By Marc S. Sanders

If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles.  Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster).  There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona.  American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin.  Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display.  Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.

I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made.  My impression of the film is that it is well cast.  Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop.  His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police.  This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono. 

Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate.  He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story.  Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part.  He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger.  When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries.  Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent.  Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”

The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop.  He’s a nobody.  It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt.  That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web. 

Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound.  The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law.  What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents.  Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.

A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play.  After all, where there’s murder there is motive.  The math is not that simple though.

To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable.  She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin.  Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net.  The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two. 

Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second.  Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film.  Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky.  Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie.  Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory. 

Gere is superb with the conceit of the character.  Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse.  It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is.  When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next.  The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.

Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers.  Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred.  Some are there to distract you.  Some are there to circle back around in the third act.  There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony.  There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation.  We’ve seen it all before.  Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film.  I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery.  It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders. 

The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me.  That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie.  If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you.  Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.


By Marc S. Sanders

In a game of chess, if your queen is taken, it might mean a permanent loss of what was thought to be a god given talent. Seven year old Joshua Waitzkin does not realize that, and thus it allowed him to become the greatest chess champion in the country.

Josh (Max Pomeranc) is not a chess player. Josh is a boy who plays chess, as well as baseball. He also builds Legos, plays Clue and does just about anything else including fishing with his dad. He knows this about himself. The problem is the adults in his life only see chess, and nothing else. Writer/Director Steve Zaillian assembles a film that turns the world’s most historic board game into a means of recognizing self-worth and the limits of talent with its correlation to identity.

Josh gains influence from a cutthroat formal chess instructor named Bruce (Ben Kingsley) who doesn’t just teach chess but also offers guidance in manners of contempt and dislike for your opponent. It helps that he recognizes Josh’s talent but is Bruce coaching with the best intentions?

Contrary to Bruce is a city park speed player named Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) who reminds Josh to always play on offense. Play the board, not the opponent. Josh’s father (Joe Mantegna) only sees victory through beautiful trophies. When Josh loses interest in champion accomplishment, his father only sees nothing but failure. His mother (Joan Allen) sees the boy losing his boyhood.

These are all good people and necessary for Josh. The conflict lies in the clash of their different ideals. I love that. There isn’t a villain here. There’s a debate.

Zaillain devotes time to footage of renowned champion Bobby Fischer who eventually went into seclusion probably due to the lack of any worthy challenger beyond himself. The worry of the film lies in whether Josh will end up with the same sad fate of Fischer. Everyone is on the hunt for the next Bobby Fischer. Does everyone want to be the cruel, cold and isolated Bobby Fischer, though; a man with talent yet also hates his talent?

Zallian films very effectively in a majority of close ups, hardly showing the surroundings of the settings. He wants his camera to maintain a tunnel vision to only allow Josh, and those that discover and observe him, per se, to see what’s directly in front of him. Nothing else. Nothing but the chess pieces on a board and how many moves until check mate arrives are all that matters.

The film edits beautifully in sound as the speed play pounds the chess pieces in an aggressive music accompaniment. Pieces are KNOCKED onto the board, and when a queen is taken it is SLAMMED on to the table. A person has ultimately been disabled and weakened. When check mate eventually comes, the king piece weakly drops over.

Josh is not proud of his ability to conquer. He’s proud of his ability to play.


By Marc S. Sanders

Perhaps The Truman Show directed by Peter Weir demonstrates that no matter what time period a person exists in, he/she/they will never be limited to life within a television set.  Life is meant for more than just stories coming from an electric box.

Jim Carrey portrays Truman Burbank who is the star of the addicting and ratings bonanza 24/7 television program known as The Truman Show.  Since his birth, Truman has been observed by the world.  His parents are actors.  His friends are too.  Co-workers and neighbors and townsfolk as well.  His wife Meryl (Laura Linney) is just an actor.  It’s all fake.  Yet, for Truman it’s all real.  He has no idea that he is a worldwide guinea pig meant for complete observation.

Now that Truman is in his thirties, though, he is becoming wise to the fact that something doesn’t feel right.  Every day, for example, is no different than the one before.  It’s all routine.  He kisses his wife on his way out the door.  He waves to his neighbors.  He always teeters on selling an insurance policy to two dweeby twin brothers.  He picks up a magazine at a local stand in the center of his harbor island town.  He responds positively to his boss and then he comes home and mows his lawn. 

It’s only when odd occurrences appear that Truman starts to think and for the television show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris), that’s a dangerous risk for the longevity of the program.  Christof manipulates everything that happens to Truman thereby manufacturing his fear of the ocean.  An episode from long ago focused on Truman’s near fatal drowning accident with his “father” who went missing.  That fear keeps Truman contained and unable to explore beyond Christof’s inserted limits.  His program allows for sponsorships like the six pack of beer that Truman’s best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich) always carries or the household products that Meryl uses at “home.”

Peter Weir’s film is concerned with discovery.  Efficiently speaking, he presents the script written by Andrew Niccol with a “how it works” narration as part of a fast moving first act.  When we, the viewers of the film (not the viewers of the show within the film) are accustomed to Truman’s normalcy, then we perk up when we see something out of place like a set door that reveals a backstage catering counter for cast and crew.  We find it amusing when the weather doesn’t work properly and it only rains directly over Truman, and nowhere else.  What would Truman make of a stage lamp falling out of nowhere from a clear blue sky? Christof would not even think to imagine. Even more disturbing is when one of the program’s actors does not cooperate with the illusion, like a girl named Lauren (Natasha McElhone) when she attempts to reveal the truth to Truman as they genuinely become attracted to one another.  Suddenly, “her father” whisks her over to a mysterious place called “Fiji,” and Truman becomes fixated on visiting that locale one day.

Unlike Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, I don’t consider The Truman Show to be brilliantly prophetic.  Ever since the television was invented, we’ve become addicted to the images emanating from the box in the center of our living rooms.  So, I guess I’m not as fascinated with this film as others have claimed.  The viewers depicted in the movie like regular bar patrons, old ladies who are sewing throw pillows and blankets while watching on their sofas, and parking garage security guards working out of their enclosed booth, are hooked.  They’d never even think of falling asleep or changing the channel.  We are not however, and are left with observing Jim Carrey doing another silly role sprinkled with some sensitivity and an intelligence that is slowly becoming aware.

Perhaps Weir and Niccol are toying with the idea of God, and his play toy that he calls man or in this case Truman (True-Man).  God has the will to control a person and keep him contained, but his invention will eventually develop a mind of its own.  Intelligence breeds defiance and a want for freedom.  History continues to show that.  Therefore, man will build up the gumption to sail across the treacherous seas in search of what’s out there beyond what the eye can see.  God will test and test and test.  Man will either pass or fail, again and again.

In this age of endless reality tv programs, far be it for me to say that the set up of The Truman Show is unlikely.  Yet, it still does not seem possible.  It’s ridiculously over the top.  (Watch me eat my words one day.)  So, Peter Weir’s picture is a fantasy, I guess.  However, is it a fantasy I really care about?  Unlike the viewers of the program within the film, I never cared about Truman.  I never cared about Christof, Truman’s antagonist.  I definitely don’t care about the actors in the tv show.  Sure, Niccol’s script is an idea: “What if a guy was born and raised and lived within a television show?”.  However, is this an idea that is worth running through with?  What’s to gain from the picture? I guess I missed a number of episodes or a couple of seasons to empathize or follow the ongoing story. 

Having seen all the episodes of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or even Cheers and The Big Bang Theory, I was there from the beginning.  So, I was concerned with the outcome of Tony Soprano and Walter White and whether Sam & Diane would make it as a couple.  Truman Burbank is just another Jim Carrey caricature that I just don’t care about.  So, you’ll have to excuse me if I go check out what’s on the other channel instead.  Maybe Jeopardy is on.


By Marc S. Sanders

Love, Actually is like a warm favorite blanket to snuggle up in. Richard Curtis writes and directs a collection of the greatest British actors (along with American Laura Linney) in a kaleidoscope of love and relationships against the backdrop of beautiful London, England during the five weeks leading up to Christmas.

I won’t list my favorite characters or actors. In a film this treasured, this loved and this appreciated, that would be like picking your favorite child. It’s impossible when every single storyline is perfectly executed with thought and tenderness.

The stories of love uncovered, love that’s lost, love based in friendship, and love drowning in heartache beautifully jump from one to the next and then back again. Curtis is wise to not show all of the facets of each story early on. Some stories reveal more about themselves later that’ll leave you hurting for those that are not so merry and those that offer plenty of cheer.

I’m especially happy that Curtis did not compromise in the language or subject matter of his tales. Strong language at times makes for some memorable dialogue and nudity presents a normality to how we really are with those we have affections for.

It’s fair to say everyone in life experiences some variation of love. Yes! I mean everyone. Richard Curtis reminds you that love is a natural instinct, and so we can not focus on the easily recognized gloom of our world. To have these stories captured around Christmas time only enhances what we treasure, or what we wish we didn’t have to endure at times. Curtis’ blazing soundtrack helps along the way.

Love is hard. Love is challenging. Love will sweep you off your feet and love will destroy everything you thought you had. However, love will never leave you with complete regret. It’s never the love we have for someone that we regret. It’s only a wish to have it wholesome, healthy, happy and pure.

Love, Actually is all around.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Paquin
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two young brothers deal with the divorce of their parents in 1986 Brooklyn, specifically the Park Slope neighborhood.

I started writing this as a “conventional” review, and I found myself unable to make it more than a simple summary of the plot.  I have rarely seen a movie that has left me more inarticulate than this one.  I can tell you the movie works, and works extremely well, but I am unable to explain exactly why.

It’s a simple story of a husband and wife going through divorce, deciding on joint custody of their two sons, and the complications that ensue.  The husband, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), is a literature professor and a published novelist, but who hasn’t had anything published for some time.  The wife, Joan (Laura Linney), is in the final stages of getting her own first novel published.  This fact may or may not be one of the causes of the divorce, but Bernard is pretty sure it is.  Their sons, Walt (high school senior, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (maybe 12 years old), deal with this news in a predictable manner: initial numb acceptance, then some acting out a little later.

Bernard, whose well-educated narcissism is impossible to miss, almost cheerfully informs the sons that he and Joan will share joint custody evenly during the week.  One of the sons asks, “How can you share us evenly?”

“I’ll have you every other Thursday,” Bernard explains helpfully.  This answers the question without making anything better.

Walt starts a relationship with a classmate whom he coldly describes as “cute, but not gorgeous.”  Bernard casually invites a female student to live in a vacant room in his new house.  Joan and Bernard fiercely protect their “days” with their sons.  Frank starts drinking beer and masturbating in public places (this is handled with much more discretion than that description would have you believe).

But the story itself is not what makes this movie such a pleasure.  It’s the movie’s style and editing that create a unique experience.  The movie clocks in at an unthinkable 81 minutes, WITH credits.  I learn from the bonus features on the Blu-Ray that it was shot on Super-16 film stock with a mostly hand-held camera, lending the film a low-budget, documentary look that enhances its “reality”.  Scenes last only long enough for us to get the point before a jump cut takes us to the next plot point.  Normally, this creates in me a sense of nervousness or anxiety, but for some reason it didn’t work that way.  I never felt cheated or short-changed.  It all just felt “right.”  It gave me the same sensation I get when I’m reading a really good short story with sharply-drawn characters and impeccable dialogue.

That may sound like more details than I had promised at the beginning, but it’s really just a clinical description.  Words can’t express how the film’s brevity, atmosphere, dialogue, and characters all combined to produce one of the most touching films about family and/or divorce that I’ve ever seen.

(No, I HAVEN’T seen Marriage Story by this same director, Noah Baumbach, but I will get around to it one day.  Today is not that day, though.)