for millennia, created by people who were probably just satisfying a hobby, for all we know.

Now comes Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which he was allowed to film inside the famous Chauvet Cave in France.  Inside are the oldest known artistic renderings of any kind on the planet.  How old?  Approximately thirty thousand years old.  To put that number in perspective, when Paleolithic humans made these paintings, the surrounding area was covered with a glacier that was so huge, when it finally melted, the ocean levels rose three hundred feet.  A hunter could have crossed what is now the English Channel by walking on dry land from coast to coast.  It’s an abyss of time that is utterly incomprehensible to me.

These paintings are indescribably cool to observe.  I’d seen photos before, but to see them on film is an indescribably stirring experience.  There are drawings of horses and wild rhinoceros that look as if they were drawn yesterday.  One animal was drawn with a total of eight legs.  A mistake?  No.  It was an attempt by the artist to convey movement or motion.  PROTO CINEMA.  Mind.  Blown.

There are handprints by some of these drawings.  Were they intended as a signature by the artist?  Perhaps so, because further into the cave are more handprints by other drawings, and we can tell they’re handprints from the same person because of a crooked pinky finger.  A maker’s mark from three hundred centuries ago.

I can’t stop.  On the floor of the cave, nearly obscured by eons of calcification and crystals, are visible footprints of a wolf and a 7-year-old child.  Was the wolf stalking the child as prey?  Were they maybe companions?  Or are the footprints separated by years, or decades, or centuries?  Near what used to be the entrance to the cave – the actual entrance was blocked by a rockslide an unknown number of years ago – is a rock with a flat top like a table, and on the table, facing the entrance, is the skull of a cave bear.  Traces of charcoal at the base hint that incense may have been burned there.  Was this a temple?  A holy place?  Or did they just think it looked badass to have a skull on a table?

This stuff fascinated me.  I found myself thinking about, of all things, a scene from Star Trek: First Contact, when Picard, having traveled back in time, is able to reach out and touch the very first vehicle to achieve warp speed.  He explains to a confused Data that touching something old is a way of somehow reaching back across the centuries and identifying yourself with the people who created it.

That’s what these cave paintings are like.  They’re a conduit back through time.  Along with the paintings, archeologists also discovered remnants of what look like flutes.  One enterprising guy recreates one of these instruments and plays it for the camera.  Using a 30,000-year-old design, this guy knocks out the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.  On a flute made from BONE.

Why did Herzog even want to make this movie?  To be a social activist?  The cave is in no environmental or man-made danger.  There are only two weeks out of every year when anyone is even allowed inside the place.  He filmed it in 3-D.  Was he looking for a fast buck by capitalizing on the 3-D craze around that part of the decade?  It only grossed $5.2 million, a pittance, even by documentary standards.  (Although that was the highest box-office return of any independently released documentary of 2011…so there’s that, I guess.)

So why do this?  Because I believe Werner Herzog is one of the last remaining filmmakers who will make a film simply because he feels he must do so.  He latches onto an idea, and it will not release him until he commits it to film.  He doesn’t particularly care if it’s commercially viable or mainstream or anything.  If he gets an idea (and the funding), he finds a way to get it filmed.  It may not reach everyone, but you know what they say: “If you only reach one person, you succeeded.”

Man, did this reach me.  I was fascinated from beginning to end.  There’s one sequence that is nothing but, I think, 5 or 10 minutes of the camera simply regarding the paintings, slowly panning and tilting, just looking at them, while strange, but appropriate, music plays in the background.  Under any other circumstances, this would be boring.  Here, it was almost holy.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Patricio Guzmán
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100% Certified Fresh

PLOT: This award-winning documentary juxtaposes the search for answers about the history of the cosmos with Chilean women searching the Atacama Desert for the remains of loved ones killed by a despotic regime decades earlier.

I am going to look at the stars.  They are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us…all we ever see of stars are their old photographs. – Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen

If Nostalgia for the Light has one flaw, I might point to its rather abrupt ending.  It comes so quickly it almost cuts off the sentence being spoken by the film’s narrator.  Perhaps it’s metaphorical.  The film is over, but there is no resolution.  The riddles of the cosmos remain unanswered, and the bodies of cherished loved ones remain undiscovered.  If they don’t get a resolution, why should we?

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest places on earth, with an average annual rainfall of 0.5 inches.  With its virtually zero percent humidity, the skies remain remarkably clear at night, making it one of the prime spots on the planet for astronomical observatories.  From these perches, astronomers use massive visible light and radio telescopes to probe the outer reaches of the cosmos, searching for clues to the origins of life, the universe, and everything.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

One astronomer points out that many times, when science finally answers a question, two more pop up to replace it.  He says some people even consider it an exercise in futility.  If every answer only reveals more questions, why bother?  You might as well ask NASA why we sent men to the moon.  Because it’s in man’s nature to know, to try to find out what’s over the next hill or what is beyond the farthest galaxy.

Another scientist explains that the calcium in our very bones literally comes from the stars.  Everything on earth today is descended in one form or another from the Big Bang.  Radio telescopes can measure the calcium levels in distant stars.  (Calcium in stars?  You learn something new every day.)  That calcium came from the Big Bang, and so did Earth’s.  As Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.”  We may die, and we will.  The stuff in our bodies remains, and will eventually help a tree to grow, or a vegetable, and so on and so on.  The circle of life, as it were.

All this information in the film is presented in a very straightforward without flash or fanfare, at least in terms of the narration.  Visually, the filmmakers use great editing with the interiors of huge observatory domes and the immense telescopes within, cut together with stunning vistas of starfields, including shots of our own Milky Way.  Indeed, the film’s narration informs us that, night after night, “slowly, impassively, the center of the galaxy passes over Santiago.”

But this is not simply an overblown episode of “Nova.”  Nostalgia for the Light is divided almost schizophrenically into two parts bumping into each other for the duration of the film.  It’s this second part that gives Nostalgia its heart and soul.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished watching it this afternoon.

In 1974, Augusto Pinochet rose to power in Chile.  His dictatorship lasted for 17 years.  During that time, he imprisoned as many as 80,000 people in concentration camps in the Atacama Desert, killing anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 dissidents.  To cover his tracks, he ordered his military to truck the bodies into the desert and dump them in unmarked mass graves.  It was rumored that he also had many of them thrown into the ocean.  Families were torn apart.  One young woman in the film tells how, when she was 12 months old, her grandparents were forced to reveal the whereabouts of her mother and father, using her as leverage.

For decades since then, women have come to the desert with spades and pickaxes, searching the dry ground for clues to the whereabouts of their loved ones.  The desert is enormous, and there are very few of these women.  In the film, they talk about the people who try to convince them of the futility of their actions.  Not just their friends or family, but public figures, politicians.  They are embarrassing.  They are dredging up a painful past others would prefer to forget.

One of these women wishes the giant telescopes on the distant hilltops could be designed to see through the ground instead of into space, so they wouldn’t have to dig.  They could find the secrets of their past much more quickly.  But of course, that’s exactly what the telescopes are designed to do.  They’re just pointing in a different direction, reaching to a far more distant past.

When I was younger, I was of the belief that a good documentary had to be completely impartial.  It simply documented what was happening without commentary from the filmmakers.  You could use editing to make a point, but it was against the “rules” to editorialize your subject.  And never use a narrator.  Let the audience make up its own mind, right?  The fancy word for this kind of strictly observational filmmaking is “cinéma verité.”

Nowadays, with most modern documentaries I’ve seen, the strictures of “cinéma verité” have gone by the wayside.  Instead of being a passive observer, the director is free to edit together disparate footage and interviews to make their point of view heard loud and clear.  This director, Patricio Guzmán, is using this documentary as a tool for social activism, or at least awareness.  I wouldn’t normally care for this kind of in-your-face, this-is-my-point documentaries.  I have never been a fan of Michael Moore’s films (at least not anything after Roger and Me), and I think Morgan Spurlock’s films are nothing but glorified Jackass stunts.

But Nostalgia for the Light affected me in a way I did not expect.  There is a sequence where an astronomer explains how “the present” isn’t technically real.  Light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach earth.  The light we see from the distant stars are years, decades, centuries old.  What we see in the sky is not the stars’ true position.  It’s where they were years and years ago.  It’s almost as if we’re looking at the memory of light.  This concept, which I’ve heard before, simply boggled my mind this time around.  I don’t know how to explain it.  And then when the film draws parallels between the astronomers searching for answers in the cosmos to the sad, determined women searching for closure in the desert, and the perceived futility of both ventures in the minds of so many…it’s very difficulty to put into words.  I felt that I was watching, or perceiving, something that transcended my poor abilities to describe it.

The astronomers search for answers to better our world and themselves.  The women in the desert search to bring closure to their lives and to the lives of the ones they lost.  They cannot forget, as so many in their country have willingly forgotten.

Director Guzmán also narrates the film, and I believe the crux of the entire film can be explained in one of his lines: “…those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moments.  Those who have none don’t live anywhere.”


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager, and in his final acting role, Ronald Reagan
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80%

PLOT: A hit man and his sadistic partner try to find out why their latest victim, a former race-car driver, did not try to escape.

…well, THAT was disappointing.

Fresh off watching the original The Killers from 1946, I dove into the 1964 remake.  Originally intended for television – indeed, this was supposed to have been the very first made-for-TV movie – it contained so much casual violence and sexual content that no network would touch it, not even the network that commissioned it, NBC.  It was imported to movie screens, pillarbox framing and all, where it cemented Lee Marvin’s status as one of the all-time great Hollywood tough guys.  (How tough?  He reportedly shot a scene while he was literally falling-down drunk.  That’s the take that’s in the film; you’ll know which scene it is when you see it.)

But while Lee Marvin is indeed tough, and even though his partner (Clu Gulager) plays a sociopathic killer who brings tension to every scene he’s in, I couldn’t get as worked up over this remake as I did over the original version.  Those two performances aside, this movie felt cliched and a little boring to me.

The story is the same as the original, with a couple of minor changes.  Two hitmen stroll into a school for the blind (!) and gun down Johnny North (John Cassavetes) in broad daylight.  Afterwards, Charlie, the veteran hitman (Lee Marvin) latches on to something he can’t figure out: why didn’t the target try to escape?  He does his own digging which leads him to a motley assortment of thugs and one duplicitous dame, Sheila (Angie Dickinson), who isn’t just a gold-digger, she’s a gold-strip-miner.  Turns out North was part of a million-dollar heist along with Sheila and some other thugs, including Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).  The heist was successful, but after a series of double-crosses, no one seems to know where the money is.  With his seriously psycho partner, Lee (Gulager), Charlie tracks down the witnesses, and we get the same flashback structure as the original.  And the more he digs, the less he likes what he finds…

One major factor that didn’t score many points with me was the production’s obvious roots in television.  As you can well imagine, lighting on a movie set is very different from lighting for television.  And this movie looks like a TV movie through and through.  At the time, because of the relatively smaller screens of most televisions, it was believed that a movie shot FOR television needed bright lights and especially colors, so the pictures would be clearly visible on the tiny screens.  Well, in this remake, everything is so brightly lit and colorful it looks an episode of Star Trek or any other TV series of that era.  The very brightness of the surroundings drains a lot of the tension out of scenes that are meant to be disturbing or violent.  Blood doesn’t look like blood; it looks like Sherwin Williams.  I’m aware of the technical limitations of the time, but the shortcomings are just so obvious that it left me cold.

(By comparison, the original 1946 version is steeped in darkness and shadows and pools of light; it’s not only more beautiful, but it also just works better for the story.)

I also had problems with the casting of some of the big character roles, but my momma always said, if you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.

The editing was also a little distracting.  Again, this might be a factor of the period when it was made, as well as the fact that it was intended for TV, not the movies.  But one scene annoyed the heck out of me.  I don’t normally nit-pick bad editing, but here goes.

There’s a scene where someone has to drive a car down the length of a winding dirt road within two minutes, if not faster.  Zoom, off he goes.  And as we cut back and forth to various shots showing the car’s progress, instead of cutting directly to a different vantage point or camera angle, it’s cut with fades, which are normally used to indicate a passage of time.  But when the fades are used in what is basically a race against time, it has the effect of making the scene feel longer than two minutes, even though only 30-40 seconds of real time have elapsed.  It made the whole scene feel “off”, even amateurish.  Director Siegel had already directed 15 or 16 films by this time.  I think he should have known better.  Or his editor should have.

By the time we get to the end of the film, we’ve seen someone get dangled out of a hotel window from seven stories up, six or seven people get shot dead (one by a sniper rifle), more double-crosses than a Luftwaffe squadron, and a future hardline conservative President of the United States play…a villain.  But it all felt like an exercise in futility.  Sure, you get Lee Marvin playing a tough guy, but in three short years he’d get to play a really tough guy in Point Blank.  THAT’S the movie you wanna see. Or go find Dirty Harry, or even Escape from Alcatraz, both directed by Don Siegel, both superior films.

This one?  This one I only got because it came packaged with the 1946 version on the Criterion Blu-ray.  Do with that information what you will.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien (and William Conrad in a small role…and yes, he was a big fella even then)
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%

PLOT: An insurance investigator tries to get to the bottom of a strange case involving a man who waited calmly for two men to find him and kill him.

Over the last several months, I’ve been digging a little more into the film noir genre, specifically going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I’ve discovered some gems.  Pickup on South Street (1953), for example, featuring one of the most violent fight scenes to be found outside of a Tarantino film.  Or The Killing (1956), an early Stanley Kubrick film depicting the kind of ruthless behavior that I didn’t think was permitted at the time.  I’m discovering that, for the adventurous moviegoers back then, there were films available to see that might have made their parents or grandparents gasp in horror.

Take the movie I watched today, The Killers (1946), the film noir that introduced Burt Lancaster to the world.  It’s based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway that was also adapted into a film in 1964, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and, in his last film role, Ronald Reagan.  [Watch this space for a review of that film, coming soon.]  At the beginning of this movie, we’re introduced to two thugs who walk into a small town, cloaked in the kinds of shadows and light that only film noir can get away with.  After terrorizing the patrons of a small diner, they walk to a nearby boarding house and up the stairs to a room occupied by Ole Anderson, aka “The Swede” (Lancaster), who has been alerted to their arrival but makes no effort to escape or call the cops.  He simply awaits his fate.

And what a fate.  The two thugs burst into the room and obliterate the Swede in a hail of gunfire that goes on for quite a long time, even by today’s standards.  (Later, the coroner describes the Swede’s body as being nearly “cut in half” by the barrage…yikes.)  This being 1946, we don’t see any of the actual carnage, but the implication is there.

The movie proceeds in a series of flashbacks.  An insurance investigator named Jim (Edmond O’Brien) tries to find out two things: why the Swede named a kindly hotel maid as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and what happened to the $250,000 payroll that the Swede helped steal from a hat factory.  Now that I think about it, The Killers is almost like a thick-necked, brass-knuckles, gun-toting variation on Citizen Kane.  We never see anything about the Swede that wasn’t directly observed by someone Jim tracks down, and as Jim continues to dig, things just get mysteriouser and mysteriouser.

Figuring prominently in the Swede’s backstory is Kitty Collins, played by the ravishing Ava Gardner.  This was not her first film, but The Killers is the movie that put her on the map for good.  We first see Kitty when the Swede goes to a fancy party with his girlfriend, Lilly.  Alas, Lilly is no match for the sultry Kitty, who is wearing the kind of stunning black gown that inspires poetry when it isn’t simply driving men crazy.  How crazy?  At one point, when Kitty is caught by a cop wearing shoplifted jewelry, the Swede claims responsibility, slugs the cop, and winds up doing three years in jail for her.  Talk about being Kitty-whipped.

Naturally, as Jim, the insurance guy, meets more people, the Swede’s story comes more sharply into focus, but there’s still the mystery of what happened to all that money.  The robbery was indeed pulled off by the Swede with three other guys, but none of them have the money, and the Swede doesn’t have the money, so where is it?  As it turns out, the hat factory they stole from is insured by the same company that provided the Swede’s life insurance policy, so it’s in Jim’s best interest to get to the bottom of everything and recover the money, even if it means getting involved with the same kinds of thugs who killed the Swede in the first place.  That’s okay, though.  Jim is prepared.  He carries his own piece, and he comes up with a cool plan to get the guilty parties to confess as much as possible before they wind up dead…or he does.

The Killers is an example of a film that helped define, or at least refine, the relatively new film noir genre.  Similar films centering on crime, criminals, and punishment had been around since the ‘30s, but the real granddaddy of them all, The Maltese Falcon, had only been released five years earlier in 1941.  Since then, World War II came and went, and as dark as noir had been, it got even darker and more violent than Bogey was when he slapped Peter Lorre around.  With this film, director Robert Siodmak turned everything up to eleven.  The shadows aren’t just dark, they’re black, which of course makes the periodic pools of light that much more striking.

And the characters mean business, too.  Among the bad guys, there’s one named Colfax who doesn’t look like much – sort of like a moderately well-built school principal.  But when a genuine thug threatens to fight him, he doesn’t posture like a bully.  He just sits back in his chair and calmly tells the thug: “You’ve got quite a reputation yourself.  You’re supposed to be a troublemaker.  Okay.  Make some.”  And you just know that if the thug so much as lifts a finger, he’ll get it broken for his trouble.  It’s an interesting scene that reminded me of Goodfellas: “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

(I should also mention the flashback involving the payroll robbery.  In today’s films, when we marvel at long takes involving complicated camera moves, it’s good to be reminded that, three-quarters of a century ago, The Killers gave us a heist sequence that starts at ground level, follows the robbers up a staircase, shows the actual robbery, follows them back down into their getaway cars, and even provides a small-scale shootout as they drive away – all in one uncut take, using a camera about the size and weight of a SmartCar.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Killers, I wouldn’t quite put it in the same weight class as, say, Out of the Past or The Big Sleep, but it’s got all the right ingredients, it tells a good story well, it gives us Ava Gardner in that gown, and it provided a great springboard for the films that came after.  Good film noir is fine; GREAT film noir is better.  This is one of the great ones.

[P.S.  The scene near the beginning of the film where the two thugs terrorize the people at the diner reminded me strongly of the scene in No Country for Old Men when Anton Chigurh quietly tells the store clerk to “call it.”  They were just as calm and serene and tightly coiled as Chigurh.  Pretty creepy.]

AN EDUCATION (2009, Great Britain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Carey Mulligan
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

Lone Scherfig’s An Education, written by famed British author/screenwriter Nick Hornby, is yet another example of how my preconceived notions of a film are often very wrong.  Based on the plot description above, I assumed I was in for what I call a “spinach movie”: something that’s good for you, but not a lot of fun to eat.  I thought the film would be dark and deep, delving into unsavory territory involving a predatory older man putting the make on an underage girl.  Lessons would be learned, but it would be an uncomfortable watch.

For about the first half of the film, I felt I was mostly right.  It’s 1962 in England, and Jenny (Carey Mulligan in her first major role) is a sixteen-year-old student who is studying hard to pass her A-levels – I think I got that right – with flying colors, which she hopes will give a favorable impression to the admissions board at Oxford.  Her father (Alfred Molina) supports her plans…or rather, he supports HIS plans for her.  He gives several impassioned speeches about the importance of getting a higher education, making sacrifices, dropping her cello hobby, etcetera, all in the service of getting those Oxford-level grades.

One day, Jenny gets caught in the rain and is rescued by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man driving an irresistible maroon sportscar.  He isn’t just charming, he’s effortlessly charming, turning the exact right phrases to put Jenny at ease.  The morning after he drives her home, he leaves a bouquet of flowers at her doorstep.  He bumps into her again quite by accident, or “accident”, and asks her on a date for dinner and a concert.  For this, he must convince Jenny’s very suspicious father…which he does with silver-tongued ease.

Jenny is caught up in this whirlwind of attention from a much older man who is clearly well off with sophisticated friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).  Jenny’s father, Jack (Alfred Molina), is torn between his protective instincts and the idea that Jenny might have met a man who could make her dreams of Oxford…moot.  Why worry about the expense of university when a rich husband can keep his daughter well cared for?

Despite the father’s (and my own) forebodings, Jenny is genuinely enjoying herself.  She loves music, so David takes her to a concert.  She loves art, so David takes her to an art auction.  She loves learning and speaking French, so David takes her to Paris.  His method of getting Jenny’s father to agree to this overnight trip is simultaneously simple and diabolical.  Jenny is having fun for what seems to be the first time in her life.

She’s having so much fun that, for a while, I wasn’t quite sure what the movie was advocating.  Is it supporting this relationship?  She has a very frank conversation with David regarding her wish to remain a virgin until her seventeenth birthday.  David agrees…then, in one of the ballsiest (and creepiest) moves I’ve ever seen from a guy in a movie, he asks her to give him a “peek.”  What is going on?!?  This guy is clearly a cad.  But he’s so nice to her…and she’s having fun…!

Put it this way: I was prepared to throw something at the television by this point.

Around the midway point, though, the movie finally makes its true purpose known.  It’s not about judging Jenny, which is too easy to do, or even judging David, which is ridiculously easy to do.  The film is based on a memoir by a British journalist named Lynn Barber, which made some of the revelations about David’s past and how he makes a living easier to swallow, knowing that it’s based at least partially on fact.  It also made all the “icky” parts in the first half of the film a little more palatable.  When you realize that someone really went through this, it puts everything in a different light.  I had the same epiphany during Schindler’s List; the concept that this all actually happened brought a deeper level to the viewing experience that I hadn’t expected.  (It’s also what made Fargo so much more entertaining than your average crime film, but that’s another story…)

Anyway, this happens and that happens, and before you know it, Jenny has made the kinds of decisions that would make grown men and women tremble with anxiety. The movie’s title takes on a whole new meaning.  It’s not just about Oxford anymore.  It’s about studying at the University of Life, where the only way to know if you passed your test is if you’re still willing to take the next one, and the next, and the next.  Even David learns a thing or two.  Maybe.  It’s a little inconclusive when it comes to that guy.  What a jackass.

So…is it any good?  Yes, it is.  It’s got brilliant performances working from a Nick Hornby script that switches easily among pathos and embarrassment humor (witness the predicament of Jenny’s other suitor at her 17th birthday party) and even a little suspense.  I tend to think of Hornby as Britain’s answer to Cameron Crowe.  Hornby’s books and screenplays walk that same tightrope time after time (About a Boy, High Fidelity, the original Fever Pitch – soccer, not baseball), just like Crowe’s best work (Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Almost Famous, which I don’t particularly love, but I do acknowledge its craftsmanship).  By the time I got to the end of An Education, the double- or triple-meaning of the title is fully realized.  Everyone has learned something.  Not all of it has been good.  It doesn’t all tickle.  But, except possibly for David, everyone has taken what they’ve learned, good or bad, and put it to good use.  That’s a satisfying ending.

[Side note: after this movie was over, I found myself thinking of Licorice Pizza and its plot regarding an underage boy and an adult woman. I can imagine my friend and partner-in-crime reading my favorable review above and asking me, “If you like this movie, how can you not like Licorice Pizza?” (He really loved Licorice Pizza.) The difference is that, by the time An Education is over, the characters have EVOLVED. Discuss.]


By Marc S. Sanders

Within the first three minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, there is impactful transition that goes reverse in time.  Van Morrison supplies the music to the film and it opens in bright color capturing glimpses of the thriving city.  There are well paved highways with ongoing traffic.  Fresh painted construction cranes stand in front of a blue sky with a warm sun.  Buildings have beautiful architecture.  There are pieces of eye-popping art within the city.  It looks like the most gorgeous vacation destination.  Even the opening credits are stenciled in nice gold font.  Then Branagh’s camera lifts up over a wall and the screen reverses back in time to August, 1969 where it’s depicted in black and white.  A sweet blond-haired boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) is holding a stick and a trash can lid as he slays an imaginary dragon, but then reality dawns upon him and violent riots erupt on the street he lives on. Cars are set on fire, windows are smashed, bricks are thrown, and Molotov cocktails burst into flames.  What we see as prosperity now, had a history at one time, and history is not always something to embrace.  Belfast reminds us that it was ugly before it got better.

Belfast, Ireland in the late 60s/early 70s is shown through the eyes of Buddy.  Branagh never has Buddy be forced to grow up so fast, despite the inflamed conflicts between Protestants and Catholics living in Ireland.  He plays in the park.  He watches Star Trek on TV.  He does his math homework with his Pop (Ciaran Hinds). He’s a little bit of a troublemaker as he pockets chocolate from the local candy store.  He also escorts his grandmother (Judi Dench) to the movies and live theater.  He’s a happy little kid, but he’s also wise to the new world thrust upon his doorstep.  It’s hard not to see the make shift barrier walls of junk at the end of the block and the sometimes-questioning policemen.

His Pa (Jamie Dornan) leaves for two-week trips for work, but when he’s home, Buddy eyes upon his Pa’s childhood friend intimidating him to join the cause to rid the area of Catholicism.  His Pa is put into an “either you’re for us or you’re against us” dilemma.  Pa does not sway so easily. 

His Ma (Catriona Balfe) tries to keep things as normal as possible.  A surprising moment occurs when Buddy gets swept up in looting a grocery store with the rioters.  He runs home with a box of laundry detergent.  Ma will not stand for that and escorts him back to the store to return the item.  Ma gets a full account at this moment of what’s become of their hometown when all she wants to do is properly discipline and raise her child.

As tensions rise over the coming months, Ma debates with Pa about whether to leave Belfast for a new life in the United Kingdom.  I think this becomes more traumatic for Buddy than the random violence he periodically witnesses.  He’d have to leave his grandparents and his school and his friends.  As well, he’s been working so hard to keep his grades up so that he can sit at the front of class, next to the young girl he pines for.  They are working on a science project that recounts the historic first trip to the moon.

Belfast is a rather short film, but Branagh’s script offers much.  It focuses on a piece of mid-twentieth century European history that I was never familiar with.  The film gives you the minimum details through conversations and sound bites from news broadcasts.  That’s fine, but my attention span was waning at times.  It’s not fair for me to criticize the picture this way.  I just couldn’t relate to the culture of the community, and so I just was not engaged on this one and only viewing.

It’s clearly well-made, and Branagh presents a convincing depiction primarily of this one residential block that this family lives on.  While Buddy’s exploits are endearing and there are especially good performances all around, the riot violence is scary with harsh sound editing of screams and shattering window panes.  The cinematography is strong, especially when it contrasts with color.  The choice is made to depict a live performance of A Christmas Carol in color while the seated audience with Buddy and his grandmother stays in black and white.  Branagh does a cool effect by having bright orange stage lights reflect in Dench’s eye glasses which remain in monochrome.  When the family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the movie screen is in color like the film they are watching.  The characters of Belfast remain in black and white, though.  This family and others like them, remember these tumultuous times in a dull, gray perspective.  It was a non-celebratory and often harsh way to live.  The escapism they partake will always be preserved in promising and welcome colors, however.  This is a fantastic storytelling device.

As Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed the piece, it’s clear that he strove for his exact vision and he has a personal achievement he should be proud of.  There doesn’t appear to be any compromise to his picture.  It’s very well directed with its cast performances, the town extras and the technical choices made.  Yet, the film never grabbed me emotionally.  Belfast exists to simply to show how this family survived day to day with turmoil surrounding them.  If anything, at least I learned something new within the confines of Ireland from fifty years ago.


By Marc S. Sanders

CODA is a film directed by Sian Heder that focuses on a New England fisherman family known as the Rossis.  There is Frank, the dad, Jacki, the mom, Leo, the son, and then there is Ruby, the daughter.  Frank, Jacki and Leo are deaf. Ruby is not.  Ruby is the family interpreter by default.  She’s content with holding the title, but as she is close to finishing high school, it’s seeming less and less fair.  That’s the conflict at play with CODA.  At times, it’ll make you laugh hysterically and it’ll also make you cry for multiple reasons.  You’ll cry as Ruby breaks free from her reserved lifestyle and shyness, and you’ll also cry because Ruby seems likely to miss out on a lifetime of opportunity with her god given talent of singing.

Ruby is portrayed by Emilia Jones.  Watch out for this actor.  She will be the next big sensation.  It amazes me that she was not nominated for an Academy Award.  Jones operates on so many levels in this film.  She learned fluent sign language for the role, in addition to singing gorgeous harmonies, and operating a fishing boat.  Oh yeah.  She has to act the role too, and Ruby Rossi has got to be one of the best protagonists of the last 10 years in film.  She’s an absolute hero. 

Ruby follows a rigid routine of waking up at 3:00am every day.  She goes out on the boat with Frank and Leo to bring in fish to sell on the dock later in the day.  It’s practically necessary to have her there as the one hearing person out in the open sea.  From there, she races her bike over to school.  She’s only adding to her plate when she opts to join the school choir to be close to a school crush named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).  

The problem is that Ruby is incredibly shy.  So, when the music teacher known as Mr. V (a brilliantly energetic Lonnie Farmer) requests she sing solo following a long line up of students ahead of her, she retreats in fear.  Mr. V knows there’s something there though, and he gradually uncovers the singing voice Ruby never realized she had.  Suddenly, he’s proposing the idea of preparing an audition where she could attend the Berklee College of Music.  Ruby is reluctant at first, but Mr. V instills confidence in her talents.  However, he doesn’t stand for her tardiness at private rehearsals either.  He demands she takes this seriously, even if she has to tend to her family.  He’ll also make her tough, not willing to let her surrender to those that tease and bully her at school.  I swear that Lonnie Farmer must be a music teacher on the side. What an inspiring individual he portrays.  He’s hilariously intimidating in his classroom, but loved by his students in this film.  He should have gotten an Oscar nomination as well, and he ranks up there with other celebrated teacher characters in film history.  Completely unforgettable.

The Rossis are in the middle of a crisis.  The dock where they keep their boat and sell their fish supply is charging outrageous fees to all of the fisherman.  What makes it harder for this family though is the communication barriers they encounter.  Frank (Troy Kotsur) relies on Ruby to speak on his behalf, even cursing them out when necessary.  In response to the challenge, Jacki (Marlee Matlin) starts to sell their fish privately to circumvent around the overbearing-imposed taxes.  Yet, she also depends on Ruby to speak on her behalf during a news interview or with customers.  On the other hand, Leo (Daniel Durant) insists that Ruby should follow her own path.  Leo reminds everyone that just because he’s deaf doesn’t mean he’s dumb and he can handle the business.

CODA is a coming-of-age picture.  While the title may stand for “child of deaf adults,” Heder’s film focuses further away from deafness being an obstacle as the film moves along.  It lends more attention to Ruby’s dilemma of not being able to be in three places at once.  She’s only living a different life than that of her family, and that’s a problem I’d argue happens for most of us.  Eventually, we all have to leave our nests   

It becomes problematic when she has to deal with doctor visits on behalf of her parents where she embarrassingly has to explain to them the doctor says not have sex in order to heal their jock itch.  Frank and Jacki have sex in the house, completely unaware of how loud they are while Miles is over to practice singing.  Frank loves to play gangster rap at a high volume to feel the beat of the bass.  Imagine how that looks for Ruby when he’s picking her up at school.  These issues are as inconvenient as any family makes someone feel.  Frank, Jacki, Leo and Ruby enjoy their lives.  It’s just hard at times to enjoy their lives together.  Isn’t that the case for any of us?

CODA is so aware of its subjects on singing, deafness, sign language, family, fishing and first love.  Ruby has a multitude of relationships that are explored.  She has to deal with her affections towards Miles.  She has her mentor, Mr. V, to answer to.  Ruby has to understand that Leo can depend on himself, and she has to balance what is best for her while questioning how much she can give of herself to her mom and dad.  What wonderful storytelling conflicts there are to explore here!  Sian Heder’s Oscar nominated script allows enough time in just under two hours to meet the demands of each angle presented. 

I’m always pointing out how much I love random singing or dancing that appears in non-musical films.  CODA is another perfect example.  Ironically, I just read that the film is actually going to be adapted into a stage musical.  It has to happen.  It’ll break through so many glass ceilings on the limitations people have presumed comes with deafness.  Deafness is never a limitation. In the film, however, each time Ruby sings either solo or as a duet with Miles, your pulse will race.  Emilia Jones has vocals that lift your spirits and make you appreciate the gift of actually being able to listen and hear.  So many of us take that for granted.  Sian Heder’s film will remind you not to.  Just watching Frank place his palms on his daughter’s throat while she sings to him, reminds you that the gift of sound, whether you hear it or not, is a beautiful thing.  Frank doesn’t hear the song.  Rather, he feels the vibration of song.

CODA is one of the best pictures of 2021.  When you watch CODA, it’s simply easy to just embrace CODA.

BEN-HUR (1959)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in 1st-century Jerusalem, he regains his freedom and returns for revenge.

For my money, 1959’s record-setting production of Ben-Hur would be a better pick for an annual Easter flick over C.B. de Mille’s overblown The Ten Commandments.  Certainly, Commandments shows the actual story of Passover and might lay claim to more special effects sequences, but Ben-Hur feels grander AND more intimate at the same time.  Plus it actually shows Christ and the crucifixion at the end, and what better symbols could you ask for in an Easter film?

Then, of course, there’s that chariot race.  Game, set, and match.

Ben-Hur was created in an era when Hollywood was watching its profits dwindle because of the advent of television, which was keeping more and more people glued to their sets at home instead of paying for a ticket at the box office.  One way to get people back into theaters was to take the “bigger-is-better” approach: do things that were impossible on a TV budget.

Consider these statistics: Three hundred separate sets were built for Ben-Hur.  The chariot race alone required 15,000 extras on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome and took 10 weeks to shoot.  Over a million props were needed, and it took two years to amass them all before shooting.  Approximately 1.25 million feet of expensive 65mm film was exposed and developed at a cost of roughly a dollar per foot.  The budget for the film ballooned to nearly $15 million, equivalent to over $146 million in today’s dollars, an unthinkable amount in the late 1950s.

But when it was released, Ben-Hur made history by being the first film to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.  It remains the only film to date to win Best Picture and Best Visual Effects.  At the box office, it raked in $75 million ($731 million when adjusted for inflation), making it one of the most profitable films in Hollywood history at the time.  It remains popular today, ranked in the IMDb’s top 250 most popular movies and listed as the #2 epic film of all time by the American Film Institute.  (#1 is Lawrence of Arabia, naturally.)

How does a 63-year-old film, with a running time of 3 hours and 42 minutes, with a blatantly religious plotline culminating in the crucifixion of Christ and a shamelessly manipulative miracle, and featuring some of the hammiest acting this side of Bollywood, remain as popular as it is?  Because despite its shortcomings, it does what every film should do, long or short, sacred or secular: it tells a rollicking good story, and it does it extremely well.

After a solemn prologue depicting the first Nativity, we jump forward 26 years and meet Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy Judean prince who enjoys a reunion with his old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd).  They grew up together but went their separate ways, and now Messala is a Roman tribune assigned to keep the peace in Judea.  Poor Judah realizes just how far they’ve grown apart when an accident leads Messala to arrest Judah and his mother and sister, to demonstrate his power and loyalty to Rome.  Judah vows vengeance and is sentenced to die as a galley slave.  But fate intervenes in the form of Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Roman general whose life Judah saves in battle.  Arrius befriends Judah and officially adopts him as his own son, giving Judah the means to return to his homeland, wreak his vengeance upon Messala, and rescue his mother and sister from prison.

…and that’s just Act One.  Act Two focuses heavily on Judah’s revenge in the form of one of the greatest set pieces in Hollywood history: the chariot race.  Or, more properly, The Chariot Race.  If you’ve never seen it, Google/YouTube it.  Even viewed as a stand-alone scene, it is as breathtaking and thrilling as any car chase ever filmed.  It’s so good that George Lucas cribbed many of its beats for the pod-race sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  The crashes you see during the race were planned, but they were performed with real stuntmen in real danger.  Note especially one sensational stunt where a 2-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses, at full gallop, approach a crashed chariot in their path.  The horses leap the chariot, then the chariot dangerously rolls over the crash itself, hurling the stuntman so high into the air he nearly topples head over heels over the front of his own chariot.  I am at a loss to imagine how they could possibly accomplish this same scene today without the use of visual effects.

Peppered throughout the story are brief scenes featuring Jesus of Nazareth, although we never hear Him speak, and we never see His face.  In Act One, He offers water to Judah as he is being marched to the galleys, a compassionate act that will resonate through the years.  Later He is glimpsed from a distance delivering the Sermon on the Mount.  And later still, we see His trial, His journey to Golgotha, and His crucifixion.  Everyone involved in those scenes show the appropriate and expected levels of awe and sadness, while the score plays a mournful dirge.  It’s a little ham-handed by today’s standards, especially when compared to modern films like The Passion of the Christ, but it is still effective.

The movie’s highest level of filmmaking, apart from The Chariot Race, is on its best display in the first half of the movie.  Nearly two-and-a-half hours fly by, thanks to superb editing.  It’s never boring or soapy.  (Well…ALMOST never soapy.  The requisite love scenes between Judah and the slave girl Esther, played by the lovely Haya Harareet, are not as easy to watch as the rest of the film, but thankfully there aren’t that many of them.)  Every event and every scene feels crucial to the story.  There’s never a moment that drags.  Like the best epic films, watching Ben-Hur makes me feel like I’m reading a richly detailed novel.

If the film has a major downfall, it’s the story that follows The Chariot Race.  The movie doesn’t exactly grind to a halt, but it doesn’t offer the viewer any kind of climactic punches that can match the visceral effect of Judah’s capture, escape, and victory in the race.  (Sorry if I spoiled that for you, but if you seriously thought he lost that race, seek help.)  Sure, there’s the capture and crucifixion of Jesus and the miraculous aftermath, but while that satisfies the true arc of the story, I still, to this day, feel like the film deflates a little at the end.  There’s simply nothing it can offer that could possibly follow up that damn Chariot Race.  The race is the payoff.  Everything that follows feels anti-climactic.

That quibble aside, Ben-Hur is still as captivating as it ever was, with “old” Hollywood’s full power brought to bear to bring audiences a cinematic experience unlike any other at that time.  No matter where you might stand when it comes to its religious overtones, you can’t deny that the movie is exactly as respectful as it needs to be for this story.  And ultimately, the message of the film isn’t “An eye for an eye.”  It’s “Love thy enemy as thyself.”  It takes Judah Ben-Hur a little while to get there.  But he gets there.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 69%

PLOT: A year after their father’s funeral, three brothers travel across India by train in an attempt to bond with each other.

In one of the bonus features on the Criterion Blu-ray for Wes Anderson’s charming The Darjeeling Limited, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey because (I’m paraphrasing here) it is the perfect distillation of the director’s method, mood, and style.  I would reserve that distinction for either The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, myself, but The Darjeeling Limited certainly does capture everything that is typical of a Wes Anderson film: charm, whimsy, troubled souls, a quest of some kind, attention-grabbing camera moves, frequent slo-mo (but not too much), cameos, light and dark material jockeying for position, and a denouement that may signal the end of the film but certainly not the final arc of the main characters.

Meet the Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman).  A year ago, their father died, and for the first time since that day, they’re about to meet each other and speak to other on board The Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them across India on a spiritual journey.  Francis, the eldest, is the eager organizer of this little pilgrimage, providing everyone with laminated daily itineraries that are produced by Brendan, his personal assistant who is also travelling in a separate train car.  Francis will spend much of the film wearing bandages on his head and face that make him look as if he lost a fight with a honey badger.  What caused these injuries is not for me to say.

The ostensible reason for this journey is spiritual awakening and reconnecting with each other.  “I want us to become brothers again like we used to be and for us to find ourselves and bond with each other,” says Francis.  Peter and Jack are skeptical and not exactly psyched for this little trip, each for their own reasons.  Peter has a wife back home, 7-and-a-half months pregnant, who has no idea he’s in India.  Jack, a writer, has broken up with his girlfriend, but he obsessively checks her voicemails remotely because he still has the code to her answering machine.  (Hey, this was made in 2007 when you could still do that.)  He has his own return ticket in case he wants to leave the trip early.  Of course, he’ll find that difficult without his passport, which Francis has confiscated.  “For safety,” he argues.  Yeah, right.

There is an ulterior motive for the trip, having to do with who did and didn’t attend their father’s funeral, but ultimately the ins and outs of the characters, while engaging, kind of take a back seat to the trademark Wes Anderson visual style.  This is not a bad thing.  I am not a fan of Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, because I felt it was all posturing with no meat to the story.  However, with each successive film of his, I become more and more endeared and captivated with his trademarks, especially when he uses it to tell stories that I would never have thought would “mesh” with his style.

For example, near the halfway point of the film, an extremely unexpected crisis occurs.  Because the movie has been happy and bouncy and witty up to now, it comes completely out of left field.  But remarkably, in the middle of this action, Anderson’s camera remains as “Anderson-esque” as ever, still performing quick pans and push-ins and keeping me involved in the story.  This crisis might have felt contrived in another film, a plot device to inject some needed drama into the story.  Not here.  Anderson’s storytelling methods made the event feel as random as anything life might throw at us on any given day: the death of a parent, the birth of a child, a snake getting loose in your train compartment, etcetera.

With one or two obvious exceptions (I think), the entire film was shot in India.  The trusty IMDb trivia page informs me the train scenes themselves were filmed inside a moving train travelling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.  The beautiful Indian locations are a major feature of the film.  They visit temples, marketplaces, a monastery, and hilltops overlooking vast Indian vistas.

And all the while, Francis, Jack, and Peter struggle to come to grips with their differences and their brotherhood.  “I wonder if the three of us would’ve been friends in real life,” Jack asks at one point.  Great question.  Given what we see in the film, it’s sometimes hard to believe they ever loved each other.  At one point, Francis and Peter get into a wrestling match and Jack has to step in: “I love you, but I’m gonna mace you in the face!”  That’s real love right there.  Right?  I guess…

I’ve heard that if you’re ever not sure what a book or a movie is about, just look at how a character has changed at the end of the story as opposed to what they were like at the beginning.  In The Darjeeling Limited, that’s not so easy to pin down.  I can see that Francis has grown a bit (he eventually relinquishes his brothers’ passports).  But when it comes to Jack and Peter…I’m not sure much has changed with them at all.  Does that make this Francis’s movie through and through?

I’m not sure it matters.  I mean, yes, the story is fun to watch, and I wanted to see where this journey would lead each one of the three brothers.  But for me, the element, or factor, or whatever, that makes The Darjeeling Limited so fun to watch is the directorial style of Wes Anderson.  In this film, as in so many of his films, it’s not about the destination.  It’s about the journey.

[Trivia note: the Criterion Blu-ray also contains a short film called Hotel Chevalier which is intended as a kind of prologue to The Darjeeling Limited.  Don’t make the mistake I did…if you get the Blu-ray, be sure to watch the movie with the prologue.  Don’t wait until after watching the main feature.]

[Super-nerdy trivia note: every musical cue in the film was cribbed from the early films of James Ivory and Satyajit Ray; Wes Anderson wanted to pay tribute to the filmmakers who influenced so much of his style.]


By Marc S. Sanders

Boogie Nights was director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature following a very different and very quiet film debut with the gambling addiction piece Hard Eight.

Heck, it’s fair to say all of Paul’s films are very different; here is the seediness of porn while later in his career he will focus on the ruthlessness of a wealthy and angry oil man and then an obsessed dressmaker devoid of care for the models who parade his accomplishments. (See There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread.). Paul was definitely striving for recognition with his familial depiction of life in the California pornographic film industry.

What I’ve always liked about Boogie Nights was Anderson’s intent to show the naive innocence of this large cast of characters. Filming blatantly oblivious awful porn scenarios can still be regarded as very proud efforts by its talent.

The main character is Eddie Adams (aka the amazing Dirk Diggler) played with macho pathos by Mark Wahlberg. It’ll likely be the best role of Wahlberg’s entire career. Dirk is proud of his natural talent in front of the camera. He’s even more proud of what God has gifted him. Don Cheadle is another porn star named Buck. He’s also proud of his accomplishments and simply a kind fellow looking to make country cowboy a trendy look for a black man while selling the “Hi-est Fidelity” in stereo equipment on the side. Julianne Moore is Amber Waves, the maternal porn mom of the bunch; very affectionate, very comforting and very reassuring when Dirk shoots his first porn scene. The one individual who really holds all of these misfits together is Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, the porn film director. He’s the paternal one who believes in his artistic merits of shooting porn but with a story, and only with the integrity of film, and never the cheapness of videotape. So, Jack is like any artist who insists on a certain type of canvas. It might be smut, but he has principles, and he has pride.

Anderson is wise in how he divides up the developments. The film begins in the late 1970s during evening night life and decadence and everything seems fine and innocent and right despite the endless debauchery of reckless sex and drug use on a Disco backdrop. Wahlberg’s character is welcomed lovingly into this world, and nothing appears wrong. It all seems to stay that way for Dirk until New Year’s Eve, 1979. The 80s begin with a gunshot and then Anderson’s cast must pay for the revelry of their sins. A great moment presented on this night is where Amber Waves introduces Dirk to cocaine. Dirk has been thriving, making money, developing a following and now it is jeopardized in one moment thanks to his naivety. Julianne Moore is superb in this particular scene against Wahlberg. She’s the mentor with the peer pressure to pass on her high and keep it running.

Drug addiction, violence, sexual abuse and even changes in pop culture lead to hard times for these likable people.

It’s a hard life. It’s a complicated life. Yet it’s not all necessarily illegal. Morally, it might appear wrong, but it’s a life nonetheless.

Anderson was wise to use (at the time, relatively new) filming techniques of Martin Scorsese with rocking period music and fast edits along with savored moments of great steady cam work. One long cut especially works when the film first begins on the streets of Reseda and on into a crowded night club. This industry doesn’t sleep. So, neither will the camera that follows it. The music must also be celebrated. I do not listen to Night Ranger’s Sister Christian without thinking of firecrackers and a dangerously drug addled Alfred Molina playing Russian roulette. Though I know which came first, I also wonder if Three Dog Night’s Momma Told Me Not To Come and Spill The Wine by Eric Burton & War was written to enhance the celebratory introduction for Dirk when he attends his first party at Jack’s house. It’s another great steady cam moment from a driveway, followed by steps in and out of Jack’s house to simply a bikinied girl’s dive in the swimming pool. As a viewer I was absorbed in the California haze. Superior camera work here.

The cast of unknowns at the time were a blessing to this film. Anderson writes each person with care and attention and dimension. They have lives outside of this world like Amber’s child that we never get to meet, thanks in part to her lifestyle. She might be maternal but that doesn’t make her a good mother. Julianne Moore should have won the Oscar she was nominated for. Burt Reynolds’ own legacy seems to carry his role. His distinguished silver hair and well trimmed beard earn him the respect of every cast member and he performs with a quiet grace of knowledge, and insight, even if he will inevitably be wrong with how things turn out. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the dumb kid Scotty insecure and unsure of his homosexual attraction to Dirk. It’s not easy to play a dumb character when you are not doing it for laughs. Hoffman makes a huge impact with little dialogue but Anderson is wise enough to capitalize on him.

Boogie Nights offers one of the best cast of characters and assembled talents in any film ever made. An individual movie could be made about each of these people, and it’d be interesting and entertaining.

Try to avoid a blush and mock at the industry depicted because then you’ll see how another walk of life truly lives day to day. It might be porn. It might be smut. Yet, it’s still a thriving industry.