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.

GET OUT (2017)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Low-Budget Blockbuster” [Budget: $4.5 million.  Worldwide Gross: $255 million.]

PLOT: A young African American visits his white girlfriend’s parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.


Many years ago, I attended a wedding in New York.  After the ceremony was over, I stepped outside to watch it snow.  After a couple of minutes of me standing outside alone wearing a tux, a very polite man walked up to me, held out his keys, and said something like, “The blue Buick in the second row, please.”  After I explained to him that I was not, in fact, the valet, he apologized profusely and went back inside, clearly embarrassed.  (I’ve always regretted what I should have done: just taken the keys, gotten in the car, and driven it out of the parking lot while waving goodbye. Yes, I would have returned it, but imagine the look on that guy’s face…!)

I have been lucky and, yes, privileged enough that, in fifty-one-and-a-half years of living on planet Earth, that is only the second time I have ever been the target of overt racism, intentional or not.  I will never ever know what it’s like to have to think twice before walking alone at night while wearing a hoodie.  I’ll never know what it’s like to literally fear for my life when a cop signals me to pull over.  The beauty of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is that it addresses the issue of what it’s like to be African-American today in a way that is so entertaining that the subtlety of the screenplay is only apparent when you watch the movie a second or third time.  Unless you’re African-American, in which case the symbolism and sly satire is not so subtle.

After a brief terrifying prologue, we meet Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya in his breakout role) who is about to visit his girlfriend’s parents for the first time.  His girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white.  He wonders if her parents are aware he’s black: “I don’t wanna get chased off the lawn with a shotgun.”  Rose casually dismisses his concerns: “First of all, my dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve.”

On the drive to her folks’ house, a startling and intensely creepy incident/accident occurs followed by a tense moment involving a white police officer asking to see Chris’s driver’s license even though he wasn’t driving.  Rose valiantly tells the officer off for profiling, and he lets them off with a warning.  This is just one of the many ways the screenplay probes and exploits the inherent fears of the average viewer.  Even if Chris had been white, it would still be a foreboding scene.  Because of the additional racial tension, the scene crackles with suspense.

Things get progressively weirder from there.  Chris meets Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), along with their groundskeeper and maid, Walter and Georgina, both of whom are black.  Walter and Georgina’s behavior is just plain odd.  Their sole purpose seems to be to make Chris (and the audience) say, “What the f**k” repeatedly.  Dean directly addresses Chris’s apprehension: “I know what it looks like: a white family with black servants.”  His explanation of why they’re there answers Chris’s questions without really answering them if you follow me.

It would be unfair of me to describe any further plot details.  I’m sure those of you who’ve seen the movie would agree.  But I will issue a SPOILER WARNING for the remainder of the review.  Consider yourself warned.

Get Out is one of the most original, most effective modern horror films I’ve seen since The Descent (2005) and The Babadook (2014).  I have rarely been so glued to a screen.  The way director Jordan Peele ratchets up the creepiness levels is virtually unparalleled.  Here is a first film that rivals M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) in terms of how to manipulate an audience.  Look at the moment when Chris sneaks out of the house for a cigarette, looks around, and suddenly spies Walter, the groundskeeper, running towards him in the night.  No, not running…sprinting.  Silently.  When I watched this for the first time on my own, I literally said, out loud, “What the s**t…???”  I can’t remember when I’ve seen anything like that in a suspense film.

Take the moment when Chris gets involved in a late-night discussion with Missy (Rose’s mom) that turns into an impromptu therapy/hypnosis session.  When Missy calmly says, “Sink,” and Chris actually does, and we see him floating in some kind of limbo, I felt the same kind of transfixed curiosity that I felt while watching Under the Skin (2013).  I had absolutely no clue what was happening or why, and I couldn’t wait until I could get answers.  When those answers come, they are both gratifying and suitably horrific.  Remember those old commercials for the American Negro College Fund?  The tagline was, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  You will never think of that line the same way again after watching Get Out.

Peele was wise enough to include some comic relief in the form of his best friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who works for the TSA and ironically gets closer to the truth of what’s going on at Rose’s house than he or anyone else realizes.  If the movie has a single weak spot, though, this might be it.  Rod is so comic it feels as if he was lifted directly from a romantic comedy.  Sometimes his delivery and dialogue feel a little too much like he’s trying for laughs rather than just being himself.  This is a minor quibble, though…he is funny as hell, especially during a phone conversation between him and Rose.

The bottom line, as if you couldn’t tell, is that Get Out is a sensational movie, containing more levels than “Super Mario Bros.” and more food for thought than a Judd Apatow dramedy.  It’s one of those movies where, if I hear anyone hasn’t seen it, not only do I recommend it unreservedly, but I immediately ask if I can watch it while they watch it for the first time.  Just to see their reactions.


SELECTED QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

  1. Do you feel a larger budget would make this film better or worse?
    …that’s a tough question.  As you can see from my 10/10 rating, the movie is just about perfect as it is.  What might change with a larger budget?  A more realistic-looking deer corpse?  A wide-angle shot of…something…burning?  Maybe they wouldn’t have gone with Daniel Kaluuya, or maybe Rose would have been played by, I dunno, Emmy Rossum or Lily James.  So, I guess my answer is, a bigger budget would make this film worse.  The filmmakers made the choices they made because of their limitations, and those choices resulted in a masterpiece of the genre.  It’s like Salieri says in Amadeus when describing Mozart’s music: “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.”
  2. Were you surprised by the ending?  What would you do differently?
    Because of how the very ending of the film is structured, yes, I was surprised by the ending.  In fact, on the blu-ray, we can see the original filmed ending, and it’s what I feel might have been a more realistic ending.  As it is, the new ending is very satisfying on an emotional level, but I will always wonder how that original ending might have been received by general audiences.  Probably not well.  Imagine putting your hero up a tree, story-wise, then setting the tree on fire…but instead of getting him out of the tree, firemen chop the tree down and the hero is falsely arrested for arson.  Something like that can work – look at Body Heat (1981) and the original director’s cut of The Descent.  But Get Out provides a much more cathartic resolution and gets a smile on your face when you walk out the theater instead of shaking your head ruefully.


On the next “episode” of Everyone’s a Critic: “Watch a Film Starring Animals.”  I’m leaning towards The Black Stallion, but stay tuned…

SEVEN

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s an interesting dynamic to David Fincher’s Seven that is not touched upon often enough.  Beyond the clever and grisly murders set to a theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, the two police detective protagonists are carved from completely different molds.  The spine of Fincher’s film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, focuses on how these men approach the craft of the killer’s accomplishments.  One man wants to cut to the chase, find the criminal and cuff him.  The other wants to study the nature of this mystery man, and only then will it lead to the suspect’s true identity.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) stems from a time gone by for the cinematic detective.  He’s the trench coat wearing investigator who examines and connects dots, never resorting to fists or police intimidation with a gun.  Newly assigned Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) dons the leather jacket with the cute goatee and boy blond haircut.  He’s more apt to making fun of the sick weirdo they are chasing, hardly lending any valuable insight or observations.  Somerset will approach with respect for the killer and his work.  Mills, with nowhere near the experience of his new partner, will disguise his loss of where to begin with this case by resorting to cheap shots at the killer’s expense, calling him Yoda and surmising this guy must be pleasuring himself in peanut butter, perhaps.

Fincher is widely recognized for the dark photography of his films, like the cherry wood hallways of Harvard in The Social Network or the lurid neighborhoods in movies like Zodiac and Gone Girl.  In Seven, the setting is very much a character in and of itself, but other than the fact that it is a California (thanks to a throw away piece of dialogue) metropolitan area, we never know the name of this city.  It is a dreary, ongoing rain-soaked environment that hinders the police officers and keeps everyone contained in the film, especially David’s wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), unsettled.  The city has no name or identity.  Therefore, the police officers who occupy it are not the stereotypical cops designed for this place.  One works as a tired, wise and experienced Colombo figure, minus the sarcasm.  The other is an aggressive hot shot who is over trying to prove himself to peers and superiors.  Now he wants to be in charge.  They both follow the footsteps of the mystery together.  Yet, they are reading different roadmaps.

With seven days left before retirement, Somerset meets newly arrived Mills.  They are quickly dispatched to a filthy apartment for an ugly murder scene of an odd nature.  It is a scene labeled as Gluttony by the killer.  Greed follows shortly thereafter, and Somerset knows none of this random.  Whoever has orchestrated these two executions is methodical and resourceful, with a point to prove.  The artistic measure and inspiration are too creative, far from the sloppiness of a standard stabbing or gunshot to the head.  Somerset already knows five more murders will likely turn up and doesn’t want to get involved.  He’s seen enough.  Mills has the cavalier attitude.  Find the freak, and maybe take him out in a blazing shootout.  It’s reckless. 

Could Seven be an answer to how cop movies performed at one time and how they act now?  Seven may be the closest outline of pairing Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade with Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs.  Sure, the murder scenes are hard to look away from, as deliberately repulsive as they are.  Even after multiple views of the film, I still get curious with how the killer planned all of this out to the absolute most minute detail.  However, ninety percent of the dialogue is exchanged only between Freeman and Pitt. Paltrow has a couple of scenes that help paint the sad picture of life in this city, but ultimately the film belongs exclusively to the two cop characters.  Seven has one action scene, but it primarily covers how the two men respond to the nature of what they come upon.  Mills will crack jokes that maybe his college pals would snicker at.  Somerset asks the young man to just be quiet while he explores the scene.  Mills gets grossed out by a bucket of blood.  Procedurally, Somerset will ask Mills if there was any blood in it.  Mills will resort to Cliff’s Notes on the Seven Deadly Sins.  Somerset will spend his evening in the library, digging through the original source.  Mills will kick down a door without authority.  Somerset will protest against that action without following the standards of procedure.  It’s a dichotomy of impatience versus patience.

The two men actually don’t come to a common platform until the third act of the picture, when the rain has subsided, the sun comes out, and the killer opts to surrender himself.  Still, the mystery of his purpose remains and there’s an unknown element of what to expect next.  So, while the partners may agree that there’s more to come, they still respond to the killer, in person, differently.  Mills can only yell at the deranged suspect and call him names.  Somerset interviews the gruesome and imaginative architect with questions. 

Seven is a sensational crime drama.  It’s eerie, creepy and appreciatively sickening in its crimes.    The outline of some of the killer’s actions might seem conveniently questionable or far-fetched.  Some of the crime scenes were planned over a year’s time. Others were not meant to be revealed until a certain point within these particular seven days.  So, the writing might be a little too overly precise.  However, that should not be dwelled upon.  Rather, one kind of cinematic cop is not the standard in Hollywood films anymore.  Another kind of cop has filled that void in its stead. 

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script follows a very structured outline.  It’s not until the story’s infamous end does the film divert itself, as it is almost unfathomable that it could have actually happened. 

It is fortunate that David Fincher was allowed vast liberties with the production of only his second film, following the abysmal Alien 3 which famously took away any of the personal oversight he depended on as a rookie filmmaker.  With Seven, Walker and Fincher draw out four characters quite well – Somerset, Mills, the city with Tracy as its spokesperson, and the killer’s actions.  Blend these elements together and see if they make for a good product.  Fact is they couldn’t be any more disagreeable, but the chemistry works perfectly. 

Seven is a sensational movie and will likely always remain as one of David Fincher’s best films.

KISS THE GIRLS

By Marc S. Sanders

When you’re watching a movie and one character says “Now wait here. Let me handle this!” what do ya think is gonna happen? When you’re watching a movie and one character says “Kate, we’ve covered every inch of those woods. There’s no building there!” whatcha think? You think there actually is a building there?

Let me ask you this, what do you think happens in the film Kiss The Girls?

Yup! A whole lot of this nonsense and more that I could cover endlessly. Adapted from James Patterson’s best selling novel featuring his forensics detective hero Alex Cross, Kiss The Girls begins as an effective thriller focusing on the backgrounds of its two leads: dependable Morgan Freeman as Cross, and Ashley Judd as Dr. Kate McTiernan, a skilled surgeon with a specialty in kick boxing (that may come in handy later). At first, we see these characters handling snippets of storylines related to their careers. Cross defuses a suspenseful suicide situation. McTiernan has to console a family whose little girl was in a motorcycle crash. There’s good acting and emotion going on here and I was hoping the film would live up to the promise of these scenes; the characters’ expertise now being applied to Patterson’s main story. It doesn’t.

Instead, the movie just mires itself in plot holes and filler where one character insists on working alone while the other insists on not sitting idly by. This is not character development. This is ping pong volleying. Kate is kidnapped by a serial “collector” of smart, young, beautiful and highly intelligent women by someone regarded as “Casanova.” When Alex’ niece is one of the women taken, he travels from Washington DC to Raleigh, NC to join the investigation.

Soon after Kate has been taken, she manages to be the only one to escape from some hidden dungeon located in the woods. She joins Alex at every turn to find Cassanova and rescue the other captives. Okay. So that’s not a bad set up.

Where it falls apart is in the development. Kate managed to escape by jumping into a river where she’s retrieved by two kids. So wouldn’t law enforcement just sweep that entire area? I mean be really thorough, top to bottom! Surely, you’ll pick up footprints or scents from the dogs. Well, Alex says they did. Fortunately, his niece’s boyfriend finds the map. You know…the map that’s hidden in the library that no one else is aware of and shows this dungeon or whatever it is that’s there. Only one guy, ONE GUY, knows about this map????

When an hour and forty minutes has surpassed, you bet that map is gonna turn up. Remember, also when someone says wait in the car, the one thing you do is not wait. You know, this is a movie. So, Mr. Freeman, please spare me the act of surprise when Ms Judd walks into the bar you’re scoping out. This is all unnecessary, and boring and tired and old.

Kiss The Girls is another film with THAT TWIST! Was it really needed though? Just when the film apprehends the bad guy, and the ladies are recovered safely, there’s a gotcha moment in Kate’s kitchen with lots of knives and pots and pans to play with. Gary Fleder directed this 1997 disturbing thriller in a post age of The Silence Of The Lambs and Seven, which are far superior films. It’s not a film dependent on gore or torture porn, but it’s got the dark stone lined halls for haunted house creepiness. I’m good with that. It’s a thriller after all.

The film’s best assets, however, are Freeman and Judd. These are two top class actors who invest themselves in performance. If only they were working with a much more believable story.

It’s the implausibility in the script that make my eyes roll.

THE GIFT

By Marc S. Sanders

Blumhouse Pictures had a monster year in 2017 with the release of Jordan Peele’s smash hit thriller Get Out.  It was by no means some slasher film for cheap scares.  It built on those typical shocks to deliver a message over a well-crafted three act storyline that commented on present day race relations while the action of it all knocked the hell out of you.  Get Out was one of my favorite films of that year.  

Having just watched Joel Edgerton’s The Gift from 2015, I see a pattern from Blumhouse.  This is a company intent on making high grade material on very small budgets.  This company knows how to spend its money wisely, while showing you something that looks familiar but is altogether new.

Edgerton wrote and costars in The Gift as a stranger who intrudes on the life of a happy couple with a promising future, played with great chemistry by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall.  

Casting Bateman and Hall was a smart move.  In other respective efforts from both actors, they are at their best by giving the less is more approach to their resume of performances.  In this film, they come off as nothing special really when the film begins; happy and minding their own business.  It’s important because it enhances the disruption of Edgerton’s character, Gordo “the weirdo.” All that Gordo is doing is being friendly by leaving gifts on the couple’s doorstep. Harmless, really, but I found my own instincts on alert. The question is, however, was I ever right to question my instincts in the first place.

The Gift is a top notch psychological thriller.  Do Edgerton and Blumhouse follow the same trite cliches of suspense films like this though? That’s what is eye catching about the film.  You really don’t know how developments are going to end up until the movie is completely over.  For the most part, this film is wildly unpredictable.

I really liked it.  It was a new kind of disturbed piece written with foreshadowed detail by Edgerton.  He writes with common, nervously laughable awkwardness for his couple to struggle with.  This new guy is only signing his cards with happy faces and leaving gifts.  What’s so wrong about that?  

Edgerton’s direction is just as fine with wide shots during the daytime suburban scenes to offer comfort for Hall’s housewife character, and a narrow lens to unsettle you as you peer down a dark endless hallway.  For cripes sakes, it’s only your house.  Is your new house really that scary?

The ending is satisfying for me even if I did predict an early scene would return to make its point later.  Narratively speaking though, I credit the screenplay for inventing something beyond a final fight that would probably include kitchen knives and crashes through windows followed by someone falling to his gruesome death from a great height, or drowning a villain in a bathtub before shooting him when he miraculously comes back to life. 

See, that’s what the other movies are doing. Films like The Gift and Get Out are completely doing something else entirely.

WILD TALES

By Marc S. Sanders

Humans were meant to be distressed.  It just goes with the territory.  It’s in our nature to distress one another and respond with another layer of distress.  It’s also a cosmic element of practically any environment we find ourselves in.  Within our journeys of life, when we are striving to be better as a spouse, a parent or worker, it takes an acceptance of stress to get to where we want to be.  It’s only when we die that we can truly rest in peace.  Wedding planning or road rage or airline travel can be overly taxing. Your car could get towed, a person from your past could turn up or you can even become unreasonably extorted when faced with extenuating circumstances.  It all seems so unfair or inconvenient or intrusive.  So, I find it interesting that director Damián Szifron would provide the credits of the cast and crew for his film Wild Tales against a backdrop of wildlife animals.  Humans may be the dominant species, but even they have animal instincts that can spiral wildly out of control.

With writer, Germán Servidio, Szifron offers up six different short stories in this Argentinian film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars.  Each story focuses on an opportunity for revenge or an experience of high stress where people come in contact with other people.  Granted, some of the stories are so outrageous in circumstance, response and outcome that I’d find them hard to believe they truly happened if someone vouched for it.  For example, you likely never saw a wedding reception like the one staged in this film.  I don’t care who you are.  YOU NEVER SAW A WEDDING LIKE THIS!!!!  Still, this is a very entertaining film that left me curious with how each story was going to play out.

A truly engaging airline experience prologues the credits when a beautiful model strikes up a conversation with the elderly gentlemen across the aisle.  When a woman in the next row can’t help but eavesdrop on their exchange, a most unexpected event occurs.  Doom awaits!!!  More importantly, though, why does it await?  It’s a brilliant opening, likely never to occur in real life, but altogether unexpected and humorously shocking.

Following the credits, a question of morality and revenge plays out in an after-hours diner when someone from a waitress’ past enters for a late night meal.  This is the most incomplete vignette of the bunch, but the narrative remains interesting. 

Listed below the airline tale, my next favorite tale involves a road rage incident between the driver of a beautiful black Audi and someone who drives an old jalopy of a car.  Likely, it is the most relatable of all the stories.  We’ve all either experienced some form of road rage, or read about it, or have committed or been tempted to engage.  There’s a strong lesson to be learned from this story and it is rather incredible how this encounter between two descends into madness.

Stories of extortion and unfair city policies fill out the other slots, before finally closing on a wedding from hell.

What’s interesting is that while the stories may rely somewhat on their dialogue, I believe I could watch Wild Tales without knowing much of what is being said.  The cast is phenomenal in expression and response.  Szifron quickly sets up the scene and then has his various token characters react to what faces them.  We see the extremes a bride goes to when an unexpected guest appears at her reception.  We are the lone witness to how a driver will seize an opportunity when another driver is stranded on a lonesome highway with a flat tire.  We can understand the persistence a man will uphold in order to prove he did not commit a parking violation.  Wild Tales does not depend on crackling dialogue.  Instead, the visuals and the performances do a lot of the work.

Too often, I hear that people will not watch films with subtitles.  They cannot stand to “read” a film.  Come on!!!!  You have to allow yourself the opportunity to uncover amazing documents of cinematic escapism beyond the American fare.  No film hinges on the subtitles that flash across the bottom of the screen.  Like any movie, the primary element is the photography of the piece.  Since I am not much of a traveler, domestic or international, it is so refreshing when I’m reminded that cultures, behaviors and customs outside my comfort zone of the United States, are not any different from me or the people I surround myself with.  We are all capable of love, drama, humor, sacrifice, crime and an innate possibility of flying off the handle in very, very extreme ways, whether we are justified or not. 

I am not familiar with many foreign pictures.  Honestly, I don’t get motivated enough to seek them out.  I need to lighten my reluctance.  It is fortunate that my colleague, Miguel E Rodriguez, provided this entertaining, mischievously fun collection of devilish short thrillers to our Cinephile movie group for a Sunday viewing.  Damián Szifron has crafted a film that you can’t take your eyes off.  The photography is striking with amazing camera angles such as a point of view from inside an airplane luggage compartment or from the sidewalk ground level where an automobile owner discovers that his car has been wrongfully possessed.  Miguel says moments like these are Tarantino inspired.  Maybe.  I like to think I’m watching a film by Damián Szifron, an insightful and skilled director at the top of his game.

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.

PANIC ROOM

By Marc S. Sanders

There are few films I come across where a phone call to 911 is immediately put on hold. There are few films I come across where the one in danger has an opportunity to speak face to face with a policeman while the burglars factually can not hear, and will still not relay that she, her daughter and her ex-husband are in danger. There are few films. Just a few. David Fincher’s stupid excuse for a cat and mouse thriller known as Panic Room is one of those few films.

I can forgive loopholes on occasion for the sake of maintaining suspense and to simply have a complete movie. I can not forgive it here however. Opportunities open up easily for Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart to take an upper hand. Equally so, moments open up for the bad guys as well, played ineptly by Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakum and Jared Leto. The game of outsmarting you might find depicted in Home Alone is more sensible than David Koepp’s mindless script.

The three bad guys break into a home equipped with a sealed panic room. As they get in, Foster and Stuart make it into the secure area before being taken captive.

Fincher does great camera work within a 3 story New York brownstone. He can capture in a single shot a close up of a breathless Foster in one half of the screen while a menacing figure walks covertly down an adjacent hallway on the other half. The labyrinth of the house looks good in darks and midnight blues. That’s where the attributes of Panic Room stop, however.

Everything else is controlled by manufactured contrivances offered up by Koepp’s script. Security cameras can be smashed while it just so happens that the thieves are not watching the monitors. When the electronic door to the room is opened, no one will hear a thing until a lamp topples over. You don’t even here the buzzing or slam of the steel plated door. You can also sneak around the wooden floors and will not be heard until Koepp’s writing and Fincher’s direction allow it. Otherwise these old floors will creak and echo. I talk often about how the environment in a film is a character in and of itself, like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Well if this brownstone is giving a performance in this film, then it dropped a line, came in too early, came in too late and missed a dozen cues during its performance.

Policemen will come to the door and nary insist on coming inside the home, where a dead body lay as well as a wounded hostage and various wreckage is strewn about. Foster knows the bad guys can’t hear a conversation while they are in the panic room, but she will still not share the fact that she’s in peril. Why????

Most infuriating is that 911 will take an emergency call and put her on hold. That’s where I checked out. Nothing else mattered.

Panic Room is beyond intelligence in so many ways.

Oh yeah, also there are no neighbors within an adjacent neighborhood of brownstones that ever hear the commotion at hand.

My colleague Miguel might say, “well then you’d never have a movie.” My reply is Panic Room doesn’t seem like it ever was a movie to begin with.

UNLAWFUL ENTRY

By Marc S. Sanders

The boogeyman is dressed as a police officer!

In 1992’s Unlawful Entry, Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) directs a well-played Ray Liotta as a psychotic cop named Pete Davis who is terrorizing a yuppie couple named Michael & Karen Carr (Kurt Russell, Madeleine Stowe). The Carrs experience a home intruder who puts a knife to Karen’s throat. Officer Davis offers comfort to the pair and happily volunteers the arrangements for a high-tech alarm system. The first mistake that Michael makes is sharing the password with trusty Pete. You’ll expect that to come into play later on. Maybe what inspired the password will work itself into the film as well. Hmmmmmm?????

It’s difficult for Pete to resist the obsession he has for Karen and so he begins a campaign to get Michael out of the way. First, he demonstrates his brutality by offering Michael the opportunity to senselessly beat up the home intruder for no other purpose than personal satisfaction. When Mike refuses, Pete finishes the job. Later, Mike makes efforts to keep Pete out of their lives. It’s hard to do that when a highly decorated cop is involved. Karen, his own loving spouse, won’t even truly believe Mike; neither will the police chief.

As Pete continues with his intentions, Mike’s credit cards are maxed out, he loses a high priced client that Pete has been talking to, parking tickets add up, and so on. Pete also appears at the house at inopportune times like when Karen is taking in a swim or creepily stepping into their bedroom while the married couple is having sex. Eventually, Mike is put out of the way when he’s imprisoned after being framed as a drug dealer. Now Karen is all alone for a terrifying third act that you’ve likely seen hundreds of times before.

Unlawful Entry is engaging while you’re watching, but it does not convey much. The happenings all appear probable if a deranged cop wanted to go through all this trouble. Therefore, Ray Liotta owns the picture. Yet, what did I learn here? Don’t call the police?

For Kurt Russell, this is the first of two “husband is being terrorized” roles for him. Later, Russell would headline the cast of a better film to fall in this genre called Breakdown. Still, I like Russell here. He starts out as a guy who is not capable of fighting for the sake of his wife. He regrettably admits that shame to Pete early on. Pete pounces on that advantage to win Karen. Later, the strength of Mike’s short temper followed by his fear push him to do what he must to protect himself and his wife.

Madeleine Stowe is a good actress. There’s just not much for her to do with this part. She’s the spouse who opts not to believe her husband’s concerns. If she did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. The third act is all action and blood and falling down the stairs and running back up the stairs. It’s no surprise really. Though it is convenient that Michael is finally able to post bail and get home in time for a final confrontation with Pete.

One thing that kept echoing in my head though was that as good as Ray Liotta is (he’s very, very good actually; very primal and deceiving), he is terrorizing a woman named “Karen.” Every time he says the name Karen, all that comes back to me is the film Goodfellas where he more or less tormented and disrespected Lorraine Bracco known as, you guessed it, Karen. A rule should be put in place, Liotta can no longer be cast with other characters named Karen. His Karen quota is maxed out.

WITNESS

By Marc S. Sanders

Recently, I viewed The Last Emperor and one issue I had was that it was challenging to comprehend the in-depth culture of the people it depicted. I really wanted to learn and pass the final exam with flying colors. Sadly, this was an AP class that I just wasn’t qualified for.

Now that I have watched Witness for the first time in many moons, I can honestly say there is an approach where you can get absorbed in a thrilling crime drama while also appreciating the core values of the community the film focuses on, namely the Amish who reside in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s a much easier film to learn from. That’s for sure.

Peter Weir directed Harrison Ford to his only Oscar nomination to date. Ford plays police officer John Book, opposite Kelly McGillis as Rachel Lapp, a widowed Amish mother traveling by train from home to visit family. At a layover stop in Philadelphia, her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas, in one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, so bright, observant and wide eyed) witnesses a murder committed by a decorated narcotics police officer (Danny Glover). When Book gets wind of who the cop is, all three of their lives are in danger and they are forced to flee and hide back at the Lapps’ home among the Amish community. Book, however, has taken a gun shot wound following an attempt on his life. The Amish see no choice but to heal him, especially at Rachel’s insistence.

Weir, with a marvelous script by Earl & Pamela Wallace and William Kelley, shows the intersection of two extremely different ways of life where an “Englishman’s” belief in aggressive tactics conflicts with the peaceful nature of people looking to never get involved with any other culture. A romance may seem inevitable between the two leads but it’s a difficult one to embrace. It’s truly forbidden, not simply by the elder Amish and their respective code, but both Book and Rachel know it can’t happen either.

Because we are aware of this forbidden romance that seems to break through anyway, there’s a terrific dance scene at night lit only by headlights within the barn. Ford and McGillis really shine through in this scene as it is the first escape from the fear they have for their lives and the code they honor and are reluctant to violate. It’s the best scene in the whole film. It presents possibilities for different people to interact despite the barriers that prevent such feelings and actions. They laugh and swing naturally. It’s a different kind of moment for Harrison Ford, unconventional when compared to a large majority of the action film roles he’s widely recognized for.

With a biting soundtrack of suspense from Maurice Jarre, Peter Weir also focuses on the theme of intrusion. When the climactic and certainly expected shootout sequence on the farm is to begin, it’s frightening and disturbing to actually see men in suits holding shotguns amid an unarmed society. There’s a masterful shot at dawn of the three men marching down the hill quickly approaching the farm. These aren’t cops being covert. These are cops storming a palace of peace and tranquility. It’s hard to watch because of the stain it leaves.

Josef Sommer is the lead dirty cop and he plays a great villain, truly an uncelebrated bad guy character, as the years have gone on. He’s a decorated officer who comes off with an intent that looks like it’s noble, until nobility will no longer work and intimidation has to set in. Weir shoots Sommer at a lower angle to give him an imposing height.

Ford is terrific. You see some of the Han Solo vibe in the character. He’s a tough cop after all, but then he transitions into an awakened man healed by the more primitive methods of the Amish and their drive to simply build and nurture. Another good moment occurs when Book contributes to building a barn with the other men. He shares lemonade with them. Assists with lifting the framework and hammering along. Two communities are no longer clashing. They are now blending.

McGillis is also very good in her role. She is determined to honor her background, but questions if she is capable of sin and defends her position later.

Witness gives an in depth look into the daily life of the Amish, literally how they farm, build and dress. Book wakes up with them before sunrise to milk the cow and he experiences what they endure from pesky tourists looking for photo ops. It makes for some funny moments as well as an opportunity to cheer for the stand he eventually takes.

Another funny moment is when Ford dons the Amish attire for the first time; it doesn’t exactly compliment him well at first. Book’s adaptability to his new community is awkward to grasp.

Witness presents a bird’s eye view into a very private way of living, and I saw a very large picture.

Beyond that, it’s also a crackling, good thriller.