By Marc S. Sanders

When it comes to Thanksgiving films, majority turn to that John Hughes road picture.  However, there’s another film that is just as meaningful to the spirit of the holiday and that is Martin Brest’s Scent Of A Woman which features Al Pacino’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance; at last!!!!

Before Chris O’Donnell became Robin in some tired Batman movies or a tough guy on NCIS, he was the staple prep school achiever (see also School Ties).  Here he plays Charlie, a student attending a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.  He does not have the wealthy background of his classmates and without the funds to go home for Thanksgiving, he opts to accept a weekend job tending to retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, U.S. Army (Pacino).  Frank is a frightening lost soul with Pacino’s signature outbursts.  What’s even more challenging is that Frank has been plagued with blindness following a reckless accident with a hand grenade.  Unbeknownst to Charlie, Frank assumes control once his niece’s family leaves town for the weekend and sends himself with Charlie in tow to New York City.  Frank plans to enjoy a pleasant stay at the famed Waldorf Astoria, have a nice meal, crash his older brother’s holiday dinner, get a new tailored suit, bed a beautiful girl and drive a Ferrari.  Afterwards, he’s going to blow his brains out in full dress uniform.

This is not a problem Charlie needs to be dealing with right now.  The pressure is on the young man to identify the students of a prank that occurred just before the holiday break.  The Dean of Students (James Rebhorn) has given Charlie and another student, the privileged George Jr. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a very early role) the weekend to ponder how they should respond.  Charlie, however, seems to face expulsion and likely an opportunity to miss out on admittance to Harvard.  George Sr., a former student and benefactor, will likely save his son.  Frank has predicted this outcome, and Charlie can’t deny that it is likely the truth.  Charlie’s dilemma is in his own morals as a man.  He’s not a snitch who will sell out his future to satisfy the esteemed integrity of the prep school and the ego of the Dean.

I miss the director, Martin Brest.  He has some magnificent films on his resume (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run & Scent Of A Woman).  His other two popular films are broader in action comedy.  Here he is much more sensitive, and he uses the legacy of Pacino’s craft to the highest level.  He allows Al Pacino the freedom to be intimidating and frightening and intrusive.  A most uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner at Frank’s brother’s house begins with awkwardness and ends in terrifying fear for Frank and all at the dinner table. 

Brest also lives up to the title of the picture.  There’s really not a main female character in the picture.  However, the camera captures a woman entering the frame at random times for Frank’s heightened senses to kick in.  If Frank is going to end his life soon, then he will at least absorb the finest things the world has to offer and that is a beautiful woman.  Charlie doesn’t realize this yet, having spent most of his days at an all-boys private school.  Martin Brest does such good work.  He’ll position his close up on Pacino doing his work and then a brown-haired young lady will enter from behind.  The scene will shift gears from morose to eye opening. Simple, yet great technique at play here.

Pacino may have won the Oscar, where some debate this was not his finest material and that it was a more likely a long-time coming career award at this point.  The portrayal has also become spoofed so many times over since the release of the film (Seinfeld) and “Hoo Ahh!”.  Still, look at the individual scenes on display here.  There are so many different angles to this guy.  Frank Slade is a lonely man who doesn’t directly identify his sorrow, but rather masks it with drill sergeant persona.  Yet, Frank is also a charming man who graciously does a sensual tango in the middle of a dining room with a beautiful young girl (Gabrielle Anwar).  Reader, if you are a regular subscriber to my write ups, then you know I adore a dance scene that occurs within a non-musical.  Scent Of A Woman may feature the number one ranked scene in that category.  Try not to grin or smile during this marvelous centerpiece.  How fortunate for Anwar – the one woman who got to do a tango on film with the great Al Pacino.  I’m thankful it is cemented in my consciousness for eternity.  It’s an amazing scene; one that can be taken out of context from the film and adored on You Tube, many times over.

Pacino and O’Donnell have brilliant chemistry together and it makes sense that the story takes place during the Thanksgiving weekend.  These are two men from very different backgrounds and neither realizes how much they need to be rescued by one another.  Charlie will have to literally save Frank’s life, no matter how intimidating he appears.  Frank will have to save Charlie’s future against an established school that’s offered up some of the country’s most brilliant minds.  Poor Charlie from Oregon, without the coat tails of a legacy to ride upon doesn’t fit the mold for the next President or championship football coach.  Both issues have insurmountable odds of being overcome, and yet these two are the only ones who plow through the challenges.

Scent Of A Woman has delightful moments to simply watch, such as a blind Frank driving a Ferrari through So Ho district and of course that tango scene, but this is an actor’s piece for sure.  The climax confirms that distinction.  The holiday weekend has come to an end and Charlie must face his peers and the Dean and confirm what he will do, but Frank will make sure to attend this makeshift trial. Then the opportunity is given for an outstanding monologue performance that only confirms one simple notion.  Al Pacino is one of the greatest film actors in history. I imagine the dialogue for this wrap up scene is quite something to read on a page.  However, to watch Pacino bring it to life is something else entirely. 

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell and Martin Brest, along with the tango, and I’m especially thankful for Scent Of A Woman.


By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher is a director always focused on playing tricks with the viewer’s mind. His earliest films from Alien 3 (a poor installment in a celebrated franchise) to Se7en (an unrealistic yet frighteningly suspenseful serial killer story) to his third motion picture The Game, a movie that throws you off from the beginning of each scene to the end of each scene are best examples of this technique. It’s a little jarring, and I’m happy to watch it that way.

This film only works if you mask what’s really happening by showing you what’s fake instead. I know I sound vague but those that have seen The Game would probably agree that is the point. It’s based off a screenplay (by John Brancato & Michael Faris) that strategizes itself like a Dungeon Master setting up a Friday night in the basement with some buddies to play some role playing games with a 20 sided die.

Michael Douglas is really the only guy who could play Nicholas Van Orton, a millionaire with everything but really has nothing; no friends, no spouse (any longer), no one to care about. Beyond his fortune, all he has are a weirdly estranged brother, played by Sean Penn, and his attorney only there to ask Nicky “Should I be worried?” The film takes place during Nick’s 48th birthday. Normally, the song would go “Happy Birthday Nicky.” However, for Douglas’ cold protagonist, the lyrics are “Happy Birthday Mr. Van Orton.” A man with everything, who really has nothing.

Penn gives him a card with a number to call. This is his birthday present to Nicky. Then the paranoia presents itself little by little; a wooden clown doll, a tv that talks to Nick, a leaky pen, spilled drinks, and soon Nicky’s life is threatened.

Why are these things happening? What’s with the keys? What’s with the waitress who keeps turning up, played by Debra Kara Unger so effectively that she arguably carries the riddles most convincingly? Unger is brilliant at twisting the story over and over. Another great player is well recognized character actor, the late James Rebhorn (also known from Scent of a Woman) who gets the ball rolling and then wraps up the answers later on.

Fincher plays with the mind quietly but never at a slow pace. There’s a consistent tinkling of piano keys that seem to work as puzzle pieces being matched up. It’s much more disturbing to go this route than with grand horns and bass.

When I saw The Game initially in 1997, I started to piece together how to write multi dimensional characters. There’s a past that gnaws at Nick’s psyche sprinkled with glimpses of his father committing suicide. Fincher offers up a background to Nick by means of grainy home movie footage. It all seems quick and taken for granted but it’s necessary to understand Douglas’ cold demeanor and it circles back beautifully towards the film’s unexpected ending. It works so well as a motivator for Nick that I often circle back to its presentation when I write my own scripts.

There’s a great, short scene that sets up the 3rd act. Probably Michael Douglas’ best scene ever in a film, in my opinion. Nick walks into a diner in a dirty suit with scratches on his face. He asks for everyone’s attention and offers up his last $18 to anyone who can offer him a ride. The character is humbled and changed. An arc is completing itself on the other end. It’s a scene that maybe doesn’t belong here until you realize it does. In another director’s hands, a scene like this would be cut or never shot. Fincher took advantage of Douglas’ technique for substituting intimidating power with humble gratitude to simply be able to just ask for a favor. A new character is born in a most efficient 90 seconds of film. It’s a great moment.

See The Game whether you haven’t seen it yet or to watch it again to remind yourself how all the pieces come together.

You might argue that this can’t be realistic but suspend your disbelief because that is what David Fincher always strives for. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me, or maybe…don’t trust anyone?!?!?!?