By Marc S. Sanders

There’s something inviting – or maybe intriguing – about seeing a person in a hat with a dark trench coat on.  Just the person’s silhouette will leave you asking for more.  What is it to this guy?  Steven Spielberg does that in the first few minutes with Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  Before Indy, there was Orson Welles as Harry Lyme in The Third Man.  Guys like these have a danger to them, and we can’t look away.  In The Usual Suspects, one of many variations of a legend called Keyser Soze has a dangerous reputation that carries him, and we want to know more about the figure in the hat and coat.  In the first few minutes of the film, we see this mysterioso extinguish a kerosene flame by urinating on it.  Who is this guy?  Maybe we, as the viewers, are Icabod Crane looking at an updated inspired spawn of The Headless Horseman.  Perhaps, we are actually catching a glimpse of that boogeyman who hid in our closets or under the beds.

Bryan Singer’s modern day film noir, masterfully written with inventive riddles by Christopher McQuarrie, works towards its ending as soon as the opening credits wrap up.  Each scene hops from a different setting or time period and as a viewer you feel like you are sitting at a kitchen table turning puzzle pieces around trying to snap them together.  Not all of it makes sense by the time the picture has wrapped up.  That’s okay though, because one of the players in the story perhaps played a sleight of hand and we can do nothing but applaud when we realize we’ve been had.  Magic is fun when you never quite realize where or when the deceit began.

A scenario is set up early on that assembles five different kinds of criminals in a police lineup.  It works as a device to team these guys together to pull off additional heists.  A prologue to the film depicts the aftermath of their last job together.  One holdover, a hobbled cripple named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is brought into a police precinct to be interviewed by a determined detective named Kujan (Chazz Palminteri).  Verbal might ramble on endlessly in circles about nothing, but Agent Kujan is going to get to the bottom of what happened the night prior on a shipping dock that turned up several corpses.  How did it all go down, and where is the money and cocaine that was expected to be there?

Verbal was one of the five in that lineup, along with McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).  Each carries a different specialty or personality, but Keaton is the guy that Kujan is really after.  He’s a master criminal who’s been known to fake his own death, supposedly turn legitimate while dating a high-priced lawyer, and now may be the lead suspect in an armored truck heist.  On the other hand, maybe it was one of these other four guys. 

Amid all of this back and forth and side stepping stories, there is mention of a name – Keyser Soze.  Whenever he comes up in the vernacular of the script, the mood seems to change.  These criminals, usually comfortable in their own cloth of transgressions, get noticeably frightened and concerned if there is even a remote possibility that this Soze character is the engineer behind what follows them. 

It’s fun!  The Usual Suspects is fun.

McQuarrie’s script will toss out names of people we never meet.  It will quickly imply an anecdote from another time.  It’ll share a bunch of short stories with how these five guys work together, like upending a secret criminal sect of the New York City police force while robbing them of their fortunes. Yet, a tall tale of lore will intrude on their typical heists to derail what we may normally be familiar with in other crime dramas or noir films.   

Spacey is the real star of The Usual Suspects.  He earned the Academy Award for Supporting Actor because Verbal Kint is so well drawn out as a weak, unhelpful, and frustrating man.  Often, you ask yourself what the heck is this geeky looking crippled guy even talking about. 

On other occasions, I’ve noted that sometimes with movies I can not determine if I just watched a superior film or dreadful nonsense until I’ve reached the final five minutes.  The final five minutes of a movie can be the verdict.  Sometimes you’ll claim the journey getting there was great, but the conclusion was a big letdown.  If you have never seen The Usual Suspects, then you likely won’t know if the path towards its end is good until you’ve reached the culmination. 

Roger Ebert couldn’t stand this picture, and I’m not going to say he didn’t know what he was talking about or that he was wrong.  Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s assembly of scenes don’t make for a well-defined picture, even after the movie is over.  Ebert was less than fond of that technique.  I think that was their intent, though.  Everything you have seen doesn’t have a suitable answer.  Certain parts don’t link well with others.  However, the director and screenwriter were always working towards an ending while piloting the film in swerves and unexpected knee jerk turns.

Unlike Ebert, however, I’m wholly satisfied with the film.  In fact, the first time I saw the movie, I cheered for the conclusion that got more than just one over on me.  On repeat viewings, knowing how the picture wraps up, I treasure the path towards its finale. 

If you study Verbal Kint, you’ll realize that he doesn’t offer easy answers and explanations for what’s occurred, thereby lending to the frustration of Agent Kujan who only demands cookie cutter, fall-into-place arrangements. What can I say Roger Ebert?  How else should I lay it out for you Agent Kujan? Life is messy with no easy answers sometimes.  Especially, in film noir.  

Ironically, one of Ebert’s favorite cinematic characters is Harry Lyme.  So, I guess Keyer Soze couldn’t live up to that threshold or repute.  If that’s the case, then I forgive you Roger.


By Marc S. Sanders

Colonel John Matrix (HUGE ACTION STAR NAME WITH MUSCLE AND BULK AND SWEAT AND…AND…MUSCLE, because this is Arnold Schwarzenegger) lives a quiet life in the beautiful nature the mountains have to offer him, along with his 11-year-old daughter Jenny Matrix (Alyssa Milano). SIDE BAR: Imagine roll call at elementary school and that name comes up, Matrix, Jennifer Matrix. OKAY! BACK ON POINT: Father and daughter tickle one another, mash ice cream in each other’s faces and feed gentle deer from the palm of their hands. By and large, Commando is a beautiful after school special.

However, this is also a cheerfully bloody and fiery explosive R rated after school special adventure. Jenny is kidnapped and used as ransom to coax John, better known as Matrix, (cuz it’s cooler that way), into assassinating a foreign political leader. Though that’s not how this film is gonna go.

Matrix makes an escape from his watchful guard who ends up “dead tired,” by jumping out of a commercial airliner. He determines that he has eleven hours to find Jenny and blow everyone up real good. He gets help from an airline stewardess, a hilarious Rae Dawn Chong that pioneered what Sandra Bullock memorably did later in Speed. She conveniently has been taking flying lessons that will get Matrix to the private island where Jenny is being held. Thank goodness for that, or Jenny might never see daddy again. Everything happens for a reason.

Look, the chances this film would ever be Oscar nominated against the 1985 Best Picture winner, Out Of Africa, were slim for sure. However, all these years later and I’m still not exhausted of repeatedly watching Commando. It’s a comfortable crowd pleaser. The film is action packed to the teeth with bad guys getting impaled, razor saw disks being used as frisbees to take off a scalp or two, arms getting chopped off and big bunker houses being blown up into huge balls of fire. Thankfully, lots of blood gets to splurt all over the place.

This is an action film for the eyes and ears. For me, it’s better than any of the unfunny Rambo films with their minimal dialogue. In Commando, you get some fun at a shopping mall with elevators rolling across the floors and swings from balloon streamers. Matrix even pushes 10 security guards off him all at once. There are car chases. In a neighboring hotel room, he takes on another muscle head while a naked couple is going at it in the room next door. Commando is just too damn funny, for sure.

Schwarzenegger is a master of the one liner. He drops a bad guy off a cliff and tells his new stewardess friend “I let him go.” Well, he ain’t lying. Rae Dawn Chong is equally funny in her own way. I’d argue the script called for a nothing woman role and she brought something special to the picture. Her incessant complaints and screams at this ridiculous circumstance she gets caught up in are laugh out loud hilarious. Commando is not just action alone. The characters respond to the hyped-up scenarios.

No, the villains are nothing special. A potbellied cheesy porno lookalike Australian, named Bennett (Vernon Wells), with a chain mail tank top and tight leather pants is a former squad member of Matrix’ team from when they were military mercenaries. Bennett is no James Bond villain by any measure, but he’s pleasurably laughable, even if it is all unintentional.

This is a guy’s movie for the most part. It’s brawny and muscled out. It’s got machine guns, shotguns, handguns, and even more guns along with some grenades, detonators, knives and a rocket launcher that seems to become a character all its own. However, I think there’s an opportunity for chick flick adoring women to have a good time with Commando too, when I once again hearken back to Rae Dawn Chong. She is probably Schwarzenegger’s best female counterpart in any of his films. Yes! Above Linda Hamilton and Jamie Lee Curtis. The chemistry just works so well here.

There’s so much to like about Commando and I believe it remains as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s satisfyingly best films to date.


By Marc S. Sanders

In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts.  Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through. 

Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec).  They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations.  The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages.  The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family.  A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive.   Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement. 

When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance.  The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water.  Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible.  An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage.  Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.

A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters.  The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills.  The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more.  Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story.   Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature.  However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients.  Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs.  That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies.  Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing.  This is a David & Goliath confrontation. 

Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you.  Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character.  She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened.  I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly.  Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself.  However, people are unfair.  Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from.  This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however.  The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.

What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water.  Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water.  Children are drinking water.  Water is spilled on tables.  Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him.  The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.

Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued.  Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless.  He falls asleep in court.  He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio.  Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table.  He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on.  His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed.  Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation.  The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here.  There is top notch stage performance work happening here.

It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K.  Look at this cast and its direction.  It’s magnificent.  Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics.  Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing.  William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat.  Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves?  I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch.  No matter, it was worth it.  For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man.  Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished.  A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to.  Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.


By Marc S. Sanders

AS IF!!!!!

Yeah, Alicia Silverstone’s breakthrough film, Clueless, is shockingly dated, but it is so smartly constructed as it follows Jane Austen’s outline of her classic novel Emma.

You see, here is a movie where the main character goes through a nicely developed character arc. Silverstone’s Cher might be an airhead since her focus is primarily on clothes, the mall, MTV cartoons, and more clothes but as she strategizes to be a matchmaker for fellow students and teachers at her school, she loses sight of her own best interests when it comes to love.

The situations and one liners are priceless in Amy Heckerling’s film. I love how Cher can’t comprehend why her gorgeous crush never hits on her but he loves to shop, dress smart and watch Spartacus.

As director, Heckerling is also attuned enough to deliver gags by means of the extras sprinkled throughout the film. Almost every extra at school has a nose bandage because, you know, this is a Beverly Hills high school where plastic surgery is as common as getting a drivers license. Heckerling might be broadly spoofing the Beverly Hills scene of the ‘90s, but we all know what she’s trying to say with each shot of a high school hallway or classroom.

This film also delivered actor Paul Rudd closer to the main stream. It’s not a glamorous role but he’s cute nonetheless, as Cher’s step brother and maybe love interest???? It’s a long story; watch the movie. He’s the guy with sensibility that Cher doesn’t seem to account for. Rudd’s scenes with Silverstone are marvelous. Typical love/hate material that we’ve seen before, but the characters are so likable it’s hard to resist their charms.

Dan Hedaya (a very underrated actor since Cheers) is really good. He’s such far cry from his on screen daughter as an apparently brutal litigator. Every time he shouts “Cher, get in here!” I laughed.

Again, it’s hard to believe it’s already dated in its wardrobe and slang, but Clueless remains outstandingly funny nonetheless. Bitchin!!!!!!!!