Monday, October 31, 2011

"MIDDLEMARCH" (1994) Review




"MIDDLEMARCH" (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw "MIDDLEMARCH", the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot's 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production.

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, "MIDDLEMARCH" told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch's mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch's prosperous banker, who is married to Fred's aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch's citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated "MIDDLEMARCH". One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else - including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage's proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching "MIDDLEMARCH", it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies' best works. Mind you, "MIDDLEMARCH" is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching "MIDDLEMARCH", I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga's main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. While the miniseries revealed Dorothea's unhappy marriage to Casaubon, Davies' screenplay in the first three episodes, Davies did a first rate job in balancing both hers and Lydgate's stories. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries - the last three episodes - as his story shoved Dorothea's to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I found the Lydgates' marriage fascinating. But Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea's story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will's relationship following Casaubon's death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because "MIDDLEMARCH" still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production's many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order with allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot's ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters - Dorothea and Lydgate - are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a "happily ever after" and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to "MIDDLEMARCH", I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot's saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . "MIDDLEMARCH" is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone's performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey's spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon's poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey's complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy's love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates' passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies' writing or Page's direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea's self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy's performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

"MIDDLEMARCH" could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries' production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story's period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott's use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano's photography beautifully captured Scott's work and the town itself.

Yes, "MIDDLEMARCH" has a few flaws. And the photography featured in the latest DVD copy seems a bit faded. But I believe that it is, without a doubt, one of the finest British television productions from the last twenty to twenty-five years. After all of these years, I have a much higher regard for it than when I first saw it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Breath of the Undead" [PG-13] - 3/15





"BREATH OF THE UNDEAD"

Chapter Three

The black Porsche came to a halt near the end of the Giovanni driveway. A three-story gray stone manor rose before them. The couple inside the car heaved long-suffering sighs. "Here we are," Cole announced quietly.

A slight moan escaped from Olivia's mouth. "Must we really go inside? Maybe we can call the Giovannis and tell them that we came down with something. You know . . . lie. Or perhaps create clones of ourselves."

"A lie sounds like a good idea," Cole conceded. He leaned forward. "Now, if only we can . . ."

Before Cole could do anything further, the manor's front door opened. A dark-haired man dressed in a tailored gray suit stepped outside, followed by a manservant. "Cole! Olivia! Welcome! Xavier told me that he had spotted your car."

The couple exchanged brief looks of regret before climbing out of the Porsche. With an expansive smile fixed on his face, Cole greeted his client. "Mark, it's good to see you." He shook the other man's hand. "How was . . . uh, Fiji?"

Mark Giovanni's expression darkened slightly. "It could have been better. If I had been alone." Then his tone brightened. "And how was your honeymoon?"

Cole's smile became more genuine. "Very enjoyable." Olivia briefly caressed his forearm. "For both of us."

Olivia added, "I certainly enjoyed it."

Giovanni took hold of Olivia's hand and shook it. "Mrs. Turner," he greeted enthusiastically. Then he paused. "Or do you prefer your maiden . . .?"

Politely, Olivia interjected, "Mrs. Turner is just fine. What can I say? I'm a little old-fashioned."

The vintner escorted the couple inside the manor. Its interiors almost reminded Olivia of a museum - elegant, expensive and very ascetic. Almost chilly. The manor's décor reflected its mistress' taste and personality to a T. The manservant, Xavier, took Cole and Olivia's overcoats before Giovanni led them to an even more elegant drawing room.

"Pamela, our guests have arrived," the host said to his wife. "You remember Cole Turner, don't you?"

A thin, blond woman with equine features approached the visitors with a brittle smile. "Of course. How could I ever forget? And how is married life treating you?"

Cole returned Pamela Giovanni's polite smile, as he shook her hand. "Very well, thank you. And I'm sure that you remember my wife, Olivia?"

"Miss Mc . . . I mean, Mrs. Turner." Mrs. Giovanni regarded Olivia with chilly eyes. "It's nice to meet you, again."

The socialite then introduced her two children. The oldest Giovanni offspring turned out to be a pretty brunette in her early to mid twenties. Anna Giovanni not only possessed her father's dark looks, but also his warm and easy-going manner.

One could not say the same about the family's only son - Alonzo Giovanni. The twenty-one year-old had obviously inherited his mother's blond hair and angular features. He also possessed Pamela Giovanni's brittle personality. Not long after introductions had been made, Olivia saw Alonzo draw Cole into a private corner for a brief conversation. Apparently, so did Mr. Giovanni. The wine maker kept a surreptious eye on his son and attorney, while discussing the family's recent trip to Fiji.

Judging from young Alonzo's expression, his conversation with Cole must have ended in disappointment. He seemed bent upon projecting his mother's brittle and cold manner toward the half-daemon. On the other hand, the college junior seemed taken by Olivia. She had great difficulty in returning his feelings, given his penchant of "accidentally" brushing his arm against the side of her breast. After the third time, Olivia "accidentally" grounded the 1 1/2 heel of one of her shoes into the young man's foot. Alonzo cried out in pain. Feigning remorse, Olivia exclaimed, "Oh my God! Are you hurt?"

"No! No . . . I'm . . . I'm fine," the blond man muttered with a clenched jaw. "I'm okay."

Olivia added, "Perhaps you should check your foot. In case I'd hit a nerve or something. I mean . . . I had stepped on it pretty hard." Wariness gleamed in the young man's eyes, as Olivia flashed her most sympathetic smile. After he limped out of the room, she turned to the others with a sheepish expression. "I think I may have hurt him. I really should watch where I step."

"Hmmm . . . perhaps you should," Mrs. Giovanni coolly replied.

A smirk briefly appeared on Cole's face, as Olivia met his gaze.

----------

Janet Hui and her live-in boyfriend co-owned a two-story Victorian house in the middle of San Francisco's Outer Richmond neighborhood - not far from the Halliwell manor on Prescott Street. Harry had to admit that he found Janet's home very impressive. She and her boyfriend had decorated the house with tasteful mid-19th century furnishings and antiques that gave it an elegant, yet warm aura.

"This is absolutely beautiful," Harry declared, gazing at a Murano glass vase locked inside a rosewood cabinet. "Where did you get this?"

A satisfied smile touched Janet's lips. "In Venice. Ron and I took a trip to Italy, last September. We managed to get it for a pretty cheap price."

Harry turned to his girlfriend, who remained seated on a nearby sofa. "Say Paige, you should see this." He added to Janet, "She has a real artistic eye. In fact, she's a pretty good artist, herself."

"Really?" Janet glanced over her shoulder to smile at Paige.

The Charmed One merely responded with a slight smile. Harry sighed. For some reason, Paige seemed to feel threatened by Janet's presence. Which did not make sense to Harry. After all, he had informed Paige that his so-called romance with Janet had only lasted one month. After their break-up, the pair remained close friends. And with Janet now involved with her live-in lover . . .

"Okay everyone!" A Eurasian male of medium height and light brown eyes strode into the living room. "Dinner is ready."

The four people started toward the dining room. "Ron happens to be a great cook, by the way," Janet commented. "His dad owns a restaurant on Grant. The Lotus Palace."

The name struck a familiar chord with Harry. He recalled an elegant Chinese restaurant on Grant, near Jackson. It served both Mandarin and Cantonese cuisine. "I think I may have been there a few times," the redhead commented. "Great food." Once inside the elegant dining room, Harry eyed the meal spread out on the table. "And this looks pretty good, too." He sat down, along with the others.

Ronald Wong, Janet's boyfriend, smiled. "Thanks. That's quite a compliment coming from a guy whose mother and brother are world-renowned chefs."

Janet rolled her eyes. "Good grief! Ron, I know I had asked you to be polite, but don't you think you're laying it on a bit thick?"

"I happened to be a big fan of Gweneth McNeill's," Ronald protested. "Remember when I had taken you to the Golden Horn for our second anniversary dinner?"

One of Harry's brows formed an arch. "Second anniversary? I didn't realize that you two were married."

Ronald shook his head. "We're just living together . . . much to my dad's horror. It'll be three years, next July." He paused to pick up a platter of meat. "So, is anyone in the mood for chicken breast?"

------------------

Dinner turned out to be a delicious affair - Chicken Breast Stuffed with Lamb Mousse, Marinated Artichoke Hearts and Mushrooms, Chateau Potatoes and a salad. "Wow! This is great!" Paige exclaimed between mouthfuls. "If you're not a chef, you're in the wrong profession."

The compliment seemed to please Ronald. However, he responded with the appropriate modesty. "Thanks. I was lucky to get out of court early to work on this stuff. Especially with a new trial starting. Of course, I doubt that I'm in the same class as Harry's mom and brother."

"You could probably give them stiff competition," Harry commented. "You never thought of becoming a chef?" He took a bite of chicken breast.

Janet chuckled. "If you only knew."

"Knew what?"

After a pause, Janet continued, "Mr. Wong had wanted Ron to join him in the family restaurant. But Ron didn't want to. Instead, his younger brother ended up becoming a chef."

Paige asked both Janet and Ron, "What exactly do you two do for a living?"

"We're both attorneys," Ron answered.

Janet added, "Only I work for a private firm - Jackman, Carter and Kline." Both Harry and Paige exchanged knowing looks, which Janet caught. "What? Don't tell me that you've heard of the place."

Harry cleared his throat. "My brother-in-law works there. Cole Turner."

Janet's eyes grew wide. "Of course! I had forgotten that he had married your sister. He's one of the firm's star attorneys. Ron, on the other hand, works for the U.S. Government. The Justice Department. He's involved in a high profile case."

Rolling his eyes, Ron protested, "It's not that big. I'm not even first chair on the prosecution team."

"What's the case?" Harry asked.

A paused followed before Ronald finally answered, "The Curt Decker case. Drug manufacturing and trafficking."

Harry whistled loudly. "That's pretty high profile. I was surprised that the law had finally caught up with one member of the Decker family."

"Can we talk about something else, please?" Janet begged. "I've been hearing nothing else but Curt Decker for the past four months."

Silence followed before Paige asked Janet a question. "Can you cook like Ron?"

Recalling his former girlfriend's past forays into cooking, Harry unintentionally snickered aloud. Janet glared at him, while an amused smile appeared on Ronald's face. "Let's just say that cooking was never one of my natural talents," she replied huffily.

You can say that again, Harry added silently. However, he wisely kept such thoughts to himself.

-------------

"He's not such a bad guy," Ronald commented later to Janet. Their two guests had just departed for the evening. And the couple retired to the kitchen to clean the dishes. "Harry, I mean."

Janet nodded. "Just as I had told you. The McNeills are what I would consider a rare breed amongst the rich - decent people."

Ron asked, "Then why did you break up with Harry, if he's that great?"

"I'd realized at the tender age of nineteen that I wasn't into narcissist relationships."

"Huh?"

Janet sighed. "Harry and I . . . we're too alike."

Ronald nodded. "Oh."

Janet continued, "Besides, he now has Paige."

Under his breath, Ron murmured, "Yeah, but for how long?"

A frowning Janet demanded, "What do you mean?"

"Didn't you notice how uncomfortable she seemed this evening?" Ron continued. "At first, I thought she was simply jealous of your old relationship with Harry. But when we had started talking about our careers, she practically fell silent. I get the feeling that Harry might be a little out of her depth."

Recalling Harry's family secret, Janet sniffed. "Maybe. I hope not . . . for Harry's sake." She opened the refrigerator and peered inside. "Damn! We're out of orange juice."

"I'll get some, tomorrow morning," Ron promised.

The young woman turned pleading eyes upon her boyfriend. "Couldn't you get some, tonight? It's only . . ." She peered at her watch. ". . . ten-forty."

A heavy sigh left Ronald's mouth. "All right. Larkin's Café should still be opened." He reached inside his pockets for car keys. "I'll be right back." Then Ronald pecked Janet's cheek and left the kitchen.

-----------

Bourgh paused before the trendy café on Balboa Street before entering. He glanced around the café's dining area, until his eyes fell upon a lone man at one table near the far corner. Slender, the man seemed to be in his early thirties. The latter also possessed thinning brown hair and intelligent sharp eyes peered from a rather bland and pale face.

The judge nervously cleared his throat before making his way toward the stranger. "Excuse me," he began, "are you . . . Cedric Lloyd?"

Sharp gray eyes peered at the judge. "Yes. And you must be William Bourgh." He smiled and held up his hand. "How do you do?"

Bourgh ignored the offered hand and sat down in an empty chair opposite the other man. "So, Mr. Lloyd . . . what do you want from me?"

"Your help." Lloyd took a sip of his coffee. "I need your help regarding a future case."

Frowning, Bourgh shook his head. "What future case? What are you . . .?"

Lloyd cleared his throat. "Let me explain. My client has been interested in a particular piece of property near Oakville. So far, the property has eluded his grasp. As a last resort, I plan to ask the Federal government to declare Eminent Domain over the property. Which is owned by someone you've obviously heard of - Mark Giovanni."

The name struck a very familiar chord to Bourgh. "Mark Giovanni," he murmured. "Of Giovanni Vineyards?" A thought came to him. "Wait a minute! Oakville? As in Santa Rosa County?"

Lloyd smile, looking like the Cheshire cat. "I see that you're familiar with Mr. Giovanni."

"Well, of course!" Bourgh retorted haughtily. "We run in the same circles. In fact, my wife and I had encountered his family in Fiji, last month." He paused, frowning at the other man. "Oakville. That's under . . ."

With a flourish, Lloyd finished, ". . . under your jurisdiction. Yes, I'm well aware of that. Along with some of your transgressions." Bastard.

Bourgh stared at the younger man in disbelief. "Wait a minute! Even if you ask the Federal courts to declare Eminent Domain over Giovanni's property, there is a small chance that the case will end up with me."

A sigh left Lloyd's mouth. "Please, your honor. Let's not play games. We're both aware the chances of this case ending up in your docket are very strong. And when it does, my client and I hope that you will rule in his favor." He paused, as an air of menace surrounded him. "Unless you have other plans?"

Memories of the bills, the photographs and the CD-ROM disk flashed in Bourgh's mind. "No," he murmured. "I don't."

"Good." Lloyd took another sip of his coffee. "My client also assures you that your help will be greatly awarded." Bourgh stared at him. "Let's just say that a share in his company will guarantee you security for the rest of your life."

A share? Bourgh wondered how much this particular stock share would be worth. He sighed and averted his eyes. The sooner this Giovanni matter ended, the better. He only hoped that Lloyd's client would not use this offer of stocks and the material in the yellow envelope for long-term blackm . . .

The door to the café swung open and in walked a nightmare. Bourgh inhaled sharply at the sight of a familiar figure approaching the counter. It happened to be one of the prosecutors of his new case - Ronald Wong. Dammit! He had to get out of here! A panic-struck Bourgh glanced around for another exit.

"What's wrong?" Lloyd demanded, staring at him.

Anxiously, Bourgh replied, "That man. The one who had just walked in. I know him."

Lloyd frowned at the Eurasian man. "Who is he?"

"His name is Ronald Wong." Bourgh released a gust of breath. "He's one of the prosecutors for the new case I'm now presiding over."

At that moment, Wong glanced to his side. His eyes widened with surprise at the sight of Bourgh. "Oh God!" the latter hissed frantically. "He's seen me! Sorry, but the deal's off!"

"Wait a minute!" Lloyd protested. "Not so fast. I doubt that this . . . Mr. Wong will remember you from tonight, once my case ends up before you."

"I can't take the chance." Bourgh rose to his feet. "I would rather my wife find out about my affairs than end up in prison on corruption charges. Sorry." He glanced at the counter. Wong had left. He sighed. "It was nice meeting you, Mr. Lloyd." And the judge walked out of the café before his companion could stop him."

--------------

A slightly intoxicated man stumbled out of a bar. Bernard Remar glanced to his left and then to his right. Where could his car be? His befuddled mind suggested that perhaps he had left his car in the nearby alley.

Weaving uneasily, Bernard slowly made his way toward an alley, several yards away from the bar. As he entered, his eyes caught sight of something up ahead. A dark shape. Was it his car? Or . . .?"

Bernard paused in his tracks. He peered at the dark image. Hmmm . . . Perhaps he had been wrong to assume that his car would be in this alley. Instead of a car, there seemed to be a human standing before him. A human that . . . hopped? Bernard peered closer. A human with long hair, long fingernails and red . . .

A scream poured from Bernard's mouth, as long claws stretched forth and grabbed his throat.


END OF CHAPTER THREE

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

DISNEY HALLOWEEN Photo Gallery



Here are some images celebrating Halloween that were taken at Disneyland in Anaheim, California:



DISNEY HALLOWEEN Photo Gallery
















You can find more images at this gallery.

"CONTAGION" (2011) Review




"CONTAGION" (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for Steven Soderbergh's new movie, "CONTAGION", it brought back some old memories. I found myself remembering Wolfgang Peterson' 1995 film, "OUTBREAK", which starred Dustin Hoffman; and the influenza pandemic that terrified the world's population two years ago. With those in mind, I decided to check out Soderbergh's new movie.

"CONTAGION" is a medical thriller about the rapid progress of a lethal contact transmission virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving pandemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. And as the virus spreads around the world, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart. The movie began with a Minnesota woman named Beth Emhoff returning home after a business trip to Hong Kong and a side trip to Chicago to cheat on her second husband with an old flame. Two days later, she collapses from a severe seizure before dying in a hospital. Her husband, Mitch Emhoff, returns home and discovers that his stepson - Beth's son - has died from the same disease. Other people who have had contact with Beth eventually die in China, Great Britain and Chicago, leading medical doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the disease.

While watching "CONTAGION", I noticed that its narrative bore a strong resemblance to the one featured in Soderbergh's 2000 Oscar winning movie, "TRAFFIC". I noticed that "CONTAGION" had failed to generate the same level of interest that the 2000 movie managed to do. And I find this ironic, considering that I seemed to prefer this movie over the Oscar winning film. I do not mean to say that "TRAFFIC" was the inferior movie. As far as I am concerned, it was a superb film. But I simply preferred "CONTAGION" more. It could be that I found a viral pandemic to be a more interesting topic than drug trafficking, due to the events of 2009. And I found that particular subject scarier.

And I cannot deny that "CONTAGION" scared the hell out of me. The idea that a new disease could spring up and spread throughout the world's population so fast practically blows my mind. And I have to say that both Soderbergh and the movie's screenwriter, Scott Burns, did a great job in scaring the hell out of me. What I found even scarier were the various reactions to the disease. Soderburgh and Burns did a great job in conveying factors that drove mass panic and loss of social order, the difficulties in investigating and containing a pathogen and the problems of balancing personal motives and professional responsibilities. Another amazing aspect about "CONTAGION" is that Soderbergh and Burns avoided the usual cliché of portraying the pharmaceutical industry or the military as the villains. Instead, everyone - the government agencies, politicians at every level and even the public at large - are portrayed in an ambiguous light. Looking back on "CONTAGION", I realized that I only had one minor complaint - Soderbergh's direction did come off as a bit too dry at times.

Soderbergh and his casting director managed to gather an exceptional job for the cast. Cast members such as Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle John Hawkes and Enrico Colantoni gave very solid performances. But I found at least five performances truly memorable. One came from Jude Law, who portrayed an aggressive freelance journalist named Alan Krumwiede, who convinces some of his readers to use a a homeopathic cure based on Forsythia, on behalf of companies producing the treatment. I found Law's character so annoying that I did not realize how skillful his performance was, until several hours after I saw the movie. Kate Winslet gave a very poignant performances as Dr. Erin Mears, a CDC doctor who is forced to face the consequences of the political agendas of a local government and the disease itself. Laurence Fishburne did an exceptional job in conveying the ambiguous situation of his character, CDC spokesman Dr. Ellis Cheever, who found himself torn between his duties with the agency, keeping certain aspects about a possible cure from the public, and his desire to ensure his wife's safety. But I believe the best performance came from Matt Damon, who portrayed the widower of the doomed Beth Emhoff. Damon was superb in portraying the many aspects of Emhoff's emotional state - whether the latter was grieving over his wife's death, dealing with her infidelity, or ensuring that he and his daughter remain alive despite the increasing chaos and death that surrounded them.

I did not know whether I would enjoy "CONTAGION", but I did . . . much to my surprise. Not only did I enjoyed it, the movie scared the hell out of me. And I cannot think of any other director, aside from Steven Soderburgh, who can do that with such a dry directorial style. I do look forward to seeing this movie again when it is released on DVD.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Breath of the Undead" [PG-13] - 2/15





"BREATH OF THE UNDEAD"

Chapter Two

The bell above Ostera's front door rang. Paige placed the last jar of St. John's Wort on one of the shelves and picked up an empty box. She then headed straight toward the front and found Harry standing near the counter. The clock on the wall read twelve fifty-four. Paige smiled at her boyfriend and kissed him. "Hey! Right on time."

"Isn't this a bit late for you?" Harry asked. "You usually have lunch about an hour earlier."

A hot wave of embarrassment washed over Paige's face. "Yeah, well . . . since Maddy had been covering my disappearances . . ." She paused. "We had decided to switch lunch hours for a month or two."

"Hmmm." Naturally, Harry knew about her recent trouble with Barbara. "So, that means Maddy should be returning just about . . ."

At that moment, the shop's second assistant, Maddy Oser, strolled into the shop. "Paige, I'm back!" She glanced at the red-haired witch. "Hi Harry."

"Maddy," Harry greeted with a smile. Then he turned to Paige. "Ready?"

Paige nodded. "Yeah. So, where are we going?" She grabbed his hand.

"How about the Grand Palace in Chinatown? I thought you might like some dim sum."

"The Grand Palace it is." Paige orbed her and Harry out of the shop and into an alley, off Grand. A few minutes after they had merged into a crowd of pedestrians, the couple entered a crowded restaurant.

A smiling maitre'd led Paige and Harry toward a table next to a green-and-red lacquered column. Another five minutes passed before a waitress appeared and asked if they wanted drinks. Both ordered hot tea. Once the waitress left, Harry glanced around and declared, "God, I'm hungry. I hope the waitress comes back with a menu, soon. And with one of the carts." He referred to the numerous carts that held bamboo baskets filled with dim sum. The servers pushed them around the dining room from one table to another, allowing customers to make their selections on the spot.

Paige glanced to her right and saw their waitress return with two menus in her hands. "Looks like it might happen very soon."

"Oh my God!" The woman's voice took Paige by surprise. She and Harry glanced up and found a very attractive Asian-American woman hovering beside their table. The woman stood at least five-feet six and seemed to be in her mid-to-late twenties. She possessed very delicate features that included high cheekbones, pale golden skin and dark hair styled in a long bob. "Harry McNeill? Is that you?"

Much to Paige's surprise, Harry sprung to his feet. He enveloped the woman into a bear hug. "Janet!" he cried. "Janet Hui! My God! How are you?"

"Pretty good, as a matter of fact." Miss Hui's eyes swept over Harry's figure in an appreciative manner that Paige found annoying. "Wow! You've certainly filled out since I last saw you. How long has it been since we had graduated from college?"

Still smiling, Harry replied, "Nearly five years ago, as a matter of fact. Five years in late May. Why don't you join us for lunch?"

Janet turned down Harry's offer - much to Paige's relief. "I'd love to, honey, but I'm meeting a friend for lunch. However . . . how about dinner, tonight? You can bring . . ." She glanced at Paige. ". . . your friend along."

"Paige," Harry added. "This is Paige Matthews. Paige, this is Janet Hui. She's an old school friend of mine."

Offering her hand to Paige, Janet greeted, "Nice to meet you." Then she returned her attention to Harry. "I wondered when you were going to introduce us to each other."

"I was about to," Harry protested.

Janet rolled her eyes. "Right." She said to Paige, "I hope to see you for dinner, tonight. You'll be in for a real treat."

A dim smile touched Paige's lips. "Thanks," she said in a lukewarm voice. "I'm looking forward to it."

"And you, Mr. McNeill," Janet said to Harry, "we've got a lot of catching up to do. By the way, I live at 6012 Tenth Avenue. In the Outer Richmond District."

Harry nodded. "That's not far from where Paige lives. We're looking forward to tonight. I only hope that I can say the same about your cooking."

"Watch it, McNeill!" Janet retorted with a mock glare. "I just might take back that dinner invitation. Besides, my boyfriend will be cooking, tonight. We usually have dinner around seven-thirty."

Another smile curved Harry's lips. "Then I guess I'll be looking forward to dinner, tonight." He pecked Janet's cheek. "We'll see you then." Janet smiled once more and moved on.

Once Harry had settled back into his seat, Paige went on the attack. "So, who is this Janet Hui to you?"

Harry calmly replied, "Ex-girlfriend from college. And a very good friend."

"So, how long did you two date?"

Harry peered closely at Paige. "You're not jealous, are you?"

"I hope, for your sake that you're not reading my thoughts!" The words came out of Paige's mouth before she could stop herself.

The red-haired man broke into a wide smile. "Well that answers my question."

"I am not jealous!" Paige exclaimed vehemently.

The smile still stamped on his face, Harry shrugged. "If you say so." Paige opened her mouth to retort, when he added, "Looks like the waitress is back with our tea and menus. And here comes the dim sum."

Paige shot a dark glare at her boyfriend before the waitress appeared at the table.

--------------

"I'm back, your Honor." Bourgh's secretary poked his head through the doorway of the judge's private office. "Just to let you know. Is there anything you need?"

Bourgh immediately stuffed a few items back inside the yellow envelope and glanced up. "No, thank you Ross," he said with a dim smile. "I'm fine."

Ross nodded. "Okay. But you should know that they will be sending jury candidates for the new trial in about . . ." He glanced at his watch. ". . . another twenty minutes or so."

Ah yes, the Becker trial. Bourgh had forgotten. Again, he thanked his secretary and dismissed him. Once Ross had left, the judge went to the door and locked it. Then he returned to his desk and dumped the contents of the yellow envelope on his desk.

The material that greeted Bourgh's eyes filled him with horror. Photographs of him having sex with his mistress inside a hotel room and at her private home, copies of bills for expensive gifts and bank statements, and a CD-ROM disk laid scattered on the desk. Bourgh picked up three of the photographs. Each one featured him and his mistress, Laura, in positions straight from the KAMA SUTRA book. His heart racing rapidly, Bourgh inserted the CD-ROM disk into his computer drive. Nearly a minute later, the judge found himself watching a video clip that featured him engaged in sex with Laura and a second woman beside a pool at Laura's Palo Alto home.

Cries and moans from the computer's speaker filled the office. A horrified Bourgh continued to stare at the screen. Then a woman's loud moan snapped the judge out of his reverie and he stopped the video clip. He was ruined. There seemed to be no doubt about that. The judge wondered if the Decker family had sent the package. It seemed like something to expect from such a corrupt family.

One last object caught Bourgh's eyes. A business card that read:

Cedric Lloyd, Attorney-at-Law (415) 653-8080

Bourgh stated at the card in his hand. He then glanced at the clock on the wall. It read one forty-eight. His first instinct was to tear up the card. But the photographs, the disk and other material from the yellow envelope made him realize it would not be wise to ignore the card's owner. Instead of using his office telephone, Bourgh reached inside his jacket pocket for his cell phone. He dialed the number on the card. Seconds later, a man's voice answered. "Cedric Lloyd, speaking."

After a brief hesitation, Bourgh said, "This is William Bourgh. I believe that you had sent a yellow envelope to my home, yesterday."

"Oh yes! Judge Bourgh! I wondered when you would call. I had expected to hear from you, yesterday." The man's voice oozed with smugness.

Feeling a shaft of anger, Bourgh growled, "You know I should have you disbarred for this! Blackmailing a Federal . . ."

A heavy sigh from Lloyd interrupted Bourgh. "Please, your Honor. I think you're the last person to be casting stone, judging from those photographs and the disk. I understand that keeping a mistress can be very expensive. You've even accepted a few bribes over the years to keep your finances in the black. Including one from a certain businessman named Paul Hans . . ."

The judge brusquely demanded, "What do you want?"

"Your help." Lloyd paused. "I suggest that we meet this evening. I know this little café on Balboa Street called Larkin's. It's in the Inner Richmond District. I'm sure that we might be able to enjoy some coffee, while we continue this conversation."

Smug bastard! Bourgh closed his eyes for a brief moment and took a deep breath. "Fine!" he finally snapped "I'll see you around eleven. Tonight."

Delight radiated from Lloyd's voice. "I'll be there. Good day." The line went dead.

Bourgh paused before he disconnected his cell phone. Then he sighed. Heavily.


END OF CHAPTER TWO

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" (2010) - Series One Retrospective


UPSTAIRS-DOWNSTAIRS-007


"UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" (2010) - Series One Retrospective

Not long after ITV aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame's successful series, "DOWNTON ABBEY", the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". The news took me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series' creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about "DOWNTON ABBEY". Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so.

The new "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" picked up six years following the old series' finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife - Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland - have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam's mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes' sister, Lady Persephone Towyn - all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 - covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII's abdication.

Because it came on the heels of the critical darling, "DOWNTON ABBEY", "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.

I did have a few problems with "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007's "CRANFORD" and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck's hunt for the Hollands' new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, "The Fledgling" and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray's encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton disgustingly sentimental. But . . . the encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem - namely the series' three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.

For me, the virtues of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe - including changes within Britain's Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS". I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series' 30s setting but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.

Production wise, "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts' costumes - especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy - were outstanding and contributed to the series' 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series' production is the series' theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton's work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas' occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.

Not being that familiar with the original "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine - including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson's Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson's pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford's portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions - gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past - cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray - namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop - which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.

I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh's role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough's solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid's tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson's cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histronics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland's Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, "The Ladybird". Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas' portrayal of the Hollands' servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of "DOWNTON ABBEY".

Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins' portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from "DOWNTON ABBEY" . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from "GOSFORD PARK". In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his "noble" personality and penchant for political correctness - especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard's opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam's reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.

But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes' portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes' performance, along with Thomas' script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes' past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes' personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes' superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes' personality. After watching Series One of "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS", many would view Lady Agnes' younger sister - Lady Persephone - as the series' villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy's brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands' staff like dirt - save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone's softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country's social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.

I am not going to pretend that the new "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short - three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor she follow Julian Fellowes' mistake in "DOWNTON ABBEY" by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. I only hope that Thomas will continue that setting in the second series. "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans have deemed it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (1940) Photo Gallery



Below are images of "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE", the 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard and adapted by Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Murfin; the movie starred Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier:



"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (1940) Photo Gallery

































Thursday, October 20, 2011

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" (2011) Review



Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS":


"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie's stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful "IRON MAN" movies, helmed the director's chair. At least five of the screenwriters - Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby - have been associated with projects like "LOST" and the "STAR TREK". And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" remained one of the flops of this summer. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word "pity" as a response to the movie's failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy's father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde's gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake's former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film's dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique's photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie's visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of "SUPER 8", I had commented that it reminded me of an old "STAR TREK VOYAGER" episode. I cannot say the same for "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". But it did remind me of a "STAR TREK VOYAGER" fanfiction story called "Ashes to Ashes". At least Jake's experiences with the aliens before the movie began. And "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells' novel, "War of the Worlds" had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for "COWBOYS AND ALIENS", I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake's history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" provided plenty of opportunities for character development - and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig's super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the "Man With No Name" character from Sergio Leone's DOLLAR TRILOGY". Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford's usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford's Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde's distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde's performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution's citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde's performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution's insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde's right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde's s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from "THE LAST AIRBENDER"), who portrayed the sheriff's grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films of this summer. I cannot wait for the DVD release.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Breath of the Undead" [PG-13] - 1/15




"BREATH OF THE UNDEAD"

RATING: PG-13 - Violence and mild adult language.
SUMMARY: A Chinese vampire wrecks havoc upon San Francisco.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: The Charmed Ones, Cole Turner, Chris Halliwell, Leo Wyatt, Darryl Morris and other characters related to Charmed belong to Spelling Productions, Brad Kern and Constance Burge. The McNeill family and a few other characters are my creations.
NOTE: Takes place about two weeks following "Torn Duty", Alternate Universe Season 6. The character, William Bourgh, was first mentioned in the previous story, "The Uninvited". The character, Cedric Lloyd, first appeared in "Auld Lang Syne" and last appeared in "The Uninvited".




------------------

"BREATH OF THE UNDEAD"

Chapter One

Video images flickered on the large screen inside the Turners' living room. Giggles and guffaws filled the semi-dark living room, as a familiar figure appeared before the occupants' eyes. "Oh my God!" Paige crowed. "Cole, is that you . . . with Goofy and Donald Duck?"

Something akin to a growl rose from Cole's throat. "What of it?"

The Charmed One continued in an annoying voice, "Dude! If any of your . . . 'colleagues' ever get a peek at this, your reputation will be shot to hell!" Cole overheard Piper snicker. "What on earth made you pose with Disney characters?"

"Maybe Olivia had threatened not to give it up for the night, if he didn't." Then the youngest McNeill sibling yelped in pain, as Olivia struck the back of his head with a rolled-up magazine. "Ow! Olivia!"

Cole's red-haired wife coolly replied, "There are children in the room, moron." She referred to Darryl and Sheila Morris' two sons, who had accompanied the couple.

"It don't bother me," Darryl Jr. piped up. "Mama and Daddy are always talking like . . ."

Darryl immediately cut in. "Not now, Darryl!"

Three days had passed since Cole and Olivia's return from their honeymoon. The newly married couple had invited family and friends to view the videos they had recorded during their trips to the West Indies and Disney World. Piper and Paige, the Morrises, Scott Yi and Olivia's two brothers and sister-in-law had accepted their invitation. Her parents and grandmother happened to be on vacation in Palm Beach.

The video presentation continued for another twenty minutes before it finally ended. Cole turned off the DVD machine, while Olivia turned on the lights. "Okay everyone, that's it," the redhead announced.

A sigh left Piper's mouth. "That was nice. I haven't been on a trip like that since . . ." She paused before quickly adding, "Never mind." Cole suspected that the Charmed One had been on the verge of mentioning her Hawaiian honeymoon with Leo, nearly three years ago.

"You mean since we were in Scotland, last summer?" Paige asked.

The older Charmed One sighed. "Well . . . yes. I suppose. Although I was really thinking of a cruise. I haven't been on one since 1997. And I've never been to Disney World."

"We went to Disneyland for the Christmas holidays," Sheila commented. Her eyes became slightly dreamy. "The boys had a nice time. So did I."

Darryl added caustically, "I supposed it was . . . if one ignored the high prices and the crowds." Sheila gave him a hard stared. He finished lamely, "But I still liked it."

"What about you, Cole?" Bruce asked. "How did you like Disney World? I remembered that you didn't want to go in the first place."

Reluctant to admit the truth, Cole merely replied, "It was . . . okay. Not exactly to my taste, but . . ."

A derisive snort from Olivia interrupted the half-daemon. "Oh please! Are you kidding? He loved Disney World! In fact, he even bought annual passes for us both, so that we can visit on weekends once in a while."

Cole sighed long and hard, while the others stared at him in shock. Piper exclaimed, "You've got to be kidding! A dem . . ." She glanced at Darryl's sons. "I mean . . . someone with Cole's tastes crazy about Disney World? God, I wish I had been there!" Cole glared at her.

"His mother loves the place," Olivia continued. "She was the one who had recommended that we stay at the Grand Floridian."

Barbara smiled and patted Cole's arm. "Well, I think that's great. Maybe I should talk Bruce into taking me."

"Good luck," Bruce murmured in a low voice. Cole overheard him, anyway.

Then the half-daemon glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantle. "It's getting late. And I have a meeting with Mark Giovanni, tomorrow."

"Ah! Poor man." Olivia planted a light, sympathetic kiss on Cole's temple. "I'll be with you in spirit during every moment of your meeting."

Cole added, "Actually, you'll probably be with me . . . in person. We've been invited for dinner at his place, tomorrow night."

Olivia regarded her husband with genuine horror. "You mean to say that I'll have to spend an entire evening with that family?"

"It's the price you pay for marrying me."

------------

Judge William Bourgh of the Northern Federal District in California, leaned back into his chair and sighed. He imagined himself back on his Christmas vacation in the South Pacific, laying on one Fiji's spectacular sandy beaches. Instead of his wife laying beside him, he saw the sensuous body of his . . .

Someone knocked on the door, interrupting his fantasy. Seconds later, the Bourgh family's housekeeper strode into his private den. "Pardon me, your Honor, but you forgot this." She handed him a padded yellow envelope.

Bourgh stared at the package. "What is that?"

The housekeeper handed him the package. "Something from the Winslow Travel Company. Someone had delivered it just before dinner."

"The Winslow Travel Company?" Bourgh frowned. Then he shook his head. "Must be something from my recent vacation. Thank you, Rita."

"Yes sir." The housekeeper quickly nodded and left the den. Bourgh tossed the package on his desk. He would examine it later. Perhaps at work, tomorrow. Then he leaned back, closed his eyes and resumed with his little fantasy.

---------------

Kenny Jai glanced at his watch and sighed with relief. The time read ten thirty-nine in the evening. In another twenty-one minutes, he would finally be able to call it quits for the night. The large shipment of antiquities for the Green Dragon Import/Export Company had finally arrived from Taiwan, today. Kenny and his fellow co-workers spent nearly five hours unloading the shipment into the company's warehouse.

Using the forklift, Kenny unloaded one last crate from the truck and placed it on the warehouse floor. He then switched off the vehicle's engine and jumped down. "Hey Joe!" he cried to his supervisor. "Can I leave now? Everything's been unloaded!"

"Might as well," Joe replied. "I'm leaving right now. Turn off the light on your way out." He strode toward the warehouse's exit. In other words, Joe had left the responsibility of locking down to Kenny.

The younger man rolled his eyes and headed toward the warehouse's small office. He grabbed his heavy jacket and clocked out. After locking the office, he strode toward the exit. As he passed the last crate, Kenny heard something rattle. Another minute passed before he realized that it came from the crate next to him.

His curiosity aroused, Kenny pried open the crate and tossed the top on the ground. He peered inside and inhaled sharply at the sight of an antique coffin made from silver. Slowly, he reached out to touch it. Before he could, a violent force threw back the coffin's lid. Kenny gasped, as he took a step back. A figure dressed in a red-and-gold robe sat up. Long green hair framed a greenish-tinged face that possessed large red eyes. And hands with claw-like nails pushed open the lower lid. Kenny screamed in terror as the figure turned to face him. Kenny immediately turned on his heels and raced toward the exit. Before he could reach the half-opened double doors, a violent force with sharp nails tackled him to the ground.


END OF CHAPTER ONE

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mary and Henry Crawford in "MANSFIELD PARK"





MARY AND HENRY CRAWFORD IN "MANSFIELD PARK"

Every time I read an article or review about Jane Austen's 1814 novel, "MANSFIELD PARK", the authors of these articles always comment on the unpopularity of the novel's leading character, Fanny Price. I could say the same about most articles and reviews on the novel's television and movie adaptations. Time and again, both critics and others claim that most Austen fans have a low opinion of Fanny Price. At the same time, these same commentators like to point out the popularity of the novel's antagonists, Henry and Mary Crawford.

The first time I had come across such a statement about Fanny Price and the Crawfords, I decided to search for further articles that verified these claims. In all honesty, I have come across at least less than a half-a-dozen articles or blogs that either criticized Fanny or praised the Crawfords to the sky - especially Mary Crawford - or did both. But most of the articles and reviews I have discovered usually followed this structure:

1. Fanny Price is very unpopular with Austen fans.

2. The Crawfords - especially Mary - is very popular with Austen fans.

3. The authors claim that they harbor the same opinions, until recently.

4. The authors eventually state that they believe Fanny Price is a misunderstood character and praise her character to the sky as a paragon of virtue and courage.

5. Or the authors would point out Fanny's personality flaws and claim that Austen used as some kind of metaphor for eighteenth century morality play, or etc.

6. Bring up the Crawfords and reveal how degenerate they really were, despite any virtues they may possess. Both characters have been called the worse names in an effort to make Fanny look good.


I like to call the above structure or formula - "The Defense of Fanny Price Campaign". And most articles I have read about "MANSFIELD PARK" usually follow this formula. In fact, I have come across so many articles of this nature that I now have doubts that most Austen fans really dislike Fanny or even like the Crawfords.

I am well aware that Mary and Henry Crawford were flawed. And I believe that Austen did an excellent job of making their flaws rather obvious. On the other hand, I believe that she did a pretty good job in portraying their virtues, as well. Fanny Price was no different, in my opinion. Mind you, I found her rather dull at times. But I have never dismissed her on those grounds. Fanny did have her virtues. But I believe that she also possesed flaws. And like the Crawfords, she never overcame hers by the end of the novel. But whereas Austen literally ignored Fanny's flaws by the end of novel . . . and gave her a wide berth, she castigated the Crawfords for failing to overcome their flaws. Many critics and fans who have posted articles in the very fashion I brought up, also did the same. And so did the movie and television adaptations.

This is the main problem I have about "MANSFIELD PARK". If Austen had been willing to acknowledge Fanny's flaws (let alone those of her cousin, Edmund Bertram), I would have never found it difficult to enjoy the story. I suspect that "MANSFIELD PARK" could have easily been one of those novels that explored the complex nature of all of its major characters without labeling one or two of them as "villains". Or . . . if she really wanted to villify the Crawfords that badly, she would have been better off portraying them as superficial, one-note characters.

But what I find really frustrating is this so-called "Defense of Fanny Price" campaign that seemed to have swamped the Internet for the past four-to-five years. By utilizing the structure that I had earlier pointed out, these critics and fans seem willing to turn a blind eye to Fanny's flaws; at the same time, castigate Mary and Henry Crawfords as villains on the same level as George Wickham of "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE". Of all the articles I have come across about the characters featured in the 1814 novel, only one has seemed willing to view them all as morally complex and ambiguous. If there are other "MANSFIELD PARK" articles of similar nature, I can only hope that someone would inform me.



Sunday, October 16, 2011

"THE IDES OF MARCH" (2011) Photo Gallery



Below are images from George Clooney's new political thriller called "THE IDES OF MARCH". The movie stars Ryan Gosling.


"THE IDES OF MARCH" (2011) Photo Gallery





























Friday, October 14, 2011

"THE CAT'S MEOW" (2001) Review




"THE CAT'S MEOW" (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince's birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in "THE CAT'S MEOW", Peter Bogdanovich's adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros' stage play.

The movie takes place aboard Hearst's yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince's 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst's longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher's Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching "THE CAT'S MEOW", I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. "THE CAT'S MEOW" struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic - including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst's official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros' screenplay and Bogdanovich's direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of "THE CAT'S MEOW" was that many of the characters' agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, "THE CAT'S MEOW" offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie's production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos' work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny's set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie's 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white - as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. "THE CAT'S MEOW" featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince's frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst's minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince's sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in "THE CAT'S MEOW" came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst's performance so remarkable was that she was the only one - as far as I know - who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie, "CITIZEN KANE". I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies' true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst's performance. Cary Elwes gave - in my opinion - the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes' performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince's desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst's nature - sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst's desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince's birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn's theory about the "California Curse":

"The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California..so pay close attention, my dear. You See this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace."

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms - seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich's decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called "California Curse". Why? Because "THE CAT'S MEOW" remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years. "Hooray for Hollywood!".

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"EL DORADO WEST" [PG] - Chapter Eight



The following is Chapter Eight of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:


Chapter Eight – New Franklin, Missouri

April 23, 1849
Two weeks have passed since our departure from St. Louis. Five days have passed since our encounter with the slave catchers. Despite failing to find a fugitive slave, Mr. Whiskers continued to follow our wagon company. I am beginning to realize that he might be a very stubborn and determined man.

“Ignore him,” Alice advised. “He is only trying to rattle us. He has failed to find his prisoner and needs something to bolster his self-esteem.” Deep contempt rang in her voice.

I wish that I possessed her nerve. But a running fear continued to nag at the back of my mind that sooner or later, the fugitive will appear. And our bewhiskered lurker will have an excuse to toss us – especially Alice and myself – into the nearest county jail. We nearly met that fate upon our arrival in New Franklin.

According to Mr. James, the old Franklin used to be the first jump-off site of the Santa Fe Trail, the first of many overland roads that led west of the Mississippi River. This lasted from 1821 – when a freight driver from Virginia named William Becknell led the first wagon caravan to Santa Fe – to 1828, when the flooding Missouri River finally engulfed it in 1828. The residents resettled their town on higher ground and renamed it New Franklin. I must say that the latter is a very pleasant community with numerous schools, churches and even an attorney’s office.

Alice, myself, Mr. James, the Robbinses and our two Pennsylvania families did not have much time to enjoy New Franklin. No sooner had we arrived, the law appeared with Mr. Whiskers in tow. They demanded to search our wagons. By now, I began to suspect that Alice had been right. Mr. Whiskers’ failure to find his fugitive slave had turned into harassment against our wagon company. Mr. James and Mr. Robbins insisted that we were not harboring a fugitive slave. But the lawmen insisted – backed by a show of force – upon searching our wagons. Again, we had no choice but to comply. And like before, no fugitive slave was found.

Our wagon company had intended to linger in New Franklin and purchase a few supplies. But the ladies, led by Mrs. Robbins, felt affronted by the community’s greeting and demanded that we continue our journey. Understanding how the women felt, the rest of us agreed and the company quietly left New Franklin.


May 2, 1849
Tonight is our last night before our arrival at Independence, tomorrow. Finally! I have had enough of Missouri to last me a lifetime. It is a beautiful state. But I would have enjoyed it more if did not have slavery within its borders.

Mr. Whiskers had continued to trail us, following our departure from New Franklin. Then two days later, he suddenly disappeared. Perhaps he had finally realized the futility of the chase.

Mr. James informed us that many wagon trains should be organizing in Independence by now. Surprisingly, Independence was not the only jump-off spot for the western trails. Rival sites had form in both nearby St. Joseph and Council Bluffs in Iowa. Both towns were easily approachable by a Missouri River steamboat. And an emigrant would save four days on the trail by departing from either town, since both were north of Independence. Despite all of this, our company voted to head for Independence.

Our little caravan has just received a late night visitor. His name is Elias Wendell, formerly of Baltimore, Maryland. He is on his way to Westport. And he is also a fellow Negro. At first, I wonder if he was the fugitive slave that half of Missouri had been searching for. In the end, I dismissed the idea for Mr. James seemed quite familiar with him. And yet . . . this Mr. Wendell happened to be wearing Mr. Whiskers’ royal blue waistcoat. Or something similar. Interesting.

Since he happened to be Mr. James’ old friend, our party welcomed him into our camp. I noticed that Alice exerted good deal of energy to prepare a plate of beans, roast quail and cornbread for our guest. Elias Wendell had been the apprentice of one of Mr. James’ old colleagues – one Thomas Ford. The name struck a familiar note.

Minutes passed before I realized that Mr. Whitman had once mentioned this Ford fellow. Apparently, the latter had been killed in a barroom brawl in St. Charles, a year ago. Since then, Elias had been roaming the state working at odd jobs. When he had learned about the gold found in California, he decided to try his luck and get himself hired to a wagon company.

His story seemed above board. Yet . . . why was Mr. Wendell wearing a waistcoat similar to Mr. Whiskers’? I decided to remain silent. Why create any suspicions that he might be the runaway Mr. Whiskers had been searching for? I had no desire to bring trouble upon his head. Apparently, neither did anyone else. After all, if I had noticed his waistcoat, surely some of the others had.

End of Chapter Eight