Q & A

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine.  Maybe it’s because I simply get caught up in good crime dramas and legal thrillers, like Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, and The Verdict.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the genuineness of Lumet’s technique.  The man’s career seems to follow a documentarian theme throughout New York City’s boroughs, politics, courtrooms and especially the various precincts of its police force.  Corruption is the angle that Lumet looks for, and Q & A from 1990 is another such example.

The title refers to the routine transcript that a district attorney will ask a witness following an incident.  So, after the first two minutes of the picture have concluded with New York cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a Hispanic at point blank range, execution style, outside a seedy nightclub, a fresh-faced D.A. named Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is recruited in the middle of the night to collect Mike’s statement on the incident and wrap it up quickly, as his supervisor Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) strongly urges.

Mike is a celebrated cop with tall tales to share of how he strong arms suspects.  Everyone seems to like his relaxed way of tossing around racist vulgarities in his anecdotes.  No demographic is left out with how he speaks.  In fact, the name calling is shared among the whole precinct in a very casual way.  The two detectives assigned to the shooting that Mike was involved in, Sam “Chappie” Chapman and Luis Valentin (Charles S Dutton, Luis Guzman), seem to take it in stride as well.  They guffaw with the rest of the crowd when Mike describes how he roughs up street hoods who don’t cooperate. 

Al was once a cop as well, and his father before him was a “hero cop” to the boys in blue too.  He’s more than willing to let this incident go the quick routine, but then he soon realizes how corrupt Mike is and how much of a stronghold he has on the precinct and the various walks of life within the city from the Italian mob, to the Hispanic drug runners, to the transvestite hookers and the Jewish lawyers.  They all fall under his thumb.  Nolte’s stature and bombastic voice tell you that Mike carries a large thumb no matter how blatant his crookedness may appear. 

“Chappie” may be regarded by Mike as the “whitest n—er” he knows, but he’d never even think of turning his colleague in.  That’ll be the day he quits.  He proudly announces he’s blue first and black second. Luis, the Hispanic partner regarded as a “n—er with straight hair, is scared to move forward.  He’s got kids.  Kevin Quinn needs this to just move on.  The shooting of a lowlife Hispanic is not worth risking his advancement in politics.  Al is challenged and turns to his Jewish mentor, Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomfield) for guidance, who can help him get this pushed up the ranks and nab Mike for his atrocities, while circumventing the racist and antisemitic nature of Deputy District Attorney Quinn. 

It gets more complicated for Al, as his ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter) is now attached to an important witness to the crime.  Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Hispanic drug dealer who can not only pin Mike for the crime but also incriminate others within the system.  He’s just not so willing to sing.  Al is in a difficult quagmire that circles back to pension left for his mother per his father’s prior service.  He’s also wracked with how to handle Nancy.  They broke up simply because his reaction upon learning that her father was a black man did not go so well.  Even Al, born of virtue, is corrupt of prejudice.  Perhaps Lumet’s screenplay suggests the message that intrinsically we are all at least a little too stereotypical or partial for our own good.  It comes with our sensibilities and maybe it’s a mindset we best unlearn.  The most obvious challenge for Al is that he is subjected to intimidation from his boss Quinn, and especially Mike.  You don’t want Nick Nolte in your face.  That’s for sure.

I can’t lie.  Having watched the film for the first time, I was only looking at the plot and story development of Q & A.  I wasn’t seeing the bigoted culture sewn in among the masses.  Afterwards, I watched Siskel & Ebert on You Tube and they focused on the racist themes and casual name calling among the characters.  It never occurred to me while I was in the moment of watching the movie.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Maybe I’ve grown as comfortable with racist name calling as these characters have.  I don’t talk this way.  I may laugh at Cards Against Humanity or Family Guy.  For these cops to talk among themselves, casually using prejudiced connotations for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Homosexuals, Transvestites, Jews and Italians within the melting pot of New York City with such nonchalance is more telling of Q & A, than the corruption that unfolds over the course of the picture.  Understanding what Siskel and Ebert found within the script granted me much more appreciation for Lumet’s film, because the twists of the plot and the overpopulation of characters was becoming too convoluted for me.

The strengths of the movie come from the cast performances, especially Nolte and Assante.  Nolte has played many roles where he’s the brute.  Here though, he’s downright despicable with his slicked back hair, tall stature, his thick “I’m your buddy” mustache, and his Irish Catholic character background that announces his superiority to all others.  Armand Assante is an unusual kind of drug kingpin.  He plays Bobby Texador with much self-awareness knowing he can be killed not only for what he knows about this particular shooting but other inside information he can share as well.  He’s a guy who will rise above any threat though.  This guy might be a criminal, but he hardly needs an attorney to negotiate on his behalf.

The trio of Nolte, Assante and Hutton works because each of the men are so different from one another.  These guys wouldn’t work well on a baseball team together.  They wouldn’t even socialize at parties.  Lumet writes these characters so far apart from each other, that loyalty can’t exist between any of them.

A lot of the characteristics of the film are consistent with many other achievements within Lumet’s repertoire like Night Falls On Manhattan and Serpico.  Those are better films.  When plot details reveal themselves in Q & A, I found myself rewinding to the beginning of a few scenes to fully comprehend what was just said. After a while, I gave up interest in the twists.

There was a choice of musical style that left me unsure as well.   Ruben Blades conducted the score for the film and a pop/rock song follows the prologue over the opening credits.  It later resurfaces as things are coming to a head near the end of the film.  Especially for the seedy and unglamourous approach that I love in Sidney Lumet’s films, I wasn’t enthusiastic on this style to heighten the dramatic crescendos.   It felt a little too Miami Vice, when I believe Lumet was aiming for his audience to get mad at the corruption that overtakes a system grounded in law and order. 

Q & A is a must see for fans of Sidney Lumet.  I’m glad I finally saw it.  It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while and I could not find it anywhere on any platform or medium.  (At the time of this writing, it’s available for free on Hulu.)  It’s definitely raw in its character creatures of a New York City from the 1990s, and it’s honest how the rite of passage to be a cop is to roll with the punches of racially lampooning your ethnicity.  It’s the only way to survive among the masses.  Fortunately, the cast plows through with that ugly nature to deliver something authentic.  When the film dives into its conspiracies for the sake of the plot, however, it’s a little too muddied for me to appreciate.  Watch the film for the characterizations.  Heck, watch it for the plot developments because if you can make out everything that’s happening and why, I’d love for you to explain it to me.


By Marc S. Sanders

John McTiernan’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s first bestselling novel, The Hunt For Red October, might seem dated but it’s still a crackling good thriller. It’s one of those films where you truly feel like you’re walking through the secretive hallways of DC government buildings with their elevators accessed only by an Admiral’s key. Soon you’re in a dark, underground boardroom. You’re also there on the various naval crafts and submarines with alarming lights, shiny steel and glowing monitors. The biggest treat is being in the command center of the titled sub, Russia’s Red October, commanded by their captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). All in all, Terence Marsh built a convincing production design.

Clancy’s story takes a different approach than most thrillers involving Cold War politics. Ramius might have been a James Bond villain in another film as he hijacks Red October, but there’s more to him actually. Rather, Ramius wants to defect to the United States. Most of his command crew is in agreement as well. America doesn’t necessarily see it that way; a Russian, missile equipped submarine quickly approaching the eastern seaboard with other subs following him?!?!?!? Let’s not polish the tea set so quickly.

Fortunately, one man had the pleasure of meeting Ramius once and doing extensive research on the General’s background; Jack Ryan (appropriately cast with a young Alec Baldwin). Ryan is given three days to catch up to Ramius and guide him safely to the United States while avoiding getting the famed submarine shot down by either power nation.

I must point out my favorite scene and it actually takes place in that secret boardroom where it dawns on Ryan of Ramius’ true plan. Baldwin is great here. The young guy who is green when it comes to military and political protocol. McTiernan gets his company of generals and high ranking officials into a large quarrel over what to do and then he zooms in on Baldwin thinking for the close up before he calls Ramius a SON OF A BITCH. It’s at this moment, that the movie going consensus and fans of Clancy overall determined that Alec Baldwin was the best of the cinematic Jack Ryans. (No slight to Harrison Ford, who was too middle aged for the role when he took the part).

Connery at least has the commanding appearance of Ramius’ stellar reputation. He is not very exciting or charismatic. Then again, I don’t think Clancy built the character that way. Connery plays the role as silent, yet wise and experienced as implied by his well groomed, white beard and hairpiece plus his square stature. If this man is standing in your presence, you better give him an update. You shouldn’t have to ask if he wants one.

Good moments are made available to Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill and Stellan Skaarsgard as well. It is the talking scenes among all these fabulous actors that really build tension. The underwater scenes…not so much. The subs look like long, black blobs weaving their way through depths and avoiding missiles coming their way. It’s forgivable because McTiernan always keeps the characters at play. This isn’t a film that relies on the dog fights depicted in Top Gun or Star Wars. McTiernan keeps his audience away from drowning in the underwater murkiness.

The makers of this yarn really are a great combination of imagination. We got Tom Clancy and John McTiernan to thank for a gripping tale from 1990 that still holds up today. The Hunt For Red October is definitely a film worth revisiting.


By Marc S. Sanders

Paul Verhoeven is an in-your-face director. His material regarding sex and violence goes at least a ginormous step further than other directors. For an action film like Total Recall, if someone gets shot, they don’t get shot once but hundreds of times. That way we can see more blood splurt all over the place. I especially feel ashamed how much I laugh when a tourist extra gets caught in good guy/bad guy crossfire. Once this guy is dead, Verhoeven makes sure his central nervous system is dead and none of his vital organs will qualify for donation. If Verhoeven sets a scene in a Martian adult night club, then you’ll have ample opportunity to take in an up front view of a three breasted woman, or little person in stiletto heels and hooker garb with the boa included.

Total Recall is a well-regarded Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick with a psychological twist to keep your attention. As soon as the film begins, you are questioning if you are watching a real-life experience for Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) or is this a dream or is this all a purchased memory. A purchased memory is the new novelty of this science fiction future. If you can’t travel to a destination like the planet Mars, you can certainly buy an implant that’ll convince you that you were there, and even living the life of a secret agent while romancing a beautiful buxom brunette.

The exposition for Total Recall really arrives in the second half of the film. The first hour deliberately leaves the viewer as confused as Quaid while he tries to uncover why he’s being pursued and shot at.

The film is full of surprising twists including another character reveal that Schwarzenegger portrays. It’s hard to trust anyone Quaid comes in contact with or who is real or even what is real.

The settings are very well constructed. When you enter a security zone before hopping on a subway, your entire skeleton appears in blue on a screen you pass by. Mars is brutally red while it tries to comfort the civilization with familiar products like a Hilton Hotel or Pepsi. All of this sensory overload is present while a brutal overseer named Cohagen (an over-the-top Ronny Cox just like Paul Verhoeven likes it) seems to disregard the alien inhabitants by hoarding their breathable air.

It all feels familiar but the product placement is a little much as well. When I first saw the film in its theatrical release, I was enthralled with this picture. The action seemed to come as fast as the various twists. However, now it’s hard not to notice the blatant commercialization of the film. Its like watching a football game and every few minutes a commercial comes on. I’m aware of you, Pepsi. I don’t think I need a reminder during a loud, violent gun fight. Look! Instead of “USA Today” there’s “Mars Today.” Ha!!!! Even if you have the means to travel to Mars, you might want to visit the local Sharper Image for the latest high tech toy.

Total Recall relies on a story from sci fi writer Phillip K Dick who also inspired Minority Report and Blade Runner. Fortunately, that’s a good strength to hinge upon. I think the weirdness of it all makes Schwarzenegger a better actor; a muscle guy who can only appear more like an Everyman in a film like this. He’s good with emoting confusion. He’s as good as always with delivering a pun, and his fight scenes are consistent with his other actioners like Predator and Commando.

Total Recall is a good picture but it’s a lot to absorb in story. It’s over inflated in its unsubtle appearance of product placement, violence and nudity. If you’ve got the stomach for it, then you’ll have a good time. It’s not Star Wars lite. It’s definitely Star Wars heavy. Prepare to be bloated.


By Marc S. Sanders

Internal Affairs has a promising start as we see Richard Gere as decorated officer Dennis Peck compromise a police shooting in favor of his fellow officer (Michael Beach) who has just shot a fleeing unarmed suspect in the back. Right away it’s apparent that Gere is the bad guy here and soon we will see how Andy Garcia as new Los Angeles Internal Affairs officer Raymond Avila will investigate Peck for his violations. Unfortunately, the movie from director Mike Figgis reduces itself to simply having the male characters of the film, including William Baldwin as another dirty, drug addicted cop, physically abusing the female characters around.

This film from 1990 shows its age for sure with frizzy hair sprayed dos and large lapel jackets and skinny ties, but that was not my main issue. It would not be until 2006 in the Martin Scorsese film The Departed that we would see what I was hoping for with Internal Affairs; how a dirty cop works, and how the righteous cop gives pursuit. If only Figgis’ film was smart enough to focus on the method behind Dennis’ actions of crime and police superiority. Instead, we get a Richard Gere who actually shows he can play an effective bad guy, psychologically messing with Andy Garcia’s character by giving him the illusion that he’s having an affair with his wife. What’s Garcia’s response to this? He slaps his wife, played by Nancy Travis, in the middle of a crowded restaurant. When the two clear the air about what’s going on, they slap each other again before making up.

Gere also slaps and physically threatens his own wife played by Annabella Sciorra to drive the point home that she better not talk to the Internal Affairs department. As well, Gere also slaps around his mistress, a wife of one of his criminal associates. William Baldwin’s character slaps around his wife too. You seeing a pattern here?

It’s one thing to depict domestic abuse in film. There’s room for that. Because it sadly happens all too often, it’s appreciated if it’s handled with sensitivity. Here though, the abuse against women is used as a punchline to a scene, one after the other, and the overall theme of the picture is not supposed to be domestic violence. It bothers me that Mike Figgis tosses this kind of material around like effective drama, seemingly trying to make it look sexy to smack a good looking woman around by a good looking man. About the only woman in the cast not to get abused is Laurie Metcalf as Garcia’s lesbian mentor and partner. She gets referred to as a “dyke,” by both the villain and the hero of the film. This is just a very cold, thoughtless picture that runs short on imagination.

How does Garcia get the idea to investigate Gere’s character? He just has a sneaky feeling about the guy. That’s all that’s necessary to move things along here. In a better police film like The French Connection, the cops were displayed with step-by-step surveillance tactics that first put them on to a low rent street hood that ultimately leads to something bigger. We saw a method to their instincts that led to something tangible and proof worthy. I wish Mike Figgis, with a screenplay by Henry Bean, delved more deeply into what made the Dennis and Raymond characters so good at what they do. Films like Heat and Dirty Harry explore those backgrounds. Internal Affairs just takes the cheap shots of beating and dominating the women in these characters’ lives, while never showing the drive for what they do. Ultimately, the film comes up short sighted, and especially very, very insensitive. This is just an abusive film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Claus Von Bülow was not a well liked man. In the 1980s he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny Von Bülow and was found guilty in a courtroom within the state of Rhode Island. However, even guilty men need a lawyer. Alan Dershowitz accepted Claus’ invitation to be his appellate attorney and successfully won the case with the assistance of the best students to come out of his law school classes. Reversal Of Fortune directed by Barbet Schroeder documents the month and a half that Dershowitz had to make a case for overturning Claus’ conviction. The film is based on Dershowitz’ book Reversal Of Fortune: Inside The Von Bülow Case.

Jeremy Irons won the 1990 Best Actor Oscar for portraying the cold and cavalier Claus. He plays the part as if he looks so completely guilty that it’d be foolish to actually think he committed any sort of crime. It’s too obvious to seriously jump to that conclusion.

Glenn Close is Sunny, Claus’ wife. She serves as a narrator from her permanent, seemingly brain dead comatose state. She also appears in flashback moments that account for either her perspective, or Claus’, or the suppositions of Dershowitz (played very effectively by Ron Silver) and his young legal team. Sunny’s voiceover asks the viewer early on “What do you think?”

Sunny was hooked on various pills, chain smoked, ate an abundance of sweets and drank very heavily. She preferred to stay in bed for most of her days. One instance seems to show her in a comatose state lying next to an unalarmed Claus. The maid is disturbed by the nonchalance of the aristocratic husband. A doctor or the police have yet to be phoned. Sunny comes out of that episode but a year later falls into another comatose state. Flashbacks hint at the theory that perhaps Claus was poisoning Sunny to obtain her fortune and keep up with his extra marital affairs. Following her second coma, Sunny’s children hire a private investigator to obtain evidence that was eventually used against Claus in his trial. As an honorable servant of the law, this infuriated Alan Dershowitz who believed this private investigation was biased from the start. Schroeder uses a debate scene with a student (a young Felicity Huffman) for the lawyer to justify his choice to fight for such a hateful man’s appeal. Why were private investigators permitted in the trial? Where’s the public investigation? It also helps that Claus agrees to a large fee to help Dershowitz fund the defense of two brothers on death row for a crime they did not commit.

Schroeder’s film does not make its own claim on the case or the circumstances that accompany it. Rather, he shows you a process. Dershowitz knows that Claus Von Bülow is a “very strange man.” Claus responds to him by saying “You have no idea.” Yet, that doesn’t add up to guilt. A victim can be a victim by means of numerous possibilities and a court of law is fallible. Dershowitz wants to be sure.

Jeremy Irons’ performance is that of a gentleman of an aristocratic and well dressed nature. He finds the humor in being considered the villain. Irons plays the role with determined vagueness. Vague does not account for guilt.

Glenn Close is very good too. Her intoxicated episodes are so delirious that it seems to work in favor of Claus’ innocence. Yet her voiceover narration is sober and clear, but not necessarily accusatory. So it’s hard to know what to believe.

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz only focuses on the law and commanding a team of the best legal minds he ever taught. He turns his two story home into a headquarters where his students are compartmentalized into different aspects of the case from the drugs that Sunny took to the background of the Von Bulow’s turbulent marriage. As a means to keep them alert, the departments have basketball tournaments in his driveway. Dribbling the ball and slam dunking while still weighing evidence and legal precedents. Dershowitz is only interested in seeing if there is a case that shows Claus could have been innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. The case swept the nation and in the court of public opinion this creep was found guilty. Ironically, the one who is closest to him now is the one who does not see guilt, despite disturbances in his client.

Reversal Of Fortune is a different kind of mystery caught up in possible outcomes and nothing else. Barbet Schroeder with the help of Dershowitz’ case notes, book and public records made certain to offer all avenues for what really led to Sunny Von Bülow’s vegetative state.

The only concrete fact that this film does offer is that Claus Von Bülow was an untrustworthy creep draped in elegance and formality. There’s no crime in that. Is there?


By Marc S. Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Marc S. Sanders

I think Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis forgot one thing about Back To The Future Part III. It was supposed to be a time travel movie. Sure, Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) travels back to the Hill Valley of the Old West in the year 1885, but once he gets there, there is not a lot of material for the beloved DeLorean.

The film picks up immediately where the last film cliff hanged. Marty is left trapped in 1955, and he receives a letter sent to him 70 years earlier from his present day Doc Brown companion (Christopher Lloyd) originally from 1985. You still with me? When Marty realizes that Doc gets shot in the back by Mad Dog Tannen (character actor great, Thomas F Wilson), he arranges with the 1955 Doc to send him back to the Old West and prevent that from ever happening.

From there, the film turns into a staple Western. There’s the calvary, Indians on horseback, quick draw duels in the street, a saloon, stage coach and wagons. Most importantly, there’s a steam engine to push the DeLorean to the necessary 88 miles per hour to send our heroes back to the future. That dilemma is solved quickly and early on. They now just have to wait for the train to arrive.

So the film calms down to allow a charming Mary Steenburgen as Clara Clayton, a schoolteacher, to capture the affection of the good ol’ Doc. When the romance seems impossible though, we get a depressed Doc. A depressed Doc Brown is never good for a movie. Consider this. It’d be so easy to just wait for the moment to travel back in time. However, obstacles get in the way, right? In the fantastic first film, Marty has to play guitar at the school dance to get the necessary first kiss between his parents thereby solidifying his existence. That’s fun…and then he kills it while performing “Johnnie B. Goode.” Here, the moment to time travel is approaching, but it can’t happen because Doc is depressed. What’s so fun about that?

Like Part II, Part III is watchable. It’s not terrible by any means. It’s just a little stale. The best gag, however, is Marty taking on the name of “Clint Eastwood” to build his status in the town. This allows a lot of inside jokes. What would’ve sent this film into the stratosphere is if they got the legend himself to make at least a cameo. Alas…. I can dream and wonder.

Back To Future Part III ends the film on a sweet message similar to what you get from other fantasies like The Wizard Of Oz or Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It reminds me that despite its shortcomings, the entire Future trilogy is great to share with the whole family. No doubt, there’s always something to look at and focus on.

Still, some movies that require focus specifically, takes work. The first film allowed me to wonder. Wonder if all of this could be true one day. Wonder how they thought all this up. Wonder how Marty is actually going to get back to the future.

If I have to choose, I’d rather not focus. I’d rather just wonder.


By Marc S. Sanders

The title of Penny Marshall’s film Awakenings has at least two meanings.  The most obvious focuses on Robert DeNiro’s character, Leonard Lowe, who comes out of a near thirty-year catatonic state one day.  As well, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, the doctor who uncovers the experimental drug that awakens Leonard, along with other patients who reside in the caretaker ward located in the Bronx.  Many of the patients share the same abnormality as Leonard, due to all suffering from a wave of encephalitis that swept through the area in the 1920s. 

DeNiro and Williams are a top of their game pair together.  Both of them go against type that many audiences were accustomed to by the time this film released in 1990; DeNiro – the tough, short tempered, unhinged guy; Williams – the manic, fast talking, quick on his feet comic.  Both actors bring it down many notches to bring this story to light that was inspired by the documented experiences of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Still, Penny Marshall has a way a bringing gentleness with touches of comedy to this film just like she did with Big and A League Of Their Own.  Okay, maybe those films were more energetic at first and then quieted down, thereafter.  Awakenings performs in the opposite direction, but Marshall’s recipe of drama mixed with humor is so appreciated.

Dr. Sayer is a shy individual with limited social skills.  He relates more to plant life than actual humans.  When he’s recruited by the hospital administration, led by the intentionally obnoxious and objectionable John Heard, to oversee the patients at the ward, he does so without any intent to make a difference.  The hospital staff is just fine with that.  Soon though, Dr. Sayer is recognizing a behavior in some of the patients.  They seem to be staring into space, open mouthed with no emotion or change in expression, but they respond to a variety of unusual stimuli.  A woman will walk across the social hall on the black squares of a checkered floor.  Leonard, and a few other patients, will catch and toss a tennis ball around.  Yet, they won’t blink or wince or smile.  Through further research, Dr. Sayer takes a pharmaceutical risk and increases the dosage of an untested prescription over time.  One night, his patient zero, Leonard, is sitting up in bed and awake.  Shortly thereafter, he’s speaking, walking, and functioning like a regular forty something man.  Thereafter, the drug is administered to the other patients who demonstrate the same outcome. 

The challenge comes first from the hospital, though.  They are not prepared to take Dr. Sayer’s methods or assessments seriously and they are stubborn to recognize some exceptional progress.  Like any standard drama, this leads to conflicted debate.  The debates Dr. Sayer has with the hospital board never took me out of the picture, but I do question if the antagonism needed to be so close minded.  After all, should such unexpected and miraculous development be so dismissed?  The challenge seems so forced at times that a scene is offered where the doctor’s support from nursing and janitorial staff gladly gives up their hard-earned paychecks to help alleviate the expense of the experimental drugs.  It puts a lump in your throat for sure, but would this really happen? 

A hint at a romantic angle presents itself when the lovely Penelope Ann Miller arrives at the ward to tend to her ill father.  Leonard becomes smitten with her.  He is not free to go about as he pleases.  Miller’s character can.  Eventually, Leonard becomes rebellious of his “incarceration” within the ward while the hospital exercises its mandated caution.  While this is occurring, Leonard’s condition is deteriorating. 

Robert DeNiro received an Oscar nomination for this role and its easy to see why.  His physical performance comes so naturally, at first in the catatonic state, later as a man witnessing daily life in the hippie of age of the 1960s and then again as his body dwindles into uncontrollable spasms, when the drugs’ positive effective doesn’t hold.  His enunciation falters, his body violently twitches and he can’t even grasp anything.  It’s a sorrowful and marvelous performance to see.

Awakenings is a picture that performs with real heart and tenderness.  Marshall’s film offers a glimpse into a short period of time when adults who hadn’t gotten the opportunity to live active lives were suddenly offered an opening.  Leonard gets to see a jet liner fly overhead and take a walk in the ocean.  He can taste ice cream for the first time in years and get a glimpse of young hippie’s derriere.  The other patients get a chance to go to dance at a swing club.  As well, Dr. Sayer’s guarded exterior gradually sheds as he persists to act beyond the administrators’ objections and also consider a little romance for himself with a nursing assistant.  (Point of fact: Oliver Sacks was actually gay in real life.  So, some liberties are taken with the film.)

It’s important to point out a forgotten performance from Ruth Nelson as Leonard’s elderly mother.  She visits Leonard every day by reading to him, dressing him, and changing his diapers like any loving mother would.  Yet, as Leonard gets more independent, Nelson is terrific as the kindly elderly woman who has to become a different kind of mother to her son.  She is an quickly awakened from being the mother of a helpless child to the elderly mother who is not as capable of controlling her son’s choices.  Mrs. Lowe is rightly uncomfortable with Leonard’s affection for Miller’s character.  She’s just not used to this dynamic that’s come about so quickly.  What an amazing character arc and Nelson pulls off the portrayal beautifully.

Tear jerking films work best when they operate like Awakenings.  You’re given many opportunities to laugh and enjoy the pleasures and quirkiness of the characters.  Later, it becomes a welcome and satisfactory cry fest when what was once celebrated is at a risk of loss.  Penny Marshall worked best with this formula on these kinds of pictures.  It’s why a simple, seemingly silly story like Big worked.  It’s also why a female baseball movie worked as well beyond the diamond.  There was more dimension than just the basic summary.  Marshall always delved deeper and she allowed her actors to go that far as well.

Awakenings is a terrific film, blessed with a gamut of emotions.


By Marc S. Sanders

Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo finished out their Corleone trilogy in 1990 with The Godfather Part III. Not so much a sequel, this third film feels more like an epilogue jumping towards Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) elder years as the Don of the most powerful Mafia family in the late 70s/early 80s.

Michael seems exhausted with his rule as he suffers from diabetes as well as remorse for his past sins; especially feeling the guilt of ordering the execution of his brother Fredo.

Still, he is drawn to crime, but on a more sophisticated and righteous nature by taking advantage of the Roman Catholic Church. Michael intends to purchase the powerful bank associated with the church but that’ll have to fall in line with the Pontiff’s agreement. It doesn’t help that the Pope is in failing health. The setup of all this lends to another grand opening where Michael earns a prestigious award from the church in the same tradition of an austere celebration of many guests that lend to character set ups for the film. A Godfather movie is not a Godfather movie without a grand reception to open the film.

The most interesting character is Michael’s nephew, Vincent (Andy Garcia), a fierce hot head like his father Sonny. He wants to work for Michael desperately while fending off a street hood boss (Joe Mantegna). An older don also comes into play by the great character actor, Eli Wallach. Diane Keaton as ex-wife Kay is also here but more or less to quietly bicker with Michael. Sister Connie is here, too, with Talia Shire. The Connie character always changes from each movie. Here she’s a deadly black widow. There’s also Michael’s daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola, contrary to popular opinion, I insist she’s very good in the role). Is Mary a legitimate cover for the family as the spokesperson for a fundraising effort? Is the possibility of Vincent and Mary (as cousins) getting intimate a terrible risk?

I like this film and hold it in high regard. Namely because Coppola and Puzo took an approach straight out of the news when there was an embezzlement scheme occurring within the Vatican bank. The problem for many I believe was that the plot of this grand scheme was not flashy or bloody enough, even if a participant is revealed to be hanging from a London bridge with fraudulent receipts falling out of his pockets…which actually happened in real life.

The film allows many opportunities for Michael to allow his anguish in guilt to flow. Fans grew used to a fierce Michael Corleone from the first two films. The elder Michael here would rather not get involved. Hence the introduction of Garcia’s character. He’s very good in the role. Yet there’s not much dimension to Vincent. He’s a scary violent guy, and a contradiction to what Michael seeks. Yet, thats about all there is. I would have wanted more dimension to this role; the guy destined to carry on the reign.

Sofia Coppola is fine in her part and undeserving of the lashing she received upon the film’s release. She’s Michael’s young daughter; a young adult dangerously close to the fray. The one innocent constant within the family. For me, I found a dramatic stake in her character.

The ending is very powerful. Slowly methodical as the family assembles in Sicily to see Michael’s son’s stage opera debut. There are elements that are consistent with the other films’ endings, but this violent conclusion comes with quite a shocking result. I was really moved by it.

Coppola didn’t measure up to the first two films with this effort. I agree with that. Still, The Godfather Part III is worthy of holding its place in the saga. It carries the traditions of the prior films in set up and music and operatic narrative. Be patient with its slow pace because I think the ending will grab you.


By Marc S. Sanders

Goodfellas is my favorite film by Martin Scorsese. It’s a fast-paced roller coaster narrative of Irish street kid Henry Hill’s experience in the mob, dramatized from his real life as part of the Gambino crime family of New York.

“How am I funny?,” the Lufthansa heist, Spider takes it in the foot and then in the chest, Morrie’s Wigs, the piano montage from Derrick And The Dominos, Billy Batt’s demise followed by an early morning breakfast stopover at mom’s, and Henry’s helicopter paranoia. All of these elements are assembled to depict the perceived glamour and undoing of street level hoods, proud to steal and dress in the finest threads while bedding dames behind their wives’ backs.

Scorsese along with Nicholas Pileggi uncovered something special when they adapted Wiseguy (Pileggi’s book) for the screen. I think they struck a nerve because they showed these guys as men doing a routine living. There was a process to their deeds. Give a cut of your theft to the man above and keep the rest for yourself. Above all else, stay off the fucking phone. Get out of line and get whacked, unless you’re a “made guy.” This is all code, normal to Henry and his cohorts (Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway; Joe Pesci as Tommy DiSimone).

Moreover, the wives understood this behavior as well. Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) knew these guys were not 9 to 5 husbands and the more it occurred, the more normal it all seemed. Including when the FBI presented a warrant to search the premises. Just let them in and go back to rocking the baby to sleep while watching Al Jolson on the box.

Scorsese took the best approach by not judging the actions of these raw criminals. They dressed well, but they weren’t reluctant to draw blood if an insult was tossed their way. Pesci, in an Oscar winning best performance, represents that philosophy. Scorsese, with his regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are not shy about the violence. Watch how Jimmy and Tommy beat up a “made guy.” DeNiro just stomps his dress shoes into the guy’s face over and over. Pesci pistol whips him, but before he can shoot him, he breaks the gun…on the guy’s face. The romance of gangster life quickly undoes itself in moments like this. As Henry notes, your friends come at you with smiles before they whack you.

Ray Liotta is Henry, the primary narrator and centerpiece of the film. Most of the story is from his perspective. I’m sorry that Liotta didn’t get much award recognition. He really deserved it. His voiceover narration is superb. It gives a feeling like I’m talking to Henry in a bar with his tales of Mafia code and life in the criminal underworld. His voiceover is conversational. He’s also got great expressions of disregard, anger, and intense, raging fear on screen. When Henry is at his worst, his eyes are dry red, and his skin is pale and craggily. None of that is just makeup at work. That’s Ray Liotta performing with an exhausted energy in character. Watch the scene following his 3rd act incarceration where he argues with Karen over the last of their drug supply being flushed down the toilet. It’s not so much a party anymore. The manic response couldn’t feel more real as he slams his hand against the wall and then crouches up into a weeping ball of helplessness in the corner, on the floor.

Liotta and Bracco have sensational chemistry together in scenes of their courting nature when they first meet, followed by the ongoing, bickering abuse that enters their married life. There’s a great hysteria to them. Bracco got a nomination for her role. She deserved it.

Scorsese is a master at filming basic gestures as well to show the nature of these mob guys and their crimes. A key folded in a paper is then inserted into a knob and a stash is walked off with. A blood-soaked revolver is placed in a tin box and then Schoonmaker cuts over to the customary stomping of a glass at a Jewish wedding. Every prop and detail are connected.

Even better is Martin Scorsese depicting the wise guys’ incarceration midway through the film. Watch how the head mob boss Pauly (Paul Sorvino) slices onion with a razor for dinner complete with steaks broiling, pork sauce bubbling and even lobster ready to be boiled. Scorsese and Pileggi found it important to depict how attractive this life could be, despite a stretch in the joint or the violence that might come. Pay off the right guys and you could live like kings.

The master director doesn’t stop there. His selection of doo wop and rock period music paints the historical palette of the 50s through 80s. Music was being played and life was happening all the while an underhanded way of crime and violence occurred.

One of the best blends of film and song occurs during the classic one-shot steady cam where Henry escorts Karen through the back way of the famed nightclub, Copacabana. It’s one of the greatest scenes ever in movies. The walk journeys downstairs, through the kitchen, past wait staff, cooks, bouncers, people necking and to a front and center table to see Henny Youngman’s stand-up routine. The sequence is accompanied by the song “And Then He Kissed Me.” It’s a great character description to display a young guy, proud of his gangster image, with a whole world ahead of him and everyone offering their respects while he hands out twenty-dollar bills like gift coupons. This young guy had power, and the girl holding his hand couldn’t be more impressed.

Goodfellas is one of the greatest mob movies ever made. It’s one of my favorite films. It’s genuine in its grit and language. Every F-word uttered is necessary to translate the regard for code, or the blatant disregard for the law, loyalty within a crew, or even the ethics of marriage. It astounds me that it didn’t win Best Picture in 1990, losing to Dances With Wolves. Perhaps it got cancelled out with fellow mob nominee The Godfather Part III.

Regardless, the film struck a chord and pioneered a new way of showing criminals in celebration of themselves while sometimes encountering the inconvenience of the law or the women in their lives or worse, the betrayals among themselves. At any given moment you might rat on your friend and not keep your mouth shut.

Without Goodfellas, The Sopranos might not have been as welcomed into the pop culture lexicon. Maybe even the films of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie or Paul Thomas Anderson, or even other Scorsese projects yet to come.

Goodfellas is an electrifying film of unabashed humor, realistic and shocking violence, and authentic culture within a well established crime syndicate.

Goodfellas is a must see film.