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Vinterkyss (2005)
9/10
A heavyweight mystery-drama with great messages!
26 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I discovered this Norwegian treasure last year when I had an Amazon gift card and was searching for some great movies from around the world that I probably wouldn't find in stores. I instantly loved the movie so much that I planned to write a review and last Saturday's massacre in Norway propelled me into doing it. Norway is a wonderful country that I've visited five times. I want people to know the country for much more than just one horrifying event.

"Vinterkyss" ("Kissed By Winter") is an outstanding mystery-drama that has five main themes and nails them all – the power of guilt, the need to confront our demons, the universality of grieving, the danger of rushing to conclusions and the need to be forgiven. And the suspense is heightened through the frequent interspersing of past and present scenes, a la the TV series "Lost," which was released five months earlier.

Victoria Söderström (played by Annika Hallin) is a medical doctor who resides in Stockholm, Sweden with her husband, Filip (Göran Ragnerstam), and their approximately 12-year old son, Sune (Axel Zuber). Their happy and settled life is shattered one October when Sune dies suddenly and unexpectedly, having collapsed while playing hockey. The movie then moves forward two months, at which time Filip is going through the grieving process but Victoria retreats to a small town in Norway.

There she works at a medical clinic alongside the cordial Wibeke (Linn Skåber) The two quickly become friends, but any illusion that Victoria can escape her sorrow is quickly shattered. While playing in the snow, two children find a dead body just off a road. The victim is identified as a 17-year old Arab boy named Darjosh Ahmad (Jade Francis Haj), who had immigrated to Norway with his parents (played by Michalis Koutsogiannakis and Mina Azarian). Their home country is never identified but Norway has a large Pakistani population.

Because Darjosh had been missing, his parents had feared the worst but still take his death very hard. The scene in which his mother weeps hysterically over his dead body is very disturbing; maybe the most realistic portrayal of extreme grief that I've ever seen.

His parents want his body to be immediately released for burial, in accordance with their Islamic faith. But because the circumstances of death are unclear, Victoria must first perform an autopsy, much to the parents' discomfort.

The police also investigate the death and question the town's snow plow driver, Kai (Kristoffer Joner), who they suspect killed Darjosh in a hit-and-run accident. Kai is a patient of Victoria's and visits her in the hope that she will help exonerate him. Shortly afterward, the two begin a romantic and sexual relationship. To Victoria, the relationship seems to be another attempt to escape her trauma. But Kai, though clearly having a potential ulterior motive, seems to be a nice person and sincerely like her. He also seems to be a good father to his approximately eight-year old daughter, Maja, (Klara Døving), who resides in Oslo, presumably with her mother.

During the course of the autopsy, Victoria conducts her own investigation, to the anger of no-nonsense police officer Stein (Fridtjov Såheim). She learns that Darjosh had a contentious relationship with his father, who was unhappy that Darjosh was trying to repair his relationship his ex-girlfriend, who still resided in their home country and was now engaged to another man. That leads Victoria to conclude that Darjosh committed suicide, which his parents desperately don't want to believe, as suicide is a grave sin in their religion.

And Victoria's suggestion that the suicide might have been provoked by Darjosh's father results in him becoming very hostile toward her. But despite their cultural and religious differences, Victoria and Darjosh's mother become somewhat friendly with each other through their common grief. But it's soon revealed that Victoria hasn't learned from a fatal error of her recent past.

A series of flashbacks chip away at the deaths of Sune and Darjosh and also fully explain Victoria's torment – it turns out to be more than just her son's death. And in masterful fashion, the whole truth isn't known until the last scene.

"Vinterkyss" does more in its relatively short length of 80 minutes than lots of movies do in two hours or more. The first time you see it, you might be confused, as I was, but there's a method to the madness. By the end it all fits perfectly.

Many European movies are very well written, which helps make up for their usually small budgets. But the writing in this one - by Ståle Stein Berg and director Sara Johnsen, both of whom were little more than rookies at the time – is brilliant even by European standards. And the production is maybe the best I've sever seen from a European movie, helped by a solid budget of about $2 million. Every frame looks pristine, bringing out to the fullest Norway's natural and architectural beauty – the peacefulness of which is powerfully juxtaposed with the intense sorrow that dominates the movie. And the performances are all outstanding and very realistic.

Be forewarned that this movie that is often very sad and at several points depressing. But a few glimpses of hope shine through, especially near the end. And I've rarely seen a movie portray so many emotions and life situations so realistically, or teach so many important lessons - especially that when you can't undo the wrong you've done, the only thing to do is humbly ask for forgiveness. This is a must see for all.

The movie contains no profanity and almost no violence. It's rated R for one fairly explicit sex scene, but if you don't want to see that, simply forward to chapter nine when you get to the 39:02 mark on the DVD. The skipped 52 seconds will make the movie suitable for family viewing!
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9/10
The best high school sports movie ever!
3 July 2011
It took me 28 years to finally get around to seeing this high school football drama, but it was well worth the wait and probably for the best, since I appreciate it far more now at 40 than I could've at 12.

I remember when it came out in late 1983, a few months after Tom Cruise became a star through "Risky Business." Despite a solid publicity campaign, "All the Wrong Moves" failed to reap a huge benefit from Cruise's presence. The movie grossed a modest $17,233,166 at the American box office and quickly faded into obscurity.

Then I saw it in the $3 bin at Big Lots and decided to give it a chance. I'm glad I did, because it's a diamond in the rough; definitely the best high school sports movie I've ever seen. Rather than the usual sports movie clichés, such as the focus on "the big game," this is a heavyweight drama that's about football on the surface but life at the core.

Stefen "Stef" Djordjevic (played by Cruise) resides in the blue collar town of Ampipe, Pennsylvania, where he plays cornerback for the local high school football team. He resides with his older brother, Rick (Gary Graham), and their father (Charles Cioffi), both of whom work in the local steel mill, as does seemingly every man in town. Stef's and Rick's mother is dead and the three Djordjevic men seem to all have a pretty good relationship with each other. And at a couple of points in the latter half of the movie, the father shows great support in the midst of his son's hardships.

Now a senior, Stef is a moderate college prospect and has realistic expectations. Being a mere 5'10" (178 cm) and white, he has no illusions of making the NFL, and being a B student, he has no illusions of getting an academic scholarship. But he hopes to attain a college football scholarship and earn a degree in engineering. Still, he's uncomfortable with the possibility of being far away from his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Lisa (Lea Thompson), a junior who adores him, even though she's not a football fan.

Ampipe's next game is at Walnut Heights, who is undefeated and ranked #3 in the state, as well as located in a much wealthier area. Stef and some of his teammates view the game as an opportunity to impress college scouts and break away from what they see as a dead end town. Ampipe is economically struggling and the steel mill is laying off many workers. And the team's tough, no-nonsense head coach, Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson), is also looking beyond the town, pursing college assistant coaching jobs.

Late in the game, with Ampipe trailing 10-7, Stef intercepts a pass and returns it for a touchdown. But shortly afterward, while disobeying Nickerson's order to go after the ball instead of the receiver, Stef commits a crucial pass interference penalty that contributes to his team losing. In the locker room right after the game, he and Nickerson have an argument that results in Stef's dismissal from the team. Nickerson won't even Stef ride home on the team bus and tells him to ride with the cheerleaders.

Instead, he hitches a ride home with some Ampipe fans, who stop at Nickerson's house and vandalize it. Not realizing what they were going to do, Stef unsuccessfully tries to stop it. Nickerson's daughter hears the vandalizing and tells her father, who goes outside and sees the vandals fleeing. It's initially uncertain whether he got a close enough look at Stef.

But the next week, Stef visits Nickerson at a football practice, apologizing for his role in the argument and asking for re-instatement to the team, which has only one game left. But Nickerson says that he saw Stef at Nickerson's house that night after the game. Stef insists that he did none of the vandalizing but Nickerson doesn't believe that.

The day of the game, Greg and 700 others get laid off from the steel mill. In his ensuing depression, he goes out and gets drunk. While he's gone, Lisa comes over and she and Stef have sex for the first time.

The next few weeks are chaotic for Stef and his teammates. Brian (Christopher Penn), having just accepted a scholarship offer from USC, learns that his girlfriend, Tracy (Paige Lyn Price), is pregnant. They keep the baby and get married. Vinnie Salvucci (Paul Carafotes) gets arrested for armed robbery. And Stef's previous scholarship offers are revoked, leading him to believe that he was blackballed by Nickerson. And though Lisa is bitter about athletes getting scholarships while other deserving students don't, she goes to Nickerson's wife and tries to intervene.

And without revealing the ending, I will say that it has great messages of forgiveness and the selflessness inherent in pure love.

"All the Right Moves" mostly lives up to its title. All of the performances are top notch and both 80s small town high school life and the atmosphere of big time high school football are portrayed flawlessly. I also like that the school has a good mix of blacks and whites and that people of the two races have much positive interaction throughout the movie, both on and off the football team.

In addition, the scenery brings Ampipe powerfully to life and the rock dominated soundtrack, while not one of the best of the genre, further cements the movie's early 80s feel. And don't be turned away if you're not a football fan. The movie actually contains only one game scene. While the surface theme, as I said, is football, many other surface themes could equally be used to teach the same lessons.

The movie is a fairly heavy R, mostly for language and a couple of semi-graphic sex scenes, but if you can tolerate that, it's hard to find a better teen dominated drama than this.
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To verdener (2008)
9/10
A must see for everyone!
21 May 2011
I read about this movie and thought it seemed interesting, but it still far exceeded my expectations. Inspired by a true story, "Worlds Apart" is a superior drama that delves into one of the world's most intriguing religious groups and the universal theme of divided loyalty.

17-year old Sara Dahl (Rosalinde Mynster) is a beautiful but somewhat introverted student who lives in a small Danish town with her parents, Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) and Karen (Sarah Boberg), and her younger siblings, Elisabeth (Sarah Juel Werner) and August (Jacob Ottensten). All are active Jehovah's Witnesses. Early on, Andreas confesses that he has committed adultery. Karen decides to divorce him, but because he is repentant, the children oppose the divorce and decide that Karen should be the one to move out, which she is.

Shortly afterward, Sara and her friend Thea (Catrine Beck) attend a party in which Sara meets a 23-year old musician named Teis (Johan Philip Asbæk). She falls for him, but becomes very drunk. Teis walks her home and the two stay in touch.

They soon get together again and while walking through a mall, Sara is approached by a young man revealed to be her older brother, Jonas (Thomas Knuth-Winterfeldt). The two have a brief and curiously awkward conversation. After Jonas leaves, Sara explains that Jonas was expelled from the JW organization because of reading an improper book and therefore is to be shunned by his family. Sara adds that she only spoke to Jonas because Teis was there. Teis, who is non-religious, quickly becomes hostile toward Sara about the JW belief that only JWs are saved.

Teis finds Sara at school shortly afterward and apologizes for criticizing her faith. The two steadily grow closer and one night at a café, Sara loses track of time and misses her train. She spends the night at Teis' apartment where the two sleep in the same bed and kiss but don't have sex or even undress.

Still, Andreas is very upset and takes her to see the church elders, all of whom are middle aged men. Seemingly led by a man named John (Anders W. Berthelsen), she is questioned about Teis, including whether he touched her breasts or not. The movie doesn't show that act, but Sara says that it happened. The elders do accept her claim that the two didn't have sex and allow her to remain in the organization, but order her to end her relationship with Teis through a letter.

She does so but feels bad about it, especially after learning that Teis has called her several times since receiving the letter but that her family hasn't told her. She asks Andreas for permission to talk to Teis in person. Andreas reluctantly agrees and shortly after Sara visits Teis, he surprises everyone by attending a service at Sara's church. Andreas and John are suspicious and John offers to refer Teis to another JW church. But Teis insists that he wants to hear about God the same way that Sara does. John reluctantly accepts that and gives Sara permission to see Teis provided the two don't have sex.

Teis' faith initially appears to be sincere and Sara's grows as well. She quits school (seemingly some kind of post-high school institution) to become a pioneer (door-to-door missionary). But right after a large JW convention, Teis and Sara have sex for the first time. From there, Sara's faith steadily fades.

Sara says that she's moving in with Karen but actually moves in with Teis. Karen covers for Sara and also secretly sees Jonas. Teis introduces Sara to his non-religious parents, Vagn (Hans Henrik Voetmann) and Jette (Charlotte Fich). Vagn treats Sara cordially but Jette spews out a long list of anti-JW comments. Sara and Teis leave and Teis seems embarrassed by his mother's behavior but reveals to Sara that he's concluded that he doesn't believe in God after all.

Eventually, Sara's façade falls apart. Elisabeth, while visiting Karen, notices that no clothes are in Sara's supposed closets. That leads to Sara being given an ultimatum from the elders – leave Teis or be expelled.

I won't reveal her decision but I will say that my only significant criticism of the movie is that a character dies because of refusing a blood transfusion. That strikes me as a forced attempt to emphasize one of the most distinctive parts of JW doctrine. However, that character's funeral is very powerfully used to set up a hard hitting climax.

This is one of my three favorite foreign movies, along with "Noi" ("Nói albínói") from Iceland and "Kissed by Winter" ("Vinterkyss") from Norway – what is it about the Nordics?! The performances in "Worlds Apart" are outstanding, the screenplay is very compelling, and there's plenty of great scenery for anyone who appreciates small town Denmark, as I do.

JWs are widely ridiculed and dismissed as being brainwashed. But despite coming from one of the most secular countries in the world, this movie is surprisingly balanced in its portrayal of JWs. While their beliefs and tactics are brought into question, the movie portrays JWs as, above all, human beings. None are demonized and all are portrayed as well intentioned and in some cases compassionate, even if misguided. And they even evoke sympathy because of the torment that stems from their dilemma between loving someone – whether romantically or familially – and the fear of going against the teachings of the church and maybe even losing their salvation.

I've read dozens of message board postings related to this movie and almost all posters who identify themselves as former JWs describe the movie as very realistic and emotional. And even most with no ties to the JW church can relate to the aforementioned universal theme of divided loyalty.

Unrated by the MPAA but very PG-13 level, this is one of those rare movies that I strongly recommend to everyone.
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Nói albinói (2003)
9/10
An excellent drama, especially for Europhiles!
23 September 2010
"Nói albinói" is a bleak and compelling drama that works powerfully both as a character study and as a portrayal of life in a remote section of one of the most isolated countries in the world. The movie tells the story of a bald and enigmatic 17-year old boy named Nói (played by Tómas Lemarquis) who resides with his paternal grandmother, Lína (Anna Friðriksdóttir), in a small town. The two have a cordial relationship even though she seems to have little understanding of him. Nói's father, Kiddi (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson), is an alcoholic taxi driver. Though violent when drunk, Kiddi loves and is sometimes even affectionate toward his son. And unlike many alcoholics, Kiddi is not delusional. He realizes that he has failed in life and tries to steer his son toward something much better.

But it doesn't seem to be working. Nói is the kind of student that American teachers give a D- just to avoid having him back next school year. He has poor attendance habits, struggling to get out of bed in the morning, and when he does show up, he pays little attention and sometimes even sleeps. In one scene, he arrives late for a test and doesn't even have a pencil. He borrows a pencil from the teacher just long enough to sign the test and turn it in without answering a single question. Still, he appears to be very intelligent, solving a Rubik's cube in a few seconds, easily winning the memory game Mastermind and scoring high on an aptitude test.

Not surprisingly, he has few friends and a dull social life. He only seems to hang out at two places – the gas station, where he rigs the slot machine and uses his winnings to buy malts, and the book store, where he converses and plays Mastermind with the middle aged owner, Óskar (Hjalti Rögnvaldsson). He also spends much time alone in the cellar at his grandmother's house.

Early in the movie, Nói is pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful new girl working at the gas station. He tells Óskar about the girl and learns that she is his daughter, Íris (Elín Hansdóttir), who has just moved in with her father. Though Óskar finds Nói to be good company for guy talk, Óskar knows that Nói does not have high morals – Óskar rewards Nói's Mastermind victories with pornographic magazines - and orders Nói to stay away from Íris.

Nevertheless, Nói pursues Íris and though she initially looks down on him, the two end up forming a romantic relationship. But theirs is far from a typical Hollywood love story. Rather, they act very much like two awkward kids who are experiencing romance for the first time. Their activities together include Nói teaching Íris how to smoke and the two of them breaking into a museum. At the museum, they look at a world map and discuss Iceland's worldwide insignificance and the prospect of exploring other parts of the world. Óskar is initially angry about their relationship but later comes to grudgingly accept it.

Shortly after visiting the museum, Nói receives a View Master as a birthday present from his grandmother. One of the viewing cards features pictures from all over the world, which further increases Nói's interest in leaving his country.

Meanwhile, he sends a tape recorder to school with one of his classmates, David (uncredited), asking David to record the class session as a substitute for Nói's attendance. That act gets Nói expelled. Shortly afterward, he gets a job as a grave digger at a church cemetery and performs so ineptly that he tries the patience of his compassionate Lutheran minister boss (Pétur Einarsson).

In the hope of giving her grandson some direction, Lína schedules Nói an appointment with a fortune teller, Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson). During the reading, Gylfi becomes mortified and says that he sees nothing but death in Nói's future.

Nói doesn't take the reading seriously and decides to run away with Íris. He attempts to rob a bank, but his threat isn't taken seriously. A bank employee grabs the rifle from Nói, hands it to a customer and shoves Nói out the door. Nói immediately re-enters and withdraws all the money from his account. He then buys an expensive suit, steals a car, goes to the gas station and asks Íris to leave with him. She stares at him blankly and he leaves, looking dejected. Several minutes later, he is arrested.

Kiddi gets Nói out of jail and, on the way back, stops at the gas station and makes a sexual advance at Íris, much to Nói's humiliation, though Kiddi doesn't seem to realize that Íris is his son's girlfriend.

But Nói's dreams continue. And while Gylfi's reading soon comes true, I think the message of the ending is that sometimes clinging to things holds us back and it takes losing those things to liberate us. That's also a message I get from my brother's movie "Trail of Crumbs."

This is one of those rare movies that's almost completely devoid of flaws. All of the performances are excellent, particularly those of Lemarquis, who often acts like life is just one big joke, but several times shows the pain and sensitivity behind that mask, and Gunnarsson, who alternatively provides some of the movie's ugliest and most poignant moments.

The dialogue and interaction between characters is compelling and realistic, the pacing is about as close to perfect as I've ever seen, the scenery is beautiful and the dull quality of the color underscores the bleak Icelandic Winters.

In conclusion, I recommend "Nói albinói" to anyone interested in a good drama or nordic culture. And if you've never seen an independent movie, this is a great one to start off with. If you do, I hope it leads you to delve into that scene as much as I have.
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9/10
As real a movie as I've ever seen.
18 July 2008
Despite being a lifelong Hoosier and having grown up on the rock music of the '80s, I have never been a John Mellencamp fan. But I liked the clips I saw of his 1992 movie "Falling from Grace" back around the time of its short and very small theatrical release. I missed it at the theaters but got the DVD recently. Having now watched it twice, I already rate it as one of my all time favorites and as real a movie as I've ever seen.

"Falling from Grace" stars Mellencamp – who also directed - as music superstar Bud Parks. Along with his wife, Alice (played by Mariel Hemingway), and their approximately eight-year old daughter, Terri Jo (Melissa Ann Hackman), Bud flies from Los Angeles to his fictional hometown, Doak City, Indiana, for his paternal grandfather's 80th birthday. Grandpa Parks (Dub Taylor), who remains girl crazy despite his age and the accompanying ailments, and being married, provides some early comic relief with his crude but jolly personality. But the movie quickly becomes very serious and stays so almost the entire rest of the way.

Bud receives a hero's welcome from family and fans. But what is supposed to be just a three day visit of fun turns into something much more. The night of the party, his high school sweetheart and now sister-in-law, P.J. (Kay Lenz), invites him out on a walk, which is met with curious suspicion by his father, Speck (Claude Aikins). During the walk, P.J. says she has sex with Speck, which is met with shock and disapproval by Bud.

Speck, a successful poultry farmer, is shown early on to be a chauvinistic and dominating womanizer. He fathered an illegitimate son but his wife, Marian (Joanne Jacobson), stayed with him. Speck refers to himself as a sire and the women who bore his children as fillies. And as the movie progresses, he's continually revealed to be even more dominating, violent, exploitive and shameless.

Bud and Alice seem to have a good marriage and she is clearly very devoted to him. But shortly after learning of P.J.'s affair with Speck, Bud has sex with her, too. P.J. seems to view her sexual encounters as conquests and take pride in simultaneously having three Parks men as lovers. She also seems to view her promiscuity, and the need to keep it secret, as a source of excitement for a housewife and mother who resides in what she considers to be a boring town.

Soon, the three days turn into several weeks. Bud's feelings of both love and lust for P.J. are rekindled and he neglects Alice. And, already disillusioned by the music business and thinking about leaving it, he realizes that he's a small town man at heart and wants to stay in Doak City, where many of his relatives still reside. His anger toward his father – over Speck's affair with P.J., sexual advance at Alice and lack of fatherly support over the years - also escalates.

Meanwhile, California bred Alice continues to love her husband but quickly becomes tired of small town life and his neglect. She suspects that he's cheating on her, which he doesn't deny. She decides to return to California with Terri Jo.

Shortly after Alice leaves, Bud tries to get P.J. back as the woman of his life. She reveals that she wanted that many years earlier but that he wouldn't make a commitment and it's too late now.

In response, Bud turns to the wild and reckless ways of his youth. And, as is often the case because of bad old human nature, it takes a traumatic and humbling experience to remind him what's most important in his life.

One mistake that rock star movies often make is turning the movie into little more than a music video. "Falling from Grace" completely avoids that trap. Throughout the movie, Bud is never shown in concert. And only in one brief scene on his father's porch is he shown playing guitar. And most of the music in the movie is performed by other artists. If you saw this movie and didn't know who Mellencamp was, you'd probably guess that he's a regular actor, not a musician.

Furthermore, a vast majority of the situations in the movie could easily happen to anyone in mid-America, not just someone famous. As I wrote above, this is as real a movie as I've ever seen. Every word of Larry McMurtry's screenplay, every character, every situation is completely believable and brought out to the fullest by Mellencamp's uncompromising direction.

Some might downplay Mellencamp's performance, saying that he is largely playing himself. And, indeed, he and Bud are very similar. Both are crass, cynical, modestly educated but very street smart, and bluntly honest. Two differences are that Bud is less arrogant – perhaps the result of having such a dominating father – and much better about signing autographs than is Mellencamp.

Still, even with the similarities, Mellencamp is outstanding in his role as is most of the cast. In particular, Aikins is chilling as the predator behind the smile is gradually revealed.

And to top it off, small town Indiana culture is portrayed with absolute perfection, right down to every detail – the accents, figures of speech, personalities, values, scenery and more. This movie was filmed in Seymour, Indiana, Mellencamp's hometown. I grew up in Madison, a similar town just 43 miles away. Every character in the movie reminds me strongly of people who I knew during my childhood.

Those who aren't very experienced with Indiana culture probably won't appreciate "Falling from Grace" stylistically as much as I do. But anyone with much life experience should appreciate it substantively. What a shame that this movie has gotten so little publicity over the years and that it didn't start a big movie career for Mellencamp. It's a buried treasure worth searching for. 9/10.
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9/10
Great documentary on one of the most important Americans ever!
4 July 2006
If there is one subject in school that I wish I had tried harder in, it's history. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I realized the importance of understanding the past. And I knew embarrassingly little about the founding of this country until that period of my life.

Now that I understand that original concept of libertarian government that our founding fathers had, I've become a big advocate of it and I consider our Constitution the greatest document ever created other than the Bible. Too bad most people are almost completely ignorant of both documents.

I was really glad when I noticed my son Joshua, now 10, watching Liberty's Kids, a PBS cartoon series about the founding of this country. And last year, shortly before Christmas, I saw "Thomas Jefferson: A Complex Life" on DVD for $1 at Dollar Tree. I bought it both for Joshua and for me.

This 93-minute documentary is a very modestly produced but extremely thorough and interesting biography of our third president and one of our most important founding fathers. It looks like something that would be on PBS but if you can get passed that and judge it merely on substance, I think you'll like it a lot.

The film covers Jefferson from his birth on April 13, 1743 to his death on July 4, 1826 - ironically, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote - and places particular emphasis on his political career.

His story is told by historian Dan Dalton, whose narration is very straight forward, though his very advanced vocabulary might be a little too hard for the common man to grasp. The narration is visually enhanced by many photographs, paintings and maps and is backed by classical music.

I learned a lot about Jefferson from this film. Of course, I already knew many of the basics about him and his philosophy but this film goes far beyond that. The vast majority of the information it presents was never in any of my history text books.

It tells not only that Jefferson was the author of Declaration of Independence and our third president but also that he was an initiator of the separation of church and state and an advocate of a bill of rights. It covers his many other political positions, including governor of Virginia and minister to France, where he resided from 1784-89, and vice president under fellow founding father John Adams, who also died on 7/4/1826.

And in addition to his political positions, the film also goes deeply into his political philosophies/influences and his long rivalry with Alexander Hamilton, a proponent of bigger government.

The film also addresses many other aspects of Jefferson's life, including his education, his 10-year marriage to his wife Martha that produced six children and ended in her death, his post-presidential activities and even his personality.

Because of watching this film I'm nor far more appreciative of what an extraordinary man Jefferson was. I know of extremely few people who have displayed such prowess in so many areas. Jefferson was not merely a politician but also a lawyer, architect, violinist, inventor, scientist and the founder of the University of Virginia.

Still, the film doesn't ignore Jefferson's flaws. Like many of the founding fathers, he was a slave owner. He was also deeply in debt for much of his life. But those who want detailed information on the evidence that Jefferson fathered children with his slaves will probably be disappointed. The film only vaguely and briefly addresses that subject.

I recognize that our founding fathers weren't perfect. I certainly disagree with the attitudes that they had toward blacks and women. But I think Rev. D. James Kennedy has a good response to that. He said that while the bulk of our founding fathers were Christians, they had blind spots on some issues but that it was other Christians who led to the changing of attitudes and policies in those areas. And the blind spots of our founding fathers don't invalidate the great ideas for government that they had.

My favorite political writer, Walter Williams, who is black, also shares that view of our founding fathers.

Unlike most of our founding fathers, Jefferson actually wasn't a Christian. He agreed with the moral teachings of Jesus but was actually a deist. Still, I'm in awe of his vast array of skills and his vision of small government.

In conclusion, this comprehensive film doesn't whitewash Jefferson but it doesn't mudsling either. It seems to be very balanced and tasteful, showing us the big picture of this American legend. I strongly recommend this DVD to all. Especially if you find it for sale as cheaply as I did! And if I were a history teacher, I'd show this film to my class! 9/10
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9/10
One of the most historically significant games ever!
12 March 2006
The NCAA men's basketball tournament has produced some of the most exciting, powerful and emotional moments in sports history, including some Hollywoodesque fantastic finishes. The 1979 championship game, though far from a blowout, wasn't a down to the wire thriller, but it is one of the most significant games ever played in any sport.

The match up between Michigan State Univeristy and Indiana State University was the first time that MSU's Earvin "Magic" Johnson and ISU's Larry Bird played each other. The two entered the NBA the next season and dominated it throughout the 1980s.

Happily, that game is now available on DVD through Greatest Games Ever. The DVD shows the broadcast exactly as it aired live on NBC with commentators Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Bryant Gumbel and Dick Enberg. The commercials are absent but the pre-game, halftime and post-game segments are included. The lack of commercials is a little disappointing because I think commercials are often fascinating in retrospect but that's my only criticism of the DVD.

Th game, played on March 26, 1979 at the Special Events Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was an unlikely pairing. Michigan State, from the mighty Big Ten and coached by seasoned veteran Jud Heathcote, was a natural participant. But Indiana State, from the relatively minor Missouri Valley Conference and led by a rookie head coach, Bill Hodges, was a surprise. Especially because the Sycamores had a long history of taking a distant backseat to the Hoosier state's Big Ten schools, Indiana University and Purdue University.

Adding drama was ISU entering the game with a 33-0 record, attempting to join an elite group of undefeated national champions. And on a trivial note, Hodges was the first head coach to reach the championship game with an undefeated career record. And Johnson and Bird were not the only great players on the floor. And least three others, MSU's Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser and ISU's Carl Nicks also went on to play in the NBA. And the pre-game interviews with Bird and Johnson are priceless.

Throughout the game, we get a preview of the way that Johnson and Bird would revolutionize the NBA in the next decade. In an era in which basketball was largely becoming a sloppy playground style sport, the two made teamwork and fundamentals popular again. Sadly, since they retried, the sport has regressed to an even worse state than it was at the time of this game. Though in two ways the sport has improved. Watching this game now reminds me how much more exciting the three point shot and the shot clock have made basketball.

The only thing that keeps this DVD from getting a 10/10 is that the game isn't particularly dramatic. Many NCAA championship games have had more memorable finishes. But none have ever given a better preview of the future of basketball. Bird and Johnson each went on to win three NBA Most Valuable Player awards and their teams won eight of the nine NBA championships from 1980-88. Johnson won five with the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird won three with the Boston Celtics.

As I finish typing this review, it's just about 45 minutes until the 2006 tournament selection show begins. This time of year always takes me back to the great tournament moments of the past and this game is one of the most special. 9/10.
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Warhead (1977)
8/10
Clever, fast paced and exciting but depressing.
3 March 2006
After becoming a David Janssen fan through "The Swiss Conspiracy," I bought a DVD that contains two of David's other movies, "Moon of the Wolf" (I also review it and "The Swiss Conspiracy" on this page) and the subject of this review, "Prisoner in the Middle." Also known as "Warhead," "Prisoner in the Middle" was filmed in 1973 but not released until four years later. Apparently it received only minimal theatrical distribution and now is in public domain. The movie appears to be low budget but overcomes that with clever writing, excellent pacing and exciting actions scenes, plus another strong performance by Janssen.

"Prisoner in the Middle" stars Janssen as U.S. Air Force Col. Anthony Stevens, who, while vacationing in Jerusalem, is summoned to deactivate an American nuclear missile that has accidentally been dropped via parachute into the Jordanian desert.

Stevens finds the missile but before de-activating it, he is captured by a militant Arab group that calls itself the Palestinian Liberation Army. At first, the group's leader, Malouf (played by David Semadar), expresses interest in using the missile to destroy Israel. But upon seeing a red light flashing on the missile, he allows Stevens to de-activate it.

But before Stevens finishes, a group of Israeli soldiers arrive at the scene and begin firing at the Arabs, who retreat. Stevens takes cover during the shoot out and is captured by the Israelis, who don't treat him much better than the Arabs and won't let him de-activate the missile. Meanwhile, the Arabs make plans to attempt to re-gain the missile.

The movie doesn't contain a lot of character development but doesn't need to. It's more about a theme than about characters. And the theme is just as relevant now as it was then. And the movie still does a good job at portraying the lives of Israeli soldiers. In one particularly powerful scene, they are shown praying in a synagogue and from there immediately prepare for battle.

And the point of view of the Arabs isn't ignored. When Stevens tries to convince Malouf to let Stevens de-activate the missile, Stevens tells Malouf to think about Malouf's family. Malouf replies that because of the Jews, he doesn't have a family.

But while "Prisoner in the Middle" is exciting and compelling, it becomes progressively more depressing throughout, all the way until the end. And I'm surprised that it got a PG rating, especially at a time that the PG-13 rating didn't exist. To me, the movie is a pretty obvious R for its intense violence and the implied rape of a captured female Israeli soldier.

For those who can endure, "Prisoner in the Middle" is a very entertaining action drama and a must see for Janssen fans. I give the movie 8/10, the same rating as "Moon of the Wolf." Getting the two movies on one DVD for just $1 is an outstanding value!
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Moon of the Wolf (1972 TV Movie)
8/10
About as good as B movies get!
19 February 2006
Having been only nine years old when David Janssen died on February 13, 1980, I had never heard of him until discovering him last year when I bought a DVD of "The Swiss Conspiracy." I had never even heard of "The Fugitive!" David plays the main character in "The Swiss Conspiracy," which is my favorite obscure movie of all time. So I was very happy when I saw a DVD containing two of David's other movies - "Moon of the Wolf" and "Prisoner in the Middle" - at Dollar Tree! Of course, I bought it! And the bin there also included a DVD that contains "Moon of the Wolf" and "The Swiss Conspiracy!" "Moon of the Wolf" is a B movie but it's about as good as B movies get! It's fun and fast paced horror mystery that makes the most of its 75 minutes.

The movie, set in the small Bayou town of Marsh Island, Louisiana, opens with a young woman named Ellie Burrifors being found dead. It initially appears that she has been killed by wild dogs. But the doctor who performs the autopsy, Dr. Duten (played by John Beradino), informs Sheriff Aaron Whitaker (Janssen) that Ellie was first knocked unconscious by someone who was probably left handed. So Whitaker begins investigating Ellie's death as a murder.

The first suspect becomes Ellie's brother Lawrence (Geoffrey Lewis). Even though he appears to be distraught about his sister's death, he acknowledges to Whitaker that he once hit her. Whitaker asks Lawrence to demonstrate how he hit her and when Lawrence does, Whitaker notices it was a left handed punch.

But shortly afterward, Whitaker learns that Ellie, at the time of her death, was pregnant by the almost 50-year old Dr. Duten - who did not mention the pregnancy in his autopsy report. He acknowledges that she wanted to marry him and keep her baby but that he wanted her to have an abortion. He becomes another suspect.

The elderly Tom Gurmandy Sr. (Roayl Dano), whose son was one of those who discovered Ellie's dead body, continually blames the death on the Lukaru (I'm just guessing at the spelling) and no one knows what he's talking about. He speaks only French and always seems to be senile, weak and hysterical - which means, of course, that he turns out to be right on target! During the course of the investigation, Whitaker encounters the woman who becomes the closest thing he has to a love interest in the movie - his former classmate Louise Rodanthe (Barbara Rush). She has just re-located back to Louisiana after leaving New York under cloudy circumstances. She now resides with her brother, tycoon Andrew Rodanthe (Bradford Dillman).

Whitaker and Louise acknowledge having had crushes on each other when they were classmates. They go to a restaurant together and seem interested in each other. No full fledged romance between the two develops but a movie like this doesn't need a love story.

When Lawrence learns of his sister's pregnancy, he believed that Dr. Duten killed her. Lawrence assaults Dr. Duten and ends up in jail for it. But while there, he and a police officer are killed by a creature who is apparently immune to bullets and is powerful enough to knock down the bars of a jail cell.

This leads to the realization by Whitaker and the other Marsh Island residents that the killer is a werewolf. A town wide effort to identity and kill the werewolf quickly ensues.

While the werewolf concept is certainly corny, the movie is executed way too well to be dismissed as junk. Janssen is excellent as Whitaker, a character similar substance but much different in style than his character in "The Swiss Conspiracy," David Christopher.

Both characters are somewhat mild mannered but tough, largely emotionless and have dry, sarcastic senses of humor. But Christopher is a polished, suave former U.S. Department of Justice official while Whitaker is a typical small town sheriff, a hick who isn't well educated. Nailing both roles is a great achievement. Janssen is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors and I'm very much looking forward to seeing much more from him, starting with the aforementioned "Prisoner in the Middle." The rest of the cast in "Moon of the Wolf" is excellent as well. And the movie, which contains little blood or graphic violence, is a very welcome reminder of the era in which horror movies created suspense and intrigue mainly through clever writing rather than mega-gore.

Some other reviews of this movie have criticized the technically quality of some of its DVDs. But the copy I have is very good. Not pristine, but about as good as could be expected for a 1972 made for TV movie.

In conclusion, I recommend "Moon of the Wolf" to all Janssen fans and anyone else who enjoys the guilty pleasures of a good B movie! 8/10.
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7/10
Modest but effective Jesus movie
19 February 2006
I bought this movie at Dollar Tree on a DVD titled "Stories of Jesus." It contains this movie on one side and "I Beheld His Glory" (which I am reviewing separately for this page) on the other side.

"The Power of the Resurrection" is told from the perspective of a now elderly Apostle Peter (played by Richard Kiley), who, while awaiting execution for his Christian faith, tells a young fellow prisoner about Jesus (Jon Shepodd).

Like in "I Beheld His Glory," this movie covers the life of Jesus beginning at his entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It includes the Last Supper and Jesus' betrayal. But, as the title implies, it places a lot of emphasis on the resurrection. About a third of the movie takes place after that event.

The movie presents some of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, including Thomas' initially doubting the resurrection but becoming convinced of it upon touching Jesus' nail marks. In addition, it shows the sudden transformation of the apostles from despair to immense joy and public proclamation of the resurrection.

And the movie is a strong testament to the spiritual growth of Peter, who went from denying Jesus three times to being a Christian martyr who believed that he would have eternal life through his faith in the resurrected Jesus.

The big weakness of the movie is that it largely ignores the crucifixion. It goes far beyond the mere downplaying of that event's brutality that was done in "I Beheld His Glory." The crucifixion scene in "The Power of the Resurrection" shows part of the three crosses - all below the horizontal bar - and Jesus is never shown hanging on the cross. A few of his on-the-cross quotes are heard but He's not seen while speaking them. And this movie, like "I Behld His Glory," does not show the flogging of Jesus at all.

The technical quality of "The Power of the Resurrection" is very good for its day and its transfer to DVD is very good.

In conclusion, while this movie is marred by its almost complete lack of emphasis on the suffering that Jesus did for our sins, it still portrays some of the central Christian beliefs in a very moving way. And like I say in my review of "I Beheld His Glory," getting these two movies together for $1 is an outstanding value. I rate "The Power of the Resurrection" 7/10.
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Family Theatre: I Beheld His Glory (1953)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
7/10
Modest but effective Jesus movie.
19 February 2006
I bought this movie at Dollar Tree on a DVD titled "Stories of Jesus." It contains this movie on one side and "The Power of the Resurrection" (which I am reviewing separately for this page) on the other side.

"I Beheld His Glory" is narrated by a Roman centurion named Cornelius (played by George Macready) who was sent by the Apostle Thomas (Charles Charlesworth) to tell a group of men about Jesus (Robert Wilson). The men have heard rumors about Jesus but have only a vague knowledge of him.

Cornelius tells the story of Jesus from his arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to His appearance to His apostles after His resurrection. Among the other events portrayed in the movie are the Last Supper, Jesus' arrest, His trial, His crucifixion and His first recorded post-resurrection appearance, to Mary Magdalene (Virginia Wave). And the Bible is quoted directly on many occasions throughout.

The movie is generally well acted and effective. But it is not without flaws. The movie is limited by its low budget and its crucifixion scene is visually embarrassing. The sky looks extremely fake, like a backdrop of a high school play. And that scene is almost completely bloodless. Having studied the act of crucifixion - not merely the crucifixion of Jesus - and having seen "The Passion of the Christ," I think a scene such as this partly detracts from the sacrifice that Jesus made for us all. In addition, this movie completely ignores the horrific flogging that Jesus received immediately before being nailed to the cross. That was covered in extreme detail in "Passion." However, the crucifixion scene in "I Beheld His Glory" still has its strong points. It contains many of Jesus' most important quotes, including His assurance of salvation to the thief who was being simultaneously executed on an adjacent cross.

And from a technical standpoint, the movie is of adequate quality for its age and its transfer to DVD is solid.

In conclusion, this is not a definitive Jesus movie but it is a very worthwhile testament of the Christian faith. And getting this plus "The Power of the Resurrection" - a movie similar in both content and quality - for just $1 is an outstanding value. I rate "I Beheld His Glory" 7/10.
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Hustle (2004 TV Movie)
7/10
Solid presentation of Pete Rose's downfall
11 February 2006
Because I'm a sports fanatic and few athletes are better suited for a biography movie than Pete Rose, I was initially excited about seeing this movie. But I became skeptical when learning that it was made by ESPN. Although I generally enjoy that station, I was colossally disappointed in the only movie of theirs I'd previously seen, their debut, 2002's "A Season on the Brink." That movie is a painfully shallow and amateur adaptation of John Feinstein's outstanding chronicle of Indiana University's 1985-86 men's basketball team.

But "Hustle" shows that ESPN is already making good progress in movie making. Though not a masterpiece, it's a solid presentation of the downfall of Rose, who set dozens of Major League Baseball records but was banned for life from MLB for betting on his hometown Cincinnati Reds while he was managing that team.

"Hustle" takes place from October, 1986 - the month that Rose's playing career ended - until August 24, 1989, the day of his banishment. He managed the Reds, the team for which he played most of his career, during that entire period. Unlike most sports biography movies, this one has little on the field action and assumes that the viewer is already familiar with Rose's career accomplishments.

Instead, "Hustle" concentrates largely on Rose's gambling, which he has long taken to an obsessive level and says is his only hobby. The movie is based on John Dowd's investigation, which led to Rose's banishment. In the movie, Rose (played by Tom Sizemore) is shown as gambling with the relentless competitive fire that made him a fan favorite on the field. In one of the early scenes, he is simultaneously watching three games, all of which he has presumably bet on, and cheers wildly, as if his team is playing in the games.

But the dark side of Rose's gambling is shown early and often. He routinely bets $10,000 per MLB game, including those involving the Reds, who he always bets to win. In one scene, the scoreboard at the Reds' then home, Riverfront Stadium, is broken and Rose is clearly uncomfortable with not being able to see the scores of the other games on which he has money at stake.

He piles up big losses in his bets, many of which are illegal, and sometimes doesn't pay quickly enough to satisfy those to whom he owes money. This results in the mafia threatening Rose's friend Paul Janszen (Dash Mihok), who places Rose's bets for him.

Janszen gets progressively more uncomfortable with his unsafe position but the police get to him before the mafia does. Janszen is arrested for dealing steroids and tells the media of Rose's gambling on his team's games. MLB's highest officials confront Rose about the allegations, which he strongly denies. But Dowd's investigation shows otherwise.

Though the movie is somewhat modestly produced, it does a good job at showing Rose behind the scenes. Sizemore bears only a slight resemblance to Rose and doesn't sound like him at all but does very well at copying Rose's personality, posture and mannerisms. (This is a welcome contrast to the aforementioned "A Season on the Brink," in which Brian Dennehy is almost completely unconvincing as Bob Knight.) And Melissa DiMarco is good as Rose's wife, Carol, who fears that her husband's gambling threatens their financial security and tries to get him to stop. And from what I understand, the information given in the movie is generally accurate, which is often not the case in sports biography movies.

During his more than 40 years as a celebrity, Rose - crass, arrogant and marginally educated but also a passionate and aggressive overachiever - has provoked lots of mixed emotions. "Hustle" gives us about as comprehensive a look at this very intriguing man as could be expected in a low budget 90 minute made for TV movie. And it gives me much more hope for future ESPN movies than I had before.

And the DVD is jam packed with bonus features on Rose, which, combined with the movie, make the DVD and excellent value. 7/10. (The rating is based only on the movie, not on any of the DVD's other features.)
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8/10
Excellent portrayal of conscience vs. money
22 January 2006
I had never heard of this movie but I bought it because it's sports related and the DVD only cost $1! And as a bonus, one of its stars is John Ireland, who has a supporting role in one of my favorite movies of all time, 1976's "The Swiss Conspiracy." I bought the latter movie last year, also from a cheapie bin, and had yet to see Ireland in anything else.

Ireland stars in "The Basketball Fix" as Pete Ferreday, a sports writer for a local newspaper. Ferreday narrates the movie as if it's one of his articles. It tells the story of Johnny Long (played by Marshall Thompson), a basketball star for a nearby college known simply as "State." As a freshman, Long becomes an instant star and after an early season win is visited by big time gambler Mike Taft (William Bishop). Mike says he's just won a lot of money in a bet because of Johnny's great play and gives Johnny an envelope containing a large sum of cash - a portion of what Taft has just won. Johnny is determined to be ethical and refuses the money.

But soon reality catches up with him. His father is physically unable to work and Johnny dreads the thought of his younger brother Mickey (Bobby Hyatt) not getting any Christmas gifts. And he desires to marry his girlfriend, Pat Judd (Vanessa Brown), and give her a good life.

So he decides to turn to Taft as a solution to his financial problems. In the process, he learns that, to his surprise, his senior teammate Jed Black (John Sands) has been regularly fixing games for Taft - not to lose them but only to make sure that his team fails to cover the spread. Unfortunately, the concept of the spread isn't explained in this movie quite as explicitly as it should have been. For those not familiar with it I'll say that it's the number of points by which a particular team is expected to win or lose. Many bets are placed around that figure.

Johnny rationalizes his decision to shave points on the basis that his team will still win and that the margin of victory isn't important. He makes a lot of money very quickly but he soon realizes that he's in over his head. He arouses suspicion by buying Pat a $1,000 ring, leading the jewelry store workers to wonder where a college basketball player gets that much money. And when his conscience gets the best of him and he decides he wants to stop fixing games, that doesn't go over well with Taft and Taft's associates.

Although the script of "The Basketball Fix" has a few weak spots - including State hosting the national championship game, which in real life has always been played at a pre-determined site - the movie is still very powerful. The story is hard hitting and heart breaking and the performances are excellent, though it's a bit of a stretch for Johnny to be played by a man who was 25 at the time of the movie's release. And while at 65 minutes it probably couldn't pass as a theatrical movie these days, it makes every minute count well. It never drags at all.

The greatest asset of "The Basketball Fix" is its portrayal of the age old conflict between conscience and money. Even before Johnny's scandal, Ferreday was critical of the exploitive mentality of major college athletics - players, many of whom are from financially struggling families, generate big money for their schools but get none of it. Of course, the players do get a free college education, which is of great value, but that doesn't pay the bills at the time. No wonder some kids - even good kids - fall prey to the Tafts of the world. This theme was also addressed very strongly 43 years later in "Blue Clips."

In many ways, college basketball has changed dramatically in the 55 years since the release of "The Basketball Fix." Sheer athleticism and brute force have been largely replaced fundamentals. Racial integration has taken place. Media coverage and revenue have skyrocketed. Many schools have abandoned academic standards. Uniforms are flashier. Tattoos have become the norm. Yet the core message of this movie remains as relevant today as it was back in 1951. Despite many more real life scandals like the one portrayed in this movie, the NCAA's archaic rules mostly remain in tact.

And on a technical note, the DVD is of very good quality for an obscure black-and-white 1951 movie. The DVD's audio and visual are slightly out of sync but other than that, it contains no major glitches. 8/10 (The rating is based solely on the movie; not the DVD quality.)
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8/10
A powerful depiction of the suffering of Jesus
28 April 2005
I finally got around to seeing this movie last night, quite possibly in reaction to seeing its star, Jim Caviezel, last Friday in "Madison." Very few movies have ever gotten me more curious in advance than "The Passion of the Christ," the first major testament of director/co-producer Mel Gibson's renewed Roman Catholic faith. Knowing Gibson primarily for his violent R rated action movies, his sudden public piety was a nice surprise to me. Though I'm a Protestant, I consider Catholic-Prostestant differences to be on secondary issues - not issues on which our eternal destinies hinge.

Unlike other movies about Jesus, which tend to cover His full earthly life, "The Passion of the Christ" concentrates on the 12 hours from his arrest to his death on the cross. The movie seems to be largely Biblically accurate and much of the dialog is comprised of direct quotes from the Gospels. I don't think any of Satan's (played by Rosalinda Celentano) lines are from the Bible but they fit that character.

Much of the commentary that I've heard about this movie deals with its intense, graphic violence. Word of mouth and reviews, particularly the words of Roger Ebert - "This is the most violent film I have ever seen" and "If it had been anyone other than Jesus up on that cross, I have a feeling that NC-17 would have been automatic" - had me bracing myself and preparing for the worst.

While the movie is extremely violent and bloody, it wasn't quite as bad as I expected. It certainly merits its R rating but not an NC-17, in my opinion. It might be the most violent movie I've ever seen but I have to think about it. Perhaps my preparation for the violence made it seem not quite as bad as it really is.

Nevertheless, Gibson unquestionably succeeded in his hope that the movie's "message will change people's lives, remind them of the enormity of the sacrifice that was made for us all." There have been several movies about Jesus that are much more comprehensive, but this is probably as close as any movie will ever get to portraying the suffering of Jesus as it happened. And the movie's flashbacks to such events as the last supper and the sermon on the mount help emphasize the significance of his sacrifice.

Furthermore, this is the most professionally made Jesus movie I've ever seen and being in Latin and Aramaic - the DVD contains English and Spanish subtitle options - adds to its sense of realism. And a phenomenal performance by Caviezel tops it off. Playing a hydroplane racer from my hometown then playing Jesus and excelling at both is a monumental achievement that shows his amazing versatility.

I'm also glad that the first Christian box office blockbuster of this generation was a movie like this rather than the speculative and sensationalistic end times movies that have saturated the Christian market in recent years.

And I tremendously respect Gibson for sticking his neck out and expressing his faith so strongly in a field that is largely secular, left wing and anti-Christian.

The DVD contains no special features which is not only disappointing, it's shocking for a new release of this magnitude. But that in no way changes what the movie accomplished.

I'm not sure it would be accurate to say I ENJOYED "The Passion of the Christ" and I doubt I'll ever watch it again. But it made a very strong impression on me and I hope it opens the door for more quality Christian movies.
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Hoosiers (1986)
8/10
A great portrait of Indiana high school basketball's glory days!
27 April 2005
When I heard that a movie was being made about Milan (Indiana) High School's improbable 1954 boys' basketball state championship54, I was excited. Not only because I, like most Hoosiers, love basketball but also because of my family connection to "The Milan Miracle," as it's widely known. One of my uncles, Bob Wichmann, was a member of that team. MHS was by far the smallest school to win the championship in Indiana's 87 years of single class basketball. I was really looking forward to see who they were going to choose to play Uncle Bob!

When I learned around the time of the movie's release that it wasn't going to be be an actual biography but merely inspired by the Milan 1954 team, I was disappointed. Shortly afterward, on my 16th birthday, my maternal grandparents - Uncle Bob's parents - took me to see the movie at a theater. I didn't dislike it but I had a hard time being objective about it because it was something other than what hoped it would be.

But I recently gave "Hoosiers" another shot. I bought its two DVD collector's edition - largely for the bonus features - and saw the movie for only the second time ever and the first time in 18 years, a little over half of my life. The second time, I managed to view it simply as it is as opposed to my original expectations and I enjoyed it much more.

"Hoosiers" in a fictional story about the 1951-52 Hickory High School team. The Huskers are coming off a solid 15-10 season but are now in disarray following the death of their coach and the subsequent departure of their best player, the painfully quiet Jimmy Chitwood (played by Maris Valainis).

Their new coach, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), arrives after practice for the new season has already begun. Dale is a former college coach who has spent the last 10 years in the Navy and his tenure with the Huskers gets off to a bad start. Two of the team's seven remaining players quit during his first practice - though both end up returning - and he alienates much of the town with his dogmatic philosophy and sometimes abrasive style.

Among those not pleased with Dale is fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) who thinks that basketball is over emphasized and academics are under emphasized. She and Dale clash a few times early on, which means, of course, that they end up falling in love.

The season starts off badly for the Huskers and a town meeting is soon scheduled to decide whether to fire Dale of keep him. Fleener has discovered that he was fired from his college coaching job for hitting one of his players but doesn't reveal that information and speaks on his behalf. Still, the audience seems largely unmoved.

It looks like Dale is about to be fired but Chitwood enters like the calvary and, speaking for one of the few times in the movie, says that he is ready to return to playing but will do so only if the coach stays. Dale's job is saved and from there, the team improves greatly and becomes a state championship contender.

You can probably figure out what happens in the end, but the movie works the underdog formula to perfection without being overly cliché.

The performances in "Hoosiers" are great, particularly Dennis Hopper's best supporting actor Oscar nominated role as Shooter, the father of one of the players. Hopper does a phenomenal job of acting like a basketball crazed drunk, though I thought it was a bit much for Dale to make him an assistant coach. That is one of a few cases of over Hollywoodization in this movie.

And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in portraying Indiana's unique love for high school basketball. Many non-Hoosiers who see the movie probably think that the residents criticizing the coach on the street, the caravan of cars traveling to away games, the emotional town meeting on the coach's fate and the general hysteria are an exaggeration. That is not the case.

High school basketball in Indiana was an obsession for several decades and still is, though to a lesser extent. Many small towns passionately embraced the local high school team, which was often a point of unity, identity and pride.

One other strong point about the movie, the late, great Jerry Goldsmith's adrenaline pumping music heightens the emotion of the game scenes down the stretch.

The collector's edition DVD set also contains three bonus features that I think are worthy of mention here:

*A 29 minute documentary about the making of the movie, the Milan '54 story and Indiana's love for basketball.

*The 1954 state championship game between Milan and Muncie Central. I'm almost 100% sure that the commentary is done by Tom Carnegie, who was been the voice of the Indianapolis 500 since 1946. Tom was the commentator on the ESPN broadcast of the game last year.

The game footage is far from great but it's not bad and it's good to have any at all. The audio quality is shaky. But it's great to finally have this monumentally historic game easily available.

*Several deleted scenes, introduced by director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo. In my opinion, a few of the scenes were unnecessary but many should have been included. One of those scenes gives insight in Buddy Walker's (Brad Long) return to the team and several others give deeper insight into the romantic relationship that developed between Dale and Fleener. Pizzo and Anspaugh said they wanted to include some of those scenes but were told by the movie company to make the movie under two hours.

In conclusion, I now greatly enjoy "Hoosiers" as fiction and its new collector's edition DVD set is a great buy for any sports movie fan! 8/10
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9/10
A great buy for Europhiles!
23 April 2005
The thing that attracted me to this movie was its title. I love Europe and have long had a fascination with Switzerland both for its beauty and its fierce, unwaivering independence and neutrality. Plus, I'm into women from the German speaking countries and this movie stars two beautiful ones, Elke Sommer and Senta Berger! So for $1.99, it was an automatic buy for me! So what if I wasn't clear about the plot?! To start off, the movie gets my award for the most attention grabbing intro that I've ever seen. A waiter in a fancy restaurant wheels a cart up to a table, pulls a gun out of his pants and shoots the customer - all in the first 30 seconds.

We later find out that the man killed in that scene was crooked arms deealer Georg Rasher of Vienna (the actor who plays him is uncredited) - one of five holders of secret accounts at a Swiss bank who recently received a blackmail notice that threatens to expose the account unless 1,000,000 Swiss francs are paid. In addition, the bank is told to pay 10,000,000 francs to keep the accounts secret. The total of 15,000,000 francs demanded is said to be the equivalent of about $6,000,000.

To investigate, the bank hires David Christopher (played by David Janssen), a former U.S. Department of Justice official who now resides in Geneva. In the course of his investigation, Christopher talks to the four living blackmailees - lovely Zürich resident Denise Abbott (Berger), who becomes his obligatory love interest, Texas businessman Dwight McGowan (John Ireland), Chicago crook Robert Hayes (John Saxon) and Dutchman Andre Kosta (Curt Lowens). It turns out that Christopher and Hayes already have a negative history with each other, which isn't surprising, as volatile and obnoxious as Hayes is.

Like many good mysteries, this movie gives us several suspects to choose from including Rita Jensen (Sommer), the mistress of the bank's vice president, Franz Benninger (Anton Diffring), and two men who are out to kill Hayes and Christopher, Korsak (Arthur Brauss) and Sando (David Hess).

Two other characters who add a lot to the movie are the bank's worried president, Johann Hurtil (Ray Milland) and Captain Hans Frey (Inigo Gallo) of the Swiss Federal Police, who is suspicious of Christopher and has several sarcastic run ins with him.

Eventually, the bank decides to cave in and pay the blackmailer. But what action movie hero would go for that?! Christopher, of course, attempts to foil the plot, which leads to a dramatic climax that provides a couple of surprising twists.

Some people complain that this movie is confusing. And I understand their point. To understand it fully, you have to pay very close attention to it from start to finish. It's very cleverly written and if you miss even a minute or two, you'll probably miss something important.

The two cuts of the movie that I've seen are relatively short - 1:20:57 and 1:23:22) - but not a single second is wasted. The movie has so much intrigue from so many sources that there's no room for boredom. There's lots of suspense, the action scenes are exciting and heightened by Klaus Doldiner's progressive jazz-funk music, the scenery (I'm fairly certain that it was filmed entirely in Switzerland) is fantastic and the combination of European and American actors give it a strong international feel.

Judging the movie by itself, I consider "The Swiss Conspiracy" to be a great movie. But its technical quality leaves a significant amount to be desired. Visually, it's decent, but the sound wavers from solid to weak, sometimes in the same scene. At several points, the dialogue is so soft that it's hard to decipher - so much so that I rewound, turned up the volume very loudly and sometimes still couldn't pick out the words.

Also, I warn you that on the cheapie DVD that I have, some of the editing is embarrassingly sloppy. And the transfer apparently comes not from an original source but rather a TV company as the obscenities are silenced! There is a free version available for download at http://www.publicdomaintorrents.com. It apparently is the theatrical version of the movie or at least closer to it than the cheapie DVD version is. The movie has apparently become public domain. I don't know how it reached that status but it's very sad that it did.

In conclusion, "The Swiss Conspiracy" is a great mystery thriller that could have been something spectacular with a big budget. Still, it is my favorite obscure movie of all time. I love the movie so much that I have a web page for it at http://www.geocities.com/theswissconspiracy and an e-mail discussion list for it at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/theswissconspiracy.

Only the movie's technical deficiencies prevent it from getting a perfect 10. As it is, I rate it 9/10.
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Possums (1998)
8/10
A heartwarming football comedy for the whole family!
22 April 2005
I had never heard of this movie until seeing it in the $5.50 DVD bin at Wal Mart. Because it's a football movie, it grabbed my attention and the synopsis on the back of the DVD case seemed funny and clever to me, so I bought it! As it turned out, I discovered a rare gem! Made with a largely unknown cast on a phenomenally low budget of $1.4 million, "Possums" apparently got very little theatrical distribution, which is a shame. Hopefully its new DVD release will help it get the attention it deserves.

"Possums" is a family oriented comedy about a colossally inept high school football team, the Nowata Possums, and its eternally optimistic radio commentator, Will Clark (played by Mac Davis). Clark passionately loves the team and never loses his zeal for them despite their embarrassing play. My wife and I both see a lot of myself in that character!

But shortly after completing their 13th consecutive season without a touchdown, Nowata's snobbish mayor, Charlie Lawton (Andrew Prine), attempts to shut down the team. Clark leads a heroic effort to save the Possums, but at a town meeting, residents overwhelmingly side with the mayor and the school's football program is dropped.

The next Autumn, Clark is feeling broken, as if a big piece of his life is missing. To make matters worse, plans are underway to tear down the football field and build a Wal Mart type store there. Clark deals with his broken heart by going into the radio station studio and continuing to broadcast Possums games - even though there are none anymore! People think he's nuts and his wife, Elizabeth (Cynthia Sikes) is furious as he buys radio time to air the fictional games at the expense of their family hardware store.

Evntually Nowata loves Clark's broadcasts, which have exciting finishes that culminate in the Possums winning. But the claims of victory anger the opposing teams, especially state champion Prattville, who challenge the Possums to a real game. Pratville's coach is played by former Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma University coach Barry Swizter - the only person in the movie other than Davis who I was previously familiar with - who gives a great performance.

The Nowata-Prattville game brings out an interesting sub-plot as Clark attempts to bring in his estranged son, John (Jay Underwood), to coach the Possums.

I was strongly expecting Nowata to win the game and thought that would be a bit too much of a stretch - a team that hasn't scored a touchdown in 14 years and hasn't played a game all season beating the state champions. The ending didn't turn out quite the way I expected but it did give me a warm fuzzy feeling! If you're looking for a good football movie, a heartwarming comedy or some great family entertainment, it's hard to beat "Possums!" 8/10.
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Carbon Copy (1981)
9/10
My favorite culture clash comedy ever!
12 January 2005
I first saw one scene of this largely forgotten movie on TV in the early '80s. A white man told his white wife that the black teenage boy with them was his son. She became hysterical and told her husband that God would never forgive him. He responded by saying "How do you know? Maybe he's pleased? Maybe God is black!" As a white kid about 12 years old, somehow I found "Maybe God is black" to be one of the funniest things I'd ever heard! Over the years, I quoted that line many times, mostly in arguments with my mother and maternal grandmother about inter-racial marriage. I supported it and they opposed it, though their opposition was out of fear of the social stigma rather than hatred for other races.

That scene was all that I ever saw of "Carbon Copy" until I was 19, when I saw it in a video store and rented it. I loved it but didn't see it again until getting the newly released DVD for Christmas last month. Now 34 and in an inter-racial marriage, I find the movie funnier than ever!

Now for my synopsis of the movie! Walter Whitney (played by George Segal) is a wealthy businessman who lives a high society lifestyle with his snobbish wife Vivian (Susan St. James) and his equally snobbish step-daughter Mary Ann (Vicky Dawson). That changes one day when a 17-year old black boy named Roger Porter (Denzel Washington in his first movie) arrives at Walter's office and, after an extensive display of crude behavior, cheerfully says "Hi, Daddy!"

It turns out that Roger was the product of Walter's relationship with a black woman, now dead, who he loved. But he left her when his longtime employer and now father-in-law Nelson Longhurst (Jack Warden) advised him that it would be harmful to his career to be with a black woman. It's also revealed that Walter changed his last name from Weisenthal to hide his Jewish ethnicity.

Walter is shocked to learn that he has a son and nervous about the way it might disrupt his life. But he attempts to help Roger by telling Vivian that he wants to adopt a poor child for the Summer to show him a better way of life. Vivian reluctantly agrees, then changes her mind shortly after meeting Roger, which leads to the scene that I mentioned to start this review.

Vivian proceeds to kick out Walter and her father fires him, takes his company Rolls Royce and his many job benefits. Walter learns that his total worth is the $68 in his wallet.

So Walter and Roger, the day after meeting, seek shelter together. They first check into a cheap motel and later move into an apartment in Watts while Walter looks for a new job. But in the town of San Marino, his reputation turns out to be ruined and out of desperation to make some quick cash, he ends up shoveling horse manure.

As the movie progresses, it's obvious that Walter regrets leaving Roger's mother. And now he must decide whether to keep Roger at a distance for the sake of social acceptance or try to make up for the mistakes of his past by attempting to build a close relationship with his son.

Throughout the movie, the interaction between Walter and Roger is fabulous. Though they are father and son, their lives have been radically different. Their cultures often clash and this results in many hilarious situations. The movie does a great job striking the very difficult balance between having fun with racial stereotypes but still condemning racism.

And during the last 15 minutes, when the movie makes the transition from comedy to drama, it does so surprisingly smoothly.

In conclusion, "Carbon Copy" gets my vote as the best culture clash comedy ever. I also consider it to be one of the most underrated movies ever. It's a great movie to watch for lots of big laughs. 9/10.
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Madison (2001)
6/10
Entertaining but largely fictional.
9 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Having been born and raised in Madison, Indiana, I have long looked forward to seeing this hydroplane racing drama. To my knowledge, it's only the second full length movie ever filmed in my hometown, 1958's "Some Came Running" being the first.

Madison has a phenomenal boat racing tradition and eventually began holding an annual race called the Madison Regatta. Beginning in 1950, the race became affiliated with the American Power Boat Association and is still held annually in early July. Though Madison has a population of only 12,000, the Regatta maintains its place in the Unlimited Hydroplane division of APBA, whose other races are in major and mid-size cities.

The Regatta regularly draws about 70,000-100,000 people and is a tremendous source of pride for residents of the town. A source of less pride but still a significant piece of trivia is that Madison has the world's only community owned unlimited hydroplane, Miss Madison.

That boat, which has also been known in recent years by - surprise, surprise - various corporate sponsor names, is usually near the bottom of the circuit. In 44 years of racing, U-6 - its number regardless of its name - has won just six races.

One of those was an upset in the 1971 Regatta, which is the basis for this movie. Making that victory even sweeter was that it also for the APBA Gold Cup.

Now for the movie!

Written by Hoosier brothers William and Scott Bindley and directed by William, "Madison" runs from preparations for the 1971 season until that year's Regatta. It appears to be semi-low budget but nevertheless professionally done.

If I were completely unfamiliar with the town of Madison and the actual story of Miss Madison in 1971, I probably would enjoy this movie a lot more. But its opening lines "Based on a true story" are a huge exaggeration.

For example, in the movie, Jim McCormick (played by Jim Caviezel) is a member of Miss Madison's crew but hasn't raced since sustaining a serious injury in a race 10 years earlier. He resumes racing for the first time with the '71 Regatta. In real life, McCormick had driven Miss Madison since 1969.

In the movie, Madison wins the rights to host the Gold Cup by a drawing and after a massive struggle obtains the $50,000 needed to secure the race when Mayor Don Vaughn (Paul Dooley) takes money from the town's sanitation department. In real life, according to Miss Madison's web page, "Due to a technicality and a misunderstanding, the $30,000 bid for the race by the sponsoring Madison Regatta, Inc., was the only one submitted in time to the Gold Cup Contest Board."

In the movie, at a town council meeting, a town official states that only 134 tickets had been sold for the Regatta – implying that it would be a struggle to raise the $50,000. That contradicts the movie's accurate portrayal of how popular hydroplane racing is in Madison and furthermore, that year's Regatta drew a crowd of 110,000!

In the movie, Miss Madison's crew labors extensively the night before the race to get the boat in good racing condition but lacks a certain mechanical part. So several members of the crew drive to Columbus, Indiana - about 45 miles northwest - to steal that part out of a war plane that is displayed in front of the court house there! I'm almost 100% sure that never happened or even could have happened!

And in the movie, the final race is far more dramatic than it was in real life.

For a presumably much more accurate version of what happened in real life, check out the following from Miss Madison's web page: http://www.missmadison.com/history/71goldcup_b.htm

Besides the above inaccuracies, the movie also portrays Madison and its residents as being more behind the times than they are, almost as if it's Mayberry.

Still, there's much to like about the movie. It has some well filmed racing scenes, which should look great on the big screen. In addition, the movie shows much of Madison's historic and natural beauty.

But the movie largely focuses on the relationship between McCormick and his son, Mike (Jake Lloyd), who is about 10 years old. Some of the best scenes involve interaction between the two, who are portrayed as very likable small town people who are close. Mike is usually with his father and also often helps the Miss Madison team with menial tasks. I don't know how accurate the portrayal of Jim's and Mike's relationship is but at least it works well as fiction.

The actors/actresses who play the important characters in the movie all do a great job. Besides Caviezel, Lloyd and Dooley, the other best performances include Mary McCormack as Jim's wife Bonnie – who is against Jim's return to racing but of course becomes supportive toward the end – and Bruce Dern as legendary mechanic Harry Volpi.

The movie also does a very good job portraying Madison's love for hydroplane racing and working the classic underdog formula. Appropriately, it uses music from another sports underdog film, "Rudy." To my knowledge, "Madison" contains no original music.

On a side note, because the film is set in 1971, I looked hard for anachronisms. I've found only one. During the aforementioned town council meeting, which takes place in the gymnasium of the high school that I attended, the three point line of the basketball court can clearly be seen. The three point line was not added in Indiana high school basketball until the 1987-88 season!

In conclusion, "Madison" is a very entertaining family movie that has something for everyone to enjoy. But I think it would have worked much better had it been completely fictionalized, as "Hoosiers" was - inspired by but not about a real event. Claiming that something is a true story when it largely isn't is annoying to me. 6/10.
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Basic Football (1994 Video)
8/10
A mostly great resource for teaching the sport!
7 January 2005
Okay, I'm roaming through the $1 DVD bin AGAIN! And I see something football related! It didn't matter that after reading the synopsis on the back, I wasn't sure what kind of program it is! My simple equation is $1 DVD + football related = automatic buy! It didn't work out badly with "Coach of the Year" and it turned out to work even better with this! As it turns out, "Basic Football" is a humorous yet educational documentary that teaches the complex sport of American football in 44 minutes. I have no idea for whom it was made - home video, cable TV or other - but it looks very professional and, unlike the other $1 DVDs in my collection, the technical quality is excellent.

The film is hosted by Burt Reynolds, who in addition to his acting fame played running back for Florida State University and was drafted by the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts. Reynolds appears in about half of the film and does a great job explaining football in a way that's equally humorous and educational.

Had the entire film featured Reynolds in that format, it would be an easy 10. But it's marred by three of the non-Reynolds segments. In those, a parole board interrogates a kicker and punter, questioning their value as football players, offensive linemen are verbally grilled by a female talk show audience and defense is taught in a college class. All three scenes have some funny moments but are too corny.

Also featured without Reynolds are several minutes of interviews with players that are well done.

Toward the end, a scene from the game in Reynolds' classic football movie "The Longest Yard" is shown.

All of the scenes, with and without Reynolds, are enhanced by dozens of clips from NFL and major college games, which give visual examples of the teachings. And Reynolds' scenes were all filmed at a perfect location, the University of Wisconsin's football stadium.

In conclusion, while this film could have been outstanding, it's still very good. It covers all of the major rules of football in very relatable ways. Most football fans will probably appreciate it and those who want to learn the game in a fun, quick and easy way will probably find it very helpful. 8/10.
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7/10
Touching story marred by unclear ending
4 January 2005
During one of my frequent raids of the $1 DVD bins, I found this 1976 made for TV movie. When reading the synopsis on the package I saw that it was "based on a true story" of a boy named Tod Lubitch (played by John Travolta) who was born without an immune system and had to live in a sterile environment. That brought to my mind a Houston boy named David Joseph Vetter III who was in the news a lot when I was growing up. David had the same problem, lived in the same environment and died at the age of 12.

Upon my research I discovered that this movie is fictional. There was no Tod Lubitch. "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble" was inspired by the aforementioned David but isn't about him. $1 DVDs have a bad habit of providing false information and the "true story" claim is yet another example, as is the cover photo of Travolta, which appears to be only a few years old. He was actually in his early 20s when this movie originally aired.

Now for the movie. After spending a few minutes each showing Tod's life as an infant and a four year old - when he begins spending some time at home, where a sterile room is set up for him - the remainder of the movie shows him around the age of 17.

Despite the way he's forced live, Tod is a happy kid who has a close relationship with his parents. But he holds out hope that someday his body will build up enough immunities for him to leave his sterile environment.

Gradually, Tod is able to live a more normal life. He is sometimes wheeled outside in a protective cart. He participates in high school through televisions and cameras set up in his room and the classroom. And later he begins attending school in person by wearing a protective suit much like one an astronaut wears. Tod actually blends in fairly well with the other students. He is a victim of some insensitivity but not a lot and he ends up graduating.

As the movie progresses, Tod falls in love with classmate and next door neighbor Gina Biggs (Glynnis O'Connor). In one scene about midway through the movie, she pretends to express romantic interest in him but then he realizes she was just trying to win a bet with two of her male friends, which devastates Tod. But she later has a change of heart and falls for Tod, too.

This leaves Tod with a monumental decision - continue to remain in his sterile environment, in which is only human contact is gloved hands, or risk his life to be with Gina.

For the most part, I like this movie. It tells a bittersweet story in a very moving way. Travolta's performance is convincing and he shows great signs of things to come. I found myself feeling really sorry for Tod. The supporting cast is also strong and includes the late Robert Reed ("The Brady Bunch") as Tod's father, Johnny Lubitch. I think this is the only role I've ever seen Reed play other than Mike Brady. He displays good serious acting skill.

But the movie is marred by its unclear ending. And I noticed one other significant flaw - in a scene in which Tod's protective suit runs out of oxygen, he rushes into the sterile section of his classroom, aided by classmates, and takes the suit off inside. It seems to me that the outside of the suit would be carrying germs, which would contaminate the sterile section and open Tod to germs that very well might kill him.

The technical quality of the DVD that I have isn't great and looks like it might have been a direct transfer from a master tape that had been sitting on a shelf for years. But the quality is decent enough to watch comfortably.

Overall, this is a very good movie that is well worth the dollar. 7/10.
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61* (2001 TV Movie)
9/10
The best non-fiction sports movie that I've ever seen!
12 November 2004
Being 33 years old as of this writing, I knew little about the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle home run chase of 1961 until the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998. I didn't learn a whole lot about the '61 chase in '98 but I learned enough to develop a solid interest in it.

Still, I didn't have very high hopes for "61*." Most of the made for TV movies that I've seen haven't made a strong impression on me, including those made for cable TV, as this was (for HBO). Furthermore, I've never been a big Billy Crystal fan. Though I love comedy, I've never found him to be that funny. And I didn't have a lot of confidence in him to make a good drama, either.

And on top of all that, I often find sports biography movies to be disappointing, often leaving out important details while at the same time over-Hollywoodizing. "Rudy," for example. But when I saw the DVD of "61*" at a Family Dollar store, priced at just $6, I took a chance and bought it. And I'm glad I did!

Crystal won tremendous respect from me with this movie. Almost flawlessly, he tells one of the most interesting single season sports stories that I know of. And I know of more than probably 99% of the American population!

From the start, the 1961 Major League Baseball season was ripe to be a classic. Babe Ruth's single season home run record of 60, set in 1927, was more vulnerable than ever because of two major changes. The Los Angeles (later California and now Anaheim) Angels and Washington Senators (now Texas Rangers) began play, thus spreading the pitching talent more thinly. And the regular season increased in length from 154 games - which had also been the season length in 1927 - to 162, as it remains today.

The biggest reason why I find the '61 chase more interesting than the '98 chase is that in '61, the top two contenders were teammates. Both played for - who else - the New York Yankees. One was Mickey Mantle (played by Thomas Jane), who had already spent a decade with the Yankees and was unquestionably the biggest star of the day. The other was Roger Maris (Barry Pepper), who was much less heralded. Maris had just emerged as a star the year before, winning the American League Most Valuable Player award in his Yankees debut, which followed three solid but unspectacular years with other Major League teams.

Both Mantle and Maris hailed from rural states - Oklahoma and North Dakota, respectively - but were very different people. Mantle epitomized the word "superstar." Besides excelling at every area of the game, he was a charismatic, care free party animal and a fan favorite, the natural heir to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and other legends. In sharp contrast, Maris was an introvert who largely shunned the spotlight. He loved the game but never attempted to be what the media and fans wanted him to be.

(On a side note, I'm a Maris sympathizer because I can relate to being rejected by people who I don't bother simply because I don't follow the crowd and I believe in judging people based on substance more than anything else. Yankees fans should have loved Maris and embraced his phenomenal achievement that year.)

As the season progressed and both Mantle and Maris stayed near the pace to break Ruth's record, it was obvious that the fans favored Mantle by far. And when Mantle was slowed by injuries, the fans generally ranged from lukewarm to hostile in their treatment of Maris as he neared the record. For example, the Yankees' last game of the regular season, which they hosted, drew a crowd of just 22,000 even though Maris entered the game tied with Ruth and even though the Yankees went on to win the World Series that year.

This is a sharp contrast to 1998, when McGwire regularly filled stadiums in pursuit of Maris' record even though McGwire's team didn't even make the playoffs that season. And in sharp contrast to McGwire's enthusiasm for breaking the record, Maris did not seem to get a lot of joy out of it. He had a difficult time dealing with negativity from the media and fans and also missed the birth of a son during the season.

There are so many things to love about "61*" that it's hard to list them all. The movie does a great job recreating 1961 in every way. Crystal even managed to find actors to play not only most of the significant Yankees of the season but also many of their opponents. That is not the case with most sports biography movies.

Pepper and Jane both give excellent performances and strongly resemble the men who they play. And the movie is very fair and balanced. It presents the perspectives of both Mantle and Maris and gives us an up close look at their relationship behind the scenes, which was fairly good, all things considered. Mantle even moved in with Maris during the season.

The movie doesn't white wash either man, neither of whom was squeaky clean, but it doesn't resort to sensationalism, either. For example, it shows Mantle drink alcohol enough in the movie that we realize he drank too much alcohol, but it doesn't dwell on that fact. In addition, the movie gives us insight into Mantle's philosophy. The men in his family all died by the age of 45 so he figured he wasn't going to live a long life and therefore didn't see a need to take good care of himself.

(Shortly before his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 63, he acknowledged that he would have taken care of himself had he known that he was going to live so long. And in response to witnessing by former Yankees teammate Bobby Richardson, who became a minister after retiring from baseball, Mantle repented and became a Christian.)

I've found little to criticize about this movie. I've discovered only a few inaccuracies in it - far less than other sports biography movies - and most are minor. The main thing that I wish Crystal had done differently was to give some information about what ended up happening to Mantle and Maris.

Both largely went downhill from there. After a 1962 season that was very good, but far below his '61 magic, Maris fell into mediocrity and injuries. He never made the Hall of Fame and died of lymphoma on Dec. 14, 1985 (my 15th birthday) at the age of 15.

Mantle had a few more good seasons, but soon his hard living caught up with him, as mentioned above.

In addition to the movie, the DVD of "61*" contains an excellent 51 minute documentary about the movie, the Yankees and the '61 season, hosted by Crystal. The documentary contains extensive information about the making of the movie and lots of great stories from Crystal, whose love for and vast knowledge of both the game and the Yankees is absolutely infectious.

However, because this movie is unrated, I caution you that this is not a family movie. There is enough profanity and crude sexual humor to get it at least an easy PG-13 rating.

In conclusion, the movie and the documentary combine to make "61*" a great buy, especially if you find it at as low a price as I did! 9/10.
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The Rookie (2002)
8/10
A feel good movie!
11 November 2004
Walt Disney's "The Rookie" is based on the story of Jim Morris, a former minor league picher who made one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history, ending an almost 10 year retirement and making his Major League debut in 1999 at the age of 35.

The film opens with a brief synopsis of Morris' childhood, which included a series of re-locations - his father was a military man. And even when his family settled for good in football crazed Texas, Morris' passion for baseball remained strong.

The childhood segment then jumps ahead about 23 years to the adult Morris (played by Dennis Quaid) who is now a baseball coach and chemistry teacher at Big Lake High School (in real life it was Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Texas). It is mentioned that he attempted a career as a baseball player but that it didn't work out.

Morris's team is struggling and he lectures them about giving up on their dreams. They turn the table on him, telling him that he should try out for a Major League team. At several times when he pitches to them in practice, they express amazement at the speed with which he throws. Morris seems unconvinced but agrees to a deal with his players in which if they win district, he will try out for a Major League team.

Big Lake does win district and, adhering to his end of the deal, Morris attends a Tampa Bay Devil Rays try out. Phenomenally, he throws 98 miles an hour - faster than he threw during his minor league career and an outstanding speed even for a Major League pitcher. After another try out with the team, Morris is offered a contract with the Devil Rays.

This leaves him with a tough decision - stay in his comfortable life or once again pursue his Major League dream by going through the minor league grind of making little money and spending months at a time away from home. And the decision is even more agonizing than during his first minor league stint because he now has a wife and three children.

Morris signs with the Devil Rays, begins at the AA level and moves up quickly to the AAA level, one level below Major League Baseball. But as the season winds down, the chances of him getting "called up" grow increasingly slim.

For the most part, I love this movie. There are lots of great performances and likable characters and it's easy to find yourself really pulling for Morris. Also, the movie does a great job portraying professional baseball at both the major and minor league levels. And most of all, it teaches the timeless message of holding tight to your dreams even when they seem distant and almost impossible to achieve.

Still, the movie has some flaws. While generally accurate, it exaggerates and even fabricates a few things. Check out http://espn.go.com/page2/s/closer/020410.html for some examples. Also, except for one scene in which he prays with his players, the movie completely ignores Morris' Christian faith. But considering Disney's left wing zeal, that's not surprising.

Presumably, a lot of the exaggerations/fabrications were done to make the story more dramatic. Yet the 20 minute documentary on Morris that is included on the DVD features some information that makes his story more dramatic but is excluded from the movie.

For example, from birth until his family settled in Texas for good when he was 12, Morris re-located 14 times. And his initial minor league career ended after four surgeries through which he lost half of the muscle in his left (pitching) shoulder, thus making his throwing 98 mph even more inexplicable.

To fully appreciate and understand the story of Jim Morris, it's good to not only watch "The Rookie" but to watch the DVD's documentary, check out the aforementioned link to the movie's inaccuracies and probably also to read Morris' biography, also titled "The Rookie." I haven't read the book but I hope to one of these days.

But overall, "The Rookie" is a very good portrayal of a miraculous story and is a powerful testament to the power of dreams and the triumph of the common man. 8/10
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Coach of the Year (1980 TV Movie)
6/10
Decent light drama
9 November 2004
I was going through the $1 DVD bin and saw a football movie so I bought it! This 1980 made for TV movie is about a former Chicago Bears player named Jim Branden (played by Robert Conrad) who was paralyzed in the Vietnam War and now wants to coach. The Bears won't give him a coaching job so he ends up coaching a team at a juvenile correctional school, where his nephew resides. The kids there have horrible attitudes at first and lose their first game, which is against an exquisite private school. But Branden eventually wins the respect of his players, who unify around him and work hard to win the rematch. I find the movie to be a little too predictable down the stretch but it's a decent light drama and worth the dollar. As a nice bonus, Mike Post contributes some good music. 6/10.
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Laser Mission (1989)
3/10
At least it only cost $1!
9 November 2004
While roaming the dollar DVD bin recently, I picked out this 1990 action movie that stars the late Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee's son. The only movie from Brandon that I had previously seen is probably the only movie of his that you've seen, 1994's "The Crow," which made him a star but cost him his life. He was shot to death during filming of that movie by an improperly loaded gun. I knew that he had done a few minor movies before that but had never seen any.

I'm not endorsing "Laser Mission." From the opening credits I could tell that it was very cheaply done. And, at least on this DVD, the audio is about a full second behind the visual! The movie is about a maverick government agent named Michael Gold (played by Lee), who goes on a mission to save a scientist named Braun (Ernest Borgnine), who is being forced by the Soviets to build a nuclear weapon, combining a laser with a huge diamond. Great stuff! Brandon's acting is okay, as is Borgnine's. I like Brandon's sarcastic wit. But much of the rest of the acting is pretty amateur, especially that of his character's love interest, Alissa (Debi Monahan) who might pass for a decent porno actress.

The action scenes aren't bad for a low budget movie but the script is weak and loaded with '80s action movie clichés. And it's especially humorous to see Alissa - who looks and acts like a typical blonde, air headed bimbo - joining Michael in blowing away dozens of bad guys! She also does some pretty impressive driving - in a peace wagon, no less - while Michael blows away still more bad guys from the back seat!

But there are two things that make the movie worth the dollar for me. One is that parts of it are so bad that they're hilarious, including one time when Brandon and a guy who he's fighting both fall off of a building about 30 feet high and Brandon lands just gets up and walks away! The other guy wasn't so lucky, falling on the spikes of a fence and dying.

And the other thing I love about the movie is the music, done by none other than David Knopfler of Dire Straits. He has one straight ahead rocker that is played during the opening credits, closing credits and several times in between. I guess they were either on a tight budget so they could afford little music or they really loved that song! I think it's played six times during the movie!

I'm pretty sure that's the only vocal song in the movie. The instrumental stuff is great, too. I detect a little Pink Floyd influence in David's music.

One other note of unintentional humor from "Laser Mission," in the movie, Brandon's character wants the mission so bad that he's not doing it for the money. Yet the aforementioned song that's featured over and over is titled "Mercenary Man!" 3/10
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