BREAKDOWN

By Marc S. Sanders

The southwest region of the United States can be brutal.  The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go.  Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.  So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black.  For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter.  Their car is destined to break down anyway.

Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture.  When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand.  He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck.  Jeff agrees to stay with the car.  Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow.  Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared.  When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is.  It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.

Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing.  As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance.  A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money.  While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom.  In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell.  Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon.  Now, we’ve seen this many times before.  What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to.  In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”.  Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia.  I was right there with this poor guy.  What is Jeff going to do?

JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name.  He passed away too soon.  I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition.  This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown.  A good antagonist is one you can trust at first.  So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little.  Walsh accomplishes that here.  He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer.  He really plays a guy with two masks on.  Friendly and helpful at first.  Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff.  The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.

While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes.  This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold.  Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road.  When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us.  As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way.  The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase.  This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.  

The location shoots of Breakdown are superb.  An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife.  They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers.  The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint.  A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on.  The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger.  The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.

This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us.  It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time.  Jump to today and this situation could still happen.  Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices.  In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves.  In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.

Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught.  It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.

KISS THE GIRLS

By Marc S. Sanders

When you’re watching a movie and one character says “Now wait here. Let me handle this!” what do ya think is gonna happen? When you’re watching a movie and one character says “Kate, we’ve covered every inch of those woods. There’s no building there!” whatcha think? You think there actually is a building there?

Let me ask you this, what do you think happens in the film Kiss The Girls?

Yup! A whole lot of this nonsense and more that I could cover endlessly. Adapted from James Patterson’s best selling novel featuring his forensics detective hero Alex Cross, Kiss The Girls begins as an effective thriller focusing on the backgrounds of its two leads: dependable Morgan Freeman as Cross, and Ashley Judd as Dr. Kate McTiernan, a skilled surgeon with a specialty in kick boxing (that may come in handy later). At first, we see these characters handling snippets of storylines related to their careers. Cross defuses a suspenseful suicide situation. McTiernan has to console a family whose little girl was in a motorcycle crash. There’s good acting and emotion going on here and I was hoping the film would live up to the promise of these scenes; the characters’ expertise now being applied to Patterson’s main story. It doesn’t.

Instead, the movie just mires itself in plot holes and filler where one character insists on working alone while the other insists on not sitting idly by. This is not character development. This is ping pong volleying. Kate is kidnapped by a serial “collector” of smart, young, beautiful and highly intelligent women by someone regarded as “Casanova.” When Alex’ niece is one of the women taken, he travels from Washington DC to Raleigh, NC to join the investigation.

Soon after Kate has been taken, she manages to be the only one to escape from some hidden dungeon located in the woods. She joins Alex at every turn to find Cassanova and rescue the other captives. Okay. So that’s not a bad set up.

Where it falls apart is in the development. Kate managed to escape by jumping into a river where she’s retrieved by two kids. So wouldn’t law enforcement just sweep that entire area? I mean be really thorough, top to bottom! Surely, you’ll pick up footprints or scents from the dogs. Well, Alex says they did. Fortunately, his niece’s boyfriend finds the map. You know…the map that’s hidden in the library that no one else is aware of and shows this dungeon or whatever it is that’s there. Only one guy, ONE GUY, knows about this map????

When an hour and forty minutes has surpassed, you bet that map is gonna turn up. Remember, also when someone says wait in the car, the one thing you do is not wait. You know, this is a movie. So, Mr. Freeman, please spare me the act of surprise when Ms Judd walks into the bar you’re scoping out. This is all unnecessary, and boring and tired and old.

Kiss The Girls is another film with THAT TWIST! Was it really needed though? Just when the film apprehends the bad guy, and the ladies are recovered safely, there’s a gotcha moment in Kate’s kitchen with lots of knives and pots and pans to play with. Gary Fleder directed this 1997 disturbing thriller in a post age of The Silence Of The Lambs and Seven, which are far superior films. It’s not a film dependent on gore or torture porn, but it’s got the dark stone lined halls for haunted house creepiness. I’m good with that. It’s a thriller after all.

The film’s best assets, however, are Freeman and Judd. These are two top class actors who invest themselves in performance. If only they were working with a much more believable story.

It’s the implausibility in the script that make my eyes roll.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK

By Marc S. Sanders

The Lost World: Jurassic Park contains a batch of characters making a lot of stupid decisions all in the name of being stupid for stupidity’s stake.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie though.  Just somewhat…unsophisticated…and stupid.

In the sequel to the monster smash adaptation from Michael Crichton, Steven Spielberg reunites with Jeff Goldblum, now at the top of the credits list, as smarmy mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm.  It really doesn’t matter if the guy is a doctor of any kind of specialty though.  Malcolm doesn’t utter one scientific fact or theory or observation this time around.  Whatever shred of debate regarding the resurrection of dinosaurs that existed in the first film is completely abandoned this time around.  Carnage, mayhem and outrageous ridiculousness take center stage, stage left, stage right, downstage, upstage, off stage, and over a high cliff.

In an early scene, Malcolm is summoned by wealthy entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, in a welcome cameo).  Hammond tells Malcolm that his paleontologist girlfriend (isn’t that a coinkidink), Sarah (Julianne Moore) is on a nearby island to the original one from the first film, and studying the behaviors of the dinosaurs that were developed there.  She will soon be meeting up with a photographer (Vince Vaughn) and another associate (Richard Schiff; I don’t recall the script explaining his specialty).  So, Malcolm sees no choice but to go after Sarah and rescue her from the island.  This is one Daring Mathematician.

One point of order, because this is a Spielberg adventure, a kid has to be involved.  Malcolm’s pre-teen daughter and gymnast extraordinaire Kelly (Vanessa Chester) stows herself away on the excursion. Thank god she’s gymnast.  That may come in handy.

At the same time, Hammond’s greedy nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard) is leading a large expedition crew on the island to recover representatives of each breed of animal to bring back to the mainland in San Diego for show and tell.  The leader of this pack is also the best character in the whole film.  He’s a game hunter named Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite).  Tembo’s price is to hunt down one Tyrannosaurus-Rex for his own game pleasure.  Aaaaand that’s where the story stops. 

I just ticked off a lot of actor names, didn’t I?  Well, this is a sequel and in a monster movie sequel there’s a demand for more casualties of course.  If that’s what you are looking for, you won’t be disappointed. 

You also won’t be disappointed in the assortment of dinosaurs on hand.  This time there are two T-Rex’s and they are used beautifully in a very daring, albeit long for the sake of maximum suspense, scene that involves our heroes dangling within a double RV trailer that has been pushed off a cliff.  When Sarah lands face first on the back windowpane of glass, try your best not to bite your nails.

Another exceptional scene is when the expedition runs into a tall grass raptor nest.  This is like Jaws on land.  With the help of much CGI, but also puppetry from Stan Winston’s imagination factory, Spielberg gets great overhead shots of fast forming black lines that quickly cut through the meadow taking out one poor soul after another where beast overcomes man. These moments occur in the large second act of the film where it’s nothing but action done with Spielberg’s skill to oversee. 

The third act is questionable, but I found a nostalgic admiration for it.  Spielberg goes for the salute to King Kong, the grand daddy of all monster movies.  Ludlow’s hubris and what remains of his expedition team trap and bring back the male T-Rex to San Diego aboard a large freighter.  In the dead of night, garbed in his finest suit, he’s ready to give a speech to a press junket that must work a graveyard shift introducing the marvelous attraction.  Naturally, we know things will not go as planned.  Now, we know this is not New York City and the Empire State Building is not nearby, but this T-Rex will naturally run amok anyway and settle for destroying a suburban dog house, about a dozen cars and a 76-gas station.  No, it is not King Kong, but the salute is appreciated nonetheless.  There’s even a wink and nod to Godzilla.  I laughed.

Pretty stupid of Ludlow to do this, right?  Well, he’s the villain.  So, let’s give him a pass.  On the other hand, the heroes are dumb as rocks.  Sarah takes a baby T-Rex away from its quarters. Ian gets up into a high area platform with his daughter as an escape to safety…but then he comes down again!!!!!  The hunters simply think they are hunting kittens no matter the stature of any of the game they are pursuing.  The telephone doesn’t get answered when it really, really should.  You’ll find yourself shaking your head and outstretching your arms at the screen (palms up) as if to say “WHY????????”. 

It really doesn’t matter.  The first Jurassic Park film never had a fully developed brain.  This installment, unabashedly, never even stops to think.  It’s as if a collection of characters in a shoebox raised their hand for volunteer slaughter. 

My wife watched this with me recently, and at times she would ask “Why are you doing this or why not just call such and such?”  I’d have to remind her it’s not that simple.  Cuz if it were that simple, then they would have picked up the phone.  We all have a destiny in life.  I truly believe that.  The destiny of the cast of The Lost World: Jurassic Park was to run and maybe or maybe not get chomped on and eaten.  This is what they were groomed for their whole lives. So, let’s not interfere with the laws of nature.

BOOGIE NIGHTS

By Marc S. Sanders

Boogie Nights was director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature following a very different and very quiet film debut with the gambling addiction piece Hard Eight.

Heck, it’s fair to say all of Paul’s films are very different; here is the seediness of porn while later in his career he will focus on the ruthlessness of a wealthy and angry oil man and then an obsessed dressmaker devoid of care for the models who parade his accomplishments. (See There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread.). Paul was definitely striving for recognition with his familial depiction of life in the California pornographic film industry.

What I’ve always liked about Boogie Nights was Anderson’s intent to show the naive innocence of this large cast of characters. Filming blatantly oblivious awful porn scenarios can still be regarded as very proud efforts by its talent.

The main character is Eddie Adams (aka the amazing Dirk Diggler) played with macho pathos by Mark Wahlberg. It’ll likely be the best role of Wahlberg’s entire career. Dirk is proud of his natural talent in front of the camera. He’s even more proud of what God has gifted him. Don Cheadle is another porn star named Buck. He’s also proud of his accomplishments and simply a kind fellow looking to make country cowboy a trendy look for a black man while selling the “Hi-est Fidelity” in stereo equipment on the side. Julianne Moore is Amber Waves, the maternal porn mom of the bunch; very affectionate, very comforting and very reassuring when Dirk shoots his first porn scene. The one individual who really holds all of these misfits together is Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner, the porn film director. He’s the paternal one who believes in his artistic merits of shooting porn but with a story, and only with the integrity of film, and never the cheapness of videotape. So, Jack is like any artist who insists on a certain type of canvas. It might be smut, but he has principles, and he has pride.

Anderson is wise in how he divides up the developments. The film begins in the late 1970s during evening night life and decadence and everything seems fine and innocent and right despite the endless debauchery of reckless sex and drug use on a Disco backdrop. Wahlberg’s character is welcomed lovingly into this world, and nothing appears wrong. It all seems to stay that way for Dirk until New Year’s Eve, 1979. The 80s begin with a gunshot and then Anderson’s cast must pay for the revelry of their sins. A great moment presented on this night is where Amber Waves introduces Dirk to cocaine. Dirk has been thriving, making money, developing a following and now it is jeopardized in one moment thanks to his naivety. Julianne Moore is superb in this particular scene against Wahlberg. She’s the mentor with the peer pressure to pass on her high and keep it running.

Drug addiction, violence, sexual abuse and even changes in pop culture lead to hard times for these likable people.

It’s a hard life. It’s a complicated life. Yet it’s not all necessarily illegal. Morally, it might appear wrong, but it’s a life nonetheless.

Anderson was wise to use (at the time, relatively new) filming techniques of Martin Scorsese with rocking period music and fast edits along with savored moments of great steady cam work. One long cut especially works when the film first begins on the streets of Reseda and on into a crowded night club. This industry doesn’t sleep. So, neither will the camera that follows it. The music must also be celebrated. I do not listen to Night Ranger’s Sister Christian without thinking of firecrackers and a dangerously drug addled Alfred Molina playing Russian roulette. Though I know which came first, I also wonder if Three Dog Night’s Momma Told Me Not To Come and Spill The Wine by Eric Burton & War was written to enhance the celebratory introduction for Dirk when he attends his first party at Jack’s house. It’s another great steady cam moment from a driveway, followed by steps in and out of Jack’s house to simply a bikinied girl’s dive in the swimming pool. As a viewer I was absorbed in the California haze. Superior camera work here.

The cast of unknowns at the time were a blessing to this film. Anderson writes each person with care and attention and dimension. They have lives outside of this world like Amber’s child that we never get to meet, thanks in part to her lifestyle. She might be maternal but that doesn’t make her a good mother. Julianne Moore should have won the Oscar she was nominated for. Burt Reynolds’ own legacy seems to carry his role. His distinguished silver hair and well trimmed beard earn him the respect of every cast member and he performs with a quiet grace of knowledge, and insight, even if he will inevitably be wrong with how things turn out. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the dumb kid Scotty insecure and unsure of his homosexual attraction to Dirk. It’s not easy to play a dumb character when you are not doing it for laughs. Hoffman makes a huge impact with little dialogue but Anderson is wise enough to capitalize on him.

Boogie Nights offers one of the best cast of characters and assembled talents in any film ever made. An individual movie could be made about each of these people, and it’d be interesting and entertaining.

Try to avoid a blush and mock at the industry depicted because then you’ll see how another walk of life truly lives day to day. It might be porn. It might be smut. Yet, it’s still a thriving industry.

THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE

By Marc S. Sanders

The Devil’s Advocate does not get the accolades it truly deserves, and I’ve never understood why. It is more than just a supernatural thriller or a legal drama. It’s both actually, and most films cannot lay that claim.

Director Taylor Hackford has assembled a brilliant cast that boasts a debut from Charlize Theron in the incredibly complex role of Marienne, wife to Keanu Reeves’ hot shot southern drawled, Gainesville attorney. Theron hits every pulse perfectly beginning with loose, beautiful and cocky to insecure, haunted and victimized. When I first saw the film in theatres, I left believing she’ll get an Oscar nomination. Alas, the powers that be never gave her consideration and they were wrong. Beyond a relishing Al Pacino as the lord’s most infamous fallen angel, Theron’s performance sends the script home into absolute believability. The power of Satan is executed on Marienne, and the visual and audible evidence lies in Theron’s delirious performance. She’s astonishing.

Next up, Reeves is entitled to lots of credit. The role of Kevin Lomax is his best role (Ahem…Sorry, Neo. Sorry John Wick. Sorry Johnny Utah.). He carries a disillusioned swagger that he is as good as his record of trial wins implies. Yet, is he as good as the best of the best New York City attorneys? When you are the son of Satan, maybe so. What works best though are the ongoing tests of will for Reeves’ character. His inescapable hillbilly dialect blends perfectly with a script that questions temptation against instinct, against opting for what is right. At the time of release, Keanu Reeves might have been perceived as his surfer dude Bill & Ted character not be taken seriously enough here. I never let that be an interference for me, however. Reeves doesn’t compromise and he avoids the wholesome, God-fearing kid that Kevin Lomax is meant to be. Instead, his Christian teachings seem like a nuisance for him; an obstacle to a more satisfying life regardless of sin. Reeves balances the dimensions beautifully.

Then there’s the machine behind all this. Al Pacino is John Milton, hardly disguising his true identity. He’s too proud of who he is to do that. Sure Pacino is chewing the scenery. Yet, shouldn’t he? This is Mephistopheles he’s playing here; an entity ready to undo the will of the Lord. He carries no honor for God. However, he maintains a rule book and before he accepts a disciple, he’ll make certain that it is by the follower’s choice alone. He administers the test, but he doesn’t take it. Pacino gets the best lines and the best monologues. He’s treated with an opportunity to two step along to Frank Sinatra. He’s given free reign to operate based on his legendary career. He’s my favorite devil of any and all films.

Taylor Hackford is meticulous in his direction. There’s a great moment near the beginning where Kevin is saying goodbye to his God loving and very Christian mother. He goes to her church. This is the first of many smart choices for Hackford. He does not allow Kevin to step inside the church. Rather, he paces just outside the door. Kevin does not have a relationship with God, thus opening an opportunity for Satan. Other moments are there too, such as Milton always insisting on traveling by subway…underground. Heck, there’s even a moment where a man with a box that says “Halo Industry” walks by Kevin and John; nice subtle nod. New York City is treated like a character boasting its numerous, sky-high cathedrals and angelic artwork. Pacino is the ultimate NYC resident; a creature of the concrete jungle. Hackford also recruits the notorious to boost the lair surrounding Reeves and Theron with appearances from the likes of Don King and Alphonse D’Amato. (Satan’s disciples, perhaps?)

This is one of my favorite films. It carries not one single flaw. It is richly assembled in dialogue, story, cast, set design and direction.

The Devil’s Advocate is one of those films that you want to watch over and over and delight in Pacino’s thought provoking one liners, debate with your conscience vs Satan’s own argument (he makes some good points here) and question the power of free will. It’s a fun, thinking picture.

THE RAINMAKER

By Marc S. Sanders

Francis Ford Coppola didn’t just call his film The Rainmaker. He called it John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. I understand the significance as a large portion of the film relies on voiceover narration from its main character, Rudy Baylor (played very well by Matt Damon).

The film focuses on much of the underpinnings of the legal system within the state of Tennessee. Rudy gives insight into his position of ethical practice – he’s fresh out of law school but doesn’t have a license yet – versus the large giant sell out attorneys (a towering, sharp dressed and slick Jon Voight) that represent goliath parties like big time insurance companies. Grisham’s novel, along with Coppola’s screenplay, also leave room in the beginning of the film for the sleaze of the law practice with Rudy’s first employer who goes by the moniker “Bruiser,” played by an oily Mickey Rourke.

Rudy has not even passed the bar exam at the start of the film but he’s already got three cases in progress. He has agreed to completing a will for a kind old lady (Teresa Wright) who is adamant about leaving her estate to a television evangelist. He also volunteers himself to protecting a young woman named Kelly (Claire Danes) from an abusive husband. His biggest case is going after a million dollar insurance company for wrongfully denying a claim filed by one of it’s ill insured. Rudy knows the insured is justified to sue and it could be a huge and necessary windfall for him and his unlicensed, corner cutting partner (Danny DeVito), but it’s only him against a grand army of legal gods lead by the great Leo F. Drummond, Esq. (Voight).

Grisham and Coppola wanted to depict a drive for doing right by the law and the people it’s meant to protect. Damon’s portrayal of Rudy represents that ideal. His father hated lawyers and he grew up in a home life that never responded favorably to the merits of officers of the court. Rudy defies what his father frowned upon. Despite his inexperience in a courtroom and his ability to respond with objections and cited legal rules, he knows he’ll be a good lawyer simply because he can distinguish between right and wrong. He doesn’t need to sink as low as Drummond’s cronies by bugging the opposition’s office. Will Rudy’s righteousness be enough though? He’s so dang honorable in his profession that it might just be the ultimate means of his defeat.

Same can be said for Rudy’s will to protect Kelly, the young, abused wife. Precedents of law keep her husband on the streets no matter how bruised and bloody she gets time and again. This man is a monster, but no higher power is looking upon this victimized wife to legally protect her, and this man will continue to beat her until one day she’s dead. Rudy wears his heart on his sleeve for this woman and again can only serve as an honorable servant of the court. When he steps out of that line a little by risking his life to save this woman, he’s testing his own sworn code that he’s respected while others have dismissed it.

John Grisham’s The Rainmaker is one of those under the radar films not celebrated enough. I recall it being shown in limited theatre capacity, and it hardly did well at the box office, but it’s really a remarkable piece as it shows an unconventional and honorable attorney, reminiscent of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch but set in modern day. Nearly everyone around Rudy, from his own father, that he describes to the students he attended law school with, to even the even the fool of a judge (Dean Stockwell) who swears him in as well as his own partner (DeVito in a hilarious, quick solving, underhanded role), are beyond any moral compass and yet Damon ensures Rudy Baylor sticks to his convictions.

Coppola’s film is not a legal thriller. It’s an observation of how the established perceive the law and the one fish who treads water above the bottom feeders, allegorically shown in Bruiser’s fish tank, seek out big rewards. For Rudy, the client matters. For everyone else, only the money matters.

TOMORROW NEVER DIES

By Marc S. Sanders

Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond is Tomorrow Never Dies and it is his best appearance in the series.

Bond faces off against Elliot Carver (a gleefully bloodthirsty Jonathan Pryce), a global media mogul who enjoys creating worldwide conflict for the best news headlines in print, television and the newfound medium of something called the internet. His pawns are Great Britain and China, and just like any worldwide media mogul he has his own stealth war ship for apprehending missiles and using them against the nations. This ship also has a massive drill that can penetrate a ship’s hull. Oh yeah, Carver also has the means to redirect a sea vessel into enemy territory. Bet Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch could never do any of these things. Carver also has a big, blond bruiser of a guy called Mr. Stamper (Gotz Otto) – another in a long line of big, blond bruiser guys to face off against 007. Stamper is nothing compared to Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, though.

Dame Judi Dench is back as M. I like how she holds her own too. As an actor, Dench has such command of any role she plays. If she is in a scene, everyone listens to her primarily. Even in a goofy Bond movie, Dench puts these films above the standard fare.

Teri Hatcher is also good in a small role as Carver’s wife Paris, and a former flame of Bond’s. M encourages Bond to “pump her for information.” Ahem!

With the Brosnan entries from the 90s, the series was updating itself for a more mainstream feel. So the female stand-in is Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese agent named Wai Lin. Yeoh plays one of the best sidekicks/Bond girls of the series. This agent can hold her own while firing off two machine guns, one on each arm and offering up a great display of karate moves. Yeoh works well with Brosnan especially when handcuffed together while riding a BMW motorcycle and evading machine gun toting cars and a massive helicopter terrorizing a bustling Vietnam village. A fantastic sequence.

Before that, Bond pilots his BMW 700 series from his backseat on his cell phone pad, within a parking garage. Bazookas, guns, crowbars, sledgehammers and missiles can’t stop this luxury car though. After all, the Germans do make some of the best automobiles. Another really entertaining action scene.

I think this is a better film than GoldenEye. Brosnan appears more comfortable with the role and his humor is funnier. He rides the motorcycle through a laundry clothesline and Wai Lin tells him to go faster. Bond’s response: “Alright. Keep your shirt on!” I liked it. I was having a good time with the film.

Roger Spottiswoode was the director this time and he does a fine job. All of the action scenes are well orchestrated and edited.

I’ll also give props to Sheryl Crow for her alluringly sexy and haunting title track. I have never forgotten the song since I saw the film.

Tomorrow Never Dies is a great action film worth checking out whether you’re a James Bond fan or not.

I really like this entry.

THE GAME

By Marc S. Sanders

David Fincher is a director always focused on playing tricks with the viewer’s mind. His earliest films from Alien 3 (a poor installment in a celebrated franchise) to Se7en (an unrealistic yet frighteningly suspenseful serial killer story) to his third motion picture The Game, a movie that throws you off from the beginning of each scene to the end of each scene are best examples of this technique. It’s a little jarring, and I’m happy to watch it that way.

This film only works if you mask what’s really happening by showing you what’s fake instead. I know I sound vague but those that have seen The Game would probably agree that is the point. It’s based off a screenplay (by John Brancato & Michael Faris) that strategizes itself like a Dungeon Master setting up a Friday night in the basement with some buddies to play some role playing games with a 20 sided die.

Michael Douglas is really the only guy who could play Nicholas Van Orton, a millionaire with everything but really has nothing; no friends, no spouse (any longer), no one to care about. Beyond his fortune, all he has are a weirdly estranged brother, played by Sean Penn, and his attorney only there to ask Nicky “Should I be worried?” The film takes place during Nick’s 48th birthday. Normally, the song would go “Happy Birthday Nicky.” However, for Douglas’ cold protagonist, the lyrics are “Happy Birthday Mr. Van Orton.” A man with everything, who really has nothing.

Penn gives him a card with a number to call. This is his birthday present to Nicky. Then the paranoia presents itself little by little; a wooden clown doll, a tv that talks to Nick, a leaky pen, spilled drinks, and soon Nicky’s life is threatened.

Why are these things happening? What’s with the keys? What’s with the waitress who keeps turning up, played by Debra Kara Unger so effectively that she arguably carries the riddles most convincingly? Unger is brilliant at twisting the story over and over. Another great player is well recognized character actor, the late James Rebhorn (also known from Scent of a Woman) who gets the ball rolling and then wraps up the answers later on.

Fincher plays with the mind quietly but never at a slow pace. There’s a consistent tinkling of piano keys that seem to work as puzzle pieces being matched up. It’s much more disturbing to go this route than with grand horns and bass.

When I saw The Game initially in 1997, I started to piece together how to write multi dimensional characters. There’s a past that gnaws at Nick’s psyche sprinkled with glimpses of his father committing suicide. Fincher offers up a background to Nick by means of grainy home movie footage. It all seems quick and taken for granted but it’s necessary to understand Douglas’ cold demeanor and it circles back beautifully towards the film’s unexpected ending. It works so well as a motivator for Nick that I often circle back to its presentation when I write my own scripts.

There’s a great, short scene that sets up the 3rd act. Probably Michael Douglas’ best scene ever in a film, in my opinion. Nick walks into a diner in a dirty suit with scratches on his face. He asks for everyone’s attention and offers up his last $18 to anyone who can offer him a ride. The character is humbled and changed. An arc is completing itself on the other end. It’s a scene that maybe doesn’t belong here until you realize it does. In another director’s hands, a scene like this would be cut or never shot. Fincher took advantage of Douglas’ technique for substituting intimidating power with humble gratitude to simply be able to just ask for a favor. A new character is born in a most efficient 90 seconds of film. It’s a great moment.

See The Game whether you haven’t seen it yet or to watch it again to remind yourself how all the pieces come together.

You might argue that this can’t be realistic but suspend your disbelief because that is what David Fincher always strives for. You’ll be glad you did. Trust me, or maybe…don’t trust anyone?!?!?!?

CLUELESS

By Marc S. Sanders

AS IF!!!!!

Yeah, Alicia Silverstone’s breakthrough film, Clueless, is shockingly dated, but it is so smartly constructed as it follows Jane Austen’s outline of her classic novel Emma.

You see, here is a movie where the main character goes through a nicely developed character arc. Silverstone’s Cher might be an airhead since her focus is primarily on clothes, the mall, MTV cartoons, and more clothes but as she strategizes to be a matchmaker for fellow students and teachers at her school, she loses sight of her own best interests when it comes to love.

The situations and one liners are priceless in Amy Heckerling’s film. I love how Cher can’t comprehend why her gorgeous crush never hits on her but he loves to shop, dress smart and watch Spartacus.

As director, Heckerling is also attuned enough to deliver gags by means of the extras sprinkled throughout the film. Almost every extra at school has a nose bandage because, you know, this is a Beverly Hills high school where plastic surgery is as common as getting a drivers license. Heckerling might be broadly spoofing the Beverly Hills scene of the ‘90s, but we all know what she’s trying to say with each shot of a high school hallway or classroom.

This film also delivered actor Paul Rudd closer to the main stream. It’s not a glamorous role but he’s cute nonetheless, as Cher’s step brother and maybe love interest???? It’s a long story; watch the movie. He’s the guy with sensibility that Cher doesn’t seem to account for. Rudd’s scenes with Silverstone are marvelous. Typical love/hate material that we’ve seen before, but the characters are so likable it’s hard to resist their charms.

Dan Hedaya (a very underrated actor since Cheers) is really good. He’s such far cry from his on screen daughter as an apparently brutal litigator. Every time he shouts “Cher, get in here!” I laughed.

Again, it’s hard to believe it’s already dated in its wardrobe and slang, but Clueless remains outstandingly funny nonetheless. Bitchin!!!!!!!!