By Marc S. Sanders

Remember that CW TV show called Felicity?  I’ve never seen an episode, but I remember the advertisements.  Beautiful, former child actor, Keri Russell with the golden, curly locks of love, was on her way to college.  Every commercial had that crisp, home like comfort feel voiceover.  It left me with an impression that this was a corny, yet sweeping exploration of coming of age while at college, and gaining independence.  The show came from JJ Abrams.  Abrams is a good director and writer.  He’s now one of the biggest producers in Hollywood.  Back in the early 2000s however, he wanted to nurture his characters.  Protect them.  Make them feel warm and content.  After Felicity, he went on to develop a spy thriller series called Alias with Jennifer Garner.  She was a college student with a lovable roommate by day and was super spy by night, or whenever the moment called for it.  Abrams went on to blending his coziness with that of stunts and explosions that modernized a series like, say…Mission: Impossible.  Naturally, when Tom Cruise recruited him for the third film of the high-octane franchise, we got the “Felicity Finish” applied.  Ethan Hunt is sweet and kind, and he’s ready for married life.  How precious!

Don’t get me wrong.  Mission: Impossible III is likely what kept the still running blockbuster movie series going.  Following a style over substance lackluster entry before, from action director John Woo, this third entry went in a completely different direction.  Ethan Hunt hugs a soon to be sister-in-law. Ethan Hunt cries.  Ethan Hunt has feelings.  Ethan Hunt has to rescue who he regards as his “kid sister,” Felicity…I mean adorable Keri Russell from being held hostage.  Ethan Hunt belongs on the cover of a Hallmark card with actress Michelle Monaghan.

I imagine JJ Abrams is not fond of the early James Bond movies.  I’d make a case that he watches them and wishes that someone, anyone would just give 007 a warm and sincere hug after he saves the world, and hold him close.  Superspies have emotions too, ya know?

The story of this third M:I chapter focuses on the pursuit of a MacGuffin known as the rabbit’s foot.  A powerful weapons dealer named Owen Davian (a brutally frightening Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is working to get a hold of it.  Following a first act rescue mission that Ethan and his IMF team (Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engage in, the main hero finds reason to capture Davian and intercept the mysterious rabbit’s foot.  Complications get in the way because Ethan has fallen in love with an adorably beautiful doctor named Julia (Monaghan), who is unaware of her fiancé’s exploits.   

The action is superb in Abrams cinematic directorial debut.  Once it gets started after a sweet engagement party scene, it does not let up.  Everything is well edited and choreographed. An essential part of a Mission: Impossible movie.  An unexpected attack on a bridge crossing is spectacular.  The covert tactics are fun to watch as well.  When Ethan and team secretly invade The Vatican, the step-by-step maneuvers are carried out with gleeful ease.

There are twists and double crosses at play as well that you are not even thinking about looking for.  Frankly, they work more effectively here than they did in the original M:I film directed by Brian DePalma.  When the traitor is revealed to deliver a line like “It’s complicated,” it is not unreasonable to gasp.

Hoffman still remains the best of the villains in Cruise’s action franchise.  Maybe that’s by Abrams’ design because this is probably the most personal of all the films to date.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the guy who will be apprehended and braced to a railing on an airplane by the IMF team, and yet will still hold the upper hand.  A question like “Do you have a wife or a girlfriend?” has a much more sinister context when uttered by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

I do recall when I first saw the film that the ending is not original.  It’s an opportunity for Tom Cruise to do another running scene, but it was first used in an episode of Alias where an operative is remotely giving directions to the hero while talking on a cell phone.  Clever the first time.  The second time seeing it, I was just calling it out.  So, Abrams needs to stretch his imagination a little.  No matter.  The pulse of the adventure races at high speed.

Mission: Impossible III might be unabashedly hokey and corny.  Everyone looks like they belong in a JC Penney commercial at Christmas time, or on a CW TV show like Felicity. However, it won’t deny you of what you are looking for which are big stunts in the sky and on the ground, along with the cool gadgets and those signature pull away masks that made the original series so memorable. 

I still realize that by the time film series reached this chapter, the franchise still belonged exclusively to Tom Cruise occupying every frame.  Once again, his team of IMF agents really don’t matter or carry any substance except to wear clothes.  At least this time, Tom Cruise cries over someone else.  So, he’s not as self-involved as the last couple of times, or even the last couple of dozen movies.  That’s a nice change of pace. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay adaptation of the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown suffers from an overabundance of information; like A LOT of information, a TON OF INFORMATION actually. The book is an incredibly fast read with brief chapters and plenty of diagrams and images to study. It surprises me, though, how in depth director Ron Howard’s approach is with the film. Howard must have literally shot every page Brown documented including his edits. Amazingly there is a Blu Ray EXTENDED CUT. It seems Goldsman and Howard at one point couldn’t help themselves. Restraint had to step in for the controversial story’s cinematic debut.

Tom Hanks plays the great modern literary character, Robert Langdon. He is very good in the role of a research expert on historical symbols and cryptology. Hanks even masters Langdon’s self-debilitating weakness of claustrophobia very well, which proves to be a hinderance. It’s maybe an under celebrated part in Hanks’ career because the film is so heavy. Little is talked about this film any longer. (The second sequel, Inferno, flopped at the box office. I’ve yet to see that one.)

Langdon is recruited to go the Louvre in Paris one evening to look over a recently murdered victim left with a pentagram carved in his chest and a gunshot wound in his belly. The victim’s name is Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle). Soon Langdon is teaming up with Sophie (Audrey Tatou), Sauniere’s granddaughter, to uncover one puzzle or clue after another left behind most prominently within the artwork of Leonardo DaVinci, including the “Mona Lisa.” Gradually, a conspiracy is uncovered revealing a strong possibility of how Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ are actually connected. Amidst all of this, Langdon and Sophie become fugitives under the suspicion of murder. Now the cops (headed by Jean Reno) as well as a secret society within the Catholic Church are hot on their trail to stop them from revealing the truth. A dangerous, self torturing Albino monk (Paul Bettany) also comes into play.

That’s a long ass paragraph I just wrote and it hardly scratches the surface of how in depth The DaVinci Code really is. Because it is so nuanced, I had some major problems with the film. For one thing the cinematography from Salvatore Totino is very dark. I know. Most of the film takes place in the middle of the night within the hallowed halls of the Louvre and the streets of Paris. However, I think certain liberties should have been taken here. The details thrown at the audience never stop. Long summaries of dialogue come into play and at times Totino and Howard will highlight a code or a portion of a piece of art or a passage in a book. Because the story is so deliberately murky, I wish at times what I was looking at could have been presented all the more clearer.

Another issue is with Audrey Tatou who is of French descent and whose character is that way too. Her French accent is too thick to clearly understand every word she is saying. A lot of details become lost because her dialect swallows her words. Natural dialects can be a slippery slope in film. You want the characters to be as genuine as possible but none of that means much if you can’t follow along.

The best surprise of the film reveals itself when Ian McKellen appears, portraying Sir Leigh Teabing, a mentor and friend to Langdon. Yes. He offers up a ton of information too. Too much for any one film really. However, McKellan is so giddy in the role. Leigh relishes the fact that Langdon and Sophie appear at his home. He’s elderly and crippled and excited with glee to come across them so he can share his own theory of Mary, Jesus and what is possibly the real interpretation of the Holy Grail. At ninety minutes into the film, McKellan’s introduction is quite a welcome, relief from the heaviness of everything before.

The DaVinci Code clocks in at over two and a half hours. It feels longer actually. There are multiple endings as surprise traitors need to be revealed, more history and theories need to be uncovered and more European locales need to be visited complete with secret passages and hidden staircases. It took a lot of mental effort to remain patient with the film, and I had already read the book!!!

Ron Howard’s film merits the discussion of whether Brown’s bestseller should have ever been filmed. As good as Hanks and McKellan are, I say no. This is not Indiana Jones with bullwhips and truck chases. This is a treasure hunt that sticks to what is on a page and within an exhibit. To mask what is discovered by dictating endless dialogue from the cast becomes incredibly tedious.

Dan Brown’s story is wildly out there in theory and supposition. It’s what makes it fun, really. So, do I recommend The DaVinci Code? You bet I do. I definitely recommend you read the book.


By Marc S. Sanders

Casino Royale from 2006 is the one film in the entire James Bond series that gives the MI6 agent a complete character arc, and for that reason alone, it is also the best film to date in the franchise, and another of my most favorite movies.

Bond becomes a different person, and a different agent by the end of this film. It’s a pleasing and unexpected surprise.

Following the misfire of Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day, the franchise was wisely reinvented, going back to the origins of 007 and how he earned his well-known license to kill. Fans immediately protested the casting of a blonde-haired Bond with relatively unknown Daniel Craig. Yet, as soon as the film was released, tensions were overall subdued.

Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) returns to direct the EON Production’s adaptation of Ian Fleming’s very first Bond novel. The super spy quickly completes the necessary requirement of two kills to earn his 007 status and is assigned by M (Judi Dench, still so good in her role) to pursue LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a mathematic genius and money launderer for high priced terrorists. Bond engages in a high stakes’ poker game at the renowned Casino Royale where he must beat LeChiffre’s bluff or monies from his Majesty’s government will have directly funded terrorism. Along the way, Bond falls in love with the treasury agent, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who is assigned to fund his poker buy in.

This film offers a James Bond with faults and mistakes to learn from. He’s never completely perfect and he is subject to losing a bluff in more ways than one, albeit at the poker table or in the face of love. As well, Bond doesn’t necessarily think far enough ahead, as his kill ratio continues to rack up. To M’s displeasure, she wishes he’d have some reservations so that they can question who he comes in contact with. Bond doesn’t seem to consider that.

Daniel Craig gives a brilliant performance of a man who believes he is even wiser than the reputation moviegoers have been accustomed to for over 40 years prior. By the time the film reaches its climax in an action paced shootout within a floating building along an Italian strait, Bond’s steely armor is donned against affection or distraction. James Bond becomes humbled by personal betrayal. I never would have imagined. Death will never affect him again. Love won’t either. This James Bond makes mistakes, but never will he make the same mistake twice.

Mikkelsen is a great villain as the bad guy who gets in over his head. He is not trying to dominate the world. He’s only interested in a profitable return from his dealings with terrorists. James Bond can’t interfere. LeChiffre is a new brand of villain, but still written with a trademark deformity of weeping blood uncontrollably, plus a case of asthma. A far cry from metal teeth and hooks for hands. Mikkelsen plays LeChiffre as cold and terrifying, almost like a vampire with a winning hand.

Eva Green is the best Bond girl of the series. There’s a mystery and a dimension to her performance. Something is driving her and it may play against Bond ever succeeding. Green portrays Vesper as lovely, graceful and suave like her partner, but she is incredibly smart too. She is evenly matched with Craig’s Bond. A great moment occurs when James & Vesper first meet for dinner on a train and size each other up. Eva Green is precise in monologue delivery. She is assured and confident. This woman is able to read Bond before Bond is given the opportunity to seduce her.

Campbell puts together real looking and tangible action sequences where 007 pursues a bomber specializing in parkour, a sport of climbing and leaping on and off of objects within a construction area. There’s also a well choreographed fight scene in a hotel staircase.

The best moments are reserved for the poker match however. Campbell amps up the tension with these ridiculous hands the players have in a fierce match of Texas hold ‘em. Bond gets sidetracked with sword wielding killers and poisonous drinks, but still manages to return to the table time and again with his tuxedo neatly pressed. The interplay at the table with or without dialogue is mesmerizing.

Daniel Craig went entirely different with his James Bond. The wit is there, but the tongue in cheek is not missed. This James Bond doesn’t give a damn if his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. Most of the prior Bond films had the super-agent without any scruples or demons in his closet. World domination, death and casual sex were just all in a day’s work. This 007, however, comes with a heavy background. Craig is great with his silent, seemingly guilty regard for killing someone whether it be by drowning a thug in a flooded bathroom sink or stabbing another one to death amid a museum crowd.

Screenwriters Paul Haggis with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade write a dramatically induced James Bond story. A tale not easily forgotten. It was time to reinvigorate the franchise that was going off into the absurdity of invisible cars and over the top gadgets. The puns are still here, but they serve more as a cover of a necessary internal pain for Bond, rather than disregard for his actions.

Casino Royale is one of the best films ever made. No qualms about me saying that. It’s hard to find great relationships among characters with huge risks at play, and magnificent chemistry for one another, as well as the story that serves them.

Casino Royale is an absolute winning hand at any table.


By Marc S. Sanders

Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar with the 2006 Best Picture The Departed, from a script written by William Monahan. The film is a remake of a Hong Kong crime drama called Infernal Affairs.

Also known as the one film in Scorsese’s library with a linear plot, The Departed depicts the stories of two guys who grew up in the south end of Boston and joined the police academy to serve. Only difference is one is recruited to go undercover within the Irish mob, while the other is recruited by the same mob to become a highly respected police officer and supply an unlimited wealth of information to his criminal boss.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the undercover cop Billy Costigan. Matt Damon is the criminal cop Colin Sullivan. Jack Nicholson is the Irish mob boss in the middle, Frank Costello.

The Departed works because Scorsese and Monahan allow the audience in on every deceit playing against the characters. Pleasantly surprising is that there are even twists to this layered story, and cellular flip phones assist all the players with trying to remain in hiding or hoping to one up and trap the other. However, because everyone is getting tipped from their own respective sources, people are either not ending up dead, or arrested or caught red handed. As Costigan builds his case against Costello, Sullivan is worming his way to protecting his cover in the police force while also tipping off his true boss.

Performances from DiCaprio, Damon and Nicholson are what you’d expect. Nicholson is chewing the scenery again appearing like the devil incarnate while hamming up the facial expressions. Damon is great at playing it like the Boy Scout cop in well-tailored suits, clean shaven and flirtatious within his department and earning respect among his peers, that is until it all seems to unravel. DiCaprio is wired as the cop who needs to show he’s a dangerous hood to be trusted among the mob cohorts. However, he’s getting more paranoid and unwound at the risk of being made.

Thelma Schoonmaker (one of my favorites) does a balanced approach edit to showing a parallel among the cops. She will insert a happening of Costigan for a snippet and then segue to Sullivan appearing to do honest police work, or reaching out to Costello with a warning of what’s coming for him.

Great support also comes from Ray Winstone as Costello’s right hand man, and Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson and Martin Sheen, all within the police department.

Ironically, the one Oscar nominated performance was bestowed upon Mark Wahlberg and I grew tired of his presence quickly as the cop who berates Costigan endlessly with yelling and fast one liners that involve someone’s mother. Could we just move on from this please?

I also found Vera Farmiga as a police psychologist to be mostly unnecessary until a contrived ending point needed to arrive. Her character naturally has affairs with both Damon and DiCaprio, who also attend her office for sessions. Of course they do! Whenever the film sidetracks to one of them with Farmiga, The Departed stalls for a moment. Her character carries no stake in the plot line and offers no further dimension to DiCaprio and Damon’s characters.

The film works best as the complications compound on each other. A great moment occurs between the cops when one of them picks up a bloody cell phone to dial back the most recent call. Silence on both ends of the line, and the moment just plays out until someone speaks or hangs up.

Moments like that is suspense similar to when a man is intruding in a dark house. However, this is suspense delivered by Martin Scorsese, and Martin Scorsese will film suspense that is anything but typical. Martin Scorsese’s suspense leaves you breathless.

UNITED 93 (2006)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Ben Sliney, Khalid Abdalla, Corey Johnson
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A real-time account of the events on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001, and of the chaos on the ground as the FAA and the military grasped what was happening.

There are a handful of movies that can still make me cry when watching them, even on repeat viewings, and even then it doesn’t always happen.  Fearless, directed by Peter Weir, is one of them.  The finale of Edward Scissorhands still has the power to choke me up.  The transition from black-and-white to color at the end of Schindler’s List can still bring a lump to my throat given the right circumstances.

But only one movie has made me shed real tears every single time I watch it, and I’ve seen it now at least four times.  I used to watch it every time September 11th came around, as a sort of (morbid?) remembrance of that terrible day.  I haven’t done so the last couple of years simply because the emotional reaction I have to the movie and the events it depicts is just too much to deal with.

Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is unlike any other film about 9/11 that I’ve ever seen.  Many people praised Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center when it came out, but I found that movie too pumped up with melodrama and forced situations.  United 93, on the other hand, takes a documentary approach and simply follows the passengers and crew boarding their flight, like any other, on their way to a date with destiny that nobody saw coming.

Intercut with the flight itself are scenes on the ground, in various air traffic control centers, and the FAA itself.  One of the masterstrokes of the film was to cast Ben Sliney as himself.  Ben Sliney, for those who don’t remember, was the FAA Operations Manager on 9/11.  In fact, it was his first day on the job in that new position that very morning.  It was his decision, after seeing the carnage in NYC and the Pentagon, to take the unprecedented step of grounding ALL air traffic over the United States.

The movie’s effectiveness comes partly from the re-enactments of the ground controllers, trying to make sense of garbled messages coming from first one, then two, then three flights, something about people taking control – and then seeing those flights disappear from radar coverage.  And then someone in the tower sees smoke coming from downtown New York…  Those scenes, more than any documentary I’ve seen, really bring back the memories of that morning for me, the disbelief and utter shock of seeing that building burning and smoking.  And then the second plane hits…

But the movie’s real power is with the flight that ultimately didn’t hit a significant target, crashing instead in a field in Pennsylvania.  (There has been some speculation about its intended target, but the truth is we’ll never know.)  The scenes aboard United 93 have been pieced together using recorded phone conversations from passengers, flight deck recordings, and data on the plane’s flight path.  There’s no way to know how accurate some of these events are, but the point of the movie is that it feels 100% real.  The fear on the face of the hijackers, the fear of the passengers, the slow realization that this flight is headed to another target, and their gradual determination to do something about it.

Watching those scenes, with the knowledge that this flight will eventually crash with total loss of life, is an unbearably sad experience.  The final few minutes of the film, as the passengers rush their attackers and frantically try to break down the cockpit door, fills me with dread.  I find myself thinking, unreasonably, “Maybe this time they’ll get to the cockpit in time…maybe THIS time they’ll get the one pilot among the passengers behind the wheel this time…”  But no.

So WHY, oh, WHY do I give this movie a “10” when it’s such an immensely tragic experience?

Because this movie does not feel like a cheap attempt to cash in on a national tragedy.  Instead, it feels more like a memorial to those brave souls who did everything they could to keep themselves alive, to keep their attackers from fulfilling their evil deeds.  As much as any soldiers who gave their lives attacking a beach head, these everyday civilians deserve our gratitude, and they should be acknowledged as genuine heroes.  I believe United 93 treats them as such.

16 BLOCKS (2006)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey), David Morse
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 56%

PLOT: An aging alcoholic cop (Willis) is assigned the task of escorting a witness (Mos Def) from police custody to a courthouse 16 blocks away. However, chaotic forces are at work to prevent them from making it in one piece.

“Genre film.”  To some people, these may be considered dirty words.  They conjure up painful memories of poor-to-middling films like Red Heat, Beastmaster, Con Air, Deep Impact, Cliffhanger, ad infinitum.

However, let us not forget that people who were just trying to make a simple genre film also gave us Star Wars and Jaws and Casablanca.

With 16 Blocks, veteran director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) takes a familiar story – gently re-using elements from 3:10 to Yuma, if you ask me – and delivers a respectable genre film: solid, if somewhat predictable, entertainment.  Call it a compromise between Casablanca and Commando.

If Bruce Willis had not been cast, this movie would probably not have been made.  With genre films, you want archetypes, actors who embody the characters without having to say a word if they don’t have to.  That’s our Bruce.  When you first see him on screen, nursing a hangover, eyes half-closed, trudging wearily step by step, you don’t need a lot of plot exposition.  We’re there.

Where this movie mildly elevates its formula is in the casting of Mos Def as Eddie Bunker, the federal witness whom Willis is tasked with protecting.  I’m speculating here, but I’m guessing that Mos Def was probably no one’s first choice for the role.  On the page, the script is crying out for a comedian: Chris Rock, maybe even Eddie Murphy, or Dave Chappelle.  Instead, the producers went with the “hot hand”, Mos Def, a former hip-hop artist, riding high on high-profile roles in several recent hits.  Despite his modest popularity, he is still not the obvious choice.

But make no mistake: Mos Def is what makes this movie work.  His Eddie Bunker character has this amazing, indescribable accent, somewhere between the nasal whining of a Beastie boy and Billy Ray Valentine from Trading Places.  His job is to be as annoying as possible to his minder, and he succeeds.  But he is also somehow able to make Eddie likable and even relatable.  He claims he’s in prison by mistake (of course), but he has plans to open a bakery when he gets out…because he learned to bake in prison.  I love that, I don’t know why.

The film hurls this odd couple from one situation to the next as it unspools almost in real time.  In the course of all this hurling, they encounter that most reliable of screen clichés: bad guys who can’t shoot straight while the good guys are nearly perfect marksmen.  Predictable.  Not to mention the bad guy who monologues just a LITTLE too long, the ability for the good guy to somehow out-think the bad guys even with a monster hangover, the good guy who (gasp!) turns out to be a bad guy…most movie clichés are out in full force here.

But it works.  It’s not Heat, but it’s not The Golden Child either.  It’s fun, a not-quite-guilty pleasure that hits all the buttons on time and on target.  Predictable, yes.  But fun.