By Marc S. Sanders

Now Coming To America is a special kind of film. It’s rare movie where you’ll find a G rated story wrapped in R rated material and ultimately that is what Eddie Murphy and director John Landis brilliantly achieved.

Murphy plays Prince Akeem living a privileged life in the country of Zamunda where he has his own personal butt wipers and concubines who ensure him the royal penis is clean. He is now of the age where he is ready to meet his bride who has been groomed since birth to accommodate every need and preference the Prince has. However, Akeem is mature enough to realize that he wants to be married to someone who likes him for who he is, and not his wealth and stature. So with his best friend Simi (Arsenio Hall) in tow, they travel to Queens, New York under the guise of poor, humble people to find Akeem’s true love.

The story is Disney like and very simple. The gags are what has allowed Coming To America to hold on to its beloved longevity over thirty years later. It is one of Murphy’s last great films before he resorted to a lot of silly kiddie tripe like Daddy Day Care. This is a film that does a 180 flip on the Beverly Hills Cop storyline. In Cop, Murphy was the loudmouth offensive stranger in strange land. In this film, he remains a stranger, only this time the setting is full of loudmouths; this is Queens after all. Akeem is a lovable guy with good intentions and sensitivity. When he meets Lisa (Shari Headley) the daughter of a McDonald’s rip off franchisee (a hilarious John Amos), he becomes enamored and approaches with care despite her dating a jerk (Eriq La Salle) who inherited his family’s “Soul Glo” hair product enterprise.

The best attraction of the film however are Murphy and Hall’s various other characters they portray like Murphy as Randy Watson, lead singer of the band Sexual Chocolate (you know him as Joe the Policeman from the What’s Going Down? episode of That’s My Momma) and Hall as Reverend Brown who believes “There is a god someWHERE!!!” Not to mention the barbers who hang out beneath their apartment. Murphy and Hall are such a skilled pair of chemistry together. Why didn’t they do more films together? Harlem Knights? Ahem…let’s just not talk about that.

Landis was a good comedy director, a staple of the 1980’s films who would let the talents play for the camera and not try to reinvent the wheel. His approach here is the same as when he directed Murphy with Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places, or when he helmed Michael Jackson’s legendary Thriller music video. He knew these guys knew what they were doing. So, he just positioned the camera and let them go. Coming To America does run a little too long in some moments. I’m impressed by Paula Abdul’s choreography of tribal dancers, but I didn’t need to see all three minutes of it. A few of those moments run long, when all I want to do is get to the next gag or story development.

Still, if you are not a prude, I recommend Coming To America for a family viewing with your pre teen kids. I showed it to my daughter who is at the age when the sheer utterance of a curse word is hysterical; that’s a rite of passage in childhood as far as I’m concerned. The film contains no overt sexually active scenes, but there is some female nudity, and so what? My daughter knows what she is looking at. Bottom line Coming To America is a sweet Cinderella story that kids will love and adults will laugh at, over and over again until they know every line by heart.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film, Running On Empty, depicts Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti as former radicals against the Vietnam War. They have been running from the authorities for 15 years after bombing a Napalm laboratory as part of their cause. They have two sons, one of them played by River Phoenix with a chance to attend Juilliard. His opportunity does not seem likely however as it would mean he could never see his family again, and his family is reluctant to set him free.

In a film about criminals, this is a story lacking in crime or violence. Lumet’s film is a narrative of a family and how they live by constantly changing their identities, backgrounds, and residences. It’s not a life for an innocent child, especially one with a promising future.

Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his conflicted role. He’s quiet, but he’s torn and he’s accepting of what fate brings him. Sadly, he prevents himself from making his own destiny. A bright element comes in the form of fellow student Lorna, played beautifully by Martha Plimpton. This is her best role as Phoenix’ girlfriend who falls in love with him and shows him pure happiness. She’s the fulcrum that introduces him to what possibilities are available, but he’ll have to sacrifice his current life for a better one, and his parents will have to accept his decision.

There’s no easy wrap up in screenwriter Naomi Foner’s Oscar nominated script. A painful outcome is inevitable. Yet, that’s what makes this a great drama. The conflict is too great for an easy resolution.

What a terrible shame that 5 years after this film, at age 23, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. Imagine what he would evolve into as an actor. Here in this role, as well as films like The Mosquito Coast, Stand By Me, and even as a young Indiana Jones, he was more than just a child actor or a teen magazine cover. He performed with a mystery to his characters where he would never reveal every dimension that his parts possessed. In a film like Running On Empty you almost wish his real life fate never came true.


By Marc S. Sanders

Jodie Foster won her first of two Best Actress Oscars for playing Sara Tobias, a victim of a barroom gang rape in The Accused, directed by Jonathan Kaplan and written by Tom Toper.

Kelly McGillis portrays prosecutor Katherine Murphy. Murphy initially makes a deal with the three men accused of the rape. An agreement is made for a lighter conviction “reckless endangerment,” rather than “rape,” and a trial is avoided. What happened to Sarah is never put on public record.

Circumstances thereafter motivate Katherine to go another step further and prosecute the men in the bar that encouraged and cheered for the rape to continue. Her own office questions if it will be worth it though and demand she walk away from this seemingly no win scenario.

Kaplan’s film is more or less paint by numbers until it reaches the moment a material witness takes the stand to testify on the exact sequence of events that actually occurred in the back room of a neighborhood bar. Foster is hard to watch at times and that’s the point. There’s nothing glamorous in a film centered on a rape victim, and she puts out all the ugly parts of her character first physically, and then with temper, habitual drinking, and the sense of a poor upbringing. Toper does equip his character with likability though. Sarah tries to get through the tough exterior of Katherine’s no nonsense lawyer ideology with her interests in astrology. Through the film, Katherine shows no interest but we all know that’ll change. Nothing is shocking in the developments of Toper’s story.

What is jaw dropping though is how Kaplan depicts Sarah’s post rape examination. Deep cuts and bruises are shown in various parts of her body. She is propped on stirrups for evidence retention (hair, skin and semen samples for example), even the annoyingly repetitive click and flash of a Polaroid camera are disturbing. You can’t help but be concerned or taken aback.

No. A movie will never measure up to what victims endure following incidents like this. Still, the footage early on in The Accused certainly got me emotional.

The big shock is towards the end when the re-enactment of the rape is presented. Kaplan doesn’t hold back with his crew of extras playing the bar mates. Drinks are abundantly consumed, then a song in the jukebox, some weed, pinball, a wink, then a sexy dance, and suddenly Sarah’s skirt is lifted to reveal her panties and she’s propped on a pinball machine with her arms restrained and her mouth covered by a hand. Then the woo hooing is disturbingly brought on.

Why do I document all of this? I want to show how subtle Kaplan is with the rape scene. Innocent laughs and drunken play can suddenly turn on any one of us, man or woman. A song plays. People are stoned and drunk, and before any of us realize it, there’s a sexually assaulted victim, and a rapist, or three rapists actually. Moreover, there are those who wish for this moment to last and egg it on. For one woman, none of it is fun anymore.

Again, the storyline development of The Accused is nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s step by step, connect the dots within the courtroom and law offices. The crimes (rape for one, cheering & persuading – a crime for another) are terribly shocking though, especially when we see it first-hand.

Every man and woman should watch The Accused. It’s important we remember that we are capable of subjecting ourselves or being subjected.

More so, regardless of our age or experience, we all have something to learn about what a rape victim endures. I imagine this film doesn’t come close, but it’s a solid start.


By Marc S. Sanders

How Susan Sarandon did not even get nominated for an Oscar for Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, I’ll never know. Shelton writes the character of the lustrous, Annie Savoy with grace, wisdom and silky sex appeal. It remains one of the best female characters to ever appear on a screen and no one else could have played the part other than Sarandon.

Shelton’s sensational script opens with Annie’s declaration that she believes in the “church of baseball” and from there it waxes poetic on the sport’s religion and traditions as Annie uses her charm to seduce the Durham Bulls’ newest talent, dim witted pitcher Eppy Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) leaving the team’s experienced catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) wanting more. That is until Annie realizes that she’s the one who wants more.

Davis is recruited to groom Nuke for the big leagues. Nuke has got a million dollar fast ball arm but he “…fucks like he pitches. Sort of all over the place.” Crash is the frustrated player with talent but the sun is setting on his opportunity for the big leagues. Dumb Nuke has a future that just doesn’t seem fair to Crash. Annie is no help when she chooses Nuke over Crash to hook up with for the season.

Shelton explores so many dimensions in his script. It does not solely focus on the three primary characters. The screenplay stirs in a mixture of what it’s like to serve on a minor league team with bats and gloves that are cursed, the urge for a rain out game or what present to get Bobby and Millie for their wedding. A call to the mound might settle some of these things.

Shelton directs his script with a very natural approach. Watch Crash and Annie flirt in a batting cage. Costner and Sarandon don’t even flinch as the balls whiz between them. Baseball is a part of these characters. They live and breathe baseball and they relish sex.

Shelton’s last 15 minutes of film offer a celebration of sexual release that appears pleasant, fun and somewhat religious as the chemistry between Costner and Sarandon remains strong. They rattle the whole house it seems and the kitchen will never be the same.

Robbins is great with his idiocy. He wasn’t as well known when this film was released in 1988. His surprise appearance of stupidity is so lovable and welcome. When he tries to think he gets himself in trouble. When he listens to his coaches, Annie and Crash, he excels. The pains he goes through upon their advice is ridiculously hilarious. Don’t forget to breathe through your eyelids, Nuke.

I also gotta recognize Robert Wuhl and Trey Wilson as the managers of the team. They are hilarious but not overt. Wuhl is great as he bellows out encouraging but incomprehensible cheers from the dugout. Wilson looks on with tired facial expressions.

This cast is invested in the cloth of America’s pastime. They know the batting averages. They read the signs. They play for the crowds. It’s as if Shelton moseyed into the town of Durham, North Carolina, put his camera up and watched how another season all played out. His lens could have been working with a documentary mindset.

Bull Durham is one of the best scripts ever written full of brilliant one liners and philosophies that I might not entirely understand what any of it is referencing. Yet when Annie or Crash carry on, I can’t help but suddenly get interested.

Bull Durham is the best baseball film ever made performed by an outstanding cast led by a director with a clear, wide-open vision.

Play ball!!!


By Marc S. Sanders

Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is a perfect blend of comedy, action and sweet tenderness. Different facets of what two guys could potentially experience together, especially if they are on an unexpected cross country road trip, pop up unexpectedly. It’s a well-acted film with great exchanges in dialogue that surge with broad comedy and high-octane car chases and shootouts. Yet, there’s even some special quiet moments to appreciate as well. It’s another favorite film of mine.

Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced former Chicago cop now turned bounty hunter who spends his days wrangling up criminals who skip out on their bail. When Eddie the bondsman (a great Joe Pantoliano) asks Jack to bring back Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who skipped out on a $450,000 bond, something as simple as a “midnight run” turns into an excruciating journey from New York to California. The Duke doesn’t make it easy for Jack. He never shuts up and right from the start it doesn’t help that he’s afraid to fly. Well, there’s always the train, right? Plus there’s plenty of time because Jack has five days to get The Duke back into custody.

Not so fast. The mob, led by a silky smooth and threatening Dennis Farina, wants The Duke dead as revenge for embezzling millions of dollars from them, plus avoiding the risk of him testifying against them. The Duke unknowingly served as their accountant. The Feds, led by a just as awesome Yaphet Kotto, want The Duke as their material witness against the mob. On top of all that, Jack has to compete with Marvin (John Ashton), another bounty hunter who wants to bring in the The Duke.

There’s great action in Midnight Run and you can’t get enough of it, but it’s the comedic layers of complications the cast of characters bring on to themselves that serve the film best. Danny Elfman’s music accompaniment primarily on horns with guitar and piano bring out the fun in the best way possible. Great chases with a helicopter and various stolen vehicles while Jack and The Duke outrun endless squad cars are magnificent. Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) is just an entertaining director.

Still, the action is not even the highlight for me. First, the chemistry among all the actors is fantastic. They have such brilliant exchanges of cursing each other out, getting on each other’s nerves, and especially listening to one another as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming match phone call between DeNiro and Pantoliano, or a one on one with Kotto getting frustrated DeNiro. It all works.

Most especially is the pairing of DeNiro and Grodin. They hate each other and then seconds later they’re laughing with each other. Grodin as The Duke, as pesky as he is, plays an unwelcome therapist at times to DeNiro’s Jack as the history of his failed marriage resurfaces and his fall from grace with the Chicago police department comes back to bother him. Jack doesn’t give in so easy to The Duke’s desire to share his feelings. He’d rather endlessly smoke, eat unhealthy food and tell The Duke to “shut the fuck up!” Nevertheless, a bond between the two forms and continues to reshape itself during the course of the film. A great moment occurs when they need to scam a barkeep out of some twenty-dollar bills. You’ll never forget “the litmus configuration” after you see Midnight Run.

I also want to call attention to one of my favorite of so many DeNiro moments in his long career. Midway through the film, Jack reunites with his ex wife and teen daughter that he hasn’t seen in nine years. Like many divorced couples, an argument breaks out among the parents only to be quickly silenced by the quiet intrusion of Jack’s daughter Denise (Danielle DuClos). As Jack waits for his wife to bring him money to help, Brest allows DeNiro to do some of his best acting with this young actress. They can hardly speak to one another. DuClos simply stares in disbelief that her estranged father came home. DeNiro can’t, in good conscience, make eye contact, knowing he’s been the absent parent. It’s too difficult. It is such a humane moment that it grabs me every time. It reminds me that dialogue is not always necessary for a great acting piece. Martin Brest really trusts his actors in this moment. It’s likely my favorite scene of the film and of DeNiro’s career. You can take this scene out of the context of the entire film and still be just as moved by it.

The best action films succeed when the filmmakers care about the characters. When the characters are given depth, then we worry about them. We hope they don’t get killed or taken or arrested, and simply make it home. Midnight Run is that kind of action piece. Had we not cared for Jack and The Duke, movie lovers never would have cared for Martin Brest’s film, now going on 34 years later. It’s a perfect film.


By Marc S. Sanders

There’s nothing pretty about alcoholism and drug addiction.  Surprisingly enough, I can only think of a handful of films that really explore the struggle ahead of the main character admitting to a problem, then going through the rehabilitation process, and then trying to live without the chemical dependency, thereafter.  Each of these stages have been depicted plenty of times, in all kinds of mediums.  Yet, Clean And Sober, directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, with Michael Keaton in the lead role, covers all three quite effectively.

Keaton portrays Daryl Poynter, a successful real estate broker.  When he’s awakened by a phone call one morning, his incessant sniffing is interrupted by his insistence to the caller that he’ll check on a missing $92,000 from an escrow account on Monday morning.  He quickly hangs up the phone and turns towards the nude woman in his bed.  Then it dawns on him that something is not right with her.  Police determine she has overdosed, and Daryl better stay in town. 

Instead, Daryl opts to check in anonymously to a nearby rehabilitation center.  He’ll get free room and board, and no one will know to look for him while he’s hiding out from those looking for the escrow money or how he may be responsible for the drugged woman.  He’s just hiding out, though.  Daryl has no intention of following the program the center offers.  So, Daryl is a rule breaker where he sneaks in phone calls to his stockbroker, and his friend that he insists send him an overnight package of cocaine he kept stashed in his office desk.  Morgan Freeman is Craig, the leader of the recovery program and a recovering addict.  He easily sees through Daryl’s shenanigans and kicks him out.  Following a late night, out-of-control episode at his office, while looking for his drugs, Daryl returns to the center and gradually acknowledges his problem, while still living in fear of the consequences when he learns the woman he was with has died and her father has gone out looking for him.  His bosses are also questioning the whereabouts of that money.

Keaton turns in a chain smoking, red eyed performance.  His appearance and body language convincingly send the message of his harmful addictions more than his line deliveries.  Honestly, I found him to be a little over the top with his rantings and “fuck you” temper tantrums.  When I was observing his behaviors, only then was I buying his portrayal.  This role should serve as a significant accomplishment in the history of Keaton’s career.  Before this film, from 1988, the actor was more well known for comedies (Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously) and his tours on the stand-up circuit.  I think he became a better dramatic actor later on. 

Freeman is once again so good as a subdued, in charge and street-smart mentor.  Another good mentor comes from the never showy character actor, M Emmet Walsh (I find him in so many of these now classic films; he really had a presence in Hollywood.)  Walsh is Richard, the unglamourous sponsor that Daryl was never expecting.  Daryl was holding out for an attractive woman to be his sponsor.  A great scene occurs between the two actors when Daryl meets Richard at a diner for lunch.  Richard has three desserts and a milkshake on the table in front of him.  Daryl makes a crack about it, and Richard reminds him that they are addicts.  It’s in their nature to be compulsive, even with food.  Good writing here, from Tod Carroll, who doesn’t take for granted how a recovering addict lives with himself, for the rest of his life, from one day to the next.

Carrol offers up other special scenes.  We’ve all seen the staged AA meetings where the character stands up, says his name and the others say hello back.  Tod Carroll goes a step further.  Morgan Freeman as Craig is a smart character who sees past the well to do appearance, and smiling face of one young female character and calls her out for being high right in front of the group.  He immediately asks her to leave, and rather than come off embarrassed, she exits the room.  The rest of the group, Daryl included, are shocked.  They are only beginning to learn how people like them function only on the dependency of the drug and drink.

Kathy Baker portrays another addict that Daryl becomes attached to.  She’s also very good in her role as the lonely woman with the boyfriend who treats her like dirt, yet she can’t imagine anyone better for her; not even Daryl as he’s moving on a positive path towards recovery, and wants to begin a life with her.

Caron and Carroll focus the script of Clean And Sober on a variety of ways that addiction affects different walks of life.  It’s fortunate that the film does not fall into the trap of melodrama.  Chemical dependency is an ugly ordeal that destroys so many lives, not just the abuser.  Relationships are tested.  The will to function is also tested.  As well, the endurance to remain clean and sober is tested. 

This film might be from the late 1980s, but I’d argue that its themes and messages remain prevalent today.  Alcohol and drug addiction still stand as leading killers within the country.  I believe violations of DUI are not taken seriously enough.  Alcohol and drugs are too easily accessible and affordable, thereby feeding the illness.  Ultimately, we can only be responsible for ourselves.  One way to hold fast to our committments is to observe and learn.  Clean And Sober will allow you to do just that.


By Marc S. Sanders

One of the most inspiring classroom setting films is Stand And Deliver directed by Ramon Menéndez and written by him with producer Tom Musca. This pair took great pains to protect the integrity of their script.

The film tells the story of math teacher Jaime Escalante’s (Edward James Olmos) uncompromising drive to bring 18 students at Garfield High School to passing the state’s AP Calculus exam. These students come from working class Hispanic families who hardly offer their own children any bright future beyond fixing cars, waitressing in the family restaurant or remaining as a gang member in a life of crime. Their parents laugh and shake their heads at their dreams of becoming doctors or engineers. Their parents never had a teacher like Jaime Escalante.

Escalante motivates them to find a ticket out, and become the first members of their families to graduate high school and go to college. The first two acts of the film focus on Escalante’s drive and brief encounters with some members of his classroom. He shows how he’s not intimidated by gang member Angel (Lou Diamond Phillips) and how he convinces a restauranteur to allow his daughter to return to class. Another student is overcome with stress. Escalante listens but doesn’t allow the student to give up. I like these scenes a lot and my descriptions do not give these moments enough credit.

The film does not rely on classroom speechifying or inspiring rock music to cut in with sequences of kids reading books. Instead, it drives home the fact that Jaime Escalante never loses sight of the nowhere potential these students live with. The students learn to respect the one man who never underestimates them, regarding him as “Kemosabe.” He never allows them to lose their “ganas;” a desire for something better.

Even after they pass the exam, the students’ own environment will not allow them to celebrate their success. It’s too hard to accept the result. It’s easier to accuse them of cheating as it’s presumed that this sect of Hispanic/Mexican people could never have accomplished what their scores indicate. No other explanation could merit what’s occurred. Escalante is angered by this racism, but his confidence in his students pushes them to retake the exam. Blatant racism will not prevent a future without poverty.

The students consist of mostly unknown actors. Following this film from 1988, I’d catch one of them guest starring on a TV show here or there. Collectively speaking though, they really come through by convincingly displaying their lower class lives. It’s easy to see a lack of potential for these kids early on in the film. It’s also comfortably easy to see how Escalante takes command of their lives with a sense of unity and motivation. No one ever told these kids they could solve some of the hardest mathematical equations ever conceived. No one ever told these kids they could amount to something. It took someone from their own environment to help them defy a stereotype and demonstrate that intelligence is a gift that any human being is blessed with. They just have to have the “ganas.”

Edward James Olmos was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I’d say it was one of the most under the radar performances to ever be considered frankly. Stand And Deliver was made on a small budget. It’s easy to see that. Still, that is also what is so special about the film. This film stood on its performances and the genuine inspiring story it’s based on. It had all the ingredients it needed to be a winning film. This film eventually reached the exclusive annals of the prestigious National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Stand And Deliver will tell you to never surrender. 


By Marc S. Sanders

The long lasting appeal of Die Hard really stems from so many sources. Most importantly though is the performance of Bruce Willis.

Watching it this evening in a theatre commemorating its 30th anniversary, I found myself still laughing and relishing the fantastic set pieces of editing for great sound and visuals from Director John McTiernan. Yet, tonight Willis is what stood out for me. There’s not much dimension to New York cop John McClane but there is a great transition from being a reserved nervous flyer to an estranged husband with feelings of awkwardness at his wife’s Christmas party and finally to deliriously unhinged and reckless when faced with going up against a superbly brilliant villain from Alan Rickman, his very first film role. Willis goes wild against Rickman’s team of terrorists that hail from all different nationalities and races. (Hans Gruber was an equal opportunity employer.) The mouth on McClane doesn’t hold back for any kind of authority. It’s fun. It’s hilarious and you can’t help but pound your fist in the air with a “right on!”.

Rickman is great as well. His well tailored and groomed persona is a perfect counterbalance to Willis’ lack of class and style. Both are at the top of their game but using different devices to fight with. The playing field of a high rise tower is equal for them. Yet their tactics are different.

McTiernan offers up plenty in side humor from ego minded FBI guys both named Johnson (love that joke) to conniving reporters, to a coked up yuppie hostage and henchmen who all carry themselves differently. McTiernan bravely stops the approach to action to allow his audience to realize the setting on Christmas Eve with great note reminders from a film score by Michael Kamen and even a run through the roses only to have a kick ass swat officer get pricked. A terrorist takes a moment to snack on a Nestle Crunch before a firefight. Porno pictures on the walls of a construction area give Willis an opportunity to offer a glimpse. Great lines as well are so celebrated (“Yippee Kai Yeah Mother Fucker”).

But Willis is the real fun stuff as he gets into hand to hand combat with terrorist Alexander Godunov, he offers a promise to “kill ya, and cook ya” with his “had enough” delivery.

Roger Ebert always took issue with naivety of the law enforcement officials in the film especially actor Paul Gleason as an dumb antagonist. That’s okay and he’s not wrong. However, this is Die Hard where an 80s Los Angelos offers gas for .74 cents and ever relies on their characters getting caught up in a scenario they never fathomed. Had Die Hard been made in post 9/11 it wouldn’t carry that smirk inducing charm. It wouldn’t be fun.

We were fortunate to get one of my favorite Christmas movies when it did come before the age of cell phones and social media.

There were action films long before Die Hard. Yet the original 1988 film set the standard by what most films of action offered in subsequent years. More often than not, they were all fun films in their own right but whether you liked those films or not, they often remain comparisons against Die Hard. That’s the best compliment any film could receive.

FUN TRIVIA: Die Hard is the first of McTiernan’s teddy bear films. Can you name the other one that shows a giant teddy bear with its hero?


By Marc S. Sanders

Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning opens with two water fountains side by side. One is labeled “White” and the other is labeled “Colored.” That tells me enough about what life was like in the state of Mississippi in 1964.

The very next image I see is a burning church. Parker keeps his camera focused on the fire as the blazes get bigger and more out of control. Then I realized I’m only just getting to know what life is like in the state of Mississippi in 1964. It’s only now in the year 2020, that Mississippi is opting to remove the Confederate symbol from its state flag. It really has taken this long?

The script written by Chris Gerolmo centers on three young civil rights activists (one black and two white) who turn up missing. Two FBI agents named Anderson and Ward travel down to Jarrett County to investigate the activists’ disappearance and come to learn they are engrained within a dense populace of the Ku Klux Klan that dangerously spreads as far as the local sheriff’s department.

The events in Mississippi Burning are fictionalized, but Gerolmo’s script is based on actual facts. The feds plainly see they are not welcome in Jarret. Ward (Willem Dafoe) is the young crusader in charge of the investigation. He is adamant about being thorough and he will not be intimidated to sit with the colored section in the town diner to ask some questions. Problem is no one dares answer his questions. Worse, simply because Ward approaches a black man, he’s opened up a world of hurt for this man.

Anderson (Gene Hackman) is a former Sheriff of the south who knows that to get anywhere down here means not being so direct on a personal level. Hackman is one of cinema’s finest actors. He’s adept at handling tricky dialogue like circumventing with flirtation or good ol’ boy humor to arrive at some facts. He shares great moments with Frances McDormand as the meek wife of a brutal Klan deputy (Brad Dourif) that the Feds suspect was the ring leader of what happened to the missing men. This is one of Gene Hackman’s best roles. It’s also one of Frances McDormand’s best roles.

Ward orders hundreds of men from the FBI to join the investigation. That only heats things up in the process. Black men are pulled from their homes in the dead of night to be beaten and lynched. More churches and homes are bombed and burned down.

Mississippi Burning is a very disturbing film, as it should be. Alan Parker is unrelenting in showing the brutality of the deep south who are not simply satisfied with just segregation. An obsession of power and evil is rooted in this film. The violence is terribly frightening. More so, Parker wisely gets close ups on the innocent faces of young children embraced in their mother and father’s arms as they proudly listen to a white Klan businessman (the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky in a truly unexpected and surprising performance) preach his justification for where he believes the colored belong in order to uphold a purity to his proud state of Mississippi. The film reinforces the idea that hatred is taught. Hatred is an unfair misguidance that brainwashes a young mind and passes from generation to generation.

Watching so many movies, I really thought I’d become desensitized to most images. Then I watch a film like Mississippi Burning and I see Confederate flags draped just about anywhere and I honestly wince. Its so ugly to me; as ugly as a swastika. It’s not just on a license plate or hanging on a flagpole. There’s at least three in the local beauty shop and the diner next door. It’s remained a proud tradition. So proudly the symbol hangs, that it seems to cheer for the culture of dragging a young black man into the woods for a beating. When the Feds find this man, Agent Ward asks “What the hell is wrong with these people?” I’m still asking that question over 50 years from the time setting of this film, over thirty years after this film was made.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning should be a must see for parents to show their children. There’s a terrible madness to this film. It’s incredibly sad that this deep hatred is so alive with a passion. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these people?


By Marc S. Sanders

It may surprise some people that I don’t find Dustin Hoffman’s performance of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt to be the best feature in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man.  On the contrary, the best thing about the film is Tom Cruise’s cynical, hyper active portrayal of Raymond’s younger brother Charlie.  I’m not knocking Hoffman.  He’s absolutely memorable, authentic and brilliant.  It’s so brilliant though, that it overshadows what Cruise accomplished with his part. 

Those of you who have read some of my reviews before, may recall how much I praise the best character arcs to be found in stories.  The character starts out one way and by the time the conclusion arrives, this person is completely different; practically unrecognizable.  Hoffman did this in Kramer Vs Kramer and Tootsie, Al Pacino did this in The Godfather.  Bryan Cranston used five seasons of television to do this in Breaking Bad.

Before I ever saw Rain Man for the first time, many years ago, I never knew what autism was.  I don’t even think I ever heard the word autistic before this film arrived.  I guess I was wrapped in my naïve bubble.  Now watching it years later, I see the special talents that autism can present for a person living with it, as well as the challenges that come with a person nearby who cannot comprehend the diagnosis, and carries no patience for it. 

Screenwriters Barry Morrow and Ronald Blass are wise to show an odd pairing of brothers in this film.  The movie begins when Charlie, deep in debt with his high-performance sports car dealership, learns that his estranged father has passed away.  Dad only leaves him with a gorgeous 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible.  A $3 million estate is awarded to a trust fund meant to support Raymond; the autistic brother Charlie does not recall ever having.  Charlie’s arrogance and desperation to cover his insurmountable debts drive him to yank Raymond out of his care facility and embark on a cross country road trip back home where he intends to settle the estate by how he thinks he deservedly sees it.  During the course of the trip, Charlie gets a quick education about himself and Raymond’s condition. 

Tom Cruise might look like late 1980’s cool and stylish in his linen suits and button up silk shirts with sunglasses, but his glamour does not overshadow how bitter of a guy Charlie really is.  That’s what I embrace in his performance here.  It should have been nominated for an Oscar; definitely a glaring oversight by the Academy.  Charlie looks like a guy always moving at super speed, about to collide with a wall.  He bosses around his assistant salesman with outbursts and disruptive clapping hands.  Levinson is good at showing close edits of that.  He gives no attention to his girlfriend, Sussana (Valerie Golino), even when she is trying her best to have him stop for a second and realize the special condition and attention that Raymond needs.  As Charlie’s journey continues down the back wood roads of western America, he has no choice but to uncover a realization in his own hyperactivity, and even recognize a different kind of hyperactivity that Raymond possesses. 

Raymond is the autistic person whose mental capacity must follow strict guidelines of watching The People’s Court and Jeopardy.  He has to have to certain meals on certain days.  He can not ride in a car when it is raining.  He can not fly on airlines that carry historical statistics of crashing.  Fire alarms and hot faucet water are violently upsetting.  There is a rigid, uncompromising pattern to Raymond’s behavior and lifestyle.  Because he can’t compromise, Rain Man carries some humorous and outrageous scenes where Charlie must adjust to Raymond’s limitations.  I still feel sorry for the woman who has no choice but to surrender her television and living room in the middle of day so that Raymond can watch his program, while her children are deprived of their cartoons.

Hoffman is great in focus and concentration.  Much like when he adopted the persona of a woman in Tootsie, you never see him sway from the performance of severe autism in his Raymond character.  Because he is so straight down the line here from beginning to end, I have to really admire Cruise’s change in character over all.  Rain Man really is a story about Charlie Babbitt.  Not so much Raymond Babbitt. Charlie changes during the course of the film.  Raymond does not. 

There are a lot of eye-opening moments in Levinson’s film.  You get an education in what autism really is, or at least the unique case that Raymond possesses.  He can memorize a phone book in one night or count the number of tooth picks that have fallen on the floor with simply a glance.  Complex multiplication can instantly be done in his head.  It’s fascinating.  Charlie even discovers a way for Raymond to resolve his financial crisis, thereby leading to an energetically satisfying jaunt in Las Vegas. 

Barry Levinson has assembled two fantastic actors for an engaging film that avoids preachiness and sorrow.  Yet, Rain Man is rewardingly sensitive.  Levinson says a million words with simply a close up moment of Hoffman gently leaning his head on Cruise’s temple.  Quiet moments like that which arrive following scatter brained moments earlier make for a range of emotions I treasure in a picture like this.

I look at Rain Man or Magnolia or Born On The Fourth Of July, and I wish Tom Cruise would take a break from the endless Mission: Impossible films.  Heck, there’s even another Top Gun film on its way!  Why doesn’t he focus on the roles that welcome his skills as a very effective actor?  (American Made was a recently oddly different kind of character for him. Great film by the way!)  I have an affection for most of his films, regardless of the category. I really do.  If only his action pictures could take a rest for a change, and allow the acting scenes to come back into play.