By Marc S. Sanders

The characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are under terrible pressure.  They are salesmen who are consistently chasing insurmountable sales goals in real estate properties.  One of them has an ill daughter in the hospital.  Another has a temptation to rob his office as a means of earning some fast cash.  Another is in despair of his self-worth.  To be a salesman, of any kind of commodity, is a tough life to lead.  The payoffs can be enormous when a sale is successful.  However, once a transaction is complete, the response is often “what have you done for me lately?”  These guys are never happy.  However, they are also some of the cruelest, most insensitive, and thoughtless people you will ever meet.  They have no other choice but to behave that way.  It’s the nature of the business.

The film adaptation of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play contains a collection of outstanding actors doing some of their best work.  They embrace the brutal dialogue the screenplay hands over to them with relentless cursing and flaring tempers.  Glengarry Glen Ross has you believe that you run your sales career on your own with little help or encouragement from the people you slave for. 

Early in the film, Alec Baldwin, known only as a man named Blake (based on the end credits) visits the office where these salesmen are based out of.  He delivers an unforgiving and harsh reality of what these men must do.  They either get their sales numbers high on the board, where they can win a new Cadillac, or they settle for a set of steak knives for second place.  After that, they are fired.  Regardless of where they currently stand though, they should not even be pouring themselves a cup of coffee.  Coffee is only for closers.  The office manager, known as Williamson (Kevin Spacey), only provides the men with sales leads that have already been exhausted with rejection and hang ups. 

Director James Foley does a wise technique with color.  The first half of the film appears in drabs of greens and greys amid an evening of torrential rain downpour.  Before Blake finishes his threatening presentation, he dangles new leads, the “Glengarry Leads,” in front of the men saying these are not for them, because they are only for closers.  The old leads that Williamson hands out are on green index cards, nothing flashy.  Blake’s leads are bright pink with a gold ribbon tied around them.  Foley makes sure that even a prop tells a story.

The salesman that gets the most attention is perhaps Shelley “The Machine” Levene played by Jack Lemmon.  He’s elderly and past his prime with no numbers currently on the sales board.  Frequently, he is making calls to the hospital for an update on his daughter who is due for surgery, but if he can’t make a payment, then the procedure is likely not to happen.  Lemmon is fascinating in maybe the best performance of his career.  Many of his scenes are toe to toe with Spacey as he shifts from pleading to demanding to disingenuously threatening and ultimately bribing Williamson for the new leads. Levene is so out of touch now that he can’t even sell Williamson on helping him out.  Spacey as Williamson is terrific in his defiance to not lend any sort of aid to Shelley.

David Mamet added additional material to the script, not found in the stage play.  The Blake character is new to the film, for example, and I think it is a better, more fleshed out story because of it.  As well, Foley is able to go outside of the reserved settings of the bar and office, as he follows Levene making a knock-on-the-door sales call in the middle of the rainy night to a family man.  This may be Lemmon’s best scene of the film as he weasels his way into the home to quickly get his raincoat and hat off and get a seat on the sofa as he begins his “once in a lifetime” opportunity that the potential customer may miss out on.  It’s a sales pitch, despite Lemmon’s charm, and the patron can see right through Levene’s performance.  As the door closes on Shelley, you’re terribly sad for his desperation and failure.

On the other end of the spectrum is the current, most successful salesman named Richard Roma.  He’s played by a showy looking Al Pacino who initially doesn’t perform in the broad strokes he’s become recognized for as an actor.  Pacino does a quiet, delicate approach to his character’s sales presentation as he shares a table with a sap (Jonathan Pryce) who is weeping into his liquor glass.  Roma stretches the rainy evening out in the bar with this guy, talking about vague anythings, until he can subtly pounce on him with a brochure that’ll get his signature on a contract. 

Two other salesmen, Moss and Aaronow (Ed Harris, Alan Arkin) vent their frustrations elsewhere in the bar as they eventually segue into an idea of burglarizing the office for those tempting new leads.  However, are they working together as a team on this idea, or is one working something over on the other?  Mamet’s dialogue is chopped up perfectly with utterances and interruptions, that before a character reveals his intentions, you are left flabbergasted.  What is demonstrated here is that a skillful salesman is also an efficacious manipulator.

The second half of the film is set on the following morning where the sunlight has come through.  New revelations following the stormy night from before will present themselves as the men gradually arrive at the office to find it actually has been robbed.  The obvious of circumstances are there.  However, Mamet sets up an ending that’ll leave you breathless.  It did for me the first time I watched the film.  Just when you think you are watching a protagonist throughout the film, something else entirely comes up.

Glengarry Glen Ross has been regarded as a modern-day Death Of A Salesman.  Maybe it is.  I’ve worked in this kind of field before. There were months where I was good at it, and like everyone else, I would brag about my success with recaptured anecdotes and celebratory curse words flying out of my mouth.  There were also months where I would gripe about how uncompromising this life is. When I didn’t want to do sales any longer, I spent twelve years as an assistant to sales representatives.  They are not your friend.  They are only focused on the next contract to be signed and booked before month end, and they will ask anything of you with a seething f-word attached to their request.    Are we so terrible if we can not make an unreachable goal with tools that offer no help and supervisors that lend no encouragement or forgiveness?  To be a salesman means that any of your past accomplishments or education do not define you.  You are only identified as the one who must acquire the next thing, and then the next thing after that.  It will change your attitude about yourself and how you treat others.  It’ll alter your dialogue which is so vitally apparent in Mamet’s story.  It will even influence you to take measures you never thought you’d be capable of.

James Foley enhanced an already electrifying script from David Mamet.  He knew that if he was going to show how hard and challenging it is to be a salesman of boring, uninteresting, and practically intangible parcels of land, then he was going to have to be relentless in the art direction and settings contained in the film.  The first half of the film never, ever lets up with the rain storm going on outside in the city street.  The evening is as black as can be, and yet Williamson casually will ask Levene if he is going out tonight. Who in the dead of night in the rain is going to want to talk to a droning salesman about anything?  Yet, that’s what is expected of this life.  The office setting is unfriendly, decorated with ideals that hang from the walls with phrases like “A man must embrace further than what he can reach.”  Little touches like this only add to the uncaring and selfish nature the men really have for one another. 

Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a hard life for the man in a suit.  You may dress like what is expected of a professional, but you are also always scraping the bottom of another bottom.  The cliché that money can’t buy happiness is personified in a film like this.  You may get to the top and score a nice commission, but it’ll soon be forgotten and nothing you’ve done before will lend to your current state.  Next month, someone else will be standing where you are standing.  Worse, you may never be standing on top again, and then what will you do?

Sadly, I believe that Glengarry Glen Ross reflects what many people experience at least at one point in their lives.  We are all salespeople to a degree whether we are doing a job interview or even trying to impress the parents of someone we are dating.  It doesn’t always work out.  The question is where do any of us go from that point.


By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I was flabbergasted by the inventiveness of the twists present within the simplicity of its low budget filmmaking.  As a community theatre actor, I could see there were many moments that were executed as if they were stage performances.  Tarantino just happened to record it all live on camera. Amid the bloody gore, there were some surprises to the script that I never saw coming even if they were plain as day.  Much like The Usual Suspects or The Shawshank Redemption where the unexpected is offered, and it is seemingly obvious despite no signs of early detection, I was entertained.  However, thirty years later, my values have evolved since the release of Tarantino’s first film.  You gotta show me more than just circumstances and contrived set pieces.

As director and writer of the movie, Tarantino plays puppet master to a collection of criminals.  Six of them are dressed uniformly in black suits and ties and they only know one another by a moniker nickname of “Mister” followed by a color.  These are no ordinary criminals though.  Unlike other films, they don’t just talk about the stretch they had in prison or a heist they pulled off at one time.  These guys debate the artistic merits of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and if she went down hill following her True Blue album.  One of them, even has an opinion contrary to the others about tipping a waitress at a diner.  He doesn’t believe in it.  United, the others try to tell him how wrong he is, but he has higher standards for excellence in table service.  It’s deliberately ridiculous!  Clint Eastwood never talked about any of this.  Not even Newman or Redford.  Lee Marvin?  Charles Bronson?  Forget it!  (Jack Nicholson may be the exception in Five Easy Pieces, but that character wasn’t a criminal.) Quentin Tarantino, however, believes that even low-level hoods have a viewpoint on anything from pop culture to societal expectations.

These six guys have been assembled by a kingpin named Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his husky, bruiser son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) to carry out a diamond robbery.  The film opens with these conversations over breakfast and then jumps to the aftermath where Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is bleeding to death in the back seat while Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is high tailing it away.  When they get to their rendezvous warehouse, eventually Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrive and the strangers among themselves contemplate if they were set up by one of their own since the police were already waiting for the robbery to take place.  Is one of them a cop or a rat?  Occasionally, Tarantino cuts away from this one warehouse setting to flashback to how some of these guys came to be recruited for the heist.

The scenario of Reservoir Dogs is creative.  It demonstrates that there is no honor among thieves.  Much like Tarantino’s films to come afterwards, his characters are thin and two dimensional.  That works in pictures like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Here, I didn’t embrace that aspect.  Reservoir Dogs seems to move in a direction of the Clue board game.  I know nothing about Professor Plum or Colonel Mustard’s history.  I just need to determine if one of them did it with the candlestick in the Billiard Room.  In Tarantino’s film, I just need to put a blindfold on and take a shot in the dark of who the rat among the gang is.  That’s all.  It’s just circumstantial. 

I appreciate how unique these criminals are with their mundane conversations and their cool swagger, but there’s nothing much beyond that.  Tarantino might have known that too.  He only has one question to answer before the end of the movie.  In between, to fatten up the length of the film, he incorporates a savage torture scene on a cop that Mr. Blonde takes hostage.  It’s memorable, but what does the scene really serve?  What do I take away from watching Michael Madsen’s cool, strutted character hacking off a man’s ear and dousing him in gasoline, while Stealer Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You plays on the radio?

The seeds of Tarantino’s brand were definitely showing in his first film, an independent project that luckily Harvey Keitel had enough faith in to help finance its shoestring budget.  The black suits became usual for Tarantino’s films along with pop rock of the seventies for a soundtrack.  Action scenes of a Lethal Weapon flavor have never been the director’s choice.  Rather, quick shots of gunfire followed by cutaway edits to the next talking scenes are his narrative.   It all shows here.  It just wasn’t as well rounded as it came to be in his seminal film, Pulp Fiction

The best acting comes from Tim Roth as Mr. Orange.  The character is given a flashback moment for how he’s brought into the gang. It is intriguing enough to be a movie of its own.  I wanted more from this guy’s story, because of Roth’s performance.  As well, for most of the film he’s bleeding his guts out from a gunshot wound in the stomach.  His hysteria is contrary to most other bad guys who get shot in the movies.  Mr. Orange suddenly doesn’t look so tough.  He’s crying like a baby and begs his closest teammate, Mr. White, to drop him off at the hospital.  He even tells Mr. White “God bless you for what you’re doing for me.”  Lee Marvin or Jimmy Cagney would never say that.  For a tough guy low level hood, this is not a cliché gangster who laughs at the face of death.  It’s imagination that thinks outside the box.  Forgive the intended pun, but Mr. Orange may be one of Tarantino’s most colorful characters.  I just wanted more from the guy.

These guys may be intentionally corny in their conversations. They may be super cool with their sunglasses and curse word laced dialogue.  However, that only goes so far before it looks like an ad for the Gap in the 1990s.  Beyond what the film shows with the Mr. Orange character, there had to be more depth.  

What Reservoir Dogs lacks turns me towards a mixed review for the film.  Still, I saw the movie before Pulp Fiction ever came out and I recall way back then that this Quentin Tarantino fellow has got something special brewing.  I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next, and I wasn’t disappointed.


By Marc S. Sanders

I’ve always been a little hot and cold with Tim Burton’s films.  They are beautifully constructed in set and costume design, always well cast with exceptional talent and composer Danny Elfman’s music accompanies perfectly with Burton’s wide collection of social misfits and altogether celebrated weird material.  Still, more often than not, I leave Burton’s movies feeling less fulfilled than I want. Tim Burton’s one sequel film to date, Batman Returns, is one such example. 

To commemorate the annual Batman Day, I opted to watch Burton’s return to the murkiest of comic book locales, Gotham City, where Michael Keaton reprised the role of billionaire Bruce Wayne who dons the costume of The Dark Knight.  This time the villains of the week are the grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and the sexy, dominatrix like Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). 

Penguin resurfaces from the sewers of Gotham 33 years after his parents abandoned him as an infant, depositing him into the city reservoir in a bassinet to be raised by…you guessed it…penguins.  (Schools of penguins reside in the city sewers???? I guess it’s better than rats.)  Nerdy and mousy Selina Kyle is raised from the dead by the gnawing and licking of random alley cats to take on a warrior persona for Catwoman.  How exactly a feline resurrection works in either myth or science is never explored.  I guess I just have to go with it.  The manipulator behind these villains’ actions is a wealthy industrialist named Max Shreck, portrayed by Christopher Walken.  I was never sure of his stake here.  I’m only supposed to understand that he’s unlikable on the surface and he is not good for Gotham. 

I love all these actors.  I love them in these roles.  I do not love the script doled out for them though, which serves none of them well.

Batman Returns is best when the Batmobile or the Bat Glider is on screen.  They are awesome pieces of hardware to see in action as much as any tripped-up James Bond vehicle.  However, these are props.  They don’t speak, or laugh, or cry, or get angry.  Therefore, they don’t drive or develop a story.  When Luke Skywalker pilots an X-Wing Fighter, I care about the pilot.  The pilot speaks for the vehicle.  Batman doesn’t speak for the Batmobile. 

It’s ironic that the title character has only one sentence of dialogue in the first 30 minutes of this two-hour film.  There’s no dynamic to Batman or Bruce Wayne.  Keaton looks great sitting by his fireplace in deep thought or watching his television as the bat signal beams upon him.  He stands, and then when we see him next, he’s sitting in his bat car in full horned head regalia.  Otherwise, the Batman character is a prop to be used for scapegoat tactics by Penguin, Schreck and Catwoman, or he’s present to hurl a bat gadget, or throw a stiff-arm punch.  He doesn’t even do much of that stuff, anyway.  In Batman Returns, I learn nothing new about Batman or Bruce Wayne or his crusade to protect Gotham City.

Keaton shares one good scene in the film with Michelle Pfeiffer. It may be the one scene with a story to it as the two are dressed down from their comic book evening wear to dance slowly at a masquerade Christmas ball where they gradually realize who they are when they are not with one another.  Of course, we know this should be so obvious, yet a rule of thumb for comic book literature is not to realize what’s right under your nose.  A nice touch to this scene is having Keaton and Pfeiffer be the only guests not wearing a mask while everyone else is.  Batman and Catwoman have in fact dressed up as someone else for the costume party.  Very ironic and almost clever.

Too much material is given to Walken as the conniving Max Shreck.  Walken performs well, but just like his Bond bad guy in A View To A Kill, he belongs in a different movie.  The Schreck character lends nothing to this Batman adventure.  Who’s interested in this guy?  McDonalds and the other merchandising companies could even see how unattractive this character is.  So, why couldn’t Tim Burton or his writers and producers?  I’ll pay you a gazillion dollars for your rare, never manufactured Max Schreck action figure.  Yet, the bland script from Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm arguably provides the most dialogue to this guy.  You’ve got Batman, Penguin, Catwoman, even Alfred the butler and Commissioner Gordon, and yet this grey-haired guy with a wolf like pompadour in a bland, black business suit is hijacking a Batman movie.  Makes no sense.  Much of Batman Returns is made with cutting room floor material taped together featuring an unwanted Christopher Walken.

Who else is better to play The Penguin than Danny DeVito?  No one!  So, it is disappointing when the squat actor has nothing to do.  A seemingly inspired storyline from the campy Adam West TV series, and maybe a handful of comics, have him running for Mayor of Gotham.  A good start, but then the script does nothing remotely interesting with it, even though this stuff sells itself.  Where’s the political jokes to parallel the campaign? Where’s the ridiculous podium debates?  Imagine Penguin kissing little old ladies and holding babies while on a campaign trail.  None of that happens here.  You have outstanding talent from DeVito and yet all he’s left to do is ride around in a duck boat, spit out black and green sludge goo, and scream frustrations in a groggy, ear-piercing bellow on more than a couple of occasions. Unlike Jack Nicholson before him, DeVito is abandoned to play scenes with no dialogue while he chomps on raw fish or screams for the sake of screaming. 

An error in judgement was layering the actor in ugly makeup and unattractive costume wear.  Usually, DeVito is seen wearing a stained and damp white footy pajama suit with black dental pieces and very black eyeshadow on a whited out facial texture with a giant hook nose.  This is Danny DeVito.  He already looks like The Penguin.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  The only charming accessories are his top hat and his collection of umbrellas (shooting fire or bullets or flicking out knives) that serve as exclamation points on dialogue when a jokey punchline could not be considered with even just a smidgen of effort from the writers.  The umbrellas were more expressive than the guy operating them, and yet even they were hardly used in any action scenes.

Batman Returns has some sloppy scene cuts as well.  A scene will appear with Catwoman skipping through a store, then it’ll jump to Batman punching out a few circus clowns, then the two meeting up on a rooftop somehow.  Why, where and how did this all happen?  The math doesn’t add up.  Penguin will somehow appear within this stitchery too.  For what reason?  Three movies are happening here and none of them are communicating with one another.

Films like the original Batman, or Edward Scissorhands or even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure carry the weirdo trademark of Tim Burton.  I know what I’m getting when I turn on almost any one of his films.  (Ed Wood being the surprising, and pleasing biographical exception.)  These are gorgeous, macabre films to look at, whether they are dimly lit or staged in deliberately bright and gaudy rainbow colors.  Yet, there are often scenes or moments that lack that hook that carries you from the exposition to the acclimation I normally get from the universe on screen before my eyes.  Batman Returns especially lacks that transition. 

Because the film looks so good, it is not the worst of the Dark Knight’s many films.  Yet, it is an uninspired and disappointing piece.  Any film with such storied and legendary characters as these is going to be a big letdown if they are given nothing to do.  Why, oh why, did they give almost all of the lines to the boring guy in the business suit?  If I wanted to entertain myself with an accountant, all I needed to do was sit in the lobby of an H & R Block.


By Marc S. Sanders

The boogeyman is dressed as a police officer!

In 1992’s Unlawful Entry, Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) directs a well-played Ray Liotta as a psychotic cop named Pete Davis who is terrorizing a yuppie couple named Michael & Karen Carr (Kurt Russell, Madeleine Stowe). The Carrs experience a home intruder who puts a knife to Karen’s throat. Officer Davis offers comfort to the pair and happily volunteers the arrangements for a high-tech alarm system. The first mistake that Michael makes is sharing the password with trusty Pete. You’ll expect that to come into play later on. Maybe what inspired the password will work itself into the film as well. Hmmmmmm?????

It’s difficult for Pete to resist the obsession he has for Karen and so he begins a campaign to get Michael out of the way. First, he demonstrates his brutality by offering Michael the opportunity to senselessly beat up the home intruder for no other purpose than personal satisfaction. When Mike refuses, Pete finishes the job. Later, Mike makes efforts to keep Pete out of their lives. It’s hard to do that when a highly decorated cop is involved. Karen, his own loving spouse, won’t even truly believe Mike; neither will the police chief.

As Pete continues with his intentions, Mike’s credit cards are maxed out, he loses a high priced client that Pete has been talking to, parking tickets add up, and so on. Pete also appears at the house at inopportune times like when Karen is taking in a swim or creepily stepping into their bedroom while the married couple is having sex. Eventually, Mike is put out of the way when he’s imprisoned after being framed as a drug dealer. Now Karen is all alone for a terrifying third act that you’ve likely seen hundreds of times before.

Unlawful Entry is engaging while you’re watching, but it does not convey much. The happenings all appear probable if a deranged cop wanted to go through all this trouble. Therefore, Ray Liotta owns the picture. Yet, what did I learn here? Don’t call the police?

For Kurt Russell, this is the first of two “husband is being terrorized” roles for him. Later, Russell would headline the cast of a better film to fall in this genre called Breakdown. Still, I like Russell here. He starts out as a guy who is not capable of fighting for the sake of his wife. He regrettably admits that shame to Pete early on. Pete pounces on that advantage to win Karen. Later, the strength of Mike’s short temper followed by his fear push him to do what he must to protect himself and his wife.

Madeleine Stowe is a good actress. There’s just not much for her to do with this part. She’s the spouse who opts not to believe her husband’s concerns. If she did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. The third act is all action and blood and falling down the stairs and running back up the stairs. It’s no surprise really. Though it is convenient that Michael is finally able to post bail and get home in time for a final confrontation with Pete.

One thing that kept echoing in my head though was that as good as Ray Liotta is (he’s very, very good actually; very primal and deceiving), he is terrorizing a woman named “Karen.” Every time he says the name Karen, all that comes back to me is the film Goodfellas where he more or less tormented and disrespected Lorraine Bracco known as, you guessed it, Karen. A rule should be put in place, Liotta can no longer be cast with other characters named Karen. His Karen quota is maxed out.


By Marc S. Sanders

A Few Good Men really does hold up.

Anyone with even minimal movie going experience can predict how it is going to end almost as soon as it starts, but that doesn’t take away from Aaron Sorkin’s first screenplay based on his original stage play.

It is well cast. For the film, no one else could ever play the intimidating and terrifying Colonel Nathan R Jessup other than Jack Nicholson. It’s not that it is just him in the role. It’s really Nicholson’s whole career legacy against the arguably still ripening careers of Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack and Tom Cruise. Nicholson’s timed grandstanding is necessary for the role to work.

Cruise on the other hand left me feeling a little too overplayed. The role calls for cockiness, yes, but is Cruise too cocky? Some of the gags he does work. Some don’t, like impersonating Nicholson momentarily (leave that for the guys on SNL, Tom), or when he’s poking fun at Moore’s character to his own delight. It’s a little too much. Still, his courtroom scenes are like watching the best in live theatre. Those scenes play like great sport, notably thanks to Tom Cruise.

Major props go to JT Walsh as a conflicted witness. When I say conflicted, I mean he authenticates a seriously valid and personal dilemma beautifully. Had it not been for Jack Nicholson, Walsh might have had an Oscar nomination. A shame he didn’t come close to such recognition while he was alive. He was such a great character actor.

Recognition also goes out to Kevin Bacon as a well versed prosecutor/Marine. His timing exudes the experience his character has, despite his youthful appearance.

Demi Moore might be caught trying too hard, I think. Kevin Pollack is the wise mentor sitting quietly waiting for his great moments. Kiefer Sutherland is great in almost anything he does. He doesn’t ever steal the spotlight like Cruise, Nicholson or Moore but he makes a great presence; conniving and bold.

The direction is nothing special really. Rob Reiner does fine but honestly Sorkin’s script sells itself.

Yeah, yeah. “You can’t handle the truth.” Great line, but I got news for you. I’d argue there’s even better lines in this 1992 film. It’s worth revisiting.

BARAKA (1992)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ron Fricke
Cast: N/A
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The rhythms of life and time are explored in this wordless montage of spectacular filmed images from around the globe, set to a haunting, ethereal score.

Some time ago, I wrote a post on Facebook about movies with an extremely rare quality: transcendence.  Movies that are so good that mere genre definitions are not enough to quantify them.  I’m not talking about perfect examples OF a genre (Aliens, Unforgiven, Young Frankenstein, et al.)  I’m talking about movies that wind up being more than the sum of their parts and take on a haunting, spiritual quality.

Film is an extremely subjective medium, so my list of such “transcendental” movies will likely differ wildly from your own.  For example: Breaking the Waves (1996), a meditation on the capacity for human suffering, forgiveness, and the definition of belief.  Or Cloud Atlas (2012), a mind-bending journey that poses the greatest “what-if” question of our existence.  Or Fearless (1993), a mainstream drama concealing life-altering truths at its core.

And then there’s Baraka, a 1992 film that premiered in Canada on the festival circuit before receiving its American release a year later.  I suppose it would have to be classified as a documentary, since it consists entirely of wordless images edited together into a feature-length music video.  It was directed by Ron Fricke, who had previously worked with director Godfrey Reggio on Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a groundbreaking film, similar in structure to Baraka, that introduced time-lapse photography to the mainstream; it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when time-lapse was a novelty.

But this clinical description doesn’t nearly do justice to the religious experience that is Baraka.  This is one of those movies that begs for the best viewing conditions possible, on the biggest screen and with the best sound system you can afford.  The cinematography simply defies belief.  There are monumental shots of Himalayan mountain ranges, ancient temples, an enormous graveyard of decommissioned B-52 bombers, the interior of a spectacular cathedral where the walls appear to be inlaid with millions of tiny mirrors.

The film’s score is credited to Michael Stearns, but it also includes existing musical pieces that lend certain sequences an exotic, global feel.  These music choices are absolutely essential to Baraka’s success. 

In particular, a musical piece called “Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance brings unbearable sadness and pity to a sequence in which we see Indian families picking through massive garbage dumps, searching for food or God knows what.  The sequence shifts to showing homeless people, families, sleeping on city streets, next to sewer grates, under makeshift shelters, and there is an overwhelming sense of mourning that this kind of thing is happening today, right now, all over the world.

In addition to the sequence above, there are also sequences depicting members of various religions worshiping in their own unique way.  And oceans of clouds swirling and flowing over and around mountaintops.  And the horrible abandoned camps at Auschwitz and in Cambodia.  And majestic waterfalls.  Oil fires in Kuwait.  A vast, still lake that perfectly mirrors the sky above it.

Every time I watch this film (this marks at least the 9th or 10th time I’ve seen it), I am left at the end feeling hopeful, expansive, with the urgent need to show this film to other people.  Is this what they mean by religious fervor?  I felt this same way after watching Parasite (2019), for example, but for very different reasons.  Parasite is thrilling.  Baraka is transcendent.  It pierces through my sometimes cynical expectations of what a movie should be and presents me with a showcase of the human experience.  It makes me feel, however temporarily, more connected to the global population as we travel through the cosmos on our huge (and also tiny) planet.  It gives me a shiver of comprehension when I look at the ruins of ancient temples on the screen and realize the people who built them many thousands of years ago were just…people.  Like you and like me.  Humans on this uniquely life-sustaining chunk of space rock, hurtling through the universe.

You may disagree with my assessment.  You may hunt it down on Netflix or Amazon or wherever, and you may give it a shot, and you may turn it off after 15 minutes, thinking, “What was he THINKING???  This is boring as hell!”  I suppose that’s the beauty of this movie.  It’s like a Rorschach test.  It doesn’t tell a story, per se.  It’s more like a tone poem, where certain images are juxtaposed with completely different images, but which are nevertheless similar.  This kind of moviemaking doesn’t always work.  (See, for example, Naqoyqatsi (2002), also directed by Reggio, part of his vaunted Qatsi trilogy, but which I find insufferably cryptic.)  But when it does work, it’s quite literally magical.

So, if you can, go ahead and see if this is available somewhere.  Check your television’s settings so you get the optimal picture.  Turn your speakers up as loud as you can get before the neighbors call 911.  And open yourself up to the possibility that a picture truly is worth a thousand words.


By Marc S. Sanders

When it comes to Thanksgiving films, majority turn to that John Hughes road picture.  However, there’s another film that is just as meaningful to the spirit of the holiday and that is Martin Brest’s Scent Of A Woman which features Al Pacino’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance; at last!!!!

Before Chris O’Donnell became Robin in some tired Batman movies or a tough guy on NCIS, he was the staple prep school achiever (see also School Ties).  Here he plays Charlie, a student attending a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.  He does not have the wealthy background of his classmates and without the funds to go home for Thanksgiving, he opts to accept a weekend job tending to retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, U.S. Army (Pacino).  Frank is a frightening lost soul with Pacino’s signature outbursts.  What’s even more challenging is that Frank has been plagued with blindness following a reckless accident with a hand grenade.  Unbeknownst to Charlie, Frank assumes control once his niece’s family leaves town for the weekend and sends himself with Charlie in tow to New York City.  Frank plans to enjoy a pleasant stay at the famed Waldorf Astoria, have a nice meal, crash his older brother’s holiday dinner, get a new tailored suit, bed a beautiful girl and drive a Ferrari.  Afterwards, he’s going to blow his brains out in full dress uniform.

This is not a problem Charlie needs to be dealing with right now.  The pressure is on the young man to identify the students of a prank that occurred just before the holiday break.  The Dean of Students (James Rebhorn) has given Charlie and another student, the privileged George Jr. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a very early role) the weekend to ponder how they should respond.  Charlie, however, seems to face expulsion and likely an opportunity to miss out on admittance to Harvard.  George Sr., a former student and benefactor, will likely save his son.  Frank has predicted this outcome, and Charlie can’t deny that it is likely the truth.  Charlie’s dilemma is in his own morals as a man.  He’s not a snitch who will sell out his future to satisfy the esteemed integrity of the prep school and the ego of the Dean.

I miss the director, Martin Brest.  He has some magnificent films on his resume (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run & Scent Of A Woman).  His other two popular films are broader in action comedy.  Here he is much more sensitive, and he uses the legacy of Pacino’s craft to the highest level.  He allows Al Pacino the freedom to be intimidating and frightening and intrusive.  A most uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner at Frank’s brother’s house begins with awkwardness and ends in terrifying fear for Frank and all at the dinner table. 

Brest also lives up to the title of the picture.  There’s really not a main female character in the picture.  However, the camera captures a woman entering the frame at random times for Frank’s heightened senses to kick in.  If Frank is going to end his life soon, then he will at least absorb the finest things the world has to offer and that is a beautiful woman.  Charlie doesn’t realize this yet, having spent most of his days at an all-boys private school.  Martin Brest does such good work.  He’ll position his close up on Pacino doing his work and then a brown-haired young lady will enter from behind.  The scene will shift gears from morose to eye opening. Simple, yet great technique at play here.

Pacino may have won the Oscar, where some debate this was not his finest material and that it was a more likely a long-time coming career award at this point.  The portrayal has also become spoofed so many times over since the release of the film (Seinfeld) and “Hoo Ahh!”.  Still, look at the individual scenes on display here.  There are so many different angles to this guy.  Frank Slade is a lonely man who doesn’t directly identify his sorrow, but rather masks it with drill sergeant persona.  Yet, Frank is also a charming man who graciously does a sensual tango in the middle of a dining room with a beautiful young girl (Gabrielle Anwar).  Reader, if you are a regular subscriber to my write ups, then you know I adore a dance scene that occurs within a non-musical.  Scent Of A Woman may feature the number one ranked scene in that category.  Try not to grin or smile during this marvelous centerpiece.  How fortunate for Anwar – the one woman who got to do a tango on film with the great Al Pacino.  I’m thankful it is cemented in my consciousness for eternity.  It’s an amazing scene; one that can be taken out of context from the film and adored on You Tube, many times over.

Pacino and O’Donnell have brilliant chemistry together and it makes sense that the story takes place during the Thanksgiving weekend.  These are two men from very different backgrounds and neither realizes how much they need to be rescued by one another.  Charlie will have to literally save Frank’s life, no matter how intimidating he appears.  Frank will have to save Charlie’s future against an established school that’s offered up some of the country’s most brilliant minds.  Poor Charlie from Oregon, without the coat tails of a legacy to ride upon doesn’t fit the mold for the next President or championship football coach.  Both issues have insurmountable odds of being overcome, and yet these two are the only ones who plow through the challenges.

Scent Of A Woman has delightful moments to simply watch, such as a blind Frank driving a Ferrari through So Ho district and of course that tango scene, but this is an actor’s piece for sure.  The climax confirms that distinction.  The holiday weekend has come to an end and Charlie must face his peers and the Dean and confirm what he will do, but Frank will make sure to attend this makeshift trial. Then the opportunity is given for an outstanding monologue performance that only confirms one simple notion.  Al Pacino is one of the greatest film actors in history. I imagine the dialogue for this wrap up scene is quite something to read on a page.  However, to watch Pacino bring it to life is something else entirely. 

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell and Martin Brest, along with the tango, and I’m especially thankful for Scent Of A Woman.


By Marc S. Sanders

Unforgiven is a crowning achievement for director/actor/producer Clint Eastwood. It’s really a movie and screenplay from David Webb Peoples (the scribe behind Blade Runner) designed only for Clint Eastwood. After a long career of portraying quiet men with violent means, Eastwood transitions to anti-violence that would thematically dominate the next chapter of his filmography with In The Line Of Fire, A Perfect World, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and Letters From Iwo Jima. (WOW!!!! What a list!!!!!)

The character of William Munny is now a failing pig farmer haunted by a past of gunslinging murder and mayhem. His past returns when he’s offered a large bounty to murder two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute with a knife. He recruits his former partner Ned (another likable character for Morgan Freeman) to accompany him, and they join a kid who presumes he’s ready to kill but is really only fooling himself.

Meanwhile two other stories collide when the cruel, torturous Sheriff Little Bill Dugget (Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning role) meets with a gleeful celebrity in his own mind, gunfighter English Bob played by Richard Harris. Character actor Saul Rubinek plays Beauchamp, a reporter eager to document and dramatize these legends of the quickly expiring period of the Old West. Beauchamp will soon realize the heroes he envisions are nothing but pipe dreams.

Little Bill outlaws weapons in his town, and for the offense? A brutal beating or a painful whipping. Hackman is great at looking like his motivations make sense. Maybe they do. He sets an example and maybe it casts a preventative measure, albeit with a brutal arm of the law. Little Bill is happy to beat someone in the street, only to return happily to building his home along the river.

Unforgiven doesn’t make the violence easy for its characters. It’s harder to kill. It’s harder to listen to a dying victim beg for water. It’s just as hard to mount a horse. Most importantly, it’s hard to accept how cold blooded you can be when pushed to a point.

To watch Unforgiven almost requires at least a little experience of Eastwood’s first half of his career. The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry surmise a history for Munny where it was easy to draw the revolver, point and shoot. This film shows that defiance of scruples doesn’t last forever.

It’s a 1992 Film (Best Picture Oscar Winner) that still carries an important message responding to the questions of bearing arms and Wild West violence that recklessly surfaces in what is expected to be a more civilized society today.

Watch Unforgiven for its many moments of symbolism, changes in attitude among practically every character, and for the well executed direction of another classic from the great filmmaker, Clint Eastwood.

This is one of the best pictures of the last 30 years.

(Would love to hear commentary from others on this film. This is one worthy of extensive discussion. I also recommend you read Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review; here – initially gave Unforgiven a thumbs down. This was one of those few instances where he changed his mind.) 


By Marc S. Sanders

Robert Mandel’s adaptation of a story from Dick Wolf might be regarded nearly 30 years later as the film with the next generation of up-and-coming brat packers, but School Ties remains an underrated and topically important film nonetheless.  Just as it is still a problem of today, victimized by ignorance and unfounded bigotry, anti-Semitism was an issue that spread like a social disease within the confines of a prep school New England community in the 1950’s.

Brendan Fraser is David Greene, a high school senior awarded a scholarship at the school in order to usher in a championship football season as their quarterback.  David is well aware of his ultimate purpose for his scholarship and he brushes that aside as just one year of attendance will ultimately lead to acceptance at an Ivy League school.  He’s just like any other handsome boy attending the school, and he’s immediately accepted among the masses.  He’s hilarious at mischievous horseplay with the French teacher.  The beautiful girl (Amy Locane) at the nearby girls’ school is taken with him.  His football skills are applauded.  It may be a little surprising that he stems from the blue-collar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania and he buses the tables at dinner time, but David is an all-around okay guy who can knock over a linebacker while passing exceptional touchdown passes.  Amid this environment of different Christian denominations and WASP culture, however, David knows that he will stand apart if he reveals he is Jewish.  Therefore, he tolerates the casual jokes and accepts that it’s best to hide his Star of David necklace. 

The most important relationship occurs between David and his back up quarterback, Charlie (Matt Damon, before he became a superstar, but already looks like he’ll be a superstar).  Charlie begrudgingly accepts that David got to cut in line to be the star player.  As David becomes more of the celebrity on campus, Charlie is proud to be by his side.  Yet, Charlie has his own pressures to live up to as the fifth in line of his esteemed family who must carry on the legacy at the school followed by attending Harvard the following year. 

The roadmap of School Ties is easy to navigate.  You know when each note of the script is about to be played.  There will be a swastika that will shockingly appear.  Fist fights will happen.  The blue blood parents and faculty will interfere preaching their own “codes of honor” and the school’s storied 193 year history.  Yet, the film works very, very effectively.  The dialogue isn’t hokey and nothing feels like what could have been an after school special. 

No debate among the viewers.  Anti-Semitism is evil and thoughtless without merit or justification.  Questions appear where is it right to ask if David should have hidden his Jewishness or was he even lying about being Jewish, when in fact he just wasn’t even asked.  Is it right that David confronts his problems with his fists first?  Yet, Wolf’s script, apparently based on personal experience, delves further into the mounting pressures of these prep school kids who are primed from birth to be the latest model churned out from the respective family lineage for greatness in academics and athleticism.  Much of the material is devoted to the horror of actually not acing a class, and I appreciate that it’s not diminished to a standard line of “my parents are going to kill me.”  Raw emotion and stress are legitimized among these students.

The third act comes with no foreshadowing as a cheating scandal is suddenly introduced. Collectively the boys must debate who is the guilty party and why are they the guilty party.  Is it because one is Jewish, or is it because one actually cheated?  Good dialogue, good debate, but this also may be where the standard stuff spills over a little too much.  As such, the ending hinges on the third act, when it should have embraced more of the film as a whole.

The cast is made up of, at the time, soon to be superstars like Fraser, Damon, Chris O’Donnell, and Ben Affleck.  School Ties should be regarded as a winning audition for these guys’ careers that were only just on the horizon.  Their respective performances here are just as good as any of their most well-known roles, and they are happy to hide in the background as extras or step up for a camera shot.