Wednesday, August 30, 2017

An Often Overlooked Crime Thriller

"Well, Cinderella, I was beginning to think you'd never come for your shoe."

Mal Reese (John Vernon)

1967 was a rough year for crime films.

Any crime film that was in the theaters in the same year as "Bonnie and Clyde" almost had to take a backseat.

There were lots of other crime films that year — both fiction (most notably "Cool Hand Luke" although there was also "Wait Until Dark") and nonfiction (i.e., "In Cold Blood") stories — that are remembered by film buffs today, but "Bonnie and Clyde" really sucked up most of the oxygen in the room at the time and continues to demand a lot of the attention.

Consequently, a pretty good crime film like "Point Blank," which made its debut on this day in 1967, was forgotten practically from the start. It was far from a box–office smash, and today it is a hidden gem that you will seldom find shown on television. If you want to watch it, you may have to buy the DVD.

Which may not be such a bad idea. The movie was declared "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and chosen for preservation in its National Film Registry last year. My guess would be that was the first time that many people ever heard of it.

It got good reviews when it was released half a century ago and deservedly so. But "Bonnie and Clyde" (which was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992) had been in theaters only a couple of weeks when "Point Blank" premiered so it was all but ignored by the moviegoing public.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

If you ever saw "Animal House," you must remember John Vernon. He played Dean Wormer.

But more than a decade earlier, Vernon played a character who teamed up with Lee Marvin in "Point Blank" to steal a lot of money from a courier for a gambling operation — then he double–crossed Marvin, shooting him and leaving him to die. He took the money and Marvin's wife with him.

But Marvin didn't die, and he recovered with the help of a perplexing character played by Keenan Wynn. A few years after being shot he popped up to take revenge, aided by his sister–in–law (Angie Dickinson), and get his money (an objective he mentioned several times). Carroll O'Connor had a supporting role in the years before he found fame as TV's Archie Bunker.

Part of his revenge involved killing Vernon's character in a particularly brutal way.

I guess the moral of that story is — if you're going to kill people, don't wound them and then leave, assuming they will die. Finish the job. Don't leave the ultimate witness still breathing.

If you do, in keeping with Murphy's law, they will survive, and, at the very least, they will identify you.

At the very worst, well, they will do something like what Marvin's character did. As I say, it wasn't pretty.

But I suppose it is true what they say — No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of criminals.

Even in the movies.

That brings me to one more point.

Film critic Roger Ebert had a few questions of his own, most of which seemed to deal with plot logic. But, in the mostly make believe world of the movies, it is not wise to expect too much logic.

Still, if you like suspense thrillers, "Point Blank" is pretty good. As I say, it was ignored at the time — but it has come to be regarded as one of the best of its kind in the '60s.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rewriting a Wrong

"How old do you have to be before you know the difference between right and wrong? Do you have to be 18 before you can own up to a lie?"

Robbie (James McAvoy)

Sometimes people pay for mistakes all their lives — and sometimes people pay for mistakes with their lives.

"Atonement," which premiered on this day in 2007, was about both.

It was a rather complex plot, centering around Saoirse Ronan, who played a precocious 13–year–old aspiring writer from an upper–crust British family in the years before the outbreak of World War II. As the movie began, she had just finished writing a play and planned to put on something of a backyard production of the play starring her visiting cousins.

Mind you, when I say backyard, her family had quite a backyard. You could accommodate a sizable stage and a considerable audience there.

Briony (Ronan's character's name) was, as people that age so often are, given to flights of fancy.

She also had a bit of a schoolgirl crush on the son of the family's housekeeper (James McAvoy), who was bound for Cambridge thanks to his mother's employer. But Robbie was attracted to Briony's older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley).

And one day Briony observed interaction between Robbie and Cecilia — from afar. Cecilia stripped to her underclothes, then plunged into a fountain pond, then re–emerged a short time later, all while Robbie watched. The audience later learned that it had been an entirely innocent act that, having been misinterpreted, went on to form the nucleus of other false assumptions and accusations that ultimately sent Robbie to prison.

Four years later Robbie was serving in World War II, having agreed to serve in the military in exchange for his release from prison. An older and somewhat wiser Briony was regretting what she had said and sought the forgiveness of her sister, discovering that she and Robbie had reunited and Robbie was on leave from the war.

They had a confrontation, and Briony agreed to have her testimony changed and the official record altered. But there was a problem. One of the cousins who had been visiting the house that summer had been sexually assaulted by a man she had not seen. Briony had initially claimed it was Robbie, having seen the episode by the fountain and read an explicit note Robbie had written while working on drafts of apologies to Cecilia for his behavior, but the assailant turned out to be a friend of Briony's brother. She had realized that when she saw the cousin marrying this man — which meant that she could not be used as a supporting witness for Briony's revised account of events.

And if Briony went to the authorities to change her story, she would be regarded as an unreliable witness. Robbie's name could not be cleared in the public record.

But then the audience was thrown a curve.

And, with the noteworthy exceptions of the finales of "The Sixth Sense" or "Psycho," it just might be the best twist ending I have ever seen.

Briony, now in her 70s (played by Vanessa Redgrave), was being interviewed on TV. Apparently she had grown into a professional writer and was speaking about her latest book. It would also be her final book, she told the interviewer, because she was dying of vascular dementia, "which is essentially a continuous series of tiny strokes. Your brain gradually closes down. You lose words, you lose your memory: which, for a writer, is pretty much the point. That's why I could finally write this book; and why, of course, it's my last novel. Strangely enough, it would be just as accurate to call it my first novel. I wrote several drafts as far back as my time at St. Thomas's Hospital during the war. I just couldn't ever find the way to do it."

Briony explained that Robbie and Cecilia never reconciled. Robbie had died of an infection at Dunkirk and Cecilia died a few months later during an air raid.

Briony, who apparently never changed her hairstyle in the 60–plus years covered in the movie, had written the book — including that confrontation that never happened — to give them the happy ending they were deprived in life.

It was an interesting twist on the traditional coming–of–age movies I have seen. The problem with coming–of–age movies is that too many of them treat that time of life as a magical mystery tour that sometimes features lapses in judgment. This story spanned a lifetime and addressed the kind of real mistakes that the young often make — and sometimes must live with for the rest of their lives.

And it contained a touch that, as a writer, I can appreciate.

It used the staccato pounding of typewriter keys as part of the score — largely because of Briony's determined development as a writer but also Robbie's hesitant typing of the drafts of his apology to Cecilia.

It was a very effective touch and probably deserved a special Academy Award nomination.

As it was, though, "Atonement" received seven Oscar nominations — and won for Best Original Score so I suppose it was rewarded for that.

Ronan received the movie's only acting nomination but lost Best Supporting Actress to Tilda Swinton.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Something of a Nowhere Man

"If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian."

Paul McCartney

When one thinks of any of the greatest people in any walk of life, it can seem — in hindsight — that they had a sort of historical inevitability. But such people seldom, if ever, achieve their success with no help from anyone.

Sadly, many of the people who are most responsible for others' successes are not recognized for what they accomplished.

It's hard to imagine, for example, where the Beatles would have been without Brian Epstein, who never performed with the Beatles and was probably largely unknown, even by the Beatles' fans at the height of Beatlemania.

They might well have reached the heights they reached, anyway. But it almost certainly would have taken longer to get there — much longer — if he hadn't been around to manage them. And there are those who believe that if the Beatles' implosion as a band was inevitable, it was hastened by Epstein's absence.

In the early '60s it was Epstein's faith in the Beatles and what he believed they could be that led to a contract with producer George Martin in May 1962 — and the hits started coming in bunches. "Please Please Me." "Love Me Do." "P.S. I Love You."

And that was just in 1962. There were many more hit songs to come.

And many hit albums, too, including "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," arguably the greatest album ever recorded. It had been in music stores only three months when Epstein was found dead in his bedroom in London on this day in 1967.

There is a pretty good case to be made that Epstein left enormous footprints on the world's cultural landscape. He first saw the Beatles at the now–legendary Cavern Club in November 1961 and became their manager shortly thereafter. With his experience in sales and promotions Epstein took the Beatles in hand and made them presentable by the standards of the day, and they became major hits in the U.K.

The time would come when the Beatles would rewrite those standards, but by heeding Epstein's initial counsel of conformity they were able to get their feet in the door. From that point, their success positioned them to have that kind of influence.

It is often said that Ed Sullivan gave the Beatles to the world. But that isn't entirely true. Sullivan gave the Beatles to America, launching the British invasion, which could be seen as the same thing as giving them to the world. Then, as now, America was the ground zero of global communication, and anything that was a hit here was sure to have ripple effects all over the planet.

But the invasion might never have happened if Epstein hadn't taken over as their manager.

And yet today, 50 years after Epstein's accidental death, caused by a combination of alcohol and an overdose of sleeping pills, he is forgotten by most — a real Nowhere Man.

But perhaps not entirely. He finally received a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2014, more than a quarter of a century after the band he discovered was inducted and at least 10 years since each Beatle (with the exception of Ringo Starr) was inducted as an individual performer.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

'Invasion' Proved My Point About Remakes

I have a definite opinion about remakes.

Usually, they aren't improvements on the originals. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Oh, I concede that technical advances in filmmaking have made it possible for a remake to be better than the original. But even in the 21st century, remakes are rarely, if ever, improvements.

I offer, as Exhibit A, "The Invasion," which premiered on this day in 2007.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "The Invasion" was "the fourth, and the least, of the movies made from Jack Finney's classic science fiction novel." I don't feel qualified to agree or disagree with that statement since I haven't seen all three of the previous incarnations. But Ebert's assessment surely affirms my own of remakes.

I also have a definite opinion about Nicole Kidman, the female lead of "The Invasion." I like her. I liked her the first time I can remember seeing her — in "Dead Calm." And I have liked other movies in which she appeared — "To Die For," "The Others" and "Eyes Wide Shut" come to mind. So does "Moulin Rouge," for that matter.

But Kidman has had about as many misses as hits in her career, especially in recent years, and I would put "The Invasion" on that list.

And it isn't necessary to see the other three film versions of the story to reach that conclusion, either.

All four movies do have a few things in common — primarily, the extraterrestrial invasion. The first couple of movies were transparently titled "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The third was named, simply, "Body Snatchers."

(Returning — ever so briefly — to the plausibility angle, Ebert asked, "Do you expect a movie titled 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' to be plausible?" It is a fair question, and my answer, after careful reflection, would be, "Yes. It doesn't have to be completely plausible — which is good since it is hard to imagine how it could be. But there needs to be enough plausibility to allow the viewers to suspend considerable disbelief.")

As I presume it was with each movie version of Finney's novel, "The Invasion" opened with the arrival of alien spores on Earth. In the only version I saw previously (and I have heard it was the same in the other two), these spores took the form of pods that encased their victims. They changed that a bit in "The Invasion" — the spores apparently attached themselves to a space shuttle that crashed following re–entry and scattered its debris from Dallas to Washington (that's a pretty impressive debris field). The debris was contaminated, and anyone who touched it became infected. When the victims fell into deep sleep, the infection seized control of them entirely.

Replacing the pods in "The Invasion" was a kind of film that covered the victim while he/she slept.

No one really seemed to notice what was happening at first. Oh, there were reports in the news of some strange virus in the U.S., and there were more dire reports from abroad. But, like most people, Kidman (a Washington–area psychiatrist in the movie) went about her daily routine, oblivious to what was happening until one of her patients, a victim of domestic abuse (Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the 1978 version of the story), told her, "My husband just isn't my husband anymore."

Now, given the conversations those two were sure to have had in the past, it would be plausible for Kidman not to understand that Cartwright wasn't discussing abusive behavior — but rather the zombie–like behavior of those under the influence of the aliens. Her husband was one of them. The viewers never saw that character when he wasn't under the aliens' influence, but they knew it the first time they saw him sitting in Kidman's waiting room.

He had the look.

If you ever saw "The Stepford Wives," you would recognize the look — flat, dull, emotionless. Bloodless. Soulless. Measured in words and actions.

Kidman's character had to become proficient at the look, pretending to be one of them in order to maneuver around the city without drawing attention. That required her to maintain total outward neutrality no matter what was happening around her.

Absent any real plausibility, "The Invasion" suffered when it asked viewers to accept some pretty preposterous things.

Like, for example, the fact that a medical researcher (played by underrated actor Jeffrey Wright), a colleague of Kidman's love interest (played by Daniel Craig), was able to discern all kinds of information about this previously unknown virus from a single sample — in a couple of days. He was also able to determine how to eradicate the virus. Cancer researchers who watched this movie must have been jealous.

That would have been enough as far as I was concerned, but then there was a scene when Kidman and her young son were trying to get away in a car that was set afire by a Molotov cocktail. After it was struck the car could be seen virtually engulfed in flames, and I am pretty sure the windshield was broken when the vehicle was hit, but the car kept going, even seemed to accelerate, toward the occupants' appointed rendezvous with a helicopter.

I had to wonder how would it be plausible for someone to keep driving with flames all around like that? I mean, I was never any great shakes at science when I was in school, but you don't have to be a physics major to imagine what would happen to someone who tried to keep driving under those conditions.

Sorta like someone trying to continue driving with one flat tire. Common sense tells you it won't end well.

Then there were things that required specific knowledge of how they do things in Washington to comprehend how off the charts the plausibility factor had become.

For example, in Washington the law prohibits any building in the city from being taller than the Capitol — yet the movie clearly showed the helicopter landing on top of a (nonexistent) D.C. skyscraper.

I know how Hollywood loves to run a good thing into the ground, but trust me, this story has been driven deep into the ground. Let's move on to something new, shall we?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Growing Pains and Growing Up

"Not all the obstacles that can trip you up are on this base. Let me tell you something about the local girls. Ever since there's been a base here, there's been what you'd call the Puget Sound Debs. The poor girls come across the sound on the ferry every weekend with just one thing in mind, and that's to marry themselves a naval aviator. A Puget Deb will tell you, 'Don't you worry about contraceptives. I've got that all taken care of.' Don't believe it, sweet pea. A Puget Deb will do anything and say anything to trap you. I know this sounds silly, especially in this so–called modern age, but you scuzzy college pukes should watch out because they're out there, and you, sweet peas, are the answer to their dream!"

Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.)

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote this about "An Officer and a Gentleman," which premiered on this day in 1982:
"'An Officer and a Gentleman' is the best movie about love that I've seen in a long time. Maybe that's because it's not about 'love' as a Hollywood concept, but about love as growth as learning to accept other people for who and what they are."

Perhaps Ebert was right about that. I don't know.

All I know is how I felt about it when I saw it for the first time. I thought it was overly melodramatic. I thought it was probably a pretty accurate portrayal of the behavior of some single women in military base towns — but probably an exaggeration as well.

And loaded with cliches. So how come Ebert said it was "the best movie about love that I've seen in a long time"?

Perhaps I, like the pilot candidates, simply refused to believe a woman could be that conniving. I was young and naïve, and perhaps I was prone to give women the benefits of more doubts than they deserved. (The flip side of that is that there are guys who give women the benefits of too few doubts.)

I'm older now, though, and I have had experiences that I hadn't had when I first saw "An Officer and a Gentleman," and I have concluded, in hindsight, that it was better — and probably a lot more accurate — than I originally thought. At the very least, it was entertaining.

And, OK, it was kinda schmaltzy, too. But I suppose that is inevitable when the subject is growing pains and growing up. It is a universal experience, as old as human life. Is there anything new left to say about it — except that, like death, it is a personal experience and different for everyone?

Only the circumstances are different, really — and the times when these profound changes occur. For some it happens in their teens. Others are in their 20s. In rare cases, it is later.

At this point, I guess I am more inclined to give the story the benefit of the doubt. People? Not so much.

(Perhaps, as the announcer in "A League of Their Own" said, "I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.")

Anyway ...

I would say the young men who were the focus of the story — Richard Gere and David Keith — were inclined to put women on a pedestal, which probably made it easier for Puget Sound Debs, as they were called in the movie, to achieve their objective.

That changed.

The change was tragic, brought about by Keith. His character withdrew from the pilot training program, and his girlfriend broke up with him. Still believing it was the real thing, he proposed to her, but she refused. "I don't want to marry you," she told him. "I really like you, and we've had ourselves some really great times, but I thought you understood. I want to marry a pilot. I want to live my life overseas — the wife of an aviator."

Keith's character hanged himself.

But it was the real thing for Gere and his girlfriend, Debra Winger. Things were rocky near the end of the movie, but, ultimately, in a big–screen moment that has been parodied frequently in the intervening years, Gere literally swept Winger off her feet at the factory where she worked and carried her off.

Louis Gossett Jr., in the role of Sgt. Foley, became the first black actor to win Best Supporting Actor. "An Officer and a Gentleman" received five other nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Winger, and won for Best Original Song ("Up Where We Belong").

Thursday, August 10, 2017

John Ford's Irish Anthology

In nearly all of John Ford's movies, there is at least one star with whom the viewer is familiar — John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, for instance, were Ford's friends as well as frequent collaborators.

In other words, you usually knew what you were getting. And with Ford, you usually got a western — but not always.

Take, for example, "The Rising of the Moon," Ford's Irish anthology that made its debut on this day in 1957. (It took its name from Augusta, Lady Gregory's play that was first produced in 1907. That play was the basis for the third story, titled "1921" in the film.) There were no recognizable stars. It was a trilogy of short stories, and nary a one was set in the West. They were all set in Ireland.

Well, it isn't entirely true that there were no known stars in the movie. Tyrone Power served as the movie's narrator, tenuously linking each of the three stories together. Modern students of motion pictures need not rack their brains trying to remember where they might have seen any of the folks in "The Rising of the Moon."

If you are any kind of movie buff, though, you are bound to have seen at least some of them before. Some appeared in successful American movies during their careers but usually in small roles; even audiences of six decades ago would not have recognized the casts in "The Rising of the Moon" unless they had a knowledge of Irish actors.

And most Western moviegoers, then and now, knew little about Irish actors.

Neither did Western audiences know much about Irish history — and it requires a certain amount of knowledge on that topic for the stories about Irish life in the early 20th century to make sense. The viewer needs more than passing exposure to Irish traditions and customs in many cases, but knowledge of Irish history is almost entirely the key to understanding that third vignette, a darker tale that appears to support the Irish Republican Army.

Now, during the 1920s, the IRA was involved in a savage round of ethnic cleansing. In Ford's trilogy, the IRA — the Al Qaeda or ISIS of its day — was given a hero's treatment while its foes, the "Black and Tans," a British paramilitary force during the Irish War for Independence, were treated as villains.

I suppose how one interprets the roles of the groups involved in the War for Independence largely depends upon whether one supports the Protestants or the Catholics. But to choose sides it is necessary to have some knowledge of the history of the conflict.

The other two vignettes didn't rely nearly as much on historical knowledge.

But to understand what was being said it was helpful to have more than a passing knowledge of an Irish brogue.

So even though the movie has a unique charm, most viewers probably wouldn't get much from watching it.

And that really is a shame because, like all John Ford movies, it has a number of rewarding qualities. Since the audience knows few, if any, of the actors, there are no expectations, freeing the audience to revel in some great performances. And the cinematographers should have been recognized, as many of Ford's cinematographers on other projects were, for their work.

But modern movie viewers can appreciate it — if they have an opportunity to see it.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

Ben (Glenn Ford): I mean, I don't go around just shootin' people down. I work quiet, like you.

Dan (Van Heflin): All right, so you're quiet like me. Well, then, shut up like me.

Glenn Ford's character in "3:10 to Yuma," which premiered on this day in 1957, reminds me of some guys I knew in high school.

Now, when I say I knew them, I mean we were acquaintances. We passed each other in the halls. Sometimes we had classes together. But they were never my friends, and I was never theirs.

They were the kind of guys who cut corners, who figure it is easier to take what they want than to put in the effort required to acquire it, whether it is a good grade or money or a car — or the affection of a beautiful (and even not–so–beautiful) girl.

Of course, it is easier. It's always easier to cut corners. It just isn't particularly honest.

Ford was like that in "3:10 to Yuma." He was the leader of a ruthless criminal gang that started to rob a stagecoach of its shipment of gold and wound up gunning down the driver of the stagecoach. After the shooting Ford and his gang went into town posing as cowhands and got drinks at the local saloon. Ford seduced the pretty but lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr), a decision that would cost him his freedom as it gave those who were pursuing him time and opportunity to catch him.

Farr was like many of the girls I knew in high school. She was friendly enough to the males she saw each day, but she had a real weakness for the bad boys, the ones who were usually in trouble. The bad boys didn't stick around long, either. They were usually the love 'em and leave 'em types.

And the bad boys were the smooth talkers. Ford told Farr the kinds of things he knew she wanted to hear.

That made an impression on Farr, who didn't really play an extensive role in the movie. She was there mostly to give the viewers an idea of what kind of man Ford was. Mission accomplished.

"Some men you see every day for 10 years and you never notice," she remarked shortly after she apparently went to bed with Ford (1950s viewers had to make that assumption, given that they never actually saw the couple in bed together but only as they were exiting Farr's quarters). "Some men you see once, and they're with you for the rest of your life."

When they parted, Farr admitted — seemingly ruefully — that Ford would be one of those who remained with her for the rest of her life.

An observation that reeks of insincerity.

Con men are like that. History always remembers the con men, but people don't always remember history.

Some folks see right through the con men. Van Heflin was that kind of character in "3:10 to Yuma." Of course, it helped to have the insight Heflin's character possessed. He had seen how, while robbing a stagecoach, Ford's character had cold–bloodedly gunned down both the stagecoach driver and a member of Ford's own gang who had been seized by the driver and used as a human shield.

And he had seen how Ford manipulated people to get his way.

Heflin was an honest, hard–working pragmatic rancher who never seemed to catch a break. When Ford lingered in town to seduce the barmaid, Heflin and the town drunk took him into custody. Then it fell to Heflin to guard Ford until he could be put on a train to Yuma in Southwest Arizona, where Ford would stand trial.

It was during the hours of waiting for the 3:10 to Yuma — and trying to be ready in case Ford's gang tried to liberate him — that Ford and Heflin engaged in intriguing cat–and–mouse dialogue — just the sort of tactic a con man tends to use.

The audience already knew how Heflin had struggled to make ends meet and how his family had suffered because of it, and Ford tried to use that to his advantage, offering Heflin ever–escalating amounts of money for his freedom. Claimed to have the money in his pocket.

I can only imagine what a fortune that must have been in the 19th century, and Heflin's character was clearly tempted to take Ford's offer. But he resisted temptation, knowing what the money could mean to his family.

And, of course, no one could say whether Ford really had that money. No one ever saw it.

It could have been one more example of a con man doing his thing.

The story was set in the old West, but it could so easily have been set at any time in any genre. It was a tense thriller as much as a western and deserving of the praise it received.

Nevertheless, I had a couple of problems with it.

For one, it was a little spooky to hear Ford whistling the movie's theme song — which undoubtedly had not been written at the time the movie portrayed.

But that was small potatoes. In the end, Ford helped Heflin escape to safety rather than take the easy way out. It meant that Ford would go on to face trial in Yuma. His reason? Heflin had saved Ford's life earlier, and Ford didn't want to be in anyone's debt.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Connecting the Dots

Tracy (Merritt Wever): Is 'douche bag' a curse?

Graham (Mel Gibson): I suppose it would depend on its usage.

Tracy: How about 'John, you're a douche bag for kissing Barbara'?

Graham: It's a curse.

I found "Signs," which premiered on this day in 2002, to be entertaining — even though it came perilously close to violating my plausibility standard for science fiction movies. I suppose credit for that should go mostly to director M. Night Shyamalan, who seems to have a knack for making science fiction films that manage to entertain even nonscience fiction types like myself.

But his films are not created equal. "The Sixth Sense" was a remarkably good film, especially when you consider that it was only Shyamalan's third directorial effort. He's had some pretty good efforts in his career, but none of his succeeding films (at least, none that I have seen) have come close to matching that one.

He was in the ballpark with "Signs," though.

And speaking of ballparks, Joaquin Phoenix, who played Mel Gibson's younger brother, was a former minor–league ballplayer. It is important to know that — but it didn't seem important at first. Kind of like some of the details in "The Sixth Sense."

In the tradition of the great directors of thrillers, Shyamalan gives the viewers all the pieces they need to solve the puzzle — but he lets them assemble the pieces without knowing what the puzzle is ultimately supposed to look like. And then suddenly he reveals the whole picture, and the viewers begin to realize the things they got right — and the things they got wrong.

I like what film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie.

"In a time when Hollywood mistakes volume for action," Ebert wrote, "Shyamalan makes quiet films. In a time when incessant action is a style, he persuades us to pay close attention to the smallest nuances."

The core of this story was the sudden appearance of "crop circles," those geometric designs in fields that pop up in the news from time to time. The more conspiracy theory–minded among us tend to believe that they are created by aliens, but probably most people — and certainly most scientists — even those who fervently wish the existence of aliens could be proven tend to dismiss them as likely hoaxes.

Gibson's character had once been an ordained priest, but he had given it up after his wife's death in a car accident.

That didn't prevent the locals from asking him faith–based questions, though, and he constantly had to tell them that he had no faith.

But then these crop circles appeared in his field, and they began showing up all over the world, too, and other phenomena began to occur, like reports of strange lights over Mexico.

Phoenix and his young niece (Abigail Breslin) and asthmatic nephew (Rory Culkin), who became convinced early that aliens were real and hiding in plain sight, fashioned caps out of tin foil to prevent the aliens from reading their minds. That was one of those "nuances" to which Ebert referred.

And Gibson's character wasn't convinced — initially.

As the movie progressed, though, viewers discovered that the aliens did exist and had been responsible for those crop circles.

And Gibson and his family took all sorts of precautions to keep the aliens from entering their home, but they were unsuccessful.

When they were first seen, the aliens appeared as shadows or reflections on a TV screen. Later on, though, Shyamalan brought them into the light of day.

And it was under such circumstances that Phoenix, who hit a lot of home runs during his minor–league career but also struck out a lot, used his longball–hitting skill to take on the unwelcome guests.

Gibson's loss of faith, while mostly underplayed through the movie, was nevertheless a constant theme and restoring his faith was his character's purpose. In the end, he appeared to have regained his faith as a result of his extremely close encounter.

In fact, the whole family seemed to be doing better.

A happy ending.