ELVIS (2022)

By Marc S. Sanders

Baz Luhrmann’s take on the legacy of Elvis Presley will certainly grab your attention, even if the director refuses to carry an attention span of his own lasting longer seven seconds.  Having watched the celebrated film from 2022 for a second time, eight months after my first viewing, I see more faults with the picture than achievements.  Elvis is strongest when the carnival ride stops moving, allowing its cast of colorful characters to have conversations with one another. 

Austin Butler is now a known name for his portrayal of the King Of Rock N Roll, whose career was squandered by a slimy business manager known as Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  Butler personifies what pop culture has recognized first and foremost about Elvis Presley, everything from the wild stage presence of dancing to the deep rockabilly singing or speaking (you decide) vocals.  He really bears an uncanny resemblance to The King as well.  Butler could have been better though had he been graced with a more economical and thoughtful script.  I don’t think Austin Butler was given enough to do.

The Elvis character hardly shares any conversations with any of the supporting characters.  That’s the film’s major shortcoming.  There are a scant few scenes of dialogue exchanged between Elvis and his mother and father, between Elvis and the Colonel, and between Elvis and his wife Priscilla Presley.  Baz Lurhmann wrote the script with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, and I guess it incorporates some major moments within the singer’s illustrious career but nothing seems to hold much weight.  Elvis gets threatened with being arrested for his pelvis swiveling gyrations while he performs.  We get a close up of the state Governor who leads this censoring campaign, but we don’t get an idea of his warped logic.  Elvis gets drafted into the army and the Colonel thinks to sell it as a comeback when his tour of duty will finish in two years.  Two years go by in a matter of sixty seconds however and the King is back to touring and donning the outrageous costumes, but we don’t see the marketing machinations led by the Colonel.  Where’s the deviousness and conniving?  Where’s the brainwashing of the public and our hero?  Elvis is also bedhopping from one woman to another and popping pills, but these incidents which arguably led to his life being cut short are glossed over with a sway of Luhrmann’s camera work.  When the third act of the film arrived, I didn’t even know Elvis was sleeping around until Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) announces she is leaving him.  On her way out the door, the two characters share about five or six lines of dialogue before the film races to another transition or scenario.  In this film, the love of Elvis’ life, Priscilla, holds about as much presence as an extra in the film.  Their relationship isn’t explored like Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, for example.

Lurhmann edits his scenes with title cards of what year it is or what place it is as Elvis tours the country.  Yet, I never got the feeling that I was inside these time periods.  A minute to a minute and a half go by and suddenly it is “One Year Later.”  What difference does that make?  Where’s the transition in Elvis’ character?  When exactly did he become a sensation?  Suddenly I see that Elvis is moving into a mansion (I think is what will eventually be Graceland) with his parents and I presume he’s…well…he’s a success?!?!?!

An opportunity presents itself for Elvis to have a mentor into the world of celebrity stardom by means of B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but as soon as he introduces himself, the man disappears and is not heard from again.  Elvis only offers a piece of dialogue later suggesting that “B.B. King once said…”  There’s no significance to the influences or naysayers who enter Elvis’ life.  The same goes for Elvis’ mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson).  The Colonel will assure Elvis’ parents that he has their son’s best interests in mind as he blossoms his career, but we don’t get enough of a solid foundation for his mother’s apprehension or her religious doctrine or the alcohol addiction that kills her.  

I know, reader.  You can argue that I’m offering descriptive text for these people.  However, the text that I give in this column is all that you see.  Baz Lurhmann is a flashy director.  I don’t doubt his skill for color with sparkles and glamour. No subject is glitzier than Elvis Presley.  Yet, if a biography is going to be recounted on film, it needs to be more than just a near three-hour music video.  Luhrmann seems prouder of the letter fonts and graphics that introduce another year like 1956 or another state like Tennessee as it zooms towards you from the depths of the screen.  The gloss of the photography in the movie is overly animated, lacking feeling or character arcs.

The script for Elvis seems to also adopt the approach that Milos Forman’s Amadeus took, where the puppet master/antagonist recalls the celebrity’s story.  Colonel Parker provides voiceover with a thick, German/Austrian (maybe ???), dialect for Tom Hanks to deliver.  Unlike popular opinion, I was surprisingly taken with Hanks’ portrayal.  He’s quite the villain in a disproportioned fat suit and bulbous sweat-soaked head.  The relationship between Elvis and the Colonel is nothing surprising.  We’ve seen plenty of bios where the manager swindles the fortunes of the outstanding talent.  Considering that is how it happened, I don’t mind seeing it again in Elvis.  However, much like everything else in the film, it is glossed over.  Only very late in the film do we learn that Colonel Parker is deeply indebted to the Las Vegas casinos, and he signs away a long-term Elvis obligation in lieu of repayment.  Before all of that comes into play however, while we know we can’t trust the Colonel, we also don’t know what his endgame is.  Only near the end, Luhrmann and his script writers throw in a last-minute Hail Mary to shock the viewers and uncover how the Colonel destroyed Elvis’ financial assets and betrayed his trust.  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of a relationship between the two rivals after over two hours of film.  A build up is missing.  The best way for a villain to attack a hero is to whet his appetite with trust and then use that reliability as a control device.  The script for Elvis never sets up those early moments of exposition that get the viewer, and more importantly Elvis, to trust the Colonel. 

Michelle Williams once played Marilyn Monroe in a film called My Week With Marilyn.  It’s an astonishing performance in a very shallow film.  In my review of that picture, I wrote that I wish I could see Williams play the role again in a story more worthy of what she puts on screen.  She was above that movie.  I feel the same way for Austin Butler and Tom Hanks here.  These are great actors who were not given adequate material to shine.  If only another Elvis picture could be made with them in the principal roles.

What I find ironic about Elvis is that when I first saw the film upon initial release in theatres, I felt thoroughly impressed.  While I am always more cold than hot on Baz Luhrmann’s movies, I thought maybe this was the exception.  Watching it a second time however, eight months later, I realize that much of the film I could not remember and that is because that movie doesn’t invest in memorable scenes.  It focuses much too much on flashy edit, cut aways.  What I lost from that narrative is an intimate connection to Elvis or any of the other characters. 

Even the music is not as electrifying as it is known for.  There is not enough time devoted to individual set pieces of Elvis performing numbers like Heartbreak Hotel or Jailhouse Rock, and because of the quick cuts, I’m not convinced that Austin Butler is truly crooning away in an Elvis impersonation like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.  Austin Butler is just not offered ample opportunity to do his best Elvis performing.

As colorful as Elvis’ life was and his legacy continues to be, Baz Lurhmann is certainly a viable candidate to direct this biography.  The problem is maybe that Lurhmann needed an editor and producer who would put their foot down and tell him to try again.  Lurhmann was more concerned with showing his own kind of magic in filmmaking and reserving the story and plot devices for the closing act.  Exposition within the last thirty minutes of a movie usually never works.


By Marc S. Sanders

What’s fascinating about Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 is that I can hardly understand what anyone is talking about.  I don’t know how they identify the problems of the doomed spacecraft.  I don’t know how any of the folks at NASA resolved the issue to get the three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise or Jack Swigert (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon), back to Earth.  What I do know is that William Broyles’ script, based upon the novel from Lovell with Jeffrey Kluger, allows for an ease of comprehension to know where one thing has started, where it leaves off and where it needs to go with each passing scene.

Forgive me, but when I watch NASA documentaries, I honestly get bored.  It’s amazing what has been accomplished during the history of our space program.  So much has been discovered but it’s only a fraction of what’s still left to be uncovered beyond our planet.  The films and literature that account for the engineering of space craft and what is required to travel in space lose me though.  Ron Howard puts everything in place with Apollo 13, however.  It’s the emotions that stem from the actors.  All I need to understand are the efforts each character serves to the ending that we all know.  It’s not about telling us what these guys are educated with or what science mandates.  Rather, it is about how these people respond to an unexpected and unfamiliar crisis.

On the ground in Houston, Texas Ed Harris portrays Gene Krantz.  He’s a pretty quiet kind of character, but upon his entry into the film, just ahead of the anticipated launch of Apollo 13, he is gifted a pure white vest.  Krantz wears this as his armor, prepared to take on any challenge including navigating a crew of three astronauts towards the moon.  He is surrounded by a school of nerdy looking engineers and scientists, in their short sleeve shirts, skinny ties and black rimmed eyeglasses.  They are all disbursed among an assortment of different departments.  I think one specified simply in human waste disposal aboard the ship.  Yeah, there’s a guy there making sure the urine is dispensed properly.  Again, I couldn’t tell what specialty each man is designed for, but they’re the experts.  Harris simply tells his men what needs to be done by drawing two circles on a chalkboard; one is the moon, the other is Earth.  When a frightening malfunction occurs aboard the rocket, Harris explains that his men now need to get the ship back to Earth by drawing a line between the solar locales.  He doesn’t know how it can be done, but like a football coach he demands his team find a way.

On board Apollo 13, the three astronauts are crammed in what is left of their ship, marooned to float through space. The interior gets extremely cold, exhaustion gradually overtakes them, and they are left with no choice but to power down whatever sources they have left as a means of preservation. 

A third angle comes from the wives and families of the three men.  More precisely, focus is drawn towards Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) with her family, including the children and Jim’s elderly mother watching the television with anticipation for ongoing developments while the media waits outside their doorstep.  The first act of the picture offers the anxiety that Jim’s wife has with this upcoming mission.  There is the standard nightmare scene.  Acknowledgement of the unlucky number thirteen.  Marilyn loses her wedding ring down the shower drain (something that actually happened). Ironically, the Lovells’ eldest daughter seems to carry the same kind of apathy for her dad’s upcoming trip like the rest of the country.  Jim may finally be having his dreams come true, to walk on the moon.  However, the rest of the world is more concerned with the possibility of the Beatles breaking up or what else is on TV.

A side story is delivered by Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise).  The poor guy was originally a part of Lovell’s three man crew, only to be sidelined at the last minute because of a suspected case of measles.  When things go wrong for Apollo 13, he enters the flight simulator to diagnose the issue and find a resolution.  He’s offered a flashlight but rejects it because the guys in space don’t have that tool.  He specifically tells his men not to give him anything that they don’t have up there, and he refuses to take a break either.  If they don’t get a chance to rest, then neither does he.  This mantra carries over to the other guys working diligently to keep the astronauts alive and get them home. 

Apollo 13 is not a how to picture.  Rather, it is a film that focuses on response. 

Ron Howard offers amazing shots of the rocket and footage in space.  The launch is extremely exciting as shrapnel sheds off the craft during its fiery liftoff. Then other parts disengage after it leaves the Earth’s atmosphere.  The interior looks extremely claustrophobic, but the actors look comfortable within the floating zero gravity confines. Hanks, Paxton and Bacon have great chemistry together whether they are kidding one another about vomiting in space or bickering with each other while caught up in the problem at hand. 

The base of NASA is alive with hustle and bustle.  Not one extra looks like they are sitting around.  They all know what monitor to look at or which teammate to lean over as they desperately discuss what needs to be accounted for.  There’s a great moment that is explained to the audience as if they are a four year old.  A man in charge throws a pile of junk onto a boardroom table and says they need to build something with nothing but what’s on this table to absolve the problem the astronauts are having with carbon dioxide poisoning.  A few scenes later, we see the junky device that’s been rudimentarily assembled.  Who knows what it does?  All I need to know is that it works. 

I did take one issue with Apollo 13.  To heighten the dramatics, sound is provided as the ship comes apart. Even I know that sound does not travel through space.  I forgive it when I’m watching fantasies like Star Wars or Superman.  However, this film recaps a real-life event and during those moments, as startling as they may be, I could not help but think about the dramatic clanging and crashing penetrating my sound system.  Apollo 13 draws from a well-known case, but it still resorts to cinematic tropes to hold my attention.  I wonder if the picture would have worked had it remained faithful to basic scientific fact through and through.  It’s not a terrible offense.  It’s forgivable.  Though it got me thinking. Heck, it obviously never bothered the masses because the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Sound Design.

Ron Howard’s film is a magnificent experience, full of outstanding footage.  It relies on actors who depend on the emotions of the scenario to narrate the story.  Recently, I watched the film Tár with Cate Blanchett.  In that film, the mechanics of orchestral music and conducting are endlessly discussed.  It’s like listening to a foreign language at times while trying to keep up.  Howard’s film could have taken that approach and bored me to tears with a lot of technical jargon from engineers and scientists.  Instead, Apollo 13 succeeds by only presenting the basics of the issues at hand.  I couldn’t name one specific part on the engine of my car, but I know it powers the vehicle, allowing it to go from point A to point B.  The army of NASA folks declare this thing has never done that before or it must be crazy to consider because that has never been attempted.  I can count on the players of Apollo 13 to know what they’re doing.  They are aware of the risks that need to be taken and know what’s at stake.  I don’t need to see their diplomas to trust their concern or computations.

Like other films where known historical events are depicted, Apollo 13 maintains its suspense even if you already know the ending.  The aborted mission to the moon became known as “The Successful Failure.”  It’s refreshing to see how this proud moment all played out. For fleeting window in time America, actually most of the world, seemed to hold a unified care for three men trying to outlast a doomed, desperate and impossible situation. 

Apollo 13 is a triumph.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director Damien Chazelle has come a long way since his first major motion picture, Whiplash, a small film about a young, tortured drummer.  Since that accomplishment, he seems to get more and more elaborate with each project.  Babylon certainly exceeds ambition in any select 3–5-minute scene it offers within its grand opus.  The main title card doesn’t appear on screen until after the first thirty minutes and by then you are exhausted, yet completely awakened.

Babylon begins in the mid-1920s, during the pioneering times of Hollywood filmmaking where silent films were fresh and were regarded outlets for escapism and entertainment.  Big studios like MGM were not quite on the scene just yet and movie makers experimented with their films having no regard for rule and caution while constructing them.  On a busy day of shooting at around 3:15pm, an open field sword and sandal battle might turn up an extra in an accidental death with an impaled spear.  No matter.  Must keep shooting before daylight is lost and everything runs off schedule. 

It was at this time that a star like Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), rugged with a square jaw and dashing with a pencil thin mustache, offered greatness in movie houses that showed silent pictures.  A new discovery like Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who seemingly came in off the street captured producers and patrons alike with her wide-eyed expressions and lanky, yet appealing posture.  These were the first celebrities of the advancing twentieth century.  They were starlets that brought people back and back again to the cinemas to witness battles of roman conquest or dancing on top of a bar while batting their long eyelashes for a mug at the camera.  The filmmakers loved to work with them. 

These performers ruled Hollywood until the Talkies appeared on the scene.  Movies with sound revolutionized the industry, but these famed individuals couldn’t keep up with the evolution.  Audiences and filmmakers couldn’t accept a compatibility.  Try to imagine a Jack Conrad listen to a packed movie house chuckle at one of his romantic speaking scenes.  It’s heartbreaking to watch.  He was admired, but now he’s a joke.

When the sun would set, the parties soaked–make that drenched–in orgy and debauchery would begin and nothing was off limits.  Naked women would happily get high and drunk and tossed over a large crowd.  Prop penises would be inserted into one partygoer and then another and then another.  Fat ugly men would happily accept getting urinated on.  Endless amounts of liquor and especially cocaine would be gulped and snorted and the greatest dares imaginable would always try to top themselves.  Have you ever heard of a party getting so out of control that someone would go so far as to wrestle a rattlesnake in the middle of the desert?  Jack happily watched all this decadence go down.  Nellie joyfully became the outrageously intoxicated and fearless ringleader. 

I have offered only a sliver of description for Chazelle’s over three-hour film.  To sum up, Babylon offers a hard-edged response to the family friendly interpretation found in Singin’ In The Rain.  Both films delve heavily into the transition of silent filmmaking to talking pictures and those who were left behind.  Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s G rated picture will have you giggle at their Lina Lamont with the squeaky voice and pratfalls who’s all wrong for the next phase.  The heavy R rated dramatic interpretation is offered in Chazelle’s script with Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy and her Jersey accent, accompanied by unrefined posture and behavior.  Her drug binges are no help either.  Margot Robbie is fearless in her performance.  She is messy, sloppy, harsh and frenzied with her character.  One thing that came to mind as she is snorting line after line of coke is that at that time, there was no such thing as a means for rehabilitation like today.  No one was even looking out for the harm that drugs and alcoholic binging could have on people.  People were left to their vices to just drown in their poison of choice.  For silent pictures, you could plaster them in makeup and costume and let them mug and bat their eyes for the camera.  It didn’t matter if their speech was slurred.  Talkies required much more concentration of their performers.

The main player of the film is newcomer, Diego Calva, as Manny Torres.  A Mexican who inadvertently finds himself in the Hollywood nightlife while pushing an elephant up a steep hill only to get shit on.  (The elephant serves no purpose except to make an appearance at one of these crazy parties.)  Manny has an instinct for what’s to come in the movies and builds himself up into a studio executive.  While he’s dangerously falling in love with Nellie, he’s also discovering next big things like a Negro entertainer who’s magnificent with a trumpet, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo).  Manny is a good man who swims above the dangerous life of Hollywood partying and decadence.  He’s an innovator that’ll never receive credit for what he uncovers.  That’s for the white executives to profit from.

A minor but welcoming story is Sidney’s.  He’s soon hung on posters outside movie houses, and performing with big bands.  Hollywood awards him with riches he could never imagine and never asked for.  However, ironically, his complexion comes off too white against some of his other band players and the idea of caking himself in charcoal makeup is insisted.  How will Sidney respond to this humiliating request? The wealthy also have a particular regard for him.  His status as an entertainer.  Do they see him as a showboat clown or the artist he values himself to be?  How does Sidney want to be considered?

With all of the parties and drinking and drug use to go around, Babylon goes off in a hundred different directions before it finds an even keel outline that switches storylines from Jack to Nellie to Manny and Sidney.  Chazelle strives to one up what other filmmakers before have attempted.  I could not help but think about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights which follows the porn industry in the late 70s and early 80s.  Happiness abounds until time and technology and constant self-abuse cause everything to unravel.  Babylon follows a very similar trajectory.

A friend of mine found Babylon too be overly gratuitous.  She’s not wrong, but while she took it as a complaint with the film.  I take how superfluous the movie is as a major compliment.  There are long scenes where Chazelle will not surrender for the audience.  He shows how drug raged Nellie is when no one will fight that rattlesnake by having her violently pick it up, swing it around and thus it will eventually latch on to her neck while she’s running around amid a gang of naked partygoers.  Then we get to see another starlet cut the snake off below it’s head, rip its fangs out of Nelly’s skin and proceed to suck the venom out.  Oh, you’ll squint and squirm through the whole scene.  What do we learn from this?  Drugs are bad.  Really bad, and they will delude you into acting with no vices or boundaries.  So, let’s be completely honest about it.

When Nellie is recruited for a talking film, we see take after take after take of her trying to make her mark while it is shouted over and over again to the crew to shut the fuck up.  There can be absolutely no noise from anywhere that the mikes can pick up and it doesn’t matter if a crewman is getting dangerously overheated in a soundbox.  (No air conditioning could be allowed because the hum would be picked up by the microphones.)  It’s a brilliantly, well edited, long and tortuous scene of flaring tempers, sweat, heavy light and stress.

I remember reading an interview with Henry Hill, the mobster who was the focus of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.  Hill said with no uncertainty that the characters portrayed by Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro were not even close to how frightening and violent their real-life counterparts were.  So maybe even Scorsese glossed over how harsh that world ever was.  Damien Chazelle is a relentless filmmaker with Babylon.  Nothing is whitewashed.  Most of what you see is shock value, but that’s the message he’s conveying and per his research he must be convinced the life of this era was actually this outrageous and way over the top. He’s certainly not forgiving with how manic these people lived, particularly with Margot Robbie’s character.

At the same time, he calms the film down to offer a harsh truth to a quickly becoming has been like Jack Conrad, Brad Pitt’s character, no longer in his prime.  Jean Smart portrays a gossip columnist reminding Jack that the height of his career is long gone, but fifty years from now, new generations will be rediscovering his achievements.  He will be a legend for all eternity.  Chazelle is speaking to us, those that appreciate what Turner Classic Films and other formats like videotape and DVD offer to see the first of these kinds of pictures where it all began with legends like Jack and maybe Nellie and especially Chaplin. Chazelle was an important student of this later generation.  This is the best scene of the picture with a magnificently written monologue, and I won’t be surprised if Jean Smart gets an Oscar nomination that no one ever saw coming.  I’m inclined to declare she should just get the award.  It’s such a telling moment for all kinds of movies.

Chazelle loves to make films.  The epilogue to Babylon demonstrates his affection as his story jumps to twenty years later, and an older Manny watches Singin’ In The Rain in a theatre. From what he inadvertently brought to the fold all those years ago, movies have evolved and continue to develop into bigger scales of what we could never have thought possible.  Chazzelle edits in a sequence where it started with silent films like A Trip To The Moon and Keystone Kops over to grand musical ensembles and adventures like Ben-Hur and then on to special effects with quick cuts of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Terminator 2, and Avatar.  Flashes of color appear on the screen and then quickly cut back to these captions in celebrated films and film stock.  I don’t believe any of this spoils anything of the film, but I like to recognize how Chazzelle takes inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s bewildering conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Movies are going on and on and on.  Whoever is hot now and presently significant will have to adjust to an ever-changing industry.  Once celebrated puppeteers working for guys like George Lucas have no value in an age of computer graphic engineering.  Big box office stars might not be able to uphold their careers during a time of streaming films that come to us by means of our flat screen TVs we can affordably buy at Walmart.  Kardashian girls are more widely recognized than maybe a Jack Nicholson or a Meryl Streep.  (Someone I know had no idea who Carol Burnette is.)

It’s hard to sum up everything captured in a film this big and ambitious and yes, gratuitous.  Perhaps, the best I can tell you is simply that a hard truth to accept is that casualties come from discovery in a film like Babylon


By Marc S. Sanders

In the 1970’s Al Pacino had a slew of Oscar nominated roles.  One of those revered performances was as Frank Serpico, the righteous cop working with a corrupt New York City police department, in Sidney Lumet’s gritty Serpico.  The wardrobes and appearances of New York and its five boroughs seem unfamiliar nearly 50 years later, but the film can still maintain interest for a viewer because it’s astonishing how valid and true all the facts remain.  Cops were happily taking handouts, while the politicians and commissioners took no issue with looking the other way.  Whether it was disregarding a deli owner’s double-parking offenses for a free sandwich, or skimming some payouts from drug and prostitution rings, Serpico’s morals were always facing an insurmountable conflict.

Lumet’s film starts off with an interesting observation.  Word gets out that Frank has been shot and is being rushed in an ambulance, and one police officer asks the other, if a cop did it (not who did it).  If you never knew anything about this guy’s life or what he experienced, you know in just a small economy of words that Frank Serpico has become everyone’s enemy; not just to the hoods, pimps and drug pushers, but to those who are supposed to be his allies and support.

Long before Al Pacino inherited his gruff smoker’s voice that bellows like an angry lion with too much phlegm, he had the ear piercing outbursts with the same intensity to frighten his co-stars.  His character is seemingly the one true blue cop in the entire squad who doesn’t befriend the local hoods.  Serpico never accepts a bribe or hides a report.  It’s a frustrating ordeal and Pacino goes to the limits with big outbursts while pacing back and forth and showing terrible fear and panic in his eyes.  Lumet’s camera is quick enough to capture every tick that Pacino exudes.  It’s not Al Pacino performing within the frame of the camera.  It’s actually Sidney Lumet’s lens adjusting to how wild Pacino goes physically with his volume and body language.  

Frank Serpico was a lone wolf.  As the story progresses, the other cops find it hard to believe that he will not accept being part of the gang that is on the take. They grow concerned.  Can they trust Frank to keep his mouth shut and let things be?  No, they can’t count on Frank to toss a blind eye.  He is persistent on getting this story out to the proper authorities.  Naturally, it’s hard for these corrupt individuals to share a locker room or ride in the same car with him as a passenger.  Frank’s limit though is that he is reluctant to testify.  Get the investigation going and have the authorities uncover it for themselves, and then do something about it.  That’s all.  If he testifies, then his life is truly in danger as this all becomes official in a court of law.

Serpico is a good film because of Pacino and because of the concept of the story.  It’s more compelling because arguably in the United States’ most well-known city, corruption actually abounds.  Dirty cops in New York City?  Why, that’s unheard of! It was sadly all true and justice was not being executed fairly.  

However, Serpico is not Lumet’s best film, nor Pacino’s.  Often it meanders.  There’s not a lot of action.  There’s quite a number of scenes where Pacino’s screaming paranoia takes over.  It grows tired, honestly.  Moreover, it gets repetitive.  Many of Pacino’s outbursts feel like I just saw a scene like that, five minutes earlier.  

What keeps me going through the film is the fact that one authority after another refuses to take this problem head on.  The captains, the commissioner, the prosecutors and even the mayor of New York City never allow any chance of pursuing the wrongdoing that’s occurring.  After all, if you prosecute everyone involved, who is going to be left and how would that make an elected official look in the eyes of his constituents?

There are subplots focusing on the relationship between Frank and a couple of his girlfriends played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe.  I found these connections to exist as additional outlets for Pacino’s outbursts.  I didn’t terribly mind this material.  The acting is fine, but what did I gain from moments?  I read that the actual Frank Serpico had four relationships during his time as a New York City cop.  From a story perspective however, condensed into a film, I didn’t gain any new insight.

Serpico is worth watching.  I just wouldn’t put this on the top of my Lumet or Pacino priorities for must see viewing.  Still, it’s a true story that I’m satisfied was told.  In 1974, Hollywood was taking risks to show the ugly side behind a uniform or face of nobility.  This is where I consider film medium to be a necessary conduit of information and awareness for us.  On that level, Serpico serves as an important treatment.


By Marc S. Sanders

Despite being a little distracted by a drunk patron sitting next to me, I thought Molly’s Game was very good. It doesn’t measure up to The Social Network, and I feel justified in comparing the two because the sharp, fast dialogue follows what appears to be an intentionally similar narrative from writer, and here director, Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin in his directorial debut uses great techniques for film editing to match the beats of his dialogue.  His opening voiceover of Jessica Chastain as Molly describing the ultimate worst sports experience will get your heartbeat racing.  It draws you into the film right away.

Chastain is good, but maybe a little over the top.  I needed a little more convincing that she was actually this brilliant, inventive and resourceful woman who was also considered one of the world’s greatest skiers.  Can’t put my finger on it but something was missing with her playing the Molly Bloom role.  Was she really holding her own against these high stakes guys who take big risks in her personally constructed poker ring?  I’m just not sure.

Felt the same about Kevin Costner in the role of her father.  He’s supposed to be an incredibly brilliant psychologist and an intimidating patriarch.  Yet Costner doesn’t fit that mold for me here.  Couldn’t feel the pressure from Dad on his daughter.  Someone else might have been stronger.

Michael Cera too.  I think he is playing a combination variation of Tobey Maguire & Leonardo DiCaprio, two of the most famous celebs that participated in the real Molly Bloom’s underground poker games, but Michael Cera?  Really?  He doesn’t carry the weight or looks of guys like that.  There just was not enough power or presence from him.

None of these actors were the worst options for this cast, I just think the film could have used more appropriate performers. There was more appropriate talent out there, I’m sure.

Idris Elba is great, however.  He’s blessed with an awesome Sorkin monologue in the 3rd act of the film, and he hits every note.

A great script.  A great story worthy of being a big screen film and it’s got me interested to learn more about the real Molly Bloom, including reading her novel.


By Marc S. Sanders

Oskar Schindler was a handsome, well dressed man. A man of wealth, power, and influence. A successful businessman. He was a womanizer. And Oskar Schindler was a Nazi who saved 1100 Jews from the atrocities of the Holocaust.

On a filmmaking measure alone, Schindler’s List is one of the best pictures to ever be made. Steven Spielberg’s production value is incomparable. Nothing I can recall appears as grand (not sure that’s the appropriate word here???) and authentic as Schindler’s List. How did Spielberg pull off this feat? How did he direct hundreds, thousands maybe, of extras to reenact the vilest human suffering that a generation of people could ever encounter? I’m astounded. Positively astounded.

This evening was only my second time seeing the film. I always put off watching it over the last 30 years; reluctant maybe to see a horrifying truth. The first time I saw the film was on Christmas Day, 1993 at the Hyde Park cinemas in Tampa, Florida with my father. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the beginning stages of the flu with a high fever. Midway through the film, I had to leave the theatre as my illness caught up with me. I mustered the strength to return to watching the remainder of the movie, as I recall I could not go without finishing this masterpiece. I was horrified and yet amazed; amazed that this moment in world history could have ever occurred.

To see a man like Amon Goth (brutally and uncompromisingly played by Ralph Fiennes), a high ranking Nazi, excuse himself from his nude mistress’ bed and perch himself on his balcony to sniper random Jewish prisoners as a means of sport was sickening and twisted to me. Twenty five years later, it is this moment that has always stayed with me, as much of the story and scenes left my memory from so long ago. This moment as well as Spielberg’s choice to highlight a young girl in a red coat amidst a most somber black and white picture have stayed with me all these years. The glimpse of red serves as a truth to Schindler’s naivety. Spielberg is a thinking director. He never follows the manual. He chooses to think outside the box. A glimpse of a child dressed in red in a sea of black and white where mutilated corpses and possessions are aimlessly strewn about. It’s a marvelously telling moment.

Liam Neeson plays Schindler. It will likely be the greatest role of his career. Schindler is a man who even fools the audience until the very end when he reveals that the war has ended and his salvation has rescued these 1100 souls. Finally, his humanity no longer hides and he weeps to his accountant and accomplice, Itzhak Stern (played subtly and beautifully by Ben Kingsley). Schindler weeps for he could have saved more. Neeson is superb in this moment. His commanding stature crumbles, his materialism and wealth have disappeared. Neeson translates all of that clearly, and finally my tears arrive. Prior to this moment, I was numb to the Nazi tactics of gas chambers, careless bloodshed and apathetic separation of families and friends; perhaps because I’ve extensively studied it during my years in Yeshiva. Before Schindler’s List, much of the history on the Holocaust seemed like textbook fare to me. Spielberg made its terrifying and tragic reality real.

Ben Kingsley’s performance is so important as well. The architect behind the list, his portrayal of Stern is countered with contained fear and leveled sensibilities amid the senseless intentions of a dominant force of evil. His instincts kept him alive so that only he could help keep his comrades alive.

Schindler’s List won the Best Picture Oscar for 1993, only 50-52 years following the events of the Holocaust. Many survivors thankfully remained to see Spielberg’s epic premiere. People who I share this planet with experienced the most insane and heinous evil ever encountered. They were well to do people living normally until they were violently pulled from their homes, stripped of their possessions, separated from their families, suffered at the threat of murder, witnesses to other murders and hate crimes, humiliated, beaten, forced into slave labor in tightly contained ghettos and eventually thrust into concentration camps. Yet, these few survivors lived to carry on with their lives and deliver new generations, beyond this morally ugly and evil historic episode.

I’m being redundant as I’ve said it many times before, but isn’t that the point? The Holocaust and the Nazi regime only occurred around 85 years ago. This happened before. This can happen again.

Thank you, Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.

I don’t consider myself to be very religious anymore. Because of moments like the Holocaust, I question how a God could ever be possible. Still, for the survivors and those that perished, I can only say Baruch Hashem, and L’Chaim. 

Peace.  Progress.  Love.


By Marc S. Sanders

In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts.  Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through. 

Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec).  They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations.  The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages.  The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family.  A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive.   Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement. 

When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance.  The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water.  Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible.  An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage.  Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.

A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters.  The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills.  The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more.  Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story.   Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature.  However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients.  Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs.  That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies.  Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing.  This is a David & Goliath confrontation. 

Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you.  Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character.  She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened.  I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly.  Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself.  However, people are unfair.  Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from.  This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however.  The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.

What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water.  Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water.  Children are drinking water.  Water is spilled on tables.  Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him.  The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.

Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued.  Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless.  He falls asleep in court.  He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio.  Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table.  He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on.  His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed.  Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation.  The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here.  There is top notch stage performance work happening here.

It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K.  Look at this cast and its direction.  It’s magnificent.  Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics.  Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing.  William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat.  Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves?  I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch.  No matter, it was worth it.  For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man.  Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished.  A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to.  Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.


By Marc S. Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Claus Von Bülow was not a well liked man. In the 1980s he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny Von Bülow and was found guilty in a courtroom within the state of Rhode Island. However, even guilty men need a lawyer. Alan Dershowitz accepted Claus’ invitation to be his appellate attorney and successfully won the case with the assistance of the best students to come out of his law school classes. Reversal Of Fortune directed by Barbet Schroeder documents the month and a half that Dershowitz had to make a case for overturning Claus’ conviction. The film is based on Dershowitz’ book Reversal Of Fortune: Inside The Von Bülow Case.

Jeremy Irons won the 1990 Best Actor Oscar for portraying the cold and cavalier Claus. He plays the part as if he looks so completely guilty that it’d be foolish to actually think he committed any sort of crime. It’s too obvious to seriously jump to that conclusion.

Glenn Close is Sunny, Claus’ wife. She serves as a narrator from her permanent, seemingly brain dead comatose state. She also appears in flashback moments that account for either her perspective, or Claus’, or the suppositions of Dershowitz (played very effectively by Ron Silver) and his young legal team. Sunny’s voiceover asks the viewer early on “What do you think?”

Sunny was hooked on various pills, chain smoked, ate an abundance of sweets and drank very heavily. She preferred to stay in bed for most of her days. One instance seems to show her in a comatose state lying next to an unalarmed Claus. The maid is disturbed by the nonchalance of the aristocratic husband. A doctor or the police have yet to be phoned. Sunny comes out of that episode but a year later falls into another comatose state. Flashbacks hint at the theory that perhaps Claus was poisoning Sunny to obtain her fortune and keep up with his extra marital affairs. Following her second coma, Sunny’s children hire a private investigator to obtain evidence that was eventually used against Claus in his trial. As an honorable servant of the law, this infuriated Alan Dershowitz who believed this private investigation was biased from the start. Schroeder uses a debate scene with a student (a young Felicity Huffman) for the lawyer to justify his choice to fight for such a hateful man’s appeal. Why were private investigators permitted in the trial? Where’s the public investigation? It also helps that Claus agrees to a large fee to help Dershowitz fund the defense of two brothers on death row for a crime they did not commit.

Schroeder’s film does not make its own claim on the case or the circumstances that accompany it. Rather, he shows you a process. Dershowitz knows that Claus Von Bülow is a “very strange man.” Claus responds to him by saying “You have no idea.” Yet, that doesn’t add up to guilt. A victim can be a victim by means of numerous possibilities and a court of law is fallible. Dershowitz wants to be sure.

Jeremy Irons’ performance is that of a gentleman of an aristocratic and well dressed nature. He finds the humor in being considered the villain. Irons plays the role with determined vagueness. Vague does not account for guilt.

Glenn Close is very good too. Her intoxicated episodes are so delirious that it seems to work in favor of Claus’ innocence. Yet her voiceover narration is sober and clear, but not necessarily accusatory. So it’s hard to know what to believe.

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz only focuses on the law and commanding a team of the best legal minds he ever taught. He turns his two story home into a headquarters where his students are compartmentalized into different aspects of the case from the drugs that Sunny took to the background of the Von Bulow’s turbulent marriage. As a means to keep them alert, the departments have basketball tournaments in his driveway. Dribbling the ball and slam dunking while still weighing evidence and legal precedents. Dershowitz is only interested in seeing if there is a case that shows Claus could have been innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. The case swept the nation and in the court of public opinion this creep was found guilty. Ironically, the one who is closest to him now is the one who does not see guilt, despite disturbances in his client.

Reversal Of Fortune is a different kind of mystery caught up in possible outcomes and nothing else. Barbet Schroeder with the help of Dershowitz’ case notes, book and public records made certain to offer all avenues for what really led to Sunny Von Bülow’s vegetative state.

The only concrete fact that this film does offer is that Claus Von Bülow was an untrustworthy creep draped in elegance and formality. There’s no crime in that. Is there?


By Marc S. Sanders

Simon Curtis directs a glimpse into the life of Marilyn Monroe with an exquisitely cast Michelle Williams in the title role of My Week With Marilyn.

The film is told through the perspective of 23 year old Colin Clarke played under dream like naivety from Eddie Redmayne. Clarke embarks on joining the production crew of Sir Laurence Olivier’s (pompously over played by Kenneth Branagh) newest film that he is directing and starring in, opposite Monroe. When Marilyn’s new husband, playwright Arthur Miller, returns to the states, Colin is drawn into Marilyn’s seduction; protecting her from an intimidating Olivier and tolerating her drug and alcohol use.

This film features an outstanding cast of who’s who from Dame Judi Dench to Emma Watson to Dougray Scott, Julia Ormand (playing a past her prime Vivienne Leigh), Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper. An amazing cast and amazing performances all around.

Still, I just wasn’t wild about the film. With her life startlingly cut short, Marilyn Monroe is arguably one of the biggest enigmas to come out of Hollywood, and yet this tiny glimpse into her life just wasn’t interesting enough for me.

Fully aware of her impending doom to come, the sad foreshadowing of pills on her dresser, and her unfamiliar stupors didn’t drive anything for the character. It all becomes repetitious with nothing new to say. Colin’s virginal experience with this celebrity tryst never drives anywhere but back into Marilyn’s bed after he’s requested to appear at any given hour. This occurs again and again. The film just doesn’t progress past these moments. I found myself saying “I’ve seen this already!”

Did Marilyn learn anything from this fleeting moment in her lifetime? Did Colin? Maybe Colin got to witness the dichotomy of the privately ill Marilyn versus her ability to turn on the public charm with curvaceous ease and a wide lipstick smile. Yet, I have to wonder what came of it for Colin, thereafter.

Redmayne is quite good in his naive innocence. He inhabits nearly every scene since the story is told from Colin’s experience. Storywise though, what was the point of all this really?

Williams as Marilyn is astonishing. As good at playing a Hollywood legend as when Cate Blanchett deservedly won her Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. My one wish is that Williams accepted the role with a much more dimensional and nuanced script.

Perhaps because of the mystery that always seemed to surround Marilyn, Williams will never get the chance at playing the bombshell in something better. Marilyn’s life was so dubious and questionable. What filmmakers would be brave enough to truly make claim of how the starlet lived and how she died?

I can wish for another Marilyn portrayal to come one day, with Michelle Williams in the role, but alas I won’t hold my breath.