By Marc S. Sanders

Some of the worst atrocities in history have often spawned some of the greatest stories.  I’d expect it would at least leave us feeling melancholy, but I hope it shapes a future that learns from humanity’s worst offenses.  That’s what came to mind as I watched the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian best-selling novel The Hunger Games.

In what was once a supposed North America, the continent is now called Panem and it is divided into twelve districts, with each specializing in some means of living.  Districts 1 and 2 are the upper-class wealthy.  Districts 11 and 12 are the starving destitute.  To maintain a semblance of order, President Snow (a chillingly older Donald Sutherland) oversees the nation’s Annual Hunger Games where a boy and a girl from each district is selected to compete in a dangerous competition of being the last one to outlive their competitors.  May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor!  In the 74th edition, expert hunting archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in her most celebrated role) volunteers herself from District 12 to spare her younger sister from danger and selection.  She is paired up with the District 12 boy, Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson). 

Like any sporting competition, Collins’ story takes time to hype up the event.  The youths are fashioned up in the most glamourous adornments and interviewed for television by Caesar Flickerman portrayed by a delicious, yet unsung Stanley Tucci in bright blue hair and sparkly suits, doing his best Griffin, Carson, Letterman, Leno, and O’Brien.  With every white molar revealed in Tucci’s broad smile, he appears even more sinister in the purpose he serves for the Games, Panem, and President Snow.

Jennifer Lawrence gives a faithful portrayal to the Katniss character found in the pages of Collins’ series of young adult novels.  A new hero has been conceived – the rebel who stands along other well knowns like Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood and Harry Potter.  Katniss is not looking to be a savior but with influence from a prior Hunger Games champion (Woody Harrelson, doing his drunken best) and a calm, but humble fashion designer (Lenny Kravitz) she finds herself elevated towards a promising future.  Katniss Everdeen inherits the moniker known as “The Girl On Fire” with a three finger salute and a somber three note battle cry harmony.

I’ve likened the setting of The Hunger Games to the Holocaust and the early twentieth century European Nazi occupation.  (It seems more apparent in the next film, Catching Fire.)  If I had to compare the real-life period to this fictional one, then they are not anywhere close.  Yet, Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross’ film depict hardship and oppression from a ruling upper class gleefully using their young for savage sport entertainment, while being forced to dwell in concentration camps with no permission to escape or run free, lest they suffer terrible punishments for themselves or those they care most about.

The Hunger Games values the themes of sacrifice while some characters inadvertently become heroes for a people against a domineering force.  It’s fantasy.  It’s adventurous.  It’s sprinkled with romanticism for Katniss and the triangle she’s pitted within for her care of Peeta but also her loving affections for another District 12 resident named Gale (Liam Hemsworth).   Frankly, the romance angle is a little weak in the films and books.  Ultimately though, it is harsh for the young characters in the story, which is why my wife refuses to invest her time.  I empathize with her position.  However, I find the story inspiring.  It’s also a hell of a thriller.

As a film, Gary Ross assembled a strong and alive production of gaudy, bright colors within the capital against morose grays found in District 12.  The clash of the two settings is no more apparent than when squeaky Effie Trinkett in her garishly loud facial makeup and wardrobes arrives in District 12 to host the Reaping, also known as the selection of the child contestants.  So many actors in this cast are memorable.  An unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks is no exception.  As Effie, her personality that publicly represents a hesitant Katniss and Peeta is deliberately inappropriate and further demonstrates how demonically twisted the mentality of The Hunger Games truly is. 

When it is time to finally arrive at the manufactured arena where the contestants will do battle to the death, Gary Ross effectively incorporates the inventive surprises offered by Collins’ source material.  Some competitors are brutal in their combative skills, but environmentally speaking the forest like jungle is dangerous as well.  Especially notable is a hive of stinging tracker jackers that’ll leave the viewers shaken. 

Suzanne Collins’ first installment of her series persists in leaving its ending completely questionable.  Will all these children, some of them who are noble and good, actually die?  Could a good soul like Katniss follow through with what the Games demand of her like killing Peeta for example?  I appreciate the imagination that went into the ending, leaving a subsequent tale to be told beyond this film.  

My one complaint is common in action films.  Gary Ross does really well with the edits and filming of his movie.  However, one of the last scenes develops into a hand-to-hand combat moment taking place in darkness with very shaky camera work and uneven grunts, punches, and kicks.  I abhor when filmmakers go this route.  It’s lazy work.  I can’t tell who is hitting who or where.  I’m just supposed to accept the final struggle that the hero is having with the bad guy and feel a sense of urgency and suspense as they supposedly cast a harsh blow to their enemy and fall over. I might as well close my eyes during moments like this because it’s all just blurry streaks in midnight blackness with sound editing filtered into the sequence.  This tiring approach happens so often in movies, and it becomes a let down for me time and again.   I love a well-made, thought-provoking thriller but the filmmaker hacks it all up near the end and it looks like he’s got to meet a deadline for the final print to get out to the theaters.

There’s much to discuss and think about in The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins’ idea stemmed from how television viewers soaked up the drama found in reality tv shows like Survivor and Big Brother.  It’s not so much the fate of the contestants that we care about, but how do they serve the producer’s crafted storylines.  Even American Idol steers the drama of the kids who get their shot at Hollywood fame.  The Super Bowl will position a star player like Tom Brady as a focus with questions of whether this is his final season, and how the championship games affect his marriage and family.  Does he get along with his coach?  None of this has anything to do with the points on the board.  Is all of this about the games, or is it about those tasked with playing the games, and for whose benefit of control, wealth, and power?  In this fantasy film, do the people of Panem cry at the drama spurned from the horrifying death of a child they got to know from Caesar’s colorful interviews, or are they in despair at the loss of another young life?  Whether it is real or fictional, is the drama of these gladiator games and competitions focused in the right direction?

The cast and production team under Gary Ross have put together an effective dystopian and bleak future reliant upon what the world focuses on more than anything beyond who they truly love or what they stand for.  The Hunger Games might seem inconceivable, but it is frighteningly relatable. 

THE IMPOSSIBLE (Spain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The story of a tourist family in Thailand caught in the destruction and chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Impossible, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), is one of the best true-to-life survivor stories I’ve seen since Touching the Void.  No doubt some liberties were taken here and there at the screenplay level, as always happens with movie adaptations, but while the film played out, the story was as gripping as any book by John Krakauer.

It’s 2004, and the Bennett family is on Christmas vacation in Thailand, at a beautiful beachside resort that has only been open for a week.  (In a nice little detail, we see that the protective plastic film has not yet been removed from their light switch panels.)  Henry (McGregor) and Maria (Watts) enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas day with their three sons, Thomas, Simon, and Lucas (Tom Holland in his cinematic debut, already doing cartwheels and backflips on the beach).  On the morning of December 26th, an unthinkable catastrophe occurs when a tsunami, triggered by a massive seaquake offshore, slams into the beach.  The visual effects during this sequence are as convincing and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen.  As the wave sweeps over everything in its path, the Bennett family is separated.  Maria and her son Lucas manage to find each other in the immediate aftermath, but there is no sign of Henry and her other two sons.

What follows is a story that gives new meaning to the words “hopeless” and “hope.”  While the outcome is somewhat predictable – SOMEONE survived to tell this story, after all – the filmmakers have managed to put together a film that generates suspense and cheers despite what we may or may not know about this family.  There are scenes of people missing each other in hospital hallways by seconds.  In a lesser film, it might have been comic.  In THIS movie, those scenes generated groans of empathetic frustration from the audience (that is, me).  By that time, we had followed various Bennett family members through many highs and lows, and I desperately wanted the right people to be found at the right time.  It was unexpectedly effective.

That sentiment applies to the movie as a whole, not just that one scene.  I have seen so many disaster movies that I was primed to expect certain cliches and tropes, even though this movie was highly rated and recommended when it came out.  To be fair, this movie does indulge in those tropes.  I mean, by nature, it HAS to.  The difference with The Impossible is that these stereotypical events and scenes all felt way more real than expected.  Credit to the screenwriter and director for molding these cliches into something more compelling than yet another reworking of The Day After Tomorrow.  When the finale of The Impossible arrives, it feels uplifting and inspirational instead of hackneyed and obvious.  It’s a neat little magic trick that I wish I could explain better.

An interesting self-reflective thought occurred to me during this movie.  There is a scene where Henry, the father, is huddled with a group of English-speaking survivors in a bus station.  Someone offers Henry his cellphone, even though he is trying to save his battery in case his own family tries to reach him.  Henry reaches someone in England, but because he still cannot find his wife, he breaks down and hands the phone back to the stranger.  The stranger looks at Henry, looks at his phone, and hands it back to Henry: “You can’t leave it like that.  Call him back.”

My entire life, my favorite sub-genre of science fiction has been anything dealing with an apocalypse or set in a post-apocalyptic future, like The Matrix or World War Z or the superlative HBO series The Last of Us.  One of the things many of the movies in that genre have in common is the inherent tendency for humans to turn on each other or behave selfishly when the chips are down.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Somebody finds water in the desert, and instead of helping mankind, they sell it to the highest bidder.  Or someone discovers that the invading aliens will give them preferential treatment if they help round up more humans themselves.  That kind of thing.

Well, here is The Impossible, based on a true story, and here is a man who desperately needs to save the battery power on his cellphone, but whose compassion will not allow him to let Henry’s short conversation go unfinished.  “You can’t leave it like that.”

I have no way of knowing if this moment really happened or if it was manufactured.  All I can report is that scene, in a movie full of hard-hitting emotional beats, is probably my favorite scene.  Here is an apocalyptic situation in the truest sense of the word.  Here is a person who could have been justifiably selfish, but his empathy won’t allow him to turn his back on someone who is suffering.  It even got me wondering: would I do the same?

If this scene was taken from real life, then maybe all those post-apocalyptic movies got it wrong.  Maybe, when the chips are down, people are inherently good.  Is it possible?  I’d like to think so.  I’d like to think I’d do the same.

Long story short: The Impossible takes you on an unforgettable ride made even more remarkable due to it being based on a true story.  It’s full of great performances and astonishing visuals, but you may never want to stay at a beach resort again…

P.S.  According to the real-life woman played by Naomi Watts, the biggest “lie” in the movie was the color of the ball her children were playing with just before the tsunami struck…it was yellow, not red.  Do with that information what you will.

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Great Britain, 2012)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh
CAST: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.

I wanted to like Seven Psychopaths more than I ultimately did, but it is still a fun, mostly unpredictable ride.  My biggest hangup was that it felt too similar, in broad strokes, to other “meta” movies.  To other BETTER movies, unfortunately.  I always try to review the movie in front of me instead of comparing it to other films, but in this case that guideline proved impossible.  But I did try.

The story involves Martin (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles; Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), his best friend who also runs a dog-napping racket with HIS friend, Hans (Christopher Walken); and Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a dog-loving gangster whose favorite pet is a Shih Tzu named Bonny…whom, as it happens, the dog-nappers have stolen.  We get an idea of just how much Charlie loves his dog during a scene where he interrogates the dog-walker who lost her.  When a man is willing to shoot someone over a dog, I’d be the first in line to give it back, but Billy has other plans.

See, his friend Martin is trying to write a screenplay.  He’s under a deadline, but all he has so far is the title: Seven Psychopaths.  He doesn’t even know who all the psychopaths are yet.  So, Billy tells him a couple of stories about psychopaths that he’s heard about here and there, and the characters slowly start to take shape.  Meanwhile, Hans makes periodic visits to his cancer-stricken wife at the hospital.  Also, a serial killer is on the loose, but he only kills mafia and yakuza hitmen.  ALSO also, Billy puts an ad in the paper advertising for psychopaths to reach out to him and Martin so their stories can be used in Martin’s screenplay.  That’s how they wind up meeting Zachariah (Tom Waits), an odd little man who carries a rabbit wherever he goes and spins a tale of how he and HIS wife would hunt…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As you see, there’s a lot of story going on.  And, as I mentioned before, most of it is unpredictable.  The concept of a killer who only targets hitmen is unique, at least in my mind.  But when the story focused on Martin’s screenplay and how it was being put together, that’s when I started having cinematic déjà vu.

Example: Martin isn’t sure how he wants it to end.  He’s a pacifist, so he doesn’t want it to end in a cliched shootout.  Billy spins a tale of how HE would end the film, with a bullet-ridden, blood-soaked shootout in a cemetery, featuring the return of Martin’s ex-girlfriend for no reason and a supporting cast of all seven of the psychopaths reuniting, also for no reason.  At that moment, I instinctively thought, “Well, clearly this movie is going to end in a shootout.” And it does. Sort of.

Martin hears Billy out and disagrees.  “They should all just go to the desert and talk their issues out instead of shooting each other.”  Again, I realized, “Okay, so they’re going to wind up in the desert.” And they do.

And so it went, over and over again.  A character would pitch an idea for Martin’s screenplay, and later in the film that idea would suddenly be manifested.  Martin gets criticized because his screenplay doesn’t feature enough women and doesn’t give them anything meaningful to do or say…in the middle of a movie where the women don’t do or say anything meaningful.

Don’t get me wrong, I like meta movies.  But despite the dark comedy and the typical awesomeness of Chris Walken and the other elements that weren’t so predictable (the reason behind Hans’ cravat, for example), I just couldn’t shake the feeling of “it’s all been done before, and better.”  I’m thinking specifically of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (no screenwriter, but same vibe) and Adaptation, a movie where the lines between reality and the screenplay get so blurred as to be non-existent.  Seven Psychopaths feels like it’s trying to get to that level, but it never quite gets there.  On that level, it’s not quite a success.

However, I will say it’s worth a watch for any movie fans.  There are enough satirical elements that make it worthwhile.  (“But his rabbit gets away, though, because you can’t let animals die in a movie…just the women.”)  Walken’s performance is, as always, the stuff of legend, even in a smaller role like this one.  Late in the movie, he has a marvelous scene between himself and a button man with a shotgun.  If that vignette is not mentioned during the tribute video when he eventually passes away, I would be extremely disappointed.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sometimes the same old thing is all we want, right?  It’s like comfort food.  That’s what the Jason Bourne films offer.  The first time (The Bourne Identity) it is original.  The second time (The Bourne Supremacy) it is familiar.  The third time (The Bourne Ultimatum) it is what we expect.  When you get to the fourth and fifth time (The Bourne Legacy and Jason Bourne), well then perhaps you’ve overstayed your welcome.

The second and third films in the Matt Damon action series function as one long four-hour film.  They are absolutely gripping in high octane, fast cut editing, pulse pounding music from James Newton Howard, and taut direction from Paul Greengrass.  They work because at least two thirds of the material is shown through the eyes of the former assassin Jason Bourne who is trying to learn of his past and who he worked for and why.  Plus, though he may hide deep undercover on the other side of the world in places like populated India, he only resurfaces when he discovers someone is trying to kill him.

The other third of these two pictures function on the other side of the coin with clandestine departments within the CIA who only consider Bourne being alive as a threat to the integrity of their black operations.  He must be eliminated.  There are great acting scenes with Joan Allen first up against an intimidating Brian Cox, and later she’s going toe to toe with David Strathairn.  If you are not part of the chase for Bourne, then you are engrossed in the cause these three supporting players offer with government politics and debate.  With each passing film, it’s an old, grey haired white gentleman in a suit who is insistent on eliminating Bourne and anyone who he associates with.  This started with Chris Cooper in the first film followed by Brian Cox (my favorite) over to David Strathairn.  The baton is then passed to Albert Finney.  A new film moves over to Edward Norton and then Tommy Lee Jones.  Scott Glenn and Stacy Keach are in the recipe too, but they are not as prominent.  All these guys start to look alike and when you watch the films in succession, one after the other, like I recently did, you start to question when this actor and this actor entered the fold.  Best way to describe it is that it is a ladder climb.  There was one guy in charge, then another above him and so on.

The appreciation for the Bourne series comes mostly from its action and the absolute cleverness of its hero.  Jason Bourne functions with ease about staying one step ahead of those trying to kill him.  They think they have a lead on him, but in reality, he has the lead on them.  Do you know how satisfying it is when he calls these people to talk to them and they play dumb? Jason will simply say “If you were in your office right now, then we would be having this conversation face to face.”  Moments like this are what gets an audience to clap and cheer.  The old white guy has been duped.

The action works because, once again I lay claim to the lack of CGI.  So, the overabundance of car chases seems nerve wracking like they are supposed to.  That door on that car is actually getting bashed in.  That taxi cab is really getting t-boned and turning into a 360 tailspin.  Jason can grab a seatbelt, lie down on his side and when the car careens over the barrier onto the landing fifty below, upside down, I’ll believe he gets out with only just a slight limp and a dribble of blood on his brow.  Only Jason Bourne can drag a wrecked rear bumper on a stolen police car through a busy Times Square and bash an SUV into a concrete barrier.

Fight scenes are not just fight scenes in the Bourne films.  It’s not just fists and punches and karate kicks.  Creatively speaking, the films construct their fight scenes to have the hero arm himself with a ball point pen or a magazine that’s wrapped up ready to wallop an opponent in the nose.  I’ll never forget when my colleague Miguel and I saw Ultimatum in the theatres and witnessed Jason punching a book into the face of a dangerous bad guy.  How many times have you seen a guy get punched in the face?  How many times have a seen a guy punch a book into the face of another guy?  There’s a difference. 

Matt Damon has been quoted as saying he believes the Bourne films carried the least amount of dialogue for him to memorize.  Yeah.  That’s likely true.  These films are visual feasts.  They rely on watching Damon move.  They are paced by how he walks, drives a car or tinkers with props.  Even how he listens and observes move with a kinetic progress. 

The locales are spectacular, spanning the globe from India, to Russia, to London, to Morocco, to the Philippines, and on to New York City and Las Vegas.  Following the first film, Paul Greengrass directed three of the next four.  (Writer Tony Gilroy directed the fourth film, The Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner taking the lead while Damon’s character was only talked about.) Each film takes every advantage of the atmosphere, using the overpopulated extras as obstacles and means to hide and weave away from the antogonists while on foot, behind a steering wheel or saddled upon a motorcycle.  Greengrass practically invents the concept of putting the viewer so much within the environment, you can almost smell the diesel or the food trucks within the area.  Zoom in overhead shots offer quick glances of the playground and traffic we are engrossed in.  Approximately twenty-five minutes within the center of The Bourne Ultimatum go by with no dialogue as Jason Bourne pursues a bad guy through a labyrinth of apartment tenements and rooftops, while the bad guy pursues actor Julia Stiles.  Finally, when all three catch up to one another, with a leap through a window, do you let out the deep breath you never realized you were holding on to. 

The first three films in the series (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum) work as a tight trilogy.  Each film ends with hanging threads to consider and lend to the next film.  By the time Ultimatum concludes, you feel as if all that needed to be told has been covered.  The next two (Legacy and Jason Bourne) function as cash grabs for the studio.  Legacy is entertaining and it boasts a good cast with Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz trying to outrun the government adversaries.  It hinges on operating as parallel material that occurs in the prior Damon installment.  While Jason Bourne is being pursued, this is happening over here.  It’s not unwatchable, but it is also truly unnecessary as it doesn’t advance the universe of the series at all.  A thrilling motorcycle chase closes out the film, but it’s a retread of what we’ve seen before.  It gets old quickly.  The film demonstrates that guys like Jason are trained to become dependent on drug enhancements for their highly trained arts of warfare and instinct.  Renner’s character is just another kind of Jason Bourne.  I was more impressed when I thought Jason was just a highly skilled fast learner to all that he’s capable of.  If you tell me blue and green pills lend to what he’s capable of, well then, he’s not much of a superhero in my eyes anymore.

With the final film, Jason Bourne, Greengrass returned to the director’s chair and Damon agreed to come back (paycheck had to be right, I’m sure), though he was significantly greyer and older than his prior films.  It was a weak return.  Just when we think Bourne has learned everything he needed to know and he could now live comfortably underground as a street brawler for bucks, he is informed that his deceased father knew and did some things for these secret agencies that put Jason on this path of special operations.  It doesn’t hold much weight and the payoff is nothing special.  Another car chase occurs in Vegas that appears nearly shot for shot similar to what we already saw in Damon’s prior installments. 

I wrote in an earlier review of The Bourne Identity, that Matt Damon works so well in the role because he’s such an unexpected surprise.  He’s not the muscle guy like Stallone or Schwarzenegger.  He comes off common.  In the first three films, he’s simply a kid.  When you place him in action or see how he gets the drop on a bad guy who is surveilling him, it is so satisfying.  The Bourne films work best with the locales they choose to shoot from.  Bourne will spy on his pursuers from a rooftop building across the street from where they are.  This is inventive filmmaking not just found in the pages of the script.  Paul Greengrass strategically shoots his players.  Director Doug Liman planted the seeds for this series’ potential (The Bourne Identity), very loosely based on the Robert Ludlum novels with creative adaptations from Tony Gilroy, primarily.   Greengrass enhanced the characters and their motivations by use of scenic locales, skillful shaky cameras to make it look like the audience is running at the same pace of Bourne and his adversaries, and quick cut, real time editing.  He applied this approach to his 9/11 film United 93.  The last two films are good even if they seemingly peter out the series, but overall, the four sequels hold up very well. 

If you’re asking, the best of the series is The Bourne Ultimatum, followed very closely by The Bourne Supremacy.  Either way, no matter which film you’re watching, you’re in for a good time when Jason Bourne shows up on the grid.


By Marc S. Sanders

Walt Disney Studios is the granddaddy of animation. No one questions that. Yet when I watch a film like Wreck-It Ralph, I am enthralled at not just the imagination of story or the eye-popping visuals, but most importantly the made-up science the film’s video game characters interact with.

There are rules in play. All arcade game personalities can schmooze with each other after hours. Cross each other’s paths at “Cross Central Station” where a Pac Man cherry is offered up to a homeless Q-Bert, and even attend a Bad Guys Anonymous Group, moderated by the orange ghost Clyde (infamous rival of Pac Man). That last bit is one of my favorite parts of the movie. So inspired to have a Satan character console a dejected hulking, overalls wearing Ralph, aka Wreck-It Ralph. He’s the villain in the arcade game known as Fix-It Felix.

One rule to watch out for though, if you die in an arcade game you normally don’t inhabit, you can die permanently. When our title character gets overanxious, that’s a threat to not only himself but other important characters like Fix It Felix Jr (Ralph’s adversary), Calhoun (a first person shoot ’em up military woman) and Ralph’s inadvertent best pal Vanelloppe (the unfortunate glitch of a candy land racing game called Sugar Rush).

The jokes are great. The vocal cast of John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBryer, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk is perfectly assorted, as if the script was written specifically with these performers in mind.

There’s a lesson to be learned, because this is a Disney movie after all. It’s a pretty good lesson in knowing to love everything about yourself, glitches and all. Thankfully, the film does not patronize and melodramatically bash it over your head.

I love the arcade 80s relatability of the games and the settings of games like Fix It Felix, Heroes Duty, and especially Sugar Rush, looking as if ideas from Willy Wonka were swiped and polished to bring chocolate mud puddles, peppermint stick trees, Nesquik quicksand, and stalactites made of Mentos that drop into a lava like pit of diet cola that molten upon impact.

Soon after Ralph almost broke the arcade, he breaks the internet in a subsequent adventure, and that’s as endlessly hilarious and fun as his feature film debut.


By Marc S. Sanders

What did I just watch? A mob movie, or a 2008 Presidential debate where the candidates are no shows, and their respective commercials are aired in their place? Andrew Dominik directs Killing Them Softly, with Brad Pitt who also produces.

Reader, I don’t get the appeal. Maybe it’s the outstanding cast which includes Pitt, as well as James Gandolfini, Ben Mehndelson, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy and Ray Liotta. Sadly, these guys are given next to nothing do of any consequence.

After it is revealed that Liotta’s character, Marky, ripped off his own mob poker game a few years back, an idea is presented to two street addicts played McNairy & Mendehelson to do the same thing because, heck, they’d never be suspected and logic dictates that Liotta must have done it again. So, he’ll be the one to blame and get whacked. The game is robbed and now Brad Pitt’s hitman character is on the job. Simple enough story, almost like a Guy Ritchie picture.

Killing Them Softly is an adaptation of a 1974 novel by George V Higgins. I never read the book, but I’m curious if it contains any kind of relation to Andrew Dominik’s idea of editing recurring speeches and ads, compliments of Obama, McCain and Bush 45. Truly, what was the point of this recurring theme? A two-sentence piece of dialogue finally acknowledges this in the final minute of the film, but I’m still lost on the significance. Somehow Dominik made a dirty, cold, rain-soaked picture that has an omnipotent viewpoint from our most prominent politicians, and I don’t know what one thing has to do with another.

As well, Gandolfini arrives in the story and I never could gather what was his purpose. I think he is a hitman who is washed up, never getting his ass up to carry out the job and just monologues about nothing like the hooker he pays off; topics that Quentin Tarantino might’ve thrown in the editing trash bin.

Mendelsohn looks incredibly convincing as an addict living off the streets, yet his storyline has no end. He’s arrested. Then what happens? What does that mean for everyone else? Liotta has a long drawn out sequence of getting the shit kicked out of him by two mob foot soldiers. The scene goes on and on and on. His face cracks and bleeds, and bleeds some more. Brad Pitt? Well, he’s the hitman who just looks cool. Yeah, the black leather jacket he wears looks very cool on him. That’s about it.

There’s no development to Killing Them Softly. No surprise or twist. The guys you expect to get killed, get killed, and there’s no good dialogue.

This film is just an empty void of poorly, uninteresting violence.


By Marc S. Sanders

Roles for the “aging has been” who is either about to retire or refuses to retire seem reserved these days to Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood.

Back in 2012, Eastwood gave up his director’s chair to star in a little known film about an aging baseball scout in Trouble With The Curve. I’ve seen him play this kind of role many times before like In The Line Of Fire, or Grand Torino.

There’s nothing memorable about Trouble With The Curve, but it does feature some good scenes between Eastwood and Amy Adams as his tough as nails attorney/estranged daughter who forces herself upon his scouting trip to look after him when it seems his health, particularly his vision, is deteriorating. Adams is good as the underestimated baseball expert. She can recognize a 95 mph pitch and she can triumph over you in reciting RBI stats, batting averages, etc. Give her a bat and she can also cream a ball outta the park.

Justin Timberlake is the necessary pretty boy romantic interest for Adams, but he doesn’t offer much to the film in the way of humor or even sex appeal. This guy is a great actor beyond his music. (See The Social Network)

The movie belongs to Eastwood alone.

First time director and regular Eastwood crewman, Robert Lorenz does well with the baseball footage of young prospects and the end is satisfying as the argument weighs whether experience and instinct can still trump the power of technology.

Has baseball truly come to rely on what a computer says is the best first round draft pick? Wow…how sad.

BLANCANIEVES (2012, Spain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pablo Berger
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Maribel Verdú, Macarena García
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A re-telling of the classic Snow White, Blancanieves is a beautiful homage to the black-and-white Golden Age of European silent cinema, set in a romanticized 1920s Seville.

If you are one of the 3 or 4 people in the world who have ever wondered what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro collaborated on a black-and-white silent film, your prayers have been answered.  Blancanieves is a beautiful anachronism, a black-and-white silent film created as a tribute to the silent films of nearly 100 years ago that gave birth to the motion picture industry as we know it.  The filmmakers have remixed the classic Snow White fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm into a movie that puts all the recent Disney remakes to shame.  THIS is how you pay tribute to your predecessors.

The updated story takes place in Seville during the 1910s through the 1920s.  Antonio, a famous bullfighter, is gored in the ring and paralyzed.  Traumatized by her husband’s injuries, his pregnant wife goes into premature labor and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Carmencita.  Antonio remarries to a scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdú, whom you may recognize from Y tu mama tambien or Pan’s Labyrinth).  Encarna, who gives gold diggers a bad name, manages to keep Antonio from ever seeing his daughter, who is raised by her grandmother.  But true to Brothers Grimm fashion, Carmencita (and her pet rooster, Pepe) eventually must come to live with her father and her evil stepmother, whose idea of caring for her paralyzed husband is to leave his chair in a sunny spot of the house while she indulges in a little S&M with the chauffeur.  Why didn’t we see THAT in the Disney version?!

If you know the story of Snow White, you know what happens next.  The insane jealousy, the trip into the forest, the attempted murder, her discovery by a group of little men (only six this time, and they’re bullfighter/clowns).  But everything is turned on its head slightly.  For example, she loses her memory, even forgetting her own name.  She remembers the steps to bullfighting, but she doesn’t know why.

We even get a scene with the infamous apple and the “Sleeping Death,” although the resolution to Blancanieves’s predicament is not quite what I was expecting.  It will take you by surprise, too.  I guarantee it.

This was such a charming movie to watch.  It was full of the kind of shots and edits that are typical of silent films of the ‘20s.  I won’t catalog them all here, but their usage really put me into the “vibe” of that bygone era.  I especially liked the liberal use of double-exposure shots to reinforce a state of mind, or to remind the audience of a piece of “dialogue.”  Or, most effectively, when Antonio reminisces about his dead wife.

And the actress who plays the adult Carmencita, aka Blancanieves, is one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a while.  For the record.  Films are heavily reliant on faces, silent films even more so.  They found the perfect face for this character.  A true beauty.

There were some nice quirks, too, that reminded me of Terry Gilliam more than anything or anyone else.  Among the six dwarves is one named Josefa.  Josefa is either a really ugly woman or a really bad drag queen.  In miniature.  Her name is mentioned, and that’s it.  No explanation given for her appearance.  We move on.

A word of warning: you know those stories you hear about how the Grimm fairy tales have been “cleaned up” or edited over the years either to remove the more gruesome elements or to tack on happy endings for kids?  Yeah.  Keep that in mind.  That’s all I’ll say.

I used to tell people that, if they’ve never seen a silent film before, The Artist (2011) is the place to start.  Having seen Blancanieves, I think I have to update my statement.  The Artist is a great deconstruction of the art of silent films, but it would be even better to start with a great example of the medium itself.  Sure, there’s always Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton, but for someone who has historically shunned silent films, Blancanieves is an even better entry point.  It’s a little harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.

AMOUR (2012, Austria)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Georges and Anne have known a lifetime of love within their intimate marriage. Though their bond has survived the test of time, it’s about to meet its greatest challenge.

I’ve only seen three films by famed German director Michael Haneke.  The first was Caché (2005), which some may consider maddening, but which I think is a masterpiece of open-ended storytelling designed specifically to provoke arguments at the nearest Starbucks after the movie is over.  The second was The White Ribbon (2009), a pre-World War I fable about what happens when children give in to their tribal appetites.  I thought it was well made but a little too sedate, but it also won an unheard-of FOUR awards at Cannes that year, so what do I know.  (One day I’ll watch Funny Games [1997], but today is not that day.  Tomorrow is not looking good, either.)

Last night, I finished watching Amour, Haneke’s 2012 film that won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars that year, and the Golden Palm at Cannes.  After seeing three of his films, the one thing I can say about Haneke as a director is that he is apparently a perfectionist, who edits and composes shots as well as Kubrick, and that his subject matter is all over the place…also like Kubrick.  He also does not shy away from shocking the audience by lulling them into a kind of complacency before presenting them with a moment of violence or revelation.  Like Hitchcock, he plays the audience like a grand piano.

Amour tells the story of an octogenarian couple, Georges and Anne, still very much in love with each other.  They are retired music teachers living a quiet life of piano concerts, meals at the kitchen table, and reading the newspaper.  Georges might be a little more straightforward or curt than Anne, but they clearly know each other’s rhythms.  The style of the film clearly indicates their routines with a brilliant economy of editing and camerawork, not to mention the subtle performances from the two main actors.

One day, something happens at the breakfast table.  Anne and Georges are having a conversation over a boiled egg when Anne simply stops and stares into space.  Unable to get a response, even after dabbing a wet towel on her face, Georges prepares to fetch the doctor.  Suddenly Anne snaps out of her trance and wonders where Georges is going.  When he tries to explain what’s happened, she gets confused and angry with him for torturing her.  But when she tries to pour herself a cup of coffee, the coffee goes everywhere except in the cup, and suddenly her right hand seems to be trembling…

At this point, in years past, I would have probably turned this movie off, or returned it to Blockbuster without finishing it.  I can hear my inner monologue now: “Why do I need to watch an ultra-depressing movie about someone who’s dying?  I mean, I can hope that it has a life-affirming message at the end like Philadelphia or Angels in America, but this is a foreign film that won awards at the Oscars AND at Cannes, so chances are it’s going to end on a down note.  Who needs it, am I right?”

Well, Amour may not have the kind of crowd-pleasing finale one might hope for, but it is nevertheless engrossing, quietly devastating, and even a little terrifying.

…you can’t see it, but I’m very frustrated right now.  I’m trying to figure out how to write the rest of this column and it’s eluding me.

With a movie like this, an analysis of its technical prowess seems irrelevant.  I learn from the extras on the Blu ray that the couple’s apartment was constructed entirely on a set with a big green-screen backdrop.  Haneke wrote the script with his parents’ apartment in mind, so it seemed appropriate to just recreate it on a soundstage.  How does this contribute to the story?  I honestly don’t know.  I would imagine it enabled the filmmakers to control every aspect of lighting so that anything involving scenery through the windows felt as if it was real.  So I guess there’s that.

My problem is that this movie is intended very specifically to make you empathize with the characters.  It does this job very well.  It was a pleasure to watch a great film with great characters in the hands of a great director.  But if I’m going to talk about how the movie made me feel…I guess I must be honest and say it didn’t exactly make me feel good.  It didn’t make me feel bad, exactly, just really, really sad.

There is a kind of sadness I can feel at certain kinds of films (The Remains of the Day and Requiem for a Dream come to mind) where the endings are so mind-blowingly sad, and so unexpected, there is a kind of emotional exhilaration that accompanies the sadness.  I am so wrapped up in the story I have left real life behind, but after the movie is over, I am back in the real world, and I am stoked to tell someone about how great the movie is, despite its dark material.

With Amour, though, when the end of the film arrives, and I’m back in the real world…I still felt like I was in the movie.  Because, in a way, the movie is about me.  About all of us.  One day, I will (finally) grow old and eventually die.  Watching the scenes where Georges stares into Anne’s eyes as her body functions waste away and he reluctantly hires a nurse who is stronger than he is because Anne has lost the use of her right side and must be carried out of the wheelchair to be bathed?  Listening to the conversation when Anne says point blank that she sees no point in going on living if she’s going to be such a burden?  Watching Anne’s face when the nurse turns her in her bed to demonstrate to Georges how to put on her diaper?

Watching these scenes, I wondered how I would feel myself if I were to succumb to something similar.  I tell myself I would want to live.  There’s a line in Full Metal Jacket: “The dead know only one thing.  It is better to be alive.”  But what if I got as sick as Anne does?  What if I lost the power of speech?  What if I lost the ability to type with both hands, as I’m doing right now?

I’m not even sure that is the point of the movie, to make me reflect on my own mortality.  It’s said that Haneke made this movie to honor his aunt who suffered a degenerative disease as Anne does.  The title of the movie is Amour, so maybe I should be writing about the great love between Georges and Anne.  But whenever I think about that aspect of the film, I fall back into thinking about myself again.  It’s a vicious cycle, and I’m not sure how to break it.

I’m making this movie sound depressing to the nth degree.  I suppose it is, by default, but it is still definitely worth your while to watch.  It is so well made and so thought-provoking.  It deserves to be seen and discussed, ideally with someone you love.  I don’t agree with every decision made by the characters in this film.  But I understand why they were made, so I do not judge them.  One day, I will get old, and I will think back to this movie and say to myself, “Now I really know how they feel.”

P.S.  The only reason I don’t rate this movie 10/10 is because there’s a brief prologue involving an empty apartment and a bedroom with a single occupant that, to me, telegraphed a key moment that I saw coming a mile away as the scene unfolded.  But that’s just me.


By Marc S. Sanders

Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes with Marvel’s The Avengers. This is a real treat and a feast for the eyes. It’s not my favorite of all the Marvel films because it gets a little too Saturday morning cartoon like at times, but it’s enjoyable to watch for good escapist popcorn fun.

Movie goers were salivating for the year 2012 to arrive which would finally assemble Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk on screen. Thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon that wish had finally come true and Whedon does not try to reinvent the wheel. When you assemble a team of heroes, you pit them against a large army and watch every variation imaginable of how the Hulk can smash, or what Iron Man’s armored suit can launch.

By now, you all know how I feel about the actors portraying their respective roles. Best to just say the chemistry works among them. They find reasons to squabble and Whedon provides moments for them to use their given talents against one another. So you get to see what happens when Thor smashes his hammer against Cap’s shield.

The actor who finally gets his moment in the sun is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the orchestrator behind this team up. Jackson is more subdued than his other well known characters from the Tarentino films or Snakes On A (Mother effing) Plane. He does get to say “stupid ass idea” at one point and there’s the Samuel L. Jackson we all know and love! In comics, the Nick Fury character was reinvented before any of the films to harbor the appearance of Jackson. This film proves why the writers went that route. He’s great. He’s fun to watch. He makes for a great leader of the secret agency SHIELD. In tow with him is Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, a welcome cameo guy before this film, Gregg gets in a few scenes that show his endearment, and offer some dramatic weight as well. The guy could be waiting on hold while Black Widow takes out a couple of thugs, and you are cracking up at Gregg as Coulson, not necessarily Black Widow. He’s so likable that well…heck…he should get his own Marvel TV show….wait….nevermind….I digress.

Again, however, the women of the MCU are not drawn well for the screen. Scarlett Johansson makes her second appearance as Black Widow. She’s got a great, funny early fight scene while tied to a chair in a sleek black dress, but that’s all for show. She hints at a checkered past but this film does not offer much to expound on that. I understand. There’s a lot going on here. So there’s not much here for her to do. It’s time she got a film of her own, however. I’ll sign the petition. Wait! Nevermind! Colbie Smolders is a waste as Agent Maria Hill. She is nowhere convincing as a bad ass agent. Her line delivery seems forced. Her role seems unnecessary. Her scenes should have been on the deleted floor. It would have allowed more time for Johannson to play up her character. How is Maria Hill different from Black Widow in this film, anyway? She’s not. Therefore, cut out Maria Hill.

Jeremy Renner is given nothing to do but shoot arrows as Hawkeye, and work against the Avengers while under a spell from Loki.

Speaking of Loki, the great Tom Hiddleston is back. Hiddleston just elevates the Marvel films to more than just a comic book movie. His glee as the God of Mischief is different than say any version of the Joker’s. Pay attention Syndrome (from The Incredibles)!!! When Hiddleston monologues, you want to listen, unless you are the Hulk.

Whedon does an awesome job with the action scenes as he gradually destroys an aircraft carrier when chaos takes hold among the various heroes, and then later he destroys New York City in a fun amusement park like battle through the streets, subways and skyscrapers. It’s a little reminiscent of Richard Donner’s (or Richard Lester’s) Superman II, and Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. It’s fun to watch the Hulk run through a building only to come out the other side and leap upon the head of a gigantic, flying centipede to bring it down on to the top of a building. Who cares how this all gets cleaned up? The greatest city in the world always figures out a way.

Whedon sealed the pop culture significance of superheroes in the early 21st Century. He’s done what guys like Michael Bay beg to do with other toy/comic book franchises. Marvel’s The Avengers stands out as an important impact in cinematic filmmaking. It’s not best picture worthy, but it is nonetheless important to how blockbuster films are conceived and created. Sadly, some people still don’t get it right, all these years later.