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A Time Out of War

Short Civil War Story
Towards the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), two Union soldiers and one Confederate trade shots at each other in order to maintain their positions on a riverbank. All bullets miss. As the hot sun is relentless, the three negotiate a one-hour truce. During this time, they develop a mutual respect for one another as they trade hardtack and tobacco. While fishing, a Union soldier discovers a dead comrade in the river. The following shots make a fitting ending. In 2007 the film was added to the National Film Registry.

Wind River

Murder on an Indian Reservation Where "You're On Your Own"
On the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, a teenage girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) runs without winter clothing and barefoot in the snow. A shot rings out, and she falls to the ground. But she gets up and tries to run. It is obvious that her time is over.

In the next scene, we are introduced to Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) as he shoots one of the wolves preying upon a small herd of sheep. Employed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, he is an expert tracker and hunter. Cory has a young son, and is divorced from his Indian wife, Wilma (Julia Jones). When we next see him, Cory is tracking a mountain lion that killed a steer. After that he comes upon the body of the dead girl, six miles from the nearest dwelling. Three years earlier Cory had lost his 16 year-old daughter, Emily, after a party. She too was found dead in the snow by a sheep herder. The circumstances of Emily's death are not known, but Natalie and Emily were best friends.

Cory summons the tribal police, including Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene). Since the FBI has jurisdiction over homicides on Indian reservations, the nearest agent to the area is summoned: young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Although well-meaning, she is totally unprepared for the ordeal; she has neither appropriate winter clothing nor knowledge of American indian culture. She hires Cory to track down Matt Rayburn (Jon Bernthal), Natalie's boyfriend.

Past the half-way part, we see in flashback Natalie with Matt together. The two were obviously in love, and Matt had plans to marry the pretty Indian girl. While tracking to find the whereabouts of Matt, Cory learns that the only folks in the area are the drill site security guards, located in trailers a few miles away. Cory wants to go to the trailers where Matt lives. After separating from the tribal police group, Cory discovers Matt's body in the snow. Meanwhile there is tension between the tribal police and drill site security guards. And like a gunfight in the old West, bullets will settle affairs.

This modern western (or neo-western) was directed by Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan's film is the third of his trilogy: Sicario (2015), Hell or High water (2016), and Wind River (2017). According to Sheridan, "Wind River" was made to highlight the sexual assaults and disappearances of Native American women on Indian reservation lands. Although the Wind River Indian reservation lands are beautiful and scenic, the film conveys the harsh realities of those who reside there. The acting is admirable all-around. Cory adequately conveys his stoicism and his hidden pain, but remains a strong man one should not mess with. He works within his code of honor all the way. But the blueprint of the film is the bleak and relentless winter landscape that dominates the actions of all of the characters. See it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A Mole in the British Intelligence Service (M16)
At the beginning, British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is sent to Budapest to speak with a Hungarian general who wants to defect to the West. The general also knows the name of the mole that infests the British Secret Service (known as "The Circus"). As the arrangement was a Soviet set-up, it goes badly with Prideaux being shot. Because of the disaster, agents "Control" (John Hurt) and "Beggerman" (George Smiley = Gary Oldman) are dismissed from service.

Out of retirement, Smiley is given an independent assignment to ferret out the mole in the Circus. The top men there are Smiley and Control's successors: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) as the new chief, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) as the deputy, and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) as the two lieutenants.

Smiley picks Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd Pack) to assist him. Smiley is not the dashing James Bond type of spy with the fast cars, the sexy girls, and the quick gun. On the contrary, he wears eyeglasses, speaks softly, and walks slowly. Smiley is contained and cool, and cunning and brilliant. He absorbs information like a dry sponge on a puddle of water. He rarely raises his voice, and he does so after he has trapped the culprit at the end: "What are you then . . ."

To complicate matters in a fairly complicated movie, there are sub-stories, like Smiley's wife Ann leaving him. There is another story, with Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) who works for Guillam. Tarr has an affair with pretty blonde Soviet agent Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) whom he met in Istanbul. She wants to defect, but the mole tells the Russians, who capture her. Tarr wants her back.

Meanwhile the top four at The Circus, Smiley's successors, have formed a secret organization known as "Witchcraft" unknown to Smiley. Witchcraft was created to obtain sensitive information from the Soviets in the name of Polyakov (Konstantin Khabensky). In reality, Polyakov is playing a game as he is a Soviet spy, not really a double agent, who works for the USSR! He obtains good information, while providing little (as Smiley says, "glitter amongst the chicken feed"). What the United States tell the Circus, will be told to the Kremlin.

Smiley is surprised to learn that Prideaux is back in England teaching a class in school. He lives in a trailer. The Soviets actually returned him after getting all they could out of him.

Control creates a list of mole suspects with code names

"Tinker" - Percy Alleline "Tailor" - Bill Haydon "Soldier" - Roy Bland "Poor Man" - Toby Esterhase "Beggarman" - Smiley (not really a suspect)

Smiley finds out that Toby is a messenger to the others, who are leakers in one way or another. He forces Toby, who may have been duped, to provide Polyakov's Paris safe house address. There a meeting is taking place with Polyakov and the mole. It is Haydon. After being captured by Smiley, Haydon is being held in detention to be exchanged for another. But Prideaux finds out and shoots him with a high-powered rifle. Meanwhile, Ann has returned to Smiley. The last scene shows Smiley heading to work: he is now the new "Control" and awaits his new team.

In keeping with the spirit of the times of the Cold War, England is sufficiently chilly and gray throughout. The movie is complicated with many characters, but they are all good actors. The film is based upon the espionage novel by British author John le Carré. He has a cameo: You will catch of glimpse of him at the Soviet Embassy's Christmas celebration singing a patriotic song.

A Time for Miracles

The First American Catholic Saint
The film, made for television, is a sincere biography of America's first native-born Catholic saint, Elizabeth Bayley Seton. Born of a wealthy Protestant family in New York City in 1774, Elizabeth at age 19 was happily married to a wealthy businessman in the import trade.

Before long, though, she began to suffer a series of trials, misfortunes, and tragedies beginning with her husband's loss of fortune and later his early death. She and her five children were initially rescued by kindly Italians (the Filicchi family) from which she discovered Roman Catholicism.

Her conversion took place at a time when Catholics were heavily persecuted in the United States. When a Huguenot relative complained that European Catholics wronged Huguenots, Elizabeth calmly replied that Catholics were equally persecuted in America. Gradually she was accepted by some family members, including her five children. Under the support of Bishop John Carroll, the only Catholic bishop in the USA, she began a school for girls in Maryland. While her achievements occurred, she sustained terrible heartbreaks: two of her children (both girls) died before they reached maturity. Tuberculosis took its toll.

Over time Elizabeth steadfastly began or influenced the growth of Catholic schools (the beginning of the parochial school system), orphanages, and hospitals. Non-Catholics were welcome. Elizabeth died of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 46 in 1821.

The acting is very good, and Kate Mulgrew shines in the lead role. In supporting roles, Lorne Greene and John Forsythe were effective as clergymen.

The Scarlet and the Black

Walking a Broad White Line
Rome, September 1943: while the allies commence landings at Salerno after the Italians withdrew from the war, German General Max Helm (Walter Gotell) and Colonel Herbert Kappler (Christopher Plummer) remind Pope XII (Sir John Gielgud) of the occupation of Rome and the realities of what is expected. The German officers know quite well that the Vatican is harboring many refugees: downed pilots, escaped POWs, Jews, and others. The Germans paint a broad white line ostensibly to stop them from infringing inside neutral Vatican, but in reality to remind the Pope that his authority stops there! It is a prison wall.

Colonel Kappler, the head of the Gestapo in Rome, has an office that is furnished with a prominent bust of Emperor Nero. He soon becomes well-aware of the activities of Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (Gregory Peck), who has been organizing the help and safe keeping of those who seek assistance.

When a Jewish delegation under the leadership of Rabbi Leoni (Remo Remotti) approach Kappler about the safe-keeping of Jewish families, the German assures them that the notorious "camps" are merely allied propaganda. Jews would be treated no differently than other Italians. Then Kappler names his price: one million lira plus 100 pounds of gold. Although the Jews deliver the goods under the leadership of O'Flaherty, Kappler begins the gradual round-up of many of them for work camps outside Italy.

Monsignor O'Flaherty is well aware that his activities are carefully watched by the Nazis. The Swiss Embassy warns the monsignor that Kappler is an "extremely dangerous man." The priest is not too worried, and does well in the cat-and-mouse game. Along the way Italian priests Morosini (Angelo Infanti) and Vittorio (Raf Vallone) are executed by the Nazis for working with the Monsignor. When Kappler visits the Pius XII to strong-arm him, the Pope defends and protects Monsignor O'Flaherty, and tells the Nazi that if he wants to create an international incident to go ahead! The Pope is torn between his duties to safeguard the Church and Catholics and provoking the Nazis occupiers by allowing the harboring others.

Meanwhile as the Americans and British advance closer to Rome in the spring of 1944, Kappler is like a candle burning at both ends. He has his wife and two children to think about. So what will be the outcome?

The film is based upon the true story of an Irish Monsignor assigned to the Vatican who - at great danger to himself and his Italian allies - saved more than 4,000 downed pilots, escaped POWs, Jews, and Italian resistance fighters. Ironically, many hoarded were British nationals, who were natural enemies of the Irish priest.

The historically accurate movie is satisfying and inspiring, while the acting is top-notch, like the script. The music is by famed composer and conductor, Ennio Morricone. The picture was filmed to great advantage on location at Rome.

A Dog's Purpose

A Dog Searches for the Meaning of His Existence
This tale is actually about five dogs that live their lives with various people, die (except the last), and are reincarnated with past memories. Although the ending is uplifting, the movie is a tear-jerker for doggie lovers who have lost their furry ones. "A Dog's Purpose" is really not meant to be a great film, but rather is a heartfelt one. It is family-friendly with no objectionable scenes. Josh Gad is the voice of all the dogs.

The story begins around 1962 to the sound of Bruce Channel's song "Hey Baby"; the first dog is a beagle puppy, but within a few weeks is caught by the dogcatcher, ending his free-wheeling days. He is soon euthanized. The episode is very short, lasting only a few moments. It is followed by the loveable golden red retriever "Bailey," the playmate of eight year-old Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar). This section is the longest, as it occupies about 50 minutes of the film. Much time is spent in a rural area. Later Bailey saves Ethan and his mother from a fire started by an ignorant boob. Bailey questions, "What is the purpose of life." We see Ethan grow (K.J. Apa) ) and fall into romance with Hannah (Britt Robertson), whom he met at a county fair. Later, after an injury, Ethan tells Hannah it is best for her to move on. Soon Ethan leaves for agricultural college. Bailey eventually pines away, grows old, and gets sick and is humanely put to sleep at the veterinarian's office.

In the third segment, "Ellie" is a female German shepherd. She is owned by a lonely policeman, Carlos in Chicago. Ellie saves a kidnapped girl from drowning, and dies heroically after being shot by the kidnapper. In the next episode, "Tino" is a corgi owned by the lonely Maya, a college student in Atlanta. Tino finds a female playmate "Roxy." In a touching scene near the end of the section, Tino laments as he sees the aging Roxy go the vet's, never to return. Tino later passes away in Maya's presence.

The final episode brings it all back together. Around 2005 "Waffles" is a St. Bernard mix who initially has a bad owner who drops him off in an abandoned lot, never to return. Isn't that what uncaring pet owners do? Anyway, Waffles runs away and works his way back to the country at Ethan's farm that he inherited from his grandfather. Ethan (Dennis Quaid) is now almost a senior citizen. Waffles' name is now Buddy. Widowed Hannah (Peggy Lipton) returns into Ethan's life, helped along by Buddy, whom Ethan recognizes as Bailey, the original "boss dog" who has found his purpose in life.

As Buddy says, "Have fun," and "Find someone to save and save them," and "Be here now." This writer would add that we have lives outside of our dogs, but our devoted pets only have us! Give them the time that they need. A sequel, "A Dog's Journey," is premiering this week.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers Was the Real Deal
Morgan Neville directed this biography of the American television personality, the genial Fred Rogers (1928-2003), who was the creator and producer of the preschool television series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Sears, the television show was broadcast from February 1968 to August 2000. It opened with Rogers changing into a cardigan sweater; there were various colors. Then there were the puppets like Daniel the shy Tiger and King Friday XIII, and folks like Lady Aberlin and Francois Clemmons. Of course Fred was the voice of ten puppets. And the red trolley was always seen.

From Pittsburgh, the pleasant Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who had a tremendous bond with children. Rogers loved young people and wanted to help them understand life in their informative years. It is still unique to see such a genuinely caring and respectful person as a television star who had empathy about so many others, regardless of their race, creed, or handicap. It is unfortunate that there are so few like him in the entertainment field, which seems to be mainly populated by hypocrites and charlatans.

In 1969 Fred Rogers testified before a senate subcommittee to get public funding for PBS broadcasting shows. His sincere "expression of care to each child every day" speech convinced the Democrat Senator from Rhode Island, John O. Pastore, to provide the $20 million budget needed.

He was unfairly criticized by some because he had believed that every child was "special" (without earning the term). What Rogers had conveyed was that one did not have to do anything sensational to be loved. Another quote is children "need adults who will protect them from the ever-ready molders of their world." Rogers central message was "Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships . . . love or the lack of it."


Appropriately Sexy, but Otherwise Inane
Before the initial credits appear, Sadie (Analeigh Tipton) is engaged in an intense sexual act with her ex-boyfriend, bearded Alex (Jakob Cedergren). Interposed are brief back-shots of her in various sexual proclivities.

After the credits, Sadie is the guest of honor at a book tour in Turin, Italy, where, in describing her autobiography, she relates her sexual feelings to a gathering. Her latest boyfriend is Thierry (Valentin Merlet). After the gathering, Alex, who is around, invites her to a seamy club, where she meets Francesca (Marta Gastini), who is as attractive as Sadie is. Alex invites Sadie and Francesca to his business-partner's villa, really a 17th century walled fortress decorated with magnificent art and statues. For some insipid reason she accepts.

At the villa Sadie and Francesca take drugs (pills) with alcohol. Sadie develops a lesbian relationship with Francesca. Meanwhile, bizarre rituals occur and masked guests attend wearing strange attire. There is a ritualistic killing, a "black magic" type of ceremony. Is it all a dream? Bloodstained fingers say no. When Sadie questions Alex the next day, he says she should have known what she was getting into.

Thierry then appears at the villa for some reason, but is rebuffed by sexually-charged Sadie. Later it is Thierry who is tied up and on the sacrificial agenda. Sadie is given a knife. What will Sadie do? Will she ever escape her dilemma? Is her name a derivative of sadism?

This is an artsy type of film like "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), an entirely different film, but also difficult to understand. Despite its colorful sets, erotic scenes, and on-location filming, "Compulsion" makes little sense. The screenwriting and plot are weak, and the film unmemorable.

A Perfect Getaway

Killers Stalk Hikers
Clips briefly show nerdy screenwriter Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney Anderson's (Milla Jovovich) wedding before the opening credits. Their honeymoon is an adventurous hike (11-mile Kalalau Trail) on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai.

They meet other hikers Nick (Timothy Olyphant), a former special ops proficient with the bow-and-arrow ("an American Jedi"), and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), a southern girl adept with the knife. Cliff and Cydney have already been on the wrong side of hitch-hikers daffy Cleo (Marley Shelton) and hot-tempered Kale (Chris Hemsworth), ominous wild-and-woolly types. Tension begins to develop early on (within 18 minutes) when Cliff and Cydney discover from three woman hikers that young newlyweds from Florida were murdered at the Hawaiian Island of Oahu. The local police are searching for a psychopathic team of a man and a woman. Before long the hiker-couples begin to suspect each other.

It has its red herrings, or as one hiker insists, "red snappers." There is a twist towards the end, and even another one after that. There is also black-blue flashback footage covering recent events. But the movie cheats the audience: the murderers by themselves wonder who the killers are! Strange indeed! Anyway, the idyllic paradise is gone by the end.

The cinematography is at a high level; filmed mostly in Puerto Rico. Written and directed by David Twohy.


Innovative and Clever, But Also Confusing to Viewers
Leonard Shelby, who suffers from short-term memory loss, attempts to find the identity of the surviving thug who raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox) by retaining Polaroid photos and notes that are stuffed into his pockets, and by tattooing essential clues on his body. Although he was able to shoot and kill one of his wife's two assailants, the second villain caused him a serious blow to the head, damaging his brain. The police do not believe in a second attacker. As Leonard remembers the past before his wife's murders, he has anterograde, and not retrograde amnesia, and knows how to read, to drive, get gas, handle personal affairs, etc. If Leonard's conversations exceed 5 minutes or so, he will forget what the subject was to begin with. His personal struggles are obviously great. When he awakens, he has to determine where he is and how he got there. When a man chases him, he is at first confused and thinks he is chasing the man and wondering why. He knows the truth when the other man fires a gun at him.

To tell the tale, Director Christopher Nolan demonstrates an unusual take: there are two alternate timelines. They comprise a black and white part told chronologically and the color sequence division that is told in reverse (non-linear). They merge in the middle of the film although the black and white scenes continue to nearly the end. Each scene is divided into 5-10 minute segments.

The film begins in color with the murder of major character John Edward "Teddy" Gammell (Joe Pantoliano) and works backwards to show the events leading up to it. Leonard, in his own mind, believes that Teddy was one of two assailants that killed his wife. But Leonard is looking at the picture from his own (flawed) perspective. Teddy may be a corrupt undercover cop who takes drug money to enrich himself, and even uses Leonard for his own purposes, but he is no murderer or rapist. And the way the film is constructed, we probably have to believe Teddy's comments because there is no other explanation from the director. Nevertheless, Leonard wrote "Don't believe his lies," under Teddy's photograph, and Teddy was doomed.

Then there is the woman, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Morse), who also has her own agenda and definitely uses Leonard. Her boyfriend is drug dealer Jimmy Grantz (Larry Holden). Near the end of the movie, in the last black and white segment, Leonard murders (again) Jimmy because he thought that he was the man who supposedly killed his wife. During the confrontation, Leonard receives those two annoying scratches seen throughout much of the film. After that Teddy warned him to leave town, discard Jimmy's expensive suit, and drive his jaguar because he would be a sitting duck for dealers looking for him. Leonard ignores Teddy.

The black and white chronological portion explains Leonard's life as an insurance claims investigator. He has authority to handle the case of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who has claimed short-term memory loss as a result of an automobile accident. After many tests Leonard concludes that Sammy's problem is mental, not physical from the accident, and advises his company to deny the claim. Later to test her husband, his diabetic wife subjects herself to a fatal test. Nevertheless, near the end of the film in a color sequence, Teddy explains to Leonard that Sammy was faking and never had a wife, and that it was Leonard's spouse who was a diabetic. Furthermore Teddy explains that it was he as a cop who was assigned to Leonard's wife's case. The two of them tracked down the thug and killed him. Also, he states that his wife survived the assault, and that Leonard invented Sammy's story as his own! Did Leonard forget to give his wife an insulin injection? Or did he give her too many? Assuming Teddy was telling the truth, why doesn't Leonard remember that his wife was a diabetic? Note that there is a color scene where Leonard lies in bed with his wife. He does appear to give her an injection in her right thigh, and right after pinches it. And near the very end we see tattoos are already on his body with his wife alive. She must have survived the assault.

The film ending is in color and shows Leonard driving up to Emma's Tattoo parlor. Guess what he will have tattooed on his body this time!?

The acting is top-notch throughout, as is the editing and pacing. The storyline is unique, to say the least, in the way the timelines are presented. Viewers have to pay close attention and trust their own memories when watching this one! I believe that there is a plot hole. Near the very end we see tattoos on Leonard's body with his wife alive. On the left side of his chest, a tattoo reads, "I've done it." (So he killed the thug who assaulted his wife.) But why is the particular tattoo missing throughout the movie? Anyway, Joe Pantoliano steals every scene where he appears. By the way, the movie doesn't say, but if this writer were a betting man he would say that Joe Pantoliano's character is called Teddy because of his strong resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt when he was a Rough Rider. Check out his old photos circa 1898.

The Mothman Prophecies

The Build-Up of Energy before Something Happens?
This motion picture is based upon strange events that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia from November 1966 to December 1967 although the incidents are set in the present. Also, liberties are taken with those events.

Washington Post reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) and his wife Mary (Debra Messing) purchase a new house during the Christmas season. Afterwards, during a drive, a strange moth-like object strikes their windshield, causing an accident, Mary alone is injured. While recuperating at the local hospital, Mary is discovered to have a glioblastoma (temporal lobe tumor), unrelated to the accident. She soon dies, and after her death Klein discovers her sketches of moth-like creatures, apparently human sized.

While driving two years later, Klein, not knowing how, winds up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia on the Ohio state line. Following a disturbance, Klein meets with local policewoman Sgt. Connie Mills (Laura Linney). Suddenly driven by a need to know, and unrelated to his reporting job, he gets involved in the Mothman Prophesies. They entail strange premonitions of upcoming disasters, like local resident Gordon Smallwood's (Will Patton) dream of an upcoming disaster. This dream foretold hints of a tragedy, the crash of airplane Number 9 in Denver, when supposedly 99 people perished. Also, Gordon has a nighttime vision of 300 dying. Then, right after, 300 people die in an earthquake in Ecuador. Later Gordon claims he saw Mothman alive as a man named Indrid Cold (Bill Laing). Connie also has a dream with her floating in the river, with the number 37 as an undercurrent.

Before the denouement, Klein hears voices on his telephone warning him of a catastrophe that will happen on the Ohio River. Discovering that the governor will visit The Edgewater Petrochemical Plant on the river, Klein incorrectly believes that the plant will blow up, taking many lives. His warnings are unheeded. Noticing a heavy traffic jam on the Silver Bridge on Christmas Eve, Klein realizes his error. While the bridge collapses, he warns and saves many folks of the imminent disaster. Connie, on the bridge, is unconscious as she falls into the freezing waters below. Reacting quickly, Klein jumps in and saves her life. The death toll? Thirty six, not 37! Were the fates cheated? The movie ends with no resolution; there is merely a statement that the prophesies suddenly ended. What was the phenomenon? The film doesn't say. In this writer's opinion, assuming that they are genuine, they were the work of demons.

Because of the interest of the mystery and the fine acting, the movie is watchable. On the other hand, the weak ending is like letting the air out of a balloon: it falls flat and disappoints. Then again, the long-timed collapse of the bridge was meticulously well-done. The Christmas scene at Point Pleasant is quite stark, in normal contrast to the season. Although the general local population may be unaware of the Mothman Prophecies, there is an undertone of trepidation. Richard Gere's character, John Klein, is based upon John A. Keel, a paranormal researcher who wrote the book, the inspiration for the movie. Keel was unmarried. Laura Linney's character is based upon Mary Hyre, who was a journalist and not a policewoman. When the Silver Bridge collapsed in December 1967, thirty-seven vehicles plunged into the river, and 46 died. The movie was mostly filmed in Pennsylvania, not West Virginia.

The Visit

Flawed Found-Footage Flick
Two young teenagers, digital camera filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her rapper brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) travel to spend a week with their mother's parents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter Mc Robbie), at their remote rural Pennsylvania farm. In daylight the grandparents seem normal enough, with grandma cooking up a storm and grandpa doing his farming chores. But within a short time, the teens begin to realize that there are odd occurrences. Pop Pop has instructed the kids not to enter the basement or leave their bedrooms after 9:30 PM. Why does Nana have a penchant for nocturnal rages? What is Pop Pop doing in the woodshed? And why does Nana want Becca to crawl all the way inside the kitchen oven in order to clean it? It is all explained that the grandparents are old people who have strange ways.

One has to wonder what the kids' mother (Kathryn Hahn) was thinking as she has not seen her parents since she was 19 years old because they apparently disapproved of her boyfriend, later the kids' long-gone father. She has recently reconnected with them, but not in person. But if she is so caring, why does she really let her kids go off on their own to the house of total strangers (to them)? Meanwhile she is more interested in the "hairy chest" competition on her cruise with her boyfriend when the kids are gone.

Becca, who carries around a camera so that we see much of the movie through her eyes, is making a documentary about their trip (to share with mom later). Tyler also uses the camera. So there are some off-center framing and wobbly hand-holding camera scenes. And there is also the software application known as Skype, where one can speak to one another over the internet and also see them via webcam. In the end, what the viewer sees is Becca's final editing of her "documentary."

SPOILER AND CRITIQUE: The director likes using twists in his movies, and "The Visit" is no exception. About three-quarters of the way through the film, Becca and Tyler discover that the grandparents they are visiting are not really their grandparents. Nana and Pop Pop are escaped mental patients who murdered their real grandparents (who were counselors at a sanitarium) and have taken over their lives. And now they want to murder Becca and Tyler for some unknown motives. The twist is flawed, however, for three reasons.

First, a concerned coworker from the sanitarium visits the house to check on the real grandparents, who obviously are missing from work. The fake grandparents manage to dodge the coworker, who speaks only to the kids. But it must also be obvious that the two escaped mental patients have been missed from the place. Does someone not realize that something is amiss? And how were the escaped patients so cognizant as to arrive at the counselors' homestead?

Second, the fact that Becca and Tyler don't recognize that the impostors are not their grandparents is supposedly explained by the fact that the kids have never met them before. But remember that Skype plays an important role in this story. The teens use Skype with their mom while she is on her cruise. Nana "accidentally" damaged the camera on Becca's laptop, so Mom can't see the fakers. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that there was never a Skype call with the kids, their "grandparents," and the mother all together. The real grandparents were internet literate as the hardwired network in the house is still operational for the teens.

Third, although the kids are chased by murderers, they still carry the camera. In a life threatening situation, one would expect victims to drop their gadgets as they run for their lives!

The acting is generally fine, but the teens are often annoying, and Tyler's rap scenes are terrible. Overall the film misses as much as it hits. M. Night Shyamalan had his peak with "The Sixth Sense" (1999) but has not lived up to his high expectations. He still keeps trying though.


Foreboding Psychological Thriller That's Out of Sequence
For a brief moment there is happiness in the film as Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) is pleasantly surprised with a new (restored house) by husband Jim (Julian McMahon). We see her content as a housewife with her two young daughters. Just after the opening scene, Linda's idealistic world collapses when Sheriff Reilly (Marc Macaulay) knocks on her front door to say that her husband has died on a business trip when his car was smashed by a jackknifed tractor-trailer.

After she awakens the next morning, she goes downstairs to find Jim quietly sipping coffee and watching television. She surmises that his death must have been a dream. The following morning, however, she finds the living room filled with solemn mourners dressed in black, including her mother Joanne (Kate Mulligan). There is a spilled bottle of prescribed lithium carbonate in her bathroom sink; the medication is used to treat manic-depressive disorder. The next day Linda awakens to find Jim in the shower. Is she losing her mind? As each weekday passes she finds herself living in two different worlds: Jim alive and Jim dead. There is a brief allusion to the occurrences as the two young girls piece together the board puzzle. Linda attempts to unravel the truth - like onion layers - behind the eerie situations and decides that she is living a sequential enigma, days of the week out of order. She has had a premonition of Jim's future road accident.

During the story, the film acquaints us to a detached psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Roth (Peter Stormare), whom Linda has consulted but remembers nothing; perplexing telephone answering-machine messages that confuse Linda; an understanding priest, Father Kennedy (Jude Ciccolella); and Jim's blonde and sexy administrative assistant Claire (Amber Valletta), who stealthily peeks behind a tree at his burial. Triggered by her psychiatrist, mental hospital personnel briefly take her away.

Before the denouement, the movie takes a turn toward the spiritual, with Linda consulting Father Kennedy. With some loose ends dangling at the two-thirds mark, "Premonition" morphs from a psychological thriller into a drama in which Linda, who has pieced together a weekly timeline of past and future events on scrap paper, rushes to the scene of Jim's accident to try to prevent it.

The overall production value of the picture is fine. Some will like the slow-motion visuals of the drawn-out accident between the tractor-trailer (tanker) and the car. Many will consider the ending to be pointless. The script could have been more convincing, especially the conversations between Linda and the well-meaning priest. Two brief exasperating conversations that stand out are between Linda and Jim, and Linda with her mother Joanne.

1. Linda to Jim: "If tomorrow is Wednesday, just please wake me up." If someone says that to an individual in a real life situation, wouldn't the other person ask what is going on? And Linda could have consulted her calendar or simply asked him about the day, in a casual way. 2. Linda with Joanne: "If I let Jim die, is that the same as killing him?" Joanne: "Honey, Jim's already dead. Good night dear." One would think that Joanne would have more to say!

The main weakness of the movie was not only in its confusion but also its illogicality. If Linda has a premonition, why does the movie continually veer back and forth with Jim's life? Except recently, she has never had a premonition, but her situation is unexplained. Also, Linda had met Claire (Amber Valletta) before Jim died, yet she did not recognize her at the funeral. Linda does a chart of the week's events, but we do not see enough of it; I find that annoying. As for other performances, the supporting cast is fine enough. Ms. Bullock does evoke her feeling of confusion and vulnerability, although she could have been more in tune with her premonition skills. Julian McMahon as the husband Jim does not appear concerned over his wife's ever increasing strange behavior. Only at the denouement does he evoke sympathy (when Linda finally shows a full smile). The movie was filmed in Shreveport, LA.

Rare Birds

A Quirky Rare Duck Indeed
The haute-cuisine Newfoundland restaurant (with its fine wines) called "The Auk," owned by Dave Purcell (William Hurt), is almost out of business because there is no business. One night his friend, Alphonse "Phonce" Murphy (Andy Jones) asks him over to his house for dinner, where he meets Phonce's sprightly sister-in-law Alice (Molly Parker), from Gull Tickle. After the meal, Phonce takes Dave to his shed through a secret tunnel that is lit up with sheets of light hung up via a clothesline (Yuri Tsvetkov illumination system). In the shed, Phonce shows Dave a 26-pound carton of cocaine that he found at sea. Phonce wants to know what it's worth, but Dave advises him to throw it into the ocean. But when Dave snorts it, he tells Phonce that it is good quality. Phonce then shows Dave his 1,200 pound two-man prototype RSV (Recreational Submarine Vehicle). So these story lines set up the rest of the movie.

At a local library Phonce convinces Dave to claim that he saw an extremely rare bird (Tasker's Sulphureous Duck) at Push Cove (near Cape Spear NHS) close to the restaurant. Such an assertion will attract birders to the area, and since they have to eat, will provide customers for Dave's business. The ruse works as birders rush to the bay to get a glimpse of the duck. The restaurant is extremely busy. Dave, though, gets into the habit of snorting cocaine. He feels guilty when a birder plunges off a nearby cliff in a fruitless search for the rare duck. Dave convinces him otherwise, and then enlists his aid in launching his prototype sub.

Just when the long-awaited romantic interlude between Dave and Alice apparently commences, his long separated wife Claire announces that she will be arriving from Washington, DC. Then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) show up! What will Dave do? Will he dump the coke? Will he hang onto the girl from Gull Tickle? Will the duck ruse last? What does the RCMP want? One thing is for certain, this writer did not need to see Hurt's naked butt! Another thing, the subplots generally detract from the main story. And Dave's attraction to the coke was pointless. By the way, the Taskers Sulphureous Duck is non-existent. And the Yuri Tsvetkov illumination system is probably unreal.

On positive notes, the cinematography is excellent: the movie was filmed off the rocky and rugged shores of Newfoundland. Hurt is good as usual, and Jones is comedic. Red-headed Molly Parker, a Canadian gal, is so appealing that she brightens up the entire film. She is a scene-stealer. I do not see her attraction for the far-older man, however, except for his food-preparation expertise. By the way, the restaurant is named after the Great Auk, the flightless Atlantic sea bird that was unfortunately hunted to extinction in 1844. "Rare Birds" is really harmless fluff, lighthearted entertainment that does not really go anywhere. Yet it is entertaining, and this author did not waste time in watching it.

The Elephant Man

A Tortured Soul Comforted by Compassion
In 1884 Victorian England, renowned London Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) attends a carnival side show to view a "freak" managed by slimy Bytes (Freddie Jones). The anomaly in question - the "Elephant Man" - 21 year-old Joseph "John" Merrick has a large and deformed head, a twisted spine, enlarged and nearly useless right arm, a twisted foot, and numerous scale growths on his back.

Bytes continually mistreats his meal ticket, and sadistically beats him without mercy. Treves first "borrows" Merrick to use as a model for his lecture before his academic colleagues. Then he decides to rescue him from Bytes but still believes that Merrick is a mental idiot who (thankfully) does not realize his plight. Treves eventually convinces Mr. Carr Gomm (Sir John Gielgud), House Governor, to allow Merrick to have residence at the local hospital. Treves wants Merrick to be used as a source of study. Over time Merrick and Treves become friends and the latter soon realizes that Merrick is no idiot. Not only can he speak, but also is a sensitive, gentle, and intelligent individual. Even the staff begins to respect Merrick. Ultimately though, his life would not be a long one.

In the surreal opening scene, a dreamlike sight, elephants are in motion and one attacks a woman. In reality, when Merrick's mother was pregnant with him in 1862, she was knocked down by a fairground elephant. Apparently - and not explained in the movie - both she and her son thought that the confrontation was the source of John's disease. This concept of "maternal impression," that emotional experiences of a pregnant woman could have lasting effect on unborn children, was seemingly a common belief in the 19th century.

A touching moment occurs when Merrick weeps when he is in the presence of Mrs. Treves (Hannah Gordon). He explains that he never had been in the company of such an attractive woman. Also note his most sincere appreciation when he receives a grooming kit as a present. Another impassioned scene occurs near the end when John proclaims to the crowd at the train station, "I am not an animal."

"The Elephant Man" is based upon Dr. Treves' account and not upon the play of the same name. Liberties have been taken, especially with Bytes' character. The Elephant Man's real name was Joseph Merrick, not John. Dr. Treves somehow had a mental block about Merrick's given name. Shot in crisp and appropriate black and white with smooth editing, the movie by David Lynch is well-filmed. Note the dark undertones of human misery in 19th century London. The music score Adagio for Strings is lovingly played and is so apropos. The acting is great all-around, including that of the supporting cast. Anthony Hopkins as the good doctor very well plays the part of a compassionate man who had to question himself of his ulterior motivation. Freddie Jones is appropriate as the sleazy Bytes. John Hurt is totally unrecognizable and outstanding; it took seven-eight hours daily to apply his makeup, and two hours to remove. I don't know how he accomplished his role so well.

"The Elephant Man" is the second best movie of the year (1980) after "Raging Bull." See both.

Safe Harbor

A Not-Too-Difficult-to-Solve Whodunit
At the beginning, when Portland police conduct a successful raid on some nefarious folks, we are introduced to detectives Carly Sagan (Tracey Gold) and her partner Joe Avery (Mitchell Kosterman). They have worked together for two years, although it is apparent that Carly likes to march to the beat of her own drum.

Our protagonists are called in to Safe Harbor, a refuge for abused young adolescents ages 12-16. The haven is owned by wealthy Olivia Wyatt (Pamela Perry). Her assistant is quirky Julia Thorpe (Stacy Grant), who seems to harbor a secret (no pun intended). Wyatt's son Sam (Steve Bacic), an investment broker, is an old friend of Carly. Anyway, a woman's strangled body is found on the harbor's grounds, with a painted red satanic image on the wall next to the body. After investigating, it is found that the young woman was a previous resident of the center. Tracking down the leads points to a previous maintenance man of the harbor, Ray Oakum (Scott Heindl). When the detectives confront him, he shoots his way out. We don't get to see much of him again until well into the second part.

Soon there is another strangled body with a red satanic image, and also another suspect, weird artist Daz Cobair (Jody Racicot). Meanwhile we discover that Carly was once a resident at Safe Harbor; she had witnessed her crazy father shoot her mother to death before turning his pistol on himself. Evidence begins to pile up against Oakum, especially after he has apparently been blackmailing Mrs. Wyatt ($75,000 in three payments) for hiring him in the first place. Julia Thorpe was really responsible for Oakum's hiring (and has obviously been protecting him). Having been imprisoned as a pedophile, he has a criminal background. Revealing this information publicly would have a negative effect on the school. Sam Wyatt has advised his mother to call Oakum's bluff, not to pay the bribe. But in the course of the film, it is revealed that most of the former residents of Safe Harbor matured poorly (into drug pushers, prostitutes, and never-do-well types). Then Mrs. Wyatt herself is found strangled.

This writer has taken you through most of the movie and will stop here so as to preclude any spoilers in the denouement. But there is a dialog involving Carly and another person past the half-way mark that reveals an important clue. See if you can find it.

The movie is not particularly suspenseful, but it is watchable. TV movie was filmed in Vancouver and in British Columbia, Canada.

I Am Wrath

John Travolta Stars in a Revenge Thriller
The movie begins with news montages about the unprecedented crime wave in Columbus, Ohio. Contrarily, Governor John Meserve (Patrick St. Esprit) gives a press conference and says the opposite: crime is down. When questioned by protestors about a proposed pipeline, Meserve promises that he has commissioned an independent study of the pipeline.

Vivian (Rebecca De Mornay), who has something to say about the proposed pipeline, picks up her unemployed husband Stanley (John Travolta), who has returned from a positive job interview to manage a factory in California. At the diffusely lit and practically unoccupied airport parking garage, a man with a fly tattoo on his face (Charley = Luis Da Silva Jr.) approaches and asks them for money. Stanley politely refuses, but two other men mysteriously sneak up on Stanley and stun him with a blow to the head. The first man fatally stabs Vivian and takes her wallet. Although dazed, Stanley watches the men flee.

With Stanley's description of Charley, the police are able to apprehend him. But even though Stanley picks him out the lineup, the police detectives (Gibson = Sam Trammell / Walker = Asante Jones) let him go. They say that his descriptions changed too much (they didn't). Stanley, despondent and enraged, yearns for revenge. While tracking down the men, Stanley realizes that the fatal mugging was no random attack. There were political forces behind his wife's murder. Now he has bigger fish to fry.

Stanley, with his mercenary past, is well-equipped to get his revenge. He also has an ally in a barber, Dennis (Christopher Meloni). Together these guys are dynamite. But you've seen it all before. The flic borrows from other films, such as "Goldfinger" (car-crush scene) and "Taken" (hostage part). The ending with the last shootout doesn't ring true. And there are questions: for instance, why is Stanley's life spared as he is the only witness to the crime in the garage (and the bad guys lack empathy)? But some may like the fact that the film does not require much brainpower to figure out. Also, both Travolta and Meloni are good and rise above their material, which is not strong despite the plot twists. Christopher Meloni at age 55 is in excellent physical condition; Travolta's hair (including the hairline) is peculiar. The movie was filmed on location in Columbus, Ohio.

Slap Shot

Raucously Funny Hockey Farce
In the film's beginning, at a sparsely attended hockey game a woman yells at a French-Canadian player, "frog pussy!" The viewer would then know that the movie will be profanity-laced and downright raunchy.

Paul Newman stars as aging veteran player-coach Reggie Dunlop of the Charlestown Chiefs, a Pennsylvania minor league hockey team on a losing streak. That is, until the participants begin to play with extreme fierceness with the addition of three Hanson Brothers, who wear thick eyeglasses and who play rough and tough. They can certainly skate. Brawls abound as the fans cheer, and Dunlop approves of all this. With the dirty tactics, the Chiefs start to win right and make the playoffs. They sell out games. Then there is the irony that I will not disclose here. Meanwhile the local mill will soon be closing, and without support the team will also fold. It looks like the last season. As Dunlop incorrectly believes that the team will be sold to a Florida interest, he plants a story in the local newspaper. The story has several subplots.

Paul Newman is in his element. In fact, he stated that he had more fun making this movie than any other. He's fun to watch as usual, but his heated discussion with the team owner near the end is over the top. Strother Martin plays crafty old-timer General Manager Joe McGrath. Andrew Duncan is madcap sportscaster Jim Carr. In a minor role, Melinda Dillon as Suzanne displays her lovely boobs for us to see. Brooding Ned Braden is played by Canadian Michael Ontkean, who disapproves of the rowdy play. He wants to make it to the National Hockey League (NHL). Lindsay Crouse as Lily is Ned's long-suffering wife.

Screenplay is by Nancy Dowd, whose brother Ned Dowd was a minor league hockey player who made it for a short time to the WHA (World Hockey Association), which rivaled the NHL for a few years. Ned Dowd himself plays brutish Ogilthorpe. By the way, the hockey team really is the old Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League (and before that the East Coast Hockey league), as the ending credits thank them specifically. They actually won their league championship in 1975. The movie, filmed before helmets were mandatory, was filmed in New York and Pennsylvania. Maxine Nightingale sings "Right Back Where We Started From," a fitting ending.

The Border

"We Take Care of Business."
South of the border, during church services, an earthquake strikes. North of the border, patrol agent Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) arrests two illegals working below minimum wages at a sweatshop. These vignettes introduce to this movie about illegal immigration by Mexicans to the USA, and the corruption that goes along with it, from the Mexican coyotes, American lawmen, and Mexican hustlers. The border patrol cops work to keep out illegals, but businesses pay to keep them. In the beginning the movie focuses on illegal immigrants, but it morphs into an action movie (with little action) until the end.

To please his extravagant wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine), Charlie transfers from his rundown trailer in Los Angeles to a desert duplex in El Paso, Texas, her hometown. To furnish her "dream house," Marcy loves to buy things (on the installment plan) that Charlie knows that the couple simply cannot afford: huge water bed, large sofa, pool in yard. She hosts expensive parties. Charlie's border patrol partner at work is Cat (Harvey Keitel), married to Savannah (Shannon Wilcox), Marcy's high school friend. They live on the other side of the duplex. Cat has offered Charlie a buy-in to his system of earning more cash. This involves allowing illegals inside the USA to do day jobs at nearby businesses and farms. The decent-minded Charlie vehemently turns down the offer at first, but his wife's constant spending changes his mind. Meanwhile Charlie becomes obsessed with helping young Mexican mom Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), who's new infant was stolen from her in a smuggling ring that sells babies for adoption. The compassionate Charlie wants to help Maria and ask for nothing in return. She winds up trapped working in the sleaziest bar you'll ever see and run by the slimiest of characters. Meanwhile Cat is not against an occasional murder. ("We take care of business.") These issues upset Charlie greatly: he decides to take a stand against corruption.

The acting holds up well. To mention a few names, Nicholson is always good. But this feature is not like "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "Chinatown," "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," or "The Shining." His performance this time is sufficiently subdued and brooding. Keitel is also a good actor; he plays devious characters very well. Warren Oates is effective in a small part as Border Patrol Chief "Red." Mike Gomez as Manuel plays a sufficiently dastardly, creepy snake. The Freddie Fender soundtrack helps. But the film suffers from any lack of excitement.

The funniest line in the film emanates from a drunken woman: "You look like my husband. He'd f*** a woodpile if he thought there was a snake in it."

Columbus Circle

A Decent Urban Crime Drama Weakened by a Ridiculous Ending
The opening credits feature puzzle pieces floating around the screen along with a catchy soundtrack. Eventually the pieces begin to fit together. The meaning is obvious, and it is a nice beginning.

The beginning scene shows an elderly lady, Mrs. Hilary Lonnigan (Bette Beatrice), stalked and murdered by an intruder in her penthouse apartment in a Columbus Circle (Manhattan) high rise. Some will claim that she had fallen down the stairs, but the viewers know she was killed. Across the hall, in the only other loft penthouse apartment, lives a 35 year-old recluse heiress, agoraphobic Abigail Clayton (Selma Blair), who has not left her luxurious apartment for 17 years. The famous daughter of a wealthy, alcoholic, and abusive industrialist, Abigail withdrew from her intrusive family (and the press) on her 18th birthday. During years of her self-imposed isolation, Abigail has had contact with only two people: (1) Dr. Raymond Fontaine (Beau Bridges), a long-time family friend and her sole confidant for most of her life, and (2) Joseph Klandermann, (Kevin Pollak), her building's concierge, with whom she communicates only by notes that he slips under her front door.

After the death of Mrs. Lonnigan, Abigail is distressed to find NYPD Homicide Detective Frank Giardello (Giovanni Ribisi) outside her door, asking to question her. Reluctantly she allows him into her residence for a few minutes. Note that Abigail's introductory scenes see her apartment almost completely shadowed by darkness, which is slowly peeled back like onion skins the longer she is forced to endure the detective's questioning. By the end of her questioning, her apartment is covered in full light, signifying the shift that her insulated life has been dragged irretrievably into the world.

Meanwhile, having futilely tried to acquire the dead woman's now vacant apartment to ensure her privacy, Abigail is further upset when her requests go unanswered and new tenants, Charlie Sanford (Jason Lee) and blonde wife Lillian (Amy Smart) move in. Abigail intently monitors her new neighbors from the safety of her front door's peephole. But her well-ordered world begins to unravel when the two almost immediately engage in vicious arguments that ultimately involve Abigail, because Lillian gets physically bruised and is subsequently allowed inside Abigail's apartment to shelter her from further abuse. (But why does Charlie look into her peephole from the outside?) Anyway, the young couple has a sinister agenda, along with conspirators.

Meanwhile we learn that Klandermann is a wanted felon whose real name is Nathaniel Muskit; Dr. Fontaine too is not what he seems. Then the body count begins to rise. For the time being Lillian tries to deceitfully bond with Abigail for her own purposes, but Abigail soon becomes wise to the ruse. Before long, Lillian, looking like Abigail, enters the Waters Bank to close out a huge account. At this point, my narrative ends, and I will not reveal any spoilers.

The central story is engaging, and the story-line's premise does deliver an element of intrigue. On the other hand, the plot fails to live up to its potential. The movie cannot sustain the kind of consistent tension or unpredictability that the best thrillers of this genre boast. Also the character development is generally weak while the script - written director George Gallo and actor Kevin Pollak - makes several jumps in logic that are hard to overlook, especially during a most absurd conclusion. Still, the film remains good enough to be watchable, and Giovanni Ribisi's performance is solid in a relatively small role.

Blood Father

Gibson Is Back in Form in an Action-Thriller
Down and out John Link (Mel Gibson), an ex-husband, ex-convict, and ex-alcoholic with a runaway 18-year-old daughter whom he hasn't seen in four years, addresses his AA support group. If he only knew that his daughter Lydia Jane Carson (Erin Moriarty) has just accidentally shot her longtime junkie boyfriend, Jonah (Diego Luna), when his gang intruded on a family's residence and killed someone. As she is on the run from the gang, he soon will be. Link supports himself by his tattoo parlor that he runs in his dilapidated trailer that is located in a wasteland.

As the gang searches for Lydia she calls up dad, asking for $2,000. They make arrangements and he picks her up and takes her to his trailer. Not long after she sees the trailer in daylight, she says, "It kind of looks like you miss the comforts of jail." Ah, the little muddler of bad decisions has spoken! Anyway, somehow the bad druggie gang tracks down Link's remote trailer (in the dark!) and eventually wrecks it. Why it was done is a mystery. After all, they didn't really know that Lydia was hiding inside. But the jig is up and Link and daughter go on the lam.

As the two flee, there are various adventures and escapes that involve lowlifes, a seedy hotel, a chase by Confederate/Nazi bikers, etc. A trailer buddy has helped him (Kirby = William H. Macy, an undeveloped character). But eventually the bad guys capture the little duffer and Link has to rescue her. Will he make it? Will Lydia survive? Anyway, that is the plot.

Of significance in the film is the reconciliation, the restoration of the relationship between father and daughter, and this issue covers much of the movie's mid-section. The chemistry between the two leads works just fine, including the generational gap differences. Ultimately there is enough grit, witty dialog, and action so that Mel Gibson fans will not be disappointed.

Red Heat

A Mismatched Couple in Law Enforcement
The first 15 minutes of the movie occurs in Red Square in Moscow. Grim, Stone-faced, distant Moscow homicide cop Ivan Danko (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tries to apprehend Russian Georgian drug dealer Viktor Rostavili (Ed O'Ross) and his brother. Viktor escapes, but not before he shoots Danko's partner, Yuri. In turn, Viktor's brother is killed. Viktor escapes to Chicago, where he teams up with black thugs known as the Cleanheads. They are cocaine pushers.

Danko is sent to Chicago where he teams up with vocal, wisecracking, plainclothes detective Art Ridzik (John Belushi) in order to track down Victor to extradite him. After he was captured and escorted by Danko and Ridzik, though, Viktor escaped when he was assisted by the Cleanheads, who were dressed like policemen. Ridzick's partner was killed in the mêlée.

Thus the only plot of this action-thriller is to capture Viktor; there is neither mystery nor intrigue. There are, however, the obligatory shoot-outs and chase scenes. Note that neither Ridzick nor Danko believes in the Miranda Act. The ending involves a bus chase through the streets of Chicago at night, followed by a duel. This is the first movie in which an American director was allowed to film on location in Red Square. It was also filmed in Budapest and in Chicago.

The Great Raid

A Tribute with Little Exaggeration
"The Great Raid" is about the most successful rescue mission in US military history. The opening monologue's newsreel footage provides a very brief summary of the Pacific Theater of Operations and Japanese anxiety as the tide of World War II changes. Shown are the terrible trials of the 1942 forced 60-mile Bataan death march, where hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of their Filipino allies perished in the Philippines. In 1944, the Japanese war ministry issued a directive that all prisoners of war (POW) were to be eliminated before rescue by the Americans. One horrible scene in particular demonstrates Japanese cruelty: the Palawan massacre, when 150 American POWs were forced into trenches, doused with gasoline and burned alive shortly after MacArthur's 1944 landing.

In late January 1945, the Americans made preparations to free the remaining 500 allied POWs from the Cabanatuan prison camp. The prisoners have been weakened and starved. There are 250 Japanese soldiers in the prison camp, and 1,000 more nearby. A quarter of a million fresh American troops were already on Luzon in the north, the largest Philippine island. Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) is chosen to direct the Sixth Ranger Battalion (120 men) and Filipino allies through 30 miles of jungles in a rescue attempt. Mucci's chief strategist is Captain Bob Prince (James Franco), who plans (and leads) the campaign.

There is a major subplot: It involves plucky Nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen, based upon a real person) who smuggles medicines, especially quinine, into the POW camp. Her place of work is Manila Hospital, which harbors Japanese spies and informers. She was picked up, questioned, and tortured by the Japanese. A widow, she is romantically linked with the unfortunate Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), the highest ranking American soldier in the Cabanatuan camp. Debilitated, he suffers from malaria and cannot get quinine.

While the Sixth rangers are the best-trained force in the US Army, they have never been tested under fire. Meanwhile just before the raid Japanese Colonel Mori (Ken Senga) receives many barrels of fuel, and awaits orders from Tokyo to liquidate all of the Bataan prisoners. A single American airplane flies over the camp at twilight to give prisoners hope. After dark the fighting begins.

There are no spoilers here. The movie's promotion states right up that this is a story about a daring rescue mission. There is no mystery as to who won the world war. Rather, the film is about how the rescue was done. It is amazing that only two Americans died (The Filipinos sustained 21 casualties). The actual footage during the end credits was a real treat along with the uplifting soundtrack.

As much as this tale deserves to be told, some may consider the first part to be rather slow-moving. Once the raid actually begins, however, the movie does pick up. Overall, this is an uplifting message of redemption based on actual historical events, and there is very little exaggeration. The film is narrated by James Franco.

Blood and Lace

Early Disturbing and Distressing Horror-Murder-Mystery (rated PG)
The opening scene presents a gruesome hammer-murder of a prostitute and her customer in an unusual killer's POV (point of view) camera shot. Right after, an attractive young woman – Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) – awakes from a nightmare and screams. She is the daughter of the murdered woman. Very soon, as she is without parents, Ellie is sent to an orphanage run by twisted Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame) and creepy handyman Tom Kredge (Len Lesser). They have the knack for capturing fugitives and keeping them in deep freeze, after they are dispatched by Kredge.

Detective Calvin Carruthers (Vic Payback) supposedly wants to help Ellie. His motives are morally ambiguous, to say the least. Another strange dude is Mr. Mullins (Milton Selzer), a social worker who enjoys the favors from Mrs. Deere for looking the other way. A teen-aged girl is tied up in the attic and deprived of water for not folding her napkin. Meanwhile there is a strange dude with a chilling mask lurking about the place. What does he want? Does he want to kill Ellie, thinking that she saw him murder her mother, whom Ellie despised? Rapes and killings abound. So yes, it's a sick movie all-around, but quite interesting. Logic is left outside the door, but the ending is a real grabber.

In short, this is a trash-lovers delight, with nary a sympathetic character. It was filmed by American International Pictures. Gloria Grahame was an actress from the 1940s to the 1980s; some of her movies are "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952), and "Oklahoma" (1955). Melody Patterson had starred in the TV sitcom "F Troop" in 1965-1967. Len Lesser was featured in both movies and in TV, such as "Seinfeld." Vic Payback was in both the movie "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), and in the TV version, "Alice." Milton Selzer was more known for his TV appearances than film.

Eight Men Out

The "Unholy Octet"
One hundred years ago as of this writing, the Chicago White Sox won Major League Baseball's World Series. Two years later, in 1919, they did not repeat as some players planned to lose.

Charles "Commie" Comiskey (Clifton James), owner of the Chicago White Sox, addresses a group of sports writers/press agents, including Ring Lardner (John Sayles) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel). Comiskey, cocksure, says that his team, led by Kid Gleason (John Mahoney), is so good that the 1919 World Series with the Cincinnati Redlegs won't go the nine-game limit. Actually that was the prevailing view then, and the gambling odds were 3-1. But below the surface his team is disgruntled: the players are vastly underpaid, except for Eddie Collins (Bill Irwin), a college graduate who knew how to negotiate contracts. The players did not even get their promised bonuses. And 35-year old Ed "Knuckleball" Cicotte (David Strathairn) had the greatest grievance of them all. Skinflint Comiskey had promised him a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. Cicotte won "only" 29, because the owner told Gleason to "rest" him for two weeks. The players are easy prey for the gamblers, who are watching the pennant-clinching game against the St. Louis Browns. These gamblers include Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd) and Philly Maharg (Richard Edson), who are sizing up their potential lackeys: "Chick" Gandil (Michael Rooker), "Swede" Risberg (Don Harvey), "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D. B. Sweeney), "Hap" Felsch (Charlie Sheen), "Lefty" Williams (James Read), and others.

After the first few minutes, the movie concentrates on the gamblers. Abe Atell (Michael Mantell), a crooked former featherweight champ of the world, is approached by Burns and Maharg. Atell apparently lies when he says that he will fix the series with Rothstein's approval. Rothstein balks when first approached – not by Burns/Maharg – but by Boston's Joseph "Sport" Sullivan (Kevin Tighe), another crooked gambler. Later Rothstein supposedly gives the nod to Sullivan and gives him the first payment of $40,000 for the players, but Sullivan uses most of it to bet on the Reds; so does Atell. Because of the heavy betting on the Reds, the odds ominously drop to even-up. Suspicions are everywhere. Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton agree to mark their scorecards with circles when they spot a suspicious play, and to compare them afterwards.

After forty-five minutes, the World Series begins in Cincinnati. In game one, Cicotte hits the first batter in the bottom of the first inning, the signal that the fix is on for real. Cicotte is shelled in the fourth as the Reds win 9-1. Ring Lardner (John Sayles) visits Cicotte after the game and wants to know if things are legitimate; Cicotte says yes. In game two, "Lefty" Williams, also in on the fix, loses a more respectable 4-2 decision. He refuses catcher Ray Shalk's (Gordon Clapp) entreaties to throw his curve ball. Comiskey, furious that his team is losing, complains to Ban Johnson (Clyde Bassett) to no avail. Atell welches on most of the bet money owed to Burns and Maharg for the players.

White Sox rookie, Dickie Kerr (Jace Alexander), not in on the fix, pitches brilliantly in game three as the Sox win 3-0. Atell blows his cash by betting on Cincinnati. So do Burns and Maharg. In game four, Cicotte pitches well enough and doesn't yield an earned run. But he deliberately misplays an easy grounder, and then intentionally interferes with Jackson's terrific relay that would have cut down a runner at home plate. Reds win 2-0. In the next game, Williams is shelled and loses again. Then in Cincinnati, Cicotte defeats the Reds. Then Kerr again courageously wins again, as Gandil drives in the winning run in the tenth!

Now with the series returning to Chicago, gamblers get anxious even though Cincy still leads in games, 4-3. Williams, scheduled to pitch, is told by a gambler, sent by Sullivan, that his wife would be shot if he wins. In real life, his own life was threatened, not hers. So in game eight, Williams amazingly loses for the third time (10-5), and the Reds win the series. But in the end the players get very little of the gambling money. And Atell earns a broken nose (for crossing Rothstein?).

With rumors and suspicions flying about, and with exposés by Lardner and Fullerton, the owners decide to hire eccentric Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (John Anderson) as baseball's first commissioner. A grand jury is then formed. Before the trial, a tearful youth supposedly asks Jackson the famous quote, "Say it ain't so Joe." At the trial the players win acquittal (!). But ironically, and regardless of the favorable verdict, Landis expels the "Black Sox" from the game for life. Major League Baseball was a private monopoly after all. It would take the White Sox forty years to win another pennant, but they again lost the series. Not until 2005 would they finally win it all, the first since 1917!

The movie is based on Eliot Asinof's excellent book of the same name. Despite the dramatic liberties and plot simplifications for the audience's sake, the film is factual. It is a fine period piece, with the uniforms and authentic-looking stadiums and their ominous concrete outfield walls. It is best understood by baseball aficionados. Of the crooked players, David Strathairn (Ed Cicotte), John Cusack ("Buck" Weaver), and D. B. Sweeney (Joe Jackson) are the most sympathetic. Cicotte, mistreated by Comiskey, wrestled with his moral dilemma. Weaver did not participate, but failed to report the plot. Jackson played very well, batted .375, and belted the only homer of the series! Ringleaders Gandil (Rooker) and Risberg (Harvey), along with the gamblers, are the real villains. Writer-director John Sayles as Ring Lardner is sufficiently impassive. Historically, note that the fix was not confirmed until the closing days of the 1920 season, when the Chisox were battling for a repeat pennant. The trial occurred in 1921.

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