By Marc S. Sanders

Some of the worst atrocities in history have often spawned some of the greatest stories.  I’d expect it would at least leave us feeling melancholy, but I hope it shapes a future that learns from humanity’s worst offenses.  That’s what came to mind as I watched the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian best-selling novel The Hunger Games.

In what was once a supposed North America, the continent is now called Panem and it is divided into twelve districts, with each specializing in some means of living.  Districts 1 and 2 are the upper-class wealthy.  Districts 11 and 12 are the starving destitute.  To maintain a semblance of order, President Snow (a chillingly older Donald Sutherland) oversees the nation’s Annual Hunger Games where a boy and a girl from each district is selected to compete in a dangerous competition of being the last one to outlive their competitors.  May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor!  In the 74th edition, expert hunting archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in her most celebrated role) volunteers herself from District 12 to spare her younger sister from danger and selection.  She is paired up with the District 12 boy, Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson). 

Like any sporting competition, Collins’ story takes time to hype up the event.  The youths are fashioned up in the most glamourous adornments and interviewed for television by Caesar Flickerman portrayed by a delicious, yet unsung Stanley Tucci in bright blue hair and sparkly suits, doing his best Griffin, Carson, Letterman, Leno, and O’Brien.  With every white molar revealed in Tucci’s broad smile, he appears even more sinister in the purpose he serves for the Games, Panem, and President Snow.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a faithful portrayal to the Katniss character found in the pages of Collins’ series of young adult novels.  A new hero has been conceived – the rebel who stands along other well knowns like Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood and Harry Potter.  Katniss is not looking to be a savior but with influence from a prior Hunger Games champion (Woody Harrelson, doing his drunken best) and a calm, but humble fashion designer (Lenny Kravitz) she finds herself elevated towards a promising future.  Katniss Everdeen inherits the moniker known as “The Girl On Fire” with a three finger salute and a somber three note battle cry harmony.

I’ve likened the setting of The Hunger Games to the Holocaust and the early twentieth century European Nazi occupation.  (It seems more apparent in the next film, Catching Fire.)  If I had to compare the real-life period to this fictional one, then they are not anywhere close.  Yet, Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross’ film depict hardship and oppression from a ruling upper class gleefully using their young for savage sport entertainment, while being forced to dwell in concentration camps with no permission to escape or run free, lest they suffer terrible punishments for themselves or those they care most about.

The Hunger Games values the themes of sacrifice while some characters inadvertently become heroes for a people against a domineering force.  It’s fantasy.  It’s adventurous.  It’s sprinkled with romanticism for Katniss and the triangle she’s pitted within for her care of Peeta but also her loving affections for another District 12 resident named Gale (Liam Hemsworth).   Frankly, the romance angle is a little weak in the films and books.  Ultimately though, it is harsh for the young characters in the story, which is why my wife refuses to invest her time.  I empathize with her position.  However, I find the story inspiring.  It’s also a hell of a thriller.

As a film, Gary Ross assembled a strong and alive production of gaudy, bright colors within the capital against morose grays found in District 12.  The clash of the two settings is no more apparent than when squeaky Effie Trinkett in her garishly loud facial makeup and wardrobes arrives in District 12 to host the Reaping, also known as the selection of the child contestants.  So many actors in this cast are memorable.  An unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks is no exception.  As Effie, her personality that publicly represents a hesitant Katniss and Peeta is deliberately inappropriate and further demonstrates how demonically twisted the mentality of The Hunger Games truly is. 

When it is time to finally arrive at the manufactured arena where the contestants will do battle to the death, Gary Ross effectively incorporates the inventive surprises offered by Collins’ source material.  Some competitors are brutal in their combative skills, but environmentally speaking the forest like jungle is dangerous as well.  Especially notable is a hive of stinging tracker jackers that’ll leave the viewers shaken. 

Suzanne Collins’ first installment of her series persists in leaving its ending completely questionable.  Will all these children, some of them who are noble and good, actually die?  Could a good soul like Katniss follow through with what the Games demand of her like killing Peeta for example?  I appreciate the imagination that went into the ending, leaving a subsequent tale to be told beyond this film.  

My one complaint is common in action films.  Gary Ross does really well with the edits and filming of his movie.  However, one of the last scenes develops into a hand-to-hand combat moment taking place in darkness with very shaky camera work and uneven grunts, punches, and kicks.  I abhor when filmmakers go this route.  It’s lazy work.  I can’t tell who is hitting who or where.  I’m just supposed to accept the final struggle that the hero is having with the bad guy and feel a sense of urgency and suspense as they supposedly cast a harsh blow to their enemy and fall over. I might as well close my eyes during moments like this because it’s all just blurry streaks in midnight blackness with sound editing filtered into the sequence.  This tiring approach happens so often in movies, and it becomes a let down for me time and again.   I love a well-made, thought-provoking thriller but the filmmaker hacks it all up near the end and it looks like he’s got to meet a deadline for the final print to get out to the theaters.

There’s much to discuss and think about in The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins’ idea stemmed from how television viewers soaked up the drama found in reality tv shows like Survivor and Big Brother.  It’s not so much the fate of the contestants that we care about, but how do they serve the producer’s crafted storylines.  Even American Idol steers the drama of the kids who get their shot at Hollywood fame.  The Super Bowl will position a star player like Tom Brady as a focus with questions of whether this is his final season, and how the championship games affect his marriage and family.  Does he get along with his coach?  None of this has anything to do with the points on the board.  Is all of this about the games, or is it about those tasked with playing the games, and for whose benefit of control, wealth, and power?  In this fantasy film, do the people of Panem cry at the drama spurned from the horrifying death of a child they got to know from Caesar’s colorful interviews, or are they in despair at the loss of another young life?  Whether it is real or fictional, is the drama of these gladiator games and competitions focused in the right direction?

The cast and production team under Gary Ross have put together an effective dystopian and bleak future reliant upon what the world focuses on more than anything beyond who they truly love or what they stand for.  The Hunger Games might seem inconceivable, but it is frighteningly relatable. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Tulane Law Student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is unbelievably lucky. She can find herself being pursued by one white guy in a suit after another over the course of a two hour movie and will be fortunate enough to escape every threat by sheer chance. It’s only to her benefit when she is being chased by two assassins in a creepy downtown parking garage that someone left an angry doberman in a car to startle the killers. As well, it’s really a blessing that Darby has caught on that if an engine sputters when turning the ignition it can only mean one thing – car bomb! GET OUT!!!!!

Darby is the main protagonist of The Pelican Brief directed by Alan J Pakula, adapted from John Grisham’s best-selling novel. When the eldest and the youngest Supreme Court justices are murdered, Darby conceives of an outrageous conspiracy stretching all the way to the President and documents the whole rundown in the so-called Pelican Brief. She shares the document with her law professor who shares it with his government friend who shares with the CIA who shares it with…and so on and so on.

Pakula is an under celebrated director when you consider his better thrillers like Presumed Innocent, Klute, and especially All The Presidents Men. Here though, I think he got a little lazy with his screenplay and direction. The Pelican Brief is a little too paint by numbers.

Sure, the film has suspense. I think Grisham’s story has some convincing weight to it where wealth and government won’t stand for the platforms of environmental causes and therefore people have to die. Still, while the meat of that story eventually surfaces, we are left with A LOT of buildup before Darby gets involved. Just a lot of white guys in different office buildings walking down hallways, entering doorways and talking on the phone. Every so often we come across a DC crack reporter, Grey Grantham (Denzel Washington) who gets a phone call from a potential informant. When that guy gets scared and hangs up, thank goodness Darby just happens to call two seconds later regarding the same story. Good on you Grey for being by that telephone.

That’s my problem here. Pakula just works in the lucky conveniences to keep Grey and Darby on the trail. Neither of them ever truly escape a bind on their own. Neither of them ever truly dig the hole any deeper without something COMING UPON THEM to help them along at just the right moment.

We learn a safe deposit box belonging to a dead character exists. Darby just strolls into the bank and posing as the widow, who is not a signer on the box, is just asked for her address and phone number. No proper identification necessary. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me it’s that easy? Folks, hide your valuables because I’m gonna be robbing you blind.

Pakula will even set up a good scenario where Darby thinks she’ll be meeting someone who can help but it’s an assassin ready to kill, only suddenly the assassin is killed while holding Darby’s hand in a crowded courtyard. Wow!!! Lucky again, Darby. I’m still fuzzy on who actually killed the guy. That didn’t concern Pakula though. It’s explained in a quick throwaway line before the credits roll. Pakula only had to get Darby out of danger again. So let’s see he’s got the barking doberman for something else, the engine sputter will be used later on. Hmmmm??? Meh!!! we’ll just have someone randomly kill this guy. Now run, Darby. RUN!!!

Notice I haven’t talked about performances. Well, there’s not much to them. The Pelican Brief boasts an impressive cast of character actors like Sam Shepherd, Anthony Heald, John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci, Robert Culp and John Heard. Yet, these guys, along with Roberts and Washington are flat. Just reciting their lines when the cues call for them. There’s nothing very exciting to any of them really. Very monotone. Roberts is beautiful yet depressing even before she gets caught up in the mystery. Washington, while handsome, does not seem to have the gusto that Pakula’s reporters did when he directed Hoffman & Redford. Grey is too neat, physically fit and tailored for an always on the job, aggressive reporter looking for a scent.

There was a better movie to be made here, thanks to some convincing motivations that were started with Grisham’s novel. Unfortunately, Pakula just didn’t devote enough respect to the original author’s imagination.


By Marc S. Sanders

Could it have been possible that a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer uncovered one of the biggest market crashes in American history?  Writer/Director J.C. Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, will have you believe that.  It makes sense when you think about it.  Numbers and bar graphs and pie charts and zig zagging lines become so complex with themselves that you have to wonder how people wearing $1500 designer suits and selling products over the phone could decipher such nonsense.  So, it would take a rocket scientist to unravel such an exceedingly large ball of rubber bands in only one night.  Yet, how does a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer come to encounter this predicament.  Easy.  It’s all about money.  You might be the greatest scientist in the world, but if the pay isn’t right, is the science really worth it? 

Zachary Quinto plays Peter Sullivan, the rocket scientist from MIT.  Stanley Tucci plays Eric Dale, the bridge engineer.  They abandoned their college majors and specialties to go where the earnings are much more lucrative.  They both work in the risk management department for a large, unnamed New York investment bank.  On a Thursday afternoon, along with a whole slew of other people, Eric is fired.  His company cell phone is immediately shut off and he’s escorted quickly out of the building along with his personal belongings.  Before he leaves, he’s able to pass off a computer file for Peter to have a look at.  Eric was close to completing something deeply impactful, but didn’t get a chance to finish.  When Peter stays late after work to download the file, a stunned look eventually appears across his face, and he’s quickly calling back his workmates at 10 o’clock at night.  Those guys were getting hammered at the nightclub downtown, celebrating that they were not on the chopping block earlier in the day.

The cataclysmic results of Peter’s discovery is first passed on to his buddy Seth (Penn Badgely), then to the next level up which is Will Emerson, supervisor of trading (Paul Bettany).  Will then tosses it over to the higher risk supervisor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who then passes it on to the Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), maybe the company’s second in command.  Jared assembles the men to meet with Sarah Robinson and Ramesh Shah (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi), who compute risk at even high level. 

Chandor is so genuine with his script and characters that as the earth-shattering news gets shared and then shared again and again, each higher up the food chain demands that it be explained to them in simple English.  By the time, Jared passes on this news to the head, HEAD Honcho, John Fuld (Jeremy Irons in a thankfully scene stealing performance), it is being requested of Peter to speak to John as if he were a golden retriever.  I guess in the corporate world, the sharper your clothes and hairstyle are, as well as the more formal your position title is called, the simpler the explanations need to become.  The ones who earn the big bucks don’t sit on the top floor to be belabored with charts and graphs that lack prestige and personality.

I want to point out a symbolic sequence here as well.  Each higher up seems to work on a higher floor than the other.  So, Seth and Peter accompany Will and Sam up an elevator to where Sarah, Ramesh and Jared are located.  After this meeting, Seth, Peter and Will go up on the rooftop of the building to smoke and commiserate.  Will even considers jumping.  They are then interrupted from an even higher level beyond the pinnacle of the building.  A helicopter arrives with John in tow.  God has descended at this inconvenient hour to tend to his prophets and their disciples.

Margin Call might sound like a complex assembly of numbers and math.  It really isn’t though, because Chandor approaches his film without ever really giving away how complex the issue is.  Instead, he demonstrates how deep it is.  Sam focuses on a computer screen and asks “Wait, is that number right?”  Peter’s nervousness is enhanced with his hands laced behind his head as he paces back and forth.  Will has been chewing on Nicorette gum up to this point.  Midway through the film, he’s back to smoking.  Seth understands that the mass firing he just survived hours earlier will inevitably catch up to him and all he can do is cry on the toilet.  Sarah comforts herself by asking Peter if the report he’s laid out is his work.  She wants to be excluded from being a cause of the crisis.  The best indicator of how serious and intense this has become is when an ice cool looking and handsome Simon Baker (even the blue tie he wears says icy cool) as Jared asks for the time.  It’s 2:15am.  He mutters to himself “Fuck me,” and then asks again for the time.  It’s 2:16. “Fuck me,” with a leap off the chair and a distant stare out the window.

The nature of the problem isn’t so important to grasp.  What’s necessary to take away from Margin Call, is that the gods of currency have irresponsibly and deliberately neglected the warning signs.  The returns have just been too damn good.  Now the boat has taken on too much water to stay afloat, though.  Chandor opts to focus on the response and behavior to the dilemma at hand.  There’s whispered blame to be exchanged.  There’s the need to stay silent.  When Jeremy Irons eventually comes into the fold, he holds a board meeting and calmly asks for someone to explain the situation.  Chandor points his camera on concerned close ups of middle age men not willing to speak up; messengers who truly believe they’ll be killed for delivering the dire news.  Even Jared can’t speak.

The sad outcome of the film is actually how the crash of 2008 with Collateralized Debt Obligations and Sub Prime Mortgage Defaults (see Adam McKay’s The Big Short) played out on the eve of its first day.  The investment bank in the film opts to sell off its worthless assets that enormously exceed the entire net worth of the billion-dollar company.  Chandor’s film reminds us that it’s legal to do so, and the buyers of this “odorous bag of excrement,” are John and Jane Q. Public.  At 9:30am, these brokers will put on the charm and sell at a price of $100/share knowing that by 2:00pm, it’ll be worth .65 cents/share, if they’re lucky.  Their customers paid for porterhouse, but went home with a cold burger in a doggy bag.  It’s the only way to survive. 

There are no heroes in Margin Call.  There are only profit makers.  Profits that are earned at the expense of everyone else on the planet.


By Marc S. Sanders

Admittedly, as a kid I read about the star-spangled hero, Captain America, on a frequent basis. In the ‘80s, to me he was nothing special; a guy with a shield, dressed like the flag who was very agile. Not many surprises were left for him to discover on the page. However, in his first MCU installment, Chris Evans, as Steve Rogers the weakling yearning to join the US Army during World War II and kill Nazis, is inspiring.

Director Joe Johnston ably introduces a character before revealing all the goodies. A fantastic special effect of downsizing Evans to a gaunt 95 pounds allows the motivation to become a hero all the more convincing. Following a series of being bullied and being rejected for service, Rogers is given the opportunity to become a lab rat for a “Super Soldier” experiment that will award him with instant fighting skills and strength. Stanley Tucci plays the doctor looking for the right candidate. Why Rogers? Because he sees he has the heart of a man only wishing to do well unto others. The experiment is a success before it becomes sabotaged, but Tommy Lee Jones, representative of the Army, is not entirely convinced. So, Cap only elevates himself to the role of a character logo, forced to sell the idea of buying war bonds across the country and entertaining the troops overseas. A rescue mission finally comes calling, and the boy in blue dons the shield and shows the world who he is and what he stands for.

Chris Evans is great in this part as a guy always on a path of “do good.” Never emoting cockiness, never in service for himself and never one to surrender to illogical and immoral mindsets. This is how Captain America should always be portrayed, a man who stands for the good of country and as the MCU films continue on, the good of the world and, well heck, lets just say the good of the galaxy. With his perfect haircut and clean shaven face, Evans never shies away from that platform.

Tucci is so good in a role that will never define his career. His brief appearance shows no hint of him being in a comic book movie. That’s a huge compliment. He takes the role of a German doctor seriously. He’s the scientist, but the film allows a nice scene for him with Evans showing that he is more so a friend. When his part exits the film, you miss him.

Finally, the MCU gets the female role right following the dismissive nature of characters like Pepper Potts (Iron Man), Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk) and Jane Foster (Thor). Special Agent Peggy Carter played by the awesome discovery of Hayley Atwell makes the role her own. She plays the part like it is written, never relying on the title character for her cues. Atwell shows determination to stand out as a woman among a sea of men and never regarding herself as any different from those said men. She has some great scenes with Tommy Lee Jones debating the purpose and importance of Rogers. By the end of the film, you are not just paying attention to the fate of Evans’ character, but Atwell’s as well. Peggy Carter is written so well, you could write a TV series about her. Wait….hold on…. anyway I digress. Hayley Atwell remains the best female character of the MCU above those we’ve seen already at this point, as well as ahead of those to come in future installments.

The villain is really just a villain with Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. The character looks great; looks just like the source material. He’s one bad dude, but not much to him. He stands to be more powerful than Hitler, yada yada yada.

Joe Johnston directs a film with a salute towards director Steven Spielberg. Try to convince me that the opening scene is not reminiscent of the opening to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Indiana Jones seems to sprinkled about as well. Johnston doesn’t try to get cute with experimental camera shots and blurry CGI action. I think because he follows a paint by numbers approach to this film, it is all the better. He offers lots of good back story to Steve Rogers role, he gives a large cast of characters their own moments to stand out (like Bucky Barnes and the Howling Commandos) and he keeps Captain America likable and a guy to cheer for; a guy to be thankful for.

So, let’s give it up for Captain America!!!!


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s tough to be a fair journalist when a higher power carries great influence over the what and how of honest reporting. In Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Spotlight, it’s not so much the crimes of child molestation by the hands of priests from the Boston Archdiocese that are so important. Rather, it is how the facts are suppressed and the pressure to contain the truth are so apparent. Maybe it finally took the will of a new editor, a Jewish editor from New York, named Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), at the esteemed Boston Globe newspaper to get the special section crew known as Spotlight to work on how case after case of reported child molestation incidents were allowed to occur for decades under the eye of the highest powers in the church.

First, it’s important to note how easy it is for a priest to seduce a young boy. He welcomes the boy for special duties within the church. Then the priest and child may share a dirty joke together. Just their little secret. After that, touching occurs which leads to unimaginable and irreversible damage. Yet, the grown man once considered that special attention he received as a direct link to God himself. McCarthy deliberately repeats that viewpoint from more than one victim in the film; it was as if God had selected them for special attention and God was especially speaking to them. None of this could be more patterned.

Marty Baron counts on his team to not only collect the mounting number of cases. He tells them to uncover an even worse truth and that is the systemic response the church upheld where when a new case comes to light, a deal is worked with a pawn for an attorney to give settlement hush money while the priest in question will take sick leave or simply be reassigned to another church location free to do God’s will while also committing his own willing nature.

The Spotlight team consists of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as well as Michael Keaton. All of their true to life characters were born and raised in Boston. Some under Catholic influence. So the conflict for them to do their jobs ethically and morally is challenging when faced with literally going up against the one institution that seems to own the city of Boston without it showing on paper necessarily. It also means coming to disheartening terms with their own upbringing.

To convincingly depict the grasp the church has on the politicians and newspapers in the area, McCarthy shoots a lot of his talking scenes outdoors on public benches and sidewalks. Therefore, you get an almost claustrophobic shadow of how close the Catholic Church is to the city’s residents. If a scene is at a dinner party or cocktail hour, a man of the cloth is nearby. A sidewalk stroll between a victim and a reporter seems to tread carefully. You never know if that cathedral on the corner is listening. Spotlight is primarily a journalism film of the highest standard. The pursuit for the truth is ripe with the obstacles of slamming doors when trying to get a statement or dealing with the unfair reveal of no records that legally are meant to be public. There’s a race to get the whole truth before a competing media outlet grabs it and misconstrues it. As well, what happens when a bigger story suddenly takes precedence and this story must be put on hold. I mean how do you not drop everything to report on 9/11?

Spotlight is another important film as it does not compromise in its true to life storytelling. It’s unfathomable to believe that men of God could use their positions to take advantage of the innocence of children and then refuse to accept responsibility for it. Even worse is the egregious actions taken to modify the authority of local law enforcement and judicial objectivity that should be there to protect the rights of these victims.

Tom McCarthy’s piece is excellent with a cast in top form. It would have to be as the screenplay is peppered with conversation after conversation. This is a newspaper film. So therefore it’s a talky piece. You get passionate monologues from Ruffalo who does not hold back his anger and disgust at what he uncovers with an acerbic but crusading attorney played beautifully by Stanley Tucci. This attorney has lost every battle he’s had with the church but he does not give up on his client victims either. He’s their only protector in an arena of powerful criminals who hide behind scripture.

You also have a real go-getter reporter in Rachel McAdams. McCarthy repeatedly shoots her from behind walking the streets of Boston with a pad and pen as she meets a victim or simply knocks on neighboring doors for some facts. Her challenge is seeking the truth while her grandmother holds an undying faith in religion of Catholicism by visiting the church at least three times a week. A crushing, albeit brief, scene occurs near the end of the film when the reporter’s grandmother reads her final story in the Spotlight section.

Michael Keaton is the Irish Bostonian rooted in tradition. He knows all the important people in the city. He knows Cardinal Law who runs the church and he holds on to his journalistic code of fact collecting for as long as he can muster.

The truth and web of lies and deceit could never really shock me in Spotlight. I’ve heard it all before. Instead, it’s the knowing acts of concealing horrifying sin. Ironically, those actions are committed by those that listen to the confessions of its sinful disciples. As I’m of an age where I question the validity and need for religion in our upbringing, I can’t help but wonder how these victims would have turned out had religion never became a factor in their lives. These children, now men, went on to commit suicide, become chemical dependent, and occasionally became child molesters themselves. It’s easy to argue that these conditions were never part of their chemical make up. It’s also easy to argue that the Catholic Church carelessly determined the destinies of these men without any regard for being accountable of the damaging results. Spotlight confidentially reaffirms both of these arguments.