EVE’S BAYOU [Director’s Cut] (1997)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons
CAST: Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: What did little Eve see–and how will it haunt her? Husband, father, and womanizer Louis Batiste is the head of an affluent family, but it’s the women who rule this gothic world of secrets, lies, and mystic forces.

[Author’s note: this review ended up being vaguer than I intended, due to a pivotal moment that, the more unexpected it is, the more effective it becomes.  Apologies in advance.]

Eve’s Bayou is one of the most self-assured, naturalistic directorial debuts I’ve ever seen.  Director Kasi Lemmons (you may remember her as Ardelia, Clarice Starling’s roommate at the FBI Academy in The Silence of the Lambs) has created a movie that feels less like a movie and more like a recreation of someone’s memories, not quite like a documentary, exactly, but it feels…real.  It’s melodramatic, but it’s not pumped up with overwrought hand-wringing and dramatic close-ups.  It’s fiction, but with a ring of truth that I usually only see in the best biopics.  I was delightfully and unexpectedly engrossed from beginning to end.

Let’s talk about that beginning, to start with.  The time is 1962, in a little Louisiana town called Eve’s Bayou.  (There may be white folk in this town, but the movie stars no Caucasian actors whatsoever, kind of like the Black Cinema equivalent of the Bechdel test; it’s just one more surprising and refreshing quality of this wonderful movie.)  Over the course of a lively evening party hosted at their house, we meet and learn a little bit about each member of the Batiste family, just like the opening sequence of The Godfather, which I didn’t realize until just this moment…neat.  There’s Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), the town doctor and rakish charmer, husband to the gorgeous Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and father to three children, 9-year-old Poe (Jake Smollett), 14-year-old Cisely (Meagan Good), and 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett [Black Canary in Birds of Prey, my GOD, I’m old!]), named after her hometown.  This opening scene establishes that very specific tone I mentioned earlier, one of matter-of-fact realism somehow combined with entertaining cinema.

There’s also Roz’s sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a woman twice widowed at the top of the film, and who later worries she may be cursed by God.  In an emotional monologue later on, she wonders why God has seen fit to bring so much misfortune to her life, and also wonders how terrible it might be to discover there was no purpose to it at all.  Mozelle has a side business in telling fortunes, and she is quite good at it.  (This will come in handy later, but no spoilers.)

In a nutshell: Eve wanders out to the toolshed late that night and witnesses her father being WAY too friendly with another man’s wife.  The protective Cisely urges Eve not to tell anyone what she saw.  A local voodoo priestess, Elzora (Diahann Carroll), tells Roz to “look to your children”, so she forbids her children from leaving the house unattended for weeks.  Louis continues his womanizing ways as the town doctor.  Roz finally lets her kids out of the house when…well, again, no spoilers.  Life continues at a leisurely pace without ever being boring.

I love how the setting is established and mined for its mood in Eve’s Bayou.  I know there have been countless other films set in and around swamps, Louisiana and otherwise.  But Eve’s Bayou is one for the books.  There is something about the way the cypress trees and dark waters and Spanish moss are photographed that made me almost smell the swamp.  Maybe the intent was to give a visual hint or cue to the secrets being kept in the Batiste family, especially later in the film.  I don’t want to get all “film theory” on this topic, but it’s just something I noticed specifically as the movie progressed.  It’s masterfully done.

I enjoyed the little details that, again, made everything feel like real memories of a real family.  What does a kid do in a large house in the early ‘60s when they can’t leave?  No Nintendo, no Netflix.  Just bouncing a ball against the wall.  Or teasing your siblings.  Or getting mad when someone won’t get out of the damn bathroom.  The Batiste house has a large spreading tree in their front lawn, and one of its huge branches grows just low and long enough for Eve to use as a makeshift hammock.  I liked that.  There could just as easily have been a bench or a chair, but no, she sits on the tree branch, and that feels exactly right.

Mirrors are put to interesting and innovative use in Eve’s Bayou.  Mozelle tells Eve a story about how she once took a lover, and he confronted her husband with a gun.  As she tells the story, she approaches the mirror, and in its reflection, behind her, we see pieces of the story taking place, all done practically with no fancy special effects.  It’s simple, and it may have been done before or since, but I can’t recall this effect ever being so…effective.  It was downright spooky at times.  At one point, she even walks into the scene that we are watching in the mirror, an elegant visual representation of someone getting lost in their memories.

The opening narration gives us a hint of what must, or may, eventually happen in Eve’s Bayou: “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.”  There is a key moment later in the film when, because of that narration, the inevitable outcome of a particular situation is perhaps easy to see, but the film is so effectively constructed and edited that I was still wondering how it would happen.  That’s not easy to do.  Kudos to the screenplay and the director once again.

Eve’s Bayou was an exceedingly pleasant surprise, a movie told from an unfamiliar perspective that still feels familiar in many ways, because human emotion is universal.  When Roz and Louis fight downstairs, and Eve can hear them through her upstairs door, and she covers her head with her pillow, I was taken back to memories of my own parents’ divorce and their heated arguments, things I never really talk or even think about, but this movie captured that vibe perfectly.  While the movie does have its own mission and ultimate destination, it remembers something very important: the more specific you make a scene with its details, the more universal the appeal, regardless of your race, color, or creed.


By Marc S. Sanders

Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, Jurassic Park, is my favorite book of all time.  I recall reading it in one Friday night a week before the Steven Spielberg adaptation was released in theaters.  It was the easiest book to breeze through and I never stopped thinking about Crichton’s approach to a what if scenario where dinosaurs are resurrected in the name of scientific discovery and profitability.  Ideas related to chaos theory and DNA experimentation were considered against the mayhem of people running for their lives in an amusement park attraction.  Amid the action, there was opportunity to think and consider.  Spielberg’s film doesn’t offer enough time for ponderance.  It starts out that way, but it doesn’t finish its thought.  That’s always been a hinderance for me.

There’s no question regarding the immense thrills the film brings, even thirty years later.  Effects and puppeteer wiz Stan Winston (how I wish he hadn’t passed away so soon) outdid himself following memorable recreations from films like Aliens and Predator.  The centerpiece of the blockbuster is of course the T-Rex.  Spielberg follows his age-old approach of not showing the monster right away, though high publicity and massive merchandising of the early 1990s never kept this cat in the bag anyway.  Oh well!  Yet, when the humungous, twenty-ton dinosaur puppet makes its grand entrance midway through the film, it still holds as a spectacular scene, especially because two fine child actors (Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello) with high pitched screams heighten the terror.  Look, you should know by now.  If Steven Spielberg is aiming for the rafters of box office thrills, he’s gonna put the kids in danger first and foremost.

Velociraptors are the other big stars of this creature feature and the behavior of these CGI animals is magnificent as we observe them communicate with one another.  Like the T-Rex, we don’t get an immediate first glance of them either, but their squeals and screeches as they leap in for a monster mash smorgasbord get us to jump in our seats.  When the veil is lifted on these guys, Spielberg and his effects crew go further by granting them with quick agility.  Before all this, we are told by the science experts of how they are strategic pack hunters with cheetah like speed and how they tear away at flesh as they pounce on live prey.  You wince as you imagine.  They are also smart too.  These dogs can open doors! 

Again, all good stuff here.

The best character is the sarcastic mathematician, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who insists resurrecting dinosaurs is a terrible idea for the modern age.  Goldblum is so good with the script written by David Koepp that my favorite scene in the picture is when the main characters sit around the dinner table to discuss what has surprisingly been thrust upon them.  I yearned for more scenes like this.  Ian Malcolm offers up a new iteration of “Matt Hooper” (Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws) that I just didn’t get enough of.  Only the surface is scratched on the argument of intelligence versus stupidity.  In Jaws, we got nearly a full hour of this welcome back and forth.

What lacks is what Jaws provided over a decade earlier.  The debates of how to live (or die) with dangerous animals begins, but doesn’t finish in Jurassic Park.  It merely gets started, and then the argument gets abandoned to allow for unending carnage.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love carnage in my movies.  However, Crichton illustrated an even amount of attention to chaos blended with intelligence (or ignorant lack thereof) when he wrote his book.  I got a textbook education from Michael Crichton.  From Steven Spielberg and David Koepp, I just got a thin dog eared comic book.

Goldblum is third in line in the cast credits behind Sam Neill and Laura Dern as Alan Grant, a paleontologist, and Ellie Satler, a paleobotanist.  They, along with Malcolm, are cordially invited by billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to visit his private island that is soon to be converted into Jurassic Park, a zoo/amusement park consisting of live dinosaur attractions.  The dinner sets up the debate of Hammond versus the three scientists.  Is anyone being responsible with the potential to act upon breakthrough discoveries?

Granted, if Hollywood was going to make a dinosaur movie, then it was going to be catered to children age 10 and up.  Kids and families of four or more sell tickets.  The novel doesn’t aim towards that demographic, however.  It is darker and the Hammond character is more sinister and greedier.  He’s not a fleshed-out villain in the film.  He’s lovable.  The film simplifies itself too much as it devolves into a run and chase and chew and chomp adventure of screams and outstanding John Williams music.

I watch the film over and over again because visually it remains magnificent, but I still remind myself that it is not enough.  Steven Spielberg’s film is admired and so well regarded and perhaps it is deserving of its legacy, thirty years, five sequel films and a couple of Universal Studios attractions later.  On the other hand, I wish it allowed its brain to develop a little bit more. 

Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Jurassic Park could’ve been as smart as a velociraptor.


By Marc S. Sanders

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith is the best installment in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy of his epic space opera saga. However, that is where the line is drawn.

It carries a heightened drama thanks primarily to Ian McDiarmid as the eventual Emperor Palpatine. Shakespeare might have been proud of the character and performer. Much like Alec Guinness received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ben Kenobi, so should McDiarmid have been honored playing an antithetical influence (of Kenobi) on the student and Jedi in Training, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in a much more improved performance).

War within the galaxy is rampant and there’s no end in sight. The Jedi Order is overwhelmed. Anakin is used as a pawn to spy on his new mentor Palpatine who in turn insists that the young Jedi occupy a chair in the Jedi Council to spy on them. In addition, it’s hard for Anakin to come to grips with his secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman) dying from childbirth as his nightmares continue to remind him. A deal with the devil himself in Palpatine is offered as an option. Can a manipulation in the Force rescue Padme from death?

There’s a lot of weight on Anakin here. Sith departs from the politics discussed in the prior entries as it focuses primarily on Anakin’s personal struggles. The film really needed to take this direction. After all, it’s time to witness Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader. Everyone has been dying to see that.

George Lucas’ scene set ups work on occasion. A great performance of dialogue occurs in an alien opera box between Palpatine and Anakin. This is where McDiarmid really comes through. He’s subtle and deliberate in his influence. Fortunately, Christensen just needs to listen mostly.

Later however, a scene works only so much when Samuel L Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu duels with Palpatine, having just revealed his secretly evil Sith side. Through all three of these films, Mace Windu has been one of Jackson’s least exciting roles. He’s bland and never doing much. Christensen comes upon this scene and doesn’t give me the genuine anguish I was hoping for. McDiarmid, again, is hitting home runs in surprise and development. This turning point scene is not as strong as it should have been thanks to Lucas’ stilted direction and writing, along with Jackson and Christensen lacking any true depth.

Episode III also has a handful of so what moments that continually frustrate me in this trilogy. We have to watch Yoda and Obi Wan watch a video of what Anakin has done. Why? We’ve seen this already. Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits; I wish he had a larger role) needs to be informed of an upcoming meeting. Honestly, I don’t need an update on a character’s calendar. Just make sure he arrives on time. Moments like these don’t drive towards anything.

Natalie Portman is not served well as a pregnant Padme. Her dialogue is worse than ever, and it hinders her performance. Padme is torn between her affection for Anakin and her passions for democracy. We see next to none of the latter. How does an intelligent woman like Padme suddenly become so unaware? Ironically, opportunity for her political nature was filmed but remains only as deleted DVD features. These scenes would have enhanced the movie as they imply the foreshadowing of the upcoming Rebellion, while a petition attempt is mounted to usurp the Emperor’s administration. Here, Padme is trying to be instrumental in Luke & Leia’s (her own children) future. Really good material here. Nevertheless, George Lucas opted to leave it all on the cutting room floor. Oh well! I’m still holding out hope for a “special edition” cut one day, inclusive of this storyline.

Lucas’ lava planet, Mustafar, is quite grand as the arena for the much-anticipated dual between evil Anakin and noble Obi Wan. Still, again, it could have been better. There’s too much CGI and flashing lightsabers that hide the acting among the swordsmen. Compare this to the duals in Empire and Jedi and you see what I mean.

I know my commentary on the prequels is quite pessimistic, but I do have an (maybe a biased diehard fan) appreciation for the films. The stories work. The execution falls short however in dialogue, performances and visual artificialness.

George Lucas had all the right make up for a trilogy as epic as his original films that began in 1977. Maybe because he didn’t have the monies and technology at that time, his imagination had to work overtime back then. In these later films, however, his hubris got in the way of his craft. So, we have to settle for his next great technological discovery in CGI efficiency. Therefore, we get cartoons with no depth like Jar Jar Binks, General Grievous, and lame, clicking battle droids.

Lucas always defended the position of his writing by insisting these films are aimed for kids. No. I don’t accept that. Star Wars was aimed for kids and the kids that remain in all of us as we continue to grow into adulthood. George Lucas needed to write with that in mind.


By Marc S. Sanders

Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones is a vast improvement on the prior installment of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy from a galaxy far, far away. Lucas made an attempt to bring his characters out of their shell a little bit. I mean at least they laugh among each another. You need that if you are to believe that Jedi In Training Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala (Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman) are to fall madly in love. So at least have them romp around in a Naboo meadow.

There’s some curious political intrigue in Clones; delving deeper than what Episode I only began to imply. As stilted as some of the dialogue may be, there are ingredients here that allow to me correlate with real life government powers and to date current events. That’s a compliment, but it’s also a shortcoming.

Ian McDiarmid remains the MVP of this trilogy as Chancellor Palpatine, the puppet master with a faux innocent exterior. Anytime he’s on screen you sit up in your chair with a little more focus. He’s brilliant as the manipulator who keeps a short distance on Anakin, the supposed chosen one, while also pushing Padme away from government interference, and yet still managing to prevent the Jedi Order from detecting his true nature. It takes a heck of an actor to pull this off.

At the same time though, the politics take up a large amount of the entire trilogy. While it holds my interest, I still question if this is what a Star Wars film should be comprised of. Where’s the force, and where’s a more defined explanation of what “the chosen one” is to offer, or what the “balance of the force” really means? Some heavy vocabulary in this terminology, maybe, but is there any dimension to any of this? Regrettably, the answer is no.

New characters and planets are introduced. Jango Fett (Temura Morrison), an armored bounty hunter, is the initial antagonist who is part of an assassination attempt on Padme, followed by a revelation that he is the source of a new discovered clone army on a secret water planet known as Kamino. (As a diehard franchise fan, I have a lot of issues with Jango and his pre-teen son Boba, but that is for another discussion.)

Eventually, the antagonism shifts to Christopher Lee as the former Jedi Count Dooku, found to be keeping conference on another secret planet known as Geonosis, where life size dragonflies reside. Lee was legendary by the time this film was released in 2002, but he’s not exactly aggressive enough for me. He was an old man with little convincing agility to be engaged in a lightsaber fight with a very bouncy Master Yoda. In Lord Of The Rings, he commanded from the perch of his tower. Here, Lee is in the mix of the action and he’s a far cry from Ray Park’s appearance as Darth Maul.

Yoda is another issue. Now friends will be quick to remind and tease me over how excited I got when I saw Yoda engage in a climactic lightsaber dual for the first time. My tune has changed though. As The Empire Strikes Back showed way back in 1980, Yoda was convincingly powerful without ever having to prove how powerful he ever was. Here, it comes off gimmicky to me as an excuse to draw a crowd or make a new kind of toy to sell. Just Yoda’s appearance alone should be enough. Now, he’s just like the rest of them. Yoda’s greatest feature was his philosophy, never his combat skills.

I don’t take much issue with the romantic dialogue between Anakin and Padmé. An actor like Leonardo DiCaprio or Billy Zane would sell the “sand monologue” into the stratosphere. Remember, those guys performed James Cameron’s hammy Titanic script. Hayden Christensen could not do that though. His temper, which Anakin is regarded for at this age, is never convincing. It’s terribly overacted. He screeches his dialogue. Darth Vader never had to yell or scream or screech. So why is Anakin? This is also partly Lucas’ fault. Where’s the misuse of the force with Anakin? At one moment, Anakin is upset and throws an object? Why throw an object? Why not “force throw” an object? Anakin demands answers from a captive bounty hunter by screaming at her? Why only scream? Why not “force choke her” or mentally torment her? Don’t you think these ideas, these familiarities we’ve seen with Vader would have held much more dramatic weight and depth?

Lucas stretched himself further than he did on The Phantom Menace. Still, he just didn’t take his second episode far enough. It’s as if he opted not to apply too much effort. There are no twists to Attack Of The Clones. No surprises. We easily have a general idea of where all of this is going long before the opening crawl even begins. So, like its predecessor, Episode II lacks a wow factor that placed the original three films into the greatness they still hold.

There still needed to be more in these films. I’m not gonna even talk about CGI. I’m talking about story, and what makes a saga a Saga. So… WHERE’S THE SAGA?????


By Marc S. Sanders

22 years after the first Star Wars film made a ginormous cultural impact on the world, George Lucas finally returned to the franchise to make the first film of a new prequel trilogy with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was hyped beyond measure, and it sold gazillions in ticket sales but was nevertheless a letdown for diehard fans and pretty much everyone else. I don’t think it’s a terrible movie. I just don’t understand how necessary the film is.

There’s a lot of irrelevant moments here. Early on two Jedi step off a ship, and a droid introduces herself to them and says “this way please,” and the three figures literally walk out of frame. This takes up time that I don’t understand. Why couldn’t the three just end up in the room they were supposed to be in? There are a lot of “so what?” moments in The Phantom Menace, and it all weighs the film down, hindering a story.

Listening to an audio commentary a number of years ago, one of the visual effects makers pats himself on the back of a shot midway through the film that consists primarily of CGI characters and sets. That was when I realized the conception of The Phantom Menace was completed with a short-sighted intent. Sure the scene might have been a technical breakthrough in 1999, but where’s the story? Fact is, there is no story and little regard for the celebrated franchise in Episode I. Lucas and his team were more concerned with shooting new CGI discoveries blended with human interaction. They offered next to no regard for intelligent plot and storytelling. The film suffers because of Lucasfilm’s hubris.

Consider the pod race. There’s a moment where young Anakin’s (Jake Lloyd) racer falls apart at high speed and he’s gotta get it back together. He uses a magnetic tool to get a cable plugged back in. If this child is “the chosen one” and potentially “dangerous,” why not show the child potentially use the force to bring the cable back in place? Why not show moments where unexplainable power emits from Anakin, to what would imply the inevitablity we are aware will eventually happen?

Lucas is also all over the place in his storytelling and characters. From the Shakespearean manipulator, Senator Palpatine, to the immature cartoon like Jar Jar Binks. I think they all serve a purpose to entertain. Yet while adults and die hard fans will relish the return of Ian McDiarmid (a terrific actor) they’ll be bored to death with actor Ahmed Best in the Jar Jar role. This I expect happens in vice versa with 8 year olds seeing their toy figures come to life. There is a silly charm to Jar Jar, but what 8 year old wants to pay attention or even comprehend debates among galactic senators over taxation and trade? It’s as if Bugs Bunny entered the halls of Congress, or Othello walked in on a pie throwing melee among the Three Stooges. At almost every point in The Phantom Menace something doesn’t belong or seems out of place.

The film moves far away from the tradition of the original trilogy. For the first time the human characters are enormously flat. Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor…all flat, all bland. There’s no snarkiness to them. No sarcasm. Before The Phantom Menace when was it ever said that the Jedi order was so formal in their ways? It doesn’t feel very fun to be a Jedi, like it did for Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill before.

The two redeeming qualities of this film belong to the pod race which is thrillingly edited in sound and visuals. There’s some fun shots of each racer, the pit droids, the crowds in the stands and even Jabba The Hutt. The film really comes alive here much like the memorable cantina scene from the original Star Wars. The other best feature is the villain, the apprentice to the phantom menace, the red and black tattooed Darth Maul played by the agile martial artist Ray Park.

Lucas didn’t use Park enough in the film. With his double bladed lightsaber, the two on one dual Park has with the Jedi characters towards the end is one of the greatest sword fights in film. I would’ve welcomed an additional five minutes of this scene. Shamefully, this would be Ray Park’s only appearance in the film franchise, as well as Darth Maul. This was a great blend of actor and character. Lucas abandoned a good thing too soon.

Yes! I have much to complain about The Phantom Menace. Yet it is not all bad as a whole. I love the political trickery that McDiarmid displays and the senate meeting among the delegates is a nice foreshadowing for what we know will come of it. Visually, it’s a treat as well. (Again, though, what kids are going to be entertained by all of that?) The pod race and lightsaber dueling are masterful as well. There’s some good material here. There just could’ve been a whole lot more….and a whole lot less overall.


By Marc S. Sanders

Now Coming To America is a special kind of film. It’s rare movie where you’ll find a G rated story wrapped in R rated material and ultimately that is what Eddie Murphy and director John Landis brilliantly achieved.

Murphy plays Prince Akeem living a privileged life in the country of Zamunda where he has his own personal butt wipers and concubines who ensure him the royal penis is clean. He is now of the age where he is ready to meet his bride who has been groomed since birth to accommodate every need and preference the Prince has. However, Akeem is mature enough to realize that he wants to be married to someone who likes him for who he is, and not his wealth and stature. So with his best friend Simi (Arsenio Hall) in tow, they travel to Queens, New York under the guise of poor, humble people to find Akeem’s true love.

The story is Disney like and very simple. The gags are what has allowed Coming To America to hold on to its beloved longevity over thirty years later. It is one of Murphy’s last great films before he resorted to a lot of silly kiddie tripe like Daddy Day Care. This is a film that does a 180 flip on the Beverly Hills Cop storyline. In Cop, Murphy was the loudmouth offensive stranger in strange land. In this film, he remains a stranger, only this time the setting is full of loudmouths; this is Queens after all. Akeem is a lovable guy with good intentions and sensitivity. When he meets Lisa (Shari Headley) the daughter of a McDonald’s rip off franchisee (a hilarious John Amos), he becomes enamored and approaches with care despite her dating a jerk (Eriq La Salle) who inherited his family’s “Soul Glo” hair product enterprise.

The best attraction of the film however are Murphy and Hall’s various other characters they portray like Murphy as Randy Watson, lead singer of the band Sexual Chocolate (you know him as Joe the Policeman from the What’s Going Down? episode of That’s My Momma) and Hall as Reverend Brown who believes “There is a god someWHERE!!!” Not to mention the barbers who hang out beneath their apartment. Murphy and Hall are such a skilled pair of chemistry together. Why didn’t they do more films together? Harlem Knights? Ahem…let’s just not talk about that.

Landis was a good comedy director, a staple of the 1980’s films who would let the talents play for the camera and not try to reinvent the wheel. His approach here is the same as when he directed Murphy with Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, or when he helmed Michael Jackson’s legendary Thriller music video. He knew these guys knew what they were doing. So, he just positioned the camera and let them go. Coming To America does run a little too long in some moments. I’m impressed by Paula Abdul’s choreography of tribal dancers, but I didn’t need to see all three minutes of it. A few of those moments run long, when all I want to do is get to the next gag or story development.

Still, if you are not a prude, I recommend Coming To America for a family viewing with your pre teen kids. I showed it to my daughter who is at the age when the sheer utterance of a curse word is hysterical; that’s a rite of passage in childhood as far as I’m concerned. The film contains no overt sexually active scenes, but there is some female nudity, and so what? My daughter knows what she is looking at. Bottom line Coming To America is a sweet Cinderella story that kids will love and adults will laugh at, over and over again until they know every line by heart.


By Marc S. Sanders

The structure built into the script for True Romance by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, is like the trunk of a solid oak tree with strong, sturdy branches representing its collection of seedy characters in off color scenes. Tarantino sets it up – an Elvis infatuated boy meets a rookie call girl (Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette). Boy marries girl, and then boy & girl find a suitcase filled with a fortune in uncut cocaine. A simple storyline that now allows a bunch of fun, short vignettes to be played out, all leading to one moment after the other within this universe of outlandish, lurid debauchery.

What works so well in True Romance is that literally from beginning to end, you are always meeting a new and incredibly interesting character. Each scene welcomes someone else into the fold. For that, you need an all-star cast. Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Conchata Farrell, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Ed Lauter, Elvis & martial arts master Sonny Chiba. The list goes on and on. It should be noted that some of this cast were hardly bankable stars before this film, which flopped at the box office in 1993. Before the movie became a cult B movie obsession on home video and cable, it was blazing the trail of well-established careers for much of its talent.

Nearly every character can have a story of their own written about them. Take Gary Oldman in one of his best roles as the vicious looking pimp named Drexel, a white guy adopting a Jamaican gangsta accent with dreadlocks, gold caps on his teeth, a blind eye and wickedly curved scar down the side of his face. His appearance alone makes me beg to know this guy’s background in a whole other movie. Drexel’s introduction comes early when he pumps a shotgun into two hoods. Shortly thereafter he’s conversing with Clarence Worley (Slater), and we know who’s in charge of this scene. Oldman is only given about 10 minutes of screen time, but it’s hardly forgettable.

The same goes for Walken, as a well-dressed mafia don interrogating Clarence’s father (Hopper). This scene has become legendary for film lovers, and it carries into a stratosphere of intelligence and timing in performance duality. It remains one of the best scenes Tarantino ever wrote as we learn a probable origin of Sicilians from a doomed Dennis Hopper. This is an acting class at its finest.

Tak Fujimoto filmed the piece showing contrasts of a wintery cold and dirty Detroit versus a sun soaked Los Angeles. It’s sharp photography of gorgeous colors schemes.

Hans Zimmer scored the soundtrack, deliberately saluting Terrance Malick’s Badlands where we followed a similarly young criminal couple played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Zimmer’s fun, melodic tones to celebrate Arquette and Slater’s adventures is perfectly in tune with the two-dimensional charm of their new and happy relationship. Most of Tarantino’s script is not taken seriously. Zimmer was the right device for that.

A few spare moments are played with dread, though. Slater and Arquette are truly in love. So, Tarantino & Scott threaten what the film treasures. Arquette as a call girl named Alabama Worley is incredible throughout the film. She’s a silly, adorably cute Southern belle dressed in secondhand store accessories, such as a cow spotted patterned skirt with neon blue sunglasses, and red cowgirl boots. This is not someone you’d hire to manage your accounting firm or run a library. However, Arquette’s emotional range really comes through during a brutal beating scene with Gandolfini. It pains a viewer to watch the moment, but it comes long after we’ve grown to love her.

Later, towards the end, our favorite couple is again endangered during a three way Mexican standoff. It’s hilarious, and way off kilter, but then it also gets downright scary.

That’s the beauty of True Romance. It’s a well-organized mess of emotions from comedy to drama to violence and silliness. Tarantino has great set pieces put together in a connect the dots rhythm.

It’s an endlessly quotable film. It’s a visual film. It’s a literal roller coaster of dangerously amusing storytelling told with affection and gratuity. It’s also quite sweet.

True Romance remains one of my favorite films of all time.


By Marc S. Sanders

The character of Ultron, a terrorizing cyborg, has been a favorite Marvel Comics villain of mine ever since I discovered him in 1984 during the Secret Wars 12 issue limited run. He looked sinister with a devilish face in the shape of a metallic claw. His sonic blasts appeared more destructive than anything else ever drawn on the page. Ultron was a badass!!! (“Language!”). That being said, the cinematic interpretation is quite different, yet he’s modeled on a much more grown up sculpt.

Ultron is still a terrorist bent on utter destruction, but now he has a disregard for man. He’s written quite inventively as a direct contradiction to arguably the favorite of all the Marvel cinematic characters, Iron Man aka Tony Stark. How fitting that James Spader is cast opposite his former brat pack cast mate (Less Than Zero), Robert Downey, Jr. It is really uncanny how the dialect of Spader’s limitless Ultron can sound just like Downey’s genius Stark but with a means of annihilation; “All of you against all of me.” Ultron is smart first, powerful second. He’s not just a monochromatic android. There’s a means to his end and an inventive science to his purpose; uproot a country high in the sky and then DROP IT BACK DOWN INTO THE PLANET, like an anvil flattening Wile E. Coyote. It’s actually more novel than I’m giving it credit for.

Most Marvel afficianados from the blogs, and fellow colleagues as well, do not care much for this chapter in the MCU. I have yet to understand why. Again, each character is really drawn out beautifully by Joss Whedon with a respective storyline. Finally, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given some oomph to his back story. So is Paul Bettany as the other cyborg, Vision, formerly J.A.R.V.I.S, the artificial intelligence.

Vision/J.A.R.V.I.S. outshines Data (“Star Trek: TNG,” apologies to my friend, Jim Johnson), but will never top C-3PO. I like how he’s introduced as an amalgamation of all of the film’s main characters’ abilities. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, Thor, Ultron, Scarlet Witch, some brilliant doctor friend, and even the nation of Wakanda. They all have a piece of themselves in Vision. It’s a better story than the comics ever suggested. Maybe I’m biased having grown up on these stories, but the Vision element makes me want to clap every time I see it. So inventive and economically told for a two-hour film with a ginormous cast. Vision’s introduction is one of the best scenes in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A great device to unhinge most of the Avengers comes through by means of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch (identified as Wanda Maximoff) who cripples them with mind control. How else should a sorceress take out a whole lotta muscle? It works and it gives Olsen conflict to play with. The visual effects surrounding her are also pretty cool. Sure, it might be just some neon red mist, but the cinematography and CGI surrounding her look gorgeous.

This installment also serves as neat set up for what’s to come. Quick Easter Egg in Age Of Ultron: Tony Stark Name drops the term “Endgame.” Oooooooo!!!!!!

It is really admirable what Marvel and Disney have done with the MCU, and especially watching this film. It’s ironic how filmmaker James Cameron made a statement hoping for “Avengers fatigue” so the phenomenon can die down in movie houses, etc. Funny! For me, seeing all of Ultron’s toys and wit seemed to outshine quite a bit of the residuals spawned from Cameron’s Terminator franchise.

Whedon wrote and directed a film with much more intelligence, wit, at least as much action, and threat than I ever got from Cameron’s reputation of clunky dialogue and plot hole time travel storytelling. It would do Mr. Cameron well to maybe not throw stones at the glass Avengers towers. I’m skeptical that his upcoming FOUR Avatar films will carry the smirk inducing cues the MCU has used to its advantage.


By Marc S. Sanders

inally, after 30 years, I’ve caught up to a film that has eluded me, Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing. Here is a film from 1989 that really could have been made in 2019. At the very least, it should be rereleased in the theatres. We desperately need this film right now.

My view of Spike Lee has gradually changed over just the last year. It must be due to the current political and socioeconomic climate. I’ve become terribly sensitive to what I see in the news these days.

Following seeing BlacKkKlansman and now this film, Lee really is aware of how low humanity can go. Do The Right Thing offers just a little push that leads to an endless fall, however.

Lee’s film was shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. The story takes place on a day where the heat wave has reached a record high, so the predominantly black community has turned on the fire hydrant and Sal’s Pizzeria is open for business. Sal is played by Danny Aiello in an Oscar nominated performance. The main character that everyone knows is Mookie, Sal’s trusted delivery guy, played by Spike Lee. Mookie is well aware of Sal’s mild prejudices towards his customers; mild compared to Pino’s blatant racism (John Turturro), Sal’s older son who works for him along with Vito, the other son.

The film is a day in the life when it appears the same daily routines occur yet again. Mookie delivers pizzas while getting chastised by his son’s mother (Rosie Perez’ debut) for not making more of himself. The middle age men sit on the corner talking about anything random. The kids roam up and down the street goofing off and teasing. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) seems a little crazy even if we can recognize a life of experience as he’s sipping on a bottle while trying to charm Mother Sister (Davis’ real life wife Ruby Dee) who stays perched on her window sill, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) are on their own mission to make sure black celebrities appear on Sal’s wall along with the Italian Americans, and “Fight The Power” is rightfully blasting on the boom box.

Each scene in the film plays like a vignette and Lee often times will be as direct as possible with his characters to honestly show what they stand for, whether they are racist or intrusive or even naively annoying. The heat index is nicely displayed through the random commentary from the local DJ portrayed by Samuel L Jackson, and it’s easy to grasp that the temperature serves as a threatening metaphor for what we fear will eventually happen. Our communal mentality is about to boil over.

I easily saw the still controversial ending coming. What’s sad is that it is no longer surprising in today’s era. It’s probably one of the best endings to a film that I’ve ever seen. That’s a bold statement but having watched the film just a week ago, I’ve repeatedly had an internal argument with myself. Who is right? Who is justified? Who is wrong? Why do these activities continue to happen? If I’m still turning this film over in my head after a week, then I can’t deny the impact Spike Lee accomplished. I’m angry. I’m annoyed. I’m sad. Don’t get me wrong. I was also entertained with the film. It’s a great script and a great cast.

Beyond the messages of Do The Right Thing, the film is an assortment of bright colors in costumes and backdrops within the neighborhood. Bedford-Stuyvesant really looks like a beautiful area. It looks clean and the residents really never appear terribly intimidating. Lee finds qualities in all his characters to like, even Pico the most racist of all. Mookie even tries to make a point to Pico about just how racist he seems. It’s a great conversation about the status quo of a black celebrity vs simply another “N-word” who walks into Sal’s for a slice of pizza. I found charm among most of the various conversations in the film. So much so that I said to myself, this is a film that truly could be adapted into a musical or a stage play. There’s so much to tell and so many ways to say it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee likely had a hundred more pages of dialogue and a dozen more characters that never made it into the final product.

In 1989, and all the years thereafter, I dismissed this film. I never cared for Lee’s commentary during public interviews. I can’t stand his response to certain issues, and admittedly I just do not like hip hop and rap music. I also may have naively thought that Spike’s viewpoints were a little over the top. I still do, at times. Nevertheless, I was blind, Reader. I truly was.

There’s a terrible truth to Do The Right Thing. A frightening truth. We are very, very far out of reach of racial harmony.

We learn best, only when we fall. Spike Lee’s film shows the shortcomings of the human spirit. Spike Lee’s film makes you think and debate. You have no choice but to question a moral compass.

Whether you have already seen it or not, watch Do The Right Thing today. More importantly, watch it with your children.


By Marc S. Sanders

Anthony and Joe Russo direct one of the best action pictures of the last 20 years as they pit the heroic patriot against weaponized SHIELD planes, trap him in an elevator with 15 strong arm men to take on singlehandedly, and most especially the dude dressed like the American flag goes up against a mysterious figure that possesses a highly weaponized steel arm. Best yet, none of these sequences pertain to the story so much as they frame it.

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers aka the first title character, and he’s even better this time around. Captain America: The Winter Soldier hearkens back to the thematic 1970s conspiracy theory features like The Parallax View with Warren Beatty and Three Days Of The Condor with Robert Redford as Cap first finds himself on one side of an important debate for our modern times. When is too much warfare enough? How far must we go to serve as a means of protection? Evans appears as if he’s researched the strong position held by his character, and he’s believable in his mindset. Is the motive out of fear, or power, or could it actually just all be for protection? He’s convincing in his character’s argument. Naturally, if he can’t agree with the powers that be, he’ll find himself on the run with allies like Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Anthony Mackie as the supercool Falcon.

Johansson is given much more to work with as she trades “Buddy Cop Movie” wits with Evans as well as helping him with his dating scene. She also offers up some sharp intelligence to a promising complex former KGB/spy. It’s about time she get her own film in the series. She’s overdue. (Well…now we all know how that turned out.)

It’s especially appropriate that Redford himself is recruited as Secretary Alexander Pierce. Redford plays puppet master for a film that offers the biggest altering twists the MCU has offered up to this point. To handle the role requires an actor with a history to his career and since Redford has dabbled in films of this nature, he fits right in. He must have been especially pleased to accept this role recognizing the layered angles to a script provided by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeeley.

Sebastian Stan returns with an astonishing turn as his character Bucky. When all the surprises are revealed by him, your pulse will likely not have come down following a thrilling highway shootout.

Lastly, credit must be given to Samuel L Jackson. This film offers the most for his Nick Fury character to play with. Fury finds himself on the wrong end of an argument that leads to a shocking betrayal and sabotage. Jackson’s roles often fall into the same routine of timing and delivery, screaming “mother effing” frustrations. It’s often lovingly joked about but it gets tiring too. Here however, he’s given a chance to be the victim of a brutal attack and deal with an aftermath. It’s the best material written so far for the Nick Fury character.

The Russo brothers, not normally known for big budget extravaganzas, surprised audiences with a well-executed film that offers suspense, extensively choreographed action sequences and great characterizations all around. They have identified Captain America as the soldier of morals, but moreover they recognize where he stems from. The Brothers certainly haven’t forgotten that he’s really a 95-year-old man at the time of this story. That sets up some good laughs. The adventure of the picture is top notch and thankfully it primarily all takes place in daylight where nothing is strategically hidden and appearing as shortsighted work in dark photography. The Russos know how to pinpoint exactly where Cap needs to throw his shield, what it should bounce off of, and how the hero should get it back. Everything here is top notch.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier only gets better with repeat viewings, and you really don’t even need the other MCU films to follow its trajectory. It’s worth watching at any given moment.