By Marc S. Sanders

When a film opens with two students walking across a college campus as the classical horn music of proud alumni accompany them, and then one of the students stops to pull up his fly, you know you are probably in for a contrast of ideals.

Animal House set a new standard in comedy featuring a John Belushi whose expressions and improvisations appeared too fast for the camera to catch everything he’s doing. The script never gave him much dialogue because his routines of smashing beer bottles, smashing guitars, smashing beer cans and just getting smashed merited no dialogue. He might have looked like a dirty slob, but he was a craftsman of facial expressions.

Every scene of Animal House plays like an episode of an ongoing sitcom; a raunchy one at that. A dead horse, a pledge ceremony, a toga party, a sabotaged parade, and a food fight. Each topic is the title of a sitcom’s various episodes.

John Landis directed the snobs vs slobs script co-written by Harold Ramis, and 40 years later the material still holds up. Then again, 40 years later, I wonder if this film would even get made. I’d rather not dwell on that.

What I do know is that this movie is still funny. Outrageously funny.


By Marc S. Sanders

I must admit I have not watched many Chuck Norris movies. Just a handful here or there like The Delta Force, but on my radar to catch was always the cop thriller from 1985, Code Of Silence. I always intended to watch it someday as the film is highly endorsed by Siskel & Ebert. As well, it’s directed by Andrew Davis, the skilled filmmaker who would go on to direct The Fugitive and Under Siege.

Code Of Silence works in two ways; two stories that live up to the title. Norris is a Chicago cop named Eddie Cusack who heads a squad of under covers within the city. The film opens with what is supposed to be a well-planned drug bust that goes wrong when the one mob faction is overrun by another mob. Cusack’s informant as well as others turn up dead just before his band were to move in with arrests. Nearby, two of Cusack’s men come upon a young, unarmed man. The rookie officer witnesses the elder officer accidentally shoot the kid, and afterwards he plants a pistol in his hand to make it look like self-defense.

Now Cusack has to contend with a mob war in the streets where a boss’ daughter (Molly Kagan) is the only survivor of an attack and he must protect her. While at the same time he has to deal with his squad turning on him because he knows what the elder cop really did. The code of silence motif is expected to be honored in both camps. Personal vendettas and violations of police policy need to remain quieted.

The film belongs to Norris exclusively. Andrew Davis allows some of the action star’s kickboxing skills to work their way into the movie, and it all becomes a sidestep dance routine really. It always amuses me in these action pictures where the star will take on twenty guys at once yet he fights one or only two of them at a time. The other eighteen or nineteen thugs wait their turn. Why not just have all of them tackle Norris all together? No. Then we wouldn’t get his outstretched 360-degree roundhouse kicks in the air.

There’s also an unnecessary cop robot contraption that Norris pilots for the climactic action packed ending. This thing looks a rejected auditioner for the role of Johnny 5 in Short Circuit. The robot must have been too tall for the part and rather clunky. It has no relevance to either storyline and was obviously inserted for fun, campy violence of fireballs and explosions in the necessary old, abandoned warehouse where all of these actioners have to take place.

Fortunately, Code Of Silence has good story material to work with, and some thrilling stunt work including Chuck Norris pursuing a bad guy on top of a moving elevated train that makes its way with an eventual leap into the river. From what I could tell, that was really Mr. Norris himself in that whole scene. Good footage here.

Andrew Davis relies on what would become regular side characters that appear in many of his other films including Ron Dean and Joseph Kosala. They always make for good cop antagonists within the Chicago settings of his films. Norris is also good in a quiet Clint Eastwood kind of manner as he holds his own beliefs against the rest of his department who support the elder cop.

I like the conflicts that happen on both sides of the law in Code Of Silence. Sure, it’s got some silliness to it with the kickboxing and the gigantic, cop robot that shamelessly waddles along, but the two stories hold up by keeping me engaged of their outcomes.

Code Of Silence is a pretty effective thriller.


By Marc S. Sanders

Did Kevin Smith know he’d create a lasting cultural phenomenon when he recruited his neighborhood friends to depict the mundane life of a convenience store clerk (Dante) and video store clerk (Randall)? How could he? He made this very shoestring budgeted movie by maxing out his credit cards. He’s on a short list of entrepreneurs who went all in. Bravo!

Clerks is a film that doesn’t seem to say much, but actually says a lot by the time it’s finished. Smith wrote a script where Dante mulls over how hard it is to move on, to change and accept the fact that even his ex-girlfriend moved on to get married, while he’s nothing but number 37 on his current girlfriend’s oral conquests. It’s a challenge as he and Randall debate over the accomplishments of Star Wars films. Then there are the eccentric customers like Smith’s friend Walt Flanigan (of Comic Book Men) as a guy looking for the perfect dozen eggs, or another one offended by the harsh language of a couple of bored clerks.

On paper, this all looks ordinary and boring. Yet, that’s the point. It’s fair to say we have all experienced the boredom of work with no definitive vision of a future. So, we complain about how we are not supposed to be there on our day off, or that the most important, immediate need is participating in a Saturday afternoon hockey game. Since we gotta work, we’ll compromise. If we can’t leave work, we will move the game to the roof of the store.

Two legendary cinematic characters also debuted, Jay & Silent Bob (Jason Mewes & Smith). They just lean against a wall, smoke and do not much else. Still, they offer atmosphere. There’s always loiterers mulling around a 7-11 or Circle K. They have stories as well, but we will likely never know. They just cross our paths as we pick up a soda. Smith wrote these guys as anybody we’d recognize and who we’re familiar with.

Kudos to Kevin Smith for following through with Clerks. This doesn’t look like much of anything, but it’s everything.


By Marc S. Sanders

Jessica Chastain is an aggressive actress. The talent is on par with Meryl Streep or Katherine Hepburn for sure, and the Oscar trophy she won earlier this year is evident of that. Actually, she’s worthy of more than just one. My question, though, is if she is too aggressive. Films like Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game, and Miss Sloane, put her in characters that never stop to react and smell the roses. That wears me out. Could you just slow down Jessica, so I can take this all in, please? You’re talking faster than I can think.

In Miss Sloane, Chastain portrays an impenetrable lobbyist. Nothing gets past this woman and despite her shortcomings, nothing will harm her either. Elizabeth Sloane will always be one step ahead of the game. This is a fierce chess player in the political arena. She’s omnipotent and admits to hardly ever sleeping. Maybe the pill popping helps with that. Like the Faye Dunaway character from Network, she also has no time for personal relationships or sensitive sex. So, she’s a high paying client for a male escort who will wait for her to come home to satisfy her fix.

Elizabeth is first employed with a wealthy private law firm who wants her to head up a bill in favor of the gun lobby. She declines, walks out the door with one long speech, a way over the top laugh (this is where there’s too much Jessica in my morning coffee) and over half her staff. She goes to the other side of the aisle to lobby aggressively against the gun bill.

From there it’s one aggressive maneuver after another and Elizabeth more than proves that she’s got the balls for this game. Only thing is, as Elizabeth proceeds to countermeasure and attack from her side, is she losing sight of the subject at play? Will her soul swim to the surface showing any sense of morality?

The film begins where Elizabeth is being questioned at a hearing headed by a state Senator (John Lithgow, always a pleasure to see). Then it moves on to show us how Elizabeth finds herself at that hearing.

Miss Sloane has no limits to what she’ll do to protect the integrity of a client’s argument for the bill even if it means embarrassing a traitorous teammate, putting another teammate in an unwelcome limelight of political journalism or maybe even employing a cockroach of the sort to use as a listening device. Miss Sloane won’t hesitate to take risks for the lobby she’s been hired to pursue, even if it risks someone’s life or their reputation.

A twist presents itself at the end and yeah, it could work assuming you believe Elizabeth Sloane, the brilliant lobbyist, can telegraph about fifty different actions that could take place amounting to that one moment. The math adds up, but were the numbers fudged to allow the arithmetic to work? That’s why a film like Miss Sloane is hard for me to swallow.

Does this woman have ESP? The final card she plays would require not only her own personal endurance, but that of a colleague as well. A lot of factors all have to be in sync to make this story work out the way it does. So my suspension of disbelief was really tested with this film.

I go back to Jessica Chastain. Zero Dark Thirty remains my favorite of hers. She was a great underdog against a male oriented governing body in the pursuit of Bin Laden. After that, Miss Sloane released a few years later and Chastain got bit by the Aaron Sorkin bug, I think. Endless talking works as an intellect that’s hard to challenge. Problem is, I’m the viewer and I’m wondering for the first thirty minutes what in the hell you’re talking about. Miss Sloane isn’t an Aaron Sorkin film, but Jessica Chastain will have you convinced she wants it to be.

Fortunately, writer Jonathan Perera with director John Madden ease up on the brakes allowing much more realistic and human characters to invade the film including Lithgow, Alison Pill and an especially riveting performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (recently seen by me with a subpar script called The Whole Truth) who becomes Elizabeth’s trusted sidekick both behind and in front of the cameras for political jockeying. This is an actress ready for some lead roles.

I described Miss Sloane as omnipotent earlier and that’s a problem for the first act of the film. This character never shuts up early on. There’s next to no impact on anyone around her. She just talks and talks and talks and she convinces me that she’s the smartest one in the room, but she also makes me want to turn the movie off. The film saves itself with the able supporting cast eventually.

To watch Miss Sloane is not to take any position on gun lobbying especially seriously. I’m not sure the filmmakers have a stance to play. I’m not sure the filmmakers know whether to even regard the titled character as a hero or villain. Actually, I just think the purpose of the film is to show corner cutting and how aggressive a made-up lobbyist can actually be, devoid of any determining factors. We are privileged to see how far a woman with stiletto heels, a cinched up red head ponytail and a tight business suit will go to win at any cost. It’s intriguing, but I guess I just felt unfulfilled by the end. It was all there. It just seemed to work itself all out too conveniently by the end. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Alfred Hitchcock’s monster movie is The Birds from 1963.  There’s really not much to the piece as far as a story goes.  Characters are just given a purpose to be with one another so that they can be tormented together.  In this case, the film offers up a near hour introduction of newspaper heiress Tippi Hedren playing meet-cute with attorney Rod Taylor.  How ironic that they begin a flirtation in a bird shop of all places only to reconnect at Taylor’s harbor island home in Bodega Bay, located on the outskirts of San Francisco.  Still, as only Hitchcock can demonstrate there’s an ominous feeling sprinkled throughout before the real terror takes flight in the movie’s second half.

While I don’t rush for repeat viewings of The Birds, there’s no doubt as to its influence.  Each time there’s a shot of a bird soaring in the sky, your eyes open wider.  Something will eventually take effect.  At the beginning of the film, Hedren looks out into the San Francisco sky to see large flocks of birds soaring overhead.  Later, while taking a boat in Bodega Bay towards Taylor’s home that he shares with his mother and sister (Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright), she’s attacked by a random gull.  It’ll raise the hair on your arms for sure. 

I’ve noted before how Alfred Hitchcock builds suspense.  The audience knows there’s a bomb under the table.  The characters in the film don’t. So, the audience is nervous as to when the bomb is going to go off or if the characters are even going to discover the explosive.  An outstanding sequence in The Birds includes Tippi Hedren sitting on a park bench near the jungle gym, outside of a school house.  The children are singing along inside.  One crow lands upon the jungle gym.  Then Hitch returns to a shot of Hedren calmly lighting a cigarette.  Then back to the jungle gym and there are four more birds perched just behind her.  Then back to Hedren, unaware.  Then back to the jungle gym for Hedren to turn around and there are suddenly hundreds of crows congregated together.  Effectively, other than the innocent harmonies of the children nearby, Hitchcock opts not to use any music to shock his audience as the scene develops.  The visuals lend to the fear.  The danger that threatens Hedren and the children heard off screen is at the forefront of the viewer’s mind.  No more is needed.  It’s scary, and you want to be as quiet and unalarming as Hedren so as not to instigate the monsters right next to you.

A later scene has Hedren ascend a dark staircase to open a bedroom door.  The roof has been torn open and suddenly the blackness comes alive with flapping wings from every direction.  That’ll make you shift in your seat.

Hitchcock offers plenty of set pieces for bird attacks, but another effective device is to show dissention among the ranks.  From a character perspective, the picture takes a sideways route to imply an oedipal complex between Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy, who plays his mother.    Therefore, the script suggests Hedren as a threat to their relationship.  Before the film is over, they are likely going to have to develop a united front or it could be their undoing.  (Maybe it’s a nod to Hitchcock’s popularity with Psycho. A cute wink and nod.)

There’s also Suzanne Pleshette as the school teacher that we learn had a tryst with Rod Taylor’s character at one point.  That doesn’t spell out too well for Hedren, either.  As this bizarre epidemic becomes clearer, a scene in the town diner goes so far as to suggest that these random bird attacks didn’t start until Hedren arrived the day before.  Yes!!!!  It’s all her fault!!!! 

None of this will eventually matter though.

Other disaster films and monster movies later relied on exchanges like these, from Jaws to The Towering Inferno.  Hitchcock was wise enough to build tension.  Not a single bird in the scene, but still the fear and doubt among each other bares the strain.  There’s even an advocate for the birds with a strange elderly woman proudly debating her ornithological expertise, while a drunkard at the end of the bar declares the world is coming to an end.  All of these characters could have come from different movies, only to be pasted on to this canvas thereby lending to the frenzy.  Chaos must ensue among the masses.

Often, I get frustrated when there’s no explanation for a film’s central story.  I gave up on the TV show The Walking Dead many years ago because there never was a cause revealed for the zombie epidemic.  It became a smut of soap opera cliché accompanied with ridiculous gore.   Forgive the SPOILER ALERT, but I commend Hitchcock’s film for not providing a wrap up to The Birds.  The film ends with an uneasy final caption.  Nearly every inch of space on the screen is occupied with birds as the cast makes their way to the car to slowly drive out of town, careful not to disrupt the now dominant species of this universe.  Hitchcock provides a picture where the laws of nature declared a winner.  As intelligent as humans are considered to be, they have not won out.  They have had to surrender.  Why the birds attacked, we’ll never know.  Odd phenomena can happen.

There’s nothing thought provoking about The Birds.  It’s simply a film based on heightening your discomfort.  Often, I find the material and dialogue laughable.  The townsfolk notice a man lighting a cigarette right over a stream of gasoline and urge him to put out the flame.  Wouldn’t the dumb guy smell the diesel?????  However, then we wouldn’t get a fantastic fire ball to observe up close as well as from Hitchcock’s “God shot” in the sky with the birds looming into frame over the town below. 

The visual effects look outdated of course, but they still hold because of how Hitchcock demands they are used.  I noticed that his reliable composer Bernard Hermann is credited, but as a “sound consultant” this time.  The shrieking of the birds is what sends the chills down your spine.  Also, there’s the fact that Hitchcock offers up birds flying right at the screen or the windows.  A great sequence includes the front door of a house being gradually shredded apart by the bird masses.  The wood proceeds to splinter.  You don’t see the monsters but you know they’re right there on the other side.  Once that door breaks open or those windows shatter, then it’s likely all over for our heroes.  George A Romero exercised bits like this in Night Of The Living Dead.  Very, very effective.

The Birds is just okay for me, honestly.  The fright material is what keeps its legacy.  Yet, there’s a lot of soapy material among the cast of characters that’s not all that interesting.  Again, a purpose has to be served for these people to occupy the story.  Just offering a movie where birds hover and peck at people wouldn’t be enough.  So, we have to follow Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren’s trajectory.  It’s fun to see screaming kids run from these animals turned menace, though.  I found it hilarious to watch a birthday party run amok.  I also yelp when I see a flock storm into Jessica Tandy’s house from the chimney turning the living room into a contained disaster area.  An especially gruesome discovery by Tandy later in the film is absolutely eye opening (pardon the pun, if you know what I mean), and clearly an inspiration to a well-remembered scream out loud moment in Jaws.

The Birds is fun, but it’s not the artistic merit you’ll find in other Hitchcock classics like Rear Window, Vertigo, Suspicion, or even Psycho. What I can promise is that once you get through the plodding character connection build up, you’re allowed to forget about any of their value to the picture and simply relish in the mayhem. 


By Marc S. Sanders

To watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho today is a blessing and a curse.  You can’t take your eyes off the craftsmanship of the film.  Yet, you know all the surprises and plot twists.  There’s only so much blood you can draw from the stone. 

Recently, I told my fourteen-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like scary movies, that she needs to watch the film.  If only because she knows absolutely nothing about Psycho.  She has no idea what’s to come of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She’s never heard of the shower scene.  She doesn’t know about the true relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his chastising mother.  Imagine, assuming you have seen the movie and/or know all its secrets already, watching the movie with someone who is seeing it for the first time with a completely blank canvas to go on.  Oh, the reactions you’ll get to see!!!

Hitchcock’s film, with a screenplay from Joseph Stefano, works under a lot of different dimensions.  It’s classified as the first “slasher movie.”  That may be true.  However, it’s much more intelligent than a typical Jason or Freddy Krueger fright fest.  Psycho begins as one story with a central character, seemingly innocent, carrying out a crime.  Later, it turns on itself and becomes something else altogether.

Marion Crane makes off with $40,000 in cash from a chauvinistic, obnoxious client of her real estate boss.  She hits the road, heading towards her lover’s home in nearby California.  Her impending doom is never implied.  Stefano and Hitchcock focus only on Marion’s scruples with the crime she’s committed.  She gets haunted by a curious police officer.  She certainly wonders what her boss must think when he’ll discover that she never deposited the money in the bank.  Is the used car salesman going to follow up on her after she urgently trades in her car for a new one with new plates?

Soon though, none of that will matter when she has no choice but to pull off the road for the evening to stay at the Bates Motel, currently with twelve cabins and twelve vacancies.

For the one or two readers who have never heard of Psycho, I’ll stop there with the narrative.  However, what I appreciate about the second half of the film is that the new central character, now young, quirky, altogether strange Norman Bates, seems to respond with avoidance when a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and then later Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) start questioning him about Marion’s whereabouts.  Arbogast is on the trail of a thief who went off with $40,000.  Sam and Lila are also curious about the theft that seems unheard for Marion to commit.  Yet, there’s something else leaving them curious.  Norman, on the other hand, knows nothing as to what Marion was up to.  In his eyes, the only odd thing about her is that she checks into the motel under a different name.  All of these characters are coming in conflict with one another, but not for the reasons they think they are.  The fun part is that we are the only ones who know the hands that each player is holding.  Even more fun is when we uncover a secret that Norman has been hiding from the audience all along.

Hitchcock tricks his audiences with Psycho.  With its first story, we are in suspense of one criminal.  Will she get away with the theft? Rather, how and when will she get caught?  With its second story, we are unnerved by someone far worse and frighteningly mysterious.  Following the infamous shower scene, it’s a little nerve wracking to watch as Norman tries to hide the evidence in the trunk of a car that he pushes into the nearby swamp.  Any storyteller would just have the car simply sink.  Hitchcock brings in shadowed close ups (with his wise idea of black and white photography) of Norman chewing gum, and then becoming completely still when the car actually stops sinking midway through its descent.  As a viewer, your jaw drops.  What is Norman going to do if the car doesn’t fully submerge?

Later, it’s a wonder how Norman is going to circumvent around the unexpected visits form Arbogast, Sam and Lila.  Then, we are in suspense of their safety.  They’re just looking for the missing money while tracking where Marion went off to.  Unbeknownst to them, they have can’t even fathom her demise.

I was talking with one of my Cinephile brothers about Psycho, explaining how it follows a similar dynamic that the second half of Vertigo moves upon.  In Vertigo, the main characters, Scottie and Madeliene, are both in love with one another.  Yet, it’s for different reasons that they can’t explain to each other.  In Psycho, the characters are all under suspicion and even paranoid of each other, yet for all different reasons.  Norman never knew of Marion’s crime.  Though the other characters suspect that he does.  In both pictures, only we, the audience, know almost everything at play.  According to various documentaries I’ve watched, Hitchcock wholeheartedly trusted his screen writers to flesh out the stories.  He concerned himself more with constructing the film with a faithfulness to the script.  What’s commendable about the films Alfred Hitchcock chose to make is that he sought out these conundrums where his chess pieces are left bewildered or unaware of why they are sharing the stage with the other players.  The director had a way of channeling into deceiving his characters against one another, allowing the viewers to relish in their trickery.  Going a step further though, Hitchcock reveals other twists never suggested in the film to turn the audience on their ear in shock.

You can’t take your eyes off Psycho, even with knowing all the goodies that Hitchcock provides. 

Anthony Perkins especially is a tense and unnerving menace.  He has a boyhood innocence to him that should not appear threatening to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane.  It’s in his relaxation with the role that it feels all the more terrifying to the viewer.  Simply look at the way Arbogast pulls up to the motel and Perkins is sitting calmly on the porch eating his bag of candy.  Watch how he casually shares with Marion how he relishes in stuffing the birds he has mounted on the parlor walls, or even how he casually offers cabin number one for Marion to occupy so that she can be close to everything.  Norman Bates hides himself very well in his virtue.  A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Bates Motel and the large house poised behind it on the hill were set up on a Universal back lot.  It remains one of the most famous settings in film history.  When you see the silhouette of Norman’s mother in the window from afar or young, slender Norman standing in front of the house, the images of the chilling locale stay with you whether it is on a dark and stormy night or even during a sunny afternoon.  Hitchcock opted to shoot the film in black and white to taper the goriness of the piece.  Outside of the gore elements though, the black and white lends a foreboding feeling to this destination.  Even before we realize that Marion is in danger, we feel uneasy with just arriving at this place.

The shower scene of course is one for the ages.  I’m not here to discuss all of the mechanics of film’s centerpiece.  The assembly of the scene’s elements are masterful though.  Can you imagine the scene without Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score?  Hermann was to Hitchcock like John Williams is to Steven Spielberg.  The aftermath is brutally shocking as well.  The camera does a zoom out on Janet Leigh’s eye as the soaking head of her corpse lays down on the bathroom floor.  I notice the eye does just the slightest twitch.  For me, that’s all the more disturbing than just a very still open eye.  It implies the last bits of life leaving her body and consciousness.  Later, when Norman cleans up the bathroom, Hitchcock shows his process with a mop and neatly wrapping Marion in the torn shower curtain and disposing of anything belonging to her, including a newspaper that isn’t just a newspaper.  Norman is methodical.  Perhaps this strange man has done something like this before.

I do have one grievance with Psycho.  The air is kind of sucked out of the film in its last few minutes before that delicious last close up on Norman.  Stefano’s script offers up a psychological explanation for what Norman Bates seems to suffer from.  It’s as if we are given a scientific description for what ails him. This is all painfully boring.  I dunno.  Maybe in 1960, when Psycho was a pioneering kind of horror film, and moviegoers were not as familiar with the genre that seemed far scarier than Boris Karloff, and vampires and mummies, they needed a summation like this.  Sixty years later, naturally this is not necessary.  We know all to well that there are disturbed people who live among us.  We know, sometimes, to be cautious of folks like these.  For someone as reputed as Hitchcock was, being identified as the “Master of Suspense,” this long monologue, spoon fed diagnosis from the psychiatrist kills all of the horror we’ve bared witness to over the last two hours. 

Psycho was the first slasher movie.  It was the first movie to feature a toilet and have it flush on film. It has one of the most famous characters in all of film history.  It has one of the most famous scenes of all time.  It was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time.  Yet, it also has one of the worst conclusions of all time.  If ever a scene should have been cut from a finished product, it is the second to last scene of Psycho.

Now, go find someone who has never heard of Psycho, knows nothing at all about Psycho, and watch them watch Psycho.  Of course, as the famous marketing campaign for the film insisted, by all means do not start the movie or walk in the middle, and never reveal any of its secrets.


By Marc S. Sanders

Remember that CW TV show called Felicity?  I’ve never seen an episode, but I remember the advertisements.  Beautiful, former child actor, Keri Russell with the golden, curly locks of love, was on her way to college.  Every commercial had that crisp, home like comfort feel voiceover.  It left me with an impression that this was a corny, yet sweeping exploration of coming of age while at college, and gaining independence.  The show came from JJ Abrams.  Abrams is a good director and writer.  He’s now one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.  Back in the early 2000s however, he wanted to nurture his characters.  Protect them.  Make them feel warm and content.  After Felicity, he went on to develop a spy thriller series called Alias with Jennifer Garner.  She was a college student with a lovable roommate by day and was super spy by night, or whenever the moment called for it.  Abrams went on to blending his coziness with that of stunts and explosions that modernized a series like, say…Mission: Impossible.  Naturally, when Tom Cruise recruited him for the third film of the high-octane franchise, we got the “Felicity Finish” applied.  Ethan Hunt is sweet and kind, and he’s ready for married life.  How precious!

Don’t get me wrong.  Mission: Impossible III is likely what kept the still running blockbuster movie series going.  Following a style over substance lackluster entry before, from action director John Woo, this third entry went in a completely different direction.  Ethan Hunt hugs a soon to be sister-in-law. Ethan Hunt cries.  Ethan Hunt has feelings.  Ethan Hunt has to rescue who he regards as his “kid sister,” Felicity…I mean adorable Keri Russell from being held hostage.  Ethan Hunt belongs on the cover of a Hallmark card with actress Michelle Monaghan.

I imagine JJ Abrams is not fond of the early James Bond movies.  I’d make a case that he watches them and wishes that someone, anyone would just give 007 a warm and sincere hug after he saves the world, and hold him close.  Superspies have emotions too, ya know?

The story of this third M:I chapter focuses on the pursuit of a MacGuffin known as the rabbit’s foot.  A powerful weapons dealer named Owen Davian (a brutally frightening Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is working to get a hold of it.  Following a first act rescue mission that Ethan and his IMF team (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engage in, the main hero finds reason to capture Davian and intercept the mysterious rabbit’s foot.  Complications get in the way because Ethan has fallen in love with an adorably beautiful doctor named Julia (Monaghan), who is unaware of her fiancé’s exploits.   

The action is superb in Abrams cinematic directorial debut.  Once it gets started after a sweet engagement party scene, it does not let up.  Everything is well edited and choreographed. An essential part of a Mission: Impossible movie.  An unexpected attack on a bridge crossing is spectacular.  The covert tactics are fun to watch as well.  When Ethan and team secretly invade The Vatican, the step-by-step maneuvers are carried out with gleeful ease.

There are twists and double crosses at play as well that you are not even thinking about looking for.  Frankly, they work more effectively here than they did in the original M:I film directed by Brian DePalma.  When the traitor is revealed to deliver a line like “It’s complicated,” it is not unreasonable to gasp.

Hoffman still remains the best of the villains in Cruise’s action franchise.  Maybe that’s by Abrams’ design because this is probably the most personal of all the films to date.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the guy who will be apprehended and braced to a railing on an airplane by the IMF team, and yet will still hold the upper hand.  A question like “Do you have a wife or a girlfriend?” has a much more sinister context when uttered by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I do recall when I first saw the film that the ending is not original.  It’s an opportunity for Tom Cruise to do another running scene, but it was first used in an episode of Alias where an operative is remotely giving directions to the hero while talking on a cell phone.  Clever the first time.  The second time seeing it, I was just calling it out.  So, Abrams needs to stretch his imagination a little.  No matter.  The pulse of the adventure races at high speed.

Mission: Impossible III might be unabashedly hokey and corny.  Everyone looks like they belong in a JC Penney commercial at Christmas time, or on a CW TV show like Felicity. However, it won’t deny you of what you are looking for which are big stunts in the sky and on the ground, along with the cool gadgets and those signature pull away masks that made the original series so memorable. 

I still realize that by the time film series reached this chapter, the franchise still belonged exclusively to Tom Cruise occupying every frame.  Once again, his team of IMF agents really don’t matter or carry any substance except to wear clothes.  At least this time, Tom Cruise cries over someone else.  So, he’s not as self-involved as the last couple of times, or even the last couple of dozen movies.  That’s a nice change of pace. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Kenneth Branagh is inventive director.  Arguably, his most uncelebrated film is the noir inspired mystery, Dead Again, which features himself and his wife at the time, Emma Thompson, in the leading roles. 

Branagh and Thompson do double duty, playing multiple parts in two different time periods.  In a 1940s post war Los Angeles, they are Roman and Margaret Strauss.  Roman is a composer.  Margaret is a musician in his company.  They quickly fall in love and live in the limelight of glitz and glamour amid the gossip magazines of the time.  Their life together only becomes juicier when Roman is sentenced to death for the murder of Margaret.  The weapon of choice, a pair of scissors.

In present day 1991, Branagh portrays a private detective named Mike Church who ends up being responsible for an amnesiac, Thompson, who can’t even speak when she’s found.  The woman has unexplainable dreams that recall moments of Roman and Margaret’s life together only to end up as terrible nightmares.  A curious hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) enters the story to lend aid to Mr. Church and the woman.  He serves as a guide, bringing her back to the times of the celebrity couple, helping her to find clues that perhaps could lead to her true identity and uncover exactly why she is haunted by these dreams.

Additional characters enter the storyline as well.  There’s Wayne Knight as a humorous sidekick for Church.  In the flashback 1940s, there’s Andy Garcia as a handsome Pulitzer winning journalist who follows the escapades of Roman and Margaret.

Dead Again is not a long movie, and that lends to how good a film it is.  It’s a lean picture that sets up its clues the moment it starts.  Branagh gives you a background tutorial with newspaper headlines that flash up within the opening credits.  The two time periods are separated with the 1940s shown in gorgeous black and white, while the modern scenes are presented in color.  Branagh puts on a German accent for Roman.  Thompson is English for Margaret.  In the present day, they are Americans.  Of course, it is acknowledged that the respective characters look alike and that allows for possibilities of reincarnation, karma and past lives to enter the frame. 

The screenplay from Scott Frank gets you curious.  What connection could these two wildly different couples have with one another?  What don’t we know about the murder of Margaret at the hands of her husband, Roman?  Who really is the woman that Thompson is portraying in modern times?  How is it possible that a private dick like Mike would coincidentally end up with this “Margaret lookalike” amnesiac?

The cast is having a lot of fun with the puzzle, particularly Derek Jacobi.  His old English mannerisms offer a relaxing storyteller’s narrative to the film.  It feels as if his hypnotist carried over from an Alfred Hitchcock film.  I also appreciate how far apart the respective characters that Branagh and Thompson play.  Not only am I watching a thrilling mystery, but I’m looking at skilled, well-trained actors demonstrating a wide range of performance work.  At times, it’s as if I’m watching two different movies.  How exactly are they going to intersect, though?

I originally saw Dead Again in theatres and was taken with it immediately.  I did not see the end coming and when the veil was lifted, my eyes went wide open.  It has a terrific plot twist.  Branagh, known at the time as a celebrated Shakespearean actor/director, introduced a sweeping, mystery yarn that relishes in fun escapism like Hitchcock or Orson Wells would apply to film noir.  It only makes sense, looking back over thirty years later, why the director opted to turn his craft towards rejuvenating the classic Agatha Christie stories (Murder On The Orient Express, Death On The Nile) for film.  We are better for his contributions.

Now, Dead Again is a film that deserves the attention from a new generation of movie lovers.


By Marc S. Sanders

To be lost and alone is my absolute greatest fear.  I don’t know what to do when I find myself in situations like that.  I feel palpitations and terrible anxiety.  The only argument my wife and I had on our honeymoon was when we got lost in the Louvre in Paris.  She was relaxed.  I definitely was not.  I didn’t know in which direction to walk through the massive museum, located in a country that I’m not at all familiar with, inhabited by a majority of people who speak a language that I’m terribly limited at using for conversation.

When a person is completely, physically isolated, the only thing to depend on is his/her own wits and sensibilities.  That’s step one in constructing a scene of terror.  Step two is to lock that person away with an entity that is unpredictable, unrecognizable, smart and grotesquely frightening.  In a film, each time that entity comes into the play, the scene should not look like the last time the protagonist or the audience encountered this creature.  Whatever I learned a few minutes ago is not going to offer much help the next time around. 

I’ve just described the spine of the story that makes a horror film like Ridley Scott’s Alien so successful.

Science Fiction always works best when it can be convincing enough to lend authenticity to the fiction of its, well, science.  With Alien, a variation of biology and evolution lends to the terror of the picture and you don’t even realize it until the movie is half over. The title character is introduced in different characterizations with every scene it is called for.  First, it’s an egg, then a tentacled creature wrapped around the face of an unfortunate victim.  Later, at dinner time, it reveals itself in an unforgiving and memorable scene as a phallic shaped organism with a snake like tail and steel teeth.  Lastly, you just can’t even describe what it is except to say it is huge and its even worse than the monsters you imagined as a kid hiding in your closet or under your bed.  Credit has to go to the creature designs from H.R. Giger.  Every limb or shape of the monster seems to serve a purpose.  If that’s not enough, the animal bleeds acid that’ll burn through the hull of an enormous spaceship.  The alien in this 1979 film, later deemed a “xenomorph,” is one of the scariest and most unforgettable monsters in movie history.

A crew of seven are piloting a large ship back to the planet Earth.  Their cargo is carrying mineral ore (whatever that is).  This crew is not military of any kind.  There’s a science officer, but by and large, I’d characterize these people as truckers in outer space working on behalf of a company, by hauling a load across the galaxy.  During the long journey, they rest in a cryo-like sleep.  As the film opens, they are awakened by their transmission computer, known as “Mother,” to respond to a distress call.  Their ship has been diverted from Earth to investigate an unexplored planet.  As the piece continues, the crew brings back a plus one. They have no idea what to expect or how to handle its presence, and then they are hunted across the maze of the large ship, dispatched one by one.

The byline for Alien is marketing brilliance.  In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.  It only scratches the surface of the terror you encounter when watching this terrifying film.  Ridley Scott uses art direction set up with long, dark hallways and warehouse size rooms that make the cast appear infantile.  His labyrinth of a spaceship offers up practically any place for a killer creature to hide and strike at an opportune time. 

It’s important to point out that Alien lends to the argument for the value of 4K resolution.  This latest print to honor the film’s 40th anniversary offers much clarity within the dark settings of the picture.  Having seen Alien countless times, I still examine each frame carefully because Giger’s designs allow the monster to blend in properly with engineering architecture of long and large pipes and cables, and immense darkness.  Chains hang from the ceilings and water drips down for no reason to be explained.  It’s just how the spaceship lives, apparently.  The atmosphere rattles you, however, when you realize there’s a dangerous bug crawling around somewhere.  Did I just catch a glimpse of the alien’s head there????  Was that his tail????  Is that a limb, like an arm or a hand????  I know all of the highlights of the picture by now, but to this day I still look for when and where the silent terror is looming, thinking I missed it from the last time I watched.  Would you believe on this last viewing, I found a caption of the alien I don’t recall ever seeing before?

Once the monster is established and we see our heroes within inescapable danger, then paranoia and mistrust can lend to their erratic nature.  The screenplay from Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon establishes how the “grunts” of the seven (Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton) debate what is and isn’t their responsibility and what monies they truly are entitled to on this mission.  Early on, before the threat is even considered, a divide exists within the band.  They are not always going to get along.  Later, the debate on whether to quarantine the crew members who investigated the distress signal on the strange, unknown planet comes into play.  It would be easy to simply make Alien all about blood, guts and sci fi laser pistols in a post Star Wars/Star Trek era, but it is even more effective to create disagreements and seeds of unreliability among the group.  One or two of them could end up operating in a different and unexpected direction that won’t help their cause.  Maybe it’s not just the alien we should be afraid of.

The seven members (5 men, 2 women) all have different personalities.  They like one another well enough, but they all have uncommon values and motives.  Sigourney Weaver portrays Ripley, the third in command, behind two men.  However, in outer space, does it really matter where she falls in the line?  The science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), seems to drift into his own way of thinking, separate from the rest.  Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) moves along the straight and narrow, only doing what’s assigned simply to move on and get things over with.  The other woman Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) does not have much dialogue to work with, but her expressions seem to be questioning why she even took this job.  Was this woman desperate for work and this is the best she could find?  She’s definitely the most unrelaxed and fearful of the crew.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Alien does not operate on the movie monster alone.  There are other factors at play.  A popular Hollywood story is that Spielberg didn’t show the shark for a long period of time simply because the thing would not work, mechanically speaking.  Ridley Scott, however, demonstrates that he can present the animal one way and then show it in a completely different form later.  When it has reached what we can only believe is full evolution, we still don’t get a clear physical picture of the creature’s design from head to toe.  Scott will show us teeth, or maybe a shoulder blade or a tail that whips or moves at a slow and cautious pace.  The alien functions with a combination of real-life predators’ behaviors.  It hatches.  It sheds its skin.  It bites.  It runs.  It hunts a prey.  It grows and evolves…and seemingly very quickly.

Alien has been duplicated many times following its release, including a few shameless sequels.  Mind you, some of the franchise follow ups remain exceptional in their own right.  What misgivings Ridley Scott’s movie have later inspired cannot be helped.  Mr. Scott should consider it an honor, at best, that various craftspeople have attempted to top what he accomplished, I guess.  Those copycats don’t follow the recipe of Alien though.  There’s either too much of an ingredient included like blood and guts or there’s a lacking in its script, such as the eerie haunts of a dangerous setting or the overeager intelligence of its characters.  Whatever the case may be, the achievements in horror work so well in Alien, because it moves with dread, uncertainty, helplessness, a lack of knowledge, and then with only a few touches of gore and violence that are mostly left to our worst imaginations. 

Alien is not only one of the best science fiction films ever made.  It is also one of the best horror films ever made.


By Marc S. Sanders

When a movie is set in Las Vegas, doesn’t it feel like it should be overly exaggerated, maybe a little loud, and quite bombastic?  That’s how I feel about Martin Scorsese’s three-hour opus, Casino.  The film opens with a car bomb exploding our primary narrator, Sam “Ace” Rothstein into the skies where he then makes his descent into the expansive signs that light up sin city in the desert.

Ace (Robert DeNiro) runs The Tangiers Casino.  He was especially picked by the mid-west Mafia back home (St. Louis, Mo.) to oversee everything that happens at the casino.  He’s looking for cheaters.  He’s making sure blueberry muffins live up to their name.  He’s dodging the FBI and their hidden bugs.  Most importantly, he’s making sure hefty suitcases are walked out of the casino and delivered on a monthly basis to the wise guys he has to answer to, and those deliveries better not come up light.  These guys treasure Ace because he never loses a bet.  Not one.  He can predict the outcome of any sports contest.  He can beat the odds on any table.  Ace is the best at his job because he also works eighteen hours out of every day, and he makes a lot of money for his superiors.

Everything should go smoothly.  However, the mob has also allowed Ace’s childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to move out to Vegas.  Nicky is a heavy.  It’s not wise to upset or anger Nicky, because it’ll likely be the last time you ever do.  He’ll kick you when you’re down on the ground, but he’ll also stab you with a pen an endless number of times.  Don’t get your head caught in a vice when you are around Nicky.  This bull might have been sent out as a toughie to protect Ace and his work, but he’s not subtle about his methods.  When law enforcement gets involved, it only causes interference for Nicky and his crew to get back in the casinos or even in to Vegas.  Because Nicky won’t settle for that, it’s only going to make things harder, and especially challenging for Ace.

Ace’s other problem focuses on the one bet he did lose in life, and that was marrying Ginger (Sharon Stone in an Oscar nominated performance).  She’s a high-class hooker that Ace quickly becomes infatuated with, and the worst mistake he could have ever made was that he trusted her.  He trusted Ginger way too much.  Ginger may have quickly had a child and married Ace, but she never gave up on her loyalty to her scuzzy pimp, Lester (James Woods), and just wait until she starts carelessly confiding in Nicky.  Early on, everyone in the room, like even those in the comfort of their own homes, scream out loud why Ace would entrust a safe deposit box containing millions in cash with only Ginger’s name.  Ace can’t even get into the box if he wanted to.  He arranged it so that only Ginger could have access.  Keep the cash out of his name and the Feds can’t make a case.  As well, is Ace hiding his own interests from his own people?  Yet, that’s what he did.  He trusted his hooker wife way too much, way too often.

I’ve seen Casino a few times and I always leave it with the exact same problem.  I don’t think the film lives up to its title enough.  The first half of the film, while a similar blueprint to Goodfellas and later The Wolf Of Wall Street, is incredibly sweeping with Scorsese’s signature steady cams and voiceover work from DeNiro and Pesci.  You can travel from one end of the gambling hall, and then through clandestine back rooms and into secure areas all within sixty seconds.  Scorsese with a script from Nicholas Pileggi gives you a very fast education on how Ace operates a tight ship and keeps his mob superiors invested. 

Later, however, the film loses its way with an abundance of material on the Ginger character and how she is undoing Ace.  Stone gives an incredible performance as a constant drug and alcohol fueled spoiled brat of a trophy wife/former hooker.  She has wild outbursts that continuously threaten Ace and who he works for and with.  Minutes later, the film cuts to where the drugs have worn off and she comes back to her husband with her chinchilla coat draped over her shoulders.  The energy that Stone puts into this role must have exhausted her.  As a viewer, I get wiped out just watching her.  Yet, as engrossed the actress is in the part, what does it really have to do with life in a mob run casino? 

It’s not crazy to say that Las Vegas is city of at least 8 million stories.  It’s not called sin city for nothing.  In three hours’ time, much attention is given to how Ace’s casino funnels out monies to the mob.  Focus is also given to how they deceive the gaming commission and how Ace dodges the need to have a gaming license if he is to work at the casino.  There’s a great scene where he demonstrates what happens to cheaters who rip off the joint.  He also has to contend with the governing good ol’ boys who staked their claim in Nevada long before it became the gaming capital of the world.  If a dumb nephew is fired for not properly handling the slot machines, Ace is going to have to answer to someone with a big shot title.  Pileggi’s script is best in scenarios like this.  So, I can’t understand why he diverts his story into a domestic squabble of screaming and shoving between a husband and wife. 

The Ace/Ginger storyline populates over one third of the movie and then not much is talked about with the casino.  There are broken glasses and screaming and crying and drug fueled rages and opportunities to beat up Lester and now the film has become a personal picture, rather than Las Vegas mob cycle we were invited to observe.

Ironically, what I always hoped to gain from Casino is only a tease at the end, when Ace narrates how Las Vegas segued from mob rule and sold out to corporate America, even comparing it to Disney Land.  A wise shot is provided showing the senior citizens entering the doors of the casinos en masse, dressed in their sweat pants and polyester outfits ready to take a chance on the slots, not the more sophisticated gaming tables where the fat cats would lay down ten grand a hand.  Why couldn’t Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese devote time to this transition?  This seems like the bigger bet that Ace wouldn’t win out on.  Tons of married couples lose out and get married for the wrong reasons.  We’ve seen that kind of material before.  The real undoing of Ace Rothstein was likely the blue-chip organizations who pounced on what the mafia pioneered.  Hardly any of that is shown, only left to be implied.  I’m sorry, but Casino concludes on a missed opportunity.