Category Archives: Based on a Real Story Movies

Without a Trace (1983) Movie Review

Without a Trace (1983)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Without a Trace Movie Poster

Starring: Kate Nelligan, Judd Hirsch, Stockard Channing, David Dukes, Jacqueline Brookes
Director: Stanley R. Jaffe
Release Date: 4 February 1983
Language: English
Length: 120 minutes
Movie Rating: PG
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Synopsis:

Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) waves goodbye to her son, Alex (Danny Corkill), in the morning and has her worst nightmare come true when he never comes home.  Susan receives an outpouring of support as the search begins for her son.  News reporters pester her for interviews and TV appearances, police officers are stationed in her home around the clock, and the parents at Alex’s school canvass the neighborhood with posters.  However, as time passes and there is no sign of Alex, the support gradually tapers off.  Instead of helping Susan look for Alex, friends and family are now trying to help Susan come to terms with the fact that Alex may never be coming home.  This movie is based on the book Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon, which is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of Etan Patz.

Review:

This movie reaches in and grabs hold of your heart very early on in the film.  Of course, you know Alex goes missing before you start watching the movie so it is not a surprise when he disappears.  What the film does so well though is to capture a beautiful morning between mother Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) and her only child, Alex (Danny Corkill).  Susan and her husband, Graham (David Dukes), have recently separated and there is a very close bond between mother and child.  Susan wakes up a sleepy Alex and persuades him to get out of Susan & Alex Selkybed and get ready for school.  She doesn’t yell at Alex when he barges into the bathroom while she is showering to try and talk about a friend’s birthday present.  Alex asks for Cheerios for breakfast the next morning, rather than the eggs that Susan made for him that morning.  They play with the dog, they talk about inviting Alex’s dad to his birthday party and you can feel the love and the relationship between these two.  The beginning of the movie has a tremendous impact on the viewer.  You know how close the mother and child are and that Alex disappearing is going to be absolutely devastating for her.  As Susan says goodbye to Alex and the cute little boy turns around to wave goodbye, you know that this is the last time she will see him before he disappears.  The movie is old and looks dated and a bit faded, but the beginning just pulled me and made me interested and invested in the characters from the beginning.  Bravo on making a poignant, touching opening to this movie.  If the story hadn’t been so interesting, the cringe-inducing synthesizer soundtrack would have driven me far away within moments, but, fortunately, I was able to stick with it!

Unfortunately, as the movie progresses past the first 45 minutes, it loses a bit of steam.  The first part deals with a frantic effort by the police, friends, family and neighbors to look for Alex, follow up leads, wait for a blackmail request, anything to indicate that Alex is still alive.  After the first month or so, there are very few people still looking for Alex.  Susan is probably the only one who still believes that Alex is alive and she pushes away family and friends as they try to help her realize that she can have a life without her little boy.  The sense of isolation, Kate Nelliganabandonment, frustration, and loss is very difficult to convey on a screen.  Kate Nelligan is able to show the viewer Susan Selky’s emotions quite well and she has a tremendous range, but this part of the movie was just a little boring.  Susan is so stoic, so silent and blank-faced that it can be difficult to relate to her at first.  Fortunately, the director included a few scenes where Susan blows up at loved ones and this helped me relate to her a bit more.  I am not sure if the director was trying to give the viewers a sense of waiting and how hard it is to keep hoping without any information, but I think this part went on for a bit too long.  You kind of coast along for about 30 – 45 minutes and then you can sense that the ending is coming and things start happening again.  Still, I was thoroughly engaged in the characters by then and this is a testament to some great performances by the cast.

Kate Nelligan leads the cast and is in almost every scene.  She is just what you would want a mother to be that is missing their child.  Focused, driven, and willing to sacrifice anything to get her son back.  Her character is also shattered and groping for answers as she comes to realize that people and surroundings she has known for years are not at all what they seem Judd Hirschto be.  Judd Hirsch was terrific as Al Hirsch, the detective assigned to investigate Alex’s disappearance.  He desperately wants to give Susan good news, but they have no leads and the case has gone completely cold.  The only people that are still calling about the case are crackpots, psychics and other weirdoes.  I loved that Al was a family man and that, while his wife joked about getting a divorce, they were a strong unit and he tried to spend time with his wife and children.  If Susan’s character was the heart of the movie, Al was the soul of the movie.  These two characters interfaced so well together and, even though they did not always agree on what to do to find Alex, they worked together and suffered together.  The fabulous Stockard Channing is also in this movie as the best friend of Susan.  I personally felt like she was underutilized as Susan and Al are the main characters and everyone else is kind of on the periphery, but she made the most of her role.  Her hair is huge and her look is very dated, but, as Jocelyn Norris, she is a great friend to Susan.  I confess that I suspected her of kidnapping Alex for a little bit as she seemed almost too supportive and too nice, but she is just trying to be a great friend.

After I watched this movie, I looked it up online to see if any of this film was based on fact and was surprised to see that it is based on a book, which is based on the true story of a child who went missing in New York.  The book is called Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon.  The little boy who went missing in real life is named Etan Patz.  Etan was six-years-old when he went missing, Alex was six, almost seven years old.  Both boys had less than two blocks to walk to Etan Patzthe bus stop/school.  Both boys never made it to school and their mothers discovered this after school was over.  The movie shows the media circus, the national attention and the overwhelming support for the missing boys, but, after that, they diverge somewhat.  Etan Patz’s disappearance led to a missing children’s movement that we still see today including putting missing children’s photographs on milk cartons, new legislation and some new ways of searching for missing children.  ****Spoiler alert****  I was totally convinced that the movie would end very much the same way that the real-life story ended.  I thought that the movie would just kind of wind down and fizzle out as Susan realized her son was gone forever.  Etan Patz was legally declared dead in 2001, 22 years after he went missing.  New York state is still working on solving his disappearance, but there are no updates.  It was such a pleasant surprise in the movie to realize that they were going to go with a traditional Hollywood ending and have Alex come home safe and sound.  A random, crazy-sounding tip comes in and it leads to a really emotional ending.  Of course, the ending is over-the-top and totally unbelievable, but it was also really touching.  There is a whole stream of police cars who elect to follow Alex home and make sure he arrives safely.  I was thinking of how rarely the police are able to take good news to parents in this position and found it really touching.  Then you have Susan, who doesn’t know that Alex has been found, until she sees him running towards her.  Cue the dropped grocery bag, the family pet racing to greet Alex, the photographers snapping pictures as the mother and son hug, and then end shot/film.  ****Spoiler end****

While this movie is dated and by-the-book without any surprises, it is also quite well done.  I enjoyed it far more than I anticipated and even stayed up late to finish watching it as I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen!  The performances are solid from the cast, the characters are likeable and interesting and I am a sucker for movies based on true stories.  If you stumble across this movie on late-night TV or online, take some time to watch it as it still resonates with viewers even though it is much older now.

Content:

This movie is about a little boy who has been kidnapped.  There are discussions of child molestation and abuse as the police and everyone else wonders why Alex was taken.  Susan’s housekeeper is a homosexual man who is arrested for soliciting a prostitute and using a whip.  They find sex toys in his apartment and he has a previous arrest report for statutory rape.  Susan’s husband (separated) has many “friends” and he sleeps around with his female students.  There are some scenes of mild violence, drinking, smoking, and mild language.  Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Beyond the Blackboard (2011) Movie Review

Beyond the Blackboard (2011)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Starring: Emily VanCamp, Steve Talley, Julio Oscar Mechoso, Treat Williams, Nicki Aycox
Director: Jeff Bleckner
Series: a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation
Release Date: 24 April 2011
Language: English
Length: 95 minutes
Movie Rating: PG
View Format: TV
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis:

Stacey Bess (Emily VanCamp) is thrilled to get her first teaching job.  She just graduated from college and has no experience, but has wanted to be a teacher her whole life.  But when Stacey arrives at the School with No Name, she is horrified to discover the conditions she is expected to teach in.  There are no desks, no books, the lights are dim and every train that passes by shakes the whole classroom!  Parents are constantly interrupting, the kids all have a different amounts of learning, rats come up out of the floorboards and there is no money to buy the supplies the children desperately need.  Can Stacey find the heart and the means to give these children a chance in life?

Review:

I grew up watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations with my mother.  I can remember that they were a special event in our household and my family would gather around the TV set on Sunday evenings to watch them together.  The only thing that has changed for me is that I never know when these movies are going to be on – or what channel they will broadcast on – and that I can use my DVR to record them and watch them any night of the week.  Other than that, they are still the same, high-quality movies that I remember from my childhood.  They are always heartwarming, clean, and have inspirational stories.  Beyond the Blackboard is no different.

I am a sucker for movies that are based on true stories.  I guess I enjoy them the most because I can see a single individual who makes a difference in other people’s lives or in their own lives.  They give me hope and they inspire me to try harder to be a better person.  Beyond Stacey Bess in Real Lifethe Blackboard is based on the true life story of Stacey Bess, whom viewers are introduced to at the end of this film.  Stacey taught at this homeless school, and others, for 8 years before she left her teaching job to become an advocate for education for underprivileged children.  She did this while raising her own children and being a supportive wife.  Stacey got her first job at the School with No Name when she was 24-years-old.  Eight years later she was 32-years-old and was making a powerful impact in school districts around the country.  I am older than Stacey was when she accomplished all of this and do not have any legacy to live behind me.  That does not mean that I have not touched any lives, but no one will ever be making a movie (made for TV or not!) about my life when it is done.  What I am trying to say is that all of us have the potential to change the world around us for the better.  We may be scared, unequipped or ill prepared, but that does not mean we should back away from the challenge.

Emily VanCamp shines as Stacey Bess.  I loved that the filmmaker gave her a few moments at the end of the movie to introduce the real Stacey Bess and to talk about how she took this role because she found the story so personally touching.  I feel that Emily VanCamp really captured Stacey’s message and her life.  At first, I felt that Stacey was not strong enough to become a teacher who mattered.  She came from a home where her parents argued constantly and took refuge in books at a young age.  Stacey left school to marry at the young age of 16, but she never gave up her dream of becoming a teacher.  She got her GED and then her college degree, only to end up in a classroom to teach grades 1 – 6 with children who were bright and others who had little to no education.  Their parents were homeless, some with skills, other who can’t even read.  Emily VanCamp was like a shining star Emily VanCamp at Blackboardin this setting.  She was clean, pretty and has a kind of naive innocence about her that she never lost, even though she saw some of the worst of what people were capable of.  As the movie progresses, I saw Stacey as a character become stronger, more powerful and a driving force in countless lives.  You will find yourself caught up in the lives of her young students.  These young actors were memorable, individual and well cast. Liam McKanna as Danny and Paola Nicole Andino as Maria stand out the most as they are given bigger roles in this movie, but there are some little children who are just heartbreakers.  They had such cute little faces with countless opportunities ahead of them if they could only be given the chance!

It was heartbreaking to realize that most of these students had no real chance at a future because of the situation their parents were in.  All of the children in the classroom were shown as bright, loveable and aching for a chance.  They responded to Stacey because she gave them hope, trust and showed them that she was determined to become part of their lives.  Stacey takes one of her weekends to redo the classroom, at no pay and with supplies she Teaching the Childrenpurchased herself, and then invites the students to set rules with her.  The children open up to Stacey about their personal lives as they share stories of abuse (verbal and physical), low self-esteems and a sense of powerlessness.  A great teacher can change the way that children see themselves and the world around them.  It is too bad that great teachers are not rewarded in this life the way that they should be.  I loved the little extra touches Stacey made to reach out and give her students a chance.  She gets up extra early so she can go down the street, ringing a bell and trying to get her students to wake up and make it to school on time.  Stacey holds meetings with the parents and treats with them respect and encourages them to donate time to the school.  I appreciate that the movie took the time to show that the homeless adults were not all druggie deadbeats, but that some of them had great skills and talents.  They just had no job and no where to go.  If you look closely at your life, you will realize that you are not very far away from being out on the street yourself.  Without a safety net of close family and friends to help you out when times are hard, you could easily end up living in a car, too.  If you have children, it is even more difficult because it is more expensive.  Thank goodness for teachers who make a difference like Stacey Bess who give these children a chance while they are at the shelter!

I found this movie to be inspirational and uplifting.  There are so few films out there that will really leave you with a warm, good feeling inside that it is nice to run across them every now and again.  This is a wonderful movie to share with your whole family and hopefully it will launch a discussion about what it is like to be homeless and if there is anything we can do to help.  Shortly before I watched this film, I had a grungy-looking man approach me in a parking lot and I automatically said that I didn’t have any cash, even though I actually had a few ones in a wallet.  He looked and me and said “I was going to offer to wash your windows” and walked away.  I not only denied him a few dollars that would mean much more to him than they would to me, but I robbed him of a little bit more of his dignity.  I do not know if he was on the streets because of choices he had made in his life or of circumstances beyond his control, but I feel like I made the wrong choice.  I had the power to change one person’s life for a little while and I did not take advantage of it.  This movie inspired me to try harder and to see if I could make a difference in someone else’s life.  Hopefully it will do the same for you.

Content:

This movie has scenes that discuss drug abuse and alcoholism.  There are scenes of poverty, shouting, verbal arguments, living on the streets and bullying.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

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Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story (2003) Movie Review

Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story (2003)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Starring: Thora Birch, Michael Riley, Robert Bockstael, Makyla Smith, Jennifer Pisana
Director: Peter Levin
Release Date: 7 April 2003
Language: English
Length: 104 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis:

Liz Murray (Thora Birch) grew up eating out of garbage cans and attending school sporadically.  Her mother is a drug-addicted schizophrenic, her father a brilliant man with no practical smarts.  Eventually, family services shows up and takes her away to a group home, where Liz learns to shower regularly and to get used to a routine.  When Liz’s friend, Chris (Makyla Smith), has no where else to go, Liz and Chris hit the streets together at the age of 15.  It takes the death of Liz’s mother (Kelly Lynch) from AIDS for Liz to realize that life on the street is not for her.  She works hard to get accepted into a Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan and soon finds herself applying for a scholarship to Harvard.  Based on a true story.

Review:

I love a good based-on-a-true-story movie.  It is always amazing to see what real-life people can accomplish against overwhelming odds!  This one, Homeless to Harvard, sounds even less believable than most, but it is based on the true story of Liz Murray.  Liz grew up in the Bronx Liz Murray in Real Lifeto drug-addicted parents, both of whom later died of AIDS.  Liz was able to graduate from high school in just two years, despite not having a regular home or dependable income.  She was awarded a New York Times scholarship for needy students and was accepted into Harvard University in 2000.  I was a bit dismayed with the postscript of the movie, which shows that Liz was only at Harvard for 1 year before she left to go out on the lecture circuit and make money.  What I did not realize, until I looked for further information, is that Liz moved to take care of her father and attended Columbia University until her father passed away in 2006.  Then Liz returned to Harvard and graduated in 2009.  So, Liz was a slow student, but she did achieve her degree from Harvard in the end!  I was relieved to hear this and wish that they would update the postscript to the movie with this new information as it makes Liz much more inspiring, in my opinion.

Considering that this movie has to rely on a couple of young actresses to carry the entire story, I was pretty impressed with this made-for-TV movie.  Jennifer Pisana plays a young Liz, who desperately tries to hold onto her family.  The first part of the movie is truly horrifying to someone who was raised in normal, suburban conditions.  Liz did not know that her scalp and crotch were itching because she never bathed.  She did not know enough to take care of her clothing by washing it or to keep the apartment relatively clean.  The entire family lived in filth, rarely paid any bills or rent, and did not make any attempt to get their girls to attend school.  Jennifer Pisana plays the part matter-of-factly, not asking for sympathy, but just stating their circumstances as the only kind of life she has ever known.  Thora Birch steps in after Thora Birch in Homeless to Harvardthe first 20 minutes or so and she also does a fine job portraying a rebellious, frightened, desperate girl who hopes for something better, but doesn’t really believe that it is out there for her.  She has some of the touching scenes as Liz changes her life for the better and actively pursues her education as a way to escape her current life.  Some of her lines are just heartwrenching.  Liz is attending a public school while she is in a group home and her teacher insists on calling her Elizabeth.  Liz just as adamantly insists on being called Liz because “My mom calls me Elizabeth when she is going insane,” and she means it.  After her mother dies, Liz proves that she is older than her years when she proclaims “Sometimes I feel like there is skin upon the world. And those of us who are born under it, can see through it. We just can’t get through it.”  But one of my favorite lines, and I cannot remember the exact phrasing, is when Liz is talking to the scholarship committee and sharing her childhood with them, then states that Liz never forgot that her mother loved her, even though her mother may have forgotten that she loved Liz.  Both actresses did a fine job and kept the spirit, heart and soul of the movie alive.

There is not as much action in this film as you would think.  They presented the film in a very tasteful manner and did not dwell overly long on the squalor, the stench or the hopelessness of Liz’s situation.  Her background is presented, portrayed and then they move on.  The director knew his audience and targeted them perfectly.  As this movie was made and aired on Lifetime, the audience would be middle-aged, middle-class women who want to know the conditions so they can help, but not dwell overly long there.  Instead of showing you all of the aspects of the story, the movie relies heavily on Liz’s voiceovers to carry the narrative thread through.  This was actually a nice way to present the information and I felt that I was really listening to Liz and what she was thinking and going through at the time.  I am not sure how much input the real Liz Murray had in the script or the shooting of the film, but I hope that they captured her personality as I felt that this was a very personal, unique story.

The film is beautifully shot and has a nice, even pace to it.  The story really did not need a lot of garnishing to make it exciting and so they did not add much to it (aside from a few sensational moments that may or may not be true).  The story in and of itself is so implausible that it sounds like there is no way it could be true!  I did not dream of going to Harvard and I Liz at Harvardfeel like I had the grades for it, but it is so expensive that I never would have considered it!  I would be interested in seeing a follow-up to this movie or in getting a glimpse of how Liz dealt with Harvard.  Did she feel even more of an outsider than she did in a normal public school?  Or did she luck out and get some great roommates to kind of help her through?  I can guarantee you that Liz had little, if nothing, in common with most Harvard students.  When Liz and her classmates visited Harvard, all I could think of was Legally Blonde and how far apart these two characters were!  If you are looking for a moving, meaningful movie that is based on a true story, this is a great one for you to watch and enjoy with people of all ages.  It is unfortunate that this DVD is not widely available as I think it would be a terrific movie to watch in a class and then discuss the importance of education or the impact of your birthplace on your life.  Still, it is on TV quite often so keep your eye on the Lifetime schedule and you should see it come up sooner or later (and I found the entire movie on YouTube – the first part is show above).  I feel that this movie is worth watching and is really well made for a made-for-TV movie so keep your eyes out for it if you enjoy this type of film as much as I do!

Content:

This movies shows scenes of drug use, drug abuse, physical and mental illness and extreme poverty.  Liz’s character eats of trashcans, goes weeks without bathing and witnesses some horrific bullying at the group home.  Many of the characters are homeless, poor and in wretched circumstances.  There is some mild language and scenes of drinking and smoking.  Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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Justice for Natalee Holloway (2011) Movie Review

Justice for Natalie Holloway (2011)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

Justice for Natalee Holloway

Starring: Tracy Pollan, Scott Cohen, Stephen Amell, Amy Gumenick, Michael Beach
Director: Stephen Kay
Release Date: 9 May 2011
Language: English
Length: 100 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Synopsis:

Recent high-school graduation, Natalee Holloway (Amy Gumenick) goes on a class vacation to Aruba and is never seen again.  Joran Van Der Sloot (Stephen Amell) is one of the last men to see Natalee alive, but the police have no evidence to prosecute.  The case goes cold and the police close the file, but  Natalee’s distraught mother, Beth (Tracy Pollan), dedicates her life to discovering what happened to her daughter.  As Beth follows up every lead, hounds police to reopen the case, and confronts the Van Der Sloot family, she loses her job, her marriage and herself in her obsession for the truth.

Review:

This is a made-for-TV movie based on the true story of Natalee Holloway.  I thought that the story was pretty fantastical so I looked it up online and was surprised to see that the major facts of the case are true.  Joran Van Der Sloot lied to Beth Holloway, prosecutors and reporters several times about what happened to Natalee.  He claimed that he knew nothing about her disappearance; he claimed her death was an accident and his father helped him hide the body; he claimed that he sold her into sexual slavery in South America.  All of these statements are recorded in the official story, but were discounted due to drug use, make believe and misleading lies.  In the end, the police never were able to discover what happened to Natalee and the case remains open to this day.  This portion of the story, in and of itself, would have been weird enough, but the case took an even more bizarre twist when Joran fled to South America to avoid being arrested on extortion charges.  In Peru, he met a beautiful girl, Stephany (Tiffany Lonsdale), whom he murdered in his hotel room.  Joran was finally picked up and, as of the airing of this movie, he is still awaiting trial in South America, where he is being charged with Stephany’s murder.  No charges have been made in regards to Natalee’s death and her family still does not know the truth surrounding her disappearance, if she is dead or alive, or where her body could be found.

This story is so amazing that it is hard to believe it is true!  I am sure that Lifetime embellished portions of the storyline to make the movie a bit more sensational, but the bare bones of the story are based on real-life events, which is quite impressive.  The other notable achievement in this movie is the casting of actors and actresses who look remarkably like their real counterparts.  Tracy Pollan, as Beth Holloway, looks very similar to the real-life thing.  She was not what you would call a great actress (she has a difficult time delivering some of the more stilted dialogue in a believable fashion), but she was believable in her role as a distraught mother and I really felt her desperation.  She was willing to do anything, pay anything, talk to anyone to find out what happened to her daughter.  Her husband divorced Beth and moved on with his life.  Beth’s son, Matt (Cameron Deane Stewart) tried to support his mom and to understand what she was going through, but it must have been incredibly difficult for both of them to watch her life fall apart after their daughter/sister vanished.  Stephen Amell as Joran Van Der Sloot really stole the show here, though.  He was all things slimy, creepy and frightening.  I truly believed that he was a sociopath and had no emotions and no way of relating to other people.  Every time he was on screen, my attention was drawn to him and I could not look away.  If you need to caution your children and teenagers about going out with strangers or trusting people you do not know, look no further than this case.   On par with the villains in Taken, this is a cautionary tale for parents and anyone traveling alone.

I really respect the real Beth Holloway for using her daughter’s disappearance for something positive.  She travels the country, talking to students and other groups about how to travel safely.  I travel alone a lot and this movie got me thinking about some of the reckless things I have done while I am out and about.  I always leave an itinerary and copies of all of my travel documents, but this movie shows that this is not enough.  After watching Taken, I was able to brush off my fears as I rationalized that I am too old to worry about being kidnapped for the sex trade.  Watching Justice for Natalie Holloway has changed my mind, however.  You may think that you are meeting some friendly natives or fellow tourists and enjoy spending time with them, but you never know when they can turn on you.  And how sad is it that you cannot strike up friendships while you travel?  I do not feel that I could do this now and will need to make an effort to travel with a friend or to go on vacation in organized groups, which is really quite fun when it comes down to it.  This movie was completely absorbing and I found my mind wandering quite a bit, but, in the end, the message came through and I hope that all women take the warning to heart.

The movie was filmed in an interesting way and I am not sure that I liked it.  They used a lot of split screen footage to show you what was going on with Van Der Sloot and Holloway at the same time.  This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was unexpected and different.  It was an efficient way of showing reactions to news, however, so I got used to it and went along with it.  The feel of the movie is a bit slow and ploddy, but I believe that Beth Holloway advised the director and participants while they were filming so I am sure she felt strongly about certain facts being included in the film.  I did not realize it until after I watched the movie, but Beth Holloway is the host of a new Lifetime series called Vanished, which reminded me quite a bit of America’s Most Wanted.  She features two different people/families who have vanished in each episode, complete with hotline and website where you can send in information regarding the missing.   In the end, Beth probably will never know what happened to her daughter.  I hope that she has found a way to come to terms with this and to find some kind of peace in knowing that Van Der Sloot is in jail right now and that he cannot harm any other young women.  This is one of the better Lifetime movies that I have seen and, if you are interested in the Natalee Holloway case, I think that you will enjoy it and be as shocked as I was as the story unfolds.

Content:

This movie contains scenes of violence and murder.  There are scenes discussing prostitution, stripping, and women being sold into sexual slavery.  There are scenes of partial female nudity, suggestive dancing and movements, drinking, drugs and smoking.  There is some violence, including threats with guns and knives.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

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Invincible (2006) Movie Review

Invincible (2006)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

 

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Conway, Michael Rispoli
Director: Ericson Core
Release Date: 25 August 2006
Language: English
Length: 105 minutes
Movie Rating: PG
View Format: TV
My Rating: image_thumb84_thumb1

Synopsis:

“Devoted Philadelphia Eagles fan Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) has just lost his wife and his job as a substitute teacher. But by impressing his favorite NFL team’s coach in open tryouts and winning a place on the field, he turns a terrible year into a winner. Greg Kinnear and Elizabeth Banks co-star in this inspirational, fact-based drama from the producers of the similar but baseball-themed The Rookie.” — Netflix.com

Review:

I am a sucker for inspiring sports dramas and this one definitely fits the bill!  What guy doesn’t dream about being selected to play a professional football team?  That is what happens to Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a part-time bartender who is at a real low point in his life.  His wife walked out on him, he lost his teaching job and his dad tells him that it would be best if he didn’t try out for the Eagles team because he doesn’t have a chance.  Papale does try out for the team and, surprisingly, he makes it!  What he doesn’t know is that making the team is the easy part!  Now he has to somehow get along with a bunch of pro players or resent the newbie in their midst and see him as nothing more than a publicity stunt.  As Papale struggles to fit in to pro ball, he realizes that family, friends and his city are just as important as sports and becomes a real inspiration to everyone around him.

I love that this movie is based on a true story and that there are some clips at the end of the real Papale.  You get to see his touchdown in vintage video, some pictures of what he really looked like, and read a couple of paragraphs about what Papale really did and what he went on to achieve.  Watching movies like this, about real people, always inspires me and helps me to realize that the only thing keeping me from reaching out to fulfill my dreams is myself.  I am always afraid to fail so I don’t even try.  It is true that I probably will fail before I succeed, but I am guaranteed to fail if I don’t even try.  That is one of the most important messages in this movie – to put yourself out there and to try to become what you want to be.  I also loved the message given my Papale’s father about how one famous touchdown got him through 30+ years of work at the factory.  I think it is very easy for professional athletes to forget that they can inspire a city, a state or a stalwart group of loyal fans.  To them, it is just another job, but, to their fans, it is one of the highlights of life.  I am not a huge sports fan myself, but watching movies like this one make me want to be one.

The setting is in the 1970s and they tried to make the people look authentic so there are some great clothes and hairstyles.  They really did try to tone it down a bit, though, so it doesn’t look quite as dated as you may think.  The music was terrific and is appropriate for the period.  I enjoyed hearing some old favorites of mine and thought that they did a great job selecting music to fit the scenes.  The acting was believable and I enjoyed meeting a lot of the secondary characters.  Some of Papale’s friends are a real hoot!  Some of the football games look almost like video games and you can tell that there is quite a bit of CGI used to make them look “real.”  Still, the football games are very inspiring and I was on the edge of my seat, cheering as Papale went on to help his team win a few games.  If you are looking for a good, inspiring sports drama that is based on a real story, this is one that should make your list!

Content:

There are some scenes of smoking and drinking (Papale works in a bar so there is a lot of drinking).  There is some strong language.  There is quite a bit of violence on the football field, but few fights off the field.  There is a mild romance with kisses and flirtation.  The town is struggling at the time so there is a lot of unemployment, which leads to strikes, picketing and some political talk.  Recommended for ages 8 and up.

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Pride of the Marines (1945) Review

Pride of the Marines (1945)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

pride of the marines

Starring: John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Dane Clark, John Ridgely, Rosemary DeCamp
Director: Delmer Daves
Release Date: 24 August 1945
Language: English
Length: 119 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Synopsis:

Al Schmid (John Garfield) is your typical happy-go-lucky bachelor who is determined to steer clear of marriage.  He is doing pretty good, too, until he meets Ruth Hartley (Eleanor Parker).  He is incredibly rude to her when they first meet and has to spend quite a bit of time persuading her to give him a chance and he soon finds himself falling head over heels in love with her.  Al doesn’t really realize he is in love with her until he joins the Marine Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  He feels guilty asking Ruth to wait for him, but he finds himself proposing at the train station as he heads off to war.  Al is a scrappy fighter and does his best to stay tough and protect his fellow soldiers.  He finds himself in a foxhole manning a machine gun against 100s of Japanese who know the territory much better than he does.  A lucky shot with a grenade costs him his eyesight and he is shipped back to San Diego, CA to rehabilitate.  He fights learning how to become an independent blind man and cannot bring himself to be truthful with Ruth as he believes surgery will save his eyesight.  But when all hope fails, will Al learn that those who love him will love him despite his disability?

Review:

This was a real tearjerker movie and you definitely felt it tugging at your heart strings.  Knowing that this movie is based on a true story – the writer read an article in Life magazine about Al Schmid and was inspired to write the screenplay – makes it all the more touching.  It took me a while to warm up to Al (John Garfield) as he is your typical cocky, brash young man who thinks he is some special gift to women at the beginning, but I kind of grew to like the guy.  He was pretty rough around the edges when he was first dating Ruth (Eleanor Parker) and he had some down times in the hospital when he didn’t want to go on, but it was good to be there from the beginning and to see how he changed throughout his experiences.  Al ended up being awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in battle and became a hero in his hometown.

However, it wasn’t really the beginning of the movie where Al fell in love or the harrowing 20-minute foxhole fight sequence overseas that held my attention.  It was the aftermath, the homecoming that really touched my heart.  When Al learns that he is going to receive the Navy Cross, he is bitter and makes a comment about how a hunk of medal was poor payment for two eyes.  He is in the hospital with a group of wounded, some of them men he served with, all of whom are worrying about how they will recover and what kind of welcome there will be in their “normal” lives.  What are they going to do for work and will their families still be the same?  Full of rage and bitterness at his own perceives lack of abilities, Al refuses to face reality and determines to hide away from his beloved Ruth and their friends and retreat to Chicago rather than face their pity.  It was heartening to see how Ruth was determined to get through to Al and to be there at his side as he learned to come to grips with his disability, even though Al was determined to go it alone.

I thought this was an inspiring movie about a true hero who did not face his most difficult battles on the battlefield, but in his own mind at home.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to leave to go to war whole and come back a shadow of your former self.  What a great sacrifice these men make to go and protect our country and not only die for freedom, but live for it as well.  This movie is well-acted and thoughtfully presented.  It is an old black-and-white classic that I had not seen before, but I enjoyed watching it and, more than enjoyed it, found it thought provoking.  While The Best Years of Our Lives is more gripping and covers a broader spectrum of veteran life after the soldiers come home, this movie is a heartwarming story of the triumph of an individual soldier in learning to deal with his disabilities and finding the strength to continue on.

Content:

This movie contains some battle scenes including gunshots, dead bodies and serious injuries.  There are some scenes of drinking and smoking.  Recommended for ages 8 and up.

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Sergeant York (1941) Movie Review

Sergeant York (1941)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

 

Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges
Director: Howard Hawks
Release Date: 27 September 1941
Language: English
Length: 134 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis:

“In a career-defining performance that earned him his first Academy Award, Gary Cooper stars as Alvin York, a poor Appalachian pacifist drafted into World War I. Placed in an impossible position, York single-handedly captures an entire enemy platoon and becomes a national hero. This World War II-era Hollywood classic based on the real-life war hero received 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for director Howard Hawks. ” — Netflix.com

Review:

This is a well-made, interesting look at one of the great World War I heroes, Sergeant Alvin York (Gary Cooper).  The first hour or so of the movie is spent on York’s life in America before he joined the army.  He grew up in the backwoods of Tennessee and was a hard-drinking, hardworking rabblerouser until he became converted to Christianity and turned his life around.  This part of the movie did not capture my interest at first, but, after a bit, I got into the rhythm and the pacing of the movie and found myself curious to see what was going to happen in his life that changed him so much.  York had a few bad breaks in his life, but then a few miracles happened that made him believe that God really was looking out for him and cared about him personally.  I did not realize that this movie would have so much to do with religion and was pleasantly surprised that York was a devout believer in God and tried very hard to follow his teachings in his life from there on.

York did not want to join the military and tried to get out of serving by listing himself as a conscientious objector, but he ended up drafted anyway.  Due to the help of his superior officer (Stanley Ridges), he came to understand that the Bible not only taught about peace, but about defending their families and the land around them.  Then York determined to serve in the best way he could and ended up capturing 100s of German soldiers singlehandedly.  When he came back to the states, he had no idea why people counted him as a hero and was actually a little embarrassed that he had to kill 20 men to save the lives of 100s or 1000s of Allied soldiers.  He was still the same modest, God-fearing man, however, and refused to become a celebrity or cash in on his situation by becoming something he was not.  The battle sequences that York participated in did not take up much time in the movie, but it was almost like watching a fairy tale to see what he was able to accomplish, it was really that unbelievable!  They spent a nice length of time on the aftermath and I enjoyed this quite a bit.  It was refreshing to see that York did not let the circumstances around him change him and that he kept his needs simple and his wants small.

All in all, I thought this was a very good movie to watch on Memorial Day as it reminded me of the sacrifices so many men made to serve in the war – even when they did not wholeheartedly believe that it was the right thing to do.  The acting is very good in this movie and Gary Cooper offers a tour-de-force performance that really stands out.  He is definitely the star of the film, even with his gentle demeanor and aw-shucks attitude.  I am not sure how similar he is to the real Sergeant York, but this movie is based on his diary entries so hopefully he was able to pick up on his mannerisms and get the character right, as well.  The other actors perform admirably in this black-and-white classic and there is a lot to recommend this movie.   I will warn you that this film is quite a bit slower paced than what we are used to seeing today, but this is not a bad thing and really suits the feel and attitude of the subject matter.  Definitely worth your time to watch if you are a classic movie fan or enjoy old war movies.

Content:

This movie is about World War I so it does show some battle sequences and some death.  There is also quite a bit of information about God, Christianity and the Bible. The Tennessee people are shown drinking, shooting, fighting and more, but the violence is pretty mild.  There are some scenes that show York being teased for his lack of education and ignorance, but not in a really mean way.  Appropriate for viewers of all ages, recommended for ages 8 and up.

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The Perils of Pauline (1947) Movie Review

The Perils of Pauline (1947)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

 

Starring: Betty Hutton, John Lund, Billy De Wolfe, William Demarest, Constance Collier
Director: George Marshall
Release Date: 4 July 1947
Language: English
Length: 96 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Synopsis:

“This tuneful comedy is based loosely on the life of irrepressible silent-movie star Pearl White (played to the hilt by Betty Hutton). The film follows White from her humble beginnings as a frustrated sweatshop worker to her days on the road with a repertory company to her worldwide fame as queen of the serials. William Demarest co-stars as stentorian director George “Mac” McGuire, and John Lund portrays Mike Farrington, White’s love interest.” — Netflix.com

Review:

This is a funny, lighthearted movie about the actress who played Pauline in the old black-and-white silent films.  Betty Hutton plays the role of Pearl White who starts out on the stage and ends up in farcical roles in Hollywood movies.  She jumps into the movie with zest and humor and makes the most of her role.  John Lund plays her love interest, Michael Farrington, a rather snooty actor who believes that the stage is the only appropriate place to act.  He struggles with loving a woman who is more successful than he is and accepting her help in furthering his career.  Timmy Timmons (Billy De Wolfe) was by far my favorite character in the film.  He follows the 2 lead actors around and kind of does whatever they are doing.  When they are both on stage, he is acting live on stage as well and gets forced into whatever roles no one else wants.  When Pearl gets her big break and is cast as Pauline, he is cast as the villain in the movies.  He has this thin little mustache and is hilarious as he tries to explain the difference between gnashing his teeth and chewing to the director, among other memorable moments.  Constance Collier plays Julia Gibbs, Pearl’s’s mentor, as she struggles to make her way as an actress.  She really believes in her and is willing to put up with a lot to stay her friend.  She also delights in bashing people on the head whenever they threaten her dear friend’s safety.

The story is pretty fast paced and has many clever moments, but isn’t anything special.  It is supposedly based on the life of Pearl White, but I do not know how accurate any of the story is.  There are a few musical numbers, which I really enjoyed, but there are not very many of them, which was too bad as I would have enjoyed seeing more of them.  Still, this is an enjoyable little movie if you are looking for something about Hollywood when it is very first beginning.  For younger viewers who have never been introduced to silent films, they will not really understand what is going on, but for older viewers, this will be a lot of fun to watch and laugh at.  Just remember – the audience can’t hear anything you are saying so you have to “talk” with your hands!  Great fun!

Content:

This movie contains some verbal arguments, a few scenes of smoking & drinking and passionate on-stage kisses (all closed mouthed, of course).  Appropriate for viewers of all ages, recommended for ages 8 and up.

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Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) Movie Review

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

 

Starring: Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon, David Brian, Jesse White
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Release Date: 4 December 1952
Language: English
Length: 115 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: DVD
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Synopsis:

“A strong swimmer who longs to dance ballet, Annette Kellerman (Esther Williams) moves with her father (Walter Pidgeon) from Australia to England. After running into financial trouble, she reluctantly works with two showbiz promoters who lead her to fame, fortune, romance and scandal. Featuring beautiful water ballet sequences choreographed by Busby Berkeley, this classic biopic received an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.” — Netflix.com

Review:

I remember watching this movie on TV when I was a kid, but I did not remember the whole middle section of the movie at all.  I remembered the beginning and the end, but I did not remember the part about fighting for women to be able to wear one-piece bathing suits like the men.  It is always interesting to watch period pieces, especially as a woman, as you realize that, along with the beautiful costumes, dresses & hats that these women got to wear, they also did not get to wear a lot of things.  Can you imagine swimming in a corset and 10 yards of fabric?!  I mean, seriously.  The fact that Annette Kellerman was trying to be a competitive swimmer, but was expected to wear a traditional bathing costume of the time was just inconceivable to me.  This movie shows that women really have come such a long way since this time period and I think it is good to be reminded of the great freedoms that we now enjoy.  It is true that we also lost quite a bit, as men don’t treat women the same way and I think that some women go to far with the whole skin-baring thing, but we have also gained so much.

Anyway, this movie feels a bit long and I did not care for the love triangle, but there is a lot to enjoy here.  The characters are definitely larger than life and have so many unique adventures!  To go from swimming in Australia to swimming up the River Thames to a sideshow act in a carnival to hitting the big time at the Hippodrome to starring in a Hollywood movie is just inconceivable.  This world was so alien to me as I did not live during this time periods so I was quite fascinated to see where the story was going to go next.  The spectacular water ballets that I remembered from so long ago are all at the end of the movie when Annette Kellerman becomes a famous performer.  It is too bad that there was really no good way to incorporate some of these into the beginning & middle of the movie as they were the best part of the film, in my opinion.  The music is all orchestral and so there are no song-and-dance numbers, but there were a few spectacular moments of the ballet, especially at the Hippodrome where Maria Tallchief played Pavlova.

The acting was pretty good.  I don’t know how closely they related to the characters in real life, but I felt like they rang true.  I must confess that I would have married the other guy if I was Annette (Esther Williams), though, as the guy she chose, brash promoter James Sullivan (Victor Mature), was just not that appealing to me.  That is one thing that I get frustrated with in the old classic movies.  Why is there always a really nice guy who falls in love with the girl, but cannot ever have her?  Instead, the girls always choose the cocky jerk who did something to hurt her feelings so they break up temporarily, blah, blah, blah.  Whatever.  Don’t go around leading guys on and accepting engagements if you aren’t going to follow through.

So, anyway, this movie is interesting and fairly unique as it is loosely based on a true story.  Most of Annette Kellerman’s life is totally foreign to us today and we really don’t have anything to compare it to so it is good just to watch it and remember the bygone days.  There are also some good moral messages contained in between the entertainment so it would be a fun movie to catch on TCM or to rent if you enjoy the old classic movies.

Content:

This movie shows a few scenes of smoking and drinking, but is really very clean.  The “scandalous” bathing suits of the day are super modest and do not show anything inappropriate.  Appropriate for viewers of all ages, but recommended for ages 8 and up as I think they will understand the story best.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Movie Review

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Movie Review by Debbie Winkler

 

Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning
Director: Michael Curtiz
Release Date: 6 June 1942
Language: English
Length: 126 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: DVD
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis:

James Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar for his lively portrayal of “Mr. Broadway,” George M. Cohan, in this lavish screen biography that highlights Cagney in some of his finest song-and-dance routines. Cohan, a playwright, entertainer, composer and patriot, made his mark on the vaudeville stage and penned countless memorable tunes, including “Over There,” “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and the film’s rousing title number.” — Netflix.com

Review:

I grew up watching this movie when I was a kid and have always enjoyed it.  This is the first time that I watched the black and white version (they always show the colorized version on TV) and I enjoyed it just as much.  The song-and-dance routines in this movie are amazing!  James Cagney moves like he doesn’t have a bone in his body and is just stunning in his dance routines.  The music is also wonderful and there is a lot of it!  I was astonished to learn that Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and so many more!  I have heard these songs all my life and just assumed that they were pretty old and had been around for centuries.  If you enjoy musicals and haven’t seen this one yet, then you are in for a treat!

I am not sure how much of this movie is based on the true life of George M. Cohan, but I am hoping that he was a more likeable guy than this movie shows.  I never realized what a jerk Cohan is in this movie!  He has such an abrasive personality that he is literally standing in the way of his own career.  Sure, he was tremendously talented and could do things with music that no one else really dreamed of, but that doesn’t mean you have to be act like this.  I don’t know, maybe all really talented people are like this and they don’t usually show it, but it is a big turn off to watch this movie now that I am older and realize how Cohan treated people in this movie.

Still, this is an old-fashioned classic that is chock full of vaudeville performances, Broadway shows and the larger-than-life tale of a musical legend.  Cohan (James Cagney) tells his story as a series of flashbacks to the President of the United States (I believe he is “talking” to FDR) and so he is the one narrating and editing the story of his life.  Not only does this movie tell the tale of a great composer and performer, but it also shows what the US was like during some life-changing eras including Western expansion, the death of vaudeville, and 2 World Wars.  So this movie is entertaining, interesting and educational all at the same time!  If you like musicals or old black-and-white movies, then I think you will have a fun time watching this one.

Content:

This movie contains some drinking and cigar smoking.  George M. Cohan is a cocky jerk, but the movie is clean.  Recommended for viewers of all ages.

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