By Marc S. Sanders

On my 4th viewing of this film, I second guessed myself over and over. I know I’m a Star Wars junkie, but can I truly give an objective opinion about Rogue One? I think I can.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is of one of the best films of the last ten years. Now there are conditions that accompany that observation. It’s difficult to follow its trajectory if you haven’t seen A New Hope (the intended follow up story; the original Star Wars film). Frankly, reader if you are watching this film without ever watching A New Hope, I’d imagine you’ve been on a deserted island with a volleyball for a friend, unaware of this pop culture geek-oriented phenomenon from a galaxy far, far away, and upon your return to civilization you were just randomly flipping the channels. So, let’s just go ahead and dismiss that parameter right now.

Disney is the only studio with enough resources and scrutiny to ensure a good product is developed in the franchise. Rogue One proves that theory. From the Rebel uniforms to the Stormtroopers, to the Yavin 4 set recreation, and even a harkening back to Darth Vader’s original 1977 appearance (red eyes in the helmet), director Gareth Edwards, Lucasfilm and Disney ensure consistency in its side chapter apart from the 9-part saga. You relish the familiarity of it all, and what’s new you welcome with appreciated enthusiasm. It all works within the long-established universe.

The cast is superb with major highlights from Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso (great name) as a brash no nonsense rogue in and of herself. Jones comes off with tough bravado reminiscent of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, as well as Jodie Foster. Nothing will intimidate her, though she will show her heart and soul for her father, the reluctant architect of the Empire’s Death Star played by Mads Mikkelson, an important character to the story but not much material for him to capitalize on.

Alan Tudyk is a marvelous voice actor here as the tall droid K2SO, with a personality combination of Chewbacca & C3PO. He’s honest, maybe a little to honest, but he’s also physically strong and a smart aleck. His tone is Anthony Daniels, but his delivery is snide and arrogant. He’s just so entertaining.

Ben Mendohlson plays Imperial Director Krennic as a frightening antagonist who embraces the terror of this super weapon he oversees. “Oh it’s beautiful,” he sighs and really believes he sees beauty as a planet gradually combusts under the laser blast emanating from the Death Star. He expects greatness from his accomplishments and Mendohlson is also good at surrendering to what he’s not permitted to celebrate thanks to a strong Darth Vader and welcome return of Grand Moff Tarkin, a beautifully recreated CGI of deceased actor Peter Cushing. Tarkin is important to the Krennic storyline and his insertion in the film is flawless.

The cast also boasts Donnie Yen. He’s a real crowd pleasing blind martial artist. Not a Jedi, yet arguably even more fun.

The planets are crowded and different. Scarif where the final battle takes place is draped in palm trees and ocean blue. Great because it’s daylight setting allows all the action to be seen. Nothing is blurred.

The story structure is phenomenal as it centers on a race to make contact with an Imperial pilot who has just defected and then on to Jyn’s father in order to prevent this new Death Star from going into operation. I especially salute its honest, uncompromising, but still necessary ending. You’ll get a lump in your throat, followed by an adrenaline shot of excitement in the last five minutes. The end is pure genius. One of the great cinematic endings. Absolutely absorbing.

I really appreciate the various demographics in the film as well. For a story about an unending and lived in galaxy everyone should look and sound different. So, we are treated to Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and English, and then you have the droids and fictional alien species.

If anything is shortchanged, it might stem from some of the actors’ dialects. Forrest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Riz Amed play primarily roles that at times are hard to comprehend, even in a fourth viewing. This is forgivable though. The story lends value to all of the players on screen.

So yes. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is sensational; the best of the 4 Disney produced films thus far. There’s weight to its story, and its characters on both sides. It moves at a fast pace of action, dialogue and runaway suspense. It will go down as one of the best installments in the vast franchise that’s thrived for over 40 years so far.


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

Whether it is Gone Baby Gone, or The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or even Good Will Hunting, Casey Affleck is an actor who never compromises for glamour or grandeur in his roles. He will look ugly, dress down or be the most unlikable of characters to preserve the authenticity of a movie’s script. I imagine good directors just let him loose and film him with whatever he comes up with on the spot. It would be a tribute to his talent to do so. Here, in this Best Picture nominee, he is incredibly moving and quietly unhinged. He’s excellent.

Manchester By The Sea is a heavy, dramatic script held together by a simple story. Affleck plays Lee Chandler who will probably be destined to endure one unspeakable tragedy after another for the rest of his life; hammered away until it seems there’s no way to ever recover from inner demons of guilt and sadness.

At best, his recently departed brother (the always reliable Kyle Chandler) blesses him with an opportunity by making Lee the guardian to his 16 year old son, Patrick, played by Lucas Heges in one of the best screen debuts I can remember. He’s an eerie doppelgänger for a young Matt Damon.

Patrick needs Lee, and Lee, who doesn’t know it yet needs Patrick.

Manchester By The Sea takes its time to set up story and character, and maybe that is its downfall. People get in their cars, they shovel snow, they get out of their cars, they shovel more snow. All this set up for a 2 hour and 15-minute film might handicap the pacing, but I can’t think of a better way to improve upon its heart wrenchingly real narrative. The tragedy at the center of Lee’s turmoil is difficult to accept.

Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife is proves once again that she is an amazing actor finding her own unique method for a penultimate crying scene. She is underused. I would have liked to see more of her in this film.

Manchester By The Sea was nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actress. All well-deserved but maybe not worthy of the awards. (Affleck won the award, actually, and so did Kenneth Lonergan for his screenplay.) I think there were a few better nominees in each of these categories. Still, had it not been for the Oscar nods I probably wouldn’t have watched it. All I can say is, I’m glad I did.


By Marc S. Sanders

Jessica Chastain is an aggressive actress. The talent is on par with Meryl Streep or Katherine Hepburn for sure, and the Oscar trophy she won earlier this year is evident of that. Actually, she’s worthy of more than just one. My question, though, is if she is too aggressive. Films like Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game, and Miss Sloane, put her in characters that never stop to react and smell the roses. That wears me out. Could you just slow down Jessica, so I can take this all in, please? You’re talking faster than I can think.

In Miss Sloane, Chastain portrays an impenetrable lobbyist. Nothing gets past this woman and despite her shortcomings, nothing will harm her either. Elizabeth Sloane will always be one step ahead of the game. This is a fierce chess player in the political arena. She’s omnipotent and admits to hardly ever sleeping. Maybe the pill popping helps with that. Like the Faye Dunaway character from Network, she also has no time for personal relationships or sensitive sex. So, she’s a high paying client for a male escort who will wait for her to come home to satisfy her fix.

Elizabeth is first employed with a wealthy private law firm who wants her to head up a bill in favor of the gun lobby. She declines, walks out the door with one long speech, a way over the top laugh (this is where there’s too much Jessica in my morning coffee) and over half her staff. She goes to the other side of the aisle to lobby aggressively against the gun bill.

From there it’s one aggressive maneuver after another and Elizabeth more than proves that she’s got the balls for this game. Only thing is, as Elizabeth proceeds to countermeasure and attack from her side, is she losing sight of the subject at play? Will her soul swim to the surface showing any sense of morality?

The film begins where Elizabeth is being questioned at a hearing headed by a state Senator (John Lithgow, always a pleasure to see). Then it moves on to show us how Elizabeth finds herself at that hearing.

Miss Sloane has no limits to what she’ll do to protect the integrity of a client’s argument for the bill even if it means embarrassing a traitorous teammate, putting another teammate in an unwelcome limelight of political journalism or maybe even employing a cockroach of the sort to use as a listening device. Miss Sloane won’t hesitate to take risks for the lobby she’s been hired to pursue, even if it risks someone’s life or their reputation.

A twist presents itself at the end and yeah, it could work assuming you believe Elizabeth Sloane, the brilliant lobbyist, can telegraph about fifty different actions that could take place amounting to that one moment. The math adds up, but were the numbers fudged to allow the arithmetic to work? That’s why a film like Miss Sloane is hard for me to swallow.

Does this woman have ESP? The final card she plays would require not only her own personal endurance, but that of a colleague as well. A lot of factors all have to be in sync to make this story work out the way it does. So my suspension of disbelief was really tested with this film.

I go back to Jessica Chastain. Zero Dark Thirty remains my favorite of hers. She was a great underdog against a male oriented governing body in the pursuit of Bin Laden. After that, Miss Sloane released a few years later and Chastain got bit by the Aaron Sorkin bug, I think. Endless talking works as an intellect that’s hard to challenge. Problem is, I’m the viewer and I’m wondering for the first thirty minutes what in the hell you’re talking about. Miss Sloane isn’t an Aaron Sorkin film, but Jessica Chastain will have you convinced she wants it to be.

Fortunately, writer Jonathan Perera with director John Madden ease up on the brakes allowing much more realistic and human characters to invade the film including Lithgow, Alison Pill and an especially riveting performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (recently seen by me with a subpar script called The Whole Truth) who becomes Elizabeth’s trusted sidekick both behind and in front of the cameras for political jockeying. This is an actress ready for some lead roles.

I described Miss Sloane as omnipotent earlier and that’s a problem for the first act of the film. This character never shuts up early on. There’s next to no impact on anyone around her. She just talks and talks and talks and she convinces me that she’s the smartest one in the room, but she also makes me want to turn the movie off. The film saves itself with the able supporting cast eventually.

To watch Miss Sloane is not to take any position on gun lobbying especially seriously. I’m not sure the filmmakers have a stance to play. I’m not sure the filmmakers know whether to even regard the titled character as a hero or villain. Actually, I just think the purpose of the film is to show corner cutting and how aggressive a made-up lobbyist can actually be, devoid of any determining factors. We are privileged to see how far a woman with stiletto heels, a cinched up red head ponytail and a tight business suit will go to win at any cost. It’s intriguing, but I guess I just felt unfulfilled by the end. It was all there. It just seemed to work itself all out too conveniently by the end. 


By Marc S. Sanders

The first MCU movie that makes the biggest departure from any of the other installments in the franchise.

Doctor Strange operates on a level beyond punchy powers as Avengers director Joss Whedon noted. The film explores a very far, very fictional belief in the mystical arts and magic. So much so that sometimes characters like The Ancient One and Mordo speak in an English that is so foreign and so confusing. Still, I’m not complaining.

I enjoyed this film immensely. Benedict Cumberbatch is so right in the role of Stephen Strange. His character’s arrogance is not over the top, but necessary and evident. I really liked his transition from expert surgeon to a permanently damaged physical person and then onto The Sorcerer Supreme complete with the Cloak of Levitation, a better and more deserving way to describe it than just another cape.

The morphing of city landscapes and neighborhoods into arced and flipped and reverse mazes are really fun and change shape with crisp sound editing and music.

Good supporting work is also on display from Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and especially Tilda Swinton. My one wish is that the villain played by the very capable Mads Mikkellsen was fleshed out more. He’s an actor who can handle heavy roles. Regretfully, I don’t think the script gives him enough to do here.

This Marvel chapter stands on its own with little reliance on the other films. However, the green infinity stone at play here is easier to understand now that I’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War. I’m talking about The Time Stone, of course!

Doctor Strange is a solid film; one that I would love to watch again a year from now and likely feel just as entertained.

NOTE: stay away from the 3D Blu Ray discs. Watch it in 2D. Having seen the 3D in theatres the first time, I clearly remember not enjoying the film very much. It was blurry and dark. At times the picture didn’t look crisp. The 3D effort was a nuisance and a terrible distraction. Less is more. Stick with 2D.

LION (2016, Australia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

LION (2016)
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Sunny Pawar, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A five-year-old Indian boy is adopted by an Australian couple after getting lost hundreds of kilometers from home. 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.

It’s as if Charles Dickens came back to life and concocted the plot of Lion.

In 1986, in Central India, a young boy named Saroo, lives with his family, hovering on the knife edge between poverty and desperation.  He and his older brother, Guddu, steal coal and redeem it for two bags of milk.  Their mother asks where they got it, but they do not answer, and she tactfully does not press the question.  One day, Saroo begs Guddu to take him on a week-long job.  At the train station, Guddu leaves Saroo on a bench while he goes to make sure the job is still waiting.  Saroo dozes off, and when he awakes, the station is empty…and Guddu is nowhere to be found.  Saroo wanders onto a decommissioned train and curls up for another nap.  But when he wakes this time, the train has left the station far behind.  He winds up in Calcutta, 1,600 kilometers from his village, with no way to get home or contact his family.  (The end credits inform us that 80,000 children vanish in India every year.)

Plot-wise, there’s not much to distinguish Lion from any number of similar films.  The dreaded words “soap opera” came to mind as the movie progressed.  We get a nice little wrinkle when, after several months of wandering Calcutta and winding up in a government orphanage-slash-prison, Saroo is adopted by a loving Australian family, John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), who also adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh, two years after adopting Saroo.  Then we jump to 2008, Saroo is now a strapping young man (Dev Patel) who leaves home to go to university in Melbourne, but the unforgettable smell of a specific Indian pastry brings back memories of his childhood, and he decides to find the family he lost.

So, yeah, just another movie-of-the-week on your basic third-tier cable channel, right?  Not exactly.  What distinguishes Lion is its storytelling.  Just like in comedy, it’s all in the delivery.  This was director Garth Davis’s first feature film, but you wouldn’t know it.  The whole movie feels slick and polished.  The establishing or transitional shots between scenes are intentionally reminiscent of the new online research tool that was all the rage at the time: Google Earth.  It’s very subtle, but it’s there, like it was designed to not be noticed until the movie is almost over.

The performances from the adult cast are all great, but what stood out to me was the boy playing young Saroo.  His name is Sunny Pawar.  He was 8 years old during filming, but he is so small he looks 5 or 6.  His story, from introduction until he grows up into Dev Patel, occupies nearly half of the film’s running time, and during that time he must make us feel sorry for him, empathize with him, and root for him every step of the way.  In the hands of an experienced child actor, we might have viewed his performance as just that: a performance.  But Sunny was a non-actor when he was selected for this part, and that makes all the difference.  The look on his face when he finds himself lost is indescribably real.  There’s a scene where he is trying to make himself understood to a ticket agent (he speaks Hindi, but in Calcutta everyone speaks Bengali).  The adults try to move him out of the line, but for a brief instant, he gets furious and shoves the adult hands and bodies away from him.  The rage in that tiny face and in his body language was utterly convincing.  I think it was that moment when I felt I was watching something a little more elevated than a cable melodrama.

Although the story is a bit trite as far as movies go, there’s something to be said about the universality of its message.  There isn’t a soul who can watch Lion without completely understanding Saroo’s desire to find his real family, along with his desire to keep his adopted mother in the dark about his obsession.  I’m not a parent, but I know some close friends who went the adoption route, and I found myself thinking of them and their children, and how they might feel if they found out their kids were actively searching for their real parents.  Lion addresses this heartbreaking scenario in a marvelous scene between the adult Saroo and his mother, Sue, in which she reveals the real reason she decided to adopt.

Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy, brings up a terrible, but probable, scenario: what if Saroo completes his search, finds his village, and travels to India…only to find his family isn’t there?  It’s been over 20 years.  He believes his mother and brother searched for him, but he can’t really know that for sure.  Maybe they moved away.  Maybe they’re dead.  Saroo doesn’t care.  For him, that chapter of his life must be closed one way or the other or he will feel lost and adrift for the rest of his life.  Closure is everything.

This is another one of those movies where, as an audience member, we’re put through the wringer for about 100 or so minutes so we can experience the full emotional impact of the film’s climax.  At some point, we can surmise that, yes, Saroo is eventually going to travel to India.  What he finds there, I would not DREAM of revealing.  I think it’s safe to say that many people I know would be reduced to tears by the time the final credits roll.  The finale justifies the overall melodramatic tone of the film, especially because of how well the damn thing was made.

Lion is one of the few true-blue melodramas that I would wholeheartedly recommend, even and especially to anyone who doesn’t think they like soap operas.  Dickens would have approved.

I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016, Great Britain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: After surviving a heart attack, a 59-year-old carpenter fights bureaucratic rules and regulations to receive Employment and Support Allowance from the British government.

I, Daniel Blake made me mad.  Not because it’s a bad film – it’s a SENSATIONAL film, as a matter of fact.  Not because I didn’t like the characters or the story or the direction…everything is top-notch.  What made me mad was the gross injustices on display from an uncaring, monolithic government agency whose sole aim appears to be to discourage the very people it’s supposed to be helping from applying for help in the first place.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and been told by his doctors that he should not go back to work.  For a while, he receives the Employment and Support Allowance from the British government, but after one of his physicals, the Employment office deems him fit for work, directly contradicting his doctor’s orders.  So now, with no other means of financial support, Daniel must prove that he’s looking for work, even though he can’t go back to work, to satisfy the Employment agency’s requirements.

The amount of bureaucratic run-around on display in this movie is stunningly awful, even more so because it has the ring of authenticity.  The end credits of the film send a special thanks to workers within the appropriate governmental departments who provided “invaluable information, but who must remain anonymous.”  It is literally illegal for employees or even ex-employees to speak publicly about employment assistance.  Really?!

For Daniel, the internet is a foreign country, a foreign planet.  Faced with a mouse for the first time in his life, he holds it up to the computer screen to move the cursor.  But these agencies are converting to “digital by default.”  So, learn he must.  On one of his many trips to a local job center, an employee takes pity on him and starts walking him through the online registration process.  She doesn’t get very far before her supervisor calls her into an office to reprimand her for providing extra help to applicants.  (“You don’t want to set a precedent for these people…”)  Despicable.

The horror-story nature of his predicament is tempered by his encounter with a single mother of two, Katie (Hayley Squires), who is going through a horror story of her own.  Late to a meeting because of getting on the wrong bus in an unfamiliar city, she is informed her employment assistance cannot be extended without an appeal.  Katie is in dire straits, but she is a master at keeping her stress hidden from her children.  Daniel and Katie’s friendship provides much-needed moments of warmth during this otherwise chilling cautionary tale.

Ken Loach directs I, Daniel Blake with a calmness that belies the anger at its core.  It feels like a documentary, much like the Paul Greengrass films Bloody Sunday and United 93, but with fewer stylistic fireworks.  There are no “shaky-cam” shots following the main characters, no camera zooms, no gimmickry of any kind.  There is some movement, but it’s kept to a minimum.  The focus is always on the story.  That simplicity is a big part of what makes this film immensely more powerful than many other similar films that rail against corporate bureaucracies.  (I’d name examples, but you get the idea, I think.)

When the film ended, I wanted to throw something.  I had flashbacks to those first early months of the Covid shutdown in 2020.  I was indefinitely “furloughed” from my job and was forced to go online and navigate the notorious Florida Unemployment website.  I once had to make a call to the main line.  I stayed on hold for three – count them – three hours…only to hear a recorded message tell me they were unable to speak to me and to call again later.

At one point, Daniel receives a notice in the mail that his support is being cut off.  He makes a call so he can file an appeal.  After waiting on hold for 90 minutes, the person on the other end tells Daniel he should have gotten a call from the “decision maker.”  Daniel received no such call.  “Well, you should have gotten the call before you got the letter.”  Daniel asks if he can speak to the decision maker anyway.  “Sorry, I can’t transfer you until he’s called you about the letter.”  But he’s already GOTTEN the letter!  I empathized with poor Daniel to such a degree that it was almost painful to watch.

I seem to be simply rehashing the plot.  The effect I, Daniel Blake had on me is hard to put into words.  It’s so well-made, so well-written, so sharply observant of human behavior and the coldness of a government bureaucracy more intent on process than on actual assistance.  I really felt as if Daniel and Katie were real people.  I smiled when Daniel slyly gives Katie £20 to help pay for the electric.  I shook my head in sorrow when Katie gives in to desperation and shoplifts.  I smiled again when Daniel takes a can of black spray paint to the walls of the Employment Office.  And when the end of the film rolled around…well.  I was right there with them, emotionally, when it happened.  You can’t ask for better filmmaking than that.


By Marc S. Sanders

I think the Civil War chapter must be one of the best installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action ranging from fight scenes to car chases to shootouts and explosions are so well executed and edited.

This film lives up to what makes each Marvel character special in their own way, and while most of the attention is naturally focused on Chris Evans’ Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier (aka Bucky), the large cast is respectively given numerous moments to shine individually with well-conceived backgrounds and traits beyond just their superpowers.

Interestingly, until the late scene where all the characters collide against one another, the film was very shy of any intentional humor and focused more on what is morally correct in this fantasy world. There was a debate to grapple with, and a threat to both sides of the moral compass. All good layered dimensions, my favorite vice of effective storytelling.

Anyone who says popcorn movies like Avengers are nothing more and simply brainless would fail at recognizing good analysis and dimension. More often than not the MCU succeeds at setting up a dilemma to keep a viewer hooked. Once they are taken…then the storytellers will do something bold like destroy the headquarters, or an airport, or a whole city or Iron Man’s armor, and on and on. Too many other franchises (Transformers, Fast/Furious or DC) bring the buildings down before the cement is dry and the windows are Windexed. That’s when story is neglected for showmanship. There’s no weight to the loss. What do I care who died? You just destroyed the village in order to save it. Disney and Marvel know this and steer clear of those habits.

The cast is so perfectly assembled in Civil War. They interact very well with line exchanges, debates and fisticuffs.

Much of this film was a blur during my first viewing. These are Marvel movies. There are so many now, the scenes all seem to blend together. Yet now I see this particular film is special. Good set pieces, costumes, makeup, visual effects and great performances lead to a great, fun presentation. I’m sold.


By Marc S. Sanders

“Please Lord. Help me get one more.”

Desmond Dawes rescued 75 American soldiers during the assault on Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, Japan following the United States’ entry into World War II, and he did it without ever lifting a weapon.

War pictures have become somewhat boring to me lately. The battle scenes all blend together. The main characters seem to be the same each time. They all have a different heritage (Polish, Jewish, Italian). There’s the soldier who is the bully. The one who’s brother died in battle so he enlisted. The platoon leader has to bark orders to such a degree that audience must hate him, only to love him later on when he makes the ultimate sacrifice. It’s become all the same.

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge overcomes those tropes for most of the picture but at times it still suffers from that curse of sameness. It’s only when he returns to focus on his lead actor, Andrew Garfield, who plays Dawes, that we see something special. Dawes’ reasons for not lifting a weapon are vastly explored and they are convincingly justifiable when his domestic life is depicted under the tyranny of an abusive, alcoholic father suffering from his own demons of war. Hugo Weaving is Desmond’s father. Why isn’t he getting any accolades for his performance? He’s fantastic.

Garfield is very good in the role even if he really doesn’t have to shape a character arc for himself. His performance is all about maintaining his character’s convictions. He doesn’t change. Rather, the men he serves with do.

Teresa Palmer plays his wife, Dorothy, and she’s good as well. She’s not wasted in the script (like I found Michelle Williams in Manchester By The Sea or Rooney Mara to be in Lion.). I only wish Gibson showed one last scene between the characters before the film closed out.

Vince Vaughn was an issue for me, miscast as the platoon’s drill sergeant. He’s been pigeonholed in too many comedic roles I guess that he failed to convince me of his authority here. Maybe that’s my problem. I dunno.

Hacksaw Ridge is another very good picture from 2016, but it is weighted down by graphic battle scenes, all well played out, mind you, but all done before. It’s not until late in the film that Garfield steps up to show why Dawes was so special to this particular moment in history. That’s when the emotion of the film kicks in and the interest heightens itself.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Bill Morrison
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1978, a treasure trove of lost silent films and newsreels is discovered buried under permafrost in the Yukon.

Time travel is real.  To the past, at least.  The future’s another story.  But you experience time travel every time you watch an old movie or look through photo albums.  Light waves from years, decades, or perhaps just minutes ago are captured and stored on paper or your phone (or the “cloud”) so you or someone in the future can look at it and see what you looked like in your high school yearbook, or an old newspaper clipping, or that one candid shot from your cousin’s wedding.

You ever find an old dusty photo album in someone’s attic or a thrift store?  You open it up, and there are people’s faces, and whether you know them or not, there they are.  They may be long dead, but you are a time traveler, looking through a window into the past.

That’s what happened in 1978.  In a small town in the Canadian Yukon called Dawson City, construction workers uncovered an old swimming pool dating back to the 1910s and ‘20s.  Inside it, protected by the harsh permafrost, were hundreds of reels of old cellulose nitrate film.  These reels included old silent films long thought lost, travelogues, and old newsreels, back when the concept of the newsreel was first invented.  Back when cinema was a brand-new art form.

The story of how those films came to be buried for over sixty years is told in Brian Morrison’s documentary.  Dawson City sprouted almost overnight back in 1896 in the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush that brought thousands of prospectors to the area.  When they weren’t prospecting in the hills, all those people needed something to do.  Casinos, restaurants, and dance halls fit the bill, but at some point, someone hit on the idea of building a theater to take advantage of the new art form sweeping the nation: silent films.  Movie distributors down the coast in California included Dawson City on their list of customers, but because Dawson City was so remote, it was decided that it was too expensive to pay to have them shipped back to California.  So they asked the Dawson City officials to just store them away – safely, as cellulose nitrate film was extremely flammable.

At some point, when the storage facility got too full, those old silent films were either chucked into the nearest river or used as landfill for an old swimming pool that was converted into a hockey rink.  And there they stayed until 1978.  When they were uncovered, they were carefully packed away and shipped to facilities in Canada and the U.S. where technicians painstakingly restored the films as best as they could.

What makes Dawson City: Frozen Time so unique and compelling is the fact that this entire history is told with virtually no narration, using only titles and footage from the restored silent films themselves.  (Old photographs are also used, but these are no less haunting than the film clips themselves.)  There is a romance to seeing these relatively ancient images brought to life once more, especially the documentary scenes showing daily life in a rough boomtown.  We see old clips of men trudging up snowbound mountain passes for their shot at striking it rich.  People walking the streets looking curiously at the camera…what is that thing, they’re probably thinking.

We see newsreels featuring the likes of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson before he and seven other players tarnished themselves with the White Sox scandal.  We see a clip of spectators watching a baseball game from hundreds of miles away with the help of a telegraph and a big play-by-play scoreboard that featured little magnetic markers showing the progress of base runners in real time.  (Ever watch a fantasy football play-by-play on your computer or phone?  Same thing.)  I never even knew anything like that existed.

The silent films themselves, like all the other reels, have varying degrees of damage, especially water damage.  To try to watch one of them as an actual cinematic experience would be extremely distracting.  But as a previously closed window into the past, they are fascinating.  In my mind, it was like someone had opened a portal or a wormhole where we can see the past without interacting with it.  The warps and spots and tears only make the experience even more exotic.  It’s as if the fabric of the space-time continuum was being torn for our benefit, but it can only show us so much.

Maybe my imagination ran away with me.  Who knows?  I think this is the kind of documentary you’ll either love or hate.  All I can say is that, for two hours, Dawson City: Frozen Time made me feel as transported as only film can do.  The idea of knowing that these images were just waiting in a landfill to be discovered, and that here I am watching them now, sort of closing the circuit between past and present…it felt profound.  I don’t know if this is streaming anywhere, but if you’re any kind of film fanatic, you owe it to yourself to check this out.