by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: An in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam War impacts and disrupts the lives of several friends in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania

[Author’s note: This will be the first in an ongoing series of reviews inspired by a book given to me as a birthday present by my long-suffering girlfriend.  Entitled Everyone’s a Critic, it challenges readers to watch a movie a week within a given category, then answer questions like, “Why did you choose this particular film” or “Do you feel this film deserved the award? Why or why not?”  Clearly designed to inspire discussion.  This category was “A Film That Has Won Best Picture.” This format is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll bear with me on future installments.

I am going to assume, for the most part, that most readers will have seen the movies being reviewed in this series.  Therefore, some spoilers may or will follow.  You have been warned.]

Once about every couple of years, I like to pick up and read Stephen King’s The Stand in its original uncut version.  My paperback copy runs to 1,141 pages, not including King’s foreword and a brief prologue.  Even Tolstoy would look at that thing and go, “Dude…edit yourself.”  But having read it numerous times now, I cannot imagine what could possibly have been excised from the edited version of King’s novel.  Every detail of that apocalyptic saga feels necessary.  Reading it is like falling into a fully realized alternate universe.

That’s what watching The Deer Hunter is like.  I can still remember the first time I watched it.  I knew its reputation as one of the greatest Vietnam War movies ever made, had heard of its harrowing Russian Roulette scene, and was intensely curious.  I popped it into the VCR, hit play…and for the first 70 minutes I got a slice-of-life drama about steel workers in a tiny Pittsburgh town (Clairton, for the detail-oriented) where, mere days before three friends ship off to Vietnam, one of them is getting married.  And the centerpiece is the wedding reception.  Ever watch a video of a wedding reception?  How high do you think a young teenager would rate its entertainment value on a scale of 1 to 10? 

I could not appreciate, as I do now, how vital this scene is.  Relationships are stated, expanded upon, and brought to a kind of cliffhanger.  Take the mostly non-verbal interplay between Linda (a luminous young Meryl Streep) and Michael (Robert De Niro).  Linda is clearly in a relationship with Nick (Christopher Walken), but it is painfully obvious that Michael and Linda have eyes for each other.  Mike watches intently from the bar as Linda dances at the reception, and whenever their eyes meet you can almost hear their hearts stop beating.  The oblivious Nick even pairs them on the dance floor while he visits the bar himself.  The awkwardness as Michael forces small talk and Linda shyly reciprocates is palpable.  And…is that Nick giving the two of them the eye at one point…?

As a kid, I wondered why this soap opera nonsense was necessary in a Vietnam film.  Of course, I didn’t know what was coming.  That’s the beauty and wonder of The Deer Hunter.  It challenges you to follow along with this miniature melodrama to give meaning to what comes next.

There is a key moment during the reception when an Army soldier wearing a green beret stops by the reception.  Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage), who are gung-ho about serving their country, yell their support and let him know how much they’re looking forward to killing the enemy.  The steely-eyed soldier raises his glass, looks away, and says, “Fuck it.”  It’s not terribly subtle, but the ominous nature of this moment always fills me with a sense of foreboding, even having seen the film many times by now.

But even after the reception is over, there is one more small-town pit stop to make before the movie gets to Vietnam.  (In fact, The Deer Hunter spends surprisingly little time in Vietnam.)  Michael and a group of friends including Nicky and Stan (John Cazale) go hunting for deer in the mountains as a kind of ritual before Nick, Mike, and Steven are deployed.  It is in this sequence that Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s talents are put to stunning use.  We are shown vistas of the Allegheny Mountains that are simply breathtaking, with Mike and his friends seen as mere dots in the mountainsides.  Choral music with a men’s choir singing in Russian is heard on the soundtrack, giving the sequence a majestic aura that must be seen and heard to be believed.

Then the hunt is over, and the boys all have one last drunken night at the bar owned by another friend, John (George Dzundza in an under-appreciated, realistic performance).  Here they all sing along to Frankie Valli and listen somberly as John plays a sad classical tune on his piano.  And then, in one of the film’s masterstrokes of editing, we slam-cut immediately to the jungles of Vietnam – no boot camp, no footage of them being trained or flown over there, just suddenly they’re there and the contrast between the carnage we experience in the first few minutes of Vietnam versus the rhythms of their lives in Clairton could not be more extreme.

In a horrific but mercifully brief sequence, we watch as a Viet Cong soldier calmly walks into a burned-out village, discovers a hidden pit holding terrified villagers, and remorselessly tosses a grenade inside.  We then watch as Mike, now a battle-hardened soldier, emerges from a hiding place with a flamethrower and burns the VC soldier alive.

The effect of this scene cannot be understated.  To witness Michael torching a soldier, even after that soldier committed a brutal act himself, is jarring.  And why is it so jarring?  Because we have seen Mike as a civilian, as a friend, as a would-be lover, during that lengthy sequence at the wedding reception and while hunting with his friends.  Admittedly, you got the sense that he could or would get violent if necessary.  (He’s clearly the alpha male of his “clique.”)  But this…I mean, damn.

Then, in one of those Hollywood conveniences that never get old, Mike is unexpectedly reunited with Nick and Steve who just happened to arrive at that very same village with another platoon of US soldiers.  And then, immediately after being reunited, they are captured by enemy forces, imprisoned with several enemy combatants in a riverside compound, and forced by their sadistic keepers to play Russian roulette with each other as the guards bet on the outcome.  Michael comes up with a horrifyingly logical escape plan: convince the guards to put THREE bullets in the chamber instead of one.

Much has been made regarding the historical inaccuracy of this scene.  To those arguments, I say: who cares?  As someone once said, riffing from Mark Twain, “Never let facts get in the way of truth.”  The truth of the matter is, the Vietnam experience was a modern-day horror show, leaving physical and psychic scars on its participants and on our country.  In my opinion, the Russian roulette scene can be interpreted as a symbol of how those soldiers, or ANY soldiers, must have felt every single day.  Going on a routine patrol in the jungle could have potentially lethal circumstances.  They rolled the dice every time they called in an airstrike, betting they didn’t get firebombed themselves.  Booby traps were everywhere.  How is life in a war zone that much different from being given a one-in-six chance at living or dying?

I’ve already gone into far more spoilers than I am accustomed to, so let’s just say this happens and that happens, Michael winds up making it back home, Steven is grievously wounded in the escape attempt, and Nick goes AWOL when, after making it back to a military hospital in Saigon, he wanders the streets at night and discovers an underground ring of lunatics who run a high-stakes game of Russian roulette.  And we’re still just at the mid-point of the film.

When we see Michael back home, the earlier sequences establishing the rhythms of small-town life and his feelings towards Linda, for example, all come into focus.  We need that reception and the hunting scenes so we can see how much Michael has changed.  For example, when Michael is arriving back home by taxi, still in full military dress, he spots a huge banner: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL”.  He tells the driver to keep going.  In a hotel room later that night, he sits on the edge of his bed and rocks back and forth, winding up crouching against the wall.  He is completely unable to process how to deal with people anymore.  Or, at least, he doesn’t trust what he will or won’t say.  I watch that scene, and I feel such intense sympathy and empathy.  What he’s feeling, what he’s been through, what he’s seen, is so huge that he knows he’ll never be able to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been there.  He knows he’ll get questions like, “What was it like?  Did you kill anyone?  How are you feeling?  Where’s Nicky?”  I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war, but if I had gone through what he’d gone through, I wouldn’t have stopped either.

There is a heartbreaking scene where Linda, who is more than a little distraught that Nicky is AWOL, hesitantly suggests to Michael that they go to bed.  “Can’t we just comfort each other?”  Mike rebuffs her, but in a way that makes it clear he’d like to, regardless.  De Niro’s performance here is staggering.  As he walks out, he makes a statement, showcasing how much he is feeling but also how unable he is to articulate it: “I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away.”  I knew exactly what he was talking about.

The very end of The Deer Hunter is one of the most emotionally shattering finales of any movie I’ve ever seen.  It ends with a simple song, first sung as a solo, then joined by everyone else at the table.  I will not reveal what happens to get us there.  Is it shameless manipulation?  Yes.  Does it work?  Yes, so I can forgive the “shameless” part.

One of the criticisms I’ve read more than once about The Deer Hunter is how “one-sided” it is.  To which I say, “Well, duh.”  The Deer Hunter is not presented as a history lesson or a lecture on the internal politics in the country of Vietnam during the war.  The Deer Hunter is intended to make us feel something.  It wants to show us what happens to a person who is exposed to the very worst side of human behavior and lives to talk about it.  It wants to remind us that a country can wave a flag and stand for what’s right and be willing to sacrifice its best and brightest souls for a righteous cause…but it must also be prepared for the aftermath.  The Deer Hunter is a somber prayer that our country remembers the cost it demands, and that it will take care of its own when the dust settles.


By Marc S. Sanders

When a movie is set in Las Vegas, doesn’t it feel like it should be overly exaggerated, maybe a little loud, and quite bombastic?  That’s how I feel about Martin Scorsese’s three-hour opus, Casino.  The film opens with a car bomb exploding our primary narrator, Sam “Ace” Rothstein into the skies where he then makes his descent into the expansive signs that light up sin city in the desert.

Ace (Robert DeNiro) runs The Tangiers Casino.  He was especially picked by the mid-west Mafia back home (St. Louis, Mo.) to oversee everything that happens at the casino.  He’s looking for cheaters.  He’s making sure blueberry muffins live up to their name.  He’s dodging the FBI and their hidden bugs.  Most importantly, he’s making sure hefty suitcases are walked out of the casino and delivered on a monthly basis to the wise guys he has to answer to, and those deliveries better not come up light.  These guys treasure Ace because he never loses a bet.  Not one.  He can predict the outcome of any sports contest.  He can beat the odds on any table.  Ace is the best at his job because he also works eighteen hours out of every day, and he makes a lot of money for his superiors.

Everything should go smoothly.  However, the mob has also allowed Ace’s childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to move out to Vegas.  Nicky is a heavy.  It’s not wise to upset or anger Nicky, because it’ll likely be the last time you ever do.  He’ll kick you when you’re down on the ground, but he’ll also stab you with a pen an endless number of times.  Don’t get your head caught in a vice when you are around Nicky.  This bull might have been sent out as a toughie to protect Ace and his work, but he’s not subtle about his methods.  When law enforcement gets involved, it only causes interference for Nicky and his crew to get back in the casinos or even in to Vegas.  Because Nicky won’t settle for that, it’s only going to make things harder, and especially challenging for Ace.

Ace’s other problem focuses on the one bet he did lose in life, and that was marrying Ginger (Sharon Stone in an Oscar nominated performance).  She’s a high-class hooker that Ace quickly becomes infatuated with, and the worst mistake he could have ever made was that he trusted her.  He trusted Ginger way too much.  Ginger may have quickly had a child and married Ace, but she never gave up on her loyalty to her scuzzy pimp, Lester (James Woods), and just wait until she starts carelessly confiding in Nicky.  Early on, everyone in the room, like even those in the comfort of their own homes, scream out loud why Ace would entrust a safe deposit box containing millions in cash with only Ginger’s name.  Ace can’t even get into the box if he wanted to.  He arranged it so that only Ginger could have access.  Keep the cash out of his name and the Feds can’t make a case.  As well, is Ace hiding his own interests from his own people?  Yet, that’s what he did.  He trusted his hooker wife way too much, way too often.

I’ve seen Casino a few times and I always leave it with the exact same problem.  I don’t think the film lives up to its title enough.  The first half of the film, while a similar blueprint to Goodfellas and later The Wolf Of Wall Street, is incredibly sweeping with Scorsese’s signature steady cams and voiceover work from DeNiro and Pesci.  You can travel from one end of the gambling hall, and then through clandestine back rooms and into secure areas all within sixty seconds.  Scorsese with a script from Nicholas Pileggi gives you a very fast education on how Ace operates a tight ship and keeps his mob superiors invested. 

Later, however, the film loses its way with an abundance of material on the Ginger character and how she is undoing Ace.  Stone gives an incredible performance as a constant drug and alcohol fueled spoiled brat of a trophy wife/former hooker.  She has wild outbursts that continuously threaten Ace and who he works for and with.  Minutes later, the film cuts to where the drugs have worn off and she comes back to her husband with her chinchilla coat draped over her shoulders.  The energy that Stone puts into this role must have exhausted her.  As a viewer, I get wiped out just watching her.  Yet, as engrossed the actress is in the part, what does it really have to do with life in a mob run casino? 

It’s not crazy to say that Las Vegas is city of at least 8 million stories.  It’s not called sin city for nothing.  In three hours’ time, much attention is given to how Ace’s casino funnels out monies to the mob.  Focus is also given to how they deceive the gaming commission and how Ace dodges the need to have a gaming license if he is to work at the casino.  There’s a great scene where he demonstrates what happens to cheaters who rip off the joint.  He also has to contend with the governing good ol’ boys who staked their claim in Nevada long before it became the gaming capital of the world.  If a dumb nephew is fired for not properly handling the slot machines, Ace is going to have to answer to someone with a big shot title.  Pileggi’s script is best in scenarios like this.  So, I can’t understand why he diverts his story into a domestic squabble of screaming and shoving between a husband and wife. 

The Ace/Ginger storyline populates over one third of the movie and then not much is talked about with the casino.  There are broken glasses and screaming and crying and drug fueled rages and opportunities to beat up Lester and now the film has become a personal picture, rather than Las Vegas mob cycle we were invited to observe.

Ironically, what I always hoped to gain from Casino is only a tease at the end, when Ace narrates how Las Vegas segued from mob rule and sold out to corporate America, even comparing it to Disney Land.  A wise shot is provided showing the senior citizens entering the doors of the casinos en masse, dressed in their sweat pants and polyester outfits ready to take a chance on the slots, not the more sophisticated gaming tables where the fat cats would lay down ten grand a hand.  Why couldn’t Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese devote time to this transition?  This seems like the bigger bet that Ace wouldn’t win out on.  Tons of married couples lose out and get married for the wrong reasons.  We’ve seen that kind of material before.  The real undoing of Ace Rothstein was likely the blue-chip organizations who pounced on what the mafia pioneered.  Hardly any of that is shown, only left to be implied.  I’m sorry, but Casino concludes on a missed opportunity.


By Marc S. Sanders

John Frankenheimer directed the exceptional thriller Ronin, featuring Robert DeNiro and a band of baddies all hired to intercept a mysterious suitcase. The contents are never revealed, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s the pursuit that’s important. Consider this a glossier version of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Not big on exceptional dialogue but huge on top notch car chase action.

Frankenheimer works with a script co-written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (using a pseudonym), and all that’s necessary to assemble a gripping two hour story is to have the characters team up, then abandon each other and then double cross each other. How do you identify professionals like these? Well, recruit Michael Lonsdale (former Bond villain from Moonraker) to explain the meaning of the samurai known as Ronin who have become masterless; skilled swordsman with loyalty to no one any longer.

DeNiro plays “Sam” who may be former CIA. He’s one of five men hired by an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve the well-guarded package. This entails intercepting a convoy of cars riding along the French countryside. The fun in the car chase action of all this is that the characters are implied to be at least as ruthless as the subjects they’re stealing from. Therefore, Frankenheimer and his team of 300 (yes, that number is accurate) stunt drivers can offer up reckless collateral damage; cafes are crashed into, buses flip over, and motorcycles skid out of control. It’s Vice City before there was ever a Vice City video game. These guys are not stopping for little old ladies crossing the street.

Jean Reno partners up with DeNiro for a time as a Frenchman and Stellan Skaarsgard plays a German ex-KGB agent. Eventually, Jonathan Pryce comes in to play as well, representing more Irish influence. Sean Bean is here too. (Have you been paying attention? That’s three Bond villains in one movie!!!!) All good casting.

That’s about all there is to say. The plot is deliberately thin with a slight, mediocre twist, and a romance that’s nothing truly interesting.

Still, Ronin is watchable. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer, Robert Fraisse, present awesome locales of a thriving Europe from 1998. Editing is quick and sharp too. Consider Ronin a precursor to Paul Greengass’ Jason Bourne films.

If nothing else, beyond the various car chases and high stakes shootouts, DeNiro had me convinced he was clearly instructing his colleagues on how to remove a bullet from his gut.

Yes. You pretty much see everything.


By Marc S. Sanders

Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is a perfect blend of comedy, action and sweet tenderness. Different facets of what two guys could potentially experience together, especially if they are on an unexpected cross country road trip, pop up unexpectedly. It’s a well-acted film with great exchanges in dialogue that surge with broad comedy and high-octane car chases and shootouts. Yet, there’s even some special quiet moments to appreciate as well. It’s another favorite film of mine.

Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced former Chicago cop now turned bounty hunter who spends his days wrangling up criminals who skip out on their bail. When Eddie the bondsman (a great Joe Pantoliano) asks Jack to bring back Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who skipped out on a $450,000 bond, something as simple as a “midnight run” turns into an excruciating journey from New York to California. The Duke doesn’t make it easy for Jack. He never shuts up and right from the start it doesn’t help that he’s afraid to fly. Well, there’s always the train, right? Plus there’s plenty of time because Jack has five days to get The Duke back into custody.

Not so fast. The mob, led by a silky smooth and threatening Dennis Farina, wants The Duke dead as revenge for embezzling millions of dollars from them, plus avoiding the risk of him testifying against them. The Duke unknowingly served as their accountant. The Feds, led by a just as awesome Yaphet Kotto, want The Duke as their material witness against the mob. On top of all that, Jack has to compete with Marvin (John Ashton), another bounty hunter who wants to bring in the The Duke.

There’s great action in Midnight Run and you can’t get enough of it, but it’s the comedic layers of complications the cast of characters bring on to themselves that serve the film best. Danny Elfman’s music accompaniment primarily on horns with guitar and piano bring out the fun in the best way possible. Great chases with a helicopter and various stolen vehicles while Jack and The Duke outrun endless squad cars are magnificent. Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) is just an entertaining director.

Still, the action is not even the highlight for me. First, the chemistry among all the actors is fantastic. They have such brilliant exchanges of cursing each other out, getting on each other’s nerves, and especially listening to one another as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming match phone call between DeNiro and Pantoliano, or a one on one with Kotto getting frustrated DeNiro. It all works.

Most especially is the pairing of DeNiro and Grodin. They hate each other and then seconds later they’re laughing with each other. Grodin as The Duke, as pesky as he is, plays an unwelcome therapist at times to DeNiro’s Jack as the history of his failed marriage resurfaces and his fall from grace with the Chicago police department comes back to bother him. Jack doesn’t give in so easy to The Duke’s desire to share his feelings. He’d rather endlessly smoke, eat unhealthy food and tell The Duke to “shut the fuck up!” Nevertheless, a bond between the two forms and continues to reshape itself during the course of the film. A great moment occurs when they need to scam a barkeep out of some twenty-dollar bills. You’ll never forget “the litmus configuration” after you see Midnight Run.

I also want to call attention to one of my favorite of so many DeNiro moments in his long career. Midway through the film, Jack reunites with his ex wife and teen daughter that he hasn’t seen in nine years. Like many divorced couples, an argument breaks out among the parents only to be quickly silenced by the quiet intrusion of Jack’s daughter Denise (Danielle DuClos). As Jack waits for his wife to bring him money to help, Brest allows DeNiro to do some of his best acting with this young actress. They can hardly speak to one another. DuClos simply stares in disbelief that her estranged father came home. DeNiro can’t, in good conscience, make eye contact, knowing he’s been the absent parent. It’s too difficult. It is such a humane moment that it grabs me every time. It reminds me that dialogue is not always necessary for a great acting piece. Martin Brest really trusts his actors in this moment. It’s likely my favorite scene of the film and of DeNiro’s career. You can take this scene out of the context of the entire film and still be just as moved by it.

The best action films succeed when the filmmakers care about the characters. When the characters are given depth, then we worry about them. We hope they don’t get killed or taken or arrested, and simply make it home. Midnight Run is that kind of action piece. Had we not cared for Jack and The Duke, movie lovers never would have cared for Martin Brest’s film, now going on 34 years later. It’s a perfect film.


By Marc S. Sanders

I must not be that much of an intuitive movie watcher because I can not comprehend what is so fascinating about Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

Robert DeNiro was hardly known at the time but he is certainly a scene stealer here as Johnny Boy. He’s the wild one with no concept of the danger he puts himself and his best friend in. Charlie is the much more respectable and well-dressed hoodlum. Charlie is played by a young strait-laced Harvey Keitel. Keitel & DeNiro are the strengths of the film.

Beyond the headline cast, the structure of Mean Streets is a very loose patchwork of random events that circulate around Little Italy, NYC. The soundtrack comes from side street buglers, transistor radios, and jukeboxes consisting of The Rolling Stones, The Sherrills, The Ronettes, and samplings of Italian opera. It lends to the setting as another character. For a Scorsese film, that’s all part of the plan. The setting talks back to you, or it’ll take your hand and lead you on. Martin Scorsese is a prophet of New York. He uses the grime and steam of the streets to his advantage (even if some of this film was actually shot in Los Angeles).

Still, I just don’t get this picture. It moves slow at times. Random meet ups occur and I found myself asking if we have met this character and that character already.

I give Scorsese credit, in one respect. He testifies that although the film is fiction, it is a direct representation of what he experienced during his own upbringing. I believe all of that. Again though, why couldn’t it all be pieced together a little more tightly? Had it been, I’d probably have taken more of an interest in the setting and the dangerous exploits of Charlie & Johnny Boy.

It’s okay though. I’m glad I watched it, nonetheless. I had seen it many years ago and I was excessively bored then as much as I am right now. Scorsese was destined for better things. MUCH BETTER THINGS.


By Marc S. Sanders

Bipolar disorder can be a crippling ailment, not only to the person, but to his/her family as well. That, I imagine are the limits of my knowledge on the subject. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook will have you believe a way to embrace the disorder is to be involved with people who accept it and love you regardless.

Bradley Cooper is magnificent as Patrick; a hyperactive man suffering from his own demons. He is short tempered, confrontational, and prone to exhausting and uncontrollable outbursts. Because of that, he has lost his wife, his job, his friends and when the film begins, he is being picked up by his mother from an eight month court ordered stay in a mental institution on his way to live with his parents, Dolores and Patrick Sr., played brilliantly by Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro. Patrick is determined to rebuild his life. He feels confident that he is now on a positive track of exercise and healthy eating, and he wants to win back his wife. It is not so easy however, when Pat refuses to take his prescribed medication and his own father probably suffers from a similar disorder and he has to share a house with him. This means dealing with Pat Sr’s obsessive compulsiveness over his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, as well as his own short temper and his insistence on using family time with Pat Jr as a means to break the “jeu, jeu” that has cursed the team. Pat Jr. wants to move on with his life and find meaning and peace. His own obsessions with winning back his wife and overcoming witnessing the affair she was having behind his back do not help.

However, then Pat Jr meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence in her Oscar winning role) and her own past is tormenting her, following losing her policeman husband in the line of duty. It’s clear she has not overcome this experience and she has taken up dance, which she is teaching herself in a refurbished garage. Tiffany is not quick to accept Pat Jr, but eventually the moments necessary for any film about relationships line up despite some screaming and shoving.

It sure sounds like I’m describing a heavy, miserable drama, here. Reader, I’m not. David O. Russell offers up moments of comedy without any of his characters really trying. No one is outright normal in this film. They are all burdened with their own idiosyncrasies and diagnoses, even Pat Jr.’s therapist, who we learn is an obsessed, face painted Eagles fan himself. Russell repeatedly uses a steady cam (I believe) to rush right up into the face of his characters, individually, when a moment is overtaking him or her. It’s a way of showing that no one else in the room can see what the sufferer is seeing. Everyone else is bound by their own disorder. Russell uses this device to isolate the character that owns the scene whether it is Delores, who endures the aggravation of her husband and son, Tiffany who can not get over the loss of her husband at a young age, Pat Sr. who must live with his Eagles losing another game, or Pat Jr. who is only trying to adapt to a new way.

There is no calmness in the domesticity of Pat Jr’s life and it only feeds the fire of his bipolar disorder. What he needs is someone who will not shun or ignore the disorder but embrace it and Tiffany is that person. Tiffany is also the person who will beat up on Pat Jr in one scene to bring his self-involved neglect to light. A helpful gesture for Pat Jr, but not a fulfilling action for Tiffany. Then in another scene she will solely come to his defense. The best moment in the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence as she storms through the door and quickly confronts DeNiro on his own shortcomings, basically disarming him with sports statistics of every Philadelphia team, only to prove that Pat Jr had nothing to do with the outcomes of these games. Lawrence is harboring a machine gun of dialogue and she does not let up. DeNiro, I’m sure, loves to balance scenes like this with talent of this caliber. (I’d imagine he was missing great acting moments like this when he was shooting his Focker movies.) Russell wisely captures most of this scene in one shot. He is well aware of his leading actress’ strengths.

The ending is as quirky and inspired as Little Miss Sunshine, where Pat Jr and Tiffany participate in a dance competition that has everything is on the line, not just for their own sanity, but also for that of Pat Sr and the rest of the family. At the risk of spoiling a piece of the story, I have to recognize the dance sequence in this climax. Russell and his choreographer wisely mix it up with contemporary music that quickly switches over to head banging heavy metal and back to contemporary again. I caught it as an allegory of the mood swings these characters, especially Tiffany and Pat Jr, go through. The dance is messy, unsophisticated, aggressive and most of all it is adorable and lovable all at the same time. Psychologically, there must be something eating at Pat Sr and Pat Jr, and Tiffany and the rest of the cast, but that is, in no way, a reason not to love them.

HEAT (1995)

By Marc S. Sanders

My all time favorite crime drama, as well another one of my most favorite films, is Michael Mann’s Heat which is widely recognized for the much-anticipated moment where Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro finally share the screen together for the first time. The Godfather Part II never counted as their characters performed in different time periods. Still, Heat has so much more going for it, beyond just its headliners.

Michael Mann wrote the screenplay he directed. It deeply involves both the thief, Neil McCauly (DeNiro), and the homicide detective who pursues him, Vincent Hanna (Pacino), with inspiration from two real life characters. Therefore, this film drives with more authenticity than a standard Lethal Weapon picture. Much more is at stake than a standard kill shot, arrest or the score to take down. The women and children and partners these guys become associated with carry a weight and sense of value. Even the hoods who betray them hold significance. How they matter and are part of the story is just as pertinent.

The story focuses on DeNiro, with Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore taking down high stakes scores, not petty liquor store hold ups. An early armored truck hold up goes well until a new partner executes the three security guards in broad daylight on the street, at point blank range. Pacino takes the case along with his brilliant squad of detectives that includes great supporting performances from Mykelti Williamson, Ted Levine and Wes Studi. Then it becomes a cat and mouse tale where two equals match one another in wits, skill, and experience. To believe the equal match up though required casting Pacino and DeNiro. The film would not work with any other pair. Through their respective careers, their various performances came off different than one another. Yet, it has been often easy to imagine either one of them playing their classic roles instead. I could envision DeNiro as Michael Corleone or Serpico. I can also envision Pacino as Rupert Pupkin or Travis Bickle. The range of these actors is unlimited.

Diane Venora and Ashley Judd are two actresses not used enough in films. As the wife to Pacino’s round the clock detective, Mann provides time for Venora to show the pain of a woman in love with a man who can hardly ever be home because he’s always on the prowl of DeNiro’s professional thief and his crew. Venora is a likable woman in the role, only the circumstances of her marriage and the difficulties of dealing with a troubled pre teen (a fantastic Natalie Portman who will break your heart with just three scenes) are gradually making her cold. She has a great monologue midway through the film that is terribly dark, as she surmises Pacino’s cunning detective.

Ashley Judd is a different kind of cold as the wife of Val Kilmer’s gambling addicted sharpshooter. She’s a beautiful housewife and mother to a toddler that is trying to maintain a happy home. However, the balance of living with a career criminal is near impossible to maintain.

Michael Mann put so much thought into characters like this. Other directors and writers would keep the story on the streets and in the hideouts and city precincts. Mann goes not just for the low level criminal hoods who provide information in a night club at 2 AM. Mann allows his crime drama to spill over into the home.

He even allows a side story to occur with an ex con (Dennis Haysbert) out on parole trying to get his life back in order. What does this guy with his loving girlfriend have to do with anything else? Eventually, the bridge is connected, and it comes down to an emotional and heartbreaking conclusion.

Heat deliberately takes its time to flesh out a lot of great characters. The large cast are all given moments to stand apart from the rest. It is primarily a quiet, talking picture of careful planning and investigation. However, when the legwork is complete, Mann arrives at two scenes right in the middle of the film. The first is the now famous coffee shop sit down confrontation between Neil and Vincent. Mann did a masterful job of capturing the two actors doing some of their finest work with nothing tangible to aid them; no props or grand music or effects. Just a table in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. The professionals allow their history to show only so much but the cop and thief know this is not going to be easy from here on out. Mann did numerous takes, but with at least two cameras showing at each go round. So, if Pacino is talking, we see DeNiro’s facial reactions and vice versa. Pacino’s take #11 is also DeNiro’s take #11. It is one of the all-time great scenes in film history. Beautifully written. Beautifully constructed. Beautifully performed.

The next centerpiece is the bank robbery that occurs at midday in downtown Los Angeles. Neil and crew are almost scott free when Vincent and squad intercept them in the middle of the street. What sets this massive shootout (based on a real incident) above all others is that I actually get choked up and emotional over the moment. Characters that I have become acquainted with for the last 90 minutes are swept up in huge risks and danger of massive gunfire and ambushes. I even become terrified for the extras that Mann includes in this scene. I’ve watched this scene a hundred times and I can’t help but actually get tearful over it. Mann has the power to make me have an affection for these characters. As well, how will the spouses, who become aware of this matter, be going forward? That accounts for much of the latter half of the film.

Neil holds true to a philosophy he learned while doing time. If you spot the heat around the corner, allow nothing to interfere that you cannot walk away from immediately to avoid getting apprehended. He is put to the test of that motto when he falls in love with an introverted graphic designer played with quiet reserve by Amy Brenneman. This storyline will sum up the ending. Again, Mann shows the characters on the outside of these guys with their guns, working in an underworld environment. How do the risks of these guys play out on others?

Technically, Heat succeeds as well with brilliant blues, blacks and whites in cinematography. Major accolades for Dante Spinotti. Everything from the well-lit coffee shop to Neil’s unfurnished, ocean view apartment and even a blue Camaro that Neil drives away in through an underground tunnel are brilliant. Spinotti paid careful attention to the evolution of the characters. As Neil drives into that tunnel, the car turns white hot. He is on his way to escape with an unsure Brenneman by his side. Often in moments like this, the film tells more than any piece of dialogue could ever sum up.

Heat is a must watch film for genuine portraits of characters few of us will ever cross paths with. We should understand, though, they have more than just a drive to steal or to get an arrest. These guys exist for more than just the score. Few crime dramas ever approach that angle, and that is why Heat is such a special film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Brian DePalma directed the very loose cinematic adaptation of Eliot Ness’ squad of treasury agents during the 1930s prohibition era. The movie is The Untouchables, based on the famed TV show starring Robert Stack. It’s a gorgeous picture with incredible set designs, props, and Georgio Armani costume wear. It’s also bloody as hell.

Kevin Costner solidified his leading man status as the righteous Eliot Ness who swears by the law he promises to uphold, while making efforts to topple Al Capone’s (a convincing looking Robert DeNiro) massive Chicago empire that thrives on the buy and sell of illegal alcohol. Capone controls the city on all levels, from government officials down to the police force. His power is unlimited, but he has not filed his tax returns in four years. It’s crazy, but that just might bring him down.

Ness teams up with veteran beat cop Jimmy Malone played by Sean Connery, in one of the most celebrated and winning roles the Academy Awards ever bestowed. Malone knows where the underground liquor operations are located. He knows who accepts the bribes and kickbacks too. The question is how involved does he want to get. He’s the grizzled Irish mentor for Ness, and his timing is perfect for David Mamet’s script.

Memorable additions to the team also include a young and tough Andy Garcia and nerdy Charles Martin Smith as the IRS agent happy to pick up a shotgun for the cause.

DePalma’s film carries the epic look. There’s much splendor in the art direction of the film. It’s a glamorous piece of film, but it’s also just a movie.

Mamet’s script takes lots of liberties against the actual occurrences that came through historically. I do not recall hearing that The Untouchables ever took down a deal while riding horseback alongside the Canadian Mounties, for example. A villainous henchman for Capone is Frank Nitti (a happily slimy Billy Drago), always dressed in bad guy white and putting on the bad guy charm. His demise in the film never happened and most certainly not so adventurous or violently, but DePalma and Mamet clearly don’t care. This is lean entertainment for action sequences set in a gorgeous gangster period. The Untouchables is a slick looking gangster flick and nothing more.

A real star of the film is the Oscar nominated score of the film from The Maestro, himself, Ennio Morricone. His opening piece of drum beats with quick piano keys during the credits will get your pulse going. He also has great horn sections that capture the four heroes in tight shots of shining cinematography from Stephen H Burum. For me personally, this is my favorite soundtrack of Morricone’s massive career.

Costner is well cast. He has the handsome hero look to him. Garcia became a well-known and sharp looking tough guy. Smith did not move on to more celebrated material beyond this. He was remembered comedically here, just as he was in American Graffiti. He also directed since this film. As a team though, Costner, Garcia, Smith and Connery have wonderful chemistry together.

DeNiro actually took a step back from the spotlight here. His Al Capone is not so much a character as he is an every so often antagonizing appearance with a couple of well paced lines from Mamet’s famed dialogue. He’s got a memorable moment with a baseball monologue that convinces you of Capone’s strong arm, but his villain does not get too personal with the hero.

The Untouchables holds a special place in my heart. It was the last film I saw before my life changing move from New Jersey to Florida in 1987. Because the move was hard on me from a teenager’s perspective, I found great escape with this film as I memorized the lines of the enormously colorful characters along with getting absorbed by the violence and emotional variety of tones in the score. Having watched the movie many times since it was released, it’s become a kind of therapeutic experience for me. I take in the gorgeous craftsmanship of the film, the humor and the surprise moments many of the beloved characters face.

The Untouchables is not a perfect film I thought it was at age fourteen. It’s almost proud of its admitted inaccuracies, but it remains a favorite and very personal piece for me. I still love the film, all these years later.

CAPE FEAR (1991)

By Marc S. Sanders

Would you ever think that Martin Scorsese could be a master of horror? I do. I thought so ever since I saw his remake of Cape Fear, back in 1991, featuring Robert DeNiro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. This cast of four is an astonishing assemblage of talent, complimented with players from the original film, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, as well as Joe Don Baker, Fred Thompson and Illeana Douglas.

Wesley Strick is credited with this updated screenplay that questions the measure of sin; pot vs heroine, battery vs rape, flirting vs infidelity, as well as the ethics and justifications that we reason with every day.

DeNiro provides one of his greatest roles. He lost the Oscar in 1991 to Anthony Hopkins. Reader, DeNiro should have won for a much more complex, fleshed out part. He plays Max Cady, a man released from prison after a fourteen year stretch. His focus during his time was to learn how to read, build up his body, tattoo his flesh with the principals he inherited from the Almighty Bible and other literary sources, and most importantly reconnect with his defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte in one of his best roles, as well). Cady needs to remind Bowden of how he was misrepresented during his trial.

Strick’s screenplay is so smart. Smart because the antagonist never, ever makes an error, not until the end of the story. Cady’s intelligence is always one step above anyone else’s intuition and with the literal mechanics of the law beside him, Cady’s tactics come off very believably. Cady might come off as hokey, hillbilly white trash with ugly polyester clothing, a slicked back mullet and a fat, offensive cigar but he is a smart hunter who will weaken his victims before initiating his attack.

Bowden is a smart lawyer but he’s at a loss, and he does not have the support he needs from his family to protect himself and them, Jessica Lange as his wife and Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis as his daughter. Lange is very good as a wife who has survived marital turmoil of infidelity from her husband. She’s a marketing career woman who does not succumb to Sam as being head of the household. Sam asks that the dog not be put on the table and Lange as Leigh Bowden scoffs at his concern.

Fifteen years old at the time, Lewis is astonishing as a young girl discovering her sexuality but unsure of what is appropriate; almost like a kid finding a loaded weapon in a closet. One of the greatest acting sequences in the last thirty years, occurs between DeNiro and Lewis alone on a stage set against a sinister lighted Hansel & Gretel set. Lewis twitches and stutters like any girl would, as DeNiro assuredly comforts her and seduces her into a touch that leads to a kiss. Scorsese uses this midpoint scene to quiet down an aggressively frighteningly film, meticulously edited by the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. Before this moment, telephone rings, shutters, racket balls, car engines, aggressive close-up zooms, and Elmer Bernstein’s horn and string sections of his orchestra startle you and scare you when almost nothing terribly vicious has really happened. When we arrive at Lewis and DeNiro’s scene, Scorsese quiets it all down. He needs no devices for this exchange of disturbing, yet researched dialogue by Strick, blended with the performance talents he has at his disposal.

Another stand out performance belongs to Illeana Douglas in a small, early role. She plays a court clerk to Bowden’s lawyer and they are flirtatious. Cady uses this as an opportunity to remind Bowden that he must take his sins seriously. Douglas is supreme in an inebriated scene with DeNiro as she flirts with him and then goes to bed with him. We can sense the danger she’s in. Douglas’ drunken portrayal cannot. Never does she look like she’s foreseeing her immediate future.

It’s ironic, really. I can’t help but compare Cape Fear to any one of the various slasher films featuring Jason, Freddy, Michael, etc. Those guys stalk the house or are seen from the distance at the end of the street. Those are horror films as well where an entity stalks a prey. Scorsese really has that here with Strick’s screenplay. However, Scorsese finds other ways than to just have the menace be…well the menace. He offers up an overabundance of fireworks behind Cady as he sits in Bowden’s backyard. He’s got Bernstein’s blaring horns and squealing strings for soundtrack, of course. He colors the palette of the sky above Bowden’s doomed house in bruised purples and blood reds. He even changes the perception of the Bowden family by showing what they are looking at in a sort of X-ray/black light like state. Are they seeing what they think they are seeing? Sure, Cady is stalking them, but in a given moment, are they just being paranoid by the disturbances Cady has cemented in their consciousness?

I’d imagine these are filmmaking inventions of Scorsese not specifically featured in Strick’s script. That’s what makes Martin Scorsese a director above so many others. He doesn’t just settle for the page. He won’t necessarily manipulate the script, but he won’t settle to just leave it at only what he reads. Cape Fear is a demonstration in unsettling, visual terror, and it’s worth revisiting for a look.


By Marc S. Sanders

A number of years back I was watching Robert DeNiro interviewed by James Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio.  DeNiro recalled considering doing a modern day follow up on one of his most memorable characters, Travis Bickle, with director Martin Scorsese.  Lipton thought it would be a marvelous idea.  So do I.  However, I don’t think it’d be a comfortable film to watch.  Taxi Driver certainly isn’t a comfortable film to watch.  It might seem a little dated now, but its themes of loneliness, isolation, depression and violent obsession remain entirely unsettling.

Travis claims to be an honorably discharged Marine in his mid-20s, when he applies to be a New York City cab driver during the present period of the film, 1976.  He recounts every thought that runs through his head, and when you are alone, behind the wheel of a taxi cab, traveling through the arteries and veins of an ugly, crime ridden, seedy part of town, a lot of ideas run through your sub conscious.  Travis recognizes so much wrong with what he sees through his windshield that he prophesizes one day when a good, solid rain will wash away all of this scum and filth.  Maybe Travis will be the bearer of that inevitable storm.

Travis lives alone in a one room apartment with junk food, an old television set, and his unending thoughts that he writes in his journal.  When he’s motivated, he occupies himself with chin ups and pushups.  He also becomes enamored with perhaps the only pure and innocent occupant of this ugly city-a young, Presidential campaign worker named Becky (Cybil Shepherd).  Travis approaches her innocently enough under the guise of wanting to volunteer for the campaign and invite Becky out on a date.  He’s cordial enough, albeit awkward too.  Yet, he can not understand how twisted it is to escort Becky to a dirty, X rated film.  She’s sickened by the film and Travis is at a loss of what he did wrong.  Travis has become infected by the city he circumvents each day, and he’s blinded of gentlemanly courtesy he could be providing for a woman he’s interested in.

The well-known script for Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader.  He quickly conceived its disturbing ideas during an isolation binge he found himself trapped in. Schrader couldn’t make sense of his mindset at times.  One week he was gorging on sleeplessness, junk food, and endless television watching.  The next week, he was motivated to get in shape with exercise and healthy eating.  There was a lack of consistency in his behaviors.  Travis goes through the same experiences, but he also finds motive to respond to the offenses that he sees. 

Scorsese captures scenes of some of the passengers that enter Travis’ cab.  One scene includes the director himself in the back seat as a character obsessing over a woman in an apartment above.  It’s a cameo of an unhinged man that Travis never had any interest in knowing, yet this person insists on sharing his frustrated anguish.  Later, Travis happens upon the Presidential candidate in his back seat.  The candidate seems noble enough inquiring on what issues are most important to Travis as an American citizen.  What I gathered from the scene is that the candidate has his own ways of fighting for a better future dressed in a suit on a campaign trail, while Travis has a more disturbing outlook on what should be done. 

Midway through the film, Travis is purchasing guns from an underground seller and practicing how to quickly unleash his arsenal for when the fight crosses paths with him.  He builds a quick draw sling to hide a gun under a sleeve.  He practices how to whip out the switchblade he keeps strapped to his boot.  One of the most famous scenes in film history occurs when Travis is talking to his mirror image asking repeatedly, “You talkin’ to me?”.  Supposedly, this moment never existed in Schrader’s script, and Scorsese was fortunate to capture DeNiro getting into character.  Whatever the origin of the scene, it sends a chilling summation of where Travis prioritizes his mental focus.  It’s not on love or affection for a fellow human being.  Once he blew it with Becky, other ideas remained with Travis.  Now, he’s solely obsessed with the war that he’ll fight for, all by himself.

Schrader and Scorsese go even a step further with the character as he comes upon a twelve-year-old hooker, named Iris, (Jodie Foster) and her street pimp, named Sport (Harvey Keitel).  He takes Iris for breakfast encouraging her to go home to her family and get away from this life.  Iris cannot see the need for that.  This encounter almost seems to justify Travis’ will for violence.  He now has a cause to rescue this child from the danger she’s immersed in.  I won’t spoil the outcome of this relationship.  Yet, Schrader and Scorsese keep the ending unexpected.  Have we been watching a dangerous villain for the last two hours, or were we watching a hero? Does the bloody and excessive violence that wraps up the picture lean towards heroics or vigilante crime?  These are good questions to ask but they are also consistent with the contradictions of Travis’ mindset.  When all you have to occupy yourself with are the endless, mounting thoughts running through your head, you are doing nothing but debating with your subconscious, and it’s likely you’ll have no other person to assure you that whatever actions and choices you make are the right ones.  One day you wonder if it’s all worth it.  The next day, you feel chosen for a crusade.

So as DeNiro and Scorsese considered a follow up to Travis Bickle in a modern time of the internet, where the world has only gotten smaller and more intimate with itself, I’d be nervous to see what becomes of him.  Travis would likely still be alone, driving his cab twelve hours a day, and listening to the thoughts running through his head.  Only this time, he’d likely be getting responses to journal inputs, that he’d put on blogs and in chat rooms, from unknown keyboard warriors justifying his will for violent cleansings.  Travis would no longer be limited to just his own inner thoughts.  Now, he’d have the influence of others willing to share their own internal ideas of how to clean up the streets.  They might feel helpful and recognize themselves as saviors, but would they be able to decipher what needs saving, what needs improving, and what is the best, healthiest and most ideal way of following through with those missions?  Violence might be their answer. 

You know what.  Perhaps, I’m not being fair.  Maybe I should be more optimistic.  Some of these keyboard warriors who hide behind their computer monitors may attempt to convince Travis that the world is fine as it is and does not need the cleansings that he had always considered.  I don’t know. Sometimes, like Paul Schrader or Travis Bickle, even I go back and forth on what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s the best thing to do.