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Fate brings together disparate characters, 16 May 2017

John Herzfeld's film is one of Intersecting narratives set in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. It chronicles a violent and profane tale of how the lives and deaths of a dozen various people intersect over the course of two days. The director's method is to introduce his characters in seemingly unrelated scenes and then eventually connect them together. The technique has been done before: "American Graffiti" (1973) and "Pulp Fiction" (1994) come to mind.

Two hit men, cold-blooded psychopath Lee Woods (James Spader) and faded Dosmo (Danny Aiello), are hired to kill for insurance money the womanizing ex-husband (Ray Foxx = Peter Horton) of scheming Olympic skier Becky Foxx (Teri Hatcher). Despite his lethal line of work," Dosmo shows compassion; he is even afraid of dogs. On the other hand, Lee is a sadist who gives his victims one minute to get their affairs in order. Lee's girl is Helga (Charlize Theron). The subsequent crime scene is somewhat later stumbled upon by two vice cops: quixotic Wes Taylor (Eric Stoltz) and exasperated Alvin Strayer (Jeff Daniels). When the two cops were staking out an Asian massage parlor, Wes refused to arrest lovely Vietnamese girl Midori (Kathleen Luong). Alvin is not happy because he does not want any vice dens in the valley. Unlike Wes, he doesn't want to get involved in a homicide investigation. In the second half of the movie he is ordered to turn in his badge and gun. Later, real homicide detective Creighton (Keith Carradine) is assigned to the case.

Obnoxious and patronizing British art dealer Allan Hopper (Greg Cruttwell), who sustains a kidney stone attack in the middle of a busy LA street, is assisted by his dutiful secretary Susan Parish (Glenne Headly). He continually denigrates her with unflattering comments.

Down-and-out movie director Teddy Peppers (Paul Mazursky), four months behind in his rent, contemplates suicide but doesn't want to see his beloved dog homeless. At first he decides to shoot him after one last walk in the park. There he meets Ralph Crupi (Austin Pendleton), who, while smiling, proceeds to insensitively criticize Peppers' screen failures. Eventually Peppers resolves to find someone to care for his dog. When he spots compassionate nurse (Audrey Hopper = Marsha Mason) in a cemetery he introduces himself to her. In time we will learn that Audrey is Allan Hopper's half- sister. Kindheartedly, Audrey senses Teddy's distress and brings him to her brother's house.

Meanwhile, after the hit, Lee shoots Dosmo so that he can have the insurance payment all to himself. Dosmo, though, is smarter than he seems and correctly suspected Lee: he wore a bullet proof vest. Thus he survives both a bullet and a blown-up car. Disheveled, Dosmo stumbles upon Hopper's residence and takes him and Susan hostage. Hungry, he cooks a pasta and sauce dinner for all of them. Dosmo plans on taking Hopper's car. Before that, he warns Hopper to stop insulting Susan and slaps him. Susan says to Dosmo, "Please don't hurt him. He doesn't mean anything by it. It's just his nature to be cruel."

At this point no more bits of information are being provided as they will necessitate spoilers. Aiello is very good but the other actors also give their all in this one, and Hatcher achieves the best role of her career. The dialogue is snappy. There are a number of comedic overtones, mostly from Aiello's character, like the pit bull's reaction to Dosmo's toupee falling from his head. In short, the movie is entertaining with a simple but satisfying ending.

Death Has a Design That Can Be Changed, 10 May 2017

The movie has an interesting premise: A high school student, aboard an airplane and waiting to depart on his French classes' flight to Paris, has a premonition: a ghastly vision of an explosion. He then raises a commotion and bolts from the craft. A few minutes later the plane explodes in midair just after takeoff, killing everyone aboard. The view from the terminal is terrific, with glass shattering everywhere.

The young man and six others – who have disembarked during the turmoil – have cheated death, but death, though unfeeling, hates to be cheated. And so for the rest of the movie death stalks the survivors, and picks them off one by one. Meanwhile the main character tries to figure out the death patterns to stay ahead of fate. As a mortician later tells Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) and sympathizing friend Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), "The risk of cheating the plan, of disrespecting the design, could incite a fury that could terrorize even the Grim Reaper."

The whole feeling is one of doom, that something is out to get you, as writer Mark Twain thought of his family tragedies. Inanimate objects turn against people, like water, wind, electrical wires, vodka, gas cans, knives, lanterns, fish hooks, candles, a garage- door opener, etc. And folks die in various ways, like an elaborate strangulation, decapitation, traffic accident, fire, etc. When John Denver's tune, "Rocky Mountain High" is played, watch out for a falling sign! So we have a bizarre chain of connected events, like a Rube Goldberg machine. In the early 20th century Goldberg created cartoons for newspapers that depicted complicated gadgets that performed tasks in complex ways.

FBI agents and others think that Alex is some kind of freak, especially because of his theories about death's design. The last half of the film focuses on Alex's increasing paranoia and precautions, like his opening of tin cans while wearing heavy gloves lest he should severely cut himself and get blood-poison. His lit candles are placed in water bowls as protection against an ill wind that may knock them over.

Despite an interesting story-line, the film has its negatives. For one, the acting is just so-so, especially with co-lead Ali Larter. In addition, this morphs into just another horror film. Also, there are the plot flaws. One may say, "Why save someone's life as he will be doomed anyway?" You may come to the same conclusion by adding, "Why do we have doctors?" Nevertheless Director James Wong's concept was popular enough with teen viewers so that four sequels were produced. But the characters were mostly created just to be knocked off, although not quite as badly as those in the "Friday the Thirteenth" series. You may be entertained by it.

Now It's the Animals' Turn to Hunt, 27 April 2017

The opening caption tells us that in 1974 two UCal scientists revealed that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans were seriously damaging the earth's protective layer of ozone. It warns that the potentially dangerous amounts of radiation (ultra-violet rays) that subsequently reached the earth's surface were affecting living things in adverse ways. Then the movie is supposed to dramatize what COULD happen if mankind didn't change its methods: the day of the crazed animals, especially those at high altitude!

The movie begins with twelve campers, dropped off by helicopter, who hike in high country as spooky-looking animals (mountain lions, coyotes, bears, eagles, vultures, etc.) watch. Dogs growl menacingly; eagles screech. The owl looks like it has an evil eye. Sunrays shine menacingly. The unnerving music tells us that the folks are in danger. The campers have almost no food. Before long the animals attack the human campers; even the sheriff is attacked in his house. The police and rangers have notified the area's population to evacuate their houses in the high country. The campers split into two groups: (1) those with Buckner (Christopher George) head to lower country where it is safer but longer (35 miles), a route recommended by authorities and (2) those with Paul Jenson (Leslie Nielsen) head upland away from the safe areas but closer to a ranger station (15 miles). Jenson had been riding Buckner during the whole trip. Along the way he is a crazed man who loses his way. Wonder how many will return? HINT: the way these movies go you can bet that one-half will make it safely. Near the end there is one interesting scene that I have never seen in cinema. Three survivors of one group barely escape from wild dogs on a moored river raft. But before the raft can move quickly along the rapids several wild dogs overtake it. The humans hang on along the sides of the raft in the water while the animals are on the platform. As they struggle to stay afloat when the raft is caught up in the current, they cannot really harm the humans. Helpless, they will soon be tossed into the big drink. Gulp!

Movie is rated so-so despite a rather impressive veteran cast that includes Nielsen, Richard Jaeckel, Michael Ansara, and Ruth Roman. Linda Day George, not a great actress, contributes next to nothing. Christopher George is a macho-man, along with Ansara. Out of character, Nielsen plays an advertising man who chews up the scenery, repels everybody, and calls team leaders George "Hotshot" and Ansara "Kemo Sabe." Later deranged by the sun's rays, he does despicable things and even charges a bear! Personally I doubt that the animals would act this erratic way and turn against humans if the ozone layer shrinks, but the idea does provide a story-line. By the way, did you notice that the animals did not attack one other? Smart! THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION: Women, stop using hair spray!

An Incoherent Storyline despite the Promising, Moody Atmosphere, 17 April 2017

"Texas Killing Fields" is based upon true events: the murders of young women who are dumped in a Texan oil field known to the locals as the Texas Killing Fields, really a bayou. In an early scene, a trapped waif –a young teen-aged girl – stands alone in the darkness in the parking lot of a convenience store. In reality she has nowhere safe to go, and the feeling is one of trepidation.

At movie's beginning, two women are discovered dead, or at least one is. A woman's car is found with her personal effects in the killing field. Her driver's license identifies her as blonde Kirsten lane. Later on her body will be found. The other – a dark-haired prostitute – is discovered in a vacant lot in the city. Both murders have been committed by two different sets of suspects unknown to each other. So the cases are different. But the viewer does not initially know this information. In fact, more than once the movie editing adds to confusion by cutting needlessly to a scene or character unrelated to the previous sequence without any clarification. The disjointed manner of shooting by director Ami Canaan Mann (Michael Mann's daughter) often makes this feature a frustrating, incoherent narrative.

Bearded New York transplant and levelheaded Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his local, hot-tempered and intimidating partner Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) discover the body of the aforementioned young prostitute. Right after Mike's tough ex-wife Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain, in another subplot) – also a cop – requests the help of Brian in the recent disappearance and murder of women within the confines of the killing fields. Brian reluctantly obliges, despite the objections of partner Mike due to their own case against two low-life flesh-peddlers who are systematically kidnapping and forcing teenage girls into a life of prostitution. Mann's film mires itself in a procedural plot involving Brian and Mike trailing these two suspects, pimp Levone (Jon Eyez) and his menacing, bare-armed, heavily tattooed cohort Rule (Jason Clarke), both of whom are heavily implicated in the prostitute's murder. All the while Brian, who just cannot stop helping others in need, keeps an eye out for Little Ann Sliger (Chloë Grace Moretz), a decent but mildly delinquent teen – the above-mentioned trapped waif – trying to survive life at a wretched home with a toxic, dysfunctional family. These members include low-life mom Lucie (Sheryl Lee), criminal brother Eugene Sliger (James Hébert), and her menacing boyfriends, especially chilling Rhino (Stephen Graham). Lucie has instructed daughter Ann to disappear when she has certain men hanging around the house. The denouement will be one of no-nonsense brutality, although flirting with implausibility.

To reiterate, various narrative streams often occur all at once, so it is easy to become confused about what is exactly taking place on- screen. On appositive note, the atmosphere is sufficiently gritty with its haunting landscape: the feeling of dread permeates everywhere. The acting, especially by Chloë Grace Moretz, is fine, but Worthington's accent is often difficult to comprehend. You will probably need to utilize your TV's closed-caption option to understand his words. At movie's end, the survival of one of the detectives is surprising and unrealistic. An inexplicable loose end concerns the fate of one of the bad guys, who outlives the picture. You may have to watch this one more than once to capture full understanding.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Ghost Knows, 31 March 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On a beautiful autumn day, a writer in a taxi stops and steps out into a cemetery in Willowpoint, NY to visit a pair of gravestones. Prompted by his driver's skeptical question he tells his story in flashback, the mode of the rest of the movie.

On 31 October 1962, Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a typical nine-year old with a warm and loving family: widowed father Angelo (Alex Rocco), brother Gino (Jason Presson), and two grandparents. Grandma (Mama Assunta = Renata Vanni) goes to great lengths to stop grandpa (Angelo Bertolini) from smoking. There are also family friend Tony (Jack Andreozzi) and "Uncle" Phil (Len Cariou), who was originally an orphan as a youth but raised by Angelo's family. Halloween day is festive in school as kids are allowed to wear costumes. With a taste of the macabre, Frankie in his Dracula outfit reads his "pre-hysterical monster" story to his classmates. "I really liked your story, Frankie, I wish I was as weird as you," says a girl in braces. After school two of Frankie's friends, Donald and Louis, play a sadistic prank on him and lock him in the school cloakroom and run away. While he's alone at night, a translucent apparition of a red-haired, ten-year old girl (Melissa Ann Montgomery = Joelle Jacobi) appears. She struggles with an invisible assailant before dying and being carried away. In the struggle an object falls to the floor into a vent grate. Leaving but quickly returning to find the object, the assailant – now a visible man whose face cannot be seen because of darkness – quickly discovers Frankie (wearing his Halloween mask) and tries to strangle him. Frankie loses consciousness, but is rescued and revived when his father Angelo arrives. Is this coincidence or did the killer let him live? The police on the scene arrest the black school janitor (Harold Williams), found drunk in the school basement. He is accused of serial murders: the deaths of eleven children during the past eleven years. Melissa, who perished in the cloakroom, was the first victim.

After recovering, Frankie goes to the school cloakroom and removes the floor grate to locate the missing object that the murderer searched for in vain. He retrieves a jack, a barrette, and a ring. Meanwhile the ghost sometimes returns, as during the Christmas holidays. Later Frankie overhears a conversation between Angelo and Sheriff Saunders (Tom Bower) about the serial murders; Saunders believes that Williams is a scapegoat. Then Frankie confines to Phil a summary of the recent events that affected him. He says that the ring must belong to the killer and that he must have returned for it. The conversation is interrupted by Angelo for dinner time. Phil keeps the information provided by Frankie to himself.

Frankie and friends Donald and Louis "visit" the spooky house by the cliff, inhabited by eccentric recluse Amanda (Katherine Helmond), the aunt of Melissa Ann Montgomery. Frightened, Donald and Louis flee, leaving Frankie behind. Soon he too flees and runs into brother Geno, who was out searching for him. He tells Geno about the ring, not knowing that Geno found it and said nothing. When they return to their room, Melissa's ghost appears to them. Frankie explains to Geno that she is the daughter of the Lady in White (Karen Powell), who "haunts" the area. Melissa's ghost leaves at 10:00 pm and is carried to the shoreline by the invisible man who throws her over the edge of the cliff. Then a female white robed spirit appears and plunges herself over the edge. Meanwhile Harold Williams is released for lack of evidence. Wrongly believing him to be the serial killer, a woman who lost her young son violently shoots Williams to death in front of his wife.

SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ON: Back at home, Geno compares the high school ring of his father with the one found in the cloakroom. Comparing and correctly surmising that the rings are of the same year of graduation, he checks out initials MPT (P=Phil) and realizes that Phil is the owner and murderer! In the meantime, Phil and Frankie are practicing archery in the woods. Frankie becomes tipped off when Phil whistles the same tune heard by Frankie when he was locked in the cloakroom. The boy runs away but is caught. Phil says he did not know who Frankie was in the cloakroom because his face was covered by the mask. But he still wants the ring. Coincidentally Phil is clubbed from behind by reclusive Amanda, who takes Frankie to her house. Nonetheless Phil catches up to them and struggles with and kills the woman. Then he tries to throw Frankie off the nearby cliff. The ghost of the Lady in White appears and throws Phil off the edge, however. In Frankie's presence, the translucent ghosts of both mother and daughter reunite lovingly in the sky. But Phil climbs up the cliff and seizes Frankie's leg. Coincidentally and in the nick of time, Angelo's rescue team arrives; Phil plunges to his death.

Frank LaLoggia, a good but rare filmmaker, wrote, produced, and directed this eccentric, well thought out but flawed flick. The plot has holes and too many coincidences, such as when Amanda is suddenly around to save Frankie. Why did Phil wait so long to retrieve his ring? And why could he not locate it? The music selection is puzzling and should have been eerie in keeping with the atmosphere. We never discover the murderer's motivation, although the fact that he was a serial killer is enough. The racial subplot is heavy-handed and unneeded. Nevertheless the nostalgia piece and set-designs are certainly well done. And well-drawn are the characters that inhabit the small town and the local businesses. Warmly portrayed are the comforts of a strong family and the characterizations of the Italians (autobiographical?). In short, the movie deserves redeeming high marks for its old-time nostalgia, likable characters, and encompassing atmosphere.

The Most Dangerous Factory in the East, 22 March 2017

It's not just the enormous rat infestation or the monster lurking in the bowels of the run-down Bachman Mills that are ominous. The 1990 Gates Falls, Maine cotton processing plant is more like one from 1900 with its utterly hazardous cotton picker machinery with exposed drive belts, gears, nip points, moving parts, and point-of-operation exposures. Safety and warning signs are routinely ignored while safe work practices are flouted. Housekeeping is at a poor level; fire hazards are everywhere. Moreover, the mill constantly pollutes the local river. Then there is the rather sadistic foreman that workers have to contend with. Although there is supposed to be a union that ostensibly protects workers, it accomplishes nothing. When the US Dept. of Labor (OSHA) inspector is paid off after he notes some (not all!) of the violations, he tells the foreman that he will be back. At least he thinks that the plant should be closed.

Because temperatures are high in the summer heat – even in Maine – the main factory is run only at night (11:00 pm-7:00am), the Graveyard Shift. At film's beginning, Jason Reed (Jonathan Emerson), who works very unsafely in the basement, thinks nothing of throwing live rats into the picker unit. The rat's blood and body parts squirt into the cotton fabric but Reed does not care. Suddenly he screams: something has grabbed and taken him away for good. As he has disappeared, there is a new position available. At the same time, the vermin infestation has resulted in the contact of the typically unbalanced vermin exterminator, Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif), and the aforementioned OSHA inspector. Enter new employee John Hall (David Andrews), a drifter from Wheeling, West Virginia, who replaces Reed on the cotton picker. Before long he will get chummy with Kelly Wolf (Jane Wisconsky); they enjoy each other's company and smoke Marlboro cigarettes. Hall's weapon against rats is his slingshot and Pepsi soda cans. John and Kelly's ultimate nemesis is Warwick (Stephen Mach), the foreman who in reality acts as a plant manager. Warwick hankers over Kelly, but she cannot stand him.

As the mandatory Fourth of July holiday week approaches for plant closing (backed by the union!), Hall agrees, for double pay, to work with the subsequent skeleton cleanup crew. That crew includes Kelly but also several despicable factory hands, like Brogan (Vic Polizos), who doesn't seem to know that horseplay at work is dangerous. During the cleanup Hall discovers a trap door on the basement floor: a secret sub-basement. It is spooky and eventually leads to a cemetery. Is that where the rats are breeding? Is that the lair of the bat-monster? Will the crew be picked off one by one?

This low-budgeted film has a gritty edge that captures the right atmosphere of sweat and fetor that the viewer can almost feel. It would be nice if it explained the origin of the monster and also Warwick's motivation. Some parts just do not translate well, like the Beach Boys' song "Surfin' Safari" while rats float and struggle on debris in the flowing water. Despite the negatives, one can do far worse than watch "Graveyard Shift." A bonus is that it was filmed on location at Harmony and at Bangor, Maine; the extras are actual local mill workers.

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Modern Film Noir, 13 March 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

So hideously deformed in his face that even his speech is affected, Johnny Sedley (Mickey Rourke) – called Johnny Handsome for obvious reasons – nevertheless knows how to plan robberies. But the robbery of the Prestige Jewelry store is very violent and goes haywire when two of the robbers betray and shoot the other three. One of the three is Johnny, who, although left for dead, survives. In jail Johnny is attacked and knife-wounded by two inmates and sent to prison hospital. The attacking inmates were bribed to kill Johnny by scoundrel robbers Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) and Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin). Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman) visits Johnny to tell him that he is "nothing but a cheap crook." He gets five years prison time in Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola. Thoughtful prison doctor Fisher (Forest Whitaker) offers Johnny a new face. He feels that recidivism sometimes relates to physical deformities and so believes that Johnny will get a second chance. Plus he doesn't want to blame Johnny for the actions of his mother, who was both a drug user and prostitute.

Not only do the operations work well, but Johnny now has a new identification, Johnny Mitchell. Meanwhile, speech therapy has taken a long time. The newspapers report that Johnny has died while incarcerated. On parole, Johnny has a construction job at Commodore Shipyard waiting for him courtesy of Dr. Fisher. Johnny works hard and eventually strikes up a courtship with office secretary Donna McCarthy (Elizabeth McGovern). Donna had dated slimy Earl, who stole items from the tool shop. Donna, herself stained, had covered for him by removing the items from her inventory list. Johnny strong-armed Earl, who then disappeared from the scene. At this point Johnny has a choice: He can go straight with Donna or return to his life of crime and take his revenge on Rafe and Sunny. The latter thought prevails as Johnny's close friend was double-crossed and killed by Rafe and Sunny in the jewelry holdup, and Johnny, who had a downtrodden life, believes in payback. Lt. Drones stops by to remind Johnny that – despite his new face and new name – he will regress into his life of crime. Right after Johnny enters the sleazy bar where Rafe and Sunny operate. It is obvious that the situation between the two lowlifes is less than charming. Anyway, Johnny eventually convinces them of a potential $5 million heist at Commodore Shipyard. When Rafe and Sunny inquire the particulars of Johnny – like why he chose them, the jobs he pulled, the folks he knows – Johnny says that he met a fellow by the name of Johnny Handsome who died in jail. Rafe and Sunny seem convinced, but Sunny seems to take an additional liking to Johnny. She says that $5 million divided by two is better than divided by three. Of course, she has no scruples. Anyway, the film's second robbery goes as planned. Of course there is the eventual double dealing.

Before the end Johnny will get his revenge, but will have sustained a beating beforehand. And although he kills his enemies, he is mortally wounded. In the end Lt. Drones mutters, "Well Johnny, that darn doctor didn't understand this part, did he?"

The New Orleans atmosphere of this "modern" noir works decently in its darkness and grittiness although the dialog is rather so-so. Folks will cringe at the beating at the end. Rourke is good enough in the lead as a tragic character, especially his replication of a speech impediment in early scenes. Still, despite other good performances by Freeman as a cynical detective and Whitaker as a sympathetic doctor, the movie offers nothing unusual. The menacing character of bare-armed villain Henriksen is strictly one- dimensional. Barkin is sufficiently sleazy, but her southern accent is not too convincing. McGovern is a less than intelligent lass who consistently makes imprudent choices. On a final note, the key hair stylist could at least have changed Johnny's hairstyle after his facial reconstruction! It would have made him more convincing.

Hollow Man (2000)
It's All about the Special F/X and Nothing Else, 3 March 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The opening credits feature pictures of molecules and scrambled letters. This is another movie where someone tests some ridiculous experiment on himself and thing go awry. These guys never seem to understand that they will become entrapped inside their new character. To make my point, refer to the following stories: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide," "The Invisible Man," and "The Fly." In "Hollow Man" Kevin Bacon stars as Sebastian Caine, who is an egocentric and unethical scientist. He heads a six-unit research and development team whose purpose is to make living things invisible, and vice versa (reversion). The crew, entirely financed under the auspices of the Pentagon, includes ex-girlfriend Linda McKay (Elizabeth Shue) and her current suitor Matthew Kensington (Josh Brolin).

Ignoring procedures and rules, Sebastian decides to initiate human testing – on himself. On making history he tells his staff, "You make it by seizing the moment!" So he is the first human guinea pig. He does no real good in his new situation. One of his first acts as an invisible man is to unbutton the blouse of the dozing, high strung co-worker Bianca (Kim Dickens) and squeeze a boob. Ten days into the experiment, he cannot get back to his original self and his behavior becomes depraved with violent streaks. At least a latex skin is poured over him to give him a humanoid look. He has been enamored with a well-endowed, attractive single woman (Rhona Mitra) who lives just across from him in another unit of his apartment building. Debauched, and as he cannot be seen, he decides to force his way onto her. How she inadvertently admits him in the first place is totally ridiculous: She sees no one through the door peephole and ventures outside her apartment while dank and wearing just a housecoat, and while wondering who rang the doorbell. Of course he easily sleazes in and rapes her. Sebastian's mind continues to degenerate. He becomes murderous and begins to stalk his own team after they decide to turn him over to their superiors. Now the movie morphs into a slasher flick as team members are picked off one by one in the expected order. Will the madman be stopped before they are all dead? Who cares?

Special effects are the real stars here. There is a nice opening sequence with a visible rat: it slinks along to a water dish before being quickly snatched and killed by an invisible predator. Early on an invisible gorilla becomes visible after an irradiated serum injection. As the injected chemical fans out throughout the bloodstream, body parts gradually become visible, revealing layers of tissue, muscle, fat, bone, organs, and skin. But filmmakers like Paul Verhoeven must realize that great visual effects do not by themselves equate to an enjoyable motion picture experience. Thus, on the negative side the acting is so-so, and there is little, if any, chemistry between the two protagonist leads, Shue and Brolin. Worse, the characters are not especially likable. Then there is the story-line that deteriorates into absurdity.

The Social Order of the Macaque Monkey, 28 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This Disney Studios (Disneynature) feature focuses on a community of about fifty macaque monkeys who inhabit the jungles of Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. As they like to dwell around the ancient temple ruins near Castle Rock now overgrown by jungle flora, they are known in the film as the Temple Troop. These monkeys are bound by a caste system, a strict social order that determines even what they eat. In the most prized fig tree, only those at the top capture the best and ripest fruit. Raja, the alpha male, is the king, supported by the three queens (the "Sisterhood") who back him. They and their offspring get what they want. As we descend the tree, the lesser monkeys get the lesser produce. At the bottom of the fig tree lowly Maya gets the scraps. The "high-born" monkeys even get the sunnier, warmer branches while the others shiver on the colder ones below. Before the movie ends Maya will ascend the top of the tree. This is her story.

Lone male monkey Kumar enters the group during mating season, but is expelled by the alpha monkey Raja. Six months later, his offspring through Maya is born ("Kip"). During the heavy downpours of the rainy season Castle Rock makes a great shelter for the alpha monkeys. But the others suffer from the cold and dampness. One day a year is feast time for the lowly, when the termites come out. Cassata leaves are tasty, but only for the alphas. Needing to eat to form milk for Kip, Maya goes to the lily pond, where there is food but also predators. She swims for the tasty lily-seed pods (underwater plants). Eventually Maya and friends enter a human house at the forest edge and take all kinds of foods and leave a mess.

Kumar eventually returns, smarter and stronger. He brings jackfruit as a bribe to Raja, who accepts the gift. Raja will need Kumar as a rival monkey group moves in, led by Rex. But Lex's group wins by tactical trickery and Raja's clan has to evacuate. The troop travels beyond the forest to the city to regroup; Maya becomes a queen as she has learned to take food from the humans. The journey further blurs the distinction between high-born and low-born. Out of their element, the alphas are bewildered, and strong Kumar takes the lead. Fortified, the Troop is ready to return to Castle Rock and regain the lost homeland. At Castle Rock the Troop attacks. Lex's group retreats as Kumar lays his claim as King of the Castle. Along with him, Maya and Kip - and his new sister – will live well as alphas. During the end credits the macaque monkeys approach the cameramen and "inspect" camera equipment.

Yes, there is anthropomorphizing as the narrative of Tina Fey imposes human emotions on these animals. After all, the characters are animals, not humans. Does Maya really fight to beat the odds, or did she just get lucky and mate with a strong male? And were some parts of the film staged, like, for instance, the birthday party invasion where the humans are outside but the monkeys (and camera crew) are inside? Still, the filmmakers do not interfere and allow the monkeys to do their part like realizing their social structure and capturing their intimate close-ups: eating, sleeping, grooming, and playing. We also see their interaction with other animals, such as a mongoose and a langur. Animals in the story include bears, deer, Asian elephants, and predators such as a leopard and a seven-foot long monitor lizard. Disney has always done well with animal documentaries going back to the "True-Life Adventures" series. This one should please animal lovers everywhere.

Cliché-Riddled with No Pay-Off, 14 February 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are no opening credits. Streetwise New York police detective Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) is brought up on charges for the killing of Mikey Tavarez (Luis Tolentino), rapist-murderer of 16-year old Yesenia Barea. As protesters picket the courthouse, oily Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) discusses the case with haughty police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright). The two men are civil but are not really friendly. Hostetler defends Taggart against the police chief. As evidence incriminating Taggart has supposedly disappeared, the judge dismisses the case against him. The major praises but then fires Taggart because, as he says, there is a need to preclude the possibility of lost evidence being dug up and embarrassing the police department. Hostetler knows more than he lets on.

Seven years later Taggart is a window-peeping private eye who lives with aspiring actress girlfriend Natalie (Natalia) Barrow (Natalie Martinez), the older sister of the dead Yesenia. Their relationship seems cool. Taggart's spunky office assistant is Katy Bradshaw (Alona Tal), who obviously is in love with him. She seems to be a better match than Natalie. Hostetler, still mayor, summons Taggart for a meeting. Seems like the mayor's wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has been unfaithful, and Hostetler wants to hire Taggart for $50,000 to find out information of the lover. As the mayor is involved in a tight race with reform challenger councilman Jack Valliant (Barry Pepper), he cannot afford any negative publicity that finds its way into radio, TV, and newspapers. Taggart accepts, and receives the first $25,000. Helped by Katy, Taggart soon has the evidence: It appears that Mrs. Hostetler has been seeing Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), Valliant's campaign manager!

At a fundraiser for the mayor's campaign at the Roosevelt Hotel, Cathleen confronts Taggart and tells him that she knows he has been tailing her. She adds that Taggart is in much deeper than he realizes. The mayor then pays Taggart the balance of the money and says that the case is finished. Not long after, Andrews is found shot to death, and Valliant is despondent. When Taggart makes him talk in front of Commissioner Fairbanks, Valliant doesn't say much except that he was attracted to Andrews. Valliant is homosexual.

After checking out the Bolton Village Housing Project (BVHP), Taggart meets with Cathleen who says that Andrews was really just a good friend who was going to provide her with incriminating information about the development; in turn Cathleen wanted the evidence to get a good divorce settlement from the mayor. What Hostetler originally wanted from Taggart was to discover Andrew's source of information.

Taggart visits Sam Lancaster's business; Lancaster (Griffin Dunne) is a big financial supporter of the mayor. While he is snooping the premises and gathering some info about the BVHP, a shot is fired at him; this action is followed by the mandatory car chase, complete with wrecked vehicles. Taggart survives. It is soon revealed that the Rockaway Group (Lancaster's company) will evict the residents and demolish the Bolton Village, setting up a $4 billion building project. Todd later roughs up Todd Lancaster (James Ransone), Sam's son. Todd, who opposes his father, freely gives Taggart the signed contract that he had hidden. He was Andrews' friend and source. When Taggart confronts Mayor Hostetler in his office, he shows him the BVHP contract and demands his resignation. If not, he will reveal the corrupt city real estate deal with the mayor's $2 billion kickback for a new complex. But Hostetler has his own ammo: he produces a tape that incriminates Taggart for gunning down Tavarez. Who wins the standoff? Or will both share the same cell in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary?

The director does have good actors in key roles, and even supporting ones, like Alona Tal. Crowe, cast against type, is good as usual. But most of the actors are not generally likable; and yet they are much better than the movie. The feature is sunk by plot holes, undeveloped story-line, and a worn script by Brian Tucker. So the kickback and tape were the big secrets? Aren't there mayoral term limits in NY? How come only Andrews was caught with the wife under surveillance but not Fairbanks? Anyway, the Mrs. Hostetler-Fairbanks affair just does not ring true. Would Taggart really team up with the smug Fairbanks who was against him in the first scene and who was involved with his removal from the police force? Would a man like Taggart really tear up $50,000 in checks, especially since his clients were not paying their bills? What was the undertone between the construction owner and his son (the Lancasters)? It is difficult to accept Mayor Hostetler having just one strongman enforcer do his dirty work and not an entire ring to shield him from incrimination. Locations were shot in New Orleans, not New York.

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