The Insider (1999)
Media conglomerates and big tobacco are everyone's favorite bad guys, and the Oscar-nominated The Insider takes its shots at these fashionable targets with precision and style. Muckraking writer-director Michael Mann (Miami Vice) turns a real-life story about “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) and tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) into an atmospheric thriller where the stench of evil comes from the executive suites of CBS News and Brown & Williamson, a Kentucky cigarette manufacturer.
Wigand, a former head of research for the tobacco company, has an attack of conscience about the corporation's use of nicotine and its lies about the substance's addictive powers. However, a legally binding confidentiality agreement keeps him from going public. Bergman persuades Wigand to go on the air anyway only to be double-crossed by his network bosses, who see the story as threatening their corporate interests. Tension builds, and we begin to root for this unlikely duo as they struggle to do the right thing
The Civil War (1989)
Our War Between the States has never ceased to fascinate. Ken Burns' acclaimed nine-part documentary successfully recreates for contemporary audiences the drama of this epic struggle. The visuals are mainly still photos from the period and the soundtrack successfully combines readings from participants' letters with music of the time. The historians interviewed are passionate about their material and all the key figures are all brought to life, from Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee to Frederick Douglas and Stonewall Jackson. Also explored with incisive intelligence are the issues that ignited the conflict — slavery, states'rights and each side's competing financial interests.
But The Civil War's greatest strength is its presentation of the ordinary soldier. Neither side has a monopoly on heroes or villains. We watch the casualties mount and see the pain and suffering in both North and South until we experience the war's tragedy as if we are there.
Finding the right mate is always difficult, and pressure from family and friends to get married when there aren't any prospects sometimes only makes things worse. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely, overweight, middle-aged bachelor who wrestles with these problems. He lives with his mother and works as a butcher in the Bronx. Desperate for some kind of relationship, he goes to the Stardust Ballroom, where he hits it off with a plain, unmarried schoolteacher, Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), who's been dumped after a blind date. But when he introduces her to those who are near and dear, they all say she's not good enough.
The Oscar-winning Marty shows us through laughter and tears the conflicts within a close-knit Italian Catholic community in the 1950s. Despite its many shortcomings, its way of life looks good when compared to the present day. Attending Mass on Sundays was the norm, and communities agreed on what was right and wrong.
The Adventur es of the Wilderness Family (1975)
At one time or another every big-city dweller dreams of chucking it all and heading back to the country where life is simpler. The Adventures of the Wilderness Family dramatizes this fantasy with good humor and charm. Blue-collar worker Skip Robinson (Robert F. Logan) and his wife Pat (Susan Damante Shaw) have had it with Los Angeles' crowded freeways and smog. They move to a log cabin in the Rocky Mountains with their son Toby (Ham Larsen), their chronically ill daughter Jennifer (Hollye Holmes) and a dog.
At first this journey back to nature seems idyllic. The fresh air is healthy and the scenery magnificent. Toby and Jennifer make friends with a raccoon. But when they decide to look after some motherless bear cubs, they're menaced by a vicious grizzly and a pack of wolves. This low-budget success was followed by a pair of sequels and a slew of unsatisfactory imitations.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.