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

Sidney Lumet is the director known for shining a light on police corruption. His films were not crime dramas or legal thrillers really. They were an examination in what turns righteous professions within the confines of law and order into something tainted in violations of morality. Night Falls On Manhattan showed what can happen when the politics of New York City could be stained by the policemen who lost their sense of distinguishing right and wrong.

Andy Garcia plays Sean Casey, a newly deputized, very green district attorney and former street cop. His image looks perfect to prosecute a big time drug dealer who wounded his own policeman father, Liam (Ian Holm), and killed two other cops. Richard Dreyfuss does an inspired Alan Dershowitz personality portraying the defense attorney for the dealer, by angling a theory that police corruption is unfairly working against his client. It seems like a very open and shut case for Sean, which occupies the first half of the film.

Afterwards, Sean appears to have a white hot image in the public eye and he is quickly nominated and wins an election as Head District Attorney for the city, following a heart attack from the incumbent and his boss played by Ron Leibman. Conflicts arise though when it is uncovered that perhaps Liam, along with his partner Joey (James Gandolfini), have been taking money under the table as part of a group of dirty cops spread among three precincts.

Sidney Lumet’s films always present topical and complicated real life problems with no expected solutions. These issues of transgressions exceed any kind of quick fixes. He’s shown this time and again with films 12 Angry Men, Serpico, and The Verdict. With his original script here, Lumet gets a little personal. What can you do when a city relies on your image of ethical practice, but your own loving father may be a traitor to the laws he’s vowed to uphold? How can Sean work ethically for his constituents while his father and his longtime partner are possibly betraying sworn policy?

I was always engaged in Night Falls On Manhattan. What is Sean going to do? The dilemma is never patched up with a band aid. It actually feels like it gets worse and worse because it is next to unsolvable. Cops are heroes in this film and a cold blooded killer seems to have been rightfully sentenced? So how can Sean, Liam, Joe and the rest of the cast live with themselves when the end results they wanted all arrive, but came about in all the wrong ways?

This is a terrific assembly of talent. Most especially, credit has to go Ron Liebman as the head DA whose overbearing loud mouth is necessary for the city that never sleeps and the endless amount of police troops and city prosecutors he has to answer for. If New York City had an actual voice that emanates and speaks the endless noise of the Big Apple , it is Ron Liebman. He should have been Oscar nominated. He comes carved out of the concrete of the city landscape.

This is really an unsung picture of Lumet’s that should be seen, much like Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. My one issue is the preachy monologue that Sean delivers at the end of the picture. It comes off like a concluding statement and left me with the impression that the conflict of the story painted these characters into an inescapable corner. So, tack on a speech to bring on the credits. The monologue just didn’t work for me though. It didn’t give me that bookended impact I was hoping for.

Other than that, however, Night Falls On Manhattan is another fine piece of filmmaking rooted in a metropolitan setting that becomes a character all its own. Lumet was a genius about acknowledging his settings. This is another perfect example.


By Marc S. Sanders

JRR Tolkien was one of the 20th Century’s greatest fantasy writers. The Lord Of The Rings series was a dense, sweeping epic inspired by the torn European climate during World War II and its conflict with the Axis nations, particularly Hitler and his organized Nazi Germany.

Peter Jackson found the opportunity to adapt Tolkien’s works. In 2001, The Fellowship Of The Ring amazed audiences with its epic landscape of Middle Earth, Isengard and Mordor where the fiery Mount Doom is located and the evil eye of Sauron waits for a resurgence of overthrow.

Much happens in each three hours plus Rings films. Tolkien’s story is not so much plot, but moreover a journey from one adventure to another. What’s special is that the main hero is a small, kind Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who has been tasked with carrying the dangerously powerful “One Ring To Rule Them All” back to Mount Doom and destroy it. He is aided by eight fellows, three other Hobbits and four representatives of various nations and backgrounds to protect and escort him. The most significant member is the wise wizard Gandalf The Grey played by Ian McKellen in an Oscar nominated performance. The other characters’ significance become more established in later films.

This first installment is my favorite of the series because it is the most absorbing. I believe in the all but sinister and deadly value of Tolkien and Jackson’s MacGuffin, the Ring. Jackson does well of posing the threat of danger each time Frodo dons the Ring for the sake of invisibility while the Orc army of Saruman, Sauron’s Wizard henchman played by Christopher Lee, bears down on the Fellowship. The film shows one battle after another but the suspense is heightened each time as we become more familiar with Jackson’s digital world. It’s also quite dramatic to see Frodo become consumed in fear and a kind of sickness as the possession of the Ring weighs upon him. To precisely show that transition requires a three hour film, and Elijah Wood is up to the task, always appearing quite angelic and unsure of his assignment. Wood is quite the underrated actor.

There are a multitude of character descriptions in The Fellowship Of The Ring and a number of them come into play when centered around the viewpoint of the Ring. Backstories for others are really not necessary but Jackson attempts to cram as much of Tolkien’s narrative as possible. Beyond Frodo, and maybe Gandalf, the other most interesting character here is that of Boromir played by Sean Bean, often playing a variation of a hero in his films, but quite good at not being worthy of endless accolades. Boromir is a great character to show how the temptation of the Ring can cloud and poison the mind. Bean evokes that of one who might be a weak addict, needing a quick fix of the Ring’s power. There’s a complexity to his performance. Boromir is likable but Sean Bean makes the character quite shocking as well. He’s not a villain but his internal weakness presents a conflict for Frodo and his band. Sean Bean never got enough recognition for his role here.

Peter Jackson is the real hero though. This series is a massive cinematic accomplishment. Everything feels gratefully familiar. Perhaps that is from reading Tolkien’s visually descriptive books, or maybe even the animated film from the seventies. There’s something to see in every corner of the screen. It’s a world come alive in leaves, creatures on land or in the sky, sorcery and swords, flames and even saloons of overflowing drink and large platters of food. The Shire where Frodo lives with his uncle Bilbo (an excellent and jovial Ian Holm) comes off as a happy utopian village of farming and Hobbit celebrations of laziness and relaxation from any outside elements. Jackson contrasts this beautifully against the majesty of Rivendell and the hell of Mordor. It’s a nuanced universe.

Again, for me this first installment remains the best as it is cinched up tightly in its exposition and narrative. Later films are just as grand but maybe sidestep away from themselves a little.

I never got that impression with The Fellowship Of The Ring. Everything I see belongs in the film.


By Marc S. Sanders

The 1981 Academy Award Best Picture winner was Chariots Of Fire directed by Hugh Hudson. However, because of that honor I’m not going to pretend that this was a marvelous film viewing experience. This may be one of a select few movies where the soundtrack is far superior to the film itself. That memorable score that gets your pulse racing belongs to Vangelis, and if the soundtrack to Raiders Of The Lost Ark from John Williams should lose the Oscar, it’s not a surprise if it was to the soundtrack from Chariots Of Fire. For me, the two compared against one another though? Well, we might have an argument there, my dear reader.

The film centers particularly on two outstanding runners, maybe the fastest in the world, who compete in the 1924 Olympics for Great Britain. One runner is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish Cambridge student who is frowned upon for his religion while he is well aware that his heritage is not valued for anything amongst the Christian Anglo Saxon community. It’s all the more challenging when he agrees to private coaching from Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm in an Oscar nominated performance) of Italian and Arab descent.

The other runner is Eric Liddle (Ian Charleson) who loves the exhilaration of running, though his sister prefers he devote his time to the church. He is devout in his Christian beliefs, nonetheless, and he is tested when he learns that one of his competitions is scheduled on a Sunday, the day he observes Sabbath. Despite the Olympic team’s firm position that he compete, Eric’s stance is not to participate in the race.

I don’t want to say that I was bored with Chariots Of Fire, and yet I was bored. The effort to stay with the picture informs me of the value a film can have with marquee names in its cast. As the screenplay moves from one character’s storyline to the next, it was hard to gather where things had left off. Other runners are covered as well though just not as in depth. Most of this cast, I must admit I’m not so familiar with. Sometimes they all seemed to be cut from similar molds in costume, hair color and the like. With known names in a cast, it’s much more easy to put a face with a name and follow along. Here, it was challenging to stay focused with each character. They didn’t seem distinguishable enough for me.

I know! This is not a fair argument. However, this turned out to be my experience with the film.

The technical production of Chariots Of Fire is outstanding, though. Everything from the cobblestone streets of Cambridge to the Olympic stadium in France and the hilltops of Scotland are spectacular to look at. Absolutely immersive.

I did take issue with the film’s beginning. The first ten minutes opens with Abrahams’ funeral in London, 1978, then jumps to 1924 as a student writes in his journal recalling the team’s experience and so then the narrative moves back to 1919, only to wrap up with the funeral again before the closing credits. Why so much work with these albeit brief time jumps? They carried no impact. Why not simply begin in 1919 and move forward through time?

Chariots Of Fire has always been on my bucket list to catch. It’s a necessary film to see for devoted film buffs due to its accomplishments in technicality and score plus art direction. As well, it is an educational experience in British history, despite the liberties the film takes.

I recommend the picture, but I also forewarn to have patience and strict attention to its narrative. There’s a lot of dialogue and information contained within, Hudson is passionate with slow edits of running scenes and hurdle jumps, for his method of dramatic impact and excitement. All I suggest is to be prepared to sit for what will feel like a good long while. Try to avoid any interruptions (turn your phone off). You’ll need to pay attention where the film carries you from one scene and storyline to the next.