The Walking Dead: Compendium One

Written By: Robert Kirkman

Penciler and Inker: Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard

Editor: Sina Grace

Distributed By: Image Comics 

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                My brother has been reading The Walking Dead comic book series since its inception and has been trying to get me to read it for almost as long.  The same can be said for the television series based on the comic book.  It took me a while to come around.  Now that I have taken an extreme liking to the television series, I decided to see how much of a difference there really was between the comic book series and the television adaptation.

                Of course, I had a lot of catching up to do.  After all, this comic book has been out since 2001.  What was a girl to do?  Well, Image Comics came up with a perfect solution – The Walking Dead Compendium, compiling a multitude of comics from the series into one hefty volume.  Thankfully, my brother was more than happy to purchase the first volume for my birthday.  I couldn’t wait to check it out.

                Compiling issues 1-48 and the Holiday Special 2005, the comic book series starts off with Sheriff Rick Grimes, shot and in a coma, waking up in the hospital and finding he is the only living sole inside.  But he is not alone  – the hospital is filled with shuffling, decaying bodies, all seeming to want to get hold of him.  He manages to escape and get to his home, only to find that his wife and son have vacated the area.  Distraught and disoriented, Rick, after a nasty lump to the head, finds himself in the company of Morgan Jones and his son.  Morgan fills him in on the epidemic and the zombies that have been cropping up everywhere.

                And so the story begins, with Rick heading to Atlanta to try to find his family, getting rescued by former pizza delivery boy Glenn, who leads him to his wife Lori and son Carl.  Lori and Carl have been kept safe by Rick’s partner Shane, who was probably hoping he would never see Rick again, considering how close he has become to Lori.  Also in the group is Dale, a retired man who had been traveling in his RV with his wife before the epidemic took her from him; former college student Amy and her law clerk sister Andrea; Carol and her daughter Sophia; former shoe salesman Allen, his wife Donna and their children Ben and Billy and a mechanic named Jim who watched his whole family get slaughtered by zombies.

                The group travels along, gathering supplies, looking for a safer place to wait out the zombie nightmare, losing members along the way to zombies and other nightmares and gaining members who add just a little more zest to their group, including some prisoners locked in the local prison kitchen, a former veterinarian and farmer and his family, a former football player and his family and a sword wielding former lawyer named Michonne.  While they clear out the local prison and try to eke out a safer existence there, they soon learn that there are more dangers than just the flesh eating dead…they discover that the living are actually just as dangerous, if not more.

                As I read The Walking Dead: Compendium One, I noted the similarities between the comic book series and the television series like the names of characters and various locations the survivors find themselves in, but that is basically where the similarities end.  Some of the storylines that take place in the comic actually do take place in the television series, but actually happen to different characters.  Characters that we meet much later in the television series appear much earlier in the comics and vice versa.  Characters that die early in the comics often get a reprieve in the television series…and sometimes not.

                I noticed that the dead are actually called zombies or biters in the comic book and are categorized as either Roamers or Lurkers, depending on their activity (roam the earth searching for food or lay in wait to bite).  They are never called zombies in the television series.  I loved the fact that Rick actually tells his group that they are the Walking Dead, reminding them that once they die, they are destined to turn into a zombie.  Their time on Earth is limited and they are destined to become the very thing they are running from.  What a great moment in the series!

                There are so many “Oh Crap!” moments in this comic book series and I found myself turning to my companion often while reading, yelling, “Oh Crap they just…!”  “Holy @#%%$#$, they just killed so and so!” and “What the hell!  They just cut off this guy’s hand!”  And what Michonne does to the Governor as revenge for the atrocities he performs on her – Whoa!  And what is up with Michonne anyway…I sense a multiple personality in this character…someone more vulnerable than she seems in the television series.

                I love that the comic book series is black and white, leaving much of the gore to the imagination, while still managing to gross us out all the same.  The artwork is pretty good, despite the minor inconsistencies in some of the characters’ appearances.  The storyline is so captivating that I found myself finishing this 49-comic, 1088-page volume in just a couple of days, only stopping to do things like eat, sleep or work.  The $38.00US price for The Walking Dead: Compendium One is awesome, especially when you consider how many comics are contained in this compendium and the fact that each comic costs about $3.00 apiece. 

                The Walking Dead: Compendium One is a terrific purchase for any fan of the comics (a definite space saver) or anyone interested in reading the comic book series so late in the game like myself.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the compendiums out there – so far I know of three…are you reading this family?  Hint, hint.

Get The Walking Dead Compendium Vol. 1 on Amazon

September 11, 2001

by Melissa Minners

For those of us who experienced it first hand…

For those of us who lost loved ones…

For those of us who witnessed it feeling helpless and angered because there was nothing we could do to stop it from happening…

For those of us who volunteered their services during and in the aftermath…

For those of us who wished there were something more we could do…

For those we lost…

For those who survived…

For those we’ve found…

For those we’ll never find…

In our hearts…

In our minds…

In our thoughts always…

We Will Never Forget

The Racketeer

Written By John Grisham

Published By: Bantam

Reviewed By: Melissa Minners

               I love John Grisham’s writing and read every book by him that I can get my hands on.  I’ve reviewed some really great Grisham novels over the years.  So, when a family member offered me a copy of The Racketeer that they had just finished, I jumped at the chance to read it.

               In The Racketeer, we meet Malcolm Bannister, a former lawyer from Virginia who found himself unwittingly drawn into a racketeering case that landed him in a federal prison.  When we meet him, Bannister is extremely down on his luck.  Though he is presently serving time in a minimum-security prison camp and practicing some jailhouse law, he is missing his former wife, son and the respect he once had from his family and friends. 

               Then, one day, everything changes for Malcolm.  A federal judge and his girlfriend are murdered, the contents of his rather large safe missing and suddenly Malcolm has hope for the future.  Malcolm knows just who has punched the judge’s ticket and why, but can he get the Feds to believe him and if he can, will Witness Protection be able to keep him safe once the killer is in custody?

               Except for The Firm, I usually find John Grisham books to be fast moving and engrossing, but The Racketeer started off as anything but that.  I was less engaged with this book in its opening chapters, perhaps because the protagonist was in jail for a white-collar crime involving money laundering.  I’m not fond of such individuals and this could have predisposed me not to like Malcolm.  Sure, we are told that Malcolm is not to blame for his plight and that he was wrongfully accused, but as I read how he ended up in prison, I found it hard to believe that he didn’t know what was happening beforehand. 

               That being said, once I got toward the middle of the book and we were dealing in more depth with the mystery of who murdered the judge, I found the reading got easier, the flow of the book was faster and I was more captivated by the story.  I was actually rooting for Malcolm to succeed in his little cat and mouse game with the FBI, despite my innate sense of dislike and distrust for his character.

               In the end, I felt that Grisham told an entertaining story…once I really got into it, but it seemed to be lacking in believability.  To understand this, one must think about the most outrageous action or horror film that they have seen.  Remember that moment when someone asked you, “But a car can’t really be made to do that sort of thing, right?” and you answered, “Of course it can…in the movies!”  That’s what The Racketeer reminded me of.  That entertaining read that probably could never have taken place in reality.  If you are a real Grisham fan, the completist in you will rush to read this novel, but if you are someone looking to see whether Grisham is right for you, I would skip this one altogether as one of his lesser works.

Check out The Racketeer at Amazon!

The Rogue Lawyer

Author: John Grisham

Published By: Bantam Books

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                I’ve read a number of John Grisham novels and always been happy with them.  In fact, quite recently, I wondered to myself why it is that I haven’t read more of his works.  I decided to remedy that situation and, when I saw Rogue Lawyer on sale at the local Barnes and Noble, I had to pick it up. 

               Written in the first person point of view, Rogue Lawyer introduces us to Sebastian Rudd, a street lawyer who most often works as a defense attorney in cases no one else will touch.  As we read the novel, we realize that Mr. Rudd is a flawed man with a lot going on in his personal and professional life.  In addition to the lengths he will go to in order to get the right verdict for his client, Rudd also hangs out in the wrong crowds of people and dabbles in illegal gambling, has tremendous issues with his ex-wife, some stemming from the fact that she divorced him to be with her female lover, and he’s not the best father one could ask for.

                We start off with Rudd’s first shocking case – defending a brain-damaged eighteen-year-old charged with the murder of two little girls.  Rudd has worked with guilty defendants before, but in this case, he believes Gardy Baker when he tells Rudd he is innocent.  This makes Rudd fight even harder for his client.  The next case is a no-win situation involving a self-made mob boss on death row.  In this case, Rudd tries everything he can, but nothing can prevent his client from facing that final penalty for his crimes…or maybe there is something.  This case doesn’t quite end the way we expect it will, but it is rather entertaining to read.

                Next is a police home invasion gone wrong.  Doug and Kitty Renfro were asleep in their house in a quiet neighborhood, when a SWAT team breaks down the doors and enters.  Believing his home is being invaded by bad guys, Mr. Renfro gets out his gun, tells his wife to call the cops and ends up firing at his intruders.  His wife is killed, Doug is shot and the police are charging him for shooting at them.  But the real problem is that the police had the wrong house.  The low-level drug dealer they were searching for did not live there, nor did he warrant such an intense entrance.  Sebastian Rudd must not only prove his client’s innocence, he must also prove that the SWAT team used excessive force when entering the home and subsequently killing Kitty Renfro. 

                All along, Rudd is sitting side-seat as co-investor in a cage fighter named Tadeo Zapate.  He’s making his investment back and then some, when Tadeo gets into a Main Event battle.  Unfortunately, in a bad judges’ decision, Tadeo loses.  That’s when Rudd regrets his decision to back this fighter…and to bring his kid to a fight in which his investment sucker punches the victor and then beats the pulp out of the referee.  When the ref succumbs to his injuries and Tadeo is brought up on murder charges, Rudd tries to get Tadeo a deal, but Tadeo wants freedom with no jail time.  What can Rudd do with a case in which the moment of the referee’s death has circulated the internet hundreds of times with a video viewed by thousands?

                And in the midst of Rudd pulling his hair out with his uncooperative client/investment, Rudd is approached by a man who has information regarding a missing girl…the daughter of a high-ranking police official.  When this man, who wants Rudd to be his lawyer, hints at a human trafficking ring he may be a part of, what will Rudd’s conscience tell him to do?

                One of the things I love most about John Grisham’s novels is that the protagonist is always someone who has flaws.  If the character was perfect, I’m sure I wouldn’t have interest in the book, but with a flawed character…a more human character that one can relate to…the book becomes that much more interesting.  Rogue Lawyer peaked my interest because it didn’t just focus on one case.  This book contained multiple cases…sort of an anthology of stories featuring the same main character.  That changed things up a bit, so you weren’t stuck in one case, but in a variety of cases featuring innocent and guilty in differing scenarios.

                The ending of Rogue Lawyer left something to be desired…it was almost not an ending, leaving me to believe that this book may be the starting point for an actual series starring Sebastian Rudd.  In that case, I would applaud the ending and look forward to reading more of Rudd’s exploits.  I definitely had fun reading Rogue Lawyer and would love to read more featuring this flawed-yet-supportable character that makes you want to root for his side.

Check out Rogue Lawyer at Amazon!

Sycamore Row

Author: John Grisham

Published By: Doubleday

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                I’ve read quite a few John Grisham novels and I have to say that A Time to Kill was one of the best.  Even the movie that was adapted from the novel was excellent, simply because they stuck pretty closely to the incredibly captivating story.  When I heard that John Grisham was planning to publish a sequel to A Time to Kill over twenty years later, I was intrigued.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Sycamore Row.               

Taking place three years after the events of A Time to Kill, we come across a man hanging from a sycamore tree.  Seth Hubbard had been suffering from cancer and had decided to take matters into his own hands.  Everything appears to have been planned, right down to having one of his employees come “meet him” at the location of his demise so that his body wouldn’t go unnoticed for long.  Seth’s planning is what brings Jake Brigance back into the Clanton, Mississippi spotlight.

                Three years after pulling off an amazing victory for Carl Lee Hailey, defending him against the charge of capital murder by proving him temporarily insane when he killed the two men that had beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter and left her for dead, Jake Brigance is no better and somewhat worse than when he started off.  During the trial, he lost his house when the KKK burned it to the ground.  He lost his beloved dog.  His insurance company is refusing to pay what is owed for the home and Jake is currently renting a small house not far from…and nothing like…the original.  His notoriety after the Hailey trial didn’t earn him any other high profile cases and, in fact, Jake has been just barely keeping the law firm afloat.

                That’s when he receives a handwritten will mailed a couple of days before Seth Hubbard’s suicide.  In the will, he declares that he is disinheriting his children and grandchildren and instead leaving 5% of his estate to his long lost brother Ancil, 5% to his church and the remaining 90% to his housekeeper Lettie Lang.  Seth Hubbard makes it very clear that this written will is to supersede his previous will and that, knowing there will be a fight over the estate, Jake Brigance is to defend his will to the utmost. 

                Like the Hailey trial, defending Seth Hubbard’s estate will be no easy task for Jake Brigance.  For one thing, cutting your children out of a will is fodder for gossip enough, but a white man leaving the bulk of his estate to his black housekeeper is downright scandalous in Fords County, Mississippi.  Jake knows his back will be up against the wall and that the lawyers for the other side – high paid attorneys with lots of tricks up their sleeves – will do anything to discredit both Seth Hubbard and Lettie Lang in an effort to gain access to the Hubbard estate.  But, as usual, Mr. Brigance is no slouch in the surprise department.

                Now, it must be noted that I had stopped reading John Grisham novels after The Street Lawyer, a novel that left a bad taste in my mouth as I couldn’t find myself rooting for the main character at all.  After what I sensed was a decline in the author’s work – I hadn’t really enjoyed The Partner all that much either – I had decided to take a break from Grisham.  That break lasted over a decade.  That being said, I was still excited over the sequel to A Time to Kill for very strong reasons – I loved the main characters, the story was captivating and I was thrilled by all the twists and turns it took to get to that shocker of an ending.

                I had every reason to be excited over getting my hands on this novel.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Grisham had my attention right from the shocking moment when Seth Hubbard is found hanging from a sycamore tree.  My attention never wavered even as I realized that this was going to be a battle over an estate, something that could get quite muddy and complex if tax law and all of the other harsh realities of estates and probate were explored.  But after reading Seth Hubbard’s handwritten will and the little bit he mentions of Ancil, I had a feeling that there would be quite a bit more to this story than met the eye.  I knew that I was going to enjoy this book.

                And enjoy it I did!  Although Carl Lee Hailey is gone, he’s not forgotten and is mentioned quite a few times in the book.  Sycamore Rowe features the return of some of my favorite Grisham characters: Jake Brigance; the ever-intoxicated, yet sometimes brilliant Lucien Wilbanks; the crude divorce attorney Harry Rex Vonner and Sheriff Ozzie Walls.  Former District Attorney Rufus Buckley is back and just as grating on the nerves as ever.  Gone is law student Ellen Roark, but in her place is Portia, Lettie’s daughter just back from the military and eager to gain experience in hopes of becoming a lawyer.  The lawyers and associates for the other team…in fact, the whole team on the other side of things are just despicable enough to make you want to root for Lettie.  Then there’s that mystery surrounding the change in the will and the verbiage regarding Seth’s brother.  You can’t help but want to read more just to find out what secrets are about to be revealed during the trial. 

                Even more importantly, Sycamore Row is one of those sequels that you can read and enjoy without ever having read the original novel.  Sure, Carl Lee Hailey is mentioned and you definitely know that his case was a defining point in Jake Brigance’s career, but this novel is really about Jake, Seth and Lettie.  Carl Lee Hailey is no longer in the picture at this point and you need know nothing about the original trial to read about this new battle.

                John Grisham has hit another high point with Sycamore Row.  The book was so enjoyable that it has inspired me to read some of the novels I missed along the way.  I can’t wait to get started!

Check out Sycamore Row at Amazon!

A Time to Kill

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                In the early 1990s, I read an amazing legal thriller by John Grisham entitled A Time to Kill.  A few years later, a movie adaptation starring Matthew McConaughey hit the theaters.  The movie adaptation was pretty good – one of the better adaptations of Grisham’s novels I have ever seen.  When I learned that the book would soon become a stage production, I decided to watch the movie again…for about the thirtieth time.

                In A Time to Kill, Samuel L. Jackson is Carl Lee Hailey, a hardworking devoted African American Mississippi family man whose world is shattered when his ten-year-old daughter Tonya (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly) is raped, severely beaten and left for dead.  The two drunken racist rapists, Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and James Louis Willard (Doug Hutchison), are arrested, but Carl Lee Hailey is certain that they will be let go with minimum jail time.  Carl Lee is distraught, unable to come to terms with this theory.  He approaches someone he can trust, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a white lawyer who has helped his family in the past and discusses the possibility of the rapists’ acquittal. 

Carl Lee pointedly asks Jake if he would defend him if Carl Lee were to get into a jam.  Jake’s wife (Ashley Judd) thinks he should contact Sheriff Ozzie Walls (Charles Dutton), but Jake is torn between disbelief that Carl Lee would actually do something and his wish that Carl Lee would.  When Carl Lee turns up at the courthouse and kills Cobb and Willard, he turns to Brigance to defend him.  Brigance accepts the case out of guilt and a sense of duty.  But he is wholly unprepared for the political and personal repercussions trying this case will bring. 

Can his drunken old mentor, his cynical divorce lawyer best friend and a socially conscious law student help Jake Brigance go to battle with the area’s top lawyer and a new enclave of the KKK and win Carl Lee’s freedom? 

Every time I see this film, I can’t help but marvel at the amazing acting.  In order to understand what I mean, you have to realize that, for many, A Time to Kill represents a movie fairly early in their careers.  For Matthew McConaughey, this was his first leading man role and he was wholly believable and absolutely adorable.  Samuel L. Jackson gives an award-winning performance as a distraught father who wants justice for his child.  Sandra Bullock gives a strong performance as a law student who offers to help for free, so strongly does she believe in Carl Lee’s case.  Nicky Katt and Doug Hutchison offer up excellently sleazy performances, convincing the viewer that these two got exactly what they deserved.

There were also some class act performers in this film performing their usual best like Donald Sutherland, Jake’s fallen-from-grace mentor; Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Ray Cobb’s revenge-obsessed brother, Ashley Judd, Charles Dutton, Kevin Spacey as Canton’s politically minded District Attorney, Oliver Platt as Jake’s best friend, Brenda Fricker as Jake’s much-put-upon office manager.  And if you are really observant, you will note Octavia Spencer in her first role as one of the local hospital’s more outspoken nurses.

The movie is dramatic and forces viewers to do some soul searching.  Is there such a thing as justifiable homicide?  If one believes that the two rapists should be heartily punished for the horrific acts that they performed on Carl Lee’s daughter, does that make what Carl Lee did to them (believing they would go free) acceptable?  Or isn’t murder always wrong, no matter who is being killed?  Quite a thought provoking argument.

Also eye-opening is the jury selection process – what makes a good juror on a particular case, what to stay away from, the research that goes into it, etc.  The book spends more time on this aspect of the trial.  In my opinion, the movie spends too little time on it, though I understand why, given time constraints and the need to hold the whole audience’s attention through more dramatic means.

I loved that, despite some omissions for time’s sake and for a more favorable movie rating, the creators of the movie stayed very closely to its source material.  The movie version of A Time to Kill is very much like the movie, especially when referring to the main character’s inner turmoil.  McConaughey was very good at expressing this to the viewers through body language and facial expression.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this movie, if you are a John Grisham fan, A Time to Kill is a must see as one of the best films adapted from one of his novels.  As a film fan in general, A Time to Kill is a dramatic film with a captivating and thought-provoking storyline and tremendously powerful acting performances.  Definitely well-worth checking out for the first or even the fortieth time!

Check out A Time to Kill at Amazon!

Gridiron Gang

Presented By: Sony Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

            In 1990, a football team, comprised of hardened juvenile detention camp prisoners, began a journey toward greatness.  The team was led by camp probation officers, Sean Porter and Malcolm Moore, who sought a way to keep their prisoners, mostly former gang members, from returning to their criminal activities upon their release.  They believed that bringing these prisoners together, making them a team who can believe in one another and in themselves, giving them discipline and teaching them a skill, would set these youths on a better path, better equipping them for life on the outside.

            In 2006, Sony Pictures brings you Gridiron Gang, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Sean Porter), Xzibit (Malcolm Moore), Kevin Dunn, Leon Rippy, Jade Yorker, and more.  Neil H. Moritz shares his producer role with Lee Stanley, upon whose 1993 Emmy Award winning documentary this movie is based. 

            The movie begins at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center for boys located in California.  We are introduced to Sean Porter, a probation officer with a heart.  Frustrated with the overwhelming statistical data regarding their prisoners, Porter and co-worker Malcolm Moore discuss the possibilities of rehabilitation.  They are faced with overwhelming statistic – 75% of their wards will find themselves back in jail not long after they are released.  The two probation officers realize that it is not enough to lock them up with strict rules against physical contact, because the prison is much different from the world these youths will be returning to, where gang rules supercede all that may have been taught them while “on the inside.”

            Thinking back to his days as a somewhat troubled youth, Porter realizes that it was football that instilled in him many of the values that he holds today.  He decides that teaching his wards this sport may be the perfect way of instilling some pride, respect, and honor in these prisoners, teaching them that there is a better way to face their issues.  Porter and Moore present their case to the “powers that be” who become intrigued with the idea. 

            However, it’s one thing to come up with a plan of action and quite another to actually implement it.  Sean Porter and Malcolm Moore soon realize that there are many obstacles that must be overcome before the two can even commit to creating a team.  First, they must find teams who will be willing to play them.  Since Camp Kilpatrick does not have a viable football field, the teams Porter and Moore approach must agree that the games be played on their fields.  Then, there is the consideration that hardened criminals will be taken on road trips into the unsuspecting public.  There is the matter of equipment allocation.  And how do you get former rival gang members – sworn enemies – to set aside their gang ties for the good of the football team?

            Once the proverbial ball starts rolling however, there is no turning back.  Each of the prisoners chosen for the team bring their own baggage to the field, but with the help of coaches Porter and Moore, they learn to overcome their adversities and focus on a positive future.  Opposing gang members united in one cause – the team – and found that they weren’t as different as their gangs once professed.  Lessons learned are not limited to the players.  The administration learns that these kids are not lost hopes.  Sean Porter is subject to a few lessons of his own as he struggles to build a cohesive team out of his prisoners, while dealing with some debilitating personal problems of his own.

            Gridiron Gang is an uplifting movie, brilliantly directed by Phil Joanou.  There is not one viewer in the movie audience who won’t find themselves rooting for these outcasts of society.  The big question in the world today is how to rehabilitate juvenile offenders so that they will not grow up to become adult members of the prison community.  This movie, based on true events, gives us hope for the future.

            Often criticized for his acting ability, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson proves that he is more than just a former wrestler bit by the acting bug.  His performance is powerful, even in the more emotional scenes.  “The Rock” shows that he is up to the task, whether it be as a hardcore football coach or as the emotional, caring man behind the hardcore façade.  Xzibit is excellent in his supporting role.  Most impressive is Jade Yorker, a young man struggling to overcome the hate and turmoil of his former gang-riddled, tormented life in hopes of a better tomorrow.

            Viewers will find themselves absorbed not only by the story as a whole, but by the underlying stories of each of the major players in the film.  The emotional highs and lows of this film will evoke many a tear from even the most hardcore of movie-goers.  Throughout the movie, you will find yourself rooting for the success of both the coaches and the players.  You will wonder what became of each and every one of them.  Not to worry, the end of the movie sheds some light on the futures of many of the players.

            A true testimony to how good a movie is can only be related by actual events.  As the credits rolled, I heard one or two people clap.  The lights grew a tad brighter as people rose, heading toward the exits.  And then something happened.  While the credits rolled, bits and pieces of the original 1993 documentary were aired.  People froze where they were – near their seats, in the aisles, at the exit doors – eager to learn more about the people on which this movie was based.  No one made a move toward the exit until the credits were complete.  That’s the true testimony of a movie that has made its mark on the hearts of its viewers. 

            So go see Gridiron Gang…and bring some tissues.  You may feel the need to wipe a tear or two from your eyes, but at the end of the film, you will feel incredibly uplifted by the experience.

Check out Gridiron Gang at Amazon

The Express: The Ernie Davis Story

Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners
 

                Years ago, I reviewed a musical score Mark Isham created for The Express: The Ernie Davis Story.  I was intrigued by the film based on a book (Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express by Robert C. Gallagher) about Ernie Davis, the first African American football player to win the Heisman Trophy.  I really wanted to see this film, but never got around to doing so…until it aired during the day recently and I just happened to be home to watch it.

                Growing up in Pennsylvania during the late 1940s, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) lives with his extended family, including his same-age uncle Will Davis, Jr. (Nelsan Ellis) and grandfather Willie Davis (Charles S. Dutton).  Ernie relocates to Elmira, New York after his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) returns newly married and able to afford to raise Ernie.  While in Elmira, Ernie enrolls in a Small Fry Football League and does well as a running back

                Years later, Syracuse University football head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is searching for a running back to replace the graduating Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson).  Impressed with what he sees in Davis, he recruits him and Davis plays in the 1959 football season, leading the team to several victories.  But his performance on the team is not without some issues, mainly that of racism in many of the areas in which the football team is required to play.  His performance on the field in 1960 is inspiring and helps lead to Syracuse’s first national championship. 

                In 1961, Ernie Davis wins the Heisman trophy, completing his senior season at Syracuse.  He is signed to a contract with the Cleveland Browns, but an ongoing health problem forces Davis into the hospital for medical testing.  He is diagnosed with leukemia and, though unable to play, the Cleveland Browns honor Ernie Davis by allowing him to suit up and run out with the team during a televised game. 

Ernie Davis died on May 18, 1963.  He was only 23, but in that short time, Ernie Davis became a role model for so many young men.  The Express: The Ernie Davis Story is an homage to a young man who faced adversity and excelled in spite of, or perhaps because of it.  The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the time period and the hardships Davis faced, allowing us to see the political and cultural climate of the time.  Black players were not allowed to room in the same hotels as white players.  They weren’t allowed to ride in the same places on buses.  They faced extreme prejudice and received death threats in many arenas in which they played.  Just getting on an NFL team was difficult for a black man – the Washington Redskins refused to draft Davis because of his color.

And through it all, Ernie Davis learned something.  Every achievement he reached was achieved not only for him, but for blacks everywhere.  He was a mentor for future stars and, even though he never got to play a game in the professional arena, Ernie Davis will always be a shining example for all.  The film was very well done, albeit a bit rushed.  There are some unfortunate historical inaccuracies in the film that were committed for dramatic effect, but the message of this film is not lost.  It is meant to further already inspirational man that Ernie Davis was.

The Express was an enjoyable film and I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it.  Kudos to Rob Brown for such a dramatic portrayal of such an inspirational young man taken from the world too soon.

Check out The Express: The Ernie Davis Story at Amazon

The Blind Side

Distributed By: Warner Bros.

Reviewed by Melissa Minners
 

            How much can a simple act of kindness achieve?  What if that act of kindness was followed by another?  What if, in addition to that initial kindness, you through in a willingness to believe in the person for whom you have committed this act of kindness?  What can be possible then?  Well, in the movies, anything can happen.  But when the movie is based upon a real life occurrence, that’s nothing short of amazing.  That’s the tale of The Blind Side.

            Based on the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side begins with a look at how Lawrence Taylor changed the face of football by placing the emphasis on the left tackle, the man who protects the quarterback’s blind side.  But the real story of this movie is the tale of Michael Oher, offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.  His is a story unimaginable in this day and age, a time when the emphasis is on looking out for yourself and not others.

            At seventeen, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) simply could not get a break.  Taken from his crack-addicted mother at an early age, Michael has bounced around from foster home to foster home, never finding permanence.  He is brought to Wingate Christian School by the father of a friend whose couch he has been sleeping on.  Realizing the natural athletic ability of Michael Oher, the school’s athletic coach makes a case for him to be registered at the school despite his limited schooling.  Teachers are at a loss as to what to do for him, but one educator sees the potential in Michael, recognizing his ability to absorb information.

            Although Michael has finally found a place in a decent school, he still doesn’t have anywhere permanent to live.  Neighbors couches, local Laundromats and the school gym are temporary fixes.  On a cold, rainy night, he is spotted by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a spunky interior designer with an eye for all things special.  Discovering that Michael is a schoolmate of her daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and a friend to her son SJ (Jae Head), Leigh Anne asks Michael if he has a place to stay for the night.  When he finally confides that he has nowhere to go, Leigh Anne offers him her couch. 

            A one night stay turns into a many night stay as Leigh Anne and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) realize that Michael is a diamond in the ruff – a huge guy who never uses his size for intimidation and possesses the utmost in respect and manners.  Moved by the difficulties Michael has suffered his entire young life and hoping to ensure a better future for the boy, the Tuohy’s adopt him. 

            Meanwhile, Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon) is waiting for his prize athlete to develop on the football field.  Unfortunately, Michael generally does not use his size to push people around, a huge problem in the game of football.  Leigh Anne Tuohy to the rescue!  By drawing a coalition between the members of his team and the members of his family, Leigh Anne gets Michael to understand that he must protect his teammates at all cost, much the same as he would any one of his family members.  Most importantly, Michael must learn how to protect his quarterback’s blind side.

            Michael begins to excel at football, eventually earning the attention of college football coaches everywhere.  Offers pour in for Michael, but when the Touhy’s realize that Michael’s grades aren’t high enough for him to earn an athletic scholarship, things seem desperate.  Of course, you can never say never to Leigh Ann, who believes in Michael so much that she is willing to hire a tutor (Kathy Bates) to see him through the rest of the school year and attain his goals. 

            I wouldn’t be ruining the ending of this film by telling you that Michael Oher eventually goes to the University of Mississippi and becomes a first round draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens.  After all, The Blind Side is a true story and Michael Oher is still playing football as an offensive tackle today.

            Receiving numerous nominations and awards, The Blind Side was a critically acclaimed hit in the theaters.  Critics couldn’t get enough of this film and I agree wholeheartedly. The Blind Side just proves how far a person can go if they have a support system of people who are willing to believe in them.  The kindness of the Touhy family is unprecedented in this day and age.  After all, how many people are willing to take in someone they don’t even know walking down the street on a cold, rainy night simply because they had no place to go.  Not many, especially not in recent years.  What this family did to turn life around for Michael Oher is remarkable and yet, if you ask them, the Touhy’s would tell you that Michael Oher coming into their lives was a blessing and that the benefit was indeed mutual.

            Sandra Bullock has received praise for some movies in her past, but her performance in The Blind Side has earned her quite a bit of attention and accolades.  Despite some excellent acting on her part, before taking on the role of Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts received very little praise for her work.  After Erin Brokovich, Roberts was finally taken seriously as an actress.  The Blind Side is Sandra Bullock’s Erin Brokovich.  Having witnessed the real-life Leigh Anne Touhy in action, one can tell that Sandra Bullock did her homework for this role.  Her performance in this film was spot on and her chemistry with Quinton Aaron.          

            Quenton Aaron’s performance as Michael Touhy endeared the character to our hearts and made him someone we could believe in, rooting for his success in every venture.  Tim McGraw was completely unrecognizable as sports commentator and restaurateur Sean Touhy.  I had seen his name in the credits, but never realized that he was the father in the Touhy household.  Surprisingly, the country western singer is quite a believable actor.

            The message that this movie sends is incredibly inspiring.  To watch the true story of a young man whose every day is a constant struggle suddenly find a family who believes in him and gives him every opportunity to succeed is truly motivating.  Not only does it make you want to lend a helping hand to others in need, but it offers hope to those who have very little that, with a little determination and support, they can achieve great things.

            The Blind Side is a feel good movie that the whole family will love.  It makes a perfect addition to the inspirational true football stories like Rudy, Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall and Brian’s SongThe Blind Side is worth all of the accolades and is truly one of those must see films that you will be recommending to all of your friends.

Check out The Blind Side at Amazon

We Are Marshall

Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

            On November 14, 1970, Huntington, West Virginia experienced one of the worst tragedies in the history of the town.  A plane, chartered to transport the Marshall University’s Thundering Herd football team from its game in North Carolina, crashed just short of its destination.  The crash claimed the lives of everyone on board which included thirty-seven team members, head coach Rick Tolley, five assistant coaches, the athletic director, team trainers, boosters, the team’s play-by-play announcer and five crew members.

             The tragedy affected everyone in Huntington.  All grieved the loss of family members, teammates, friends, husbands, fathers.  The enormity of the tragedy caused the President of the ill-fated university to consider an indefinite suspension of the football program.  The program was saved through the efforts of team members who had not joined the Thundering Herd in North Carolina, Marshall University students and residents of Huntington. 

            With the help of the team’s remaining coach, Red Dawson, new head coach Jack Lengyel is charged with raising the phoenix from the ashes.  Things look bleak as Lengyel and Dawson struggle to patch together a team and teach them enough plays in time for the beginning of the 1971 season.  Can the new “Young Thundering Herd” shine in the memory of those lost or will their season tarnish the legend of the original Thundering Herd?

            We Are Marshall is based on the true story of the tragedy that befell the Marshall University football team and the resurrection of the university’s football program in spite of the odds against them.  When the movie was released on December 22, 2008, the holiday season was in full swing and my hectic schedule did not allow me the opportunity to see it.  Wandering around Hollywood Video, I happened to spy the movie on the shelf and just had to rent it.

            Obviously, there is a great deal of emotion that goes into the making of a movie based on a real life tragedy.  You don’t want to make a movie that doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.  You don’t want to downplay the pain felt by all those involved, yet you don’t want to lose people by making such a somber movie that is so somber it fails to draw viewers.  The creators of We Are Marshall were extremely sensitive to both aspects while creating this movie. Thus, the film contains both somber moments as the families, players and fans mourn the loss of the people who died in that fateful plane crash, and uplifting moments as the football program is rebuilt from the ground up as tribute to those lost.

            Matthew McConaughey is perfect as the quirky but intense Coach Jack Lengyel, a man charged with the responsibility of rebuilding a football program torn asunder by fate.  Matthew Fox is entirely believable as Red Dawson, one coach who did not ride back to Huntington on the plane and thus, escaped a horrific fate.  Fox’s portrayal of a man struggling with survivor’s guilt and torn between walking away and creating a tribute to the original Thundering Herd and its head coach Rick Tolley was extremely touching.  Having just watched David Strathairn in my favorite baseball movie, A League of Their Own, I was happy to see him here, portraying the Marshall University President.  Funny to see him playing the role of someone who has little knowledge of sports in this movie, a huge contrast to the roles I’ve seen him play in the past.

            Terrific performances were put in by all of the actors in the movie, but one performance stood out from the rest.  Anthony Mackie has been acting for several years now and even played the role of Papa Doc in the movie 8 Mile.  However, no role in his past can ever stand out more than that of Nate Ruffin, defensive back and co-captain of the Thundering Herd prior to the crash.  Ruffin was suffering from a shoulder injury on the day of the crash and did not join the team in North Carolina on that fateful day.  Finding himself one of the few surviving members of the team, he is unable to accept that the football program is to be suspended in the wake of the crash and organizes a rally to keep the program going.  The role of Nate Ruffin is very dramatic.  Stoic and fiercely proud, yet suffering great pain, this is a man who was obsessed with paying tribute to his teammates – his family.  Anthony Mackie’s performance as Nate Ruffin was nothing less than amazing.  The acting performance he turned out for this role made you actually believe you were seeing the real Nate Ruffin in those scenes.  I found myself wondering – who is this actor and why haven’t I seen more of him.  Kudos to Mackie for a stellar performance.

            The soundtrack of We Are Marshall perfectly complements the movie and the era in which the movie takes place.  Songs like Peace Train by Cat Stevens, Lookin’ Out My Back Door by Creedence Clearwater Revival, If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot, The Love You Save by the Jackson 5 and more transported you perfectly back into the 70s…well, at least it did that for me.  I can’t attest to the songs having the same effect on folks who never lived through that era.  One thing I know for sure, as soon as the movie was over, I was itching to buy the movie’s soundtrack.

            Now, of course, We Are Marshall is only based on the events that took place in Huntington, West Virginia in the early 1970s.  There are some differences in the movie version.  However, these differences are minor and take nothing away from the powerful theme of the movie.  By the end of the movie, you will be so invested in the story and in the film’s characters that you will find yourself cheering the Young Thundering Herd on as they struggle to bring the fans of Marshall University a victory in their first home appearance.  I thought it was a nice touch to include snapshots of the real team members in the closing credits.  I must say that the casting department did a decent job matching up the actors to the players. 

           In closing, I can honestly say that We Are Marshall is a definite must see for any movie fan, but if you are a sports fan, you’d have to be insane to pass this one up.

Check out We Are Marshall at Amazon!

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