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Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I’m not going to snow you with a flurry of half-felt praise for the recently released thriller Whiteout. The truth is that this who-done-it based at a scientific research camp at the South Pole is chilling enough; it’s just that once the pieces start to fall into place the mystery of who the masked killer is becomes a slippery slide to obvious resolution long before the plot’s predicted blizzard hits the fan.

It really doesn’t matter much to me this week. When I began writing this column four years ago this next week the idea was to write about what I learned from the movies I watched each week or comment on how seeing a particular movie reminded me of something from my own life. Instead, I’ve written primarily about the films themselves (okay, with some notable exceptions), but this week it turns out that going to Whiteout was only the beginning of a week of some remarkable reflections for me about life, death and true friendship, none of which are the landmark themes of Whiteout.

Let me explain: Every Friday for the past few years I have had a standing date for breakfast with my two best friends, Dale and Nancy. Whether we care to admit it or not, I think we as human beings tend to take our friends for granted, and our weekly get-togethers had become so routine I barely thought about them as anything more than a regular part of my “schedule” as I do my daily shower, feeding the cats, or getting the dry heaves any time somebody mentions Rush Limbaugh. Still as routine as our gatherings can be, each is always wonderful in its own way. There is something so *right* about life when you are lucky enough to find a single friend who “gets” you, but to have two who are so perfectly balanced as my Nancy and Dale are to one another is an utter blessing. Besides being my BFFs, they work together on the graveyard shift in a very high-stress environment (which shall remain nameless) , so when I see them they always have a lot of steam to blow off and stories to share about the scandals, stupidity, and utter strangeness that permeates their plant.

So last Friday, after breakfast and catching up, we all went to see Whiteout, this flaky murder mystery starring Kate Beckinsale (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) as troubled (as in ‘haunted by her past mistakes’) U.S. Marshall, Carrie Stetko, who volunteered to be stationed in Antarctica for the last three years in some kind of self-made penance. Now, in the last day or so before the South Pole will be plunged into darkness for months and her time on the ice finally up, and as the rest of the crew is preparing to fly out until Spring, Stetko is faced with Antarctica’s first murder. This, not surprisingly, leads to a second and third before the day is out, and with each death comes more complicated dramatic situations for the Marshall and the kindly old doctor at the research site, John Fury (Tom Skerritt; tv’s “Brothers & Sisters”) while they also inch closer to being frozen out of the limited window of opportunity to evacuate. A perfect storm, a Whiteout, a blizzard with the power of a hurricane, is headed towards the camp and soon no planes will be able to fly out at all.

The sudden and inexplicable arrival of U.N. operative Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht; The Spirit) prompts lots of icy stares of suspicion between Beckinsale’s Steyko and the presumably guilty Pryce, while loony-tunes Aussie pilot Russell Haden (Alex O'Loughlin; tv’s “3 Rivers”) lurks menacingly in darkened alcoves now and again, always with his shirt off as to best display his collection of unappealing tattoos of snakes and such ~ the sure sign of a serial killer or a clever red herring tossed in by screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (Montana) and Chad Hayes (The Reaping) to throw viewers off!

The underlying motive for the killings at the base isn’t revealed until late in the movie, but I guessed the obvious reason a half-hour into the story even though the subject was never broached in the film’s dialogue. I’m not sure why, but I thought after the prologue involving the downing of a Soviet plane during the Cold War back in the 1950s, the probable connection would be crystal clear to everybody not only what was going on but who was involved. Heck, I never made it through high school algebra, but I can do enough basic arithmetic to figure out these obvious clues, and that’s all I’m saying about that. Do the math.

The part of Antarctica is played by Manitoba, Canada, and it does, indeed, look colder than a witch’s, well, you know. In other words, it looked like Vermont most of the year, so it almost came as a surprise to exit the theater and be startled back into the reality that this is actually still Summer (sort of, barely).

Dale and Nancy both gave a big yawns up to Whiteout. It wasn’t a complete washout but it wasn’t anything memorable. I felt pretty much the same. I did think it had some great moments of suspense that will have you jumping out of your seat, but the overarching mystery is disappointing. For the guys hoping to see Beckinsale naked, that bit (and her bits) is included even before the opening credits and it doesn’t happen again, so if you are coming hoping for a peep show you’d best not be tardy and skip the popcorn until after Marshall Steyko scrubs up.

As I said, this week I learned that even after four full years of writing about the movies every week, sometimes there are things that are more important. Later on Friday night, on the west coast, my friend Dale’s youngest sister Ellen died after a long, tough battle with cancer. The last months, in particular, had been very grim as the cancer enveloped her brain and caused her to have seizures, memory problems, and all kinds of severe debilitating symptoms. Even still, knowing the end was coming and coming to grips with such a huge loss are such different things. Dale has been remarkable in the last week while coping with her grief and struggling with the fact that all of the final events marking Ellen’s life and death have taken place across the country by others so she hasn’t been able to participate in that process and the closure it brings. While I never met Ellen Stewart my heart breaks for Dale and I know from everything I’ve heard about her that the world is a lesser place without Ellen in it. So I mourn too for this lost light who is gone at only 42.

Nancy and I have tried to be more than “breakfast buddies” this week, not because we have felt we had to but because it was the natural place to be. On Wednesday morning, I brought a dozen bagels and a half-pound of cream cheese over to Dale’s. Nancy arrived with two pounds of bacon and an entire box of bakery items she purchased from a local restaurant, including muffins, strudels, and brownies. Dale scrambled up a dozen eggs. Do you think this was enough for three middle-aged women to eat? I sat there looking at a table big enough to seat six and realized there wasn’t an inch of free space to be found with this bounty spread everywhere. Then I looked across the table at my two ‘best friends forever’ and understood that we had finally taken that giant step beyond menopause and become “The Golden Girls.” Now if only one of us had remembered the cheesecake.

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