By Marc S. Sanders

Do you believe in the word of God?

The Book Of Eli directed by The Hughes Brothers will make sure you do.

Faith carries Denzel Washington’s loner character on a journey through a grim, sunburned post apocalyptic wasteland as he protects a rare, sacred text. He has been on a sojourn to reach a final destination out west.

Me, being the religious skeptic these days, might normally find the convenient episodes of survival that Washington encounters as far fetched. However, The Hughes Brothers direct a script penned by Gary Whitta that never mocks the purpose of the film presented. As a viewer it would be rude of me to laugh at how Washington continues to walk when it seems he’s getting shot in the back. I wouldn’t dare misbehave in that manner. Watching The Book Of Eli…well…I feel like I’ve gone to church.

The Loner carries a book he faithfully reads every day as continues his long walk through treacherous, barren and motorcycle pirated lands. If the sun doesn’t blind him and kill him, the various marauders might.

The worst adversary of this bunch is Gary Oldman in yet another treasured villain role. Oldman keeps a tight authority on an “old west” inspired town, commanding from his comfortable leather chair in the upstairs level of the town’s bar (saloon, perhaps?). He’s been tirelessly dispatching men to find a particular book and perhaps it’s the one that The Loner possesses.

Post-apocalyptic wasteland, a book, a Loner, a villain. That’s the structure of this film along with some side characters like an impactful Mila Kunis and Jennifer Beals. Very simple ingredients allow for well edited moments where Washington can display his unexpected fighting techniques with a gun or a shotgun or a forearm length sword. When he exercises these moments the scenes are outstanding. Oldman is the guy who sits back letting his own horde do the dirty work and only acts when he sees that he has an upper hand. He’s oily, scary and in this dense waste of a future he likely dreams of being a prophet or a high powered evangelical might.

I was so pleasantly surprised by this film. Post apocalyptic films wear on me these days. How much is there to show that I haven’t already seen like abandoned cars, skulls, and deserted highways?

This is different however because Whitta’s script offers a reason to live through this hellish void. I had to wait for it but the ending is a very satisfying conclusion. I loved it, actually.

The Book Of Eli is a great film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Don’t blame Jane Campion.  Blame me. 

The ending to The Power Of The Dog feels ambiguous, but writer and director Campion invites you to think and ponder.  It also helps that I have a good friend who shed some light on how the film actually wrapped up.  I’m grateful because I appreciated the picture even more.  Ironically, my friend didn’t care for the movie.

Technically, Jane Campion directs an absolutely breathtaking film with majestic cinematography and art design of open Montana fields taking place in 1926.  Tech work can only take me so far though, and I appreciated the four different perspectives of the headlining cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Cumberbatch is Phil, a cowboy relic of the Old West.  He’s an expert horseman donned with spurs on his boots, and leather padding on the jeans along with the worn in staple cowboy hat.  He also has a fearful and intimidating temper.  Maybe that’s because his era is soon to be passed by and he’s not designed or updated for anything else.  Plemons is George. Phil’s subdued, business wise brother who knows his way around their Montana ranch, and more importantly knows how to build connections that’ll provide fiscal and political support, while he drives his Ford buggy to get from one place to the next.  Dunst is Rose, the artist of appetizing delicacies and designs who marries George.  She manages the kitchen of her restaurant and can play piano; not exceptionally well but her love for the instrument is what matters.  Her son is Peter, played by Smit-McPhee, a lanky and weak, yet book smart, young adult with his focus on the science of medicine.  He aspires to be surgeon.  So, as the 20th century is now over a quarter complete, these four individuals represent what once was, what is now, what is trending and what will become.

Campion sprinkles her film in more atmosphere than telling dialogue.  The gist of the story is how Phil’s tormenting presence scares both Rose and Peter.  A hair-raising scene occurs midway while Rose attempts to play a song on the piano, only to be drowned out by Phil’s cruel banjo interpretation from the top of the staircase.  Cumberbatch is really scary here as the bear teasing the cub to poke him.  Rose tries again and again to play only to be further interrupted by Phil.  A banjo is an instrument of a bygone era, the Old West.   The piano is the more sophisticated and elegant device to use now within the decorated designs of a reading room.

The future is also upon the characters.  Young Peter purchases a pair of sneakers to wear; not exactly the most appropriate for a horse ranch, nor are his suppressed homosexual yearnings.  Still, the future carries forth as he studies the latest in medicine and surgical practices, whether it is through dissection of a rabbit or studying the most up to date medical journals.

George is the symbol of transition.  He was raised like his brother Phil to be a rancher, but he knows that time has passed.  Currency, technology and longevity are necessary and it is not wise to remain stagnant in a time gone by.  It’s practical to develop connections with the Governor of the state, to drive himself and Rose in a car as opposed to by horseback.  To carry on the family name, it is also prudent he marries and builds a new generation.

I appreciated the subtle visuals and behaviors that Campion weaves into her adaptation from the novel by Thomas Savage.  Over the course of two hours, I was always learning something new, whether it be about the characters or the period setting.  Most telling is the fact that the past can not live in an updated future such as Phil with his suprising and deeply inhibited attraction to Peter.  As well, the future is not going to adjust well to the past like when Peter is trying to learn horse and ranch handling from a teasingly cruel Phil while wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat, white sneakers, and factory tailored jeans.  Furthermore, even if you’re only a frequent movie watcher, you likely are aware that Westerns would pit cowboys against Indians.  Rose demonstrates with her talents for craft how Native Americans are appreciated in this still young new century.  Phil and his ranchers would never imagine such relations to ever exist.

Our history is not comfortable with our eventual future, and our future can not fathom how we ever lived within our past.

Because these two worlds can never mesh in accordance with each other, a loss will have to be committed.  In another storyteller’s hands, The Power Of The Dog, might have resulted in a gun shot, or a stabbing or an illness to eliminate what cannot survive.  As well, long speeches of dialogue would spell out what must cease to continue and what must continue to flourish and go on.  With Campion’s lens, and with Savage’s work, it works atmospherically, however.  The environment of the Montana landscape along with life on a transitioning horse and cattle ranch serve the conflicting time passages and the characters who are relegated to a past, or a present, or a future. 

Don’t watch The Power Of The Dog with expectations of simplicity or quotable dialogue.  I value Campion’s approach to not spoon feed me.  Rather, take in the visuals of the four main characters’ behaviors.  Allow yourself to become more observant of the nature of how things end up.  Powerfully speaking, Jane Campion shows that some people will work well together, while others will crave to blend effectively, and sadly some can never live within another environment or time period, much less someone else’s.

The Power Of The Dog offers a thought-provoking message of loss and reflection while gazing into what’s just beyond.  It’s a very well-made film.


By Marc S. Sanders

The western motif of filmmaking really comes alive with the 1990 winner for Best Picture, Dances With Wolves starring Kevin Costner in his astounding directorial debut. Until now, this film eluded me. I just never got around to seeing it. Watching it now is to recognize the parallels of current events in the year 2020. A Native American Facebook friend of mine recently lauded the takedown of a statue of Christopher Columbus. At the risk of sounding like I’m taking political side (I insist that I’m not!), I think understand her position a little more. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this topic. I’m just saying I understand.

After committing what was seemingly an act of suicide, but instead is recognized as heroic in the eyes of the Union army during the Civil War, John Dunbar (Costner) is offered the pick of location for his next post. He opts for Fort Sedgwick because he wants to witness the frontier out west before it will likely be taken over by the white Americans. As Dunbar waits for fellow infantrymen to arrive, he gets the old fort into shape with his trusty horse Sisco. He also encounters companionship in a lone wolf he names Two Socks. The wolf only gradually learns to trust Dunbar, but that’s a project for the infantryman to occupy himself with. That, and keeping his personal journal.

Shortly after he’s settled in, he comes upon a Sioux Indian named Kicking Bird (an excellent Graham Greene). He and Dunbar are the first to develop trust with one another. Eventually, Dunbar’s good nature allows him the opportunity to rescue a white woman who lives with the Sioux tribe known as Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell). She has attempted to kill herself following the death of her husband. As the film continues, she becomes the translator between Dunbar and the other Indian leaders, allowing the story and relationships to move along.

The script by Michael Blake is fascinating simply because we are granted plenty of opportunities for the tribespeople to speak in their native tongue. Forgive me, I thought for a little about Hollywood’s most famous Indian, Tonto, and his laughably limited English. Here, language is instead limited for the white man as Costner does his best charade of buffalo to find initial common ground with the tribe’s holy man played by Greene.

Hollywood westerns seem to equate American Indians as savages, the bad guys of the films, complete with tomahawks and bow and arrows and bellowed battle cries for expression. Not here. Dunbar’s loneliness at the fort without another white man in sight does not allow for the ease of prejudice to interfere. Instead, he is a character who must learn to be accepted by the greater populace. When he is, he realizes that his true name is Dances With Wolves and not John Dunbar. That’s a fascinating character arc of change. The setting and the community within that location change the character. I was really moved by it.

As well, there is struggle and disagreements among the Indian population. Perhaps it truly is in the nature of humanity to be that way. The Sioux tribe must contend violently with the Pawnee tribe in a struggle to protect their territory and their food and supplies. Yet, that is wholly different from what drives the war that Dunbar has heroically served in. It’s not until Dunbar fights alongside his Sioux friends that he realizes he’s not an infantryman. This is another example of Costner effectively directing himself to find a new and enriching identity for his character.

A third example of character change stems from the eventual and expected love story that unfolds between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist. It’s something I’ve seen in countless other films. However, Mary McDonnell is quite good as the white woman whose English is close to being entirely replaced by the Native American tongue. She seems so indoctrinated within the Sioux tribe that when she first comes on the screen I questioned if she was a natural born Indian or an actual white woman.

Costner’s film is full of magnificent imagery. Gorgeous landscapes of the filming locations of South Dakota are like perfect paintings of open fields and endless blue sky. The blu ray transfer I watched was eye popping.

One of the greatest moments was a sequence involving a buffalo stampede. Costner with cast all on horseback ride within, as well as parallel to the animals and if ever a widescreen shot should be appreciated, this is a moment to turn to. The score moves beautifully with the pounding of the horses and buffalo stampeding across the open plains.

A personal sidenote is in regards to John Barry, the film’s music composer. I know this is an unfair criticism but at times his score is so strikingly similar to his work on various James Bond films that it was a distraction for me. Other times, Barry’s work lent well in some of the action scenes.

Nonetheless, what an incredible achievement that Costner commanded. He gives a terrific performance, but his direction is what truly stands out. Particularly, with the battle scenes and animal footage, I questioned how he managed to accomplish all of it. It’s just spectacular.

Dances With Wolves is certainly worthy of the accolades it attained and the reputation it still holds. The production value is easy to admire and unforgettable. Beyond that though, is the converse nature the film adheres to as a Hollywood western. The culture of a Native American tribe never seemed so authentic to me as it does here, accompanied with their sense of humor or even their temptation at playful gossip when observing the central love story between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist. We see what the Sioux tribe does to survive, yes. Still, we also see how they interact with one another and converse, as well as how they respond to a new neighbor, for example.

Dances With Wolves is an authentic masterpiece of a modern western. It’s a must-see film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sergio Leone closes out his Dollars trilogy with the epic The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, respectfully portrayed by screen legend Clint Eastwood, tough as nails Lee Van Cleef and one of the great scene stealers, Eli Wallach.

It’s clear from the start that Leone had at least triple the budget he had when he made A Fistful Of Dollars. This installment offers broad landscapes, gutted out old west towns, locomotives, and an infinite amount of extras to capture an extraordinary Civil War battle over a bridge.

For the three main characters, the Macguffin is $200,000 buried in a grave, yet each one knows a different piece of information relative to its location.

Eastwood’s quiet temperament takes a back seat to Wallach’s boorish ugly bandit and the film stays on a fast pace trajectory because of it. Wallach is given great moments whether he’s hanging by a noose or taking a bath (“If you’re gonna shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”) It is one of the all time great roles.

While Van Cleef was a huge attraction in a For A Few Dollars More, he surprisingly isn’t given much material here. That’s okay though. He makes the most of what he’s given and again he plays the man in black as cold and calculating. I’d like to uncover more films with Van Cleef. Such an interesting guy with as great a voice as say James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman. Fortunately for him the Dollars films revived his career following a bout with alcoholism.

Eastwood just does his thing, and it’s great entertainment to see him in a standoff followed by a twirl of his pistol back in his holster. He just has such a presence. The legend he’s become was truly recognized with The Man With No Name.

Leone recruits Ennio Morricone to compose what has become one of the most recognized scores in film history. The whistle harmonica that pursues the three players is as familiar as Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme or John Williams Jaws opening. Morricone is fortunately still working and he is partnering up with Quentin Tarantino again (first time with The Hateful Eight) on his upcoming film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It makes sense really. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is one Tarantino’s favorite films.

Leone made a gorgeous looking film. It’s any wonder that his resume consists of only 9 films altogether.

Sergio Leone was an inspiring master filmmaker and it’s easy to recognize elements of his films that appear to have inspired some of the greatest box office hits of present day. Funny, but whenever I see Eastwood blow an outlaw away with no questions asked, what comes to mind is Han Solo taking out Greedo in an off the map, lawless cantina. Those that know me, know what a high compliment that is for Leone’s efforts.


By Marc S. Sanders

The bloody landscape of the Wild West continued in Sergio Leone’s second chapter of his Dollars trilogy. For A Few Dollars More improves upon the first installment, A Fistful Of Dollars. The plot is cleaner and joining Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name is a very cool fellow bounty hunter dressed in black. Lee Van Cleef plays Colonel Mortimer, a former soldier armed with an array of weapons.

Mortimer and the Man form an uneasy alliance in order to track down the vicious Indio and his gang. The prize $10,000 for just Indio; a whole lot more for the entire gang.

Leone reminds audiences of the techniques he used in the first film. Yet he makes the tension grander with cut away close ups at his gunslingers’ eyes before a quick draw. A great middle moment occurs with a bank robbery. Leone strategically uses sharp edits on Eastwood, Van Cleef, Indio’s gang, the exteriors of the bank and the precious vault inside. Accompanied with Ennio Morricone’s whistler ballads, Leone continues his back and forth close ups of all involved in the scene only he speeds up the edits to build more tension and suspense. Finally, the scene is blown wide open with a moment I never expected. Great fun.

Eastwood does not invent anything new here. His costume is even the same as before. That’s the legendary image and that’s fine by me. Van Cleef is especially good. A real scene stealer with his crackling voice that tells of a past where his Mortimer character protected his boundaries by being the sharpshooter that he is.

Watching this for the first time only tells me that action films today work too hard throwing everything at you. Films today often don’t give enough about the character or the heroes. You don’t see what makes them tick. You don’t see a raw talent to the character. In this film, it is quick draw gunslinging. Look for a great scene where The Man and Mortimer meet for the first time in a quick draw duel of wits at night in the center of town. When you see how good they are with a six shooter, you believe it all.

Today, a hero’s talent is inherited by something gone awry normally. Leone leaves the mystery open as to how guys like Mortimer and The Man With No Name acquired their abilities. Why waste time on character background? Let’s just see what these cowboys can do.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars is a pioneering classic. It set the standard for the spaghetti western. It made Clint Eastwood a household name and it set a trend for tension filled violence in cinema often imitated by directors like Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Django Unchained), as well as even Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, Magnum Force) who regarded Leone as well as director Don Siegel as his inspirations and teachers in filmmaking.

The set up is simple. A desolate town plagued by two warring factions is met by the antihero, only known as The Man With No Name (Eastwood). The Man plays the best interests of the Mexican Rojas family against the Baxter family. In the midst of it all, he continues to collect bounties from both sides.

Leone seems to have invented trademark shots that have become routine staples in films like the protagonist appearing from behind a cloud of smoke, the zoom in camera during a quick draw duel, the surprise survival against the odds, and even the memorable one liner (“Get three coffins ready”…”My mistake. Four.”).

It’s exciting entertainment and it paved the way for a different kind of western. The good guy no longer rides a horse named Trigger while dressed in white. Here he welcomes the violence because he knows he’s the only who can eliminate the threat of bloodshed.

Eastwood’s character is a man of few words to keep the viewer curious. Where does he come from? Who is he? How long has he been traveling? It’s one of the all time great movie characters that leads threads hanging and inspired future favorites like Dirty Harry, Rambo, Wolverine, Neil McCauley (Michael Mann’s Heat played by Robert DeNiro), Batman and even Boba Fett, as well as some early Han Solo.

The first of the trailblazing Dollars trilogy still holds up despite the dubbed in English of most of the players. They might be hard to understand at times. Yet the craftsmanship of Sergio Leone makes sure all the elements are easy to follow with seamless control of the camera.

A great Western.


By Marc S. Sanders

Unforgiven is a crowning achievement for director/actor/producer Clint Eastwood. It’s really a movie and screenplay from David Webb Peoples (the scribe behind Blade Runner) designed only for Clint Eastwood. After a long career of portraying quiet men with violent means, Eastwood transitions to anti-violence that would thematically dominate the next chapter of his filmography with In The Line Of Fire, A Perfect World, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and Letters From Iwo Jima. (WOW!!!! What a list!!!!!)

The character of William Munny is now a failing pig farmer haunted by a past of gunslinging murder and mayhem. His past returns when he’s offered a large bounty to murder two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute with a knife. He recruits his former partner Ned (another likable character for Morgan Freeman) to accompany him, and they join a kid who presumes he’s ready to kill but is really only fooling himself.

Meanwhile two other stories collide when the cruel, torturous Sheriff Little Bill Dugget (Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning role) meets with a gleeful celebrity in his own mind, gunfighter English Bob played by Richard Harris. Character actor Saul Rubinek plays Beauchamp, a reporter eager to document and dramatize these legends of the quickly expiring period of the Old West. Beauchamp will soon realize the heroes he envisions are nothing but pipe dreams.

Little Bill outlaws weapons in his town, and for the offense? A brutal beating or a painful whipping. Hackman is great at looking like his motivations make sense. Maybe they do. He sets an example and maybe it casts a preventative measure, albeit with a brutal arm of the law. Little Bill is happy to beat someone in the street, only to return happily to building his home along the river.

Unforgiven doesn’t make the violence easy for its characters. It’s harder to kill. It’s harder to listen to a dying victim beg for water. It’s just as hard to mount a horse. Most importantly, it’s hard to accept how cold blooded you can be when pushed to a point.

To watch Unforgiven almost requires at least a little experience of Eastwood’s first half of his career. The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry surmise a history for Munny where it was easy to draw the revolver, point and shoot. This film shows that defiance of scruples doesn’t last forever.

It’s a 1992 Film (Best Picture Oscar Winner) that still carries an important message responding to the questions of bearing arms and Wild West violence that recklessly surfaces in what is expected to be a more civilized society today.

Watch Unforgiven for its many moments of symbolism, changes in attitude among practically every character, and for the well executed direction of another classic from the great filmmaker, Clint Eastwood.

This is one of the best pictures of the last 30 years.

(Would love to hear commentary from others on this film. This is one worthy of extensive discussion. I also recommend you read Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review; here – initially gave Unforgiven a thumbs down. This was one of those few instances where he changed his mind.) 


By Marc S. Sanders

Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider is more or less a simple western film with a storyline you’ve seen countless times before.  It’s an old west tale that has the The Magnificent Seven (or Seven Samurai) feel, but this might as well be called The Magnificent One, perhaps.

Pale Rider is nothing special in its assemblage to be another Hollywood western.  However, it’s delivery from Producer/Director Clint Eastwood is what kept me engaged.  Seeing it for the first time, nearly forty years following its theatrical release, I took great pleasure in recognizing the tough and intimidating persona that Eastwood became famous for in his spaghetti westerns and tough cop films.  The scowl and squint across his chiseled face are here along with his imposing height, with his black hat resting perfectly atop his head.  Eastwood knows how to capture himself on camera better than most any other actor/directors.  He capitalizes on his foreboding and intimidating presence.  He does it very well in Pale Rider when he points his camera at a distance down the dirt road where he’s saddled perfectly still upon his steed.  He does a shot like this as well in his Dirty Harry film, Sudden Impact, where he positions his silhouette against bright carnival lights in the background with his loaded gun held at his side.  This guy makes himself scarier than Freddy Krueger in moments like these, and in film history, the images are iconic.

Again, Pale Rider has all the trappings of what audiences used to love in Hollywood Westerns.  It has reminders of Shane and High Noon.  Yet, it’s a bit more brutal, because 1980’s cinema allowed that, and this film falls in the tradition of Eastwood’s continuous violent work at the time.  Still, that’s not why you watch an updated picture like this.  You take in Pale Rider as a Clint Eastwood vehicle.  The familiarity of Eastwood’s unnamed dangerous man that bad guys should’ve walked away from was treasured long before he thankfully segued into his anti-violent themes of films yet to come (Unforgiven, A Perfect World).  The point is that I recommend the film because…well…I’ll never tire of that scowl and squint.