By Marc S. Sanders

I don’t get it. Why title a movie with the name of a popular song only to make the movie title seem arbitrary? Some Kind Of Wonderful is a rockin’ great song by Grand Funk Railroad that you turn the volume up on your car radio as you leave work on Friday afternoon. Maybe you get the bar patrons riled up on karaoke night. Some Kind Of Wonderful is also the name of a movie written by John Hughes that has no meaning or relevance to the song it’s named after. It’s as lacking in imagination as the film itself.

Why do you suppose John Hughes didn’t direct this film and left it for Howard Deutch to take over? Could it be that Hughes realized this script was nowhere near as insightful as The Breakfast Club or even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

The characters are positively boring in Some Kind Of Wonderful. In fact, they are so boring that they look bored with each other. They look half-awake when they are talking to one another. Unless, that’s how you look cool in the rebellious 1980s. I dunno. To me they all looked flat.

Eric Stoltz plays Keith. He’s a kid who avoids college discussions with his father (John Ashton) while pining over Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson), the popular girl who’s dating the popular jerk with the Corvette. We get to hear a song called Amanda Jones not once but THREE TIMES. Where’s the song Some Kind Of Wonderful, though? Why not just call the film Amanda Jones?

Unbeknownst to Keith, his tomboy best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) plays it cool, while carrying around her cool looking drumsticks, like she doesn’t love him when it couldn’t be more apparent. Keith is so unbelievably stupid that he can’t even detect the slightest crush that Watts has on him when she practices kissing him so he’ll be prepared for an upcoming date he has with Amanda. Now I’d buy this routine if Keith were at least playing dumb to Watts’ advances. However, Keith is not playing dumb. Keith is just dumb.

As a community theatre actor and playwright at times, even I follow at least a slight discipline of exploring character backgrounds. Watts and Keith are best pals yet I don’t recall one tender moment or discussion that even slightly recollects their history or friendship. Pretty In Pink offered plenty of moments that shaped the Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer relationship. Not in Some Kind Of Wonderful, however. Every time Stoltz and Masterson meet up for a scene together it feels as if they never met each other before. They never look like they are familiar with one another and really know what makes the other tick. Are they acting with their stand in doubles?

I also was not so convinced of Keith’s attraction to Amanda. There’s nothing to this girl beyond Lea Thompson’s sultry looks. Granted, I recall having a day or even a month-long crush on a number of girls in high school simply based on appearance alone; girls who never gave me the time of day. Raging hormones naturally will do that to teenage boys but remember this is a movie. In a movie, I need to be shown why there is a crush. Not just told in a statement of dialogue.

Recently, I reviewed Can’t Buy Me Love. I didn’t like that film either. However, the popular girl in that film at least revealed a knack for poetry and a sudden interest in astronomy and an old airplane graveyard. The popular girl here only opts to go out with Keith to anger her jerk of a boyfriend. I don’t know anything about Amanda from beginning to end.

Keith only paints and draws images of Amanda. A talent for art is a springboard for sweet and sincere in a John Hughes movie, but it’s all Keith ever learns about Amanda. So it’s all we ever learn about Amanda. Great! You sketched a third picture of Lea Thompson. Sorry, but I already know what Lea Thompson looks like.

The date between Keith and Amanda tries to aim for cuteness and maybe some comedy. I say maybe because I’m not sure if the cast with Hughes and Deutch are looking for laughs. But see Masterson volunteers to be the limo driver complete with the hat and uniform, and drive the lovebirds around town. A limo uniform on a character can be funny like if Kramer in Seinfeld did it, or if it was one of the Three Stooges. Problem here is no one in this movie sees how funny it could be. So, it’s not funny. See how that works?

No one was at the wheel of this D grade fare teenage 80s flick. Beyond all that’s wrong with the story and characters and performances, ultimately again I ask, where is the song Some Kind Of Wonderful in the movie Some Kind Of Wonderful? If that doesn’t even occur to you, then I can’t have much faith the film will have any provocation of thought either…and it doesn’t!!!!!


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.


By Marc S. Sanders

I’m ashamed of myself. All the hours I wasted in my adolescence watching the 1980s teen flick, Can’t Buy Me Love. Now, having watched it again with my 12-year-old daughter, what was I thinking?

The overall problem with Can’t Buy Me Love is that literally every single character is drowning in depths of despicable shallowness. There’s not one redeeming character. Truly. I couldn’t stand to watch most of the film. Over and over again I asked myself what could I have been thinking? These are not likable people. Did I just repeatedly return to the film during Friday nights on HBO because I couldn’t take my eyes off actress Amanda Peterson?

Lawn mower nerd Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) pays $1,000 to popular high school cheerleader, Cindi Mancini (Peterson) to be his girlfriend at the start of their senior year. The plan will be once Ronald’s reputation is established among the jocks and preppy valley girl cheerleaders, that Cindi and Ronald will break up. In other words, boost Ronald’s image so that he can live by that image. (I can’t believe I just clarified this movie with a sentence beginning with “In other words,…” A movie this stupid should not need additional clarification by means or words or even crayon sketches.)

It’s obvious what’s going to happen. Beware the idiot plot!!!! They fall in love, but both are too stupid to realize that they have fallen for one another. So, they are just cruel instead. Their friends are cruel too in their own superficialities.

I don’t find much to be proud of anymore with Can’t Buy Me Love. Maybe it reminds me too much of high school, which by and large I don’t look back on very fondly. High school in a film like this is all about impressing the greater mass with the car you drive, how much mousse you drown your hair in, or the sunglasses you wear.

John Hughes’ teen films looked at material with more substance like status quo and social class with a picture like Pretty In Pink or The Breakfast Club. No one was trying to impress anyone with the latest trendy look. The characters stayed secure in their appearance and yet found a personality to be attracted to, not an outfit. The challenge was in keeping to yourself while stepping into territory where you didn’t feel welcome.

Can’t Buy Me Love adheres to the observation that “he went from totally geek to totally chic.” Thanks for the limerick. I appreciated Pretty In Pink for a sobbing scene where the main character is embarrassed to show where she lives to the rich guy whose genuinely interested in her. There’s a consciousness to Pretty In Pink that Can’t Buy Me Love lacks.

If anything, Can’t Buy Me Love introduces us to The African Ant Eater Dance. So, as a plus, at least it’s got culture and diversity going for it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Empire Of The Sun is a marvelous film.  Finally, I got to see it, and now I consider it to be Steven Spielberg’s transition film within his storied career. It’s also one of his best cinematic achievements.

Other than The Color Purple, the majority of his directorial work up to this point in 1987, consisted of adventure and escapism found in cliffhangers and children with the innocent curiosities to uncover what is underneath.  Empire Of The Sun contains all of these elements, but as the film progresses, it matures and grows up right before your eyes. 

Christian Bale makes his introductory role a performance to remember as young Jamey Graham.  He is a British child of unlimited privilege living in Shanghai with his parents, naïve and sheltered from the gradual Japanese occupation taking place in 1941 when China and Japan were in conflict with each other.  Jamey happily plays and gets into adventures with his model airplanes and his imagination of heroics.  One day, while at a costume party, he discovers a crashed war plane and then envisions his fantastical heroism.  Shortly thereafter, the fantasy becomes real when he comes upon a Japanese battalion, just yards away.  With his parents, they make a desperate escape from the city they and their ancestors have called home.  However, Jamey becomes separated from them amid the chaos within the surmounting crowds.  Now, this young child with no sense of self reliance has no choice but to become resourceful if he is to survive and reunite with his mom and dad.

Eventually, Jamey meets up with two Americans named Basie (an outstanding John Malkovich) and his sidekick Frank (Joe Pantoliano).  The three are sent to a Japanese Internment Camp forced to live and survive on bare necessities as the second World War rages on with the Americans joining the fight.

Spielberg treats his protagonist the same as he did with the Elliot character in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  Jamey happily lives in his own imagination until it is disrupted by an intrusion.  For films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T., an alien of fantasy interrupts the protagonist’s lifestyle.  For Jamey, however, the reality of war harshly takes over.  It fascinated me how Empire Of The Sun, with a screenplay adaptation by Tom Stoppard of J.G. Ballard’s biographical account, seems to follow a familiar formula to Spielberg’s other pictures, and yet it reinvents itself with reality as opposed to fantasy.

Furthermore, Steven Spielberg does not abandon one of my favorite tropes of his as he makes the unseen the antagonist of the film.  When the veil is lifted, you can’t help but gasp.  Everyone knows he followed this approach in Jaws.  I also like to think he did this effectively with the German tank in Saving Private Ryan.  Here, he caught me completely off guard.  Young Jamey is dressed like Sinbad for Christmas jubilation at a costume party.  He’s happily tossing around one of his model planes and then when it flies out of sight over a grassy ridge, he runs over to the edge and finds something shocking beyond his treasured toy.  It’s a moment that happens early in the film and immediately tells me that this story will be bigger and more frighteningly real than meeting a cute, strange friend from another planet willing to eat my Halloween candy.

Spielberg’s production value is eye opening with thousands of extras within the scenes of mass exodus from Shanghai or within the internment camp.  Especially impressive is how he directs his extras to seem so overwhelming against young Christian Bale.  The child actor really followed direction, but more importantly it’s easy to see how method Bale might have been even at this young age.  He gets pushed and pulled and tugged on like I can only imagine an unforgiving circumstance of war would present itself.  Cinematics often praise Whoopi Goldberg’s debut in The Color Purple as one of the greatest introductions ever.  I have to put Bale’s performance up there as well.  The character arc that young Jamey experiences is well drawn out within Stoppard’s script, but Bale really performs the gradual change of a spoiled brat forced to become resourceful for not only himself but his comrades within the camp.  A director can tell a child actor where to walk or to sit or to stand.  A director can discuss the motivations of a particular scene.  With Christian Bale though, his performance throughout the film seems to remember where his character left off earlier in the story, where it has currently arrived and where it hopes to end up.  This young actor is so in tune with his character’s story. 

You may say John Malkovich serves as the staple mentor that every child protagonist has in so many other stories.  Basie is not that simple though.  A child will be quick to trust anyone he comes in contact with.  Spielberg and Stoppard know it’s not that easy though.  Malkovich is that dynamic actor who never seems forthright with his portrayals.  There’s something he always seems to hide from the audience.  Is he a snake ready to strike?  Is he a gentle pup ready for an embrace?  I never trusted how Basie would end up with Jamey by the film’s conclusion.  Malkovich delivers unpredictability so well.

Miranda Richardson is credited as a once wealthy friend to Jamey’s parents.  She’s not given much dialogue or scene work, but with the times she appears on screen Spielberg gradually breaks her down.  At first, she is well dressed in her finest linens insisting that her husband explain who they are to the Japanese forces.  Later and later in the film, the strength of her proud stature slowly crumbles.  It’s nice work and it’s crushing to watch.

Notable “tough guy” Joe Pantoliano goes through a similar transition.  A capture of him with Spielberg’s camera eventually focuses on a weeping and weak man.  Like much of the film, it is so unexpected.

There are epic overhead shots of panic and riots within the streets of Shanghai.  There are amazing moments where aerial attacks coming from nowhere with Jamey depicted running in a parallel line along the trajectory of a bi-plane.  It’s such a sweeping, personal story but the visual effects and camera work are so impressive as well.  The photography is striking in bright sunlight amid fireball missile strikes.  It is dazzling to watch.

As I noted earlier, Empire Of The Sun is Steven Spielberg’s transitional film.  Once again, he focuses on the innocent, young and unaware hero who is forced to become wise and most especially sensitive to a change in setting and circumstance.  With Empire Of The Sun, Steven Spielberg demonstrated that he could mature himself away from fantasy and embrace reality. 

I think Empire Of The Sun is an absolute masterpiece.


By Marc S. Sanders

Dirty Dancing was a major surprise at the box office. For me, it is such an eye opener because of how good it actually is, and how well it still holds up. It’s energetic and fun and a different kind of escape from the endless supply of action films and gross out comedies.

Here’s a film with a no name director, Emile Ardolino (I’m sorry, who????) and produced by…excuse me…Vestron Video???? It did not carry a cast with box office clout either, the tallest guy from The Outsiders and the older, bratty sister from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Yet, the film wins out in the end.

“Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) arrives with her family to a Catskills like vacation resort during the summer of 1963. Usually costumed in whites, Baby is as virginal as her moniker suggests. Eventually, she gets taken with the entertainment staff who spend their off hours dancing in, shall we say, a non-conservative manner. Particularly, she falls for the gorgeous head dance instructor, Johnny Castle (macho name, dressed in macho cool blacks with macho cool shades) played by Patrick Swayze.

Every development of their relationship is telescopic. Yes! We know they’re gonna fall in love despite coming from two different worlds. They’re gonna sleep with each other. Then they’re gonna argue. Then they’re gonna make up and then they’re gonna have the big dance to close out the film with one huge extravaganza. However, it’s the material within that grabs me, and much of that is thanks to the chemistry of Swayze and Grey.

The leads dance beautifully together, and when a music montage comes up, it is adoring to see the frustration of the dance instructor with his giggling student. It’s also charming to see them work it out as well. Reader, I’ve seen this stereotypical “chick flick” many times and I still get caught up in it. The movie comes alive in their puppy love with music and dance. Hey, I got a sensitive side to me. What can I say?

The subplots of the film are lacking though. An abortion storyline really is not necessary to assemble all these characters together. Jewish high income guests meet rebellious, but mostly kind hearted, staff members. There are a couple of distracting jerks too. Something more substantial could have been here. Perhaps, a more meaningful acknowledgment where the two parties favor or do not favor each other, and why. Abortion is a heavy subject matter that does not blend well with the rest of this film, though. The fact that the script never even utters the word “abortion” tells me that the film isn’t even sure of itself with this side story.

As well, when one dancer friend (Cynthia Rhodes) needs emergency medical help, couldn’t Baby’s doctor father (Jerry Orbach) just stop to listen for the explanation? Guess not. He just chooses to stop speaking to his daughter. Thus, making it hard for Baby to hang with Johnny. This could all be resolved with a quick sentence of dialogue. As my colleague Miguel suggests however, then there’d be no movie!!! It’s called the idiot plot, I guess.

A third sub plot involves a pick pocket thief and the reveal comes ridiculously out of nowhere. It’s here to give reason for Johnny’s reputation to be threatened one more time, while Baby defends him. Now this storyline has next to no purpose of existing. Johnny’s reputation in the boss’ eyes was tarnished enough already. This is cutting room floor material.

Dirty Dancing is a film that is merited in its special talents, but not necessarily its whole story. The consistently good soundtrack of oldies mixed with some anachronistic 80s tunes work so well. The setting is completely absorbing with its mountainous camp getaway cabins and intermittent calls for entertainment activities like with its social director (played deliberately corny by comedian Wayne Knight). It feels authentic and escapist. Therefore, I look past those silly plot developments that scotch tape one enthralling moment of dance, sex appeal and music for another.

This most recent time of watching the film was especially fun as I got to witness my twelve-year-old daughter seeing it for the first time. Nothing shows how special a movie, any movie, can be than to see your daughter slap her face when Baby chickens out from doing “the lift” with Johnny during a dance performance. Later, when she finally accomplishes that feat, my daughter sat up with a huge smile on her face. If you ever ask me why movies are so special, I might just have to reiterate this experience when I watched Dirty Dancing with my Julia.


By Marc S. Sanders

Predator is not only my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but it also remains as one of the best action films of all time.

The main reason for my praise stems from its cast consisting of the Austrian headliner followed by Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham. The cast is sensational because they take the science fiction material seriously by evoking their machismo gradually evolving into fear. Director John McTiernan displays all of this very well through quiet and covert close ups as each character sums up the possibility that they are being hunted for sport by an entity they are not familiar with.

McTiernan makes use of his setting to the point that the real-life dense jungle of trees amid thick humidity, within South America, is its own character. I don’t know how he did it but, in this film, McTiernan and his cinematographer capture flawless tracking shots of running over uneven grounds and roots, leaves and low hanging foliage. It’s really spectacular how it all moves fast without any chopped up quick cuts like a Michael Bay movie for example. In this movie, the chases are actual chases.

An outrageous Oscar crime is that this film lost its Visual Effects prize to Innerspace. That gnaws at me when you consider the vagueness of the Predator’s chameleon like invisibility shape. It leaves the viewer intentionally as confused as these expert Gung Ho military men are. They can’t quite make out what this thing is because McTiernan wisely follows Spielberg’s Jaws technique by not showing you the creature until all the cards are dealt. The viewer is left curious and aware but still in suspense. There’s a kaleidoscope of transparency in the figure that scopes these men but what is it, really? The best horror films present the horror by literally not showing you the horror.

I like how this rescue team is continuously displayed with their talents for covert sabotage, hand signals, caution and focus. The actors are actually setting up the booby traps and climbing and ground crawling.

It’s honestly a very well-acted piece most especially from, yes Schwarzenegger, as well as Bill Duke and his psychological trauma during the 2nd half of the film, and Sonny Landham as the Tracker Billy who can relay what transpired with a keen Native American sense of environment. It’s a great collection of characters all together.

Sadly, the majority of the follow up films in the franchise do not live up to what originated here. In the first installment, the story is condensed in an efficient 90 minutes that leaves enough time for one story of adventure and rescue before it gets to all its sci fi suspenseful showpieces. The follow up films never took advantage of the strengths used here from over 30 years ago.

Predator is a brilliantly edited, well shot, taut and a gripping yarn of imagination and fear.

From 1987, it hasn’t aged a bit.


By Marc S. Sanders

David Mamet is one of the most renowned writers of the last fifty years.  The first film he directed was for his script, House Of Games, with his wife at the time, Lindsay Crouse, and Joe Mantegna.  It’s also important to point out that he recruited well known con artist and card trick player Ricky Jay to consult on the film and join the cast.  When you are constructing a film about the confidence game, a guy like Ricky Jay, who is widely known for his slight of hand and scam artistry, is important to ensure your story remains solid and airtight. (Note: seek out videos of Ricky performing eye popping card tricks and magic on You Tube.  He’ll make you believe that you’ve never seen a card trick before because not many come close to his mastery with a deck in hand.)

House Of Games plays like an instructional or “how to” video demonstrating how to be a successful con artist.  Crouse portrays a psychiatrist with a best-selling book titled “Driven” that focuses on obsessive behaviors.  One of her clients reveals that his compulsive gambling habits have put him $25,000 in debt with a card shark.  Crouse takes it upon herself to confront the card shark (Mantegna) on behalf of her frightened client.  Shortly thereafter, he’s got her acting as his wife to determine if the guy at the other end of a poker table is bluffing.  Then he’s introducing her to his con artist buddies, and she is becoming enamored, not only with him, but with the art of the con and the steal.  Her mundane life gives her the urge to see more.

The other Unpaid Critic, Miguel, recently reviewed this picture.  At the time of this writing, I have not read his review, but he forewarned me that the performances are stripped down to nothing.  Mantegna and Crouse are left bare to just delivering Mamet’s dialogue.  Miguel hadn’t liked this film the first time he saw it many years ago.  On my first viewing, this past week, I was engrossed.  However, I could foresee the ending as quickly as the film began.  I dunno.  Maybe it’s because I’ve seen several con artist films before like The Grifters and the granddaddy of them all, The Sting.  Films that focus on the best liars seem to always move towards a twist where even the viewer is scammed.  It’s fun to participate in the activity.

With House Of Games, the sequence of events move step by step.  Following the two characters’ introductions to each other, Mantegna is caught in the middle of doing another con but now he’s reluctantly forced to include Crouse in on the game.  This time it is seemingly much more complex and grander than the first time they worked together at the poker table.  It also gets all the more confusing when an unexpected murder is involved.  This con spells out a long night for the couple who are also falling for one another. 

Miguel is right.  The performances are most definitely stripped down and often the dialogue is wooden.  Crouse and Mantegna are deliberately flat.  I don’t even think they laugh or smile if I remember correctly.  It is likely because Mamet wants the viewers to follow along and pick up on how a successful con job is meticulous in its methods.  A con artist is not going to make waves with loud, angry monologues or passionate seductions and outrageous silliness.  What’s important is that everything that plays out seems convincing with no distractions that lead to doubt.  So, when the only African American in the cast (extras included) leaves a key on a hotel counter, you notice it.  It happened for a reason.  Later, when the characters come upon a BRIGHT RED Cadillac convertible, you are going to remember it.  A Swiss army knife with tropical artwork on the handle.  A gun metal briefcase with a large amount of cash.  A gun.  A murder.  Props and scenarios guide Mamet’s picture. Not the characters. 

Fortunately, the film remains very engaging.  As well, while I could figure out what was being played here during the entire course of the picture, as a viewer I had no choice but to feel proud of myself for uncovering the puzzles and riddles at play.  For me, watching House Of Games was like answering “Final Jeopardy” correctly when none of the contestants on screen had a clue. At least I was smiling by the end.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, J.T. Walsh, Ricky Jay
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96%

PLOT: A psychiatrist is led by a smooth-talking grifter into the shadowy but compelling world of stings, scams, and con men.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to summarize the story of David Mamet’s House of Games without giving away plot points, and it’s virtually impossible.  Mamet’s screenplay is composed almost entirely of double-crosses, triple-crosses, short cons, long cons, and the kinds of surprises that are greatly diminished in their description.  Remove one surprise, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

A distinguished psychiatrist, Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) pays a visit to a handsome con artist, Mike (Joe Mantegna), on behalf of one of her clients, who is distraught because of how much money he owes to Mike.  Dr. Ford is unexpectedly intrigued by Mike’s business methods, Mike senses this, and takes her to a back room where he and some other gentlemen are playing poker.

(These men don’t talk much, but when they do, it’s almost exclusively in poker patter.  “A man with style is a man who can smile.”  “Damn cards are as cold as ice.”  “The man says you gotta give action to get action.”  “Everybody stays, everybody pays.”  It’s like they learned how to talk from watching endless episodes of the World Series of Poker on ESPN2.)

Mike makes a deal with Margaret: if she helps him beat the hot player (Ricky Jay) at the table, he’ll tear up her patient’s marker.  The hot player has a tell when he’s bluffing.  Mike will go to the restroom.  If the hot player shows the tell, Margaret will tell Mike, and Mike will beat him because he’ll know he’s bluffing.  Mike goes to the bathroom, the hot player reveals his tell, and Margaret tells Mike when he comes back.  The hot player raises the pot, but Mike can’t cover it.  Margaret comes to the rescue: she’ll stake Mike with her own money.  But, uh oh, turns out the hot player wasn’t bluffing…and now Margaret owes $6,000 to a total stranger.

And that’s where I have to stop. If you think I’ve given too much away, you’ve got to trust me – I haven’t.  That’s barely the preface.  What follows is a character study of a woman who suddenly realizes that, after a lifetime of helping patients, she needs some kind of release, a change in routine.  Mike can provide this much-needed change.  The fact that it involves conning innocent people out of their hard-earned money is incidental.

Her fascination lies in Mike’s method.  For a great con to work, you can’t take someone’s money.  They have to give it to you.  They have to trust you to do the right thing.  The trick is working out how to gain the other person’s confidence without them realizing what’s happening.  We are shown two or three examples, and they’re all brilliantly sneaky.  At one point, Mike tells Margaret the cardinal rule of the con: “Don’t trust nobody.”  After watching this movie, I can’t say I agree 100% with this credo, but a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anybody.

So how does Margaret square that credo, or anything about Mike’s lifestyle, with her profession?  She helps people for a living.  Her livelihood depends on getting strangers to trust her, but not to take their money…although let’s not forget she is well paid for her services.  Is her fascination with Mike an acknowledgement of the similarities between the two of them?

The screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers.  When we get to the final shot of the film, we can clearly see the choices Margaret has made, but it’s still unclear as to why she made them.  This is one of those movies where the complexities only really come alive during lively discussions afterwards.

Before watching it for this review, the last time I had seen House of Games was over thirty years ago.  At the time, I was unimpressed.  I originally gave it a 2 out of 10 on the IMDb website.  It was slow, the actors looked like they were giving bad performances, and nobody talked like real people talked.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see not one, but three films by a French director named Robert Bresson.  (Bear with me here, I do have a point.)  Bresson, who was active mainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, was famous for his method of shooting scenes over and over again, take after take, until all emotions had been drained from the actor.  His philosophy, in a nutshell, was that, in a film, the story isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.  If a screenplay couldn’t carry an emotional impact just by virtue of the story alone, if he had to rely on someone’s specific performance to make the movie work, he wasn’t interested.  The results are films that are curiously compelling, despite their utter lack of anything modern audiences might recognize as a typical acting performance.  His films are routinely included on the most prestigious lists of greatest films ever made; seven of them made it onto the 2012 critics’ poll by Sight & Sound magazine, a feat unequaled by any other director.

Sitting down to watch House of Games for the first time in three decades, after having seen Bresson’s films for the first time, I think I see what David Mamet was going for, in this, his directorial debut.  The actors aren’t quite dead-panning the entire time, but their performances (with one or two necessary exceptions) are pared down to the bare minimum of emotion.  Vocally, they’re angry, curious, flirtatious, what have you.  Facially, they’re ciphers.  Which, if you’re a good con man, that’s exactly what you want to be: a blank slate for the unlucky mark to interact with, then forget immediately.

I think back to those poker players and their mournful aphorisms, always said in nearly monotone.  And then I think to the film’s finale when Margaret believes she might be able to turn the tables on Mike (long story), and as the frantic words come out of her mouth, there’s not a smidgen of emotion on her face.  Like…a poker player.  Neat.


By Marc S. Sanders

Moonstruck has to be one of the most delightful romantic comedies of all time thanks to an outstanding cast, an intuitive director (Norman Jewison) and a script full of brilliant dialogue and set ups from John Patrick Shanley.

Loretta Castorini (Cher in her Oscar winning role) is a 37 year old widow. Her husband of two years got hit by a bus. So, naturally when her father, Cosmo (the hilarious Vincent Gardenia), hears the news that Loretta got engaged to the boring schlub Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello), he knows this is a bad omen and she should not get married again. Sure, her husband got hit by a bus, but that can only mean that marriage is no good for Loretta. When they wake up Rose (Olympia Dukakis in her well-deserved Oscar winning role), Loretta’s mother, to share the news, she just opens her eyes and asks, “Who died?” This is an adorable Italian family living in Brooklyn and somehow an Irishman wrote the script which was then directed by a Jewish mensch, and everyone is working on all Italian cylinders.

Two minutes into the film and I’m laughing. I’m laughing at Johnny’s wimpy proposal in the local Italian restaurant. I’m laughing at Rose and Cosmo who’ve seen enough of life to know that you don’t get married for love anymore. Rose is for Loretta getting married though. Cosmo doesn’t wanna spend the money.

Just after Johnny proposes, he flies off to Sicily to be by his dying mother’s bedside. He requests that Loretta invite his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, to the wedding. Ronny is upset with Johnny. Ronny got his hand chopped off in the bread slicer at his bakery when Johnny was talking with him and Ronny looked the other way.

When Loretta approaches Ronny, before you know it, they are sleeping with each other. Ronny then invites Loretta to see La Boheme at the Met that night. Loretta knows it’s wrong and can’t keep this up. It’s a sin. She goes to confession, but then she also goes to buy a new dress and dye the greys out of her hair.

As well, Cosmo is stepping outside of his marriage, only Rose is not so stupid. She knows what’s going on. When Rose is dining alone, a college professor who strikes out with one attractive student after another joins her table. Rose isn’t gonna do anything. Instead, she asks the question on everyone’s mind “Why do men chase women?” Then she answers it. “Because if they don’t, they think they’ll die.” But they’re gonna die anyway. Right?

It sure looks like my column is just summarizing the film but my breakdown of Moonstruck simply celebrates all that’s good about it. Here’s a film that doesn’t stereotype a New York Italian family. Instead, it shows how they regard one another as well as the people within the neighborhood from the eager to please waiter in the restaurant to the mortician that Loretta works for. The mortician spills butter on his tie. Loretta takes the tie off of him and says she’ll get it cleaned.

Life in the home of Castorini family is shown beautifully with natural humor to display its atmosphere. Cosmo’s quiet elderly father with five yappy dogs on leashes is only a part of every passing day. Like I’ve made claim on other films, the best movies offer smart characters. Everyone has a way of carrying themselves in Moonstruck, and they’re not dumb. They might be cheap like Cosmo or wimpy like Johnny or a little dim like Ronny, not dumb, but they’re all wise to how they handle themselves.

This might seem like a relatively easy, untechnical little New York comedy. Norman Jewison, however, uses a great approach that makes each setting feel like you’re watching the most alive stage play you’ve ever encountered. I’m actually surprised this film has yet to be adapted for the stage. Maybe, just maybe, Moonstruck hasn’t made it to live theatre yet because it’d be damned near impossible to recapture the harmony of this magical cast.

I love Moonstruck.


By Marc S. Sanders

When Adrian Lyne’s Oscar nominated film hit theatres in 1987, apparently men thought twice about having an extra marital affair. It wasn’t enough that a man could violate the marital bond of commitment. No. Now he could get his loving wife and child killed.

Fatal Attraction works as a great psychological study for its first three quarters of film. Then it slogs its way into a slasher/horror fest of burned bunnies and gutting kitchen knife hysteria. The ending was an insult to the intelligence of everything we had seen before.

An unstable woman who knows she’s destroying a man’s happy home life is doing even worse by destroying herself. Mentally she cannot control what she commits and what she obsesses over. She is ill. This unstable woman is played by Glenn Close, and it is evident that she has done her research in psychopaths. Close is great at simply changing the inflection in her voice. In the beginning of the film, she has a relaxed whisper about herself as she exudes seductiveness.

Later, her tone is sharp, accusatory, patronizing, and intimidating. By the end, a new whisper of a psychotic personality threatens. The role is played by Close as if she is changing from one number to the next on a musical instrument.

The man in this scenario is worse. He gets his rocks off and tries to move on unaware of the collateral damage he leaves the woman with, and beyond presumption of how his break in trust will wreak havoc on his loving wife and young child. His moral crimes are nowhere near as apparent as the obsessed woman’s. At least she has evidence of a psychological symptom. He’s just an ignorant jerk when it comes down to it. Michael Douglas was just right for this role of a very successful lawyer with good looks and brash silliness with his friends and wife, while also being an attentive father. Yet, he’s also good at letting his guard down, foolishly assuming he can put it back up again once his weekend fling is over.

The film really is a duel in the aftermath of adultery. Disturbing phone calls, the demand for contact to stop, the nagging need for ongoing affection. It’s all orchestrated very well. Then, comes the crazy person who boils a bunny to generate a frightful scream from its audience followed by knives and blood and the last minute (SPOILER ALERT) “she’s not really dead” shocker. The delicate nature of a common and sensitive scenario is exploited for sudden jumps and terror.

James Dearden’s screenplay is so well thought out until it is executed desperately for box office returns in its last five minutes. Granted, Dearden had a different ending in mind, more appropriate to earlier references to Madame Butterfly. Hollywood decided to nix that plan and go with a more satisfying comeuppance for the villain, or rather one of the villains. What a shame.

Personal note: I’d seen Fatal Attraction before, but this is the first time I’m watching it in well over 11 years. I could never get myself to watch a late scene in the film where Close’s character takes Douglas’ daughter for a day of fun on a roller coaster. It was too real. Too disturbing. It was too easily done, and as a father it was too nightmarish for me.