Tuesday, September 29, 2020

"Breaking Up the Avengers"



Ever since I first saw "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR" back in May 2016, I have been in a state of confusion of the series of events that led to the break-up of the Avengers within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The more I examine those events created by the film’s screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the more I find the narrative confusing. So what exactly happened?

According to "CIVIL WAR", the terrorist group that had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and other government agencies and private corporations, HYDRA, had ordered the brainwashed amnesiac James Buchannan "Bucky" Barnes aka the Winter Soldier to murder one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D., Howard Stark, and his wife Maria Stark, back in December 1991. Apparently, Stark – who has never struck me as an expert in biological sciences – had finally created his own version of the Super Soldier Serum. And HYDRA wanted to use the serum to continue their own program involving super soldiers.

Nearly 25 years later, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross had presented the Avengers with the document known as the Sokovia Accords. The Accords was created to regulate the activities of enhanced individuals – especially those who work for either government agencies such as S.H.I.E.L.D. or for private organizations such as the Avengers. Some of the Avengers like Howard’s son, Tony Stark aka Iron Man; James Rhodes aka War Machine; Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow and the android known as Vision; had agreed to sign the document. Others like Steve Rogers aka Captain America; Sam Wilson aka the Falcon; and Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch refused to sign it. The Avengers argued over the legality of the Accords, until Steve was distracted by the news that his old World War II flame and former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Peggy Carter had died.

Eventually, the Avengers were further distracted by the bombing of the Vienna International Centre, where United Nations members had gathered to sign the Sokovia Accords. A major victim of the bombing turned out to be King T'Chaka, father of Prince T'Challa aka the Black Panther. A former Sokovian Armed Forces officer named Helmut Zemo had planned the bombing and framed Barnes in order to further divide the Avengers in retaliation for the destruction of his home country and his family in "THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON". Due to his discovery of the HYDRA files uploaded on the Internet by Romanoff during the events of "CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER", Zemo was able to discover that both Rogers and Barnes had been old childhood friends and fought together during World War II. He also discovered that Barnes, who had been held in captive and brainwashed by HYDRA until the end of "THE WINTER SOLIDER", had been the tool used by HYDRA to murder Howard and Maria Stark. Helmut used this knowledge to create conflict between Rogers and Stark. But despite knowing what exactly happened during "CIVIL WAR", I am not only confused by the film’s plot; I am confused over exactly what drove the Avengers apart.

First of all, could someone please explain how Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s conflict over Bucky Barnes’ killing of Howard and Maria Stark was supposed to break up the Avengers? All of the Avengers? Yes, “THE WINTER SOLDIER” had revealed that both Rogers and Romanoff had learned that HYDRA was somehow responsible for the deaths of Stark’s parents. But Stark never confronted Romanoff for her knowledge of what happened to his parents. And neither she or Rogers knew that HYDRA had used Barnes to kill them. So how would a personal conflict between Rogers and Stark was supposed to have some impact upon the Avengers? Also . . . the Avengers had already parted over the Sokovia Accords early into "CIVIL WAR". Why on earth would the Avengers split up because two of its members had some disagreement over what happened in 1991? I have other questions.

Why did Helmut Zemo create such a contrived plan to expose what the brainwashed Bucky had done to the Starks? In the film, he had discovered a video tape featuring Barnes’ murder of the Starks on the road leading way from their New York manor. And what did Zemo do? He bombed the Sokovia Accords conference in Vienna and framed Barnes for the crime, knowing that Rogers would go out of his way to prevent his former friend from being gunned down with extreme prejudice, instead of merely arrested? After that . . . what? He impersonated a psychiatrist and helped the still brainwashed Barnes escape custody. Apparently, he knew that Barnes would eventually inform Rogers about HYDRA’s Winter Soldier program in Siberia and lead the latter to the organization’s base. How did Zemo know that Stark would end up at that Siberia base, as well? Stark would have never learned about Rogers and Barnes’ destination after their escape from the Battle at the Berlin airport if he had not convinced Sam Wilson, who had been arrested with the rest of Rogers’ team, to tell him. I doubt very much that Zemo would have anticipated this. Why did he not just send the damn tape featuring the Starks’ deaths to the Avengers headquarters or to Stark Enterprises, earlier in the story?

Speaking of that video tape . . . why on earth would HYDRA set up a camera to record Barnes’ murders of the Starks? Why would they record the murder in the first place? To see if his brainwashing worked after keeping him in hibernation for over 45 years? One would think that the Starks’ deaths were the evidence that the organization would need. And once HYDRA discovered that the brainwashing worked, why did it fail to destroy the tape? What was the point in keeping it intact, especially when the HYDRA operatives within S.H.I.E.L.D. must have went out of their way to convey the story that Howard and Maria had died in an accident? It was stupid to hang on to that tape. If HYDRA did not set up the camera, why was it overlooking that road in the first place?

"CIVIL WAR" also revealed that both Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff had failed to reveal that HYDRA may have been responsible for the deaths of Stark’s parents. Steve’s reasoning for not revealing the truth to Stark did not make any sense to me. Why would Rogers think not not revealing this would be a comfort to the other man? Considering his hatred of HYDRA, it would make more sense for Rogers to tell Stark . . . especially since they and the rest of the Avengers had been hunting down Baron von Stucker and HYDRA’s headquarters at the before the events of "AGE OF ULTRON". Come to think of it, why did Natasha Romanoff failed to tell Stark that HYDRA was responsible for the Starks’ deaths? And why did "CIVIL WAR" fail to reveal that she also knew that HYDRA was behind their death? I am still wondering why Stark had never learned the truth about his parents’ fate before the events of "CIVIL WAR".

Romanoff had released all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files on the Internet in "THE WINTER SOLDIER". You mean to say that a tech-savvy person like Stark never discovered the files? Especially since his father had been one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Come to think of it, any employee of Stark Industries could have easily learned about the files or stumble across them. Yet, no one did. Talk about contrived writing. Did the Avengers use those old S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files downloaded by Romanoff to search for von Strucker and his HYDRA base before the events of "AGE OF ULTRON"? If so . . . why did they fail to find information about the Starks' deaths? If not . . . why not? You mean to say that Romanoff’s upload of those S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files were all about Zemo learning the existence of that damn tape and nothing else?

What am I trying to say here? The story arc of Helmut Zemo using the old HYDRA files on Bucky Barnes to break Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s friendship and eventually the Avengers did not make . . . wait a minute. Did I just claim that Rogers and Stark had a friendship? Rogers and Stark . . . who could barely stand to socialize with each other? In the Marvel Cinematic Universe? You know what? This story arc seemed to have so many holes that I am beginning to believe it resembles Swiss cheese. What I find equally improbably is that so many films critics had not even bothered to question the plot when "CIVIL WAR" first hit the movie theaters back in May 2016.

Saturday, September 26, 2020



"THE HORSE SOLDIERS" (1959) Review

Many of the Westerns produced and/or directed by John Ford were usually set during the post-Civil War era. Yet, the topic of the 1861-1865 conflict managed to worm its way or have some kind of influence upon either those films' narratives or its characters. However, I can only recall two films directed by Ford that were actually set during the war. And one of them is the 1959 film, "THE HORSE SOLDIERS".

Not only is "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" one of Ford's rare Civil War productions, it is also one of his few films that is based on a historical event or figure. The 1959 movie is a loose adaptation of Harold Sinclair's 1956 novel. And both Ford's movie and Sinclair's novel is a fictionalized account of then Colonel Benjamin Grierson's Raid through Mississippi and Northern Louisiana in 1863. The movie began with the fictional version of Grierson, Colonel John Marlowe, receiving orders from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to lead his brigade behind Confederate lines from La Grange, Tennessee to destroy a major railroad and supply depot at Newton Station, Mississippi. Marlowe's mission is to destroy the Confederate supply line and divert enemy's army from Grant's new plan to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi. A cynical army doctor named Major Henry Kendall is been assigned to accompany the brigade. The brigade stops at a Mississippi plantation named Greenbriar for a brief respite. Greenbriar's mistress, Miss Hannah Hunter,and her slave housekeeper Lukey manages to eavesdrop on a staff meeting, while Marlowe discusses his battle strategy. To protect the mission's secrecy, Marlowe forces the two women to accompany the brigade.

Since the film is a fictionalized account of this historic event, all of the characters are fictional creations - with the exception of Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Instead of portraying Grierson, leading man John Wayne portrayed a cavalry brigade commander named John Marlowe. Like Grierson, Marlowe was a civilian before the war. Whereas Grierson was a former music teacher and band leader, the Marlowe character's former occupation turned out to be a railroad construction engineer. Grierson had been married during the Civil War. Marlowe was a widower. More importantly, Wayne was roughly in his early 50s when he shot the film. Grierson was three months shy of his 37th birthday during the actual raid. And since this movie is a fictionalized account of the raid, there were other differences between its narrative and the actual historical event.

Most film critics tend express enjoyment of "THE HORSE SOLDIERS", but at the same time, dismiss it as one of Ford's lesser works. How do I feel about this? I honestly do not know. Some of of Ford's most highly acclaimed films are not particularly favorites of mine. However, I do consider "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" to be one of my favorite Ford movies. My attitude could be attributed to being a Civil War history buff. But there have been plenty of Civil War movie and television productions that I simply do not like.

Mind you, "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" had its problems. I found some of the performances either slightly over-the-top . . . to the point of some characters coming off as one-note caricatures. A good example would be the two Confederate deserters that Marlowe's brigade had encountered. I find it ironic that although African-American characters like the maid Lukey were not portrayed with any real depth, they did not strike me as one-dimensional as the Confederate deserters or the military school commandant/reverend that Marlowe and his men had also encountered. Even some of the men under Marlowe's command nearly struck me as one-dimensional - like Deacon Clump; Major Richard Gray, who served as leader of the brigade's scouts; and a handful of other enlisted characters. Even the film's leading female character, Hannah Hunter, initially came off as a caricature of Scarlett O'Hara. Fortunately, her character managed to develop throughout most of the film.

There were two aspects of the plot that left me scratching my head. I understand that Marlowe had forced Hannah Hunter and her maid Lukey to accompany his forces during the raid, because they had overheard his military plans. A part of me wondered why on earth did he stop at Miss Hunter's plantation and prematurely exposed his brigade's presence in Confederate-held Northern Mississippi in the first place? Following the brigade's encounter with two Confederate deserters and an elderly judge who wanted to capture them, Marlowe allowed the judge (who came from Newton Station) to take the deserters captive and return to the Mississippi town. First of all, Union authorities tend to offer amnesty and restoration of U.S. citizenship to Confederate deserters - at least by 1863. And why would Marlowe be stupid enough to allow that judge - whether he had his prisoners or not - to return to Newton Station and warn its citizens of the incoming Union forces? Throughout most of the film, Marlowe managed to project an air of professionalism, despite his lack of pre-war experience or training as an Army officer. Yet, he made these two stupid decisions regarding the brigade's stop at Greenbriar and the two Confederate deserters. And the screenplay never acknowledge this stupidity.

Not only did Benjamin Grierson and his brigade destroyed Confederate rail tracks, trains, bridges, storehouses and warehouses, the brigade also freed slaves. And yet . . . I do not recall any slaves being emancipated by Marlowe's forces in the film. Why Ford and the film's two screenwriters - John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin had failed to include this in the movie, I do not know. Racism perhaps? Yet, "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" did not ignore the topic, thanks to Lukey's presence and Major Kendall's snide comments about the South's dependence on slavery. The film was willing to make the occasional vague reference to slavery. Yet . . . it ignored Grierson's anti-slavery actions during the raid. And the African-Americans encountered by the fictional Marlowe's brigade in the movie remained enslaved. Ever since I first saw Ford's 1956 movie, "THE SEARCHERS", some of his films have always struck me as being politically confusing - as if he could never make up his mind whether some of the messages and themes were conservative or liberal. For me, "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" is another example of his political confusion.

Although I had my problems with "THE HORSE SOLDIERS", I still managed to enjoy it very much. It helped that the movie benefited from a famous historical event like "Grierson's Raid" in the first place. This allowed screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin to include exciting action sequences like the brigade's occasional encounters with pursuing Confederate forces, the actual Newton Station attack, the brigade's tension-filled effort to evade Confederate forces, while traveling through a Louisiana swamp; and an amusing battle encounter with students from a local military school. I was especially impressed with the Newton Station attack and the film's last battle sequence that featured the brigade's efforts to overcome a Confederate-held bridge in order to evade pursuing enemy forces and ride on to Union-held Baton Rouge. I thought Ford, along with film editor Jack Murray did an exceptional job with these two major action sequences. Not only did these two sequences managed to emphasize the heat, the blood and tragedy of war. Actually, there was two other sequences that did an excellent job of emphasizing the tragic nature of war - Major Kendall and a local doctor's efforts to save the wounded soldiers following the Newton Station battle and Lukey's death.

When it comes to costume designs in a John Ford movie, one can always count on them being rather mediocre - especially in one of his period films. The only Ford period film I can recall that featured eye-catching costumes was his 1936 movie, "MARY OF SCOTLAND""THE HORSE SOLDIERS" featured one major female character and a scattering of minor ones. Yet, the women's costumes in this film looked as if it came straight out of Hollywood warehouse. In fact, I checked the movie's IMDB listing. Frank Beeston Jr. and Ann Peck supervised the film's costumes. But they did not serve as costume designers. There was no costume designer for the film. Auuughhh! . . . frustrating! Come to think of it, there was no production designer for the film. I find this odd, considering a good deal of the movie was set at the Greenbriar plantation and another major setting was Newton Station. However, I should not be surprised. Aside from the natural beauties of Mississippi and Louisiana, I found nothing exceptional about the film's production designs.

However, there were two aspects of "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" I truly enjoyed. One of them proved to be William H. Clothier's photography of Mississippi and Louisiana for the film. Frankly, I found his images to be quite breathtaking - beautiful, sharp and original - as shown in the images below:


If there is one thing I can say about most John Ford films - you can always count upon a first-rate score to support its narratives. "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" marked the only time composer David Buttolph worked on a Ford production. But in my personal opinion, I thought he did an excellent job in providing the film's score. He also wrote a first-rate title song for the film titled "I Left My Love", which I felt perfectly captured the ambiance of the U.S. Calvary during the Civil War.

Earlier, I had faulted some of the performances featured in "THE HORSE SOLDIERS", complaining that they had struck me as over-the-top and one-dimensional. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about all of the performances. There were some performances that I found either entertaining, very impressive or both. Granted, I found the performances of both Denver Pyle and Strother Martin, who portrayed the two Confederate deserters, rather broad and clichéd. Yet, I cannot deny they gave very entertaining performances. It is not surprising that the pair eventually became successful character actors. Another performance that caught my attention came from Willis Bouchey, who portrayed one of Marlowe's regimental commanders Colonel Phil Secord. Bouchey's Colonel Secord was an ambitious officer who hoped to use his military success for political office and second-guessed a good deal of Marlowe's decisions. Granted, Bouchey's performance did not strike me as clichéd as Pyle and Martin's. But there were moments that it came dangerously close. And I must admit that he also gave a colorful performance. Another colorful performance came from Bing Russell, who portrayed the aggressive trooper Dunker. He must have been a very good actor, because the character came dangerously close to being one of those clichéd characters usually found in Western movies about the U.S. Army. But Russell managed to keep it tight and did an excellent job in conveying Dunker's tragic fate.

Tennis champion Althea Gibson had been cast as Hannah Hunter's personal slave, Lukey. Surprisingly, despite the role and the fact that Ms. Gibson was an experienced actress, one would think Lukey dripped with the slave/mammy cliché. I was surprised to discover that after reading Mahin and Rackin's screenplay, she refused to portray Lukey unless they get rid of the obvious clichés and "slave dialect". And even more surprising, Ford had capitulated to her demands, despite his past refusal to do so with other performers. Needless to say, Gibson did her best to prevent Lukey from becoming a racial stereotype and gave a pretty competent performance. She had one of the best lines in the movie. Judson Pratt gave a curious, yet very interesting performance as the brigade's Sergeant Major Kirby. The character was a competent Army veteran, whose only major flaw proved to be his alcoholism. I cannot deny that the film's use of Kirby's drinking habit as comic relief was hard to watch. In fact, I found it a little distasteful. Kirby became one of those stock characters from an old Hollywood Western - the alcoholic Irish-American soldier. But Pratt did a good job in conveying Kirby's competence. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Ken Curtis, O.Z. Whitehead, Carleton Young, Hank Worden, William Leslie, Hoot Gibson, Anna Lee, Basil Ruysdael, Ron Hagerthy and Russell Simpson.

It is a good thing the Hannah Hunter character proved to be a complex and character, because there were times when Mahin and Rackin's screenplay came dangerously close to portraying her as a Southern belle cliché. However, the writing pair allowed the Miss Hunter to develop. Their efforts were helped by a first-class performance by Constance Towers. Mind you, the actress' Southern accent did not strike me as convincing, especially in her early scenes. Thankfully, she rose above the "damn Yankees" cliché and gave an interesting portrait forced to rise above her privileged background and survive the turmoils of war. If I had my choice of the most sympathetic character in this film, it would be Major Henry 'Hank' Kendall, the brigade's medical officer. William Holden gave an excellent performance as the observant, compassionate and uber-competent doctor, forced to endure Colonel Marlowe's hostility and bitter comments about the medical profession. For myself, I believe the Kendall character had one flaw. He came off as a very ideal character - a Gary Stu, if I must be honest. If it was not for Holden's wry and cynical performance, I would have regarded him as the least interesting character in this film. "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" would mark the first time that John Wayne portrayed a historical figure (or an adaptation of said figure) that was much younger than he was during the film's setting. Even though John Marlowe could have been portrayed by a younger actor, casting Wayne in the role did not harm the film. Wayne had the good luck to portray one of the film's most interesting characters. Superficially, Marlowe was the type many filmgoers would regard as typical in Wayne's filmography - manly, competent and tough. But Marlowe also proved to be a complicated man haunted by the ghost of his wife, who had been killed by an incompetent doctor. Wayne not only skillfully conveyed Marlowe's petty and ugly bullying of Major Kendall, but also gave a first-rate soliloquy that revealed the drunken officer's tragic memories of his wife's death at the hands of an incompetent surgeon.

I realize that "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" has its flaws. It is not regarded as one of John Ford's best films. I am also aware that the movie had failed to make a profit. This was attributed to John Wayne and William Holden's high salaries. But as I had stated earlier, it is still one of my favorite Ford movies. Being a Civil War history buff did not influence my opinion. I have seen a good number of Civil War movies that I either disliked or regarded as mediocre or absolute crap. I simply cannot regard "THE HORSE SOLDIERS" as absolute crap. And this is due to John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin's screenplay, John Ford's excellent direction and some excellent and interesting performances by a cast led by Wayne and Holden.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"AN INSPECTOR CALLS" (2015) Photo Gallery


Below are images from "AN INSPECTOR CALLS", the 2015 BBC adaptation of J. B. Priestley's 1945 stage play. Directed by Aisling Walsh, the television movie starred David Thewlis:

"AN INSPECTOR CALLS" (2015) Photo Gallery