By Marc S. Sanders

Bruce Willis is a time traveler from an ugly dystopian future in 12 Monkeys.  His name is James Cole and his mission is to uncover why all but one percent of the world’s human population perished from a mysterious virus in the year 1996. 

Director Terry Gilliam specializes in disorienting his films.  No shot or closeup is well defined.  He’ll position his camera on a slant or he’ll turn it on an uneven axis so that nothing appears completely clear.  In 12 Monkeys, the viewer is as confused as the protagonist, James Cole, along with a psychiatrist he periodically encounters named Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe).  Beyond the camera trickery, the script of the film offers up oddball characters in both Cole’s present time period (the “future”) and in his past.  Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in his first Oscar nominated role) is one particular weirdo, residing in a mental institution that Cole is entered into when he time traveled back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1990.  During his stay in the loony bin, Cole is talking gibberish to Dr. Railly and her team.  Jeffrey has his own language of nonsense.

Cole’s dreams of himself as a child are intermittently weaved into the final edit of the film.  There’s a woman running after a man, a rapid beep, beep, beep and a gunshot.  Later returns to this dream will provide more clues fleshing out its significance.

It would be easy to have a five-minute conversation and spell out what occurs in 12 Monkeys, but that would be defeating the cleverness of the film.  The achievement of its story relies on the sum of its parts.  Terry Gilliam strategically lays out breadcrumbs with fractional pieces of dialogue, words and pictures that quickly flash in front of you.  It may even hinge on a news story or memorable pieces of music playing on a radio. Still, he also unnerves the characters and the viewer with uncomfortable and sometimes grotesque imagery. 

The first time you watch the film your attention may turn to the long stream of bloody drool hanging from Bruce Willis’ mouth when he shares his first scene with Madeleine Stowe.  Repeat viewings, which I believe only enhance the picture, will have you focus on the nonsensical dialogue that James Cole is continuously uttering.  Other characters are seemingly disruptive to your concentration, particularly the herky jerky behavior of Brad Pitt’s character, but their purpose is essential to a mystery that has left the world of the future in a tailspin where the last of the human race lives underground while animal wildlife roam the cities above.  Furthermore, who or what can explain the enigma behind a team of people perhaps known as The Army Of The 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is a very weird and very unusual kind of science fiction film and that is its crowning achievement.  I have spoken before of how sometimes a movie can not be determined as a success until it reaches its climax, say the last five minutes of its running time.  Terry Gilliam’s picture is one such example.  Gilliam has a keen sense of foreshadowing with tactical layering of complexity.  He is wise with how everything neatly unravels at just the right moment. The answers to the mysteries that James Cole pursues eventually rise to the surface, reminding us that everything was right under our nose the whole time. 

I recall the elation I had the first time I saw the film in theaters.  On repeat viewings, I grin at how the movie is assembled.  Quick references that seem like blink and you miss it moments add up to a satisfying conclusion in Terry Gilliam’s film.  My colleague, Miguel, and I both agree on the time travel motif in 12 Monkeys.  It is one of those rare occasions where the science built within the story’s fiction seems to make sense.  Too often time travel movies paint themselves into a corner and can’t escape the gaping plot holes they leave behind.  Yet the different time settings of 12 Monkeys cooperate with themselves.  Because the film doesn’t color outside of its lines, its worth applauding how ingenious the picture truly is from beginning to end.

12 Monkeys may require your patience the first time you watch it.  It’s not a comfortable journey.  However, you’ll be glad you stayed with it as the story answers its own questions.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a master filmmaker at shooting predominantly talkie films. In The Verdict by David Mamet, his best special effect is, at least, the just as legendary Paul Newman as washed-up alcoholic attorney Frank Galvin. Lumet opts to shoot Newman for the screen talent he is. Occasionally, his camera points up at Newman, who looks as if he will fall over. Lumet also makes Newman look great as he runs down a hallway, or with a stare of his familiar blue eyes. The chemistry of camera and performance are blended rhythmically.

Alcoholism has been depicted countless times, but Newman’s interpretation ranks at the top of the list. He can’t function without his drink whether it’s gaining a high score on pinball, flirting, reading a brief or even getting a fast protein fix by dropping an egg yolk in a beer. Paul Newman makes you wonder if Frank Galvin is going to pass out or fall asleep even while he’s barely practicing legal brilliance. He toes the line beautifully between coming undone and barely squeaking by. This is one of his best roles ever.

Frank is given a chance to salvage himself as goes up against the Boston Archdiocese and the hospital it owns in a case of medical negligence, who are represented by a conniving antagonist in the form of James Mason with his limitless resources, power, strategies and army of lawyers. If this were a silent film, I’d buy it with Mason twisting a handlebar mustache. He’s absolutely a man you love to hate.

The dialogue crackles against simply the inflection of vocals from Newman, Mason, an unexpected Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s sudden love interest, a difficult judge played by Milo O’Shea, and Frank’s assistant played Jack Warden. The delivery of lines, the twisty double crosses, and conflicts play to the precision of great Shakespeare. So much so that when on the rare occasion these characters curse or the ominous cue of music steps in, it’s all shocking and applauded.

The settings are great for atmosphere too. Worn in leather chairs, polished cherrywood tables and courtrooms with their squeaky floors. This is a well-worn Massachusetts backdrop of legal reputation and intimidation.

Every member of the filmmaking team from Lumet to the cast, to the composer,Johnny Mandel, and David Mamet’s fantastic script have been thought out and measured to completion.

Some will say this film is dated (rotary phones, ladies’ hairstyles, wardrobe; year of release was 1982). I say its themes are still significant. Power is something that must always be overcome by a weak, flawed protagonist. Whether or not Frank Galvin can do it, matters not. It’s the struggle that’s important to follow in a film like The Verdict.


By Marc S. Sanders

I think we’ve debated enough about whether Die Hard is considered a Christmas movie. So what about the next installment, Die Hard 2: Die Harder?

Truthfully, who cares?!?!?

Director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone) takes over from John McTiernan and he does a capable job of depicting a frenetic Christmas Eve at Dulles Airport in Washington DC, sprinkled with the latest in early 90s technology like fax machines, pagers, tasers and even a reference to Radio Shack. But by golly, the film still remains modern as The Simpsons is shown on local TV.

The ingredients are pretty much the same as the first film and while Alan Rickman is sorely missed, William Sadler does alright as a cold hearted Colonel on a mission to aid an escape of a powerful drug overlord. Bruce Willis’ John McClane will not allow that to happen.

Willis is maverick and defiant again though this script doesn’t allow for better one liners that the first film offered. He’s doing his same one man army schtick though with an endless supply of bullets for his service weapon, and it’s nice to return to form.

Harlin is a good action director featuring snow mobiles, shootouts, shootouts on snow mobiles and exploding planes and satellites. Amazingly enough though, a crowded Christmas airport is unaware of all these massive fires and explosions going off all over the nation’s capital and all proceeds as normal until it’s broadcast on TV in the last act of the film. Meh!!! Everyone has Christmas on their mind.

Heck…well then I guess Die Hard 2 (with the inventive subtitle Die Harder) is in fact a Christmas movie. Glad that’s settled.

Happy Holidays. Let it Snow!


By Marc S. Sanders

The long lasting appeal of Die Hard really stems from so many sources. Most importantly though is the performance of Bruce Willis.

Watching it this evening in a theatre commemorating its 30th anniversary, I found myself still laughing and relishing the fantastic set pieces of editing for great sound and visuals from Director John McTiernan. Yet, tonight Willis is what stood out for me. There’s not much dimension to New York cop John McClane but there is a great transition from being a reserved nervous flyer to an estranged husband with feelings of awkwardness at his wife’s Christmas party and finally to deliriously unhinged and reckless when faced with going up against a superbly brilliant villain from Alan Rickman, his very first film role. Willis goes wild against Rickman’s team of terrorists that hail from all different nationalities and races. (Hans Gruber was an equal opportunity employer.) The mouth on McClane doesn’t hold back for any kind of authority. It’s fun. It’s hilarious and you can’t help but pound your fist in the air with a “right on!”.

Rickman is great as well. His well tailored and groomed persona is a perfect counterbalance to Willis’ lack of class and style. Both are at the top of their game but using different devices to fight with. The playing field of a high rise tower is equal for them. Yet their tactics are different.

McTiernan offers up plenty in side humor from ego minded FBI guys both named Johnson (love that joke) to conniving reporters, to a coked up yuppie hostage and henchmen who all carry themselves differently. McTiernan bravely stops the approach to action to allow his audience to realize the setting on Christmas Eve with great note reminders from a film score by Michael Kamen and even a run through the roses only to have a kick ass swat officer get pricked. A terrorist takes a moment to snack on a Nestle Crunch before a firefight. Porno pictures on the walls of a construction area give Willis an opportunity to offer a glimpse. Great lines as well are so celebrated (“Yippee Kai Yeah Mother Fucker”).

But Willis is the real fun stuff as he gets into hand to hand combat with terrorist Alexander Godunov, he offers a promise to “kill ya, and cook ya” with his “had enough” delivery.

Roger Ebert always took issue with naivety of the law enforcement officials in the film especially actor Paul Gleason as an dumb antagonist. That’s okay and he’s not wrong. However, this is Die Hard where an 80s Los Angelos offers gas for .74 cents and ever relies on their characters getting caught up in a scenario they never fathomed. Had Die Hard been made in post 9/11 it wouldn’t carry that smirk inducing charm. It wouldn’t be fun.

We were fortunate to get one of my favorite Christmas movies when it did come before the age of cell phones and social media.

There were action films long before Die Hard. Yet the original 1988 film set the standard by what most films of action offered in subsequent years. More often than not, they were all fun films in their own right but whether you liked those films or not, they often remain comparisons against Die Hard. That’s the best compliment any film could receive.

FUN TRIVIA: Die Hard is the first of McTiernan’s teddy bear films. Can you name the other one that shows a giant teddy bear with its hero?

16 BLOCKS (2006)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey), David Morse
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 56%

PLOT: An aging alcoholic cop (Willis) is assigned the task of escorting a witness (Mos Def) from police custody to a courthouse 16 blocks away. However, chaotic forces are at work to prevent them from making it in one piece.

“Genre film.”  To some people, these may be considered dirty words.  They conjure up painful memories of poor-to-middling films like Red Heat, Beastmaster, Con Air, Deep Impact, Cliffhanger, ad infinitum.

However, let us not forget that people who were just trying to make a simple genre film also gave us Star Wars and Jaws and Casablanca.

With 16 Blocks, veteran director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) takes a familiar story – gently re-using elements from 3:10 to Yuma, if you ask me – and delivers a respectable genre film: solid, if somewhat predictable, entertainment.  Call it a compromise between Casablanca and Commando.

If Bruce Willis had not been cast, this movie would probably not have been made.  With genre films, you want archetypes, actors who embody the characters without having to say a word if they don’t have to.  That’s our Bruce.  When you first see him on screen, nursing a hangover, eyes half-closed, trudging wearily step by step, you don’t need a lot of plot exposition.  We’re there.

Where this movie mildly elevates its formula is in the casting of Mos Def as Eddie Bunker, the federal witness whom Willis is tasked with protecting.  I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing that Mos Def was probably no one’s first choice for the role.  On the page, the script is crying out for a comedian: Chris Rock, maybe even Eddie Murphy, or Dave Chappelle.  Instead, the producers went with the “hot hand”, Mos Def, a former hip-hop artist, riding high on high-profile roles in several recent hits.  Despite his modest popularity, he is still not the obvious choice.

But make no mistake: Mos Def is what makes this movie work.  His Eddie Bunker character has this amazing, indescribable accent, somewhere between the nasal whining of a Beastie boy and Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places.  His job is to be as annoying as possible to his minder, and he succeeds.  But he is also somehow able to make Eddie likable and even relatable.  He claims he’s in prison by mistake (of course), but he has plans to open a bakery when he gets out…because he learned to bake in prison.  I love that, I don’t know why.

The film hurls this odd couple from one situation to the next as it unspools almost in real time.  In the course of all this hurling, they encounter that most reliable of screen clichés: bad guys who can’t shoot straight while the good guys are nearly perfect marksmen.  Predictable.  Not to mention the bad guy who monologues just a LITTLE too long, the ability for the good guy to somehow out-think the bad guys even with a monster hangover, the good guy who (gasp!) turns out to be a bad guy…most movie clichés are out in full force here.

But it works.  It’s not Heat, but it’s not The Golden Child either.  It’s fun, a not-quite-guilty pleasure that hits all the buttons on time and on target.  Predictable, yes.  But fun.


By Marc S. Sanders

No one can deny that Quentin Tarantino’s classic film, 1994’s Pulp Fiction is one of the greatest screen accomplishments of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s strange, lurid, scary, unforgivingly funny and altogether different from practically anything that came before it. How did the Weinstein brothers with Miramax films prophesize the energy it would surge in mainstream audiences?

When I first saw the film I was apprehensively going with two college friends who insisted I see what they experienced from a prior viewing. Suddenly, I realized that alternate surf 70s rock, black suits, and a kinetic visit to the restaurant known as Jack Rabbit Slims could entertain and make me look further than just a facial close up.

Tarantino entertains the lens of his camera by making his audience the camera. A drug dealer scrambles to find a medical book to awaken a boss’ wife who is dying from a potent heroin overdose, and the camera stands in place only frantically swinging left and right. The camera doesn’t move while everyone in the scene remains in a panic, frightened of administering an adrenaline shot. The camera stands still to allow the audience to stand in the room as well. It’s very unusually funny, but unnerving and suddenly we are amid the clutter of crime and drugs frightened of a terrible fate.

Another scene follows two gangsters down the hall as they debate whether a foot massage equates to fellatio on a woman. They look serious as they earlier regretted bringing shotguns to their destination but here they are having a debate likely reserved for men’s locker room talk. Is a foot massage really worthy of dropping a guy out of a four story window into a glass enclosed garden below? I mean, apparently the poor guy developed a speech impediment.

Tarantino used Pulp Fiction as an excuse to show how criminals inadvertently lead their lives to the unexpected, beyond a cliché cop bust. Two guys might be settling a personal vendetta, but somehow get interrupted by a redneck gang rapist and his chained up “gimp.” Two other guys might be trying to deliver a briefcase and yet somebody’s brains splatter all over the inside of a car. Another guy might have left behind a family heirloom gold watch as he and his girlfriend run for their lives, or they might suddenly acknowledge a moment of clarity when death seemingly walks out of a bathroom door.

Some might not agree but I always consider Tarantino’s colorful film characters to be rather two dimensional. What you see is all you see. There are no hints at an underlying motivation or a background to anyone you meet in Pulp Fiction, or any of his other films. Normally, that’s a negative in my book but with Quentin Tarantino it is what’s expected. He’s a masterful script writer of the situation. A well known fan of kung fu and lurid crime movies of the B variety, gangsters like Vincent Vega, Jules Whitfield, Marsellius Wallace, Butch Coolidge and Winston Wolf (even the names are entertaining) get caught up in just a random moment in time. Beyond the incident nothing else matters, and just to make it fun Tarantino uses his favorite editor, Sally Menke, to scramble everything out of order. I like to think the script was assembled this way to demonstrate that what happens in one instance doesn’t reflect what happens in another. Every brief moment is bookended. Again, two dimensional characters who don’t reach an intended karma. It doesn’t matter what’s been done before or what will be done next. It only matters in the moment.

The cast is great. Likely, you know who all the players are by now. The best compliment is that they obviously listened closely to the director’s vision. They spoke his language which had yet to be very mainstream before this film’s release. They are a pioneering cast of great talent and many owe quite a bit to Tarantino for jump starting and reviving their careers.

Pulp Fiction is a rousing expedition in sin and surf music symphony with endless quotable and un-PC dialogue that revolutionized filmmaking and brought about risk taking movie makers. It’s just exciting and fun and wild and it especially became a favorite upon seeing one of my favorite kinds of scenes-a dance sequence. If you incorporate dancing into a non musical film, you’ll likely win me over.

Spoiler alert: Vincent & Mia win the dance contest, and right they should. Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” became that other popular film song once Pulp Fiction hit the scene.

Thank you Quentin Tarantino.


By Marc S. Sanders

M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is mind numbingly stupid and unbearably boring. A slow moving slog of a movie that scrapes the bottom of a barrel of wasted, rejected plot devices.

This is apparently the 3rd in a series of super hero comic book inspired movies from Shyamalan, but it seems to lack the research into the true construction of a standard comic book or graphic novel. If Samuel L Jackson as the title character declares this is an “origin story,” when it’s clearly not, well then Shyamalan expects you to believe that at face value.

The three central roles played by Jackson, Bruce Willis and James McAvoy are meant to be super human beings. Sure, Willis as the hero David symbolized in green with a poncho has evident powers. Jackson as a villain in purple, however, does not possess any powers. He just masterminds disasters that in other films would be regarded as sabotage and terrorism. Where’s the super power in that? McAvoy as “The Horde” is just mentally ill who hulks out and climbs walls when his beast persona takes over. Yeah, that’s superhuman but for me it’s seems overshadowed by the mental ailments befalling McAvoy’s role as Kevin and 23 other personalities.

Shyamalan is ridiculously overconfident in being a comic book aficionado but has he ever read a comic book? Sorry but I didn’t recognize much in the form of a standard monthly super hero yarn here.

His script has no bite. It has no memorable moments and it has a 2nd act of 4 total that is simply Sarah Paulson sitting in a chair playing a psych doctor offering an explanation for the purpose of the three men. READER, this one has four characters sitting (never standing, never walking, never even turning their heads) in a large room listening to Paulson speak. I’d rather be at an insurance seminar. This scene goes on for a good 20 minutes and I dozed off and on. I literally could not keep my eyes open. Shyamalan typed a long monologue, for Paulson’s character to explain a theory, on a word doc and proudly never edited it.

Revelations are slapped on at the end because god forbid Shyamalan concludes a story without a twist. The ending is as dumb as the film’s 4 note string background which is as dumb as Shyamalan’s script and the film as a whole. It comes from nowhere. It offersno irony and it’s never implied anywhere.

There’s nothing that McAvoy, Willis, Jackson or Paulson should feel proud of here. They stare. They grimace. They make claims on a misguided screenwriter’s behalf that what’s presented is something grander than the absence of storytelling this film suffers from.

Glass is poorly written, poorly edited and poorly directed. It’s a film that’s about as necessary as a sequel to Top Gun.

(Oh shit!!!! Now I’ve done it!!!!)