By Marc S. Sanders

Director Anton Corbijn must have been terribly bored directing George Clooney in The American. All that his top billed star does is brood. He broods a lot, and sips coffee, reads a paper, drives his car, and constructs an assassin’s rifle for a beautiful woman.

Corbjin’s film opens with Clooney playing a man named Jack (no last name offered) who’s an assassin and about to be a target of Swedish men who share the same interest. It’s a good quiet start for a film, with an eye opening surprise to close it out before advancing the story.

Jack is instructed by his confidant to hide out in a small Italian town where a local priest encourages him to admit his sins. It’s not so easy, however, when Jack is busy bedding a local prostitute and building a dangerous weapon for pay.

I saw the ending coming. Yet, it’s a good ending. Getting there is the challenge. I think this was Clooney’s attempt to echo Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. Brood, hardly speak, look at unusual people and cars in the vicinity, hide in plain sight without altering your appearance, sip coffee, drive a car, and brood some more. Brooding, however, begets boredom…at least for me it does.

The American drags itself slowly through an hour and forty-five minutes of countless close ups served up by Corbjin. There are so many close ups of Clooney that he obviously needed something to do besides appearing stoic all the time. So, he shifts his chin and bottom jawbone back and forth. I wanted to know if Clooney was chewing gum. That’s about all the film offers me to ponder at times. Is George Clooney chewing gum, or is he chewing his cud? Gotta go with the latter because I didn’t see a pack of gum anywhere within this town.

Yeah! That’s about all there is to say about The American. Corbjin gets some breathtaking shots of the Italian countryside, but I didn’t care about that. All I wanted to know was if George Clooney is a gum chewing assassin, or just an assassin, and because there will likely never be a sequel, I’ll never find out.



By Marc S. Sanders

Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s sci fi thriller Snowpiercer is a locomotive fast paced adaptation, that oddly enough is reminiscent of The Wizard Of Oz. There’s no yellow brick road however. Here, the on foot journey occurs on a massively long on going train that contains the last survivors of a frozen apocalyptic Earth.

Each car of the train separates the demographic classes of this populace. The one percenters live it up closer to the front of the train. The steerage and lower class are resorted towards the back, forced to live in filth and nourish themselves on protein bars made of vermin and waste. Chris Evans is the hero who leads the pack from the back to the front. They’ve had enough and they will not be restrained any longer. However, who and what resides up there? Let the journey into the unknown begin.

I liked Snowpiercer a lot, and mainly because the surprise of what was next kept me alert. An especially fun moment occurs when the gang comes along the car where elementary school is in session.

Characters are met along the way, including a warped performance from Tilda Swinton. She’s dressed in uniform regalia that David Bowie or Elton John might have worn to mock totalitarians. Her performance matches her wardrobe. She definitely makes her antagonist role her own with her pale complexion, short stark red buzz cut, weird dialect and large false teeth.

John Hurt is also a welcome surprise as the old wise one that is needed for these roles. He’s doing his basic John Hurt but that’s all we need.

Rounding out the cast is Octavia Spencer. She’s good too with lots of energy. A great pair up also comes from Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung as techies who can assist the band with opening doors from one car to another; allies that are encountered along the journey to see the wizard or the one in the engine car. I won’t dare spoil that surprise. The cameo was welcome in my eyes.

The journey is great.

The final moments of the film are a little short sighted though. It’s a great action set up but when everything settles down, not much is offered for a final statement on the grand outcome. I wanted more from that.

This is, however, worth checking out. Snowpiercer might consist of a ridiculous concept with all life residing on a never stopping train, but the set pieces are great fun, as are the characters.


By Marc S. Sanders

Forgive me! I’m going into the woods or, rather, outer space a little on this review.

Director James Gunn brings new perspective to Marvel Studios’ Guardians Of The Galaxy, by recognizing the one instinct that every person possesses but is not acted upon often enough…the instinct to dance.

I love to watch characters (not part of a standard song and dance musical) break out into dance. It comes out of nowhere while it humanizes the person. I write my own plays that way, and I award my characters the opportunity to dance as well. I love it when I see it because it’s always a surprise and always welcomed with a smile. Think of that great moment in John Hughes The Breakfast Club, when the five kids let it all out after they’ve let it all out among themselves in confidence. Look at Eddie Murphy boogie in a night club in 48 hrs and Beverly Hills Cop, and look past the crappy script of Footloose for one of the silliest and most fun dance soundtracks to bop your head to. That last bit offered some inspiration for James Gunn especially. Dancing is needed in life. Dancing brings a surge of security as we shed our inhibitions for a fleeting moment. James Gunn reminds his audience of that. If you can’t smile and tap your toe to at least one fresh minute of GOTG then I worry for your soul.

Try not to smile when you first see lead hero Peter Quill aka Star Lord shake, slide and lip sync out by himself on a marooned, wasted planet to the melody of Come And Get Your Love by Redbone. Yes. Don’t deny it! Your head was shifting and your foot was shaking when you first saw this moment.

Gunn hit on all the right notes with a film that could have torpedoed straight to B class junk in another director/writer’s hands.

GOTG focuses more on the humor than any of the zippy outer space special effects. Everyone is having a good time, even the bad guys.

The story more or less focuses on the pursuit and take away/get back of a MacGuffin. Because that’s so simple, Gunn doesn’t have to concern his script with logic and over plotting. Instead, he can offer time for great naive one liners from brutish Dave Bautista as lovable Drax The Destroyer (do I really need to explain this character? ) and Rocket Raccoon (do I really need to explain this character as well?). There’s a giant tree named Groot who will happily tell you “I am Groot” in case that wasn’t clear to you, and a tough as nails, green skinned Gamora played by Zoe Saldana. She, along with Chris Pratt as Quill, have great chemistry together as they develop a caring friendship amid their competitiveness and wacky action. A pause in the play to allow a sway and flow dance for Saldana and Pratt to Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around And Fell In Love is hypnotic as Gunn stages it against a gorgeous purple galaxy sky with random yellow sparkles raining down. I could stay in that scene forever.

Main focus goes to Quill who pirates the galaxy while not knowing much about his father and keeps the memory of his Earth mother alive with her “Awesome Mix Tape Vol 1.” He’s a lone pirate with no allegiance, and happily scavenges items for pay from the highest bidder. Pratt has fun with his breakout cinematic role. He laughs, he teases and yup, he dances.

On a first viewing, GOTG can leave you a little bewildered as you try to comprehend what weird name belongs with what weird character and what is everyone talking about. Your next viewing will feel like an invitation to a night club because you’ll realize whatever exposition Gunn’s script offers is really not significant.

James Gunn offers a pleasure piece of sights and musical sounds. One motif I like about his fictional galaxy is that no two characters look the same. It reminded me of George Lucas’ first Star Wars film. The famous cantina scene never shows two of the same species of alien. That’s all that’s needed to imply the vastness of the population. Unlike the Aquaman, James Gunn doesn’t feel the need to show you every inch of this universe to prove just how big it all is. He adopts the means of many extras all with their unique look.

The villain is Lee Pace, a guy who’d make a great Bond villain actually. He’s hidden behind a lot of costume and makeup as Ronan, and maybe he could’ve been given more to do. There’s not much one on team time between him and the Guardians.

Other fun moments abound though, including a ridiculous daylight chase through a busy planetary downtown, and a ridiculous prison break led by Rocket and Groot that reminded me of a lot of the Zucker brothers humor from their Airplane! and Naked Gun films.

James Gunn manages the biggest and bravest departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s oh so right and necessary to keep the franchise alive and fresh.

Guardians Of The Galaxy is Marvel Studios’ answer to Looney Tunes and The Muppets. The great Mel Blanc and Jim Henson would have applauded a ridiculous film like this for years on end.


By Marc S. Sanders

In 1967, just before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Norman Jewison’s film In The Heat Of The Night won five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Rod Steiger and Best Adapted Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant.  While it is easy to classify the movie as a crime drama/murder mystery/detective story, the setting and themes of racial prejudice overshadow who the killer is or the motive.  As the film progressed, I grew less curious of who bludgeoned white businessman Philip Colbert to death and why.  It was much more important to understand exactly why Steiger’s Mississippi Police Chief Gillespie is so quick to believe that a well dressed and cooperative black man who was simply apprehended for waiting at a train station would be the culprit.  The black man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a Philadelphia police detective.

After Tibbs has an opportunity to identify himself, Gillespie shamelessly requests his services in solving the crime.  Murder doesn’t happen often in Sparta, Mississippi.  Tibbs’ supervisor speaks highly of his officer’s capabilities.  Tibbs knows how to look for signs of rigor mortis on the deceased.  He knows how to identify that the killer was right-handed and he knows that when another suspect is quickly brought in, that he can’t be the killer either.  Still, many of the heated conversations between Gillespie and Tibbs are the same.  Their back and forths even become redundant at times.  Gillespie, nor the deputies and other residents of Sparta, are apt to listen to a “colored” person.  At one point, Tibbs is put in a cell for not agreeing with Gillespie’s conclusions.  He’s also ordered on two or three occasions to get out of town.  Tibbs is not so willing to surrender though, even if he’s regarded with racial disdain.  The impression is that this murder will not be so challenging for Tibbs to solve, if only he had a little more time and cooperation.  So, the riddle of the crime is not the overall conflict of In The Heat Of The Night.  More so, it is the racial hatred that a deep south Mississippi town has for an educated and skillful black man from up north.  

I read that the film was shot primarily in Sparta, Illinois.  Poitier made that request for his own safety while a tense period within America was occurring against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.  Jewison’s film is quite brave.  In the face of racial divide within the United States, this film still got made.  Yet, it had to be produced with an abundance of caution. 

A telling scene happens in the middle of the picture.  Tibbs requests Gillespie escort him to a wealthy cotton plantation owner’s home.  As they drive up to the home, they pass by the black cotton pickers collecting the crops under the hot sun.  They meet in the estate green house with a Mr. Endicott, who comes off very cordial to Tibbs at first.  However, when a slight accusatory question comes from Tibbs, Endicott slaps him across the face.  Tibbs responds with a slap right back at him.  In Mississippi, a black man better know his place, even if the prime suspect of a murder is a wealthy white man, or more simply just white.  It’s a classic moment in film history.  However, it remains an important scene and maybe its significance should be all the more heightened in modern day 2022 with the Black Lives Matter mentality at the forefront; where police/African American race relations are being tested. 

Three white men were recently sentenced to life in prison without parole for the hate crime killing of a black jogger named Ahmaud Marquez Arbery in the state of Georgia.  All that Mr. Arbery was doing was jogging through a neighborhood.  He didn’t have a weapon.  He hadn’t come in contact with anyone to even slightly suspect a threat.  He was noticed by these three criminals, and because he didn’t belong in that area, he was brutally murdered for the color of his skin.  Evidence would reveal where these men stood with regards to black people as a history of various texts that were clearly racial in nature were later uncovered.  If it wasn’t going to be Mr. Arbery who was murdered, it was eventually going to be another black person who would fall victim to these men. 

Though Dr. King was murdered shortly after the release of In The Heat Of The Night, I’m cautiously optimistic that racial hatred has lessened and the generations that followed learned from the misgivings of their ancestors.  Still, the term “hate crime” is often used in news reports today.  The debate of the Confederate flag and its argument for keeping it flying still has to be pondered.  Fifty years later, I cannot understand why, though. 

I will never forget a vacation I took with my family to Stone Mountain in Georgia back in 2005.  It was fourth of July and we were picnicking on the lawn next to a couple of teenagers while waiting for the fireworks.  I struck up a conversation with a local teenage girl and the flag and the confederacy along with the carving of Confederate leaders (Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis) on the rock sight were brought up.  Her defense of these topics was “It’s history.  Not hate.”  I became much wiser in that moment.  I was just a naïve Jewish guy who was raised in New Jersey.  I was not aware enough.  Much still hadn’t been learned and a whole lot needed to be unlearned.  History is not a reason to celebrate.  History is not meant to honored.  History is meant to be remembered for our rights, and especially our wrongs.  Much of history should not be repeated, and yet that’s what happens all too often.

In The Heat Of The Night is another example of the power of films.  So much is debated about what is taught in our schools.  A proposal of law for “Don’t Say Gay” is likely to be passed in Florida where it’s deemed impermissible to discuss homosexuality in elementary schools.  Books are continuing to be restricted from availability in libraries.  So, if our institutions of learning are being censored, then we have to rely on other mediums.  Movies like Schindler’s List or In The Heat Of The Night or Do The Right Thing offer those opportunities.  Films open a window to view love and hate as well as tolerance and prejudice.  We can never afford to look at our world with rose colored glasses.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A married woman and her lover hatch an apparently foolproof plan to kill her husband (his boss), but a split-second decision at a crucial moment sends everything into a tailspin.

We plan, God laughs. – old Yiddish proverb

Let me get this out of the way right at the top: Elevator to the Gallows is one of the best crime drama/thrillers I’ve ever seen.  It holds its own against anything by Hitchcock or Clouzot.  With admirable focus and restraint, first-time director Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street) crafts a gripping illustration of how the best laid plans can fall apart because of one minor miscue.

The film cuts right to the chase at the opening scene, showing a phone conversation between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover, Julien Tavernier.  They discuss their plans for Julien to kill her husband in his office on a Saturday evening, after which he’ll pick her up at a café where she’ll be waiting, and that will be that.  Everyone will assume her husband is in Geneva on business, and no one will discover the murder, which Julien will arrange to look like a suicide, until Monday morning, giving Florence and Julien plenty of time to make their escape.

(I liked how we never got any flashbacks of the relationship between Florence and Julien.  All we need to know is, they’re lovers, they’re desperate enough to commit murder, and that’s it.  Very concise.  I love it.)

Julien’s plan involves using a grappling hook to avoid using the office elevator to get to his boss’s office one floor above his.  He proceeds with the plan, nearly getting caught in the process, but he’s able to commit the crime and leave the building with several witnesses as an alibi, witnesses who will say they never saw him enter his boss’s office before he left.  So far so good.

Julien gets to the street, takes the top down from his convertible, takes one last look back at the building…and realizes he left a vital clue in full view of any pedestrian or street cop.  Leaving his car running, he decides to run back into the office building and retrieve the evidence before the night guard shuts off the power for the night.

Unnoticed by Julien, a florist and her bad-boy boyfriend have been having an argument at the shop next to his car.  The boyfriend sees this rich man leave his convertible on the street…with the engine running…

Thus begins a Hitchcockian odyssey that leaves Julien stranded in an elevator, his car and his identity stolen, and his mistress stranded on the streets wondering where the hell her lover is.  At one point, Florence sees Julien’s car drive by the café where she’s waiting…she can’t quite make out the driver, but who is that girl in the car with him?!  Has she been betrayed at the last minute?

The film follows the younger couple, Louis and Véronique, as they tool around in Julien’s car, eventually winding up at a roadside motel, and unwittingly making friends with two German tourists.  They even share drinks with the Germans and take some candid photos using a little spy camera in Julien’s raincoat.  (We learn that Julien was in the Foreign Legion and was well-trained as a soldier – maybe even in spycraft.)  I found myself wondering why we were wasting time with this larcenous couple…until they decide to check into the motel as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier to cover their own tracks.

The screenplay ingeniously heaps one hasty decision on top of another so that, just when it seems Julien might be in the clear, something else happens that makes it seem impossible he won’t be discovered or at the very least blamed for something he didn’t do.  Meanwhile, Julien is desperately trying to escape the elevator, using a penknife as a screwdriver, getting excruciatingly close to tripping a vital switch that’s just out of his reach.  He eventually tries to get out using the old climbing-the-cable trick…which is of course exactly when a night watchman is making his rounds.

This story is so good, I can’t believe there hasn’t been an American remake.  And it’s not like there aren’t other great films out there that cut right to the chase and never look back for flashbacks or additional material.  I’m not sure what makes Elevator to the Gallows so good, to be honest.  Maybe I was rooting for Florence and Julien when they are clearly not the good guys.  Maybe it’s the economy of the storytelling, or the screw-turning twists that lead the police to believe Julien has committed more than one murder.  At one point, Louis and Véronique make a startling decision that had me yelling at the screen.

Words fail me on this one.  I can’t describe it any better than by saying this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, certainly one of the best film-noirs I’ve ever seen, and a movie that I’ll bet Hitchcock watched while thinking to himself, “Damnation…I wish I’d thought of that.”


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Ann Blyth
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94%

PLOT: A convicted felon tries to organize a prison break under the nose of a sadistic chief guard who is on the verge of becoming the new warden.

In Brute Force, released seventy-five years ago, we are witness to: a man getting crushed by a metal press, a suicide, a brutal interrogation with the help of a length of metal pipe, a prisoner machine-gunning dead cops out of sheer frustration (okay, you got me, that part is off camera), and the kind of nihilistic ending that you typically only see in old French films.  Wages of Fear, for example.  I mean, this movie is violent by TODAY’S standards, let alone just a couple of years after World War II ended.

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster in only his second film) is just getting out of solitary confinement at Westgate Penitentiary when he sees one of his cellmates being driven out of prison…in a hearse.  This only solidifies his resolve to escape with the help of his remaining cellmates.  Meanwhile, we get glimpses of life elsewhere in the prison.  The current warden is a trembling coward who addresses the prisoners only through a P.A. system in his office.  The prison physician, Dr. Walters, sees injustice and top-down barbarism on a daily basis and has his own method of escape: whiskey.  Inmate informants and stool pigeons are dealt with promptly and carefully.

Looming above everyone, despite his relatively small stature, is Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn).  He has the real power at Westgate.  He rarely raises his voice and even stops his lieutenant from beating a prisoner unnecessarily.  But he unflinchingly doles out punishments and even strong-arms other convicts into ratting out their buddies.  Of course, the stoolies are usually found out and wind up dead.  Shame about that.

The crux of the story is the escape plan, an ambitious endeavor involving capturing the yard tower which controls the gate and lowers the drawbridge – an actual drawbridge! – to the mainland.  Between making these plans and various other intrigues involving the warden and an imperious visiting government official, we are also treated to flashbacks showing how some of Joe’s cellmates wound up in prison to begin with.  Here the film gets a little overly melodramatic, a typical trait of many dramas of the ‘40s, but director Jules Dassin wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.  The scenes do just enough to create more audience empathy for these “bad men” without bathing in soap.

I put “bad men” in quotes because these guys are, in fact, criminals, but they’re also our protagonists.  When it comes to Joe himself, it seems clear by his demeanor and his flashback that he wasn’t just a criminal, he was a leader of criminals, head of his own little gang.  This is not a very nice man.  The only convict sharing a cell with Joe who might conceivably be considered a “good guy” is Tom, a man who embezzled money from the company he worked for to buy his frustrated wife a fur coat.  Everyone else looks capable of perpetrating real violence.

Why do we root for these men?  Partly because it’s in our nature to support anyone who is out to give authority figures the finger.  From Cool Hand Luke all the way to Hannibal Lecter and beyond, we are instinctively drawn to men and women who are bucking the system.  But it’s especially prominent in this movie where we see these men at the mercy of a broken system that eventually revokes all their privileges, even visiting hours, in the name of restoring discipline.  Armed guards watch the prisoners everywhere, even in the chapel.  There is no longer any attempt at actual rehabilitation.  In the prison’s auto garage, a prisoner is asked what he’s learned while working there.  His answer: “I’ve learned that, when I get out, I don’t wanna be a mechanic.”  He hasn’t learned anything.  He’s just learned that it’s better to not get caught.  For this we pay our taxes?

So, yes, there is a strong message in Brute Force.  It’s not especially subtle, especially during the liberal Dr. Walters’ various monologues about the corrupting nature of power and the futility of expecting lasting behavioral changes through punitive measures.

But what stood out to me was the unexpected level of violence in the story.  Sure, some of it is discreetly left off screen, but what is left to the imagination can be infinitely worse than what the screen shows us.  Case in point: Se7en, where we are always shown murder scenes, never the murders themselves.  Or the infamous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, where we never actually see the deed being done, yet it’s remembered as one of the most violent scenes in film history.

In Brute Force, during an interrogation, we see Captain Munsey winding up to deliver several blows with a lead pipe to the head of a handcuffed prisoner.  We push past the prisoner, so we only see Munsey, and down comes the first blow.  We hear the impact, then cut to just outside Munsey’s office where other officers are killing time playing cards or writing reports.  And through the doorway we hear more impacts, one after the other after the other.  Some officers look uncomfortably toward the office but make no move to stop what’s happening in there.  One officer is so disturbed he throws down his cards and stalks away.  Right away, we’re thinking, jeez, if HE’S that upset, something terrible is going on in that office.

This is not the kind of “realness” I was expecting from a 1947 film.  And it doesn’t end there.  There are other little vignettes of violence during the climactic escape attempt that made me gasp, including a hand-to-hand fight where one guy appears to be getting hit in the head and neck with a belt of machine gun bullets…for real.  At least twice.  Looked convincing to me, anyway.

Jules Dassin (1911-2008) is known for directing some of the best loved film noirs of all time, including The Naked City [1948], Night and the City [1950], and Rififi [1955], which won him the Best Director award at Cannes that year.  His best films are steeped in atmosphere and a fatalistic sense of…well, fate, an idea that no matter how hard we kick and scream at the walls of our existence, any attempts to escape will be met with massive resistance and will most likely end in failure, or at best only a partial victory.  Not a particularly uplifting outlook, but who says all movies must have a happy ending?  Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.  By the end of Brute Force, Dassin ingeniously combines those two outcomes.  Tricky.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Domee Shi
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A 13-year-old girl named Meilin wakes up one morning with the rather inconvenient power to turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red is one of the best, funniest animated movies I’ve seen since Inside Out.  Or The Lego Movie.  Take your pick.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot.  A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Meilin [may-LINN] discovers one day she has the (inconvenient) ability to turn into a giant red panda.

Details: Meilin’s relationship with her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), is complicated enough without this new tangle.  Ming encourages Meilin to excel at everything and has enlisted her help with running and maintaining a small Chinese temple devoted to an ancient ancestor of theirs who supposedly channeled the power of the red panda to defend her children thousands of years ago.

When Meilin learns to control her newfound power to a certain degree, she decides to use it, not to fight crime, but to earn some money to buy a ticket to see this awesome boy band, called 4Town (even though they have five members), with her three besties.  Like, Oh.  Em.  GEE!

Complications ensue, Meilin tells a crucial, heartbreaking lie at one point, and previously unsuspected powers are unleashed.  That’s all you’re getting out of me, story-wise.

While the story was great, and worthy to stand with Pixar’s finest films, what made Turning Red stand out for me was the humor.  It is just plain laugh-out-loud funny.  I was laughing through almost the entire movie.

Through a completely believable misunderstanding, Meilin’s mom, Ming, thinks she knows what’s behind Meilin’s strange new behavior and asks her, ever so delicately, “Did the scarlet peony bloom?”  There’s a brilliant moment when Ming chases Meilin to school and, in front of an entire classroom, holds up an item she forgot to pack in her bag: a box of pads.  That’s right out of a John Hughes movie, man!  I laughed like a maniac.

Meilin’s three friends are a treat, especially the little spitfire named Abby, whose face seems to be permanently stretched into a fierce scowl.  There’s a moment when she catches one of those red playground balls with her teeth.  Maybe SHE’S the monster.

As with all the best Pixar films, though, the humor, as effective as it is, is just window-dressing for the real thrust of the story.  The exploration of the mother-daughter relationship hasn’t been done this well since Brave.  And I’ve gotta say, it was refreshing to see how real the character of Meilin was.  Because she’s rooted in the real world (of 2002 Toronto), her attitude felt more authentic somehow.  Sure, in Brave, Merida had the same rebelliousness and determination to forge her own path despite an imposing mother figure.  But with Turning Red, everything was more grounded.

There’s a moment when Meilin has turned into a panda and is running down a city street trying to hide.  She passes a convenience store where a cute guy works the counter.  She is desperate to get out of sight…but she stops just long enough to glance through the window at the cute guy, stomp her foot like Thumper, and yell, “Ah-OOO-gah, ah-OOO-gah!”  Another big laugh.  And I thought to myself, “See, that’s normally what you would see GUYS do in a movie.  Who makes a Disney film about a girl obsessed with boys?  What a treat!”  (I know, I know, the early Disney princesses weren’t exactly models of modern feminism, I’m talking about more recent films, stay with me here…)

Naturally, there’s a lot of symbolism with Meilin being thirteen, coming of age, and suddenly going through all sorts of changes.  What’s great about the storytelling is that the symbology is secondary, at least initially.  There’s the usual very well-executed denouement where all the emotional threads come together.  But before we get there, it’s just a story about a young girl with a weird problem.  And I have to say again, it is doggone FUNNY.

I took a glance at the “rotten” reviews at, and I kept seeing one repeated phrase among several of them: the lead character was “irritating.”  I am at a loss to explain this point of view.  Meilin is a 13-year-old girl.  Of COURSE, she’s irritating.  AND obnoxious.  What were you expecting?  Meilin is endearing precisely because she’s portrayed as someone who isn’t perfect, even though she’s trying hard to be.  She lies to her parents.  When she has to think of something to calm herself down, she doesn’t think of her mom…she thinks of her best friends.  She feels bad about it, but what are you gonna do, she’s thirteen.

Further pontificating from me seems pointless.  Take it from a lifelong Pixar fan.  Turning Red is one of their finest moments.  It’ll make you laugh, and if you’re not careful it’ll make you cry.  It might make you remember what it was like to scream like crazy at a rock concert.  It’ll make you remember your first real best friends.  And it’ll make you wonder why more people don’t make movies like this.  Because they should.


By Marc S. Sanders

Fish out of water stories will always be told. Kate & Leopold directed by James Mangold reminded me of the New York City based romantic comedy Big, which was a better variation on that formula.

In Kate & Leopold, Hugh Jackman portrays the second title character also known as the Duke of Albany in the year 1876, and apparently the eventual inventor of the elevator. One night, he pursues a curious fellow who is attending an evening ball designed to find a bride for Leopold. The man runs and Leopold gives chase into the rain where they find themselves hanging from scaffolding of what will become the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by-you guessed it-Leopold. The moment of suspense ends with Leopold accompanying the fellow named Stuart (a very miscast Liev Schrieber) into present day New York; a New York unfamiliar to Leopold where manners of grace and elegance have gone out the window and you’re expected to pick up your dog’s poop following a walk.

Let’s get this out of the way, quick. Stuart has uncovered time travel. How does it work? Who cares? Move along.

Stuart’s ex-girlfriend and downstairs neighbor is played by the late 20th century staple resident of the Big Apple movies, Meg Ryan. She’s the Kate of the film’s title. Just like other romantic comedies of this nature, Kate is tense and stressed and trying to land a big account where she’s looking for the right spokesperson for a new butter spread commercial. You think Leopold, in his signature 19th century outfit, may fit the bill? I’m thinking you guessed correctly.

What else do you think happens? Yeah. You’re right. Kate and Leopold start to fall in love.

I grew tired of Kate & Leopold for a few reasons. There’s a side story meant for some slapstick kind of humor where Stuart, who is the “Doc Brown” of this picture, falls down an elevator shaft only to be relegated to a mental ward where he struggles to get in touch with the leads to explain what must be done from here. C’mon!!! A patient in a hospital should be able to make a lousy phone call.

Two, as Leopold romances Kate as well as coaches her brother (Breckin Meyer) in the ways of romance, how does he manage to find the financial resources for a violinist or the decor he uses to uphold his manners of refine? Reader, if I’m occupying myself with these trivial questions, then what do you think might be wrong here?


Most importantly, the chemistry between Ryan and Jackman seems way off. I didn’t believe for a second these two were falling in love with one another. They speak two different variations of English and while Leopold is a man of great chivalry, I never found a moment in the film where he would be captivated by the modern-day Kate. What did Kate do anywhere in this picture that swept him off his feet? For Kate, when did she fall in love with Leopold? She’s hardly giving him the time of day and he’s really only a convenient opportunity to rescue her big account, but that’s not love for me. That’s not romance. That’s, at best, discovery. Like finding the next big talent or gimmick. If this is what love is, then who fell in love with Mr. Clean and how many years is the Jolly Green Giant married now? Did the Kool-Aid Man find his betrothed when he smashed through her kitchen wall?

In Big, director Penny Marshall found opportunities for the Elizabeth Perkins character to stop and look at the 12-year-old character version of Tom Hanks. Because she stopped and looked, she then still felt comfortable in her own skin. Hanks’ kid like character develops a first crush. A first crush may not be love, but to a 12-year-old, nothing is more confusing or self-occupying.

In Mangold’s film which he co-wrote with Steve Rogers, Leopold admits early on that he’s never been in love. Where’s the weight of his emotions here? I never uncovered those moments between the characters of Kate & Leopold, while a film like Big devoted a wealth of attention to it.

As well, like I said earlier, I could not take my mind off figuring out how Leopold is paying for this elegant rooftop dinner. Where did he get the money, in New York City, to pay for all this?

Know what Tom Hanks did in Big? He got a job!


By Marc S. Sanders

Robert Redford, James Gandolfini and Mark Ruffalo go to sleep in The Last Castle, a prison movie of no consequence directed by Rob Lurie.

They go to sleep. So naturally, I go to sleep.

Redford plays Three Star General Eugene Irwin (a real tough guy name!) sentenced to a military prison. It’s where we have to accept that Gandolfini as a “ruthless” Colonel Winter controls his inmates with an iron fist. (Iron? Aluminum Reynolds Wrap is more like it.). That’s what the Netflix or TV guide description might tell you.

Watch the film however, and you’ll nary see anything terribly harsh from Gandolfini, much less will you see anything triumphant from a run of the mill Redford. Exactly what is the problem these two guys have that motivate the General into a forever-to-get-there uprising against the prison? These guys never appear to be enduring much of a harsh reality.

Amid the concrete walls, basketball is played with glee, rocks are carried to and fro and bets for cigarette winnings are proffered. I don’t get it. What’s wrong with this, and why is Gandolfini regarded as such a dick about it? This Colonel Winter is no Tony Soprano. That’s for sure.

I think it’s in Redford’s contract that dirt must never grace his boyhood good looks and his neat blond hair style remain preserved even when he’s running through 7 foot flames to rescue Ruffalo from a downed helicopter. (Psst, that’s the most exciting—that’s the only exciting—part of the film.)

The Last Castle is not a good movie.

As the allegorical chess play between the opposing leaders carries forth, much flexibility is offered to both sides to plan accordingly for the final battle. This is too neat and too pretty for a prison mutiny uprising. It’s real convenient that there are only rubber bullets in the guards’ rifles. That way it’s safe for everyone to play in the sandbox a little longer past curfew.

Don’t believe me about all this? Then answer me this question:

Where in the hell did Redford’s band of prisoners find the time, resources and covert opportunity to construct a building tall SLING SHOT STRAIGHT OUTTA BRAVEHEART OR LORD OF THE RINGS to chuck boulders with? I mean how the hell would you even hide such a thing when you are locked in a prison? It ain’t under the mattress. That’s for sure.


By Marc S. Sanders

The Australian psychological horror film, The Babadook is a very unsettling piece, and I hate my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez for subjecting me to a viewing. It’s so unnerving simply because it is so good.

Jennifer Kent writes and directs an eerie film about a troubled mother and her young son (Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman) named Amelia and Samuel Vanek. Samuel’s father passed away in an accident while taking Amelia to the hospital when she was in labor. Seven years later, Amelia endures much sorrow and loneliness while Samuel has social issues in school and resorts to crafting barbaric weapons out of wood. I just played with action figures. This kid puts sharp knives on a sling. Other mothers and children keep their distance from them. Samuel’s school is concerned of his presence with other first graders, and Amelia opts to not even celebrate the boy’s birthday on the actual day, also known as her husband’s date of death.

One evening, Samuel pulls a book known as “Mister Babadook” off the shelf for bedtime reading. Opening the book is their first and most regrettable mistake. Haunting images of a dark shadow are shown in “pop up book” form with promises of death and so on in a cute, yet sinister, Dr. Seuss like rhyme. This is the evil “Cat In The Hat.”

Like most creepy horror films, there’s pounding on doors and floors, open doorways to find nothing there, disturbing phone calls, shadows, surprising sound editing and so on. That’s nothing new. What makes Kent’s debut film so special though are the performances from Davis and Wiseman.

As I watched the film with Miguel, I told him after about a third of the way through that I hate that annoying little kid. I think that’s the point though. Noah Wiseman plays his part with great hyperactivity who can never be satisfied or calmed with any variation of attention. Essie Davis plays Amelia as strung out and exhausted. You can’t help but feel for her inescapable circumstance of being trapped in a home with no other family and no friends who seem willing to help, much less tolerate her crazed son.

Later, long after the disturbing children’s book is read, Jennifer Kent’s script turns on a different perspective. It’s not so much that the character’s have changed. More so, the aftermath of reading “Mister Babadook” has altered the mother and son’s behaviors. What caught me by surprise was that my own perspective gradually changed on the two players.

You will need to watch the film to truly uncover the mystery of the book’s power. However, it’s a very frightening exploration. Kent is very good with the sensory overload; which really is a necessary tool in horror, particularly in what you hear and what you see. Kent mixes up what sense is alarmed first though, with each passing sequence. It makes it hard to relax as a viewer, while it’s also hard for the mother and son to sleep at night. That’s what keeps the hairs on your body standing up and believe me, mine were standing at full attention.

Kent covers much psychologically. Insomnia, depression, aggression, night terrors and trauma are all given attention as they manifest into this disturbing unrecognizable character know as The Babadook.

I also observed an interesting aspect in use of color. Namely that Amelia is dressed primarily in faded pink and yellow while Samuel is adorned in dark grey or charcoal like the two story home they live in. The contrast in colors left me guessing who was the real source of fright in this film because at times the contrast seems to flip. I risk sounding vague here, but I’d prefer not to spoil what’s presented.

Again, The Babadook left me feeling shaken like the best of Stephen King’s adapted films including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and especially the latter half of Brian DePalma’s Carrie. I’ll even go on record and say this film is better or more effective than those two films. It’s sharper and more mysterious.

I’m not sure I was entertained with The Babadook because I was always feeling disturbed and unsettled. Good horror films do that to me. Forgive me. I can’t help that.

On the other hand, Miguel was quite entertained at me cursing him out and loudly expressing my seething hatred towards him as I watched. What can I say? Mig had it coming for introducing me to The Babadook.