by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
CAST: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban, Lindsay Crouse

PLOT: A New York City narcotics detective reluctantly agrees to cooperate with a special commission investigating police corruption, and soon realizes he’s in over his head, and nobody can be trusted.

Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City is based on a true story, and it never lets you forget it.  In a good way.  The film is defiantly ambiguous when it comes to the main character, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams), who is onscreen in virtually every scene, so we get to see every detail of his epic, tragic fall from a revered cop in the NYPD’s Special Investigations Unit to a glorified stool pigeon for the feds.

…ah, but see what I did there?  Without even realizing it, I’m already sort of siding WITH Ciello, who participated in many, MANY counts of outright theft, evidence tampering, bribery, and so on and so on.  But…in a very Dirty Harry way (but much more realistic), he was helping to cut through the frustrating red tape that would otherwise enable career criminals to get around the system.  But…he had to break the law to do so, and his fellow officers in the SIU were all complicit, some to greater degrees than others.  Their unbreakable code: never rat out your partners.  Ciello has a revealing line at one point: “I sleep with my wife, but I LIVE with my partners.”

This somewhat misguided code of honor is central to Prince of the City.  The film opens as Ciello’s unit makes a lucrative drug bust, confiscates some or most of the cash, and parades the captured criminals into a ramshackle courtroom, whereupon the assorted drug dealers are immediately sent back to Central or South America, bing, bang, boom, no muss, no fuss.  Meanwhile, a special commission, the Chase Commission, has begun questioning officers about police corruption.  Ciello is naturally resistant to cooperating at first, but a feisty conversation between him and his ne’er-do-well brother puts doubts in his mind.  “Look at you in your big house and your two-car garage!  You think I don’t know where this all comes from?  You think I’m stupid, Danny?!”

Ciello’s conscience finally gets a hold of him, and he agrees to cooperate with the commission.  This includes the unbelievably dangerous practice of wearing a wire to meetings between himself and assorted mob-affiliated tipsters.  I’ve seen numerous other films involving wires and mobsters, but Lumet does something different here, and it carries throughout the entire film.  Instead of punching up the suspense with crazy edits or inserts or spooky music, he simply explains the danger and lets the scene play out with as little movement as possible.  In its simplicity, there is as much suspense there as in anything by Hitchcock, accomplished with much less cinematic “pizzazz.”

This simple style pays off in two incredible scenes.  One is where a mobster is dead sure Ciello is wearing a wire and searches him thoroughly…but Ciello’s sixth sense warned him earlier to leave the wire at home.  Another comes when Ciello unthinkingly hands over some evidence to the mobster…wrapped in a post-it that basically says, “From the desk of the State Attorney’s Office.”  Because everything has been presented in such a straightforward style leading up to this moment, this scene has an astonishing effect on the viewer.  There is real danger here, an almost documentary-like feel to it.  The resolution of this scene, including the unexpected appearance of a gun at the worst possible moment, is one of the emotional highlights of this nearly three-hour film.

The casting of Treat Williams in the lead role of this crime epic was also a key to its success.  In the early ‘80s, there were any number of leading men that might have been a much more natural choice for this part: Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, Beatty, even Travolta.  Putting a relatively unknown, but VERY talented, actor in such a prominent role was a calculated gamble that paid off.  Since he had no major previous roles, Williams was essentially a blank slate.  He hadn’t been typecast as either a villain or a hero yet, so that supports the film’s foundation of maintaining a neutral stance toward the lead character.  The movie isn’t going to come out and tell you if it’s for or against Ciello.  The audience has to make that decision for themselves.

For myself, I would in no way condone his corrupt behavior.  But I admire his decision to at least try to do the right thing.  Despite his adamant stance that he will never, ever turn in his partners, it becomes abundantly clear that the various feds, attorneys general, prosecutors running his case will have no qualms whatsoever about putting him in jail the second he refuses to play ball.  As a result, he winds up being forced to provide crucial evidence that generates indictments for several of his partners.  The aftermath of those indictments varies from partner to partner.  Ciello is being eaten alive by remorse.  He believes he’s doing the right thing, but he can’t stand watching his partners go down one by one.  It’s a fascinating conundrum, manifest at every turn, even in the very last scene of the movie.

In one great scene, a group of prosecutors meet to decide whether to formally indict Ciello and pursue a prison term, even after he has provided them with information that led directly to countless arrests and indictments.  They are divided.  One prosecutor threatens resignation if charges are filed.  But another prosecutor’s argument stuck with me:

“I’ve never known a lawyer to risk his livelihood to expose the crooks in his profession.  And where’s the doctor who ever exposed Medicaid fraud?  Or unnecessary and botched operations?  Or even dope, for that matter?  What doctor ever came in?  Dan Ciello came in, and I don’t care why.  To me, Danny Ciello’s a hero…and we’re trying to decide whether to put him in hail or not.”

For me, that sealed the deal.  The movie is admirably restrained in providing its own standpoint on Ciello, but I would side with those calling him a hero instead of a villain.  I found myself thinking back to Sunday School and the parable of the prodigal son.  After the prodigal forsakes his father and his family, he returns, contrite and humble, begging forgiveness.  The loyal son can’t understand why his father rejoices upon the prodigal’s return, to which the father replies, “We have to celebrate, because your brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Ciello is that lost soul who desperately wants redemption, no matter how it might hurt himself or his literal partners in crime.  For that, I consider him a hero, not a villain.  Perhaps he’s no longer a prince of the city, but he is at least back on the side of the angels.

THE IMPOSSIBLE (Spain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The story of a tourist family in Thailand caught in the destruction and chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Impossible, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), is one of the best true-to-life survivor stories I’ve seen since Touching the Void.  No doubt some liberties were taken here and there at the screenplay level, as always happens with movie adaptations, but while the film played out, the story was as gripping as any book by John Krakauer.

It’s 2004, and the Bennett family is on Christmas vacation in Thailand, at a beautiful beachside resort that has only been open for a week.  (In a nice little detail, we see that the protective plastic film has not yet been removed from their light switch panels.)  Henry (McGregor) and Maria (Watts) enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas day with their three sons, Thomas, Simon, and Lucas (Tom Holland in his cinematic debut, already doing cartwheels and backflips on the beach).  On the morning of December 26th, an unthinkable catastrophe occurs when a tsunami, triggered by a massive seaquake offshore, slams into the beach.  The visual effects during this sequence are as convincing and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen.  As the wave sweeps over everything in its path, the Bennett family is separated.  Maria and her son Lucas manage to find each other in the immediate aftermath, but there is no sign of Henry and her other two sons.

What follows is a story that gives new meaning to the words “hopeless” and “hope.”  While the outcome is somewhat predictable – SOMEONE survived to tell this story, after all – the filmmakers have managed to put together a film that generates suspense and cheers despite what we may or may not know about this family.  There are scenes of people missing each other in hospital hallways by seconds.  In a lesser film, it might have been comic.  In THIS movie, those scenes generated groans of empathetic frustration from the audience (that is, me).  By that time, we had followed various Bennett family members through many highs and lows, and I desperately wanted the right people to be found at the right time.  It was unexpectedly effective.

That sentiment applies to the movie as a whole, not just that one scene.  I have seen so many disaster movies that I was primed to expect certain cliches and tropes, even though this movie was highly rated and recommended when it came out.  To be fair, this movie does indulge in those tropes.  I mean, by nature, it HAS to.  The difference with The Impossible is that these stereotypical events and scenes all felt way more real than expected.  Credit to the screenwriter and director for molding these cliches into something more compelling than yet another reworking of The Day After Tomorrow.  When the finale of The Impossible arrives, it feels uplifting and inspirational instead of hackneyed and obvious.  It’s a neat little magic trick that I wish I could explain better.

An interesting self-reflective thought occurred to me during this movie.  There is a scene where Henry, the father, is huddled with a group of English-speaking survivors in a bus station.  Someone offers Henry his cellphone, even though he is trying to save his battery in case his own family tries to reach him.  Henry reaches someone in England, but because he still cannot find his wife, he breaks down and hands the phone back to the stranger.  The stranger looks at Henry, looks at his phone, and hands it back to Henry: “You can’t leave it like that.  Call him back.”

My entire life, my favorite sub-genre of science fiction has been anything dealing with an apocalypse or set in a post-apocalyptic future, like The Matrix or World War Z or the superlative HBO series The Last of Us.  One of the things many of the movies in that genre have in common is the inherent tendency for humans to turn on each other or behave selfishly when the chips are down.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Somebody finds water in the desert, and instead of helping mankind, they sell it to the highest bidder.  Or someone discovers that the invading aliens will give them preferential treatment if they help round up more humans themselves.  That kind of thing.

Well, here is The Impossible, based on a true story, and here is a man who desperately needs to save the battery power on his cellphone, but whose compassion will not allow him to let Henry’s short conversation go unfinished.  “You can’t leave it like that.”

I have no way of knowing if this moment really happened or if it was manufactured.  All I can report is that scene, in a movie full of hard-hitting emotional beats, is probably my favorite scene.  Here is an apocalyptic situation in the truest sense of the word.  Here is a person who could have been justifiably selfish, but his empathy won’t allow him to turn his back on someone who is suffering.  It even got me wondering: would I do the same?

If this scene was taken from real life, then maybe all those post-apocalyptic movies got it wrong.  Maybe, when the chips are down, people are inherently good.  Is it possible?  I’d like to think so.  I’d like to think I’d do the same.

Long story short: The Impossible takes you on an unforgettable ride made even more remarkable due to it being based on a true story.  It’s full of great performances and astonishing visuals, but you may never want to stay at a beach resort again…

P.S.  According to the real-life woman played by Naomi Watts, the biggest “lie” in the movie was the color of the ball her children were playing with just before the tsunami struck…it was yellow, not red.  Do with that information what you will.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin
CAST: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.

My feelings about Martha Marcy May Marlene are all over the map right now.  It angered me, shocked me, mesmerized me, saddened me, and thrilled me, all at once.  A despicable cult lies at the center of it, and having recently watched the second season of HBO’s The Vow, I noticed it shared many similarities with NXIVM, an even MORE despicable cult, which just angered me even more.  The movie’s saving grace is Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Martha, who escapes the cult after the opening credits and tries her best to adapt into real life after being brainwashed for two years.  But even with Martha as the star (and it’s a terrific performance from Olsen, by the way), Martha Marcy May Marlene dances recklessly on the verge of being a movie featuring people so abhorrent that I wanted to turn it off.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a powerful, provocative film that asks lots of questions, and had me wondering about myself.  If my sister disappeared for two years, then wandered back into my life with no money and no home, then behaved erratically and sometimes dangerously around my friends and loved ones…how much of that could I take before I started making inquiries about psychiatric institutions?

Martha’s sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), does her dead level best to make Martha comfortable and keep the peace between Martha and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who does his best, but resents her for “invading” his 2-week vacation.  Lucy knows Martha is hiding something, but she senses it’s unwise to try to drag it out of her.  But every time the opportunity arises for Martha to give some insight, she either backs away or turns it into a verbal attack.

This was one of the things that infuriated me during the film.  I even paused the movie and asked Penni about why it made me so mad, thinking I needed a woman’s point of view.  Why, oh, WHY does this young woman, who has clearly been traumatized in some way, not implicate the people who mistreated her for so long?  Clearly, I’m not a psychiatrist.  I’m sure someone would be able to provide me with a concise answer that makes Martha’s behavior understandable.  The movie, however, does not provide such an answer.  Ultimately, that’s one of its strengths.  If it had ended with a Psycho-style expository monologue that gave clear-cut reasons for everything Martha does, it would have felt anti-climactic.

Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult’s leader, is not movie-star handsome by any stretch of the imagination, but he possesses that innate, infuriating ability to say exactly the right things at the right time.  One trick is to give all the women new names; he re-names Martha “Marcy May” the first time he meets her.  As a result, every woman in the compound is devoted to Patrick.  How devoted?  Whenever a new female member is introduced to their “family”, one of the first things the older members do is feed her a shake with a sleeping pill blended into it.  Then, when the new girl falls asleep, Patrick can come in and rape her while she sleeps.  The word “disgusting” doesn’t begin to approach this tactic.  But the fact that the women will talk with the new member after that first encounter, and convince the newbie that it’s all good, it’s all fine, we wouldn’t be here if it was bad, you’re sooo lucky…I mean, if I had popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen, I was so mad.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is not just about the rage it instilled in me, though.  It asks us to empathize with Martha, and it succeeds, even when she behaves unpredictably.  One night, Martha crawls into Lucy’s bed…while Lucy’s having sex with Ted.  Lucy and Ted are understandably freaked out, but Martha seems dazed by their anger.  “Why would you do that, Martha?!”  Her reply: “I couldn’t sleep.”  At that point, I could clearly see both sides of the situation.  Lucy and Ted had every right to be angry, but Martha simply didn’t know any better.

The flashbacks to Martha’s days with the cult start out fairly normal, but as the movie progresses, we finally start to see some of the other incidents that finally drove her to run away.  One particularly ominous scene shows Martha and another girl having target practice with one of the other young men in the cult.  Patrick shows up with a live cat in a sack and abruptly tells Martha to shoot the cat.  When she refuses, he tells her to shoot the young man.  The man starts to walk away, and Patrick, in a voice raised ever so slightly, tells him, “Don’t you walk away from me.”  And he stops.

The cult members practice periodic home invasions to gather needed supplies, since the farm they’re working on isn’t fully functional yet, and you can only get so much money by selling blankets in town.  They do their utmost to avoid contact with the residents, but sometimes, things just…don’t work out the way you want them to, you know?

Martha Marcy May Marlene qualifies as a great film because it simply presents the facts of the story and doesn’t editorialize, doesn’t preach.  I can report that it’s a stunning character study/thriller, and I can tell you that the performance from Elizabeth Olsen is superb (her movie debut, by the way).  I can say that the filmmaking strategy is on point – kudos to director Sean Durkin.  And I congratulate it on eliciting the kind of emotional response from me that I’ve only felt once in my entire life.  It may not be the same for you.  But there you have it.

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Great Britain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh
CAST: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

I wanted to like Seven Psychopaths more than I ultimately did, but it is still a fun, mostly unpredictable ride.  My biggest hangup was that it felt too similar, in broad strokes, to other “meta” movies.  To other BETTER movies, unfortunately.  I always try to review the movie in front of me instead of comparing it to other films, but in this case that guideline proved impossible.  But I did try.

The story involves Martin (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles; Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), his best friend who also runs a dog-napping racket with HIS friend, Hans (Christopher Walken); and Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a dog-loving gangster whose favorite pet is a Shih Tzu named Bonny…whom, as it happens, the dog-nappers have stolen.  We get an idea of just how much Charlie loves his dog during a scene where he interrogates the dog-walker who lost her.  When a man is willing to shoot someone over a dog, I’d be the first in line to give it back, but Billy has other plans.

See, his friend Martin is trying to write a screenplay.  He’s under a deadline, but all he has so far is the title: Seven Psychopaths.  He doesn’t even know who all the psychopaths are yet.  So, Billy tells him a couple of stories about psychopaths that he’s heard about here and there, and the characters slowly start to take shape.  Meanwhile, Hans makes periodic visits to his cancer-stricken wife at the hospital.  Also, a serial killer is on the loose, but he only kills mafia and yakuza hitmen.  ALSO also, Billy puts an ad in the paper advertising for psychopaths to reach out to him and Martin so their stories can be used in Martin’s screenplay.  That’s how they wind up meeting Zachariah (Tom Waits), an odd little man who carries a rabbit wherever he goes and spins a tale of how he and HIS wife would hunt…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you see, there’s a lot of story going on.  And, as I mentioned before, most of it is unpredictable.  The concept of a killer who only targets hitmen is unique, at least in my mind.  But when the story focused on Martin’s screenplay and how it was being put together, that’s when I started having cinematic déjà vu.

Example: Martin isn’t sure how he wants it to end.  He’s a pacifist, so he doesn’t want it to end in a cliched shootout.  Billy spins a tale of how HE would end the film, with a bullet-ridden, blood-soaked shootout in a cemetery, featuring the return of Martin’s ex-girlfriend for no reason and a supporting cast of all seven of the psychopaths reuniting, also for no reason.  At that moment, I instinctively thought, “Well, clearly this movie is going to end in a shootout.” And it does. Sort of.

Martin hears Billy out and disagrees.  “They should all just go to the desert and talk their issues out instead of shooting each other.”  Again, I realized, “Okay, so they’re going to wind up in the desert.” And they do.

And so it went, over and over again.  A character would pitch an idea for Martin’s screenplay, and later in the film that idea would suddenly be manifested.  Martin gets criticized because his screenplay doesn’t feature enough women and doesn’t give them anything meaningful to do or say…in the middle of a movie where the women don’t do or say anything meaningful.

Don’t get me wrong, I like meta movies.  But despite the dark comedy and the typical awesomeness of Chris Walken and the other elements that weren’t so predictable (the reason behind Hans’ cravat, for example), I just couldn’t shake the feeling of “it’s all been done before, and better.”  I’m thinking specifically of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (no screenwriter, but same vibe) and Adaptation, a movie where the lines between reality and the screenplay get so blurred as to be non-existent.  Seven Psychopaths feels like it’s trying to get to that level, but it never quite gets there.  On that level, it’s not quite a success.

However, I will say it’s worth a watch for any movie fans.  There are enough satirical elements that make it worthwhile.  (“But his rabbit gets away, though, because you can’t let animals die in a movie…just the women.”)  Walken’s performance is, as always, the stuff of legend, even in a smaller role like this one.  Late in the movie, he has a marvelous scene between himself and a button man with a shotgun.  If that vignette is not mentioned during the tribute video when he eventually passes away, I would be extremely disappointed.

A PROPHET (France, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard
CAST: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A new arrival in a French prison is recruited by the ruling Corsican gang to carry out hits and traffic drugs. Over time, he earns the gang leader’s confidence and rises in the prison ranks while secretly devising plans of his own.

The French film A Prophet, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, plays like the origin story of an alternate-universe version of Tony Montana.  A young, uneducated criminal, Malik (Tahar Rahim), arrives at a French prison and is almost immediately recruited by the ruling Corsican gang and their leader, César (Niels Arestrup), to kill another prisoner, an Arab, who could testify against César.  César’s method of guaranteeing Malik’s participation is ingenious: “Now that you know the plan, if you don’t kill him, we kill you.”

Malik will spend the rest of the film learning the ins and outs of criminal activity within the prison walls and occasionally outside as well, a process explained with great attention to detail.  For instance, for Malik’s first hit, he must seduce his male target into lowering his defenses while they’re alone.  However, since he knows he’ll be frisked first, he must hide the only lethal weapon he can find, a razor blade, in the only place it won’t be found AND be readily available: tucked inside his mouth between his teeth and cheek.  Ouch.

A Prophet doesn’t rush.  It takes its time with its plot development and character building.  It seems to me that the best films set in a prison adopt this strategy, or they should.  The deliberate pacing gives us time to settle into the world of the prison and the prisoner.  It creates the sensation that time is passing a little more slowly, which is exactly what any prisoner must feel every day.  The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind.

Malik’s slow conversion from timid newbie to trusted assistant in César’s gang to eventual dangerous adversary is never less than captivating, but in a weird way…like watching a hungry tiger stalk its prey.  The filmmakers are careful to give Malik human foibles.  At one moment, we watch Malik carrying out a task for César.  The next, he’s studying French in an adult literacy class because he never learned to read.  Or we see him alone in his cell where he occasionally has matter-of-fact conversations with the ghost of his first kill.  I particularly liked the scene where the ghost would predict random events in the courtyard outside of Malik’s prison window.

The idea is to make sure we never lose sight of the fact that, whatever Malik is becoming, he was and is a real person.  There are questions being asked in A Prophet about the efficacy of a prison system that, instead of rehabilitating criminals, seems to embed them deeper into a criminal lifestyle by the time they’re released.  Sure, Malik is a character in a movie, but how many other convicts just like him are chewed up and spit out of the prison system?  I was reminded of a scene in another prison film, Brute Force (1947), when a prisoner is working in the prison mechanic shop working on a car.  Someone asks him, “What have you learned?”  The prisoner says, “I’ve learned that, when I get out, I don’t wanna be a mechanic.”

As A Prophet works its way towards its Godfather-esque ending, Malik’s chilling evolution reaches the point where, with the help of his contacts with former inmates, he can orchestrate the kidnapping and beating of a rival drug dealer outside the prison walls who threatens his own plans for getting out.  Nothing Malik or César did seems outrageous or implausible in any way.  It’s scary how easily they can pull the strings of so many people inside and out.

I am rambling, but I’m simply at a loss to efficiently explain how effective this movie is in its portrayal of the rise and rise of an eventual crime boss.  In the final scene, as a caravan of black vehicles follows a key character as he walks out of the prison for the last time, a chill came over me as I realized the implications.  It’s a brilliant final curtain on a character every bit as chilling as Michael Corleone or Tony Montana.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Alan J. Pakula
CAST: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 78% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Sophie, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has found a reason to live with Nathan, a sparkling if unsteady American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust.

I have not seen a movie as stirring, as affecting, or as emotionally shattering as Sophie’s Choice in a very long time.  For years, I was aware of the film’s cachet and of Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance, but the opportunity to watch the movie never presented itself until very recently.  I was intellectually aware of the slang usage of having to make a “Sophie’s choice”, meaning that one had to choose between two equally undesirable options.  I knew it had to do with the movie of the same name, but I had no other context.  And for decades, the real context of Sophie’s choice had remained unknown to me until now.

That fact is one of the reasons Sophie’s Choice had such a devastating impact on me.  The screenplay is another, and naturally, there’s Streep’s landmark performance.

The story opens with an older man’s narration while we watch his younger self onscreen.  This is Stingo, played as a young man by Peter MacNicol.  He’s an aspiring author, and he’s just moved into a large pink boarding house in a Brooklyn suburb shortly after the end of World War II.  On his first day there, he encounters the two people who will irrevocably change his life, Sophie (Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline in his film debut).  They appear to be a couple, but they are in the middle of a brutal verbal argument on the stairs, with Nathan yelling awful things to Sophie, calling her a Polack, saying how much he doesn’t need her.  He leaves in a huff, Sophie is in tears, Stingo instinctively goes to comfort her, they get to talking, and the next morning Nathan returns, utterly contrite, at first suspicious of Stingo, but when Sophie assures him Stingo is just a friend, Nathan is all charm and goodwill and has nothing but good things to say about Sophie.

At this point, in my head, I had the movie all planned out.  Okay, so we’ve got a love triangle with a writer/narrator coming between an unattainable beauty and the capricious brute who loves her.  And this, I imagined, is what Sophie’s choice would eventually come down to: the penniless aspiring writer who is “safe” or the roguish charmer with the turn-on-a-dime temper.  Ho hum, been there, done that, I thought, but wow, is Meryl Streep’s Polish accent spot-on or WHAT?  Guess I’ll keep watching just so I can say I watched it.

That’s the ingenuity of the screenplay I mentioned earlier.  It strings you along for close to an hour, making you believe it’s about the romantic relationship among the three leads.  And then the movie springs one of the greatest head-fakes in film history.  What started as a soapy melodrama becomes a character study of the limits of human endurance, with scenes as fraught with tension as anything written by Hitchcock or Tarantino.

(I am going to have to write very carefully from here on out because I want to convey how effective the movie is while preserving its revelations.  It worked so well for me precisely because I knew very little about the plot, and I want to make sure you have the same experience, dear reader.)

Any appreciation of Sophie’s Choice must include a discussion of Meryl Streep’s performance as the title character.  She reportedly begged director Alan J. Pakula for this role, even after he had lined up a Polish actress for the part.  We can all thank the cinema gods Pakula went with Streep instead.  This is, without a doubt, one of the top three or four performances I’ve ever seen by any actor, living or dead.  Even leaving aside her mastery of the Polish accent…well, actually, let’s talk about that for a second.  She learned to speak with a flawless Polish accent.  Then there are scenes where she had to speak fluent Polish, so she learned Polish.  Then there are scenes where Sophie also speaks German, so she learned how to speak fluent German with a Polish accent.  I mean…it took me two weeks to learn two sentences in French and say them fluently.  If there were a fan-fiction theory that Streep is really a magical drama teacher at Hogwarts, I’d believe it.

At times during Sophie’s Choice, Pakula’s camera simply stops and stares at Streep while she delivers a monologue about her days before the war, or about how she survived as a personal secretary to the chief commandant of Auschwitz.  Her delivery during these scenes feels about as naturalistic as you can get.  You don’t feel like you’re watching an actress give a performance anymore.  It’s more like you’re watching a documentary about a Holocaust survivor.  It’s a performance that simply must be seen to be believed.

Next to Streep, Kevin Kline as her beau, Nathan, is almost overdone, stagey, far too full of ebullience and rage and earnestness.  Nathan is Jewish, and he is obsessed with the idea of tracking down the Nazis who escaped justice after the war.  However, his antics are balanced by Sophie’s serenity and unconditional forgiveness.  I look at it as a yin/yang kind of thing.  It works.

There are questions, though, about their relationship, especially as the movie wraps up.  Why does Sophie put up with this lout who whispers sweet nothings to her and impulsively proposes marriage in one moment, and in another moment is given to vicious accusations of infidelity and collaboration with the Nazis, then swings back again in a fit of contrition?  Perhaps she was wracked with survivor’s guilt.  Her parents, husband, and children never emerged from the concentration camps.  Perhaps she felt it was her duty somehow to prop someone up and latch on to a soul like Nathan, someone whose outward cheerfulness masked internal demons.  Perhaps being a helpmate for such a person keeps her own demons at bay.  Just a thought.

When I’m watching a movie on my own, I can measure how effective it is by how many times I talk to myself or yell at the screen while it’s playing.  With Sophie’s Choice, I didn’t do a lot of yelling until it performed its head-fake and veered into territories not even hinted at previously.  After that, there was a lot of my Gods and holy craps and oh Jesus-es.  The end of the movie is a roller-coaster that may not end in the happiest place ever, but it’s the kind of earned emotional catharsis that doesn’t happen very often at the movies.  A movie like this is a treasure.  I hope, if you’ve never seen it, you’ll make it a point to hunt down a copy and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

And don’t let anyone spoil it for you.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Dominic Sena
CAST: Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, Michelle Forbes

PLOT: A journalist duo go on a tour of serial killer murder sites with two companions, unaware that one of them is a serial killer himself.

Ask any movie fan for names of actors who played memorable serial killers in film, and you’ll get a lot of obvious ones (Anthony Hopkins, Charlize Theron, Anthony Perkins) and you might get a few not-so-obvious ones (Michael Rooker, Andrew Robinson, Peter Lorre).  But I’m willing to bet no more than one person in 20 will name Brad Pitt, whose performance as the skeevy Early Grayce dominates Kalifornia, the 1993 directorial debut film of music video director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish).  Pitt is so convincing and deliberately off-putting that I came close to switching the movie off and returning it to the thrift store where I found it.  Why would I want to keep watching a film where I’m repulsed by one of the main characters nearly every second he’s on screen?

Kalifornia may be predictable to some, but I was blown away by the story development.  Brian (David Duchovny) and his longtime girlfriend, Carrie (Michelle Forbes) are embarking on a cross-country road trip from Pittsburgh to California.  He’s an author writing a book on serial killers.  During their trip, he will visit infamous murder sites to gather material, and Carrie, a professional photographer, will take pictures for the book.

(The first time we see Brian, he’s mixing drinks at a party and holding forth about how the government should rehabilitate killers instead of executing them.  They are products of their environment, their upbringing, they’re not ultimately responsible for their own actions because they simply don’t know any better, and so on.  Over the course of the movie, his beliefs will be put to the test.)

Brian is short on cash until he finishes his book, so he places an ad on a university message board looking for people willing to split gas and food costs on a cross-country road trip to California.   One of the most incisive moments in the movie comes when Brian and Carrie drive to a meet-up point and spot their new travel companions: Early and his girlfriend, Adele (Juliette Lewis), a young woman whose mental development seems to have been arrested at about a 13-year-old level.  Carrie whispers to Brian, “Look at them, they look like Okies.”  Meanwhile, Adele whispers to Early, “Oh, Jesus, Early, they look kinda weird.”  The movie seems to be setting us up for an awkward odd-couple road-trip movie where, uh oh, one of them is a serial killer!  But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

During their road-trip, and in between visits to famous murder sites, Early and Brian start to bond a little, much to Carrie’s dismay.  Brian has a theory about why the Black Dahlia killer was never found, but Early has another: that he’s alive and well in a trailer park somewhere, “thinkin’ about what he’s done, goin’ over it and over it in his head, every night, thinkin’ how smart he is for gettin’ away with it.”  Ohhh-kay…

One night when Brian and Early are at a bar, Carrie and Adele get to talking, and Adele reveals that she doesn’t smoke because “he broke me of that.”  Carrie asks her if Early hits her, and her reply is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying: “Oh, only when I deserve it.”

This and several other red flags get to be too much for Carrie, and she gives Brian an ultimatum: “Either they get out at the next gas station or I do, your choice.”  What happens at that next gas station I would not dream of revealing, but it ignites the slow burn of the previous hour and turns Kalifornia into a tense, bloody thriller that rivals anything by David Fincher.

I’ve given so many establishing plot details above (I left some juicy bits out, trust me) because I’m trying to convey how this film, which starts out like a slightly amped-up basic-cable movie-of-the-week, shifts into another gear in the second hour.  Unsuspecting viewers like me, who have only heard of the movie but never even seen the trailer, will watch the first hour wondering where the good movie is.  But have patience, it’s coming.  The payoff is worth the wait.

[Author’s note: by the way, don’t watch the trailer for this movie.  It gives away WAY too many plot points that I haven’t mentioned, both before and after the gas station incident mentioned above.  Just the worst.]

Visually, I didn’t see a lot of the music-video camera pyrotechnics that director Sena would later employ in Gone in 60 Seconds, etcetera.  The movie is content to let the dread sort of speak for itself.  The various murder sites they all visit seem even creepier and uglier than they need to be.  Slick editing brings little details into focus that heightens the tension.

Ah, I can’t think of any way to explain how great this movie is without giving away more plot details, and this movie is best seen in a vacuum, knowing as little as possible.  So trust me.  If you’re a fan at all of serial killer movies or documentaries, this movie will not only entertain, it will give you a lot to chew over.  Kalifornia belongs in the serial killer movie pantheon with The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  Especially that last one.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTORS: Michael Rianda, Jeff Rowe
CAST: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, Olivia Colman
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope.

Discovering The Mitchells vs the Machines feels like finding a discarded lottery ticket that someone threw away.  Intended for theatrical release in 2021, it was instead sold to Netflix when that became unfeasible due to Covid.  I have no way of knowing how many people may have streamed it, but it didn’t exactly take the world by storm.  I happened to find a discounted copy on sale at Target some time ago and have only just now gotten around to watching it.  Written and directed by the writers/creators of the acclaimed animated series Gravity Falls and produced by the minds behind the Jump Street reboots, the two Lego Movies, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this movie is a home run that feels like it has been all but forgotten by the general public.  If you’re a member of that section of the public, and you like great animated films, do yourself a favor and carve out some Netflix viewing time.  You won’t regret it.

The Mitchells are a mildly dysfunctional family with their hearts in the right places, but their quirkiness gets the best of them sometimes.  Aspiring filmmaker Katie Mitchell (voice of Abbi Jacobson) has been accepted into a film school in California, but instead of flying, her father, Rick (Danny McBride), decides to make one last effort at connecting with his daughter by taking the whole family on a road trip in a mid-90s station wagon whose model name is sensible.  As in, that’s the name of the model, the mid-90s Sensible.

The mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) tries to act as a buffer between Katie and Rick, when she’s not trying to get her family to act more “normal” like their all-too-perfect next-door neighbors (voiced by John Legend and Chrissy Tiegen).  Katie’s younger brother, Aaron, is so obsessed with dinosaurs he calls random people from the phone book: “Hi, would you like to talk to me about dinosaurs?  No?  Okay, thank you.”  They have a pug dog named Monchi that apparently has the IQ of a carrot and looks like he was bred in a bakery.  (“Bred” in a bakery…get it?  Don’t worry, you will.)  Put them all in close quarters and you’d be lucky to get them to survive into the next county, let alone halfway across the country.  And don’t forget that robot apocalypse mistakenly engineered by a tech genius (Eric André) who took the concept of obsolescence one step too far.

What follows is a Pixar-esque journey into self-discovery, industry and pop culture in-jokes, and genuine emotional moments.  Any quibbles I have with the movie have to do with certain physical logistics.  I know I shouldn’t bring the concept of real-world physics into an animated film that includes killer microwave ovens and ominous toasters, but there were a couple of moments that defied logic when everything else was doing so well.  I won’t spoil them, but they’re there.

But that’s a minor, minor quibble.  TMvTM is so delightful and fun, it doesn’t matter.

I loved the visual style of this movie, recalling the eye-catching pyrotechnics in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  To emphasize certain moments during the film, the filmmakers added little “flair” on the edges of the screen, or emitting from certain characters like in a comic book, but instead of feeling “comic-book-y”, it felt like a little glimpse into the mind of Katie, the main character, whose mind is constantly in “making-a-movie” mode.

I loved the “big-bad” in the movie because it’s based on the world’s ever-increasing reliance on portable electronic devices.  At one point, the villain shuts down the wi-fi on a global scale.  Humanity predictably loses its mind within seconds.  (My favorite example of this meltdown showed a woman pleading with someone to take a picture of her food.)  Do I advocate for a complete erasure of our devices?  Absolutely not.  But I am on the dad’s side when he insists on no devices at the dinner table.  Everything in moderation, folks.

Underneath the flashy style and effective villains, though, there is a real human story about the father’s desperate need to reconnect with his daughter before she leaves for college.  (Indeed, the film’s original title was Connected.)  The filmmakers took a lesson from Pixar’s playbook and made very sure to include some tender moments and heartfelt speeches that never once felt contrived or schmaltzy.  I don’t have kids, but if I did, I could easily imagine myself shedding a tear when the dad watched old home movies of himself and Katie when she was a toddler.  And I loved the story behind the wooden moose.  The story is diligent about giving everyone a solid, believable back story that fills in the blanks without resorting to lengthy flashbacks.  Not an easy task.

As hidden animated treasures go, this goes on the list with Boy and the World and A Town Called Panic.  It’s streaming on Netflix, so chances are you have access to it right now, so…what are you waiting for?


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Nicholas Meyer
CAST: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen

PLOT: Before he wrote any of his famous novels, H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century when the serial murderer uses the future writer’s time machine to escape his time period.

There are two scenes in Time After Time that are genuinely shocking from a story perspective.  One involves a newspaper headline.  The other involves a bloody crime scene.  The first I should have seen coming, but the second I never would have guessed in a million years, and I literally yelled at the TV when it happened.  That’s good plotting.

Those two scenes are the only things that prevent me from giving Time After Time a lower score.  That, and the fantastical, thought-provoking nature of the story itself.  Too bad both those scenes and the plot are buried under layers and layers of hackneyed dialogue and the kind of forced situational comedy that would be more at home in Three’s Company than in a sci-fi adventure.

First, the good stuff.  After a credits sequence that looks inspired by countless grade-Z movies before it, the story starts back in London, 1893, two years before H.G. Wells would write his first novel, The Time Machine.  A prostitute is murdered in a dark alley, victim of the infamous Jack the Ripper.  Later that night, Wells hosts a dinner party at his house for some friends and shows them something he’s been building in his basement: a fully functional time machine.  It doesn’t quite resemble the famous machine from the 1960 classic The Time Machine – it looks more like a ride vehicle from an amusement park than a chair with attachments – but the Victorian details are all there.  There’s some talk about a vital key needed to return to their present and a VERY important device that is discussed without being precisely explained, at least not to my satisfaction.  When it makes a reappearance late in the film, I was still mystified as to its actual purpose other than a convenient deus ex machina.

Suddenly, Scotland Yard appears.  Turns out they tracked Jack the Ripper to Wells’ doorstep.  Tricky Jack awaits his chance and uses the time machine to escape…though, without that handy key mentioned earlier, the machine returns to its point of origin on its own, leaving Jack stranded in a world 86 years in the future.  Wells feels duty-bound to bring Jack to justice, so he follows Jack, setting up the meat of the next few reels: a man from 1893 London struggling to adjust to daily life in 1979 San Francisco.

(It must be noted that the bulk of this film’s budget was clearly NOT devoted to the visual effects department.  The effects on display as Wells travels through time are cheesy at best.  I’d try to describe them here, but my words cannot possibly do them justice.  I couldn’t even find a decent still shot to embed here that would accurately convey just how low-rent they are.  I recently watched 1974’s execrable Zardoz, and I’m here to tell you, from a VFX perspective, Time After Time makes Zardoz look like Interstellar.)

H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time?  This is a great plot from a sci-fi perspective, a thrilling “what-if” tale.  I had heard about this film for years but was never able to find a copy until recently.  The scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are decent.  Not stellar, but decent enough that I was pretty sure I would enjoy it.  The movie was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, the mind behind The Day After, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  That’s not a bad track record.

But, man oh man…for most of the film’s middle section after Wells arrives in 1979, the movie’s brain goes on sabbatical.  Example: he walks into a McDonald’s, takes careful note of how the customer in front of him orders a meal, then does his best to literally impersonate the customer.  He doesn’t just order what he orders…he gives an impersonation of the customer’s voice and accent.  Why?  He doesn’t do that at a pawn shop or a bank.  No, it’s just there because someone thought it would be a laugh to see Malcolm McDowell do a broad American accent.

I can’t deny that the potential is there for real humor.  I couldn’t find it.  I thought these scenes were completely at odds with the tone of the first third of the film.  Wells meets a bank teller, Amy, (a very young Mary Steenburgen) who inexplicably falls in love with him at first sight.  She’s so taken with him she impulsively asks him to lunch, an act that, in 1979, was directly at odds with 99.99% of all other screen romances, so kudos to that, I guess.  But why?  I’m not saying Malcolm McDowell is an affront to the concept of human beauty, but…really?  As Wells, he’s the 19th-century version of a science nerd.  Amy is not a character so much as a cardboard placeholder to be moved and manipulated according to the whims of the plot.

The dialogue is clunky, to say the least.  There is a foot-chase between Wells and Jack that is devoid of suspense.  The score by Hollywood legend Miklós Rózsa feels utterly out of place, as if someone simply lifted Rózsa’s score from some other film and plugged it in where necessary.  There is simply no romantic chemistry between McDowell and Steenburgen, as evidenced in a painfully unfunny scene when they sit on a couch and she declares: “Herbert, if you don’t take me into your arms, I’m going to scream.”

Another actual line of dialogue: “My mother was rather an atrocious woman in her own way, but her many failings did not include raising mentally deficient sons.”  That’s not a real person talking, that’s a writer trying to imitate George Bernard Shaw.

No doubt someone out there will tell me I missed the boat with this movie somehow.  Perhaps Rózsa’s score is intentionally “retro” to make the whole movie feel as temporally displaced as its characters.  Perhaps the intention was the same with the hopelessly amateurish visual effects.  Who knows.  It’s possible.  Maybe there’s a better movie here somewhere and I’m not equipped to find it.  I doubt it, but it’s a possibility.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep this movie in my collection as an example of how a great story can be derailed by poor execution.

And maybe I’ll bring it out if my fellow Cinemaniacs are in the mood for a “So-Bad-It’s-Good” movie day.

[P.S. Keep your eyes open for the screen debut of an 8-year-old Corey Feldman.]

DON’T LOOK NOW (United Kingdom, 1973)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Nicolas Roeg
CAST: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In Venice, a married couple grieving the recent death of their young daughter encounter two elderly sisters, one of whom is psychic and brings a warning from beyond.

I’ve only seen two films from director Nicolas Roeg.  The first was Walkabout, which I’ve now seen three times in an effort to “get” it.  While I admire Walkabout’s visual strategy, that film has always left me cold and frustrated, and I do not imagine that will ever change.

However, Don’t Look Now, Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier short story, is about as expertly made as any supernatural thriller could be.  While the story may feel a little thin when all is said and done, this is yet another case of a movie not being what it’s about, but how it’s about it.  The entire film utilizes an editing and cinematographic strategy to convey an aura of dreamy dread and paranoia.  Of course, the performances from the two leads, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, are exceptional, but the direction, editing, and cinematography are really what make Don’t Look Now so disturbing and compelling.

Christie and Sutherland play married couple Laura and John Baxter who are grieving the death of their daughter, Christine, who drowned in the pond behind their cottage.  The scene of her death which opens the film showcases the visual and editing strategy that will come into play so heavily later in the film.

They relocate to Venice, leaving their other child, a son, behind in England in a boarding school.  In Venice, John works on restoring an old church while Laura…well, it’s not clear what Laura does to pass the time in Venice.  One day she bumps into two old women in a café restroom, one of whom is a blind psychic.  The psychic abruptly tells Laura that she’s seen Christine, happy and laughing, and wearing the red raincoat in which she drowned, information the psychic could not possibly have known beforehand.

Later, as John wanders the Venetian streets at night, he gets a brief glimpse of a small figure darting among the buildings ahead…wearing a red raincoat.  When Laura visits the psychic again, the psychic warns Laura that she and her husband are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, a body is discovered in the canal near their hotel…

Because the film’s effectiveness relies so heavily on its visual style and editing, I’m finding it difficult how to convey how strongly I recommend searching this movie out, while simultaneously acknowledging the story itself is not as “meaty” as, say, a thriller from David Fincher or Alfred Hitchcock.  I was actually reminded more of the films of Brian De Palma and David Lynch, two directors whose visual and storytelling styles were clearly influenced in one way or another by Don’t Look Now, which was itself clearly influenced by the early films of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria), though without quite so much bloodshed.

Making a movie like this is tricky.  Use too much cross-cutting and non-sequitur edits, and you risk simply confusing the audience.  One plot point involves John putting Laura on a plane back to England, but hours later he clearly sees her on a funereal gondola in Venice.  Convinced the two elderly women are somehow behind it, he tracks down their apartment, only to find it abandoned.  Quick cut to the sisters in another hotel somewhere…laughing.  Are they involved in some kind of sinister plot?  Or is he having a breakdown?  Is this the director just yanking the audience’s chain simply because he can?  One could make the argument, but the process and style of the storytelling kept me intrigued rather than confused.

All sorts of small details become ominous.  A single glove abandoned on a windowsill.  A child’s plastic baby doll left on the steps leading down to a canal.  Old family portraits on a table.  The lingering glance of a stranger in a police station or a café.  In one scene, John visits the police, convinced the two sisters have kidnapped his wife.  IMDb trivia reveals that the Italian actor playing the captain had no knowledge whatsoever of the English language, so he simply read the lines phonetically without understanding what any of it meant.  As a result, his dialogue with John sounds oddly stilted and detached, almost menacing.  Is he part of some kind of conspiracy?  During their conversation, he actually sees the two sisters walking outside his window but fails to mention this fact to John.  Is he in on the conspiracy?  Or does he simply not recognize the two women?

After a few more plot developments and a couple more sightings of the small figure in the red raincoat in the distance and the discovery of yet another murder victim, everything finally gets wrapped up in a way that I found satisfying even though it didn’t exactly bring the kind of closure I was hoping for.  However, it does bring all the story threads together, including the possibility that John himself might be psychic without realizing it.  Don’t Look Now doesn’t pack quite the punch of Psycho or Mulholland Drive, but it is exquisitely well-made, well-acted, and well-directed.  Watch closely, and you can see how many other filmmakers have been influenced by this movie decades later.