THE USUAL SUSPECTS

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s something inviting – or maybe intriguing – about seeing a person in a hat with a dark trench coat on.  Just the person’s silhouette will leave you asking for more.  What is it to this guy?  Steven Spielberg does that in the first few minutes with Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  Before Indy, there was Orson Welles as Harry Lyme in The Third Man.  Guys like these have a danger to them, and we can’t look away.  In The Usual Suspects, one of many variations of a legend called Keyser Soze has a dangerous reputation that carries him, and we want to know more about the figure in the hat and coat.  In the first few minutes of the film, we see this mysterioso extinguish a kerosene flame by urinating on it.  Who is this guy?  Maybe we, as the viewers, are Icabod Crane looking at an updated inspired spawn of The Headless Horseman.  Perhaps, we are actually catching a glimpse of that boogeyman who hid in our closets or under the beds.

Bryan Singer’s modern day film noir, masterfully written with inventive riddles by Christopher McQuarrie, works towards its ending as soon as the opening credits wrap up.  Each scene hops from a different setting or time period and as a viewer you feel like you are sitting at a kitchen table turning puzzle pieces around trying to snap them together.  Not all of it makes sense by the time the picture has wrapped up.  That’s okay though, because one of the players in the story perhaps played a sleight of hand and we can do nothing but applaud when we realize we’ve been had.  Magic is fun when you never quite realize where or when the deceit began.

A scenario is set up early on that assembles five different kinds of criminals in a police lineup.  It works as a device to team these guys together to pull off additional heists.  A prologue to the film depicts the aftermath of their last job together.  One holdover, a hobbled cripple named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is brought into a police precinct to be interviewed by a determined detective named Kujan (Chazz Palminteri).  Verbal might ramble on endlessly in circles about nothing, but Agent Kujan is going to get to the bottom of what happened the night prior on a shipping dock that turned up several corpses.  How did it all go down, and where is the money and cocaine that was expected to be there?

Verbal was one of the five in that lineup, along with McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).  Each carries a different specialty or personality, but Keaton is the guy that Kujan is really after.  He’s a master criminal who’s been known to fake his own death, supposedly turn legitimate while dating a high-priced lawyer, and now may be the lead suspect in an armored truck heist.  On the other hand, maybe it was one of these other four guys. 

Amid all of this back and forth and side stepping stories, there is mention of a name – Keyser Soze.  Whenever he comes up in the vernacular of the script, the mood seems to change.  These criminals, usually comfortable in their own cloth of transgressions, get noticeably frightened and concerned if there is even a remote possibility that this Soze character is the engineer behind what follows them. 

It’s fun!  The Usual Suspects is fun.

McQuarrie’s script will toss out names of people we never meet.  It will quickly imply an anecdote from another time.  It’ll share a bunch of short stories with how these five guys work together, like upending a secret criminal sect of the New York City police force while robbing them of their fortunes. Yet, a tall tale of lore will intrude on their typical heists to derail what we may normally be familiar with in other crime dramas or noir films.   

Spacey is the real star of The Usual Suspects.  He earned the Academy Award for Supporting Actor because Verbal Kint is so well drawn out as a weak, unhelpful, and frustrating man.  Often, you ask yourself what the heck is this geeky looking crippled guy even talking about. 

On other occasions, I’ve noted that sometimes with movies I can not determine if I just watched a superior film or dreadful nonsense until I’ve reached the final five minutes.  The final five minutes of a movie can be the verdict.  Sometimes you’ll claim the journey getting there was great, but the conclusion was a big letdown.  If you have never seen The Usual Suspects, then you likely won’t know if the path towards its end is good until you’ve reached the culmination. 

Roger Ebert couldn’t stand this picture, and I’m not going to say he didn’t know what he was talking about or that he was wrong.  Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s assembly of scenes don’t make for a well-defined picture, even after the movie is over.  Ebert was less than fond of that technique.  I think that was their intent, though.  Everything you have seen doesn’t have a suitable answer.  Certain parts don’t link well with others.  However, the director and screenwriter were always working towards an ending while piloting the film in swerves and unexpected knee jerk turns.

Unlike Ebert, however, I’m wholly satisfied with the film.  In fact, the first time I saw the movie, I cheered for the conclusion that got more than just one over on me.  On repeat viewings, knowing how the picture wraps up, I treasure the path towards its finale. 

If you study Verbal Kint, you’ll realize that he doesn’t offer easy answers and explanations for what’s occurred, thereby lending to the frustration of Agent Kujan who only demands cookie cutter, fall-into-place arrangements. What can I say Roger Ebert?  How else should I lay it out for you Agent Kujan? Life is messy with no easy answers sometimes.  Especially, in film noir.  

Ironically, one of Ebert’s favorite cinematic characters is Harry Lyme.  So, I guess Keyer Soze couldn’t live up to that threshold or repute.  If that’s the case, then I forgive you Roger.

BREAKDOWN

By Marc S. Sanders

The southwest region of the United States can be brutal.  The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go.  Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.  So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black.  For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter.  Their car is destined to break down anyway.

Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture.  When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand.  He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck.  Jeff agrees to stay with the car.  Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow.  Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared.  When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is.  It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.

Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing.  As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance.  A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money.  While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom.  In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell.  Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon.  Now, we’ve seen this many times before.  What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to.  In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”.  Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia.  I was right there with this poor guy.  What is Jeff going to do?

JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name.  He passed away too soon.  I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition.  This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown.  A good antagonist is one you can trust at first.  So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little.  Walsh accomplishes that here.  He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer.  He really plays a guy with two masks on.  Friendly and helpful at first.  Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff.  The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.

While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes.  This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold.  Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road.  When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us.  As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way.  The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase.  This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.  

The location shoots of Breakdown are superb.  An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife.  They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers.  The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint.  A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on.  The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger.  The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.

This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us.  It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time.  Jump to today and this situation could still happen.  Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices.  In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves.  In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.

Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught.  It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.

PRIMAL FEAR

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.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

By Marc S. Sanders

John Guare adapted his celebrated Broadway play Six Degrees Of Separation into a screenplay directed by Fred Schepisi.  Having never seen a stage production of the show, I can still see how well it would work in live theater.  It’s a talking piece with colorful dialogue and fast paced monologues revealing the true nature of people whether they are telling the truth, exaggerating, or simply being lied to.  Can a piece of writing succeed at showing the phoniness of people while at the same time displaying the authentic nature of a con man and a liar? 

In a very early career performance, Will Smith plays a young man named Paul.  One night, he stumbles upon the Park Avenue apartment of Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge (Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland), wealthy art dealers ready to make a multi-million-dollar deal with a South African guest, named Geoffrey (Ian McKellan).  Paul is a handsome black man in a navy blazer and college tie, with a knife wound in his side.  He has just been mugged while on his way to pay the Kitteridges a surprise visit.  They welcome him inside, clean his injury and loan him a freshly clean pink dress shirt from their son’s closet. 

Talking and interaction take effect.  Paul describes how he intimately knows the couple’s children away at college.  He segues into an insightful literary evaluation of Holden Caulfied from Catcher In The Rye, and he eventually makes his way into the kitchen where he impresses the high society people with his exquisite dinner preparation and his immense background of being the son of celebrated actor Sidney Poitier. 

By the end of the evening, Geoffrey is ready to sign the deal and the Kitteridges are over the moon with the dumbfound luck of meeting this young man, who is now going to arrange for them to be extras in the film adaptation of the musical Cats, soon to be directed by Sidney, himself.  It’s all too good to be true.  The next morning, after insisting that Paul stay over for the night, surprises abound and perhaps Ouisa and Flan don’t know everything they should have known about Paul.

The couple meets up for lunch with Larkin and Kitty, another high society couple (Bruce Dern, Mary Beth Hurt) who can’t wait to share an unbelievable story with them.  Only their anecdote is eerily similar to the experience they had with Paul.  Could these people have been duped?  The only option is to go to the police, and yet was there really a crime ever committed?  Fifty dollars was leant to Paul to get back to school, and he made off with the pink shirt, but that’s it.  All of their prized artwork and collectibles remained.  No one was physically harmed.  Nothing was stolen.  Still, the four people are insistent on uncovering the mystery of this man. 

Ouisa, Flan, Larkin and Kitty eventually catch up with their children to see how they had come to meet Paul.  The kids have no idea what their parents are talking about and are downright resentful of mom and dad.  Ouisa and Flan’s son (Jeff Abrams, as in eventual director JJ Abrams) is especially hurt they gave Paul his pink dress shirt.  The horror!  Their daughter describes them as ignorant and uncaring simply because of their wealth.

While I can’t describe the structure of the play, Schpisi’s film does a back and forth of Ouisa and Flan gleefully telling their tall tale to anyone who will listen.  While guests at a wedding reception, the crowd of listeners seem to grow around the pair, eventually to the point that the bride and groom are even listening.  Their story spreads at a funeral and dinner parties and on and on.

Later, a young couple (Heather Graham, Erik Thal) enter the frame to share their encounter with Paul after meeting him in Central Park.  Their tale is not as similar as the others, but there is enough to determine that they met the same “Paul” in their experience.

Paul’s existence seems to grow and grow, but not necessarily because of Paul.  Rather, it is because of how widespread his various intrusions become.  While making efforts to pursue the mystery, Ouisa and Flan get interviewed for the paper.  Even more people within New York City (revered for having eight million stories) reveal their own encounters. More people, especially their peers, become even more fascinated by the outrageous anecdote, and it becomes the centerpiece of dinner conversations and social gatherings.  People can’t get enough of the night Ouisa and Flan met Paul and what happened afterwards.

Guare’s script is focused not so much on dimension and character change, as it is in demonstrating what can happen when one story blossoms into a multitude of others.  The title follows the idea that every person on the planet can somehow be connected within six different people of one another.  What I took from the film is how inauthentic the ones who were duped actually are.  Flan wants nothing ever more to do with Paul, repeatedly declaring a fear that he may come back and “slash their throats.” Yet, he can’t resist sharing the story and what happened after that and then after that.  Ouisa follows along, until perhaps the end of the picture.

Stockard Channing plays the most dynamic of all the characters thanks to moments offered in the script where Ouisa begins to contemplate how fascinating it is how many people have come in contact with Paul and thus lending credence to the film’s title.  A memorable monologue towards the end earned her Oscar nomination for the film. 

Will Smith is the con man at the center of the script.  It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s an insightful character as well.  Paul is a con man.  That is the one sure thing that viewers assuredly walk away with from the movie.  It may be the only genuine fact in the film.  The people he seduces are eventually revealed to be fake for the sake of laying impressions upon their peers or for exacting aggravation, as the spoiled college age children seem to do.  Nothing that Ouisa, Flan, Larkin, Kitty or any of their high society friends and children come off with genuine affection and care for one another.  Their tales are told simply to impress and uphold relevance.  Only as the credits roll, does Ouisa perhaps have a revelation of how she behaves with her friends, and her children, particularly when in company with her husband, Flan.

Film Critic Roger Ebert didn’t care for this film as he asked what are we supposed to gain from this picture; that everyone in the world is a phony?  Maybe so.  The irony for me however, is that Paul is nothing but a con.  He never deviates from that pattern during the course of the picture all the way to his final scene when he’s alone on the street speaking with Ouisa on a pay phone. He still insists on being Paul Poitier, son of Sidney.  Therefore, let’s at least admire Paul’s consistent behavior of lying, while turning our backs as we realize how artificial the well to do folks really are.  Irony is thought provoking, and I think John Guare’s script at least succeeds in that respect. 

PIG (2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Sarnoski
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregon wilderness must venture to urban Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is, I guess, pig-napped.


Gotta tell you, that plot summary is one of the most bizarre summaries I’ve ever typed out.  To me, it’s on par with, “A file clerk working on the 7th-and-a-half floor of an office building discovers a portal that transports you into the brain of John Malkovich for 15 minutes before spitting you onto the side of the Jersey Turnpike.”

Who read the elevator pitch for Pig and thought it was worth filming?  Nicolas Cage himself is credited as one of the producers, so that’s a partial explanation, I guess.  The film has twenty other credited producers and executive producers, so it’s clear the financial burden was spread around.  But still…a movie about a guy looking for his stolen pig?  Is this a movie you should run out and rent/stream/buy?

Yes.  Yes, you should.  Oh, but let me tell you why.

Cage plays a scraggly fellow named Rob who lives in the aforementioned cabin with his pig, whose name is never spoken throughout the movie.  (Although when it was over, I had one or two guesses of my own, each as unlikely as the other.)  This pig excels at finding valuable truffles hidden in the shallow forest soil.  How valuable?  Well, the ones we see in the movie are black, and the current market price for winter black truffles runs from $300 – $1,300 per kilo, depending on the variant.  So…yeah, pretty valuable.  Rob apparently funds his meager existence by selling his truffles to a high-end buyer named Amir (Alex Wolff, Hereditary [2018]), a slick customer who drives a banana-yellow late-model Camaro.  I’m not sure how many Portland restaurateurs can afford Camaros, but it didn’t bother me until this precise moment, so I’ll let it slide.

One night, unknown parties break into Rob’s cabin, beat him up, and steal his pig.  At this point, I was reminded unavoidably of the opening scenes of John Wick (2014), and I thought we were in for another kill-crazy-rampage film like Mandy (2018).  But I was very pleasantly surprised.

It turns out Pig isn’t a revenge movie, or a weird Spike-Jonze-esque journey into absurdity, or a mind-numbing Bergman-esque examination of the human condition.  Ultimately, it’s about food.  Yeah.  Or the transformative properties of food.  Or maybe it’s just about cooking food.  It feels like the kind of movie Anthony Bourdain would have loved, if that’s not being too presumptuous.

Once he gets a line on who the thieves might be, Rob convinces Amir to help him track them down by driving him into the city.  First stop is a sketchy-looking guy who rebuffs Rob’s request for information and asks Amir, “Do you even know his real name?”  That leads to a hidden restaurant under another restaurant where we learn Rob’s full name…a name that brings shock and awe to the eyes and faces of everyone who hears it.  Who is this guy?

One thing I noticed during this film was the great economy of the storytelling.  Scenes that might involve pages of dialogue in other movies are handled in seconds with either terse dialogue or sometimes none at all.  For example, there’s a scene in Amir’s apartment.  Rob wakes up on the couch to the sound of a fire alarm.  The camera tilts up and we see Amir standing on the counter trying to fan smoke away from the alarm.  Cut immediately to a kitchen table, Amir slides a plate in front of Rob, and he says sheepishly, “I don’t cook a lot.”  I can easily imagine that scene in some other movie involving a setup showing Amir trying to cook, burning something, trying to put the fire out, all very comic and probably well-done…but ultimately unnecessary.  Asking the viewer to do the occasional heavy lifting is not the worst thing in the world.  Pig is full of moments like this.  It’s a welcome change when it’s done right.

The screenplay is brilliant in other ways.  It convincingly leads you down one path where you think you can guess what’s about to happen, and then it throws a curveball or neatly sidesteps your expectations.  At least, it did mine.  Rob visits the house where he used to live, where he has a conversation with a small boy.  Where are the parents?  Who knows?  Doesn’t matter.  Amir talks about his family life, about his very successful father who doesn’t believe Amir can cut it in this business.  Later, there’s a scene where Rob and Amir cook a fancy meal for Amir’s father, and the dinner service for that food has a huge emotional payoff I did not expect, and which is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Is Pig a good movie just because it’s unique?  No.  But unique it is, and it is VERY good.  Cage gives one of his most understated performances in forever, so if you have been avoiding this one because you didn’t think you could take more Cage-ian histrionics, you don’t have to worry.  He’s very low-key.  There are a couple of moments where you can see the anger boiling deep within Rob, or when you might expect him to overturn a table or throw a glass of wine in someone’s face.  But it doesn’t happen, and that works for this unexpectedly touching film.

GONE GIRL

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher is best when he builds tension in dark cinematography. It’s eerie and moody, but it all seems to make appropriate sense.

A skilled director like him proves that even with Lifetime television soap opera material, if delivered with care for detail and with genuine acting he can hold on to the attention of a scrupulous movie going audience. Haunting filmmaking, like Fincher is known for with movies like Seven or Panic Room, can also work in sensational material that at first might draw the attention of lonely housewives pigging out on Rocky Road ice cream while watching hours upon hours of scorned victim gossip material on the WE Channel. Gone Girl adapted from the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, is a thrilling cinematic piece even if the story’s ending is a little disappointing.

Ben Affleck plays Nick Lowe who discovers a broken glass coffee table in his home and realizes his wife of 5 years is missing. Rosumund Pike is Amy, who seemingly vanished without a trace.

Fincher closely shoots Flynn’s story with developments you might expect or have experienced with various news stories and documented investigations by sensational legal journalists like Nancy Grace. Nick, with Amy’s parents (Lisa Banes, David Clennon), initially form a united front for the press but that falls apart when it’s uncovered that Nick has had an affair. Amy had a close neighbor who expresses tearful concern that cameras latch on to for ratings. The cops (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) grow more and more suspicious of Nick. Nick eventually hires a high-priced lawyer (Tyler Perry). Nick is eventually considered to be an abusive husband as well. It all adds up.

These are the steps you’d expect from a missing persons case. You might also suspect murder, but no one can claim that out loud if there’s no body to be found. So, toe the line carefully detectives, journalists, & gossip mongers!

What is not expected in Gone Girl are the surprises that open up midway through the picture, and the book. Flynn is a really inventive storyteller, and Fincher as director gives ample opportunity to answer for every surprise up the writer’s sleeve. Gone Girl plays with a lot of internal character thought to process its details.

I had read the novel long before the movie was even cast, and I couldn’t put it down. That being said, I was frustrated when the conclusion arrived. I can say the same for the faithful film adaptation. It’s an ending that could happen but, wow, is it a long shot.

Rosamund Pike was Oscar nominated as Amy, the complicated wife in this marriage. She’s good at occupying the complexity of her past shown in flashback. She’s likable in many moments, but then Amy is also a character that we are reluctant to trust based on her relationship to Nick, as well as her own parents.

Affleck remains a good actor with this picture. I think it takes an honest actor, writer and director to accurately show a man who might not be responding to this crisis like a general public expects. I think much of Affleck’s personal issues of infidelity and alcoholism in the public eye lend credence to how genuine he makes Nick out to be. Could this guy be handsome enough to think he could harm or actually murder a woman as beautiful as Amy; the “Amazing Amy” as she’s widely known in her mother’s series of best-selling children’s books? Is Nick that good at hiding his evil side? On the other hand, is Nick simply innocent, despite all the skeletons that are gradually uncovered? That’s a fair question as well.

Again, Gone Girl is superb in its delivery. It’s ending, though, is the setback. At least I felt that way. For every reader, like me who considers it dubious, I’m sure there are readers who applaud the inventiveness of Gillian Flynn’s gripping and modern mystery.

I guess if a good story prompts a group discussion on a Saturday night, then a really good novel or a great movie has achieved its purpose. At the very least, I consider that a great compliment for an outstanding cast, director and writer.

DEAD AGAIN

By Marc S. Sanders

Kenneth Branagh is inventive director.  Arguably, his most uncelebrated film is the noir inspired mystery, Dead Again, which features himself and his wife at the time, Emma Thompson, in the leading roles. 

Branagh and Thompson do double duty, playing multiple parts in two different time periods.  In a 1940s post war Los Angeles, they are Roman and Margaret Strauss.  Roman is a composer.  Margaret is a musician in his company.  They quickly fall in love and live in the limelight of glitz and glamour amid the gossip magazines of the time.  Their life together only becomes juicier when Roman is sentenced to death for the murder of Margaret.  The weapon of choice, a pair of scissors.

In present day 1991, Branagh portrays a private detective named Mike Church who ends up being responsible for an amnesiac, Thompson, who can’t even speak when she’s found.  The woman has unexplainable dreams that recall moments of Roman and Margaret’s life together only to end up as terrible nightmares.  A curious hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) enters the story to lend aid to Mr. Church and the woman.  He serves as a guide, bringing her back to the times of the celebrity couple, helping her to find clues that perhaps could lead to her true identity and uncover exactly why she is haunted by these dreams.

Additional characters enter the storyline as well.  There’s Wayne Knight as a humorous sidekick for Church.  In the flashback 1940s, there’s Andy Garcia as a handsome Pulitzer winning journalist who follows the escapades of Roman and Margaret.

Dead Again is not a long movie, and that lends to how good a film it is.  It’s a lean picture that sets up its clues the moment it starts.  Branagh gives you a background tutorial with newspaper headlines that flash up within the opening credits.  The two time periods are separated with the 1940s shown in gorgeous black and white, while the modern scenes are presented in color.  Branagh puts on a German accent for Roman.  Thompson is English for Margaret.  In the present day, they are Americans.  Of course, it is acknowledged that the respective characters look alike and that allows for possibilities of reincarnation, karma and past lives to enter the frame. 

The screenplay from Scott Frank gets you curious.  What connection could these two wildly different couples have with one another?  What don’t we know about the murder of Margaret at the hands of her husband, Roman?  Who really is the woman that Thompson is portraying in modern times?  How is it possible that a private dick like Mike would coincidentally end up with this “Margaret lookalike” amnesiac?

The cast is having a lot of fun with the puzzle, particularly Derek Jacobi.  His old English mannerisms offer a relaxing storyteller’s narrative to the film.  It feels as if his hypnotist carried over from an Alfred Hitchcock film.  I also appreciate how far apart the respective characters that Branagh and Thompson play.  Not only am I watching a thrilling mystery, but I’m looking at skilled, well-trained actors demonstrating a wide range of performance work.  At times, it’s as if I’m watching two different movies.  How exactly are they going to intersect, though?

I originally saw Dead Again in theatres and was taken with it immediately.  I did not see the end coming and when the veil was lifted, my eyes went wide open.  It has a terrific plot twist.  Branagh, known at the time as a celebrated Shakespearean actor/director, introduced a sweeping, mystery yarn that relishes in fun escapism like Hitchcock or Orson Wells would apply to film noir.  It only makes sense, looking back over thirty years later, why the director opted to turn his craft towards rejuvenating the classic Agatha Christie stories (Murder On The Orient Express, Death On The Nile) for film.  We are better for his contributions.

Now, Dead Again is a film that deserves the attention from a new generation of movie lovers.

SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2015)

By Marc S. Sanders

So here is a movie I thought I had figured out; the twist, I mean. Yet it’s ending didn’t turn out to be that way at all.

So, what did I get from Secret In Their Eyes? Well, I guess the confidence that I am probably a better writer than the ones who doctored this crap.

This is another mystery thriller, where everybody working in the same law enforcement department must remain divided and have animosity towards each other because if they didn’t have conflict they’d only get along and solve a very basic murder case.

See, it has to be this way.

The main character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor must play the obsessive (13 years obsessed!!!) FBI investigator prone to making dumb and impulsive mistakes because if he didn’t there’d be no movie.

Julia Roberts, effectively departing her glamour roles, as the cop/mother of a murdered daughter will only conveniently appear to make things awkward for Ejiofor and DA Nicole Kidman who is unnecessarily, overtly sexy to drive a subplot for more awkwardness. Oh, hi Julia. Didn’t expect you to step on to the elevator. Well, look who showed up at the office just as I get into town; things like that.

Nothing that these characters do seem very wise or necessary but we are supposed to believe these are some of LA’s best legal minds; break in and steal evidence without a warrant, solve a murder by looking at a picture from company picnic, beat a confession out of a suspect, and presume you found the killer again because a guy made parole 13 years later and the ages match up. He might have had a nose job, but that’s gotta be the guy. Ejiofor says it is. So it must be true. Stop arguing with me. Ejiofor says he’s right and you’re wrong. Case closed. Shouldn’t these great legal minds look a little deeper before they make their conclusions? There’s more concrete evidence in a game of Clue than anything I found in Secret In Their Eyes.

I guess now that I’ve watched the film and see that my predicted ending never turned up, maybe I’ll keep it to myself, jot it down on paper and sell my own screenplay. If this crap could attract a Hollywood budget with top talents to fill the roles, how bad could I do?

SUSPECT

By Marc S. Sanders

Okay. Fair Warning. I am going to spoil this movie with my review. Why? Well, if you haven’t seen Suspect, directed by Peter Yates, then I’m telling you that you absolutely do not ever need to see Suspect directed by Peter Yates.

What is Suspect worthy of 33 years later? Nothing beyond my personal allowance to spoil the film for you. I know! It goes against my principals as a film critic, but I choose, for YOU, MY READERS, to fall on my sword.

Scripts of any variation whether they be stage plays, television episodes or feature films should always show the unusual. If it’s mundane, it should never be made. You don’t want to watch two hours of someone brushing their teeth. You want to watch epic films like Malcolm X or witness a man that flies in Superman: The Movie or the murderous ways a person will devote his affection for his mother in Psycho. Unusual and special stories make the best stories. Unusual! Not utterly preposterous!

Now, I’m sure in the annals of trial law there had to have been a handful of cases where a defense attorney got involved socially and/or romantically with a member of the jury. Otherwise, we’d never hear of the term “jury tampering.” So, there’s something unusual to sink our teeth into. Preposterous though (AND I WARNED YOU) is that within this very same trial, you know the one where the defense attorney and jury member are getting some from each other on the side, that one, the presiding judge turns out to be the killer. Okay. Now Mr. and Mr. Filmmaker, you’re no longer using your imagination. You’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping it’ll all stick.

Cher plays a public defense attorney named Kathleen Riley. Dennis Quaid is a handsome DC lobbyist named Eddie Sanger serving on the jury. Liam Neeson is the deaf mute title character who is a vagrant homeless person, and John Mahoney is the presiding judge aka the actual killer revealed at the end. Lawyer and juror meet up outside of court to find clues and eventually make out. The judge is the killer. People please!!!! Washington DC is not this effed up, is it? (Maybe don’t answer that.)

Frankly, Kathleen is not a very good attorney. She’s not aggressive enough with her objections and I don’t think she applies herself well enough to win her case. In fact, without Eddie’s self motivation to dig into the case himself and help her out, then this suspect (Neeson) doesn’t have a chance in hell of being exonerated. The victim, a political staff member, had her throat slashed. Kathleen doesn’t even consider if the killer is right or left handed? Really? Eddie did at least. Still, I’m okay with watching an inept lawyer in a movie. Too often, movies show us lawyers that are too brilliant and quick on their toes. They’re almost too brainy. So, okay yeah, I’ll accept a lawyer whose not the sharpest crayon in the box for a change of pace.

On the other hand, Mahoney, the actual killer, is easy to predict when he voluntarily takes this case and then rules against literally every objection that Kathleen brings up. Every single one! Plus it stands to follow Roger Ebert’s economy of characters. There’s only so many characters in your multiple choice of cast members to consider as the killer. I can’t fathom Quaid, the juror, as the killer, nor Cher the defense attorney. So either Neeson, the suspect on trial, is the killer (not likely because then why have a movie) or it’s the judge. Nah! It couldn’t be the judge. Could it? Hmmmm.

Washington DC makes for a great setting for legal thrillers or courtroom dramas. It’s full of secrets and government and dealings and politics. A million and a half motivations and any one of its residents could find a reason to kill. The script for Suspect, written by Eric Roth, never cares to try that hard though. We are treated to a wasteful side story of Eddie doing some lobbying for milk (I’m sorry. MILK? LIKE DAIRY MILK????) when he’s not in court. He sleeps with a congresswoman to get her vote…and why am I seeing any of this?

There’s no build up in the murder trial either. The few expert witnesses called to the stand are forgettable. Nor do they foreshadow anything. Cher’s character doesn’t seem to work hard enough in questioning a witness. Instead, this dumb lawyer relies on a juror she shouldn’t ever be talking to.

Once again, normally, it’s against my policy to spoil a film. After 40 years, I won’t even spoil The Empire Strikes Back, cuz someone out there still hasn’t seen it. However, this film is ridiculous. This would even be too ridiculous for a Maury Povich episode or a Lifetime TV movie. How absurd must one murder trial be?

Think about it. All in one movie. One murder trial. One case. The defense attorney is involved with a juror AND the judge is the killer????? There are odds….and then there are gazillion to one shots.

THE DA VINCI CODE

By Marc S. Sanders

Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay adaptation of the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown suffers from an overabundance of information; like A LOT of information, a TON OF INFORMATION actually. The book is an incredibly fast read with brief chapters and plenty of diagrams and images to study. It surprises me, though, how in depth director Ron Howard’s approach is with the film. Howard must have literally shot every page Brown documented including his edits. Amazingly there is a Blu Ray EXTENDED CUT. It seems Goldsman and Howard at one point couldn’t help themselves. Restraint had to step in for the controversial story’s cinematic debut.

Tom Hanks plays the great modern literary character, Robert Langdon. He is very good in the role of a research expert on historical symbols and cryptology. Hanks even masters Langdon’s self-debilitating weakness of claustrophobia very well, which proves to be a hinderance. It’s maybe an under celebrated part in Hanks’ career because the film is so heavy. Little is talked about this film any longer. (The second sequel, Inferno, flopped at the box office. I’ve yet to see that one.)

Langdon is recruited to go the Louvre in Paris one evening to look over a recently murdered victim left with a pentagram carved in his chest and a gunshot wound in his belly. The victim’s name is Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Soon Langdon is teaming up with Sophie (Audrey Tatou), Sauniere’s granddaughter, to uncover one puzzle or clue after another left behind most prominently within the artwork of Leonardo DaVinci, including the “Mona Lisa.” Gradually, a conspiracy is uncovered revealing a strong possibility of how Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ are actually connected. Amidst all of this, Langdon and Sophie become fugitives under the suspicion of murder. Now the cops (headed by Jean Reno) as well as a secret society within the Catholic Church are hot on their trail to stop them from revealing the truth. A dangerous, self torturing Albino monk (Paul Bettany) also comes into play.

That’s a long ass paragraph I just wrote and it hardly scratches the surface of how in depth The DaVinci Code really is. Because it is so nuanced, I had some major problems with the film. For one thing the cinematography from Salvatore Totino is very dark. I know. Most of the film takes place in the middle of the night within the hallowed halls of the Louvre and the streets of Paris. However, I think certain liberties should have been taken here. The details thrown at the audience never stop. Long summaries of dialogue come into play and at times Totino and Howard will highlight a code or a portion of a piece of art or a passage in a book. Because the story is so deliberately murky, I wish at times what I was looking at could have been presented all the more clearer.

Another issue is with Audrey Tatou who is of French descent and whose character is that way too. Her French accent is too thick to clearly understand every word she is saying. A lot of details become lost because her dialect swallows her words. Natural dialects can be a slippery slope in film. You want the characters to be as genuine as possible but none of that means much if you can’t follow along.

The best surprise of the film reveals itself when Ian McKellen appears, portraying Sir Leigh Teabing, a mentor and friend to Langdon. Yes. He offers up a ton of information too. Too much for any one film really. However, McKellan is so giddy in the role. Leigh relishes the fact that Langdon and Sophie appear at his home. He’s elderly and crippled and excited with glee to come across them so he can share his own theory of Mary, Jesus and what is possibly the real interpretation of the Holy Grail. At ninety minutes into the film, McKellan’s introduction is quite a welcome, relief from the heaviness of everything before.

The DaVinci Code clocks in at over two and a half hours. It feels longer actually. There are multiple endings as surprise traitors need to be revealed, more history and theories need to be uncovered and more European locales need to be visited complete with secret passages and hidden staircases. It took a lot of mental effort to remain patient with the film, and I had already read the book!!!

Ron Howard’s film merits the discussion of whether Brown’s bestseller should have ever been filmed. As good as Hanks and McKellan are, I say no. This is not Indiana Jones with bullwhips and truck chases. This is a treasure hunt that sticks to what is on a page and within an exhibit. To mask what is discovered by dictating endless dialogue from the cast becomes incredibly tedious.

Dan Brown’s story is wildly out there in theory and supposition. It’s what makes it fun, really. So, do I recommend The DaVinci Code? You bet I do. I definitely recommend you read the book.