by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Sean Durkin
CAST: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.

My feelings about Martha Marcy May Marlene are all over the map right now.  It angered me, shocked me, mesmerized me, saddened me, and thrilled me, all at once.  A despicable cult lies at the center of it, and having recently watched the second season of HBO’s The Vow, I noticed it shared many similarities with NXIVM, an even MORE despicable cult, which just angered me even more.  The movie’s saving grace is Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Martha, who escapes the cult after the opening credits and tries her best to adapt into real life after being brainwashed for two years.  But even with Martha as the star (and it’s a terrific performance from Olsen, by the way), Martha Marcy May Marlene dances recklessly on the verge of being a movie featuring people so abhorrent that I wanted to turn it off.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a powerful, provocative film that asks lots of questions, and had me wondering about myself.  If my sister disappeared for two years, then wandered back into my life with no money and no home, then behaved erratically and sometimes dangerously around my friends and loved ones…how much of that could I take before I started making inquiries about psychiatric institutions?

Martha’s sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), does her dead level best to make Martha comfortable and keep the peace between Martha and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), who does his best, but resents her for “invading” his 2-week vacation.  Lucy knows Martha is hiding something, but she senses it’s unwise to try to drag it out of her.  But every time the opportunity arises for Martha to give some insight, she either backs away or turns it into a verbal attack.

This was one of the things that infuriated me during the film.  I even paused the movie and asked Penni about why it made me so mad, thinking I needed a woman’s point of view.  Why, oh, WHY does this young woman, who has clearly been traumatized in some way, not implicate the people who mistreated her for so long?  Clearly, I’m not a psychiatrist.  I’m sure someone would be able to provide me with a concise answer that makes Martha’s behavior understandable.  The movie, however, does not provide such an answer.  Ultimately, that’s one of its strengths.  If it had ended with a Psycho-style expository monologue that gave clear-cut reasons for everything Martha does, it would have felt anti-climactic.

Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult’s leader, is not movie-star handsome by any stretch of the imagination, but he possesses that innate, infuriating ability to say exactly the right things at the right time.  One trick is to give all the women new names; he re-names Martha “Marcy May” the first time he meets her.  As a result, every woman in the compound is devoted to Patrick.  How devoted?  Whenever a new female member is introduced to their “family”, one of the first things the older members do is feed her a shake with a sleeping pill blended into it.  Then, when the new girl falls asleep, Patrick can come in and rape her while she sleeps.  The word “disgusting” doesn’t begin to approach this tactic.  But the fact that the women will talk with the new member after that first encounter, and convince the newbie that it’s all good, it’s all fine, we wouldn’t be here if it was bad, you’re sooo lucky…I mean, if I had popcorn, I would have thrown it at the screen, I was so mad.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is not just about the rage it instilled in me, though.  It asks us to empathize with Martha, and it succeeds, even when she behaves unpredictably.  One night, Martha crawls into Lucy’s bed…while Lucy’s having sex with Ted.  Lucy and Ted are understandably freaked out, but Martha seems dazed by their anger.  “Why would you do that, Martha?!”  Her reply: “I couldn’t sleep.”  At that point, I could clearly see both sides of the situation.  Lucy and Ted had every right to be angry, but Martha simply didn’t know any better.

The flashbacks to Martha’s days with the cult start out fairly normal, but as the movie progresses, we finally start to see some of the other incidents that finally drove her to run away.  One particularly ominous scene shows Martha and another girl having target practice with one of the other young men in the cult.  Patrick shows up with a live cat in a sack and abruptly tells Martha to shoot the cat.  When she refuses, he tells her to shoot the young man.  The man starts to walk away, and Patrick, in a voice raised ever so slightly, tells him, “Don’t you walk away from me.”  And he stops.

The cult members practice periodic home invasions to gather needed supplies, since the farm they’re working on isn’t fully functional yet, and you can only get so much money by selling blankets in town.  They do their utmost to avoid contact with the residents, but sometimes, things just…don’t work out the way you want them to, you know?

Martha Marcy May Marlene qualifies as a great film because it simply presents the facts of the story and doesn’t editorialize, doesn’t preach.  I can report that it’s a stunning character study/thriller, and I can tell you that the performance from Elizabeth Olsen is superb (her movie debut, by the way).  I can say that the filmmaking strategy is on point – kudos to director Sean Durkin.  And I congratulate it on eliciting the kind of emotional response from me that I’ve only felt once in my entire life.  It may not be the same for you.  But there you have it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Star Wars has evolved from a beloved franchise celebrated in detailed play sets, figures, bed sheets, costumes, plush toys, and t-shirts to a franchise still wrapped in all those materials, only now there is an animosity and regret among its populace of fans. Vitriol and love mix like oil and water towards its creator, George Lucas.

In the documentary The People vs George Lucas a lot of complaining and poking transpires in the medium of endless home movie fan films (the best one being a spoof of Misery where a fan holds an injured Lucas captive) to measure the stress and betrayal followers of the franchise feel for a creator.

As a lifelong fan of the galaxy far far away, I did not watch this documentary with a constant nod in accord and “preach/fight the power” mentality. I could only think some people really need to value something more than this. Go outside. Taste an apple. Ride a bike. Feel a breeze in the air. Talk to a girl or a boy your own age.

The documentary only works to a certain level of degree and that’s because it doesn’t live up to the promise the title suggests. It’s primarily a one sided 90 minute argument of various worldwide fans venting frustrations with little to offer from Lucas. It’s fair to say Lucas would never give these documentarians the time of day anyhow. Why should he have to, really? So stock footage interviews are used instead to a minimal degree. The “vs” never really shows and the ball only ever stays on one side of the court.

Complaints abound of who shot first, the special edition edits of the original films, Jar Jar Binks (the best sequence of the film) and Lucas’ refusal to release the original cuts of the Episodes IV-VI (that’s always been my biggest issue).

A ridiculous segment focuses on the reiteration of merchandise like thousands of different Darth Vader figures or endless new releases of the films in new boxed sets thus tempting fans to continue to buy. This is frustrating. Yet, somehow, some way this need to collect is all Lucas’ fault? That’s where the film loses me. When a person uses a scapegoat because of a weakness of free will, there’s not much I can empathize.

There’s moments to laugh at. The frustrations are not wrong but who cares to listen to someone who claims their childhood was literally “raped by George Lucas?”

I did appreciate how the film examines that sadly, in an ironic sense, Lucas became the monster he tried to avoid. When making the 1977 original he broke many standards of filmmaking in Hollywood refusing to answer to corporate cogs. He wanted independence of money grubbing and grasps. He achieved that mean to an end by simply becoming the biggest corporate cog of them all. Stock footage interviews show him admitting that. Ultimately, he never directed again until 1999 when he declared he would direct a trilogy of prequels. He did not answer to anyone, and no one questioned his methods. Thus, the world was treated to Jar Jar Binks. That’s what corporate America does. That’s what George Lucas did.


By Marc S. Sanders

Charlize Theron is always an actress who impresses me. Ever since I saw her in The Devil’s Advocate, I’ve been taken with her on screen presence. She simply has a natural way of bringing a character to life, and usually it is with unhinged and complicated women who never escape and overthrow what’s tormenting them. Her Academy Award winning turn in Monster as serial killer Aileen Wuornos is a perfect example, and her role in Jason Reitman’s film Young Adult is a close second best.

Young Adult was written by Diablo Cody (Juno, also directed by Reitman) and depicts Theron as Mavis Gary, a once successful author of a series of novels aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls. When she receives an email baby announcement from her former high school boyfriend Buddy Slade, Mavis wearing her sweatpants and worn-out t shirt packs up her puppy dog and leaves her one-night stand in her Minneapolis apartment and heads back to her small Minnesota town. She’s not there to see the newborn bundle, however. Mavis is under the delusion that she can win back Buddy who is now happily married.

This isn’t going to go well for Mavis, especially while she’s drowning in one bottle after another.

Patton Oswalt plays Matt, a former classmate, who comes upon Mavis’ arrival. Matt knows immediately that Mavis doesn’t have it altogether. She has not endured as well as he has following a terribly violent hate crime experience in high school when he was mistakenly taken for being gay. Mavis recalls this moment but with great insensitivity. She laughs as she reflects on the incident. Her take equates to maybe Matt being victim to a wedgie or being trapped in a locker. It was much worse than that. Matt’s legs and genitals were smashed in the beating.

Oswalt is very good in his role. Matt doesn’t need to have any regard for Mavis, the once popular prom princess. However, he can’t help but see her pitifully make a fool of herself as she attempts to intrude upon Buddy’s life.

Buddy appears naive to Mavis’ sloppy advances. Buddy sees the image of a successful author prim and proper. Matt sees the ugliness of Mavis beneath her makeup and dress clothes that never hang well on her intoxicated stature.

Cody’s screenplay takes place over three days. In that time, she allows her main character to come to the realization that she’s not a happy person and most certainly is alcohol dependent. A baby welcoming party makes evident of this conclusion. It is an event that will be remembered but for all the wrong reasons. Theron is astonishing in this scene. Not a likable character and yet so well performed.

Reitman is a good director with simplicity. He is simple at showing what likely eats at the good, published writer Mavis used to be. When Mavis drives back into town, Reitman shows her car pass by franchise businesses like Chili’s or Staples. There’s no imagination in these locales. No history or depth. There’s no stimulation. It’s all corporate. Just my theory, but I’d say that could drive a successfully imaginative writer into a depression. No wonder Mavis left town. Problem is she moved on with no constants in her life. Consider the fact that Mavis doesn’t even share with her parents that she’s come back into town.

Juno is the better film from Reitman and Cody. There was a broader scope of the characters at play, beyond just Juno herself. Theron and Oswalt are the only ones with multi dimensions in Young Adult. It’s a benefit that the film clocks in at only just over 90 minutes. Any longer and I’d have grown tired of this film. I can’t expect Mavis to overcome her demons in this short period of time. So, we are reserved to seeing how she further undoes herself and nearly destroys the family and people (not friends) she once knew. Basically, Young Adult shows a woman arrive at rock bottom. Therefore, I applaud Reitman and Cody for keeping this film condensed. The high school popularity is but a memory. Success is gradually moving away from her. Despair and depression and the illness of addiction is all that is left for her.

A SEPARATION (2011, Iran)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A married couple in Tehran are faced with a difficult decision – to improve their daughter’s life by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer’s disease.

The above plot description, paraphrased from IMDb, is rather brilliant because it is misleading in all the right ways.  When I read it, I assumed I would be in for a depressing domestic drama, a la Marriage Story or Kramer vs. Kramer.  It won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars that year, so that only strengthened my belief that it would be a fine film, but also a bit of a slog.

Boy, was I wrong.  That plot description covers just the opening four or five minutes of the movie, an incredibly nuanced, brilliantly acted, uncut take of the two spouses, Nader (husband) and Simin (wife) arguing in front of a judge.  Simin wants to move out of the country so their daughter, Termeh, can have a better quality of life.  Nader has no problem with them leaving, per se, but he cannot go because he must stay and take care of his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s.  If Simin wants to go so bad, let her go, he says, but he won’t give permission for Termeh to go with her.  And Simin won’t leave without Termeh.  It’s a pickle.  (For her part, Termeh wishes to stay with her father, but Simin says that’s only because she doesn’t know any better…how depressingly typical of parents going through a separation.)

After this brilliant scene, I was ready for the movie to settle into a series of one scene after another showing Nader and Simin arguing over custody of Termeh.  Instead, the script ingeniously takes a bit of a left turn and focuses on the woman Nader has hired, Razieh, to be caretaker for his sick father, because Simin, in a move unexpected by me, packs up and moves out.  Razieh wears a traditional chador, and so Nader is unable to tell she is pregnant, which might have affected his decision to hire her.

Razieh does her best with Nader’s father, but the long commute and the difficult work takes its toll.  One day, Nader comes home from work and discovers his father has fallen out of bed, with one hand tied to the bedpost with a piece of cloth, and Razieh is nowhere to be found.  He also discovers some money is missing.  When Razieh returns, she is cagey about why she left, but she insists she stole no money.  Nader is furious and tries to throw her out of his house.  When she insists she be paid for the day’s work and continues to maintain her innocence of the theft of the missing money, Nader loses a little control and pushes her out the front door of their third-floor apartment and onto a staircase.  She walks away, but later winds up in the hospital – she has suffered a miscarriage.

What follows is one of the most engrossing social dramas I’ve ever seen in my life.  I suspect part of my insane interest in the story was the fact that it takes place in a country thousands of miles away, in a culture that is utterly alien to me, and yet the people there are just like any parents and children and husbands and wives we meet every day here in the States.  Razieh’s husband, Hodjat, even has a line: “Why do you think we beat our wives and children like animals?  I swear on this Qur’an, we’re humans just like you!”  He’s talking to his accuser, but he was also talking to me.

The film is shot with mostly handheld cameras, a technique that works extremely well by making everything feel like a documentary.  It makes things feel more real in a story that only works the more you empathize with the characters.  I empathized a great deal, not because I am a husband or a father, but because I recognized their situation, faced with an impossible decision where each person is right and wrong simultaneously.  In the ensuing plot developments, which I will not disclose here, I was so wrapped up in the lives of these people that I found myself reacting the way old school sit-com housewives might respond to watching their favorite soap operas while folding laundry.  “No WAY did he just say that!  …oh my god, lady, you’re just making things WORSE!  …jeez, this guy is CRAZY…!”

This was an unexpected reaction for me.  In years past, I have tended to shy away from foreign dramas after watching one called 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days about women in ‘80s-era Romania forced to seek illegal abortions due to their country’s ban on the practice.  I’m not denying that film’s power, but it was so insanely depressing that I swore off foreign films for a while.  It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to come back around to giving films like A Separation a chance.  It hasn’t always paid off, but I’m happy to say it did this time, in spades.

I should note that the story is also extremely revealing in terms of the legal system in Iran.  I can’t vouch for its accuracy, of course, but it all feels very authentic.  In a governmental system so intertwined with religion, it’s easy to see how decisions that are made based on religious statutes may be technically correct without being just.  Just another dimension to the film that makes it even more compelling to watch.

But there is another aspect of A Separation that I believe is even more profound than the engrossing domestic drama.  I’m not even sure if it was intended by the filmmaker.  I’ve read snippets of reviews from other top critics, and none of them seem to have touched on my theory.


In my opinion, A Separation could be interpreted as an allegory of the impossible choices faced by anyone living in such a country or circumstances who yearn for a better (or at least different) life elsewhere, but whose ties to their roots and traditions make such a decision extremely difficult.

Look at the husband in the story, Nader.  He states repeatedly that he has no problem with his wife leaving.  If his father weren’t sick, he would be more than happy to go with her.  But his father needs constant care, and so his familial connection dictates his decision.  There is a telling moment when Nader is bathing his father by hand, while the father sits in a wheelchair, virtually oblivious to his surroundings.  Nader dutifully rinses his father’s body and leans him forward to so he can reach the bottom of his back…and he abruptly stops and starts to weep.  Is he weeping for his father?  Or himself?  It’s one of the film’s many “fill-in-the-blank” moments that we must interpret for ourselves.  For me, I believe it was over the fact that his decision to stay, motivated by love and duty, has resulted in years of caretaking.  He’s committed to it.  But it’s also profoundly sad.

Now look at the wife, Simin.  She believes her daughter, Termeh, will be better off in another country where she doesn’t have to worry that some man might take out his anger on Termeh while at school or walking home from school.  But Termeh insists on staying with her father.  Simin’s choices are to stay and be unhappy, or leave…and be unhappy without her daughter.  She adopts a middle ground by simply moving to her mother’s apartment while she works on convincing Termeh to come with her.  In the grand scheme of things, as a function of the allegory I have in mind, she represents the person who wants to leave and is held back, not by duty, but by the fact she won’t leave her daughter behind.  There’s a piece of her in this place, and she’s free to leave it if she wants, but she’ll never be the same.

How many people in other countries and other circumstances are faced with similar choices?  How many people in our own circles are stuck in marriages or family situations where leaving appears to be the best option on one hand but an impossibility on the other?  I could say that I’ve had similar situations in my own past with such a decision, but it was certainly nothing on the level of leaving my roots behind and moving to another country.  I can’t imagine the struggle and conflict for anyone facing that kind of choice.

A Separation takes that struggle and wraps it up in a movie that, even if it weren’t so perfectly symbolic, could stand on its own with any other film from any other country.  At the end of the film, the daughter is asked, point blank, which parent she would rather live with.  In what would ordinarily be a frustrating moment, we are not shown what she chooses.  It is left to us to imagine her choice.  Or maybe not.  Maybe we are meant to see what it’s like to be faced with an impossible choice, when neither option is better than the other and someone will get hurt either way.

The question isn’t, “What will she choose?”  The question is, “What would you do?”


By Marc S. Sanders

Could it have been possible that a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer uncovered one of the biggest market crashes in American history?  Writer/Director J.C. Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, will have you believe that.  It makes sense when you think about it.  Numbers and bar graphs and pie charts and zig zagging lines become so complex with themselves that you have to wonder how people wearing $1500 designer suits and selling products over the phone could decipher such nonsense.  So, it would take a rocket scientist to unravel such an exceedingly large ball of rubber bands in only one night.  Yet, how does a rocket scientist and a bridge engineer come to encounter this predicament.  Easy.  It’s all about money.  You might be the greatest scientist in the world, but if the pay isn’t right, is the science really worth it? 

Zachary Quinto plays Peter Sullivan, the rocket scientist from MIT.  Stanley Tucci plays Eric Dale, the bridge engineer.  They abandoned their college majors and specialties to go where the earnings are much more lucrative.  They both work in the risk management department for a large, unnamed New York investment bank.  On a Thursday afternoon, along with a whole slew of other people, Eric is fired.  His company cell phone is immediately shut off and he’s escorted quickly out of the building along with his personal belongings.  Before he leaves, he’s able to pass off a computer file for Peter to have a look at.  Eric was close to completing something deeply impactful, but didn’t get a chance to finish.  When Peter stays late after work to download the file, a stunned look eventually appears across his face, and he’s quickly calling back his workmates at 10 o’clock at night.  Those guys were getting hammered at the nightclub downtown, celebrating that they were not on the chopping block earlier in the day.

The cataclysmic results of Peter’s discovery is first passed on to his buddy Seth (Penn Badgely), then to the next level up which is Will Emerson, supervisor of trading (Paul Bettany).  Will then tosses it over to the higher risk supervisor, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who then passes it on to the Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), maybe the company’s second in command.  Jared assembles the men to meet with Sarah Robinson and Ramesh Shah (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi), who compute risk at even high level. 

Chandor is so genuine with his script and characters that as the earth-shattering news gets shared and then shared again and again, each higher up the food chain demands that it be explained to them in simple English.  By the time, Jared passes on this news to the head, HEAD Honcho, John Fuld (Jeremy Irons in a thankfully scene stealing performance), it is being requested of Peter to speak to John as if he were a golden retriever.  I guess in the corporate world, the sharper your clothes and hairstyle are, as well as the more formal your position title is called, the simpler the explanations need to become.  The ones who earn the big bucks don’t sit on the top floor to be belabored with charts and graphs that lack prestige and personality.

I want to point out a symbolic sequence here as well.  Each higher up seems to work on a higher floor than the other.  So, Seth and Peter accompany Will and Sam up an elevator to where Sarah, Ramesh and Jared are located.  After this meeting, Seth, Peter and Will go up on the rooftop of the building to smoke and commiserate.  Will even considers jumping.  They are then interrupted from an even higher level beyond the pinnacle of the building.  A helicopter arrives with John in tow.  God has descended at this inconvenient hour to tend to his prophets and their disciples.

Margin Call might sound like a complex assembly of numbers and math.  It really isn’t though, because Chandor approaches his film without ever really giving away how complex the issue is.  Instead, he demonstrates how deep it is.  Sam focuses on a computer screen and asks “Wait, is that number right?”  Peter’s nervousness is enhanced with his hands laced behind his head as he paces back and forth.  Will has been chewing on Nicorette gum up to this point.  Midway through the film, he’s back to smoking.  Seth understands that the mass firing he just survived hours earlier will inevitably catch up to him and all he can do is cry on the toilet.  Sarah comforts herself by asking Peter if the report he’s laid out is his work.  She wants to be excluded from being a cause of the crisis.  The best indicator of how serious and intense this has become is when an ice cool looking and handsome Simon Baker (even the blue tie he wears says icy cool) as Jared asks for the time.  It’s 2:15am.  He mutters to himself “Fuck me,” and then asks again for the time.  It’s 2:16. “Fuck me,” with a leap off the chair and a distant stare out the window.

The nature of the problem isn’t so important to grasp.  What’s necessary to take away from Margin Call, is that the gods of currency have irresponsibly and deliberately neglected the warning signs.  The returns have just been too damn good.  Now the boat has taken on too much water to stay afloat, though.  Chandor opts to focus on the response and behavior to the dilemma at hand.  There’s whispered blame to be exchanged.  There’s the need to stay silent.  When Jeremy Irons eventually comes into the fold, he holds a board meeting and calmly asks for someone to explain the situation.  Chandor points his camera on concerned close ups of middle age men not willing to speak up; messengers who truly believe they’ll be killed for delivering the dire news.  Even Jared can’t speak.

The sad outcome of the film is actually how the crash of 2008 with Collateralized Debt Obligations and Sub Prime Mortgage Defaults (see Adam McKay’s The Big Short) played out on the eve of its first day.  The investment bank in the film opts to sell off its worthless assets that enormously exceed the entire net worth of the billion-dollar company.  Chandor’s film reminds us that it’s legal to do so, and the buyers of this “odorous bag of excrement,” are John and Jane Q. Public.  At 9:30am, these brokers will put on the charm and sell at a price of $100/share knowing that by 2:00pm, it’ll be worth .65 cents/share, if they’re lucky.  Their customers paid for porterhouse, but went home with a cold burger in a doggy bag.  It’s the only way to survive. 

There are no heroes in Margin Call.  There are only profit makers.  Profits that are earned at the expense of everyone else on the planet.


By Marc S. Sanders

Simon Curtis directs a glimpse into the life of Marilyn Monroe with an exquisitely cast Michelle Williams in the title role of My Week With Marilyn.

The film is told through the perspective of 23 year old Colin Clarke played under dream like naivety from Eddie Redmayne. Clarke embarks on joining the production crew of Sir Laurence Olivier’s (pompously over played by Kenneth Branagh) newest film that he is directing and starring in, opposite Monroe. When Marilyn’s new husband, playwright Arthur Miller, returns to the states, Colin is drawn into Marilyn’s seduction; protecting her from an intimidating Olivier and tolerating her drug and alcohol use.

This film features an outstanding cast of who’s who from Dame Judi Dench to Emma Watson to Dougray Scott, Julia Ormand (playing a past her prime Vivienne Leigh), Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper. An amazing cast and amazing performances all around.

Still, I just wasn’t wild about the film. With her life startlingly cut short, Marilyn Monroe is arguably one of the biggest enigmas to come out of Hollywood, and yet this tiny glimpse into her life just wasn’t interesting enough for me.

Fully aware of her impending doom to come, the sad foreshadowing of pills on her dresser, and her unfamiliar stupors didn’t drive anything for the character. It all becomes repetitious with nothing new to say. Colin’s virginal experience with this celebrity tryst never drives anywhere but back into Marilyn’s bed after he’s requested to appear at any given hour. This occurs again and again. The film just doesn’t progress past these moments. I found myself saying “I’ve seen this already!”

Did Marilyn learn anything from this fleeting moment in her lifetime? Did Colin? Maybe Colin got to witness the dichotomy of the privately ill Marilyn versus her ability to turn on the public charm with curvaceous ease and a wide lipstick smile. Yet, I have to wonder what came of it for Colin, thereafter.

Redmayne is quite good in his naive innocence. He inhabits nearly every scene since the story is told from Colin’s experience. Storywise though, what was the point of all this really?

Williams as Marilyn is astonishing. As good at playing a Hollywood legend as when Cate Blanchett deservedly won her Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. My one wish is that Williams accepted the role with a much more dimensional and nuanced script.

Perhaps because of the mystery that always seemed to surround Marilyn, Williams will never get the chance at playing the bombshell in something better. Marilyn’s life was so dubious and questionable. What filmmakers would be brave enough to truly make claim of how the starlet lived and how she died?

I can wish for another Marilyn portrayal to come one day, with Michelle Williams in the role, but alas I won’t hold my breath.


By Marc S. Sanders

Admittedly, as a kid I read about the star-spangled hero, Captain America, on a frequent basis. In the ‘80s, to me he was nothing special; a guy with a shield, dressed like the flag who was very agile. Not many surprises were left for him to discover on the page. However, in his first MCU installment, Chris Evans, as Steve Rogers the weakling yearning to join the US Army during World War II and kill Nazis, is inspiring.

Director Joe Johnston ably introduces a character before revealing all the goodies. A fantastic special effect of downsizing Evans to a gaunt 95 pounds allows the motivation to become a hero all the more convincing. Following a series of being bullied and being rejected for service, Rogers is given the opportunity to become a lab rat for a “Super Soldier” experiment that will award him with instant fighting skills and strength. Stanley Tucci plays the doctor looking for the right candidate. Why Rogers? Because he sees he has the heart of a man only wishing to do well unto others. The experiment is a success before it becomes sabotaged, but Tommy Lee Jones, representative of the Army, is not entirely convinced. So, Cap only elevates himself to the role of a character logo, forced to sell the idea of buying war bonds across the country and entertaining the troops overseas. A rescue mission finally comes calling, and the boy in blue dons the shield and shows the world who he is and what he stands for.

Chris Evans is great in this part as a guy always on a path of “do good.” Never emoting cockiness, never in service for himself and never one to surrender to illogical and immoral mindsets. This is how Captain America should always be portrayed, a man who stands for the good of country and as the MCU films continue on, the good of the world and, well heck, lets just say the good of the galaxy. With his perfect haircut and clean shaven face, Evans never shies away from that platform.

Tucci is so good in a role that will never define his career. His brief appearance shows no hint of him being in a comic book movie. That’s a huge compliment. He takes the role of a German doctor seriously. He’s the scientist, but the film allows a nice scene for him with Evans showing that he is more so a friend. When his part exits the film, you miss him.

Finally, the MCU gets the female role right following the dismissive nature of characters like Pepper Potts (Iron Man), Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk) and Jane Foster (Thor). Special Agent Peggy Carter played by the awesome discovery of Hayley Atwell makes the role her own. She plays the part like it is written, never relying on the title character for her cues. Atwell shows determination to stand out as a woman among a sea of men and never regarding herself as any different from those said men. She has some great scenes with Tommy Lee Jones debating the purpose and importance of Rogers. By the end of the film, you are not just paying attention to the fate of Evans’ character, but Atwell’s as well. Peggy Carter is written so well, you could write a TV series about her. Wait….hold on…. anyway I digress. Hayley Atwell remains the best female character of the MCU above those we’ve seen already at this point, as well as ahead of those to come in future installments.

The villain is really just a villain with Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. The character looks great; looks just like the source material. He’s one bad dude, but not much to him. He stands to be more powerful than Hitler, yada yada yada.

Joe Johnston directs a film with a salute towards director Steven Spielberg. Try to convince me that the opening scene is not reminiscent of the opening to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Indiana Jones seems to sprinkled about as well. Johnston doesn’t try to get cute with experimental camera shots and blurry CGI action. I think because he follows a paint by numbers approach to this film, it is all the better. He offers lots of good back story to Steve Rogers role, he gives a large cast of characters their own moments to stand out (like Bucky Barnes and the Howling Commandos) and he keeps Captain America likable and a guy to cheer for; a guy to be thankful for.

So, let’s give it up for Captain America!!!!


By Marc S. Sanders

Chris Hemsworth is the God of Thunder who must learn to grow up if he is to inherit the throne over the land of Asgard from his father Odin (a welcome Anthony Hopkins), and more importantly become worthy of lifting his mighty hammer. Hemsworth is great; full of cocksure assuredness, humor and heroics. Chris Hemsworth makes you believe he’s the only guy who could play Thor.

Thor’s adversary is the God of Mischief, Loki played by one of Marvel’s best actors, Tom Hiddleston. This is a guy who plays so many different levels. If one didn’t know the story of Thor and Loki, I’d argue they might be shocked at some of the turn of events Hiddleston masterfully orchestrates with simple facial expressions and passiveness that progressively switch over to madness, obsession, jealousy, envy and deceit. Hiddleston effectively spins all the plates perfectly.

Natalie Portman plays the love interest carrying the torch of least significance that Liv Tyler and Gwenyth Paltrow held in prior Marvel films. That’s a pattern the Marvel films will begin to improve upon with the next film in line.

Director Kenneth Branagh is the right guy for this movie. Inspired Shakespearean settings and dialogue overlap with modern day America. Branagh brings a nice balance to it, and he also directs his actors well. A great exchange of dialogue and performance occurs midway through between Hiddleston and Hemsworth. Branagh gets good close ups of both actors as the conniving villain manipulates the naive hero. The camera angles move at a slant almost evoking a necessary confusion between what is true and what is a lie. Moments like this allow Thor to be more than just an action film. There are nice opportunities for acting as well, and because of that Hiddleston especially has become quite treasured among loyal fans.

Compliments must also go towards the setting of Asgard. I normally frown on immersive CGI normally. Not here though. Asgard is as regal as anything Peter Jackson offered in his Tolkien films, complete with a striking rainbow bridge and towering structures. I want to tour through that whole land. It’s that spectacular. Characters also work well with the CGI, especially the fire breathing, metallic Destroyer.

Thor is a great introduction to the legendary comics character. The film offers a character arc of change much like what was captured with Tony Stark in the first Iron Man. The character must grow and learn about his identity over the course of the film in order to have legs for future installments. This film accomplishes that feat, and thus Chris Hemsworth has become a box office draw while his most popular character to date has become a screen favorite.

THE ARTIST (2011, France)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A hugely popular silent film idol must adjust to culture shock when “talkies” suddenly invade the movie business.

Is there a movie more in love with the First Golden Age of Hollywood than The Artist?  I can’t think of one.  Sunset Blvd. comes close, but that was a caustic commentary on the heartless tendencies of studio executives to reject the Old and embrace the New.  The Artist covers the same ground, but in a much more comic fashion.

Not to say The Artist pulls its punches.  Not at all.  It tells the story of a silent film idol, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who has a meet-cute with a fan, Peppy (the stunning Bérénice Bejo), outside of a movie theatre.  Long story short, she becomes a bit player in numerous silent films and eventually becomes a superstar when the talkies take over Hollywood.  And George?  He struggles, as so many other silent actors did, to acclimate himself to a brave new world where faces and title cards aren’t enough anymore for an audience who is always looking for something new.

And, oh, yeah, did I mention The Artist is itself a silent film?  Shot in black and white?  Filmed in the old 1:33 aspect ratio?  Yeah.  It’s actually pretty cool.  It takes a little while to get used to seeing modern actors moving their mouths and not hearing their voices, but after a while, my brain acclimated itself to this “new” way of watching a movie.

As I was saying, The Artist doesn’t pull its punches in exposing Hollywood’s appetite for the New (in ways I don’t want to give away here), but it is still far more whimsical and audience-friendly than Sunset Blvd.  I’d compare it more to Singin’ in the Rain, if I had to compare it to anything at all.  But The Artist is a singular achievement, and well worth the Best Picture Academy Award for 2011.

There are two scenes in particular that elevate The Artist. In one, Peppy, who has always adored George from afar, finds herself alone in his dressing room.  She spots one of his jackets hanging on a coat rack and embraces it, imagining his arms inside it.  She then slips one of her own arms into the jacket, and voila!  She has a brief love scene where it really feels like she’s interacting with another person’s arm.  It’s a little hard to describe, but the effect is magical.

The second scene is one of my favorite scenes of all time.  George has just gone to see one of Peppy’s new films, a talkie.  The audience loves it, but he is still resistant to the idea.  He retreats to his dressing room, but something bizarre happens.  Remember, up until now, the movie has been completely silent (except for a musical score).  But this time, when he puts a glass down on a table…it clinks.  He stares.  What the heck was that???  He does it again.  Clink!  What’s going on???  He picks up a comb and drops it.  Thunk!  What the hey?!!  He opens his mouth to yell…but nothing comes out!

It’s a wonderfully comic moment, and a perfect way to demonstrate George’s anxiety at what this new technology will mean for him.

The more I think about The Artist, the more I’m realizing that the only way to properly discuss it is to go almost scene by scene, and I certainly don’t want to go down that road, especially for anyone who may not have seen it.  I mean, there’s the dog, George’s butler, the release date for one of his movies (October 24th, 1929, oh dear), the auction, the fire, and the deliriously happy ending, the kind of ending that tends to only exist in movies.

That’s really all The Artist is.  It’s an efficient engine designed to pull at our heartstrings and deliver a feel-good ending after teasing us with darker possibilities here and there.  The fact that it’s black-and-white and silent is a bonus, especially for film buffs.  It may not be realistic, but when it comes to Hollywood’s Golden Age…I mean, who really cared about realism back then?  (Back then, they didn’t need words, they had faces.)


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The general manager of the Oakland A’s attempts to assemble a winning team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.

On paper, Moneyball should not work as a movie. What have you got?  A feel-good sports story about the 2002 Oakland A’s utilizing the science of statistics to assemble the right combination of players to get them into the playoffs.

I mean, really?  Specifics aside, a Cinderella story about an underdog sports team trying to make it to the big game is one of the oldest, most predictable tropes in film.  Shall I count them off? Major League, The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham, The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, Cool Runnings, Hoosiers…need I go on?

And in Moneyball, we barely even get to see any baseball action itself.  The movie is more concerned with the behind-the-scenes action, beating the trade deadline, shaking up the scouting crew, trying to get the manager to believe in the new system.  We don’t really see any major baseball action until we get close to the finale.

[SPOILER ALERT…unless you’re a HUGE baseball fan, in which case you were already aware of this.]

And let’s talk about that finale, while we’re at it.  The A’s make it to the 2002 ALDS elimination game, and what happens?  They LOSE.  Say what???

So why, oh why, does Moneyball work the way it does?

…no, really, I’m asking.  Because I’m not 100% sure myself.  Let me just tick off my thoughts as they occur to me here.

  1. There’s the screenplay.  Here’s some good advice: when you want to make a movie about a potentially dry subject, get both Steven Zaillian AND Aaron Sorkin to write your script.  The pace of the movie is stately, even sedate, but the dialogue is crisp, clean, and precise, getting to the point as efficiently as possible without being flashy.  In one memorable scene, someone walks up to the General Manager’s office and says just one word: “Peña,” and then walks away.  The GM takes it in, says, “Okay”, and calmly stands and flips his desk over.  The whole thing is over in 15 seconds.  I can imagine another movie wasting a lot of time with extra words or edits, but not “Moneyball.”  (SPARTAN.  That’s the word I’m thinking of.  The dialogue is spartan.)
  2. There’s the editing.  The dialogue is sleek and uncluttered, but there is a lot of information that has to be conveyed to those audience members who may not know what a box score is, or what a DH is, or why Billy Beane (the GM, played by Brad Pitt) doesn’t CARE whether his new first baseman can even field the ball properly, as long as he gets ON BASE when he’s batting.  Rather than use flashy editing to generate false suspense or excitement, the Oscar-nominated editors use more of that spartan vibe, with occasional jumps to real-world film clips of the actual team or individual players.  This is especially helpful when the film’s middle section details the woeful first half of the season under the new statistics-based system.  Again, not flashy, but effective.  Very hard to pull off, and deservedly recognized.
  3. There’s the structure…which I guess points back to both the screenplay and editing, but I’m just saying.  As I said, it’s a classic, well-worn trope.  Good guys get knocked down for the count – the A’s flat-out suck for the first half of the season – but then they suddenly start winning games and crawling back into contention.  As many of these films that I’ve seen, I still found myself unwittingly getting caught up in the spirit of the comeback.  In actual fact, the 2002 season is the one where the real Oakland A’s threatened to break the American League record for longest winning streak.  And it all comes down to one at-bat in the bottom of the ninth.  Because of COURSE it does.
  4. …and that sort of brings up another point.  Is there another sport that has as much innate mythology as baseball?  Sure, football has its share of comeback stories, and so does hockey and everything else.  But with baseball…lemme tell you.  A few years ago when the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of winning their first World Series in a hundred-and-eight years, I watched Game 7, rooting for the Cubs.  For those Cubs fans who watched as well, you’ll recall: that game was unmerciful.  The Cubs blew a three-run lead, they ended nine innings in a 6-6 tie, and then there was a RAIN DELAY before the 10th inning started.  But I will never forget that moment when the Cubs made the final out, and they wound up winning 8-7.  It was glorious.  …well, watching Moneyball, watching that section when the A’s are creeping up to winning twenty games in a row, I found myself grinning and laughing spontaneously, without even realizing I was doing it, and I remembered what it was like to watch the Cubs win.  And a big part of it has to do with that unexplainable psychic connection we have to the game itself, that sense of the romantic when someone clobbers a game-winning homer, or makes a dramatic catch to save a no-hitter, or when a relief pitcher retires the side with bases loaded.  I’m not a true baseball fan, I’ll admit…but I know good drama when it happens.  Moneyball gets that aspect of the game just right.

(I haven’t even mentioned the sterling performances from the principal actors, particularly Jonah Hill, who nabbed an acting nomination for one of the most underplayed characters in history.)

In the end, Moneyball is exactly like the Oakland A’s in the film.  It’s an unlikely combination of talent that generated surprising results and was critically acclaimed, gathering six Oscar nods.  It failed to win a single Oscar…much like the A’s were eventually eliminated from the playoffs in 2002.

But in the end, it’s not the shutout at the Oscars that I remember.  It’s the fact that this is still one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, and definitely one of the top 2 or 3 baseball films I’ve ever seen.