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Jack Ryan, The Latin American Drug Wars, And The Truth, 2 March 2017

Tom Clancy's CIA analyst character Jack Ryan not only made an impact on the page, he also made an impact on the big screen as well. In the 1990 smash THE HUTN FOR RED October, as played by Alec Baldwin, he was in a race against time to find out whether a renegade Soviet submarine captain was out to defect to America, or out to launch. Then in 1992's PATRIOT GAMES, Ryan, then portrayed by Harrison Ford, went into action to protect his own family against the machinations of vengeful ultra-violent Irish Republican Army terrorists. And then in 1994, again with Ford more than capably assuming the role, Ryan found himself in a pickle much closer to his job: covert military action related to the ongoing Latin American drug war in CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER.

Ford's Jack Ryan is put into action into finding the root causes of why one of the closest friends of the President (Donald Moffatt) was killed on his boat in the Caribbean Sea. As it turns out, the president's dead friend had stolen money from a Colombian drug kingpin (Miguel Sandoval), like six hundred forty million dollars…and change. For Ford, this may seem like a fairly routine matter, as is him having to go to Congress to get authorization to fund the Colombian government's war against drug cartels like Sandoval's. But unbeknownst to him, Moffatt, along with his national security adviser (Harris Yulin) and deputy CIA director (Henry Czerny) have hatched a covert operation called Operation Reciprocity to finish off the drug war on American terms, sending a paramilitary unit commanded by a man named Clark (Willem Dafoe) into the hot zone. More importantly, when his mentor Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) falls victim to inoperable pancreatic cancer that ultimately kills him, the weight of the world falls on his shoulders. Dafoe's team does score hits against Sandoval's operation; but the end result is a series of horrific acts of retribution, including the killing of an FBI team sent to assist Ford, followed by the capture of Dafoe's men by an associate of Sandoval's (Joaquin De Almeida) out to take over Sandoval's operation.

Once Ford makes himself aware of the kind of paramilitary finagling that had been going on behind his back, he becomes a fighter once more—not for just his family, but the truth. This means having not only to go back down to the Colombian war zone to rescue Dafoe and his men, but also having to confront a president who has bent, and maybe even broken the law, for political points, and made decisions that resulted in massive losses of lives.

Philip Noyce, who had also directed PATRIOT GAMES, returns to the director's chair for this well made and, at close to two and a half hours, epic action/suspense thriller. Not surprisingly, Ford delivers the kind of performance that could easily be classified as a "thinking man's action hero" as Ryan, acting not on impulse or an urge for explosions of violence, but a vigilant search for the truth. Ultimately, he wonders, exactly what does constitute a "clear and present danger" in the real world? Is it what the president says it is, when it is in the form of drug cartels (who, by the early 2000s, proliferated far closer to the U.S., in rural sections of Mexico)? Or is the real clear and present danger found in a host of decisions merely meant to gain political points? Ford's performance remains the centerpiece of this film, but Sandoval and De Almeida make for a pair of crafty (but non-stereotypical) South American heavies (much of the film was shot in Mexico), and there are also underhanded performances by Yulin and, most especially Czerny, the latter of whom is absolutely oily and corrupt (he would play a similar role only two years later in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE). And when he is not recycling his scores for ALIENS and PATRIOT GAMES, James Horner's score is extremely effective too, veering from typically stirring patriotic Americana to ethnic South American motifs (with pan flutes).

Far too many action films from the 1980s onward are all about spectacle, and almost no suspense or substance. But CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER has a lot of those two important things in spades, and still ranks as one of the best films of the action genre during the 1990s.

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African-American Women Making A Difference At The Dawn Of The Space Age, 22 February 2017

One would think that NASA would be a government institution that would be immune from the social upheavals of the early 1960s. But in that period of time, three distinguished African American women from Hampton, Virginia named Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, all of whom were incredible geniuses at crunching complex math problems, did indeed shake things up there, fighting not only institutionalized racism but also a touch of misogyny as well. At the same time, it was what these three women did that helped America's manned space program take flight by 1962, and set us on a course towards the Apollo 11 manned landing on the Moon in 1969. Their story is brilliantly told in the film HIDDEN FIGURES, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Sheterly.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janaelle Monae portray, respectively, Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson, three women who, as young girls in a much more ultra-segregated South of the mid-1920s, displayed such an extreme aptitude for complex algebra and calculus that got them jobs at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1961. Being incredibly quick at complex math problems that are involved in getting the space program in a position where it could challenge the achievements of the Soviet Union, however, doesn't count for much when they are still made painfully aware of their "place" (separate bathrooms and coffee pots) in a profession that, though becoming a technological juggernaut, is still stuck in an unsavory past. This is what they face from co-workers like those portrayed by Kirstin Dunst and Jim Parsons, though Kevin Costner (portraying NASA station chief Al Harrison) is duly impressed with their skill in calculating all the complexities of launches, orbits, and splashdown angles. The work of the three women takes on added urgency when, on April 17, 1961, Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to venture beyond Earth's atmosphere, putting the Soviets well ahead of America, while NASA's Atlas and Redstone rockets either keep going off course or blowing up on the launch pad. For Costner, this means that their work is essential, because he himself must take a lot of the heat from the powers-that-be in Washington for the enormous expenditures that NASA is incurring in such a risky proposition.

The moment of truth comes on February 20, 1962 when, through Henson's lightning calculations, astronaut John Glenn is launched into space in the Friendship 7 space capsule. He manages to get through three orbits; but then, he and the ground crew receive indications that his heat shield may fail upon re-entry. Once more, Henson is put in charge of coming up with a quick solution to hopefully stop Glenn from burning up in the atmosphere, while the entire world holds its collective breath.

What HIDDEN FIGURES tells is a story that only a handful of Americans, if any at all, have ever known about because of all the political and social tumult that went on during the 1960s. Henson, Spencer, and Monae have the tough jobs of portraying the three women's personality quirks, while trying gamely to hide their rage at being so slowly accepted by the white and (with the exception of Dunst) male NASA hierarchy because of being African-American women with sky-high IQ's. They give incredible performances in their roles, as does Costner in what, for any other actor, would seem to be a relatively minor role of the NASA director who is oblivious to his workplace's antiquated caste system until it interferes with America's ability to catch up with the Soviets.

Theodore Melfi, who directed the quirky 2014 comedy drama ST. VINCENT, handles the proceedings quite well, getting solid performances from his cast, including Parsons (best known as the head "geek" on TV's "The Big Bang Theory"); and the film does a good idea at not only taking a pointed look at institutionalized racism, but also mocking it (especially in the ironic and funny opening sequence of an old white Virginia state trooper escorting the three women to Langley a few minutes in). HIDDEN FIGURES is not only a great film for its true-life story, but also a reminder of how much African Americans have always contributed to the greatness of our nation, a fact we still need to be reminded about in the 21st century.

Jack Ryan, The IRA, Vengeance, And Family, 26 January 2017

The late Tom Clancy's novels that feature the character of Jack Ryan, senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, have been the basis for a number of solidly crafted but also interesting action films. THE HUNT FOR RED October, released in early 1990, was the first of those films; and it had Alec Baldwin in the role of Ryan. When Baldwin declined to return to the role, however, the producers looked to another great actor, namely the many who had played Indiana Jones and Han Solo but had now become something of a thinking man's action hero: Harrison Ford. That gambit paid off big time, both commercially and artistically, when the second Jack Ryan film came out in 1992, in the form of PATRIOT GAMES.

In PATRIOT GAMES, Ford is nearing the end of a vacation in London with his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch) when he witnesses a violent attack on Lord Holmes (James Fox), a member of the Royal Family and a minister of state for British-ruled Northern Ireland. The attack is carried out by an ultra-violent faction of the notorious Irish Republican Army; and it's an attack that Ford manages to thwart by mere seconds, killing one of the terrorists (Karl Hayden) and wounding his brother (Sean Bean), while their cohorts (Patrick Bergin; Polly Walker) manage to escape. Bean is put on trial and convicted for his part in the attack, but he vows vengeance on Ford. That vengeance is meted out after Bergin and Walker effect Bean's violent escape when, just days after returning to the U.S., Ford is almost killed by one of Bergin's associates at the Naval Academy, and Bean almost kills Archer and Birch on a freeway near Annapolis. Ford now has to rejoin an organization, the CIA, that he had only recently stepped down from in order to do in Bean, Bergin, and Walker, while at the same time hosting Fox at his Maryland home. The whole saga comes to a climax there, where Ford, his family, Fox, and several of their associates come under attack from the IRA radicals during a violent storm.

While there are obviously a number of differences between the book and the movie (too many, in fact, for Clancy to stomach, as he disassociated himself from the finished product), PATRIOT GAMES nevertheless works quite well just the same. The success of the film is owed in no small part to the presence of Ford in the role of Ryan. Although his performance in PATRIOT GAMES (and in the later CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) is markedly different from Baldwin's in THE HUNT FOR RED October, the end result is still a high-level action film with psychological thriller elements, and a climactic siege at Ford's house that has elements of CAPE FEAR and STRAW DOGS, along with a harrowing speedboat chase to bring the film to a stunning close. The upping of the violence and sex, and a couple of 'F' bombs in the dialogue, meant, of course, that PATRIOT GAMES had to get an 'R' rating. However, none of these elements are gratuitously used in any way. Alongside Ford and Archer, James Earl Jones returns as CIA director Jim Greer; and the film has good turns from Samuel L. Jackson, and legendary Irish actor Richard Harris as the IRA's principal US "bag man" Paddy O'Neill, who only coughs up the whereabouts of Bergin and Bean after Ford issues a less-than-veiled threat against him in an Irish-American bar in Washington.

Australian director Philip Noyce, who had directed the 1989 psychological thriller DEAD CALM, directs PATRIOT GAMES very impressively, keeping the emphasis on the back-and-forth between Ford and Bean, the latter of whom is an incredibly scary radical Irish heavy. The late James Horner, who had already done scores for films such as STAR TREK II, STAR TREK III, BRAINSTORM, AN American TAIL, and AN American TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST, provides an equally fine score here as well, utilizing various Irish musical motifs (with an assist from wind soloist Tony Hinnigan).

The striking intelligence shown in THE HUNT FOR RED October (and again in CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) is shown here in spades in PATRIOT GAMES, which is why I'm giving it a '9'.

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April 15, 2013: Horror And Heroism In Boston, 17 January 2017

After September 11, 2001, America was no longer immune to the ravages of international terrorism. Although the 9/11 attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, which killed nearly three thousand people, were never replicated inside America's borders, there have nevertheless been terrorist incidents since then, two of them during 2015 and 2016, in San Bernardino, California (in December 2015), and Orlando, Florida (in June 2016). But perhaps the biggest terrorist incident occurred on April 15, 2013 at the finish line of the 117th annual Boston Marathon. Two pressure cooker bombs packed in backpacks and left along the sidewalk along Boylston Street, close to the end of the race, exploded in the crowd, killing three people and wounding 264 others, some of them quite severely. The full forces of the Boston Police Department, the state law enforcement of Massachusetts, and the FBI, even with their occasional internecine feuding, worked together to track down the responsible parties, two Chechan brothers named Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a manhunt that took 100 hours and ended in a Boston suburb. This horrible day and the subsequent manhunt are the subject of the 2016 film PATRIOTS DAY (the designation for April 15th in Boston).

The film's sizeable cast of stars features Mark Wahlberg as Boston cop Tommy Saunders, who was at the finish line on that day and at the moment when the two explosions went off, just 200 feet from where he was standing. Pretty soon, Boston police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI agent Rick DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) and Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) are on hand to determine who pulled off the horror at the marathon. But in the meanwhile, the two suspects (portrayed by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) are still on the loose; and they kill MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking),following the kidnapping of a young Chinese national (Jimmy Yang). Melikidze is killed in a shootout with Watertown police and Massachusetts state troopers, but Wolff escapes. Hours later, however, he is found in a covered boat in a backyard of Watertown, a suburb of Boston. This ended one of the most sustained manhunts in U.S. history, in which the entire city of Boston and its various suburbs were placed on a police-enforced lockdown until the two assailants were caught.

While it must have been tempting for Peter Berg, who also directed 2016's DEEPWATER HORIZON and is known for his fairly ultra-conservative political beliefs, to make this an anti-Islamic diatribe, and thus red meat for right-wing fanatics, that tendency is instead set aside for a step-by step recreation of those 100 hours that had to have been the most frightening in the history of Boston. It is not surprising, of course, that the sequences of the bombings and the shootouts are incredibly realistic, horrifying, and quite graphic, and that the dialogue is equally salty and profane. But instead of just being another gung-ho action flick meant to be a bromide for blind patriotism, PATRIOTS DAY looks at the best of Boston's finest and the citizens they protect in a way that was done by director Paul Greengrass in his ultra-memorable 2006 9/11 film UNITED 93. No sympathy is spared for the Tsarnaev brothers or those that protected them (though it might have been a good idea to understand how they might have become radicalized the way they were, which wasn't via the traditional Al-Qaeda way, nor through the Islamic State); this is one of the few flaws of this film.

Berg very skillfully manages to edit some of the actual on-scene video camera footage from the real-life incident, and along with the blanket coverage that all Boston TV news outlets, with his recreation of the manhunt in a way that is good for the filmmaking process, but which also faithfully recreates the series of events between the bombing and the eventual capture of the surviving Tsarnaev brother (who was sentenced to death via lethal injection in 2015), without trying to capitalize on the magnitude of the tragedy at hand. Wahlberg, Goodman, Bacon, and Simmons all do good work and reasonable Boston accents, while Michelle Monaghan is equally fine in a supporting role as Wahlberg's wife. All in all, considering that it touches on the thorny, emotionally complex, and politically charged subject of terrorism, PATRIOTS DAY does it in a way that shows the very sick nature of terrorism and how we can respond to it, not with the same blind hatred of terrorism's perpetrators, but with the love and empathy that makes us Americans.

Return To Collinwood, 13 January 2017

Dan Curtis' "Dark Shadows" remains the most thoroughly unique "soap opera" ever put on TV, because instead of melodramatic plots, love triangles and such being set in fictional settings, he decided to go Gothic and supernatural with all of those things. The saga of the Collins family and all the weird things that happen in the Collinwood estate was so engrossing that, even with the melodramatic and occasionally hammy acting and sets that were low budget even for TV, the show lasted for five years (1966-1971) and 1,225 episodes. Curtis extracted two feature-length films from it, both of which became as much cult films as the series itself had done on the small screen. The first was 1970's HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, which was revolved around Jonathan Frid's infamous vampire Barnabas Collins. The second one was 1971's HOSUE OF DARK SHADOWS, only very loosely related to its big-screen predecessor, and having more in common with some of the plot lines of the TV show's 1969-1970 season.

Series regular David Selby returns to his role of Quentin Collins, now a painter who inherits the Collinwood mansion, only to find the place haunted, and himself possibly possessed, by an ancestor of his, namely Charles Collins (Selby again). A whole host of supernatural evils, some of them a tad bit bloody (though, absent Frid's vampire, they are less explicit than what we saw in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS), ensues. As had been the case with both the TV series and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS itself, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS does contain its share of fairly bizarre and twisted happenings; but series regulars Thayer David, Grayson Hall, John Karlen, and Lara Parker are on hand to offer some continuity, as is composer Robert Cobert, who once again provides the right amount of sonic atmosphere for this film, which, like the first film, was shot at the mansion once owned by rubber baron Jay Gould in Tarrytown, New York.

Besides producing and directing, Curtis co-scripted NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS with Sam Hall, his co-creator of the TV series, which, by the time of the film's release in August 1971, had left the air, only to wind up going into syndication and reruns in the 1980s, where it found a whole new kind of audience. The film itself, while certainly a fair bit less interesting than the admittedly ghoulish HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, does have plenty of atmosphere an excellent set designs, given that its budget was only $900,000; and the cast, including a young Kate Jackson (later to star in another ABC series, "Charlie's Angels", later in the 1970s), is able to give good performances with the unquestionably melodramatic material. Most of Curtis' output after this was for the small screen, notably the 1973 adaptation of Dracula, and as producer of both THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (he also directed the latter), though he would return to the big screen in 1976 for BURNT OFFERINGS.

While not necessarily a spectacular horror film, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS still has enough spooky moments in it to warrant a 7/10 rating.

Cujo (1983)
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When A Lovable Pet Becomes A Killer, 1 January 2017

The novels of Stephen King provided the basis for a number of horror films that ranged from rather good (FIRESTARTER; THE DEAD ZONE; CHRISTINE) to absolute masterworks (CARRIE; THE SHINING). One adaptation that flew under the radar screens of even the most devoted fans of the horror genre (as well as a few critics) was CUJO, based on King's 1981 novel of the same name, and released in the late summer of 1983. Part of it could be that the story itself was considered a bit thinner than what most were used to from King as a novelist. Nevertheless, in a decade that didn't see too many horror films become masterpieces (and this even applied to later King adaptations like PET SEMETARY and CHILDREN OF THE CORN), even slightly lower-caliber King from the 1980s like CUJO still outdoes even in the 21st century much of what is out there now.

Dee Wallace, who portrayed the emotionally distant mother in director Steven Spielberg's 1982 sci-fi masterpiece E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, plays more or less a similar role in CUJO, a frustrated suburban wife in a northern California town whose life has become a subject of turmoil; she has had an affair behind her husband (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) with another man (Christopher Stone); and her five year-old son (Danny Pintauro) is troubled by these issues which he is much too young to even begin to comprehend. Elsewhere in town, another young boy (Billy Jayne) has other issues coping with youth, and his only real "friend" in the world is his St. Bernard dog Cujo. Unfortunately, what nobody yet knows is that Cujo is the victim of a horrible encounter. In the film's opening, Cujo chases a rabbit into a hollowed-out, rotten log, only to get bitten on the nose by a bat infected with rabies. When Wallace and Pintauro stop off at the local garage where Cujo is kept, their car breaks down; and very soon, they are viciously attacked by the unfortunate St. Bernard. They are trapped in the broken-down car for much of the hot summer day, the target of Cujo's wrath.

Lewis Teague, who directed the 1979 Dillinger-inspired THE LADY IN RED, and the 1980 cult horror film ALLIGATOR, does an effective job of conveying small-town life in this, the first of King's adaptations to be set in his fictional community of Castle Rock. The major issue that he faces in directing this film is how he depicts Cujo's attacks, which in the novel were not surprisingly quite a bit more explicit, and how sympathetic one can be towards a St. Bernard who slowly but surely evolves into a vicious killer with teeth. This becomes a prime focus when it is perfectly obvious how well Wallace and Pintauro connect as mother and young son. A basic clue can be gleaned from the fact that Cujo's horrifying transformation from loving St. Bernard to irrational mauler isn't fast or easy. Another issue, though more minor, is how Teague can keep up the suspense once Wallace and Pintauro find themselves trapped in their car at the hands of Cujo. Since the attacks can't be depicted with such relentlessness, but must be spaced at intervals, as was the case in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 horror classic THE BIRDS, the film inevitably slows down at times; and horror film fans impatient for the blood and gore to start pouring are likely to find all of this boring. But astute fans of the genre know that it's far better to do it this way.

While King is often known for situations involving horror of some kind, primarily supernatural (though not really here), he also has a firm eye for characterizations; and Teague and screenwriters Dunaway and Currier take their cue from that aspect of King, while not leaving out the horror (though the attacks themselves, while plenty horrifying, aren't revoltingly graphic). The film's on-location settings in areas around Petaluma and Santa Rosa gives the Castle Rock an idyllic but also sometimes claustrophobic feel, which is enhanced and intensified once Cujo becomes a killer.

In the end, CUJO, while not quite a masterpiece on the level of either CARRIE or THE SHINING, must still be counted as one of the better horror films, thanks to the emphasis on characterization and suspense, and not just on blood and gore, while providing plenty of scares. Not many horror films in the 1980s did that, and even fewer would do so in the decades to come, and on into the 21st century.

Dark Shadows On The Big Screen In 1970, 1 January 2017

There has never been any other single daytime TV program like "Dark Shadows", the creation of producer Dan Curtis, which ran on ABC-TV from 1966 to 1971. What began as a typical soap opera instead evolved into a Gothic melodrama that would involve ghosts, zombies, and, most of all, a vampire named Barnabas Collins. It was the first time that horror had invaded daytime television, and it may have been too unique, since it hasn't been done again in any way, shape, or form on daytime television. Yes, it was a very low budget undertaking; the sets were threadbare; and the acting was what you'd expect for any other soap opera, even one literally full of cobwebs. Nevertheless, it was on for five years, with an astounding 1,225 episodes being aired in the afternoon hours for those five years. And Curtis, realizing how the show was gaining a cult audience unheard of among soap opera fans, decided to make two big-screen films from it. The first of these was HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, released in 1970.

Using many of the characters and actors that regularly appeared in the TV serial itself, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS sees the 175 year-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) being unwisely released from his resting place by a callow undertaker (John Karlen), and he goes to the Collinwood estate to cause all manner of vampiric mayhem on the Collins family. He introduces himself as a cousin from England, but he pretty soon proves to be much more than that, first killing off the secretary (Lisa Blake Richards) to Collinwood matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett). This leads off to many other ghoulish things, as anyone bitten by Frid comes back to life as a vampire as well. A nominally related sequel to the film, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, would follow in 1971; but by that time, the series itself had come to an end, awaiting syndication revivals in the 1980s and beyond.

The ironic thing is that the release of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS in the late summer of 1970 may have partially hastened the demise of the TV series itself. Due to the very low budget of the series, and the restrictions placed on television during the late 1960s and early 1970s, much of what went on was largely implied, or given Gothic flourishes (cobwebs; fog; sometimes nourish photography). But even though the budget for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS wasn't exactly big either, at just $750,000, Curtis, freed from TV censorship restrictions, was able to show a lot more in the way of sex and violence, especially in Frid's bloodthirsty activities. And while nothing in this film even comes remotely close to HOSTEL/SAW-type torture porn, the biting and staking scenes as such were nevertheless quite hair-raising, bloody, and horrific for their time. The series' ratings decline may have been due to the fact that parents discouraged their young kids from seeing it after the film's release, owing to the much more explicit material of the film.

Curtis went on to make a number of very solid made-for-TV horror films, notably 1972's THE NIGHT STALKER, 1973's THE NIGHT STRANGLER, 1975's TRILOGY OF TERROR, and a very good 1974 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (with Jack Palance as the world's best-known bloodsucker), all of which were scripted by the legendary Richard Matheson. He also went on to do some miniseries work for TV ("The Winds Of War") and the 1976 feature horror film BURNT OFFERINGS. But HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, despite its low-budget flaws, nevertheless distinguishes itself as a thoroughly unique horror film, especially of the vampire genre, of the early 1970s, much as the series that spawned it remains, again with all its flaws in mind, one of the most unique TV shows ever put on the air.

Fences (2016)
37 out of 65 people found the following review useful:
Denzel Washington, With One Of The Best Films Of 2016, 25 December 2016

Denzel Washington is clearly one of the best actors we have ever had, African-American or otherwise. Whether it has been in serious, sober-minded films like GLORY, MALCOLM X, and COURAGE UNDER FIRE, or explosive action films like CRIMSON TIDE, MAN ON FIRE, and UNSTOPPABLE, Washington has given all of himself, and then some. And then, like more than a few great actors, he also itched to get behind, as well as in front of, the camera as a director, which he did in 2002 with ANTWONE FISHER, and again in 2007 with THE GREAT DEBATERS. He does double duty again for one of the most insightful and true films of 2016, FENCES.

Scripted by noted playwright August Wilson from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, FENCES stars Washington as an average Joe-type sanitation worker in late 1950s Pittsburgh dealing with the world at large. He had been a baseball player once before World War II, but it never amounted to much; and when one of his sons (Jovan Adepo) wants to get into football while going to college, Washington tries to steer him away, managing only to alienate his son further than he already is. Washington does have a good friend in Mr. Bono (Stephen Henderson), but he is still troubled by a dark park of himself, one that threatens the eighteen-year marriage between him and his wife Rose (Viola Davis).

Adapting stage plays to the screen is not exactly the easiest thing in the world to do, because what works on a stage needs a great deal to transfer it to a movie, and a real, breathing set. Fortunately, Washington found a way of making it happen by filming in a part of Pittsburgh that seems not to have changed all that much from the way it must have looked in the actual time that FENCES is set. Wilson's stage play and screenplay are full of language and slang that is very right for the times, and, yes, this does include a profuse use of the 'N' word. But a certain amount of uncomfortable language is what is necessary for a story like this, especially given that it involves not only Washington on both sides of the camera, but also another hugely superb performance by Davis as his wife, who manages to somehow stand by her man despite the horrible secret he reveals near the end. Equally fine in supporting roles are Adepo and Henderson, as well as Mykelti Williamson as a former war buddy of his whose mind isn't right because of a severe head wound suffered in the war, and Russell Hornsby as Washington's son by an earlier marriage who constantly comes to his dad on payday for ten-dollar loans.

Though it is an African-American cast and story, FENCES works because it feels universal, and it is a story that could happen in any family, regardless of skin color or ethnicity. Washington and Wilson (who passed away in 2005, and thus never saw FENCES make it to the big screen) make this very clear but in a non-heavy-handed way, and with dialogue scenes that are often long but never dull, earning it justifiable and favorable comparisons to Arthur Miller's classic "Death Of A Salesman".

All of these elements make FENCES easily one of the best films of 2016, and a sure-fire winner likely to be regarded as a classic in a very short time.

Desierto (2015)
11 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Desperate Struggle On The Border, 24 October 2016

The border between the United States and Mexico is approximately 1,700 miles in length, stretching from the mouth of the Rio Grande at Brownsville, Texas, all the way to the Pacific shoreline at Imperial Beach, California. And much of it goes through some of the harshest and most forbidding land in the entire world, the Colorado and Sonoran deserts in California and Arizona. Each year, thousands of Mexicans cross that border into the U.S., oftentimes illegally but for very legitimate reasons: a better life, and to escape from the violence being caused by the drug cartels in their country. The journey they make is excruciatingly dangerous; and in the last couple of decades, the danger has been upped immeasurably, not by the drug cartels, nor even the U.S. Border Patrol, but by vigilantes who tend to pass themselves off as "patriots" or "Minutemen". The latter aspect is what is given attention in director Jonas Cuaron's film DESIERTO (Spanish for "desert").

Cuaron, who with his brother Alfonso wrote the screenplay of the masterful 2013 science fiction movie Gravity, had directed a couple of short films (ANINGAAQ; THE SHOCK DOCTRINE) and one feature-length film (2007's YEAR OF THE NAIL) before DESIERTO; and in taking on the subject matter here, he steps into a topic that has both human and political dimensions. Gael Garcia Bernal and Alondra Hidalgo are among a group of immigrants fleeing northward through the harsh Sonoran Desert when the truck they are in breaks down in salt flats, and the ride stops for them. Approximately a dozen of them walk through the desert in harsh 120-degree temperatures, and make it through the barbed-wire fence that marks where the border is. The only way for them is to continue towards the north. But not long after they cross, they are set upon by a gun-toting vigilante (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with a very racist view who is determined that no Mexicans get across the border…at least, not if he has anything to say about it. The viciousness Morgan displays is matched only by that of "Tracker", his German shepherd dog who happens to be good at tracking the immigrants. All of them fall victim either to his long-range sniper rifle or "Tracker", sometimes getting partially torn up in gruesome fashion. Only Bernal and Hidalgo manage to escape the initial gunfire; but when they try to steal Morgan's truck, they too are wounded, and have to continue to flee on foot. At one point Hidalgo is so badly wounded that Bernal must leave her under a desiccated cactus with a supply of water while he tries to evade or stop Morgan.

With most of the dialogue in Spanish (and with sub-titles on the screen) and the fact that all of the actors, save for Morgan and Lew Temple, who plays a Border Patrol agent, are Mexican, DESIERTO can sometimes be a test to watch; and certainly the violence and language are extremely harsh. Beyond those things, Cuaron, a native of Mexico himself, also seems to take an arguably very slanted view of the situation by painting the Mexican immigrants as common people who, practically by force, are forced to make so dangerous and illegal a crossing of the frontier, and by making Morgan the right-wing vigilante villain of the piece. But given how much immigration at the U.S./Mexico border, illegal and otherwise, and the issue of drug cartels creating violent havoc on either side of that border has been a hot-button issue in American politics for decades, and certainly in the ultra-toxic environment of the 2016 presidential election, it probably shouldn't be too surprising that Cuaron does indeed take the viewpoint that he does, especially given how often Mexicans have been made scapegoats in the U.S. media and by politicians, particularly by one Donald Trump. And even at that, there is no reason to believe that situations like the one depicted in DESIERTO have not happened for real on the border; they just don't make it onto the news.

DESIERTO thanks to Cuaron's direction and the desolate score by Woodkid, has a lot of similarities to the classic Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s in how it depicts the extreme harshness of the border country, with Bernal's and Hidalgo's performances being quite good and Morgan giving a very frightening performance in an arguably stereotypical vigilante role. While DESIERTO may not be an absolutely perfect film, or easy to watch, and could incite passions both pro and con on the issue of immigration at our southern border, in the end it is a human story about desperation and how what goes on at the border transcends political grandstanding and a perversion of human values.

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Edward Snowden And His Revelations About The Intelligence/Surveillance Complex, 12 October 2016

Not since Daniel Ellsberg broke the extreme illegality of America's involvement of the Vietnam War with his release of the Pentagon Papers had any government contractor dared to defy their employers and made public huge government dissembling that affected the lives of every man, woman, and child living inside the boundaries of the United States. Just before the end of 2012, an individual who identified himself in e-mails as "Citizenfour" revealed to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras all-too-convincing evidence that the U.S. intelligence complex, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and most of the major communications conglomerates, were engaged in mass surveillance against the nation's own people in the years and decades following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As it turned out, "Citizenfour" would be identified as Edward Joseph Snowden. In June 2013, Poitras and noted journalist Glenn Greenwald interviewed Snowden at a high-rise hotel in Hong Kong in which he revealed the first huge batch of what he knew. The end result was Snowden becoming one of the most wanted men in history. What also resulted was the Oscar-winning, and disturbing, 2014 documentary CITIZENFOUR.

Poitras had already done two documentaries (2006's MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY; 2010's THE OATH) that touched on post-9/11 America; and CITIZENFOUR expands on those two films to focus on what the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on that dark late summer day in 2001 unleashed in the bowels of the intelligence community inside the United States. Poitras, along with Greenwald and MacAskill (the last two of whom worked at the British newspaper The Guardian) went and interviewed Snowden in Hong Kong; and a lot of that interview involves Snowden's chillingly detailed information about how every branch of the intelligence community, and their contractors, including the one (Booz Allen) that Snowden had worked for, used its expertise to monitor the activities of everyone at practically every second of their public and online lives during the day. The revelations that Snowden allowed Greenwald to make public turned out to be every bit as explosive in the media and to the American public as advertised, and then some. Not surprisingly, the kind of paranoia that developed among the three of them in that tenth floor Hong Kong hotel room was extraordinary. And once the first revelations were made public, Snowden was charged with three crimes, two under the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917, basically putting him in the crosshairs of the entire United States government, which was shamed by his revelations, and making him a target for the ultimate charge of Treason.

The revelations that Snowden makes to Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill (which director Oliver Stone dramatized in his 2016 film SNOWDEN) in his Hong Kong hotel room, along with the e-mail messages he delivers to Poitras and Greenwald while on the run, reveal a great deal about the things the United States government has been doing, to a great degree because of electronic encryption software that was of Snowden's own design, to track the movements of every American citizen possible. It is likely that Snowden first identified himself to Poitras as "Citizenfour" because of his concerns about how the massive bulk-collection program being carried out violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. This amendment guarantees that the government cannot search and seize a person or his property without proper cause; but the Patriot Act, signed into law just after 9/11 by then-president George W. Bush after being passed by a Congress that read not one single page of it, basically superseded it (with the acquiescence of a fearful American public) in the name of National Security. In essence, both CITIZENFOUR, and, two years later, SNOWDEN seem not only to indict Bush and, later, Obama in this whole scandal, but to a fair extent We The People in the bargain.

The years following the 9/11 attacks saw a huge explosion in the number of feature-length documentaries being made, including Michael Moore's infamous FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and more sober ones like Eugene Jarecki's WHY WE FIGHT, and Charles Ferguson's NO END IN SIGHT. CITIZENFOUR, whose Oscar win in 2014 was richly justified, should be considered another essential addition to the number of films which speak the truth against government power and overreach. It is as darkly spooky as any fictional high-tech espionage thriller, like MINORITY REPORT or THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, and thanks to its being based on contemporary events, every bit as scary.

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