BOY AND THE WORLD (Brazil, 2013)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Vinicius Garcia, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A little boy goes on an adventurous quest in search of his father.

Filmmaker Brad Bird, the mind behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, once said something that occurred to me multiple times while I was watching the Brazilian animated film, Boy and the World.

“…animation is not a genre.  And people keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’  It’s not a genre!  A Western is a genre!  Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.  You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film, or a kids’ fairy tale.  But it doesn’t do one thing.”

Boy and the World proves Bird’s statement correct by delivering a succinct, poignant film, virtually without words, that defies classification.  Is it a kids’ film?  It’s colorful, vibrant, and contains no long words, but it was rated PG in America.  Is it a “grown-up” film?  There is absolutely some thematic material that might require some parental explanation, but the style of the film’s images is almost like a children’s book come to life.  Boy and the World is quite unique in animation, at least in the animated films I’ve seen.  The only film I might possibly compare it to is Walt Disney’s Fantasia…or more accurately, I’d say Boy and the World was inspired by Fantasia’s core concept.  It’s a fairy tale and a cautionary tale and a coming-of-age story and a visual tour-de-force all in one.

We first meet the titular Boy in this story as he seems to be hearing music coming from under a colorful rock in a field.  The Boy is never named.  Indeed, what little dialogue we ever hear in the movie is conveyed either by grunts and coughs and harrumphs, or by a peculiar, unrecognizable language.  I turned on the Blu-ray’s subtitles, and it only said “SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE.”  But the film’s story is so well-constructed, a literal understanding of their speech is never necessary.  (Trivia note: I learn from the disc’s special features that the language we hear is Portuguese…spoken backwards.)

The Boy lives with his mother and father in a humble dwelling in the Brazilian countryside during an unspecified time period, though his clothing indicates something close to present day.  One day, his father simply decides to leave, boards a train, and is gone.  We are not given a clear reason for his departure.  The Boy is distraught, so one night he packs a suitcase (its only contents: a photo of him with his mother and father) and sets off to find him…

From there, the movie becomes an absolute visual feast.  I do not wish to give further plot details – and there IS a surprisingly compelling plot – but I do want to give some idea of the startling originality on display during the film.

  • The Boy has a unique ability that no one else in this world seems to have: he can see music.  Whenever his mother hums a tune, or his father (in flashback) plays a song on a recorder, the Boy sees the music appear in the air as little balls of color, like cotton balls or tiny clouds.  Later, he watches a parade go down a street, and the music clouds rise and swirl together in the sky, forming a huge multicolored bird.  Later still, a military formation marches down another street.  The boy sees that music as blacks and greys, and the bird it forms in the sky is far more imposing and ominous.
  • Nothing in the film is a literal representation of what it’s depicting.  For example, when the Boy sees a big city for the first time, most of the vehicles appear to have faces.  The language on all the ads and billboards doesn’t make any sense.  The sports he sees on the TV sets in the shop windows are confusing and nonsensical.  It is more like an impression a child might have of a big city, and it feels more real because of its stylistic liberties.  When he sees large industrial machines in operation for the first time, they look more like elephants and dragons than tow trucks and construction cranes.  This is something animation can do better than any other medium.

  • There is a heartbreaking scene when the Boy sees a train pull in at a station and sees his father step out.  The Boy runs forward…and then his father steps out of another car.  And another, and another.  And soon the platform is crowded with scores of men, all identical to the Boy’s father, and the Boy falls to his knees in frustration.  I interpreted this as an eloquent analogy of how anyone in the Boy’s situation might see a recognizable figure in the distance, only to be disappointed again and again.  Instead of it happening 15 or 20 times in the movie, we got it all at once, and it was an unexpectedly powerful moment.
  • Listen closely, and you’ll hear that a lot of sound effects, from birds in the jungle to car horns honking to clattering machinery, are made by musical instruments or the human voice and/or body.  Yet another unique element to an already unique film.
  • The resolution of the boy’s search took me completely by surprise.  There were little visual clues that had me believing the movie was not going to have a happy ending.  But then it unfolded, and the effect was eye-opening.  I won’t say one way or the other if he found his father or not, but I will say the ending felt earned, authentic, and very satisfying.

All told, Boy and the World is a marvelous little discovery, one that I plan to re-watch soon to drink in its marvelous visual concoction once more.  My colleague, Marc, is a playwright who once wrote a short play as a pantomime.  He believed (and still does, I think) that the main purpose of the visual arts is to show us something new and exciting whenever possible.  Boy and the World would be right up his alley.

IDA (2013, Poland)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1962, Anna is about to take vows as a nun when she learns a family secret from her only living relative. Both women embark on a journey to discover their family story and where they belong.

There are countless movies I’ve seen that remind me why I love the movies.  Ida is the first one I’ve seen in a very long time that reminds me why I love Ansel Adams.  Shot in stunning black-and-white and in the old “Academy” format with black bars on both sides – basically a square screen space instead of a rectangle – Ida is composed almost completely of static shots that have been framed in such a way that you could select almost any shot from any scene, frame it, and hang it in a museum.  Frankly, the beauty of the film is breathtaking.  If the story is a tad shallow or cryptic, I can live with it because it was such a pleasure just to drink in the visuals.

Anna is an orphaned novice nun in a convent in Poland in 1962.  She is on the verge of taking her vows when she gets a letter from an aunt she never met or knew existed, but who suddenly wants to meet her.  Anna travels to the city to meet the aunt, Wanda, who rather coldly informs Anna that the parents she never met were Jews who were killed during the war.  Anna is not Anna, but Ida.  Wanda confirms this by noticing Anna/Ida’s red hair and commenting that her parents had red hair.  Ida wants to find her parents’ bodies, so she and Wanda begin a search that will reveal a lot more than just final resting places and familial closure.

At one point, Wanda and Ida have a conversation about the vows Ida is about to take.  Prior to this conversation, Ida has observed that Wanda drinks, smokes, and appears to bring various men home to bed with her on a somewhat regular basis.  Wanda simmers under Ida’s blank but judgmental stare.

Wanda asks her, “Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?”

“About carnal love?”
“That’s a shame.  You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”

My knee-jerk reaction was that Wanda is clearly trying to get a rise out of Ida, but I admire the sentiment and the logic behind that statement.  How does one know what they’re giving up if they’ve never experienced it to begin with?  It’s like a truism: how can you appreciate light if you’ve never been in the dark?  But it’s not that simple.  I do not smoke because I want to be healthy, or at least a little healthier.  You could say that I’ve “given up” smoking, but I’ve never experienced it.  Does it count as giving something up if you never took it up in the first place?  It’s an interesting conundrum, one that Ida has no real response to.

But I want to get back to the imagery.  That is the real draw of this film for me.  The only other film I’ve seen that really captures this same vibe is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.  There is one shot that captures Ida and a young musician she and Wanda meet during their journey.  Ida and the young man are having a conversation outside of a small ballroom, sitting in front of doors and windows with some ironwork.  The two of them are framed so they are very small at the bottom center, while the rest of the frame is filled with these black silhouettes, backlit by the ballroom fluorescents.  When they speak, the English subtitles are displayed, not at the bottom of the screen, but near the top across a black bar formed by the dividing line between the window and the transom window above it:

The unexpected placement of the subtitle took me out of the movie, but only momentarily because, again, what a shot.  They are so small in the frame, especially Ida, and the world around her is so huge.  This visual theme is repeated over and over again, and not just with Ida.  When they are driving down a country road, the static shot is not just of the road, but of the trees towering on either side, and the road itself receding into the distance towards the bottom right corner of the screen.  It’s magnificent, and my words are not doing it justice.  You’ll have to see for yourself.

When it comes to the story…to say the dialogue is minimal is, appropriately, an understatement.  The viewer is asked to do some heavy lifting because Ida says very little.  I guess it’s a bit like a Rorschach test.  We observe Ida in a situation, something happens, she says nothing, but proceeds to do something, and we are left to wonder why she does it.

Take that scene with the musician.  Earlier, Ida had been in an argument with Wanda about Wanda’s loose morals.  Wanda asserts that even Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and tries to look up the story in Ida’s Bible, but Ida grabs it from her and storms out of the room.  Later we see she has gone downstairs to the club to meet with the musician in front of those windows.  Why?  It’s up to us to answer the question.  Maybe she’s lived her life believing one thing, and now suddenly her entire belief system is being shaken up, and perhaps this is the only way she can be a rebel before taking her vows.  And she’s just talking to the guy.

The movie is full of moments like that.  An unexpected death occurs.  Ida’s response is to get dressed up and go dancing.  Say what?  When you watch the movie, we’ll discuss what was going in Ida’s head during those moments.  I’m not a hundred percent sure.

By the time the movie’s over, we’ve seen two graves, a suicide, a nun bathing herself, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen outside of a Kubrick film.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski is virtually unknown to me, although he was up for Best Director in 2019 (losing to, how about that, Alfonso Cuarón for Roma).  His narrative method is a little oblique for my tastes, but his visual style is superb in every way.  I’m glad it’s in my collection.  Whenever I’m in the mood for a visual feast, Ida will do the trick.


By Marc S. Sanders

Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s sci fi thriller Snowpiercer is a locomotive fast paced adaptation, that oddly enough is reminiscent of The Wizard Of Oz. There’s no yellow brick road however. Here, the on foot journey occurs on a massively long on going train that contains the last survivors of a frozen apocalyptic Earth.

Each car of the train separates the demographic classes of this populace. The one percenters live it up closer to the front of the train. The steerage and lower class are resorted towards the back, forced to live in filth and nourish themselves on protein bars made of vermin and waste. Chris Evans is the hero who leads the pack from the back to the front. They’ve had enough and they will not be restrained any longer. However, who and what resides up there? Let the journey into the unknown begin.

I liked Snowpiercer a lot, and mainly because the surprise of what was next kept me alert. An especially fun moment occurs when the gang comes along the car where elementary school is in session.

Characters are met along the way, including a warped performance from Tilda Swinton. She’s dressed in uniform regalia that David Bowie or Elton John might have worn to mock totalitarians. Her performance matches her wardrobe. She definitely makes her antagonist role her own with her pale complexion, short stark red buzz cut, weird dialect and large false teeth.

John Hurt is also a welcome surprise as the old wise one that is needed for these roles. He’s doing his basic John Hurt but that’s all we need.

Rounding out the cast is Octavia Spencer. She’s good too with lots of energy. A great pair up also comes from Song Kang-ho and Ko Asung as techies who can assist the band with opening doors from one car to another; allies that are encountered along the journey to see the wizard or the one in the engine car. I won’t dare spoil that surprise. The cameo was welcome in my eyes.

The journey is great.

The final moments of the film are a little short sighted though. It’s a great action set up but when everything settles down, not much is offered for a final statement on the grand outcome. I wanted more from that.

This is, however, worth checking out. Snowpiercer might consist of a ridiculous concept with all life residing on a never stopping train, but the set pieces are great fun, as are the characters.


By Marc S. Sanders

Like Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk, director Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World is a very underrated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It focuses on a lot of humor with well edited action and moments that allow all the major players to offer up good material.

First Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Yeah, he’s doing the same thing and that’s fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Moving on… This is an important chapter in the MCU, as it introduces the second of the legendary Infinity Stones, the red Aether, which consumes Thor’s love interest from Earth, Jane Foster, played by Natalie Portman. Fortunately, it provides better writing for Portman to play with. She really is the MacGuffin of the film, and she works as a story device to explore more of Asgaard, one of the best set pieces in all of the Marvel films. Jane uncovers the mysterious stone, or rather liquid, that has been hidden away for centuries; this is all Lord Of The Rings stuff. Once she finds the stone and is consumed with it, then the film segues into its originality.

Apparently, it’s not good if the Aether is used for destruction while the Nine Realms are in Convergence, which we are told happens every 5,000 years. What is Convergence? Well, that’s where it’s fun to watch Thor: The Dark World. The Nine Realms line up, literally like a rainbow of circles stacking on top of one another. It’s really cool to look at. What’s more fun is how Jane and her crew drop random objects into an open space within a deserted London warehouse and then it disappears, and then drops back down to them from above their heads. Sometimes, they drop something, only the objects don’t return at all. I like all of this stuff, because it’s all visual and ultimately that is what movies are about. Showing us something. Asgaard, The Convergence, Thor’s swing of his hammer, the Aethar, it’s all fun to see. I’ll credit Alan Taylor’s direction for a lot of this. He’s shown great achievements in Game Of Thrones. He carries his visions over to Thor’s universe.

Next is the villain is Malekeith, the head of the Dark Elves, with some really wicked looking makeup, and it only gets more wicked as he progressively gets more powerful. He wants to get the Aether and bring the Nine Realms into Darkness. Christopher Eccleston (best known for G.I. Joe; that should tell you something) takes on this role which is nothing special. I don’t care so much about the villain in this film as I do about the conflict of the story. The conflict is the real treat. Eccleston is nothing special. He’s not bad. He’s not good. He’s just nothing special. Moving on…

Tom Hiddleston is back as the trickster Loki, one of the best written characters in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The script gives him a lot to play with and opportunities to irritate and antagonize Thor who reluctantly recruits his assistance. “Well done. You just decapitated your grandfather.” See the movie (again?) and you’ll love the timing of this line. Hiddleston has fun with the levity of Loki but there is a sad central story to the adopted son of Odin. During his first appearance in the film, following his incision of the New York alien invasion from The Avengers, Loki is arrested in chains to stand before his father, and Hiddleston clicks his heels together at attention, giving a serious grimace before declaring “I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.” Hiddleston continues to work and develop at this favorite character who remains tricky and unpredictable. I love it.

Anthony Hopkins is back as Odin, Thor’s father. Yeah, he’s doing the same thing and that’s fine. Again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Moving on…

There’s a lot of fantastic sci fi and fantasy sequences to this film and from a CGI perspective, it’s artistically beautiful. It’s just a fun ride of exploration. Thor was never a favorite comic book character of mine growing up. The MCU opened my eyes to something special in his adventures and those that surround him. It’s even great when Thor jumps on the tube to return to a battle in Greenwich Village. I’m expecting some energetic debate on my feelings towards this film. Bring it on and I’ll match you. As Thor might say after his hammer turns a giant rock monster to rubble, “Anyone else?”

Reader, if I can quote this film three times in a review that should tell you how much I love Thor: The Dark World.


By Marc S. Sanders

The third chapter of the armored superhero, Iron Man, is an improvement on the second installment. Still, that’s not much of a compliment.

Action director Shane Black takes the reins from Jon Faverau, and gives himself a writing credit as well. I’ve always liked Shane Black’s writing style. Like this film, a lot of his works take place during Christmas. Lethal Weapon is a well-balanced picture that over thirty years later shows a nice offering of character background and action. When the action occurs, you are already invested in the characters. So, suspense is capable of holding some weight to an action movie. I only wish I saw some more of that here with Iron Man 3. Oh well!

First, let’s get the most obvious problem out of the way. Once again, Gwyneth Paltrow is there to wear sharp looking ladies suits, carry a brief in her hand and yell “TONY” a lot. You could make up a drinking game around that bit. Just when the Marvel films got it right with Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, they revert back to their old ways yet again. If you are going to have female characters in your films, give them something weighty to work with that is evenly matched with the guys.

Robert Downey Jr is another problem, I’m afraid. He is so cherished in the role of Tony Stark by now. The first Iron Man really offers a great performance by him with a good arc. The prior film in the MCU, The Avengers gives him some great play with the other titanic superheroes. However, the writing is not thoughtful in Iron Man 2 or Iron Man 3. The first installment left you feeling that Tony was open to accepting care and tenderness from other people. His cockiness became subdued following a traumatic capture and escape.

Then the cocky monster within seemed to resurface in #2 and #3. Did Downey (who improvises a lot of his material) and the writers forget where they left off? Black literally has Tony Stark give away his address on live television to the bad guys, headed by a mysterious terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). How stupid is this? Batman doesn’t give away where his Bat Cave is. Why would Iron Man do that?

From that point, we are treated to an attack on Tony’s ocean view, cliff side home from helicopters. Reader, Shane Black wrote a sequence like this twice before, in Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2. It’s been done before. The filming appears clunky in this centerpiece scene with camera shakes and uneven sound editing and lots of ceiling and wall dust. It’s a little hard to follow.

I’ll give credit to Black for throwing in a twist that comes out of nowhere. To my knowledge, this moment has left viewers very divisive. For me, I admire the effort but the development comes off wimpy. It involves Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin who promises to be a real threat to the film. Yet, the character’s motive turns out to be something else entirely. It’s odd, but it kept me engaged during the film. When the film ended, I was left wishing it was something else altogether. For the first two thirds of the film, Kingsley is very good with a hard, edged, roughly intimidating voice as he shares disturbing newscasts of threats to the President and the world. He was a different kind of villain that we hadn’t seen before, much like Heath Ledger’s Joker. Then the rug is pulled out on that attraction.

One really bright spot comes from Ty Simkins, as a kid named Harley that winds up assisting Tony when everything is against him. He is a fun, spunky kid who has some good exchanges with Downey’s well recognized, zippy delivery. He’s more fun to watch than Gwenyth Paltrow. That’s for sure.

Guy Pearce is another adversary who leads a team of baddies. Their bodies heat up to extremely hot and orange looking temperatures. (Forgive my poor English! That’s what comes to mind. Oh well!) Amazingly enough, their clothes don’t burn off while they easily can singe any Iron Man suit they come in contact with. Should I be focusing on that inconsistency? That’s one main problem with the film. It’s too apparent. I know this is all sci fi, but don’t make the fiction of the fiction so obvious, please. Pearce is fine in the role but he’s overshadowed by what his super villain powers are capable of. So, basically cast iron metal burns, but clothing fabrics do not. Got it! Check!

I’m not sure if Iron Man 3 is really worth a watch. Probably not, actually. Maybe so, if you want to marathon through all the Marvel films like I do. Yet, it really offers nothing significant to the films yet to come and shows nothing new to carry forward from the prior films. Much like Iron Man 2, it’s a pretty meaningless.


By Marc S. Sanders

When a person carries on with his/her life knowing full well that practically every action is illegal, immoral and harmful, it’s a story that must be told. Jordan Belfort, The Wolf Of Wall Street is such a person.

Leonardo DiCaprio explodes with rages of drug use, drinking, more drug use, banging prostitutes, even more drug use and pink slip stock trading along with some drug use. To get this manic, this wild, and this crazy requires a certain kind of energy to perform. The real Jordan Belfort must have had a massive amount of stamina to live this life. After all, he’s still alive today. DiCaprio, portraying the on-screen persona, throws himself into it. There’s no way he got to this pinnacle of hyperactivity on cue, with director Martin Scorsese’s call for action. DiCaprio had to thrust himself into this debauchery. It takes a certain skill to not let up on this. Pay attention to a hilarious scene where his quaaludes have paralyzed him to the point where he can’t even crawl to, much less open the door to his car. It’s a hilarious display of crippling physicality. DiCaprio maxed out on his Belfort portrayal, thereby earning his Oscar nomination. I thought he should have won that year. He lost to his cameo co-star, an excellent Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club.

DiCaprio is so good that he yanks the entire cast into comparable craziness as well. Jonah Hill plays Jordan’s sidekick Donny: a buffoon of a guy who’ll whip out his member at inopportune times for attention and display. Hill doesn’t hold back either in his earned second nomination as well.

Scorsese, with a script by Terrance Winter based on Belfort’s book, is not concerned with necessarily showing a story arc where characters question their actions. Instead, he focuses on the hubris of all of this. Crashed helicopters, crashed cars, crashed planes and crashed luxury yachts not to mention endless office orgies, including one in first class on a commercial flight to Switzerland. It’s filmed very well, and while it is one over the top thing after another, it is nonetheless very funny and very entertaining.

The nerve of this guy, right? Yet that’s the thing about The Wolf Of Wall Street. Right from the get-go, Belfort is strongly urged to let up as the FBI easily closes in, and he doesn’t. It’s kinda crazy, really. Belfort put himself in an unwinnable situation and his addiction to money, drugs, ridiculous sex, and the ease by which he does it all calls to him to stay in the game until the lights just turn off.

This film marked the highly visible introduction of Margot Robbie as Jordan’s wife. She’s excellent with a New York accent (Robbie’s Australian) who loves the money and glamour but is not so stupid. Following up with a nominated role in I, Tonya (which she should have won against an aggravating Frances McDormand in Three Billboards…) and offering the best moments of Suicide Squad, it is easy to believe that she could go toe to toe with DiCaprio here. They have great arguments on screen together; funny but true.

Scorsese offers up his signature narrative voiceover from DiCaprio just as he did before in Goodfellas and Casino. His editor Thelma Schoonmaker is great at keeping the energy alive by taking advantage of the legendary director’s quick cuts and great music samplings.

The cast is just right with memorable moments from Jon Bernthal as Jordan’s tough guy friend and errand boy, Brad. (Bernthal is a great character actor all together. Check him out in Baby Driver, too.). Kyle Chandler is the modest element as the FBI agent who brings it all down. He knows he doesn’t have to exert himself too much. Belfort is doing all the work for him. Still, he spells it out harshly and honestly. No bullshit. He just cuts to the chase.

Other great appearances include Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley and I have to recognize Stephanie Kurtzuba. She offers a scene not widely recognized, as a disciple of Belfort’s team who is full of pomp, and confidence that far exceeds any of the guys alongside her. It occurs midway through and it’s an important moment because it really shows the power of influence Belfort had with his stockbrokers. He made them criminal millionaires overnight and to them he’s a Messiah. When Kurtzuba’s moment occurs, she solidifies the power of Belfort’s misdeeds.

It’s very easy to succumb to this lifestyle. Scorsese and Winter show how easily and quickly lots of unclaimed cash can be made at the expense of innocent people. It’s really fascinating. There’s no dimension to Belfort and his cronies of losers who would follow him anywhere despite the cost and the damage. That’s okay for me here. Simply because it fascinates me that he had the chutzpah to continue on with this immoral trajectory.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a no holds barred, great film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director/Screenwriter Spike Jones is a master at adding multiple dimensions to what we always know exists. It’s been evident in his prior films, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, (which I did not care for personally), and most especially in Being John Malkovich. He plants the seeds of fantasy in what we can normally touch, hear and see. Then his elements of fantasy receive a supportive crutch from what his viewers have always been familiar with.

her is another masterwork; a film that takes place in the not too distant future that expounds on our current digital age. If we can already talk to “Siri” or “Alexa” and trick–umm, excuse me, “her” (I mean “Siri”) into making sophomoric dirty jokes, then of course we are bound to approach the stage where we can literally, truly fall in love with her and then she can reciprocate.

With her raspy yet silky vocals, Scarlett Johansson is inspired casting as the voice of “Samantha.” Had she actually had a physical presence in the film I would have totally fallen for her affections. The film hinges on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore. If we can’t believe that he loves “Samantha” more than he loves himself (a surefire test of true love as far I’m concerned) then “her” falls apart. Phoenix passes abundantly. He deserved his Oscar nomination.

From the start, you become very accustomed to the banter between Theodore and his electronic device voiced by “Samantha.” Both have personal feelings. Both have personal longings (more especially “Samantha” the computer, of all things!!!).

Spike Jonze explores all the diameters and dimensions of a loving relationship. The ups, downs, and in betweens. What’s different is how all of these layers of a relationship are received in this currently fictional (bound to come true, one day) dynamic of a relationship. Theodore and “Samantha” are affectionate. They argue, they laugh, they even make love. Watch the movie to understand that last point. It happens, and it is perfectly executed with the residual effects of their lovemaking bringing the film into its next act brilliantly.

Jones won the Oscar for original screenplay simply for how innovative this picture is. I’m not sure it’s the most exciting two hours of film, however. Personally, I think other films in this category back in 2013 had sharper and more interesting scripts. her is practically all talk and when it ended, I was ready for it to be over, and it concluded as I expected.

Still, Jones is fortunate that his cast (Johannsson, Phoenix, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt) trusts him. If they hadn’t, this movie would have lost its magic by probably how absurd this script must have originally been perceived on paper. Well done work by all involved but credit has to begin with Jones, the screenwriter.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A beautiful, mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in Scotland and takes them to her home, where something very strange indeed happens to them…

Under the Skin captivated me in a way that I did not expect.  It is a sci-fi mystery that stubbornly refuses to supply neat and tidy answers, and yet is spellbinding to watch. How director Jonathan Glazer accomplished this is no less mysterious to me than the origins of the movie’s main character, a solitary young woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a bravura performance that must have required a great deal of courage and trust in her director.

After a cryptic opening sequence involving some trippy visuals accompanied by an eerie musical score, Johansson’s character (listed only as “The Female” in the credits) gets down to business.  With the help of a mute motorcyclist (???), she acquires a van and trolls the streets of Scotland for young men on their own in the city.  She lures them into her van with pleasant conversation and a smile, which is easy enough to do when you look like Scarlett Johansson.  She then takes the men back to a deserted house in the country where I wouldn’t DREAM of revealing what happens.

The appeal of this movie is not the story, although that is obviously a big part of it.  It’s the storytelling.  Director Glazer works from a script that has the bare minimum of dialogue, usually when The Female is convincing men to get in her van.  Everything else depends on visuals.  It’s the kind of movie my friend Marc would enjoy, as it uses the camera to tell the story much more so than the soundtrack.  It shows us images and challenges the viewer to put two and two together to figure out what’s happening.

This visually-heavy strategy is a tightrope walk.  One false step and, instead of a mind-bending masterpiece, you get a head-scratcher that leaves you feeling cheated.  Under the Skin manages it.  There is one specific visual sequence that sealed the deal for me, a scene that provides a more detailed explanation of what happens to the men once they’re inside The Female’s house.  The real genius of the scene is that it provides information without fully answering the questions going through your head.  What is that black liquid?  Are the men hypnotized?  Their behavior would make it seem so.  And exactly how big is that house?

I’m being deliberately obscure because the delight of the film comes from discovering the thread of the story and following it along with The Female.  Her discoveries were just as interesting and scary to me as they were to her, because I felt really in tune with her character while I was watching the movie.  The closest I can get to describing it is…a long, LONG time ago, there was a computer game called Hacker that I got for my Commodore 64.  It came with literally no instructions beyond putting the disk in the drive and loading the game.  Then your screen went blank and it just displayed: “LOGON”.  And that was it.  As the gamer, it was up to you to figure out what to do in order to keep playing.  As you discovered more clues to the object of the game, you became more and more involved.

That’s how I felt watching Under the Skin.  Those opening visuals start you off thinking, “What the f@#k???”  Then the movie progresses, and the wheels start turning, and you realize what’s happening, and what The Female is attempting, and the discoveries she’s making about herself, and before you know it you’re as wrapped up in the story as she is.

I remember there was a lot of talk when this movie came out, but I never really hear anyone discuss it any more, outside of movie-centric blogs and Facebook pages.  If I can convince just one person who hasn’t seen it that this movie is worth their time, I will be happy.  Under the Skin deserves to be seen, discussed, and puzzled over.

P.S.  Under the Skin is, in fact, mildly famous because, yes, Scarlett Johansson gets naked.  But don’t get too excited.  Her nude scenes are utterly drained of any sexuality or eroticism whatsoever, due to their context.  You’ll see what I mean when you watch it.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young woman’s world unravels when an anti-depressant prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.

Side Effects is a rare creature indeed: a movie released during the first two months of the calendar year that is not only good, it’s stunningly good.  It’s too bad almost no one even remembers this movie exists.

Steven Soderbergh’s film tells the story of a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who suffers from depression after her husband returns home from serving a prison term for insider trading.  After a series of events where she apparently tries to harm herself, she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes a brand new anti-depressant called Ablixa.  While it is effective, it also comes with some side effects, including sleepwalking.

One day, Dr. Banks gets a call: Emily has stabbed someone to death, and she did it while sleepwalking, which was caused by the Ablixa.  Banks interviews her; she remembers nothing of the incident.  But now the doctor’s professional and personal life is in turmoil as well.

What we have here is a classic Hitchcockian story…actually, two stories for the price of one.  You’ve got Emily, the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She didn’t ask for any of this.  She just wanted to feel better, be a better wife, be a better person.  And the drugs were working: she was feeling better, doing better at work, doing better with her husband…but now, thanks to this drug and its unintended side effects, people think she’s crazy.

And you’ve got Dr. Banks, the wrong man also in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was doing his job, prescribing medication that he felt would help…and it WAS helping.  But thanks to this unforeseeable tragedy, his practice dries up.  Who wants to see a psychiatrist whose patient killed someone due to medicine he prescribed?  This creates problems in his personal life: he just bought a new apartment, but now his income is severely diminished.  He and his wife fight more than they used to.  And so on.

…and that’s where I’ll leave it because, like all the best films, it’s better if you watch Side Effects cold, not knowing what to expect.  No doubt there are people out there who saw the various twists and turns coming, but I am not one of them.  I was utterly hoodwinked, and I loved it.

We are a culture of pills and quick fixes, the quicker the better.  Side Effects is remarkably even-handed in presenting us with both sides of the worst-case scenario involving this culture.  (Or I guess one of the worst-case scenarios, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.)  Not only is this strategy effective in providing mental fodder while watching, but it’s also a great storytelling device.  Whose side should we be on?  Historically, “Big Pharma” has been one of the handiest movie villains since the Nazis.  The public perception of mega-corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal, dollars that are used to cover up embarrassing media stories and pay off corporate whistle-blowers, is just too perfect not to use in movies.  But Side Effects gives us the other side of that coin, the dedicated physicians and psychiatrists who are committed to helping people using the best available methods.  If a pill can help people, who would blame a doctor for wanting to prescribe it?  …unless the side effects turned out to be a little extreme?

That conundrum is at the heart of the movie.  But on the surface, it’s just a fantastic mystery/thriller.  Soderbergh directs with restraint, using very few camera moves.  Everything we see is presented with a minimum of flash and maximum impact, so when you’re watching the third act of the movie, you can remember everything you saw in the first two acts with great clarity.

It’s a little bit like a Gene Kelly dance routine.  You know he must have worked for hours to get those moves down, but when you see him in action, he barely looks like he’s working at all.  That’s what Side Effects feels like.  The film is telling a complicated story, but it doesn’t feel like it’s working hard.  It’s just gliding along, showing you this scene, showing you that scene, ho-hum, pay attention now, all leading to the fantastic payoff at the end.

I don’t know if Side Effects is available to stream or not, but I heartily recommend it regardless.


By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel, I was disappointed.  Very disappointed.  It was only after a second viewing about a year later that I realized I was simply biased and unfair with my perception of the film.  I grew up with the Richards’, Donner and Lester, films that featured Christopher Reeve in the role of Superman/Clark Kent.  Nothing could violate what was done in those films from the ’70s and ’80s. 

My impression of Man Of Steel now is that it is a marvelous film.  It’s an exploration of a stranger in a strange land questioning how to adapt to a living environment that he is not from, nor where anyone around him is genetically built like him either.  Henry Cavill fills the role of the title character.  What’s especially important is that he is not attempting to do what Reeve memorably did before him.  Actually, David S Goyer’s script really doesn’t allow for the hijinks of the prior films.  Clark Kent is not portrayed as a goofy and lovable klutz this time around.  Instead, the boy from Smallville, Kansas is challenged to limit his abilities at the behest of his Earthling father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner).  It’s dangerous for Clark to show all that he is capable of from his super strength to his heat vision.  Clark’s Earth mother, Martha (Diane Lane), is more protective of her son.  A really powerful scene occurs when young Clark is in the classroom and he has a bout with sensory overload of super hearing and super x-ray vision.  He can’t get the encompassing sounds and sights out of his head.  One of many CGI effects in the film come with Snyder showing the skeletal insides of Clark’s classmates and teachers.  It’s frightening; even to an innocent alien boy from another world.  This is good conflict.  Does the world need Clark Kent?  Would Clark Kent be better off someplace else?  Can he manage to live with daily life drowning out his sensibilities?

Another dilemma opens the film on Clark’s home planet of Krypton where he was born with the name Kal-el.  His father, Jor-el (Russell Crowe) has insisted to the governing body that the planet is expected to self destruct soon, and civilization needs to be relocated to another planet.  The politicians refuse to accept his theory.  Jor-el’s friend, the military leader General Zod (Michael Shannon) sides with his opinion.  Though his approach is violent insurrection of the Kryptonians.  Zod is punished for his crimes and sentenced to an eternal prison known as The Phantom Zone before baby Kal-el is shipped away, and the planet implodes with all its inhabitants.

Following this opening, Snyder cuts his film with flashbacks and forwards showing Clark in various different roles as either a fishing boat crewman or a bartender trying his best to remain undercover even when the temptation for use of his powers repeatedly shows itself.  Clark reflects on moments from his childhood when he and his Earth parents questioned how to present himself.  

Superman’s known love interest eventually shows herself, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).  She’s following up on an alien ship that has been discovered in the arctic after 20,000 years.  Clark and Lois connect at this moment.  Of all the Superman angles that are familiar to so many of us, this is where Goyer and Snyder perhaps do not focus enough.  Man Of Steel is a satisfyingly long film, but there’s a lot of material and drawn out action to cover as well.  So the Lois and Clark relationship is somewhat sacrificed and not as nuanced as we have experienced in other iterations.

Zod arrives on Earth requesting that Kal-el reveal himself along with the intent to destructively turn Earth into a new Krypton at the sacrifice of the planet’s human population.  Naturally, a city wide battle will ensue. and lemme tell you reader you wanna talk about destroying the village just to save it….well…that’s what happens here.  When New York got destroyed in Marvel’s The Avengers or Ghostbusters, those pictures looked like spilled milk compared to what Superman and Zod do here.

Man Of Steel is the best film of the new Warner Bros/DC universe.  It might be Zack Snyder’s best film as well.  The assembly of the picture is masterful.  Hans Zimmer’s score has these great build ups as Clark discovers more of his capabilities.  It especially lends to when the character dons the cape and costume for the first time ready to leap in the sky and fly.  Snyder shows the efforts needed for Superman to carry out this talent.  The flying doesn’t come easy.  It looks like work on the super hero.  Zimmer’s score starts out quiet and then advances to these powerful notes as Superman soars higher and higher.  The boy from Kansas is making himself into something greater that he has no familiarity with.

Michael Shannon plays another of many kinds of villains and antagonists on his resume.  I’m not sick of this guy’s antics yet.  It’s time he become a James Bond villain.  He plays Zod with an uncompromising determination and disregard for anything else but to rule.  It’s all very sci fi like but I love how unforgiving he is with the role.  Much less Shakespearean than when Terrance Stamp played the part so well with Reeve as the hero.  Shannon is more direct and bloodthirsty.  Michael Shannon just knows how to be scary on film. This kind of personality would work great in a silly comedy from the Farrelly brothers as well.

Amy Adams is fine as Lois, but there’s not much here to work with honestly.  More details of her relationship with Superman come through in later films.  However, this story development soured me on my initial viewing.  The iconic irony of Superman pathos is that as sharp a reporter as Lois Lane is, she can not realize that the guy wearing the glasses who is working right next to her is actually Clark Kent?!?!?! Readers and viewers were always thankfully in on the joke.  On follow up viewings of Man Of Steel, I understand that Goyer and Snyder were never aiming for irony.  Lois knows who Clark really is from the get go. What was once an unforgivable departure for me, no longer is a concern.  There are deeper angles to question in Man Of Steel, like a purpose to others and the freedom to force a change because it can be done.

Snyder and Goyer broach on the well known Christ allegory with Superman.  The film takes place in Clark’s thirty third Earth year.  Jor-el is slain with with a stabbing to his rib.  There’s also the crucifixion  pose on a number of occasions.  I must admit, as a Jew raised conservatively with just the Old Testament, I am not very educated on the texts of Jesus Christ.  However, the basics are explored in Man Of Steel.  Is Superman a savior?  Snyder wisely even has Clark visit with his Smallville priest to question his obligations to Earth and to Zod’s calling, with window artwork of Christ in the background.  

One vice I have with Snyder’s picture is the shameless plugging.  How overt must signage from Sears, U-Haul, 7-Eleven and IHop be?  Granted, all of these summer blockbuster films have the inserts of brand labels going all the way back to the original Superman films.  Here though, the corporate advertising is a true eyesore.  Superman being thrown into the dining area of an IHop is not as memorably funny as when Zod’s underling, Non, crashed into New York’s famed Coca-Cola sign back in 1981.

The seemingly endless battle consuming about forty five minutes of the third act of the film are over the top outrageous.  I might normally be saying I’ve seen enough while casualties are never considered as buildings literally topple over into mushroom clouds of concrete dust.  Still, the cast keeps these moments alive.  Shannon and Cavill, along with Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, the Daily Planet editor, and Amy Adams, actually show risk and fear amid all of this bombastic action.  Still, Snyder is insistent on his freedom to go crazy with CGI effects.  It’s more than a bit much, but the characters up to this point keep me engaged with the film all the way through.  Later DC films in this franchise don’t do it so much for me, but that’s another column altogether.  

Again, what I especially like about Man Of Steel is how Snyder cuts back and forth with the film.  Heroic moments occur and then are reflected back to times in Clark’s childhood with Jonathan and Martha.  With Zimmer’s score, it seems to allow Clark to consider conversations and moments from his past as meaningful to what he is experiencing in the present.  When Zack Snyder stays on this trajectory it makes Man Of Steel more than just another comic book movie for summer box office.  There’s depth from Goyer’s script that Snyder wisely does not disregard.  

Man Of Steel is a new and unfamiliar kind of Superman, but its a very welcome Superman too.