WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

By Marc S. Sanders

Two years after my family and I moved from New Jersey to Florida, I was age 16 and still felt lonely. Very lonely.  I was not prepared for the culture shock of leaving a primarily Jewish community and transitioning into a mixed bag of different cultures and mentalities.  I couldn’t adjust and the only people I could understand in 1989 were Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry & Sally.

The script written for When Harry Met Sally… focuses on the title characters adjusting to life in the decade following college graduation, where their paths cross periodically and they debate the aftermath of Casablanca, as well as what it means to sleep with someone or not.  More importantly, they are often returning their attention to whether a man and a woman can be friends without any temptation for love or intimacy, no matter how attractive they find each other to be.  Boy oh boy, that’s a loaded observation, isn’t it?  It is so consuming that as close as Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) become with one another as best friends, no matter how many people they date, they still couldn’t be any lonelier.  At the time, I could understand their dilemma.  I had a terrible crush on a girl at school. We were close friends who could laugh with each other.  Yet, I never took it to the next step.  I should have asked her to the homecoming dance in our sophomore year.  I really should have.  The risk, though, is the change in the comfortable dynamic we had.  I didn’t want to lose that.  Harry and Sally are attractive to one another.  Rob Reiner includes great close ups of the two actors looking at each other, wondering who is going to make the first move.  Will they bring this relationship to a new level?  It may never happen.  It didn’t for the girl I thought I could fall in love with.  At least Harry and Sally had each other’s shoulders to cry on. I adore this film, directed by Rob Reiner, because I yearned for what they had in friendship first, and as a relationship second.

Sally and Harry couldn’t be any different.  He is of the mindset that any woman he encounters is destined to be slept with, or more simply put, men and women could never be friends because at the bare minimum, men are thinking about sleeping with every woman they come across.  Sally can’t understand that, but when Harry shares his philosophy with her the first time they meet, while on an 18-hour drive from the University of Chicago to New York City, she can’t help but suspect that it just might be possible.

The two depart from one another to start their new lives in the big city, and come across each other five years after that on a flight they inadvertantly share, and then another five years later when they are given an opportunity to catch up on their relationship status.  In present day, 1988, Sally has just broken up with her longtime boyfriend.  Harry has gotten a divorce.  Ephron has written these characters to ultimately need one another.

When Harry Met Sally… is certainly a comedy, but more than likely it’s because Billy Crystal’s quick wit and delivery comes off familiar from his other career accomplishments.  Meg Ryan works beautifully as a scene partner that debates Harry’s cynical view of people with Sally’s natural positivity.  Their mentalities go in opposite directions, but the film continues to imply that these two couldn’t be more perfect for one another.  Chalk that up to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s chemistry.  They are one of the all-time great on-screen couples.  These two actors are my friends.  I want it to work out for them.  When I saw the film three times in the theatres, I wanted to experience what they experienced.  Their story has bumps in the road.  They get mad and upset with each other.  They debate with one another, but they amuse one another too, and what a romantic adventure they share together.

A terrific novelty of Reiner’s film is when he cuts away to elderly couples with rich histories of how they met and stay together for decades after.  We weren’t there to see these wonderful people kindle their relationships, but we’ll see how Harry and Sally come together.  I remember long ago, that my father told me that when you get married, make sure you are marrying your best friend.  He said love is important, but you have to like each other first.  I did marry my best friend and I like her.  I love her too.  We drive each other crazy.  We have very different interests.  We even live in our home differently, that we share with our daughter and dog, but we want to be with each other and no one else.  No one else factors.  When you watch When Harry Met Sally… you see why two people continue to be with each other, first as friends, and maybe as lovers later.  When you have a best friend in your life there’s no one else you want to laugh with or cry with more often than that person.  There’s no other hand you want to hold.

A brilliant midway scene in the film occurs when Harry and Sally have the misguided idea of setting up their other best friends with each other.  Harry’s buddy Jess (Bruno Kirby) may be a good fit for Sally.  They are both writers, after all.  Sally’s girlfriend Marie (Carrie Fisher) has a keen interest in conquering married men, not far off from how Harry routinely proceeds with one relationship after another by sleeping with the women he dates.  He’s not in love with them, but of course he’ll sleep with them.  The irony comes when both Harry and Sally could never fathom that Jess and Marie find each other attractive, not the ones they were originally intended for.

There’s much heightened romanticism to When Harry Met Sally… I won’t claim it to be very realistic with how life works out for many of us.  Look at the famous deli scene where Meg Ryan demonstrates for Crystal’s character that a woman can convincingly fake an orgasm.  It’s a hilarious scene.  One for the ages.  However, a scene like that wouldn’t happen.  If a scene like that did occur in real life, the woman would be asked to leave the premises immediately.  It’s not the point though. 

Love and happiness should consist of elevating ourselves to a delightful fantasy of joy, affection and laughter.  Love should also guide us to carry our best friends through sadness and frustration.  We can’t survive this challenge, we call life, alone.  I realized that first hand when my innocent, naïve and unsure teenage self watched the movie for the first time all those years ago at the Mission Bell movie theatre in Tampa. 

People need someone to grow with.  We need someone to continue to teach us while we teach them in return.  Most importantly, as it becomes a running theme in When Harry Met Sally…, we need someone to kiss at midnight every New Year’s Eve. 

THE LITTLE MERMAID

By Marc S. Sanders

What I hearken back to most when I watch The Little Mermaid is my junior year of high school in 1989.  If you were around at that time, then maybe you realized how much of an impact the characters of Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle and Ursula The Sea Witch had on kids, but teen pop culture as well.  Batman was big that year.  Disney’s underwater, romantic, musical adventure was at least as large.  Driving home from school, everyone I knew were singing along to celebrated numbers like Kiss The Girl, Les Poisson, Under The Sea and Part Of Your World.  My drama class couldn’t get enough of Poor Unfortunate Souls.  Oh, how overdramatic we would get in Mr. Locklair’s class while emulating Pat Carroll.  I still harmonize Ariel surrendering her voice.  Yes!  I can hold the tune!!!!  There is no denying The Little Mermaid cast a spell over the student body at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

The Little Mermaid is an important entry in the Disney lexicon.  Disney films were considered substandard, tired and stale before this release.  However, the adored fable based upon a story from Hans Christian Anderson awakened something that still carries on.  The music within the film from beloved writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were delivered like Broadway showstoppers.  The quality of the songs was elevated with gorgeous calypso and reggae harmonies, and vocal characterizations as colorful as the underwater life depicted on screen.

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the title character who dreams of what life is like above the surface.  Her father, King Triton, strictly forbids her from going above the water.  In his eyes, humans are ghastly.  That’s a problem because his daughter is enamored with handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes).  Like a sixteen-year-old who sneaks out of the house through a bedroom window, Ariel visits the nefarious and alluring sea witch, Ursula (a rapturous Pat Carroll in one of the best fantasy villain roles to ever appear in the movies).  The deal is Ursula will turn Ariel into a human for three days.  In exchange the little mermaid must surrender her gorgeous singing voice.  If Eric does not give Ariel a kiss of true love by the time the sun sets on the third day, then her soul belongs to Ursula for all eternity. Ariel gets some help from Sebastian the crab (also a sea-life orchestral conductor), innocent Flounder, and a zany seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett).

The animators at Disney use everything at their disposal to burst wondrous color within the film.  There’s life brought to the sea life within the backgrounds from a blowfish who BLOWS, to the Octopus and the shrimp and swordfish.  Even the random bubbles that float around are marvelous to look at. Nothing is off limits and life under the sea seems so much more enticing compared to the ho hum activities that we humans endure each day with traffic jams and junk mail.

Other Disney productions like Alaadin and Beauty And The Beast that followed, offer some life lessons for the protagonists to consider.  The Little Mermaid doesn’t actually.  It rests upon wishes and dreams for Ariel.  I’m thankful for that.  It’s such a glorious picture that I coast through on the fantasy of it all.  Ariel takes me on adventures to explore shipwrecks and her grotto where her human collectibles are stashed.  I get to carefully approach the dark imagery of Ursula’s caverns where countless, slimy, pitiful souls suffer, while the tentacled monster delights in her vanity with Pat Carroll’s gleeful voiceover.  It’s just enough for me.  Disney doesn’t always have to preach, and I think it’s why The Little Mermaid is my favorite of all of their films. 

Every moment is beautifully drawn in shape and color.  Still for a film that came six years before the Pixar evolution, the expressions of the characters come off so naturally.  Look at Sebastian’s fear and frustration as he tries to keep up with an independent Ariel.  Pay attention to Ariel’s nervous reaction when she encounters Eric on the beach after she’s become human.  She’s animated to try and straighten her hair and grin her teeth because its as if the popular kid in school is walking across a disco lit gymnasium to ask her for a dance.  The animation is purely inspired by natural, human behavior that we are all too familiar with.  When drawn like this, we can’t help but be impressed.

The songs are the highlights though.  The compositions are so lively and easy to pick up and sing along to, like we all did in high school.  The lyrics are equally impressive like the most brilliant of dialogue.  When Ursula makes her campaign for why this trade would be advantageous for Ariel (Poor Unfortunate Souls), I can’t help but believe her.  She’ll have her looks and pretty face.  It’s only her voice!  You got a point there Ursula.  The best villains always have the most sound reasonings behind their motivations.

Sebastian (Samuel E Wright) makes a strong argument for why life Under The Sea is so much better than living on land.  His enthusiasm in song is completely convincing.  Life under the sea is nothing but a party.  Let’s go.

Jodi Benson gives a strong voiceover performance as Ariel.  I’m hearing a firm and independent young woman who stands her ground and will defy any orders to go after what she desires.  Her rendition of Part Of Your World is one of Disney’s most treasured and celebrated moments in film history when accompanied with the setting of Ariel’s towering grotto of props that we humans take for granted like fish hooks and dining utensils, especially a dinglehopper…you know…a fork!  This is what a kid dreams of becoming when alone in her room with no one there to judge her true feelings and desires.  It’s truly glorious.

The one scene that does give me pause is the dramatic discovery King Triton has of Ariel’s secret vault of collectibles.  By the end of the moment, his temper has grown so big, that he unleashes the power of his trident to destroy everything she’s treasured.  I’ve always said this looks brutally familiar to how a father might take a baseball bat to a kid and her room, teetering on domestic violence.  The scene is memorable but unnerving all the same.  Still, I have to remind myself that this is a fantasy, and this is only a movie. 

Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a timeless film filled with magic and whimsy and daring escapes and big laughs that are not just relegated for eight-year-olds.  As adults, we remember those butterfly feelings of our first crush and what held us back from pursuing it further.  We can relate to what the characters do for, and towards each other.  Again, everyone from the deliciously wicked villain down to the defiantly brave protagonist and her sidekicks have a point and very human understandings for why they exist and what they want out of life.  Being a mermaid or a crab or a sea monster doesn’t make any of these people any less human. 

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

By Marc S. Sanders

Steven Spielberg is great when he takes advantage of a silhouette. His best example of this is with Indiana Jones. He’ll hide the character in deep sun so you only make out the recognizable shadow of his famous fedora hat and bullwhip by his side. I treasure a moment like this as Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade approaches it’s closing credits and he rides off into the sunset along with his father and their trusty companions. (Other great silhouettes happen in Raiders Of The Lost Ark – when he first meets Marion, or when he’s traversing through the South American jungle or when he’s digging towards the Well Of The Souls. I love it every time I see it.)

The Last Crusade no longer offers the mystery of the famed archeologist. Unlike Raiders where Indy only says what is necessary and his past experiences remain unknown, this story offers a background. How does Indy first dabble into the world of rare antiquities and what did he miss out on as a child followed by an adventurous transition into adulthood? How about that scar on his chin? There are some answers here.

Harrison Ford keeps Indy stoic and only amusingly frustrated when interfered with by pesky Nazis and a wonderfully naive and innocent Sean Connery as his father, Henry Jones. Their pursuit of the Holy Grail, the cup that belonged to Christ at The Last Supper, is a similar narrative sequence of events to Indy’s first adventure. However, what sets it apart here is the relationship between father and son. I imagine it’s a similar connection between a lot of dads and their sons, and therefore I have a nice affection for the film.

Spielberg continues to be great with his action moments by keeping it light and fun. River Phoenix echoes a young Indy as Ford would have played it as a pre teen. It’s a convenient short story to show how the character earns the hat, the jacket, the whip and even his infamous fear of snakes.

Boat chases, underground relics, rats and fist fights atop a tank are well edited and clearly shot.

The 3rd of four wonderful adventures (soon to be five) is still fun to watch and offers enjoyment that many of today’s blockbusters have simply forgotten.

It’s always exciting to ride alongside Indiana Jones.

STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER

By Marc S. Sanders

Leonard Nimoy is an actor who can also direct himself.  Man o’ man, he accomplished amazing feats with Star Trek III & IV, didn’t he? On the other hand, William Shatner is just an actor.  Look at Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and you’ll see what I mean. 

(Mind you, I’m not being fair, because actually Shatner is a very good literary author.  Read his TekWar series to understand what I mean.)

What a terrible shame that this fifth film in what was mostly a successful and beloved film franchise descended so poorly in craftsmanship, writing, direction and performance.  The lesson to be learned when committing to a plot that has your cast of characters meeting with the Lord, Almighty God is…I guess you’ll always come up short.  Someone will be there to say, “Well that’s not my God!” or “God?  Who is this God, you speak of?”

The behind-the-scenes story goes that Shatner agreed to return for the fourth film on the condition that he direct the fifth installment.  Producer Harve Bennett and Paramount agreed, and Shatner got to writing.  What set this film up to fail from the get go is what a skeptical producer later recounted.  If you have a film where the crew of the Starship Enterprise meets up with God, it’s never going to please everyone.  Someone-a lot of someones-are going to be disappointed.  Talk about hindsight. 

Shatner’s other mistake was offering up a shocking new development for the franchise’s most treasured character.  Spock (Nimoy) has a long-lost step brother.  Yes.  Of course, use your film installments for big moments like this, but not this way.  Sybock (a dumb sounding, uninspired character name, played Laurence Luckenbill) is a crazed Vulcan heretic who brainwashes people by easing what pains them the most.  He arrives on a planet in the neutral zone (between Klingons and the Federation) and rounds up a posse masking them as hostages to bait Captain Kirk and the Enterprise to arrive, thereby hijacking the starship.  Next stop a mythical Eden, where God presumably resides.  This is supposed to be Spock’s brother????

When the veil is pulled off on who Sybock is, Shatner’s scene set up is kind of anti-climactic.  He portrays Kirk in a silly kind of comedic frustration against the no nonsense Spock for not sharing this news.  Lines like “Aha…. See?  See what I mean?” creep in.  It’s kind of sophomoric and hokey, like a failing stand up comic.  Spock doesn’t even find Sybock’s arrival very fascinating. (In case you aren’t aware, Spock exudes enthusiasm by declaring something fascinating.)  Instead, it’s just matter of fact.  So, why should the audience raise an eyebrow at any of this, if Spock won’t even make the effort?

The Final Frontier fails miserably on its visual effects.  The renowned Industrial Light & Magic was not available for this picture.  Shatner and company resorted with another contractor and the lack of substance in space travel and models shows terribly.  At one point Sulu (George Takei) must fly a shuttle transport into the hull of the Enterprise.  Reader, I’ve orchestrated better crash landings with my GI Joe toys.  This is one of the few science fiction films where I can literally tell that miniature models are being used.  The ships are not filmed to appear large and carrying vast amounts of crew members.  The scale of it all seems off.  God is just a holographic face in strobe blue light.  Why did the Paramount production team allow this to happen on such a valuable commodity as Star Trek?  After the enormous success of the last three films, especially Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, you would think that the filmmakers would be especially protective of their money maker. 

I guess I answered my own question, though.  The title Star Trek sells itself, like Batman, James Bond, Jurassic Park or Marvel or Star Wars.  So, let’s not kill ourselves with money and effort.  Is that the idea?  If audiences came in droves for the last picture, surely, they’ll want more and naturally return for the next one, no matter what’s plastered on the screen.  It’s terrible corporate hubris that happens all too often though, and it’s not right.

Star Trek always succeeds when each adventure is a reflection on our world histories and/or our current events.  The Voyage Home relied on the cause of environmental preservation.  The Undiscovered Country (the next film in the series) sprung from the Cold War politics that ended terribly for Russia with the Chernobyl disaster.  I like to believe The Final Frontier was aiming for religious doctrine, but ended up being a betrayal on a level of cult status, perhaps in the direction that Scientology or NXIUM have been suspected of taking.  A zealot will brainwash you into the illusion of immediate relief from what personally ails you. Then you will follow this so-called leader on a tour to meet the almighty, himself (“God” in this film is portrayed by a man, actor George Murdock.)  It’s regrettable, because nothing was gained from this.  Characters ranging from McCoy to Uhura, Chekov and Sulu all become followers of Sybock under his hypnosis.  Yet, Shatner’s story and direction never provide a relief from what overtakes them.  Were they ever deprogrammed?  Cults do exist and sadly people have to be reverted back from the mind control that’s overtaken them.  I’d argue science fiction could allow for a more economical and immediate relief, but even that is not offered here.  So, again nothing is gained or absorbed from Star Trek V.

Film Critic Gene Siskel made a simple and wise observation about the Star Trek films as a whole.  We like these movies because we like these characters and they like each other.  William Shatner offers a simple life approach to Kirk, Spock and McCoy as they camp out on shore leave in Yellowstone National Park.  They sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  It has its charm as Spock is dumbfounded by the illogical lyrics of the song.  You smirk along with Kirk and McCoy.  However, it has nothing to do with the crux of the film.  This moment reintroduces the characters at the start of the film and then it is bookended to close out the movie.  But why?  What was proffered from this?  It goes back to William Shatner spit balling as a writer/director.  In other films, before the meat of the story would begin, the characters would reflect on Shakespeare or Charles Dickens for example, and somehow it weaved nicely into the adventure or the outcome later on.  A campfire song has no relevance that I could determine with a quest for God.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was just aimless telling, and it bothers me to this day.  By the time this film arrived in 1989, the cast was already starting to wind down.  Their age was showing, and they only had so many more voyages to travel on.  Kind of sad that their second to last exploration was dull, short sighted and massively insignificant.

MAJOR LEAGUE

By Marc S. Sanders

Never seen it before!!!! Finally at the behest of my colleague Miguel Rodriguez and company I sat down to take in the view.

Tom Berenger was a B leading man of the 1980s. Rugged with shaggy hair and a hoarse voice in films like Platoon, Someone To Watch Over Me and Shoot To Kill (a secret favorite of mine). Here in Major League, he carries on that tradition as an aging ball player with bad knees. He’s not given many of the gags, but he sure is likable. I didn’t need the inevitable romantic subplot with Rene Russo. Nothing great there. When he’s playing the ball player in a catcher’s uniform though, Berenger is at his best.

Wesley Snipes shows the future of his albeit temporary star power. He’s not on the level of Eddie Murphy funny but he made me laugh nonetheless, as the base stealer. His entrance into the film is hilarious. A cross between a Bentley & Volkswagen Beetle perfectly sums up his character. Looks like class when really he’s got none.

Dennis Haysbert is one guy I never knew was featured. Now, this guy can bring the comedy as a Voodoo believer trying to get his idols to help him hit a curve ball pitch. He was my favorite.

Charlie Sheen is the Wild Thing. It’s not so much Charlie Sheen’s talent. It’s how his character is written that’s hilarious. Writer/Director David Ward (The Sting) doesn’t rely on dialogue for his 2nd billing star. Sheen doesn’t say much actually. Sheen brings the image of a near sighted, out of control, felon with a power arm teetering on 100mph. Throw in some nerd glasses, a punk haircut and an anthem song, and now you’ve got a gag to carry you through a good comedy.

Major League screams of an 80s picture, most especially with the synthesized keyboard soundtrack, Berenger’s Miami Vice sports jacket over a t-shirt, Bob Uecker (great timing as a sports announcer), and 80s mainstay Corbin Bernsen (TVs L.A. Law). Sure, it’s dated but I found the movie to be fun.

Not my favorite baseball film. That belongs to Bull Durham. Still, I’m glad I finally saw Major League.

Oh yeah. As in many sports movies, the team sucks (hey…it’s the Cleveland Indians), the owner wants to stay that way for profit and the team eventually unites themselves to victory.

Exactly!!!! Rene Russo has nothing to do with any of this.

DO THE RIGHT THING

By Marc S. Sanders

inally, after 30 years, I’ve caught up to a film that has eluded me, Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing. Here is a film from 1989 that really could have been made in 2019. At the very least, it should be rereleased in the theatres. We desperately need this film right now.

My view of Spike Lee has gradually changed over just the last year. It must be due to the current political and socioeconomic climate. I’ve become terribly sensitive to what I see in the news these days.

Following seeing BlacKkKlansman and now this film, Lee really is aware of how low humanity can go. Do The Right Thing offers just a little push that leads to an endless fall, however.

Lee’s film was shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. The story takes place on a day where the heat wave has reached a record high, so the predominantly black community has turned on the fire hydrant and Sal’s Pizzeria is open for business. Sal is played by Danny Aiello in an Oscar nominated performance. The main character that everyone knows is Mookie, Sal’s trusted delivery guy, played by Spike Lee. Mookie is well aware of Sal’s mild prejudices towards his customers; mild compared to Pino’s blatant racism (John Turturro), Sal’s older son who works for him along with Vito, the other son.

The film is a day in the life when it appears the same daily routines occur yet again. Mookie delivers pizzas while getting chastised by his son’s mother (Rosie Perez’ debut) for not making more of himself. The middle age men sit on the corner talking about anything random. The kids roam up and down the street goofing off and teasing. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) seems a little crazy even if we can recognize a life of experience as he’s sipping on a bottle while trying to charm Mother Sister (Davis’ real life wife Ruby Dee) who stays perched on her window sill, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) are on their own mission to make sure black celebrities appear on Sal’s wall along with the Italian Americans, and “Fight The Power” is rightfully blasting on the boom box.

Each scene in the film plays like a vignette and Lee often times will be as direct as possible with his characters to honestly show what they stand for, whether they are racist or intrusive or even naively annoying. The heat index is nicely displayed through the random commentary from the local DJ portrayed by Samuel L Jackson, and it’s easy to grasp that the temperature serves as a threatening metaphor for what we fear will eventually happen. Our communal mentality is about to boil over.

I easily saw the still controversial ending coming. What’s sad is that it is no longer surprising in today’s era. It’s probably one of the best endings to a film that I’ve ever seen. That’s a bold statement but having watched the film just a week ago, I’ve repeatedly had an internal argument with myself. Who is right? Who is justified? Who is wrong? Why do these activities continue to happen? If I’m still turning this film over in my head after a week, then I can’t deny the impact Spike Lee accomplished. I’m angry. I’m annoyed. I’m sad. Don’t get me wrong. I was also entertained with the film. It’s a great script and a great cast.

Beyond the messages of Do The Right Thing, the film is an assortment of bright colors in costumes and backdrops within the neighborhood. Bedford-Stuyvesant really looks like a beautiful area. It looks clean and the residents really never appear terribly intimidating. Lee finds qualities in all his characters to like, even Pico the most racist of all. Mookie even tries to make a point to Pico about just how racist he seems. It’s a great conversation about the status quo of a black celebrity vs simply another “N-word” who walks into Sal’s for a slice of pizza. I found charm among most of the various conversations in the film. So much so that I said to myself, this is a film that truly could be adapted into a musical or a stage play. There’s so much to tell and so many ways to say it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee likely had a hundred more pages of dialogue and a dozen more characters that never made it into the final product.

In 1989, and all the years thereafter, I dismissed this film. I never cared for Lee’s commentary during public interviews. I can’t stand his response to certain issues, and admittedly I just do not like hip hop and rap music. I also may have naively thought that Spike’s viewpoints were a little over the top. I still do, at times. Nevertheless, I was blind, Reader. I truly was.

There’s a terrible truth to Do The Right Thing. A frightening truth. We are very, very far out of reach of racial harmony.

We learn best, only when we fall. Spike Lee’s film shows the shortcomings of the human spirit. Spike Lee’s film makes you think and debate. You have no choice but to question a moral compass.

Whether you have already seen it or not, watch Do The Right Thing today. More importantly, watch it with your children.

BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II

By Marc S. Sanders

Back To The Future Part II is a paint by numbers or recipe film more than just a film. This has to be done, so that that can be done, cook on high for just over two hours and all will be wrapped up. Because it is so focused on covering all bases it forgets the wonder and fun of the original film, and just gets down to business. Watching this film makes you feel like dad just won’t throw the football around with you in the front yard. He’s got work to do.

The sequel picks up immediately where the first film ended with Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) taking Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) to a very zany looking future in the year 2015, complete with flying cars, Jaws 19, the abolition of lawyers, and opportunities to get a redesign of your body complete with a replacement of your spleen and colon just like Doc explains. When an elderly Biff Tannen gets a hold of a sports encyclopedia, he travels back in time to 1955 to tell his younger self to make bets he can’t lose. Now the future is entirely changed, riddled with crime, and Biff in absolute power. Worst of all, the brute is married to Lorraine, Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson, regrettably not given much to do this time around). So, Doc and Marty need to travel to 1955 to set things right all over again.

Look, if you were gonna make a sequel to Back To The Future, this is likely what the script was going to spit out. It’s a watchable film. However, it’s lost the soul of the original installment. It feels like an office project. The comedy is absent. A long sequence shows a middle age Marty in 2015 talking on video phone remotely with his bullying boss, and getting fired, with fax machines all over the house spitting out the message as well. This is supposed to leave me in awe? This is funny?

The second half of the film in 1955 has Marty pursuing Biff the bully while trying to get the sports book back. Biff, played by Thomas F Wilson, is more or less doing the same thing as the first film. Only he’s not the dumb buffoon we laughed at the first time. He doesn’t have George to bully around this time. You realize Biff and George made a perfect comedic pair. That’s missing here. So he bullies some little kids and with extreme harshness and tries to kill Marty on several occasions. It’s not so funny this time. It’s cruel.

A fun motif (that also carries forward in Part III) is that the actors are playing their characters at different ages 30-60 years apart from one another. Fox, Wilson and Shue also play their kids or grandkids. A nerdy Marty Jr is nerdy, but not quite funny. Fox is not doing the fantastic humor that Crispin Glover did as George in the first film. He’s just wearing an oversize jacket with his jeans inside out and squeaking his voice. Meh…not funny, just there.

Robert Zemeckis’ sequel is just okay. It’s disappointing because he and his collaborator Bob Gale worked so inventively on the first film. The construction is solid. I still love the various transformations of Hill Valley, California. If the film were made today that’d all be done with CGI. I appreciate the texture in the construction of the town’s past, present and future. Each time period allows me to look around and see what’s replaced what and so on. So, I’m truly grateful for that.

All and all though, Zemeckis and Gale had all the right ideas. They just didn’t have the best execution in mind.

LICENCE TO KILL

By Marc S. Sanders

Regular James Bond screenwriters Richard Maibum and Michael G Wilson (also co-producer) along with director John Glen were not really doing any favors for Timothy Dalton with his 2nd and final outing as 007, with Licence To Kill. The story was a huge departure from what Bond audiences are accustomed to where the super spy goes rogue in the Florida Keys and Cuba, to seek vengeance against a Columbian drug lord named Sanchez (Robert Davi). The problem is this is all beneath Bond. James Bond prevents world domination, not drug trafficking.

Okay. So the story doesn’t hold much water. Dalton’s role is not written very well either. His prior entry in the series established him as a tougher Bond with less sarcastic wit, but certainly a man of culture and sophistication. This one takes out all the sarcasm. Dalton doesn’t even seem to wear his tuxedo very well here. He just isn’t carrying the Bond stature. There’s not much left to the guy.

The ladies are lacking, too. Carey Lowell (eventual Law & Order attorney) is a tough talking CIA operative lacking any sort of romance or chemistry with Dalton. At times, though they might share the same frame, they could have easily been acting in separate rooms. Dalton and Lowell never seem to be listening to one another.

Talisa Soto is Sanchez’ mistress. She’s positively beautiful and exotic like many Bond women before her, but like Lowell she doesn’t appear to really be acting the story. At one point, she tells Lowell “I love James.” I’m trying to figure when the seduction actually occurred though. A movie can’t just tell me that. A movie has to show me that.

Davi is quite vicious as a villain and Licence To Kill features one of the cruelest deaths in the entire series when Sanchez forces a traitorous drug runner into a depressurizing chamber. Yeah. We are treated to a gory, fun inflatable head explosion. As vicious as Sanchez is, his character seems more appropriate for a Lethal Weapon or Die Hard film. Sanchez just doesn’t mesh well in the James Bond universe. Nor does Wayne Newton, actually. Yeah, he’s here too, believe it or not, as a drug cover front messenger posing as a televangelist. Who wants to see Wayne Newton, and how is this funny or entertaining?

The big attraction is a tanker truck chase along a desert road. Big explosions here along with fights on top of the moving rigs. It’s fun but nothing great.

Nothing is at the top of its game with Licence To Kill. That’s a major problem for a relatively new actor taking on such a celebrated role. Primarily, since the story is so weak, it’s hard to accept Timothy Dalton and I think that lent to his end with the franchise after just two entries. Yes. There were known financial issues mired in studio buyouts and bankruptcy leading to Bond taking a near six-year hiatus following this lackluster film, but as soon as Licence To Kill finished its tenure in cinemas, I don’t think anyone truly missed Timothy Dalton.

LEAN ON ME

By Marc S. Sanders

The career of director John G. Avildsen is best defined by his inspirational stories of athletic prowess for the underdog, particularly The Karate Kid from 1984, and the Oscar winning Best Picture sensation, Rocky.  Both films follow similar formulas once the exposition phase is completed.  Music montages fill the screen with endless training with the protagonists giving it their all.  Avildsen’s film, Lean On Me, teeters on these conventions and it tells me one thing.  Training montages belong in the field of physical activities, not with tests of intelligence and academics.

Morgan Freeman portrays Joe Clark, or Crazy Joe Clark with the baseball bat, who singlehandedly (at least according to the film) turned around the Eastside High School of Paterson, New Jersey from a hell hole of violence, drugs and terror into a respectable institution of education.  Eastside, where the actual film was shot, is depicted as the absolute worst.  You can’t even tell the original paint colors of walls because they are covered in so much graffiti.  Early in the film, a teacher’s head is bashed into a puddle of his own blood while trying to break up a fight among the students.  Drugs are exchanged out in the open.  This is a dangerous place. How dangerous?  “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N Roses is playing over all of this footage. 

Worst of all, however, seems to be the last place ranking of the school’s score on state’s standardized test for basic education.  After all that I saw in the first ten minutes of the film, that is the biggest concern? 

Joe seems to be the one and only candidate to get in there and clean this mess up.  His tough exterior and reputation for not getting along with his superiors or his peers is a gamble but what other choice does the mayor have at this point.  The first move that Joe carries out is to have all the drug pushers and criminals explicated from the school immediately.  His second move is to chain every door in the school to keep this riff raff out, which only ticks off the fire marshal and a firebrand activist mother who wants Clark terminated.  While I thought the mother was needlessly a pain in the ass, only to serve as a poorly written antagonist, I can’t help but empathize with the fire marshal; cuz, yeah, what would happen if there was an actual fire?

In between all of this, Crazy Joe bullies, berates and screams at his teaching staff and administration while the students paint over the graffiti.  Some of the staff scream back or toss over desks.  Morgan Freeman is such a capable actor and you can’t take your eyes off the energy he brings to his roles, whether they are subdued like in The Shawshank Redemption or Driving Miss Daisy, or they are out of control hyper as on display here.  Yet, I didn’t feel fulfilled or inspired by his portrayal of Mr. Clark or the film as a whole.  It’s not his fault.  Rather it’s the outline of the script.

A running theme here focuses on the scores of the test.  Joe is first mad as all hell at the low score of the practice tests.  We eventually reach the actual final exam.  Much has been cleaned up at Eastside and Joe screams like a hyped-up football or wrestling coach to the entire study body about how important it is to pass the exam they are about to take within the hour.  The students clap and applaud and sing the title song in harmony.  This scene supplies the inevitable and inspiring training montage that Avildsen relies on.  You know what’s going to happen, right?  They pass of course!  Yet, how did they really pass this exam within the ninety days that the film tells us they have to study?

Lean On Me gets distracted with its other problems such as single mothers who kick out their children and drug pushers who manage to get back into the school, where Crazy Joe disarms one of them threatening with a switch blade.  Late in the film, a teenage student gets pregnant, only to have this storyline abandoned thereafter.  The debate with the erratic mother and the fire marshal takes up large portions of the film as well, and when they don’t, Joe is screaming at his band of teachers making sure they know it is their own fault that the students are failing.  All of these moments are meant to get the audience to nod and shake their heads at how much the world is falling apart, while getting tearfully inspired by the angry, tough love of Mr. Clark.  Right on Joe!!!! It’s like a bad afterschool special, really.  I’m not in denial of the endless variety of problems our schools encounter.  However, this film is less than two hours, and these kids have a test to pass, people!

I just think the wrong movie was made here.  I recall from the late 1980s, the real Joe Clark on the cover a Time Magazine defiantly holding his baseball bat.  My teenage self found the cover shocking.  Having gone to private schools full of unspoken discipline, I’d never imagine a teacher brandishing a bat to make his point.  So unusual was this to me that naturally Clark’s story should be made into a movie.  Yet, the triumph of Lean On Me depends on the passing score of the state exam.  Only, just how did these students pass this exam? 

It’s easy to compare Lean On Me to the film Stand And Deliver.  It’s also easy to see which is the better film.  The latter film focused on underprivileged and uneducated Southeast Los Angeles students who triumphantly passed the most difficult of standardized mathematic exams.  When the passing scores arrive at the end, though, I believed the truth of it all because the film focused on the inspiring teacher Jaime Escalante and his methods for teaching algebra and calculus.  Stand And Deliver showed how those students sacrificed their Saturdays to attend class and studied while working or tending to their families.  In Lean On Me, I don’t recall one student opening a single book or any teacher even writing on a blackboard.  They did learn the school song though.

I don’t disagree with anything that Avildsen’s film offers.  Joe Clark saw the importance of learning the school song to build up pride among his students.  He saw the necessity in painting over the graffiti to maintain the image of a proper institution for learning.  He went to desperate and defiant measures to protect the integrity of Eastside High School.  My problem is the means don’t justify the end.  How does chaining doors, painting over graffiti, and singing the school song, accompanied with endless screaming measure up to passing a standardized test?  Did it all just hinge on one proud moment ahead of taking the test with a beautiful and soulful rendition of the song “Lean On Me”?   I know the passing scores were all achieved in real life.  I just wish I got to see it on screen.

Note: Eastside High School is where my mom graduated from.  It did her proud to see the school recover to its original reputation.

LETHAL WEAPON 2

By Marc S. Sanders

Richard Donner, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover successfully triumphed in 1989’s summer of sequels with Lethal Weapon 2. It was a big box office smash thanks to the pairing of the two leading men making a memorable team with Donner expounding on the beloved humor that the first film provided.

The story is ho hum; South African drug dealers with diplomatic immunity. The top henchman, nick named “Adolf,” has a mysterious connection to kamikaze cop Martin Riggs (Gibson). Nothing so shocking though, and somewhat contrived.

The big star addition here is Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, the sleazy accountant who has embezzled half a billion dollars from the South Africans. Pesci is such a rare talent and he comes up with his own routine of comedy. He is as unique as any of the great comics like Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason or Jerry Lewis. Mind you this film was released before Home Alone and Goodfellas, and after Raging Bull. So, his addition to the franchise was a great surprise.

Getz is a fast talking material witness that Riggs with his partner Roger Murtaugh (Glover) are assigned to protect. However, with the cops’ nose for constant action, it’s not easy protecting the little guy when he won’t shut up or sit still.

“Lethal Weapon 2” is more an assemblage of fun set ups with run on gags. There’s Murtaugh’s daughter appearing in a condom commercial, much to his chagrin. There’s his wife’s new station wagon that is progressively getting wrecked thanks in part to Riggs’ crazy ways. Then there is Roger stuck on a bomb rigged toilet as another reason to damage his family’s home. The Three Stooges would be proud of this material.

There’s nothing new here really, but what makes it entertaining is the ongoing chemistry between Gibson and Glover, with Pesci. It’s apparent that these guys had to go off script at times from a screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the characters created by Shane Black.

Donner does as expected with some great action scenes like a car chase to open the film and a careening tow truck that has Riggs hanging from the fender. There’s shootouts galore, as well.

The beautiful Patsy Kensit has a small romantic storyline with Gibson. It wouldn’t have been missed if it didn’t make the final cut, but it’s here and it’s serviceable.

Yeah, there are some contrived elements to Lethal Weapon 2 and the villains are not the greatest, but the heroes hold the film together, like a fun party on a Saturday night at your best pal’s place.