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Classic "Tug At Your Heartstrings" Movie, 23 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When the movie ended, I wasn't sure what to say about it. I liked it. It's a heartwarming tearjerker - especially for anyone who's ever loved a dog or two in their lives. The movie follows the lives of a dog who gets repeatedly reincarnated (5 lives I believe) and who struggles through its various lives to figure out: why? Really - isn't that the question all of us sometimes have about our existence? Why am I here? It's sometimes funny, sometimes happy, sometimes sad and sometimes even tragic. The dog is euthanized as a puppy, becomes a boy's best friend, lives a life as a police dog, is the companion of a lonely young woman and ends up in a home that neglects him. But it has a happy ending, as the dog (we'll call him "Bailey" - from his second, and happiest, life) is reunited with his favourite owner, who's no longer a boy but is now an aging man. I can't say that this really spoke to me all that much. It was a nice, emotional movie. But somehow after it ended, I thought of something.

Really - this was a canine version of "Black Beauty." In that classic story, Beauty only lives one life, but moves through a progression of owners and has very different experiences with each, until he's reunited at story's end with his favourite owner. Basically, except for the reincarnation angle, that's the story here. I don't know if that was deliberate or not; if W. Bruce Cameron (who wrote the novel on which this is based) had "Black Beauty" in mind - but the story is very similar.

In any event, it's a decent enough story. The various dogs are the stars more than the actors, so nobody's going to take home an Oscar for this. Have some tissue ready if you watch it. It does tug at the heartstrings over and over again. (7/10)

Resistance (2011)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
It Lacks Credibility From The Start And Never Recovers, 9 June 2017

The first problem with this movie is its utter lack of believability. Alternative history can be very interesting, but to be interesting it has to be credible. This failed the credibility test right from the start. The opening caption said something like "After the failure of the D-Day invasion, Germany invaded England." What? Really? Certainly it's believable that the D-Day invasion could have failed. Even Eisenhower was afraid of that. But even if it had failed, could the Germans have invaded England? In 1944? Germany was losing on the Eastern Front. The Soviets were steadily advancing toward Germany's borders. The Germans wouldn't have been able to spare the resources necessary to successfully invade England in 1944. (I read one reviewer who suggested that in this timeline Germany had defeated the Soviet Union. Maybe - but I honestly don't remember that being stated in the movie.) If this had been set in 1940, when Germany was at peace with the Soviet Union and at the height of its power? If this had been a depiction of a successful "Operation Sea Lion"? Maybe. But not the scenario presented. That just didn't work for me. So, right from the start this movie had a huge credibility gap with me.

It doesn't recover from that. There's an intriguing enough mystery. In a Welsh village (post German invasion of England) all the women wake up and discover that all the men are simply gone. Where did they go - and, more mysterious, how did they get away without anyone noticing. None of the women woke up when their men were getting out of bed? One presumes that they left to join the resistance - which the title implies - but who knows. It wasn't really the point of the story anyway. The point was the relationship between the women and the German occupiers of the village, because at some point a handful of German soldiers come wandering into the village. They're nice fellows, really. They help the women out with farm work and do some hunting of rabbits to provide them with food. They give up their uniforms and settle easily into life in the Welsh village. You'd hardly know there was a war going on. You see the swastika a couple of times - but there's nothing particularly ominous about it. Life pretty much goes on as it did before - with the German soldiers there instead of the men, although there's nothing "inappropriate" that happens between the Germans and the women. Yeah, a bit of a romance develops, but it's quite proper. The most dramatic moment of the movie is the accidental shooting of a horse by someone in the British resistance who I think meant to kill the woman who owned the horse, believing her to be a "collaborator." But in terms of any sustained drama - this was a real dud.

It disappointed me. There's a lot of potential in the story of a fictional German occupation of a British village. But none of that potential showed itself here. And the constant flashbacks to pre- invasion (or at least pre-occupation) served no real purpose and accomplished little. If somebody wanted to make this kind of film then why not base it on real events, like the German occupation of Britain's Channel Islands? (2/10)

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A Sequel That Never Should Have Been Made, 2 June 2017

I remember "Independence Day." Intriguingly enough I don't seem to have ever reviewed it, but I do remember watching it. Almost 20 years ago. That in and of itself says something about "Independence Day: Resurgence." I remember watching the original, but aside from the basic plot line of an alien invasion I can't remember anything about it except that Will Smith was the star. Clearly it didn't make too much of an impact on me. So why bother - 20 years later, when many of those who saw the original will have moved on from the experience - making a sequel? And if the original viewers have moved on why stack the movie with a bunch of veteran actors (Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner - but no Will Smith, because he must have known better and had better options) who aren't really going to inspire younger viewers to flock to this? Some movies demand sequels. "Rocky" demanded "Rocky II"; "The Wrath Of Khan" demanded "The Search For Spock." "Independence Day" did not demand "Independence Day: Resurgence." "Independence Day: Resurgence" was a mistake. A big one.

It's just a bad movie. The cast isn't especially appealing, the performances aren't especially good, the characters are bland, the dialogue is juvenile, the attempts at humour are forced and not very funny. And, not surprisingly after all that, the story - the aliens apparently want to mine the earth's molten core - is bad. I fought to pay attention to this. I really did. But it was hard. It wasn't a complete disaster. Some of the special effects were pretty good. I appreciated the poke that was given to conspiracy theorists - they're "putzes" in the words of Julian Levinson (Judd Hirsch). (For the most part I agree. But a couple of good things can't save a movie that's bad at its core.

Some movies demand a sequel, but for the most part sequels are extremely hit and miss things - and "Independence Day: Resurgence" is a definite miss. Even more frighteningly - a sequel that should never have been made has apparently spawned a sequel of its own, because it seems that "Independence Day 3" is already planned, and it was clearly set up by the last scene of this one. Oh joy. (2/10)

Hush (2016/I)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Slasher Movie With A Twist, 29 May 2017

Maddie's deaf and mute. That's about the only thing that differentiates this from a lot of other movies that do basically the same thing. The first 15 minutes or so set us up to understand without any doubt that Maddie's deaf and mute, and then the killer shows up - having killed Maddie's friend and now trying to break into her house to kill her as well. He cuts the electricity to the house, making this a very dark movie (yes, in plot - but I'm talking about the lighting.) It's really dark and you can't see much, so you have the irony that Maddie can see but she can't hear and the viewers can hear but can't really see. A lot of this depends on noises - footsteps, breathing, sobbing, alarms ringing, etc. But for me it fell kind of flat. I wanted something more visual and I found that the movie (mostly in darkness with little or no dialogue) was difficult to remain focused on. In fact, the first time I watched it I fell asleep. I did give it another try and I made it all the way through - but not without some effort.

It's a pretty simple movie (one with more than a few plot holes and/or pretty dumb scenes and/or characters) with a small and little known cast and a very simple set. Simplicity appeals to me, and from the description, I thought this had some potential, but in the end it was pretty tough to slog my way through it and it disappointed me. (2/10)

Not A Particularly Gripping Movie, 19 May 2017

Although I realize that the movie is based on a novel and is entirely fictional, my first hope when I decided to watch it was that I might nevertheless learn something about the Weather Underground. I'm fairly familiar with US history, but I have to confess that all I knew about the group was that it was a violent anti-Vietnam group, so I looked forward to gaining a little more knowledge. That possibility was put to rest by the fact that the movie has the group pulling off a bank robbery in 1980 - long after the group had ceased to exist. (Why the bank robbery wouldn't have been put farther back into the past to make this more believable is a mystery.) So my primary hope in watching this really wasn't achieved. But how did it work as a movie; as a piece of entertainment? I can't say that I found it a gripping two hours.

The movie started far too abruptly with the arrest of Sharon (Susan Sarandon) for the long ago (even if it was 1980) robbery and murder of a bank guard. The basic story really needed to be introduced a bit more before that happened. But after that happens, the film settles into its basic story, as the FBI searching, Jim (really Nick - played by Robert Redford) suddenly has to go on the run, seeking out the one person who can confirm that he wasn't a part of the robbery and murder. For the most part I just didn't find this very interesting. It features a lot of well known names (Redford - who also directed - and Sarandon, but also people like Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott and Julie Christie) but, for me, it didn't feature a lot of performances that really stood out. Redford's age (he was 76 when this as made) was a big problem for me - especially as he was portrayed as the father of an 11 year old daughter. Not impossible, I agree, but it seemed far-fetched - and I thought Redford at times looked his age. Shia LaBeouf, who played a reporter, was entirely unnecessary to the story, quite frankly. I didn't really need the reporter to push this story forward to be honest. The closest thing to a plot twist in this (revolving around the adopted daughter of the sheriff who investigated the bank robbery years before) was one I had figured out almost from the beginning.

There was a bit of intensity toward the end of the movie when we wondered if Mimi (Christie) was going to escape to Canada or return to save Nick's skin, but aside from that I found that my attention simply kept wandering as the movie plodded along. (3/10)

Mother's Day (2016/I)
A Muddle Of A Story, 19 May 2017

I chuckled - very slightly - when Earl (Robert Pine) roared off in the RV, claiming that his brakes weren't working. And I chuckled - very slightly - when Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) got her arm stuck in a candy vending machine. And that was about it for chuckles. I winced a lot more. I winced at the racial jokes - not that I'm especially fixated on political correctness, but just because that who sideline wasn't funny. I winced at the Oh so obvious route the film was taking. I winced at Julia Roberts - never been a big fan, but frankly she was awful in this movie, and I can't really say that anybody else was much better. It just was not a very fun or funny movie to watch.

It was Garry Marshall's last movie as a director. He died just a couple of months after it was released. It's unfortunate that he must have been aware of the deservedly bad reviews this got. Marshall has an impressive resume overall - but his "holiday comedies" aren't his best, and this may have been the worst of the three. It's one of those "several separate stories" that ultimately come together in some way. And, since it's about Mother's Day, they all revolve around motherhood in one way or another. One mother has to deal with a new and younger stepmother entering her children's lives; one mother has died, leaving her husband and two kids to try to move on; one mother doesn't want to get married to the father of her child because she was adopted and never knew her own mother; meanwhile, her mother is - well - Julia Roberts, in that awful performance; then there's the racist mother, whose two daughters are also mothers in potentially complicated relationships (one bi-racial relationship, one lesbian relationship.) It's a muddle of a movie. I'm not really a big fan of these intersecting story-line movies at the best of times. But this one really didn't work for me. (3/10)

Selma (2014)
An Important Movie About Important Events, 14 May 2017

David Oyelowo was brilliant as civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That's a difficult role to play, because King is such an iconic figure to many, and especially because he is essentially a martyr for the cause, having been assassinated a couple of years after the events depicted in this film. But if Oyelowo was even remotely overwhelmed by playing King, he didn't show it. Instead, he captured King. His voice, his mannerisms, his passion. It was truly impressive - the best part of a movie that was generally very good, but at times a bit slow moving.

But more than just featuring a great performance (Oyelowo should have been nominated for an Oscar, I might add) it's an important movie. In fact it's a sobering movie, because it's largely so accurate. It's sobering for me to realize that these events happened in my lifetime. This wasn't the distant past - this was the south of just 50 years ago where racism was a way of life and keeping blacks poor and disenfranchised - through the use of state sanctioned violence if necessary - was accepted political policy. The movie revolves around the struggle for black voting rights in Alabama. In theory, blacks had the right to vote, but in practice various methods were found to prevent them from registering. King and his associates take on the cause and try to organize a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery demanding voting rights for blacks - the first attempt at the march descending into sickening violence against the marchers by the authorities.

In the course of showing the march being organized, there are a lot of points made. The political machinations are revealed and believable. Alabama Governor George Wallace was played by Tim Roth, and President Lyndon Johnson by Tom Wilkinson. Personally, I found Wilkinson difficult to accept as LBJ. To me he just didn't seem right in the part - but the movie makes the point that Johnson had to be pushed to propose the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when he would have preferred to do something less dramatic. The movie also isn't shy about hiding some of the divisions within the leadership of the civil rights movement itself. The movie also notes the prominent place of faith in the civil rights movement.

It has a powerful beginning and ending - the beginning portraying the murder of four young black girls in the bombing of a church, and the movie closes with a gripping piece of music. I often don't bother with the closing credits of a movie, but I left them on to hear the song because I found it so moving.

There were a few parts of this movie that failed to really capture me, and it did seem a little bit inconsistently paced. But it's an important movie portraying important events - and still quite relevant, given many of the concerns today about voter suppression laws which seem aimed largely at blacks, and recent incidents of police violence toward the African American community. (7/10)

Standoff (2016/I)
It Packs A Lot Of Good Stuff Into Less Than 90 Minutes, 13 May 2017

I have to honestly say that I wasn't expecting very much from this movie when I put it on. It had a solid enough cast - the leads are Laurence Fishburne and Thomas Jane (not spectacular actors in my opinion, but decent enough) - but, still, I wasn't really expecting much out of it. I was surprised - pleasantly. This movie packs a lot into less than an hour and a half and it doesn't use the traditional formula you expect. That was probably why my expectations were low. I was expecting this to be formulaic. A young girl witnesses a mass shooting at a funeral in a cemetery, gets a picture of the shooter and then has to run for her life to get away from him. She finds refuge in a farmhouse with a veteran who swears he'll protect her. You expect guns ablazin' from that point on, but for the most part you don't get it. Don't get me wrong. It is violent at times - and unsettling (especially when Sade, the killer, tortures the cop who had come to the house in a bid to get Carter to give up Bird) - but basically this is a psychological thriller. Sade and Carter talk to each other, taunt each other, try to push each other's buttons. Sade's on the main floor, Carter and Bird are upstairs. Each has a gun. It's a stalemate. You watch it unfold as each tries to get an advantage on the other. You can guess how it's going to end - but you don't know exactly how it's going to get there.

I wasn't sure about Fishburne as the killer. Somehow, he didn't fit that role for me - but his performance was extremely good, as was Thomas Jane's as Carter. This was the first time I'd seen Ella Ballentine, who played Bird, and I thought she did a pretty decent job in that role as well. Two things would have made me appreciate this a little more. First, we had no real backstory about the killings. Sade just shows up at the funeral and opens fire. I know that the story was the standoff between Carter and Sade, but I would have appreciated a little bit of knowledge about why the whole situation started. Sade kept referring to his "employer" but we never found out who the employer was, or why Sade had been hired to do the killings. And then the killings themselves. It was a pretty lousy idea, to be honest. Killing people at a cemetery while there's an interment going on? There would have been cemetery workers around, ready to seal the grave when the service was finished. You don't just leave graves open. But even if there weren't for some reason, they'd have to come pretty soon to seal the grave - and they'd surely have been suspicious when they found the grave that they had to close already closed up? So hiding the bodies that way was ridiculous.

Still - this is a really good and tense psychological thriller. It's simple and straightforward, shot pretty much entirely in the house. It's a pretty good movie to spend an afternoon with. (7/10)

Communists, Communists Everywhere!, 13 May 2017

I became familiar with "I Was A Communist For The FBI" through listening to some of the old radio episodes of the show (of the same name) broadcast over satellite radio. I've always found the radio show interesting, and when I stumbled upon a movie based on the same story there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to watch it. It's the story of Matt Cvetic, an FBI operative who infiltrates the Pittsburgh branch of the United States Communist Party during World War II and remains as an FBI mole for almost 10 years - at the beginning of the Cold War, when the Red Scare was taking possession of America.

It's obvious - as you'd expect - that this movie seeks to portray communists and communism in a bad light. That becomes clear right from the start. A meeting of the party leaders is held in a fancy hotel, where they indulge in wine and caviar and other luxuries. The proletariat? Workers of the world unite, indeed! The point is made there by one of the leaders that once the communists take over America this is how the leaders will always live. And, as for the workers, well - "they'll always be workers." So much for communist idealism! The point is also made that the communist leaders are racists, using the "n-word" to refer to black workers and seeing them only as useful pawns but of little real importance. The communists portrayed here are basically rabble-rousers, wanting to spark illegal strikes and riots, and fiercely loyal to and controlled by Stalin and the Soviet Union (toasts are offered to both.) They're suspicious of each other, and ruthless toward those they suspect of betraying them - which obviously makes Cvetic's life a perilous one. He rises (in the movie) to a significant position of leadership in the Party - always vaguely under suspicion (but it seems that every communist was vaguely suspicious of every other communist, so no big deal, really) but nothing ever gets pinned on him. In the meantime, having to live publicly as a "red" he's alienated from his own family (his son and brothers can't stand to be in the same room with him) and he has basically no friends. It's a lonely life. Cvetic is torn between his loyalty to his country and his desire to live a normal life. Things really start to be torn apart when he discovers that his son's teacher Eve (Dorothy Hart) is a fellow communist, who becomes something of a love interest for him. (As an aside, I thought it interesting that Eve revealed that there were a lot of communist teachers - so the right- wing suspicion of teachers being out to subvert rather than educate American youth goes back at least to the Red Scare.) The movie also portrays the communists as a much bigger threat than they really were - infiltrating every aspect of American society, with tentacles stretching across the country and the world. It is most certainly a product of the Red Scare.

I thought Frank Lovejoy did a decent if unspectacular job as Cvetic, and I don't doubt that Cvetic's life undercover must have been difficult. Having said that, the movie (and the earlier radio show) grossly exaggerates things. The reality is that there's no real evidence that Cvetic rose as high in the communist hierarchy as this suggests. Once he came out from his undercover role he did testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he did name lots of people as communists, but in spite of that he wasn't considered a particularly reliable or effective witness, and was even considered a bit of a loose cannon. The very wide liberties that the story takes with Cvetic's life make it a bit funny (and perhaps say something about the anti-communist hysteria of the time) to realize that "I Was A Communist For The FBI" was actually nominated for an Oscar - for Best Documentary! It's a decent if not especially exciting red scare cloak and dagger type film, but there's nothing Oscar-worthy about it - and it's certainly not a documentary! The movie ends not in documentary style, but with straight emotional propaganda, as the strains of "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic" play, and the camera zeroes in to a closeup of a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

As for Cvetic, after testifying against the communists he tried to enter politics as a Republican, but failed, and spent the rest of his life (he died in 1962) involved in various ways with the anti- communist movement. (6/10)

A Decent Movie That Disappoints By Giving Us Absolutely No Closure, 9 May 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When you watch a movie like this, you do so knowing that there's a twist coming; that not all is as it seems. So you spend the bulk of the movie trying to figure it out, looking at details, asking yourself what's not making sense - because you're being too obviously led to believe in the guilt of one character. Henry Hearst (played by Gene Hackman) is a rich and powerful attorney living in Puerto Rico. He's married to young and beautiful Chantal (played by Monica Bellucci.) All seems well - except that recently two young girls have been raped and murdered, and almost from the beginning Hearst is pulled aside by Police Captain Benezet (played by Morgan Freeman) because he's the prime suspect. The movie proceeds basically as a depiction of Hearst's interrogation by Benezet, with the scene sometimes shifting to Chantal being interrogated.

The evidence seems overwhelming. Everything points to Hearst. Then, in the course of the interrogation, a lot of unsavoury things are revealed about Hearst. His marriage is unhappy - he and his wife have separate bedrooms and haven't shared intimacy in quite a while. He met her when she was 11 years old (although they didn't get involved until later) - but the point was made that there's something about young girls. He admits that he likes young women. He watches pornography. He spends a fair bit of time with prostitutes apparently. Chantal relates what she believed to be a suspicious encounter between Henry and their 13 year old niece. (Actually one interesting part of this movie is how Chantal and Henry have very different perspectives on the very same things - and it's possible that neither of them are lying; they just see things differently.) In any event, there's a lot about Henry that makes him seem like someone who would commit these crimes. He seems guilty. It seems open and shut. Which makes you think - "I don't know. That's just too obvious. There has to be something more."

There is - although it's left to the last few minutes, which did have me wondering if the twist was going to be that there was no twist. As the movie comes to its close, Henry confesses to one of the murders at least. He breaks down, he sobs. Then it's revealed that the killer has been captured. It's not him - and so he's released. Was this a depiction of police making assumptions about the guilt of someone and then breaking them down bit by bit and piece by piece until they wring a confession out of an innocent man? That's what it seems like. But the end was unsatisfying. It left too many questions. There were questions about the relationship between Chantal and Henry and how that turned out. It was never revealed who did it - and the ending suggests that there was no way that the viewer could have figured it out - apparently it was no one who had been feature din the movie. (I actually thought I had figured out the twist and who committed the murders - or at least who wanted us to believe that Henry had committed the murders, but none of that was ever revealed.) This left me unsatisfied, with a bit of an empty feeling. There was no closure. Which was a shame.

This had actually been a pretty decent movie. Bellucci didn't really capture me (and Thomas Jane was unnecessarily cast as a police detective who really wasn't needed) but Hackman and Freeman were both extremely good in their roles - as you'd expect from such veteran actors - and the story was compelling. It kept me interested up to the end - but then it just crashed and burned with that extremely unsatisfying ending. (4/10)

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