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

I got the urge to watch Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country after seeing the compelling HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The Star Trek franchise succeeds best when it applies current and true-life events to its fictional future set in the 23rd century.

Like the USSR, the savage Klingon empire suffers a terrible accident at one of their most powerful energy planets, that spirals them into possibly having only fifty years of life left to survive. Therefore, Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) reaches out to representing Ambassador Spock of Starfleet (Leonard Nimoy) to begin peace talks that will help prolong the alien race’s survival.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) however, is not so keen on the idea, especially after he blames them for the murder of his son. It turns out many other factions are not enthused either, as Gorkon is assassinated and Kirk and McCoy (DeForrest Kelley) are sentenced to an ice like Siberian prison planet.

There’s much to think about in the original Star Trek cast’s final film together. Beyond the sentiments of the crew retiring and the Enterprise being put out to pasture so to speak, there’s an interesting story to ponder about how we map out the future for upcoming generations when we are still living with the past that we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s telling, considering much of the real-life events happening twenty-two years into our new century with historical statues being removed and minorities fighting for fairness among their communities.

As well, is one country or people too proud and always wanting to be at odds with another by relishing in being a super power? Can we think beyond that nature? I think that’s maybe where the curious title, The Undiscovered Country, stems from. We just haven’t seen the possibility that could be truly within our reach, if we all wanted it that way.

Christopher Plummer plays Klingon General Chang who vows revenge for the assassination. Plummer is spectacular; a villain not recognized enough on all of those on line top 10 lists of bad guys. Plummer brings his theatrical training to the role as he relies on Shakespearean quotes to take in the scene at hand. He’s at least as good as Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is remembered.

The crew is adored as usual. The supporting cast are given their fair share of lines and moments in the spotlight. Kim Cattrall joins as a Vulcan Federation Officer who’s helpful to uncover the true criminals at play.

Director Nicholas Meyer contributed to the best of the Star Trek films, and this is a perfect example of his strength within the franchise. The story was partly conceived by Nimoy with Meyer credited on the screenplay. Cold War politics really lend to this film. It’s interesting to see how the Klingons are initially in denial of assistance or the desperate problem they face which is similar to Russia’s response following the horrifying nuclear accident at their power plant in Chernobyl. I just love how the ideas within The Undiscovered Country parallel the world’s response and effects of what was happening just a few years prior to this film’s release, in 1986.

Never let it be said that movies can’t teach you anything.


By Marc S. Sanders

When I think of Michael Mann’s The Insider from 1999, I cannot get over how deep it is with its storytelling. Inspired by true events and based upon a Vanity Fair article, I consider the adjective “deep” because it’s really a one-story trajectory, but it covers so many different facets; so many different industries and how they operate and sometimes overlap with one another. The tobacco industry, journalism in both television and print, state law and even the deterioration of an American household. Michael Mann shows how one simple action can balloon into something bigger affecting others all at once. You gotta get through one thing before you swim deeper into the bottomless pool of policy, contracts, ethics and threats.

Russell Crowe portrays Jeffrey Wigand, a top leading chemist with the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Upon realizing that he has detrimental information should it go public, the company fires him and compels him to sign a confidentiality agreement not to reveal any of his research or activities while in service to them. That won’t suffice for the incredibly powerful tobacco company though, as Dr. Wigand receives threats that include disturbing emails, possible prowlers and a bullet that mysteriously turns up in his mail box.

Wigand crosses paths with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer with 60 Minutes at CBS Television. Bergman works often with famed interviewer Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, who should have been nominated, much less won an Oscar). Wigand gets more and more motivated to go on Bergman’s show and tell everything about how the tobacco industry manipulates cigarette manufacturing to make it all the more addicting.

Bergman wants the story but he wants to play it carefully. Toeing the the line of maintaining Wigand’s confidentiality agreement might require a deposition by the scientist in a state courtroom so that his testimony will be public record. In other words, get a state to subpoena him and then the interview can happen because what Wigand says in an interview is already public record.

It’s complicated. Not so much for the viewer though. It’s complicated for Jeffrey Wigand. Russell Crowe emotes his rock and hard place situation with terrible anguish and a short temper. Michael Mann gets great closeups that capture the stress like deep wrinkles and dark circles under the eyes along with pale white skin, a big gut, wrinkled dress shirts, and rough shaves. The stress also carries over to his southern gentile wife (Diane Venora in an entirely different role from Mann’s Heat) and his two girls. They are collateral damage here. Wigand could also lose medical coverage on top of his salary and the threats of civil liability. Jeffrey Wigand is an ant under the very large heel of Big Tobacco.

Lowell Bergman also has obstacles from within his own camp. Journalistic integrity is tested with Wigand’s interview. It’d almost be better if Wigand was lying. That way Big Tobacco could not sue CBS for breach of a confidentiality contract. The more truth he tells, the greater the liability. Considering that CBS Corporate is in the middle of a buyout that could be very profitable for a select few, CBS is disregarding Bergman’s reputation for bringing in experts and informants that have made 60 Minutes the most watched news program on television.

These are the dilemmas that comprise Mann’s near three-hour film. What’s as interesting is the in between material. With Mann sometimes shooting with a documentary like approach, we catch glimpses of how a journalist will pass a colleague in a rotating lobby door and they’ll make arrangements to exchange one story in a time slot for another. These are mere seconds, but it paints a colorful setting that the news never sleeps. We see how Big Tobacco (represented by a slimy Michael Gambon) can subtly intimidate one man in a corporate office. We see a trio of lawyers take a phone call from a private jet they are piloting to consider Wigand as a material witness. We see how one of those lawyers (Bruce McGill) will handle an objection during his questioning of a witness (an unforgettable scene). We see how Wigand must adjust with his family to downgrade to a smaller home with old dusty kitchen cabinets and how it all gradually weighs down his marriage. We see how Bergman has to be covert with meeting Wigand in a hotel lobby. We also see how Big Tobacco can issue a smear campaign and how Bergman has to go across the street to a newspaper colleague to first ask for a deadline of print to be pushed back, and later how he grants a story to the paper to reveal shady dealings and how to refute what’s already been falsely claimed. There’s even a deal that indirectly involves the infamous Unabomber. It’s these little details that keep the film’s pulse alive.

Even before all of this begins, Mann demonstrates the lengths Bergman and Wallace will go to for 60 Minutes. They go deep into the Middle East to get an exclusive interview with the Head Sheik for the Hezbollah terrorist group. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace is marvelous here as he stands up against an irate bodyguard strapped with a machine gun to argue about how close he will sit next to the Sheik. If you want the story, the true story, you have to be genuine and be fearless with risk.

I can’t say enough good things about The Insider. It’s truly an education to watch the film with blazing cinematography in blues and grey hues from Dante Spinotti. Mann is always known for his coolness with film, dating all the way back to the MTV vibe of Miami Vice to Thief with James Caan, and his LA crime drama Heat. The tradition carries on here.

As well, the dialogue is so crisp from a script by Mann and Eric Roth. Pacino is memorably given an opportunity to sum up the machinations of CBS corporate in the third act of the film. The Mike Wallace character is not written as a television personality with a cue card. He’s got real, good, seasoned intelligence in his words. Plummer just enhances the script.

The Insider ranks at the top of the list of films focused on journalism next to features like Sidney Lumet’s Network, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men. It explores the danger that can come from truths that need to be told which others never want disclosed. It covers the methods by which parties are recruited to help get the truth and the lengths operatives will go to, to squash a story.

The Insider is a gripping, magnificent film.

QUICK TAKE: Syriana (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 72%

PLOT: A politically charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved and affected by it.

Syriana reminds me of one of those puzzles made out of twisted nails, where the challenge is to untangle them, even though it appears to be impossible.  The difference is, with Syriana, I don’t get tired of trying.  At least, not yet.

The movie is a pleasure to watch, but hard to explain.  It’s a convoluted tale that starts with an impending merger between two oil companies, detours into political and legal intrigue, and sprinkles in some religious fanaticism by the time we get to the end.  I’ve watched it five times, and I still have questions about the plot.  I JUST watched it, and I’m still not entirely sure who Christopher Plummer’s character is and why he matters at all to the story.

Normally, a movie this confusing would turn me off.  (Examples: Full Frontal [2002], The Fountain [2006], The Counselor [2013])  But when I watch Syriana, I get the sense that, underneath the twisty plot and maddeningly oblique dialogue, there lurks a great truth.  Maybe the plot is confusing because, really, the situation it’s describing is so confusing in real life.  Maybe any attempt to parse the complexities of U.S. relations with oil-producing countries is a fool’s gambit to begin with.  So the movie just jumps in with both feet and separates the watchers from the listeners.  You’ve really got to ACTIVELY listen for two hours to make ANY sense of the movie.

Maybe that’s not your thing.  Fair enough.  This is the kind of movie that I can’t defend on objective grounds.  You’re either gonna like it or not.  For myself, I get sucked into it every time I watch, even if I don’t understand it all 100%.  So.  There you go.


By Marc S. Sanders

Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out is an attempt to reinvent the Agatha Christie blueprint of The Who Done It? Murder Mystery. It primarily succeeds even if it is a little cookie cutter in its screenplay.

Famed best selling mystery writer Harlan Thrombley (Christopher Plummer) is discovered by his maid in his reading room to have slit his throat. All evidence points to suicide. Police follow through with simple procedural questioning of his next of kin, and yet a private detective (Daniel Craig) with an outstanding puzzle solving reputation is hired with a delivered envelope of cash from an unknown source. If it’s suicide, then why a detective, and who had reason to hire him?

Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc (great name) adopts a hilarious Kentucky southern drawl to rattle the cages of possible suspects, assuming that perhaps this wasn’t suicide. Could it have been…MURDER?

The suspects consist of family members and each is well exaggerated in their physical descriptions. Johnson wrote these connivers with possible motives to set them apart from one another-first by casting well known actors and then giving most of them a garish appearance or unusual trait. Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda with a short white as snow haircut and black circled glasses looks like no one else I can recall. Michael Shannon as Walt with a cane and exaggerated limp, not too bright but also quite discomforting. Don Johnson as Richard only with a goatee, Toni Collette as Joni putting on a bug eyed expression with ditzy delivery. Chris Evans as Ransom, with clean shaven good looks and a toothy smile in preppy, yet snobbish looking sweaters. Finally, Ana de Armas as Marta, Harlan’s nurse, who seems to be the only one devastated by what has transpired, and somehow inadvertently ends up being more involved than she ever expected. She can’t lie. If she does, she can’t help but vomit. A disadvantage perhaps but maybe a convenient advantage at times as well.

Early on, interviews are shown and it appears everyone has reason to maintain a grudge against Harlan. So if Harlan was in fact murdered, well then it’s fair to presume one of these people might have reason to commit the crime. A will is eventually read and then even more twists present themselves. Someone definitely wanted Harlan out.

Rian Johnson spells it out easily for the viewer. Each suspect has his/her own place in the film to toy around with. While I didn’t find it too challenging to predict a likely suspect that has orchestrated what’s occurred, it was more fun for me to watch how it was all pieced together. I kept asking myself what’s so important about the dogs or the baseball or the silent “Great Nana” (K Callan) who sits around the house but surely must have something to contribute.

Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammet still hold as the much more clever writers. Still, Daniel Craig is having a blast in his role, conceived by Johnson. I’d like to see another mystery with this character. He’s funny at appearing unconcerned with new developments that could be occurring while he’s really just waiting for the inevitable fact that reveals the absolute truth.

Following leaving the scene of an arson a potential suspect makes an unexpected stop. Craig as Detective Blanc opts to wait in the car and put his ear buds on to sing show tunes. Who would do that? Yet, that’s what’s hilariously fun about this picture. A man has died but the shallowness of his surviving family and the disconnect of the detective are the entertainment factor.

Rian Johnson knows how to keep Knives Out amusingly interesting with a curiosity that does not stop.