By Marc S. Sanders

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull succeeds on so many levels of storytelling and construction. It stays true to form of its title character protagonist. Indy is not only a hero. He’s also a traveler of history. The film takes place in the year 1957, and director Steven Spielberg delivers visuals that reiterate the time, when the Cold War was on the horizon, and Nazi Germany was behind us. It’s time for the Russians to step up as the big bad.

David Koepp’s script really is quite brilliant as it never loses sight of the times with references to McCarthyism, communist red scare, and flying saucers and aliens directly inspired by the B movie serials of the decade. Even Shia LeBeouf portraying a sidekick to Indy is a model of Marlon Brando from The Wild One.

I’ve mentioned before how simply the silhouette of the famed archeologist with his fedora hat and bullwhip is as recognizable as Batman or Darth Vader or James Bond. Here, Spielberg uses the visual motif against a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb test site, and later against a flying saucer. As noted earlier, Dr. Jones moves with time; truly living up to his famous phrase, “It’s not the years honey. It’s the mileage.”

Harrison Ford maintains the character quite well, still skeptical of what is not literal. He’s not prepared to believe in higher powers until he sees it for himself. Ford conveys Koepp’s interpretation very well.

It’s refreshing that he is paired up again with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (from Raiders), the best of Indy’s female companions. Their sparring remains natural. Allen folds back into her role quite comfortably.

Stalin’s top underling is dispatched with recovering a legendary Crystal Skull and revealing it’s true power. Master character actor Cate Blanchett makes for a great Russian bob haircut villain, with uniform physique. She’s smart but she’s got every fighting skill known to pose great threat.

An infamous scene involves Indy sheltering himself in a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. Majority despise this scene. The phrase “Nuke The Fridge” became almost as iconic as “Jump The Shark,” simply for the audacity of its imagination. After having witnessed the near-death escapes of his past adventures (parachuting from a plane in an inflatable raft, sliding under a speeding truck, becoming “a penitent man” to cross a cavern), what is so wrong with this moment? Heck, Spielberg knows it’s crazy which is why he offers a close up indicating the fridge is “lead lined.” The scene works because it holds true to Indiana Jones’ series of absurd survival.

Besides all of the periodic references, the set design of Kingdom… is spectacular. Looking at the final act of the film, we are treated to a column that opens itself up with ingenuity as sand must pour out of the column in order for the structure to open with a receding downward staircase. Then, there’s a beautiful open sesame moment before entering a circular throne room.

Another earlier moment stages a hidden chamber that is revealed on a large, stone, tilted disc. All of this collectively speaking is truly one of the best set pieces in all four of the Indy films.

A delightfully fun car/motorcycle chase on Indy’s college campus is great as well as there is jumping from bike to car and back to on to the bike before swerving into the library. The scenic background design has to be admired for showing protest signs to Communism on campus. The film never loses sight of where its story is set. Detractors of this film fail to recognize any of this.

Fans also took issue with LeBeouf. Not me. He’s got an adventurous fun side to him. The smart aleck way of Ford’s younger years, but not the same character background. He has fun with swinging from vines and sword fights, in the same vein of a mine car chase from a prior installment.

The story is moved by clues and maps and deciphering a welcome John Hurt who speaks in a gibberish of riddles that stem from a brainwash his character experiences. This is all good for a great pursuit. Nothing is easily revealed. Mayan writing needs to be interpreted; maps need to be read. Stories of legend need to be told. Indy needs to apply his professional knowledge to move forward through the Amazon to his final destination.

I’d argue that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of the most misunderstood and divisive films of all time. People gave up on it too easily, I think. They reserved their approval because of either a ridiculous title (a great B movie title), or LeBeouf’s casting, or Ford’s age, or vine swinging and big ass red ants (a great monster horror scene by the way). I say those folks just didn’t get it and failed to recognize where all of this stemmed from. David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were very aware of what to present. If I were them, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Again, it’s not the years. It’s the mileage.


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

In Scotland, in the year 1713, Robert Roy MacGregor, the chief of the Clan MacGregor, protects his people from cattle thieves while trying to endure against starvation and minimal resources. Rob Roy was a leader but never looking to herald a cause. He just wanted to live day by day with his clan, along with his wife Mary and their two children.

Michael Caton-Jones directs Rob Roy with Liam Neeson as the title character and Jessica Lange in a strong performance as Mary. The film doesn’t move with the sense of sweeping adventure that I was expecting. However, that’s the point. Caton-Jones shoots Alan Sharp’s screenplay as a Rob Roy reluctant to rebel or wage war against a selfish monarchy that rules Scotland.

James Graham, Marquess of Montrose (the always effective John Hurt) agrees to lend Robert 1000 pounds to be paid back with interest. Rob is most grateful for the assistance that can help his clan. However, when Rob’s trusted friend Alan (Eric Stoltz) picks up the money, he is brutally murdered on his way back by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, in maybe his best role ever).

Montrose, unaware of what has truly occurred, carries no sympathy for Rob’s predicament and obligates him to the original contract. Eventually, it becomes ugly as Montrose permits Archibald to carry out violent intimidation including slaughtering the clan’s cattle and burning down Rob’s home as well as raping Mary.

Rob Roy moves at a slow pace at times, but that doesn’t take away from brilliant characterizations. Roth as Archibald is a blazing villain. He’s introduced as a snobbish brat dressed to the nines though living off the prosperity of the mother who sent him to Montrose for a better royal upbringing. He carries an effeminate way about him in his long, curled, flowing wigs and garish pink and blue aristocratic wardrobes. He is a bastard though, yet a master swordsman. Like many great scene stealing performances before, Tim Roth has just the right timed expressions for the camera. Caton-Jones captures every best shot of Roth’s presence. Tim Roth, at the very least, deserved his Oscar nomination. I couldn’t get enough of him.

Jessica Lange gives another reason why she is such a celebrated actor for women. She picks smart roles over and over again. I was going into the film thinking she would be playing the dutiful wife and mere damsel. However, as Mary MacGregor she’s incredibly strong before and after she is victimized. She is torn with conflict to share the whole truth with Rob as to what has occurred to her. How will Rob respond? Will it make it worse for him with the monarchy? Will he feel ashamed of Mary? A fascinating character piece.

Brian Cox appears as Killearn, Montrose’s aid and factor. Yet, he is also secretly serving to Archibald’s underhandedness. He’s quite good in his role too.

Liam Neeson is fine as Robert Roy MacGregor; tall, built and athletic. He looks like a real hero. However, I’m not sure if I got a dense enough character from Alan Sharp’s script. Much of the film only comes alive when the other performers are on stage, like Hurt, Cox and especially Lange and Roth.

I was always aware of the famous sword fight in the film and it is quite spectacular. However, maybe hearing the hype over all these years watered down my expectations. The choreography is spectacular and often it really is Neeson and Roth in the moment; not stunt doubles. Yet, I remain more impressed with the work of Errol Flynn and scenes from The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back.

Rob Roy takes some patience to watch. A very good film but not necessarily wall to wall action to consider it a popcorn flick. Watch the film for the performances and take in the gorgeous countryside footage.

I recommend it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s sci fi thriller Snowpiercer is a locomotive fast paced adaptation, that oddly enough is reminiscent of The Wizard Of Oz. There’s no yellow brick road however. Here, the on foot journey occurs on a massively long on going train that contains the last survivors of a frozen apocalyptic Earth.

Each car of the train separates the demographic classes of this populace. The one percenters live it up closer to the front of the train. The steerage and lower class are resorted towards the back, forced to live in filth and nourish themselves on protein bars made of vermin and waste. Chris Evans is the hero who leads the pack from the back to the front. They’ve had enough and they will not be restrained any longer. However, who and what resides up there? Let the journey into the unknown begin.

I liked Snowpiercer a lot, and mainly because the surprise of what was next kept me alert. An especially fun moment occurs when the gang comes along the car where elementary school is in session.

Characters are met along the way, including a warped performance from Tilda Swinton. She’s dressed in uniform regalia that David Bowie or Elton John might have worn to mock totalitarians. Her performance matches her wardrobe. She definitely makes her antagonist role her own with her pale complexion, short stark red buzz cut, weird dialect and large false teeth.

John Hurt is also a welcome surprise as the old wise one that is needed for these roles. He’s doing his basic John Hurt but that’s all we need.

Rounding out the cast is Octavia Spencer. She’s good too with lots of energy. A great pair up also comes from Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung as techies who can assist the band with opening doors from one car to another; allies that are encountered along the journey to see the wizard or the one in the engine car. I won’t dare spoil that surprise. The cameo was welcome in my eyes.

The journey is great.

The final moments of the film are a little short sighted though. It’s a great action set up but when everything settles down, not much is offered for a final statement on the grand outcome. I wanted more from that.

This is, however, worth checking out. Snowpiercer might consist of a ridiculous concept with all life residing on a never stopping train, but the set pieces are great fun, as are the characters.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 73%

PLOT: In a dystopian future Britain, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only as “V” (Weaving), plots to overthrow the totalitarian government with the help of a young woman (Portman).

V for Vendetta is based on the single greatest graphic novel I’ve ever read, bar none.  It breaks free of the narrow term “comic book” and becomes a leaping, soaring work of fiction that should be on every serious reader’s Must-Read list.  When I heard a movie version was coming, and that it was being produced by the visionary minds behind the Matrix trilogy, reader, I will not lie…I flipped out a little.  At last, the mass market would have a chance to see what I’d been talking about all these years.

To say the movie does not exactly match up to the graphic novel seems a little unfair.  After all, I’m a chief proponent of the notion that movie adaptations of books, TV shows, et. al., deserve the chance to stand apart from their source materials.  On those merits alone, V for Vendetta works, albeit a little unevenly.

Hugo Weaving was a great choice for the title role of a masked revolutionary whose face is never fully seen, whose voice and gestures alone must carry the character for the duration of the film.  At first, one is reminded of Willem Dafoe playing the Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.  It’s unsettling, but it works better here, due to the ambiguous nature of the mask itself, which is the traditional Guy Fawkes mask.  It’s a smiling visage, but the light-hearted nature of the face presented to the public makes it infinitely more creepy and untrustworthy.

The central story of the movie works well enough.  It’s a trope that I, for one, have always thoroughly enjoyed: the story of a man, or of people, rebelling against the dystopian forces governing their lives.  There are echoes of countless other films in this story: Equilibrium, 1984, The Matrix, Gladiator, etcetera.  In fact, although it’s set in Britain, I’d go as far as saying it’s a distinctly American story, given the history of our country’s origins.  It’s always deeply gratifying to see corrupt powers-that-be get their comeuppance by the final reel.

My reservations with the movie lie primarily with certain long stretches of expository dialogue providing vital information, particularly with the chief inspector, Finch (played by Stephen Rea), re-telling a gruesome episode involving the deaths of tens of thousands of children due to disease, and of their government’s possible role in the epidemic.  While the information is needed as backdrop for what comes later, it brings the movie to a screeching halt.  And it happens more than once.  This is the movie’s greatest flaw: the need for tons of information that is more easily conveyed in the written word than it is on film.

However, for the viewer that is not deterred by these long stretches, the movie is immensely satisfying.  It sets up a loathsome Supreme Chancellor (played with spittle-spraying gusto by John Hurt) whose primary message to his cabinet is to instill fear in the people, to “remind them why they NEED US!”  The various action scenes are expertly done, reminding me of the best fight scenes from the Bourne movies, with a little extra flair provided by V’s weapons of choice, lethal throwing knives.  And the finale is suitably spectacular…make sure your volume is turned up to eleven.

The movie contains one speech that is NOT in the graphic novel, and which troubled me greatly the first time I heard it, and is still problematic for me today.  At the opening of the film, “V” has blown up a building in London as a sign of protest, which of course parallels the face of the mask he has chosen.  Evey, a young woman who has come into his care (long story), questions him about his future plans to blow up the Parliament building:

V: “People should not be afraid of their governments.  Governments should be afraid of their people.”
EVEY: “And you’ll make that happen by blowing up a building?”
V: “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.  Symbols are given power by people.  Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people…blowing up a building can change the world.”

This was startling to hear four short years after 9/11.  Other movies had already referenced it as a historical event, but this was approaching the act itself in a deeper sense.  Here is the hero of our story talking casually, even heroically, about doing exactly what the terrorists of 9/11 were hoping to do.  In the context of the movie, he makes sense: the totalitarian villains must be sent a message that the people will be sheep no longer.  But…I couldn’t help thinking that this is the philosophy that drove Timothy McVeigh, and the 9/11 perpetrators, and the Weathermen, and Ted Kaczynski, and countless others.  Is it possible to look at this idea of “symbol-killing” in a positive light?  In this day and age, do we even WANT to find a positive spin to the idea of blowing up a building as a symbolic act?

As I said, for me it was problematic, and it cast a faint shadow over everything that came after it.  Yes, “V” is definitely the hero here, but is this line of thinking dangerous?  I dunno.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but there you go.