Monday, December 31, 2012
"THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" (1937) Review
I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers.
One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", producer David O. Selznick's 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope's 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser's 1970 Flashman novel called "Royal Flash". But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick's 1937 movie.
Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll's arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor's looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country's populace and eventually from the new king and the latter's two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides - Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries - the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.
While watching "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope's tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope's literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman's stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie's art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove's special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden's re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.
The performances featured in "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban's love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey's performance as King Rudolf's illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael's resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother's dissolute personality.
However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael's main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter's mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll's love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie's best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie's backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.
Before my raptures over "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either "A STAR IS BORN" or "NOTHING SACRED" in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge's cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie's mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert's first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter's efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael's castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.
I do not think I would ever view "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.
"BREAKING DAWN, PART I" (2011) Review
Recently, Warner Brothers Studios decided to split its adaptation of J.K. Rowling's last HARRY POTTER novel, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" into two movie adaptations. The first was released in the fall of 2010 and the second half, last July. Apparently, they decided to do the same with Stephanie Meyer's last TWILIGHT novel, "Breaking Dawn".
I discovered that Meyer wrote the novel in three sections. The first section dealt with Bella Swan's marriage to vampire Edward Cullen and their honeymoon in Brazil. There, she discovers that she is pregnant and that her unborn child's growth is accelerating at a rapid pace. The second section dealt with shape-shifter Jacob Black's efforts to save Bella and her unborn child from the Quileute wolf pack, who believe that the child is a monster and poses a threat to the community. The child's birth nearly kills Bella and leads Jacob to "imprint" (or sense his "soul mate") upon her. And Edward saves Bella by turning her into a vampire. The final section deals with Bella's transformation into a vampire, and the Cullens and Jacob's efforts to save the new baby named Renesmee from the Volturi, who sees her as a threat. Melissa Rosenberg based the screenplay for "BREAKING DAWN, PART I" on the novel's first two sections.
How did I feel about "BREAKING DAWN, PART I"? I might as well be frank. It sucked. There. I said it. All right. There were a few aspects of the movie that I found entertaining. Billy Burke was funny as ever as Bella's sardonic father, Charlie Swan. However, not all of the humor came from him. I have to admit that the entire sequence featuring Bella and Edward's wedding struck me as rather funny. Taylor Lautner, as usual, made some sequences of the movie rather bearable. I realize that I am going to be slapped down for this, but his screen presence has grown rather considerably since he first appeared in 2008's "TWILIGHT". Both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison gave decent performances. But I was really impressed by Lautner. The final action sequence in which the Cullens, Jacob, Leah Clearwater and Seth Clearwater fought to protect Bella and her child from the Quileute wolf pack struck me as pretty exciting. However, the birth of Bella and Edward's child turned out to be one of the most tense and excruciating birth scenes I have ever seen on film. I never want to experience such a thing again. The only reason I had listed it as a virtue was that I thought it was well shot by director Bill Condon.
Despite the virtues I had listed in the previous paragraph, I still believe that "BREAKING DAWN, PART I" sucked. And I cannot decide whether it was the worst or second worst movie in the franchise. The movie had its share of overwrought dialogue and one-dimensional characterization that has marred the franchise since the beginning. Melissa Rosenberg has a lot to answer for. Since the adaptation of this last novel was divided into two films, moviegoers (who were not squeeing fangirls of the franchise) were forced to endure Edward and Bella's excruciating honeymoon in Brazil. God, what a torment that turned out to be! I realize that the honeymoon sequence was important to the story, considering that it featured Renesmee's conception and Bella's discovery of her unusual pregnancy. But was it really necessary to inflict scene after scene of the newly married couple cavorting on a private Brazilian island?
There is another aspect of "BREAKING DAWN, PART I" that really disturbs me. Why on earth did Charlie Swan's closest friend and Jacob's father, Billy Black, never warned Charlie about Edward's true identity? Now, I realize that such a revelation would have forced him to tell Charlie the truth about his family and tribe. But one would think that Bella's safety was more important. He kept his mouth shut when Edward and Bella first dated. And continued to remain mum when the young couple finally married. I hate to say this, but Billy Black's silence on the identity of the Cullen family continues to astound me to this day. One can only wonder how Charlie will react to Bella's transformation into a vampire.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed "BREAKING DAWN, PART I", but . . . who am I fooling? I could not care less. I disliked the film. Hell, I dislike the franchise. And no action sequence or tortuous childbirth scene could save this movie for me. But since other members of my family are fans of the franchise, I have one last TWILIGHT movie to endure, next year. And then it will be all over. Thank God!
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Below is a list of my favorite Christmas movies . . . or movies set around the Christmas holidays:
TOP FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MOVIES
1. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) - Based upon Ian Fleming's 1963 novel, James Bond's professional life and personal life intertwine, when he falls in love during his search to find criminal mastermind, Ernst Stravo Blofeld. George Lazenby starred as British agent James Bond.
2. "The Thin Man" (1934) - William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as Nick and Nora Charles in this adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel about a former private detective who is drawn into an investigation of the murder of the secretary/mistress of a wealthy man, who is missing. W.S. Van Dyke directed.
3. "Die Hard" (1988) - Bruce Willis debuted as NYPD detective, John McClane, who faces a group of highly organized criminals, performing a heist under the guise of a terrorist attack, while holding hostages that include McClane's wife on Christmas Eve. Directed by John Tiernan, the movie co-starred Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman and James Shigeta.
4. "Trading Places" (1983) - John Landis directed this comedy about an upper class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler, whose lives cross paths when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate test of nature vs. nurture by a pair of wealthy elderly brothers. Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy starred.
5. "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945) - Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan starred in this charming comedy about a food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife. She is forced to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. Peter Godfrey directed.
6. "Lethal Weapon" (1987) - Mel Gibson and Danny Glover first paired together in this action tale about a veteran cop and a suicidal younger cop forced to work together and stop a gang of former C.I.A. operatives, turned drug smugglers. Richard Donner directed.
7. "The Santa Clause" (1994) - Tim Allen starred in this funny tale about a man, who inadvertently kills Santa Claus, before he finds himself magically recruited to take his place. Directed by John Pasquin.
8. "Die Hard 2" (1990) - Bruce Willis returned as police detective John McClane, who attempts to avert disaster as rogue military officials seize control of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve.
9. "While You Were Sleeping" (1995) - Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman starred in this charming romantic comedy about a Chicago ticket collector, who saves a man for whom she harbors feelings after he is pushed onto the commuter train tracks. While he is in a coma, his family mistakes her for his fiancée. Jon Turteltaub directed.
10. "Home Alone" (1990) - Macaulay Culkin became a star in this holiday comedy about an eight year-old boy, who is mistakenly left home in Chicago, when his family flies to Paris for the holidays. Chris Columbus directed this movie, which co-starred Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard and Catherine O'Hara.
Friday, December 28, 2012
Below are images from "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY", the first in a trilogy of movies based upon J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, "The Hobbit". Directed by Peter Jackson, the movie stars Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage:
"THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY" (2012) Photo Gallery
Thursday, December 27, 2012
"LINCOLN" (2012) Review
When I first heard of Steven Spielberg's decision to make a biographical film about the 16th president of the United States, I ended up harboring a good deal of assumptions about the movie. I heard Spielberg had planned to focus on Abraham Lincoln's last year in office and assumed the movie would be set between the spring of 1864 and April 1865. I had assumed the movie would be about Lincoln's various problems with his military generals and other politicians. I thought it would be a more focused similarity to the 1998 miniseries of the same name.
In the end, "LINCOLN" proved to be something quite different. Partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet members, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", the movie mainly focused on Lincoln's efforts in January 1865 to have slavery abolished in the country, by getting the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. According to Tony Kutchner's screenplay, Lincoln expected the Civil War to end within a month. He felt concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts at the war's conclusion and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states. To ensure that the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, Lincoln wanted it passed by the end of January in order to remove any possibility of those slaves who had already been freed, being re-enslaved. To reach his goal, Lincoln needed Republican party founder Francis Blair to garner support from the more conservative Republicans and support from Democratic congressmen, who would ordinarily vote against such an amendment. In order to acquire Blair's support, Lincoln was forced to consider a peace conference with three political representatives from the Confederacy. And his Secretary of State, William Seward, recruits three lobbyists - William N. Bilbo, Colonel Robert Latham and Richard Schell - to convince lame duck Democratic congressmen to support the amendment.
I am surprised that the movie went through a great deal in crediting Doris Kearns Goodwin's book as a major source for the movie. Very surprised. I own a copy of the book and know for a fact that only four-and-a-half pages are devoted to the Thirteenth Amendment and five-and-half pages are devoted to the Peace Conference with Confederate political leaders. If so little came from Goodwin's book, where did Tony Kutchner receive most of his historical information for the movie? And if he did use other historical sources, why did Spielberg failed to credit other historical sources for the movie?
I recall watching the trailer for "LINCOLN" and found myself slightly repelled by it. As someone who had to endure a great deal of pompous and self-righteous dialogue in a good number of historical dramas, I noticed that the trailer seemed to be full it. Fortunately, the movie was only tainted by a few scenes featuring pompous dialogue. One of those scenes turned out to be Lincoln's meeting with four Union soldiers - two blacks and two whites. Of the four soldiers, only the first black soldier - portrayed by Colman Domingo - managed to engage in a relaxed conversation with the President. The two white soldiers behaved like ardent fanboys in Lincoln's presence and one of them - portrayed by actor Luke Haas - ended up reciting the Gettysburg Address. The scene ended with the other black soldier - portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo - also reciting the speech. Not only did I find this slightly pompous, but also choked with Spielberg's brand of sentimentality, something I have never really cared for. Following Lincoln's death, Spielberg and Kutchner ended the movie with a flashback of the President reciting his second inaugural address. I cannot say how the pair should have ended the movie. But I wish they had not done with a speech. All it did was urge me to leave the movie theater as soon as possible. Janusz Kamiński is a first-rate cinematographer, but I can honestly say that I found his photography in "LINCOLN" not particularly impressive. In fact, I found it rather drab. Drab colors in a costume picture is not something I usually look forward to.
The movie also featured a few historical inaccuracies. Usually, I have nothing against this if it works for the story. The problem is that the inaccuracies in "LINCOLN" did not serve the story. I found them unnecessary. Lincoln's meeting with the four Union soldiers allowed Oyelowo's character to expressed his displeasure at the U.S. Army's lack of black officers and the indignity of pay lower than white soldiers. The problem with this rant is that before January 1865, the U.S. Army had at least 100 to 200 black officers. And Congress had granted equal pay and benefits to black troops by June 1864. Thirty-three year-old actor Lee Pace portrayed Democratic New York Congressman Fernando Wood, an ardent opponent of abolition. In reality, Wood was at least 52 years old in January 1865. Another scene featured a White House reception that featured a meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and some of the Radical Republicans like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Kutchner had Mary face Senator Sumner with a warm greeting, before she deliberately cut him off to face Congressman Stevens. The movie made it clear that the First Lady disliked the Radical Republicans, whom she viewed as personal enemies of her husband. Yet, the manner in which she disregarded Senator Sumner was completely misleading . . . especially since the senator and the First Lady had been close friends since the early months of Lincoln's presidency. In reality, Mary Lincoln's political views were more radical than her husband's. But due to her background as the daughter of a Kentucky slaveowner, most of the Radical Republicans viewed her as soft on abolition and a possible Confederate sympathizer.
Thankfully, the good in "LINCOLN" outweighed the bad. More than outweighed the bad. Recalling my original assumption that "LINCOLN" would turn out to be some pretentious film weighed down by boring dialogue and speeches, I can happily say that the movie's look at American politics during the Civil War proved to be a great deal more lively. Yes, the movie did feature a few pretentious scenes. However, "LINCOLN" turned out to be a tightly woven tale about the 16th President's efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the end of January 1865. In many ways, the movie's plot reminded me of the 2007 film, "AMAZING GRACE", which featured William Wilberforce's effort to abolish Britain's slave trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike the 2007, "LINCOLN" proved to be more tightly focused and featured a more earthy and sometimes humorous look at American politics at play. One of the movie's successes proved to be its focus on the efforts of the three lobbyists, whom I ended up dubbing the "Three Musketeers", to recruit lame duck Democrats to vote for passage of the amendment. In fact these scenes featuring James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson proved to be among the funniest in the film. The movie also featured the tribulations Lincoln experienced with his immediate family - namely the volatile behavior of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln's determination to join the Army - during this difficult period in which his attention toward the amendment's passage. More importantly, the movie on a political situation rarely mentioned in movies about Lincoln - namely the political conflicts that nearly divided the Republican Party during the Civil War. Not only did Lincoln find himself at odds with leading Democrats such as Fernando Wood of New York and George Pendleton of Ohio; but also with Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens who distrusted Lincoln's moderate stance on abolition and even his fellow conservative Republicans like Frances and Montgomery Blair, whose push for reconciliation with the Confederates threatened the amendment.
Now one might say that is a lot for a 150 minutes film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. And they would be right. But for some reason, it worked, thanks to Spielberg's direction and Kutchner's screenplay. One, for a movie with a running time between two to three hours, I found it well paced. Not once did the pacing dragged to a halt or put me to sleep. "LINCOLN" also attracted a good number of criticism from certain circles. Some have pointed out that the film seemed to claim that Lincoln kick started the campaign for the amendment. The movie never really made this claim. Historians know that the Republican controlled U.S. Senate had already passed the amendment back in April 1864. But the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives and it took another nine-and-a-half months to get the House to pass it. For reasons that still baffle many historians, Lincoln suddenly became interested in getting the amendment passed before his second inauguration - something that would have been unnecessary if he had waited for a Republican controlled Congress two months later.
Many had complained about the film's oversimplification of African-Americans' roles in the abolition of slavery. I would have agreed if the film's focus on abolition had been a little more broad and had began during the war's first year; or if it had been about the role of blacks in the abolition of slavery during the war. Actually, I am still looking forward to a Hollywood production on Frederick Douglass, but something tells me I will be holding my breath. But with the movie mainly focused on the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, I suspect this would not have been possible. Some claimed that the African-American merely hung around and waited for the amendment's passage. I would have agreed if it were not for Lincoln's encounter with the Union soldiers at the beginning of the film; Lincoln valet William Slade's day-to-day dealings with the First Family, and the film's focus on Elizabeth Keckley's attention to the political wrangling surrounding the amendment. One scene focused on Mrs. Keckley's conversation with Lincoln on the consequences of the amendment and another featured a tense moment in which she walked out on the proceedings after Thaddeus Stevens was forced to refute his earlier claims about equality between the races in order to win further Democratic support.
Aside from my complaints about the movie's drab photography, I can honestly say that from a visual point of view, "LINCOLN" did an excellent job in re-creating Washington D.C. during the last year of the Civil War. Production designer Rick Carter really had his work cut out and as far as I am concerned, he did a superb job. He was ably assisted by the art direction team of Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, who still helped to make 1865 Washington D.C. rather colorful, despite the drab photography; along with Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank's set decorations. And I found Joanna Johnston's costumes absolutely exquisite. The scene featuring the Lincolns' reception at the White House was a perfect opportunity to admire Johnston's re-creation of mid 19th century fashion. I can honestly say that I did not find John Williams' score for the movie particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it blended very well with the story and not a note seemed out of place.
"LINCOLN" not only featured a very large cast, but also a great number of first-rate performances. It would take me forever to point out the good performances one-by one, so I will focus on those that really caught my attention. The man of the hour is Daniel Day-Lewis, who has deservedly won accolades for his portrayal of the 16th President. I could go into rapture over his performance, but what is the point? It is easy to see that Abraham Lincoln could be viewed as one of his best roles and that he is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. If Day-Lewis is the man of the hour, then I can honestly say that Sally Field came out of this film as "the woman of the hour. She did a beautiful job in recapturing not only Mary Todd Lincoln's volatile nature, but political shrewdness. Like Day-Lewis, she seemed to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens has been featured as a character in at least three Hollywood productions. In pro-conservative movies like 1915's "BIRTH OF A NATION" (upon which the Austin Stoneman character is based) and the 1942 movie on Andrew Johnson called "TENNESSEE JOHNSON", he has been portrayed as a villain. But in "LINCOLN", he is portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist by the always wonderful Tommy Lee Jones. The actor did a superb job in capturing the Pennsylvania congressman's well-known sarcastic wit and determination to end slavery in the U.S. for all time. I would be very surprised if he does not early an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.
But there were other first-rate performances that also caught my attention. David Strathairn did an excellent and subtle job in capturing the politically savy Secretary of State William H. Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to impress me for the third time this year, in his tense and emotional portrayal of the oldest Lincoln sibling, Robert Lincoln, who resented his father's cool behavior toward him and his mother's determination to keep him out of the Army. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Lincoln in two television productions) gave a colorful performance as Lincoln crony, Francis Blair. Gloria Reuben gave a subtle performance as Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and companion, Elizabeth Keckley, who displayed an intense interest in the amendment's passage. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson gave hilarious performances as the three lobbyists hired by Lincoln and Seward to recruit support of the amendment from lame duck Democrats. Stephen Henderson was deliciously sarcastic as Lincoln's long suffering valet, William Slade. Lee Pace gave a surprisingly effective performance as long-time abolition opponent, Fernando Wood. And I was also impressed by Jackie Earle Haley's cool portrayal of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.
As I had stated earlier, I was not really prepared to enjoy "LINCOLN", despite its Civil War setting. To be honest, the last Spielberg movie I had really enjoyed was 2005's "MUNICH". And after the 2011 movie, "WAR HORSE", I wondered if he had lost his touch. I am happy to say that with "LINCOLN", he has not. Spielberg could have easily laden this film with over-the-top sentimentality and pretentious rhetoric. Thankfully, his portrayal of pre-20th century American politics proved to be not only exciting, but also colorful. And he had great support from a first-rate production team, Tony Kutchner's superb screenplay, and excellent performances from a cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War had not been this interesting in quite a while.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Over four years ago, (4.10) "Something Nice Back Home", a Season Four episode of "LOST" aired for the first time and I wrote a review of the episode. After a new, recent viewing, I decided to write another article on the episode:
"LOST RETROSPECT: (4.10) "Something Nice Back Home"
I am beginning to wonder if (4.10) "Something Nice Back Home", a Season Four episode from "LOST", might be one of the most misunderstood episodes of the series. When I recently viewed it for a second time in four years, I came to a realization that I may have misunderstood it.
"Something Nice Back Home" is basically a Jack Shephard episode that featured three main subplots - two of them about the very intense Dr. Shephard. One of them centered on James "Sawyer" Ford, Claire Littleton and Miles Straume's efforts to reach the Oceanic 815 survivors' beach camp, after surviving the near massacre at the Others' compound by mercenary Martin Keamy and his merry band of killers. The second subplot was about Dr. Juliet Burke's efforts to save Jack's life after he had been struck down by appendicitis. And the final subplot turned out to be a flash forward about Jack's time with fellow castaways Kate Austen and Aaron Littleton in Los Angeles, three years in the future.
During the first subplot, Sawyer, Claire and Miles' jungle trek to the beach camp proved to be a tense little adventure that obviously appealed to many viewers. Ever since Sawyer had rescued Claire during Keamy's attack upon the Others' compound in (4.09) "The Shape of Things to Come", fans began labeling him as the series' "hero". After my second viewing of the two episodes, I found this odd. Aside from his rescue of Claire, I cannot recall Sawyer doing anything worth noticing. Former Others leader Ben Linus had saved the survivors of Keamy's attack and the Smoke Monster by leading them out of the besieged compound in "The Shape of Things to Come". And in "Something Nice Back Home", pilot Frank Lapidus saved Sawyer, Claire, Miles and Aaron with a warning and prevented them from encountering a very angry Keamy and his surviving men. Frank also convinced Keamy to use another jungle trail in order to distract the latter from the castaways' hiding place.
One might view Sawyer's protective attitude toward Claire as an example of his heroism. People are entitled to do so . . . even if I have trouble accepting this. Mind you, I found the exchanges between Sawyer and Miles rather amusing. But when Sawyer caught Miles shooting odd stares at Claire, the former decided to go into a belligerent protective mode and warn Miles to keep his distance. This incident, along with Miles' detection of Danielle Rousseau and Karl's bodies were signs of Miles' psychic ability, but Sawyer was unaware of it. Eventually, Sawyer regretted his warning, when Claire disappeared into the jungle with the Smoke Monster, who was in the form of Christian Shephard - hers and Jack's father. Like I said, this subplot provided plenty of suspense, adventure and snark. But "LOST" never answered some of the questions that it raised. Why did Claire leave with the Man in Black (Smoke Monster)? Why did she leave Aaron behind? What happened to her during those three years before her reunion with her fellow castaways in Season Six? And was Claire's disappearance nothing more than a plot device for Kate's story line featuring those years with baby Aaron?
The second plot line focused on Jack's appendicitis. In fact, this episode began with this subplot, using the trademark shot of Jack's eye opening. Not much came from this particular subplot. While gathering surgical instruments and medical supplies at the Staff Station, both Jin and Sun Kwon discovered that one of the freighter newcomers, Charlotte Lewis, spoke Korean. Jin informed Charlotte that he will harm her fellow freighter passenger, Daniel Faraday, if she did not secure a place for the pregnant Sun aboard the Kahuna freighter. The subplot also revealed Juliet's talent for leadership. She also realized that Jack still loved Kate and that her romantic friendship with him was nothing more than an illusion.
In the end, Charlotte did not ensure Sun's departure from the island. Juliet did in the Season Four finale, (4.12) "There's No Place Like Home, Part I". Knowledge of Charlotte's ability to speak Korean only allowed her to issue a warning to Jin about the dangers of the island before her death in Season Five's (5.05) "This Place is Death". And Juliet's leadership abilities were never explored in future episodes. Adhering to Hollywood's sexist codes, John Locke ended up acting as leader of the castaways left behind during the island's time jumps. Sawyer assumed the role of "leader" following Locke's departure from the island, via the Orchid Station's donkey wheel.
And to this day, "LOST fans have no idea on what led to Jack's attack of appendicitis. Many have speculated, claiming that either it was a sign of the Island's displeasure over Jack's eagerness to leave or a symbol of his subconscious reacting to Jack's desire. Who knows? Fellow castaway Rose Nadler expressed her belief to husband Bernard that Jack's illness was an ominous warning. In her view, everyone "gets better" on the Island. Naturally, she could only speak from her personal experiences and knowledge of what happened to Locke's legs. I have decided not to view Jack's appendicitis from any metaphoric point of view and see it as nothing more than an opportunity for "LOST" writers to end the burgeoning Jack/Juliet romance. When Jack made it clear that he wanted Kate to participate in his operation, Juliet realized that Jack was not in love with her and told Kate. What made this whole mystery surrounding Jack's infirmity ridiculous is that three years and two seasons later, island guru Jacob told Jack and a few others that staying or leaving the island (and accepting the role as island leader) was a matter of choice.
The episode's last episode - the 2007 flash forward featuring Jack and Kate's romance in Los Angeles - seemed to have generated the greatest amount of contempt from the fans and the media. Many fans blamed Jack's personal flaws for his meltdown and break-up with Kate, complaining about his alcohol and drug dependence, his jealousy toward Kate's feelings for Sawyer (who had remained on the island), and his controlling nature. They believed if Jack had kept these flaws in check, he could have enjoyed a happy life with Kate and Aaron. Others believed that Jack's visit to Hurley at the Santa Rosa Mental Health Institute triggered a realization that he needed to return to the Island in order to meet his "destiny".
I have a different views on the subplot featuring Jack's meltdown. One, I believe it was the best subplot in "Something Nice Back Home". It was the only subplot that helped drive the series' main narrative. And unlike the Sawyer/Claire/Miles and the appendicitis subplots, it did not end with unanswered questions. More importantly, the episode raised a question that many fans, including myself, had failed to notice. What really led to Jack's post-Island meltdown and break-up with Kate? In my previous review, I had expressed an opinion that Jack's perfect life with Kate and Aaron was too superficial to last. I never realized the extent of how shallow and false his life was. After viewing "Something Nice Back Home" for the second time, I realized that this question was answered in (4.04) "Eggtown" and in future episodes such as (4.12) "There's No Place Like Home", (5.02) "The Lie", (5.04) "The Little Prince" and (5.11) "Whatever Happened, Happened".
What am I trying to say? Simple. Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six had created lives filled with unnecessary and/or selfish lies, deceit, illusions and grief. Audiences had already experienced Hugo "Hurley" Reyes' crash and burn in flashbacks featured in the Season Four premiere, (4.01) "The Beginning of the End". In this episode, audiences finally witnessed Jack's future meltdown. In a flash forward from "Eggtown", Jack revealed the Oceanic Six's major lie about the crash of Oceanic Flight 815 during Kate's criminal trial:
DUNCAN: Were you aware that Ms. Austen was a fugitive being transported by a United States marshal on that flight to Los Angeles for trial?
JACK: I did learn that eventually, yes.
DUNCAN: From the U.S. Marshal?
JACK: No, the marshal died in the crash. I never spoke to him. Ms. Austen told me.
DUNCAN: Did you ever ask her if she was guilty?
JACK: No. Never.
DUNCAN: Well, that seems like a reasonable question. Why not?
JACK: I just assumed that there had been some kind of mistake.
DUNCAN: And why would you think that?
JACK: Only eight of us survived the crash. We landed in the water. I was hurt, pretty badly. In fact, if it weren't for her, I would have never made it to the shore. She took care of me. She took care of all of us. She — she gave us first aid, water, found food, made shelter. She tried to save the other two, but they didn't—
As we all know, this is a load of horseshit. But what led Jack to tell all of these lies. The episode (4.14) "There's No Place Like Home" featured a scene in which Locke asked Jack to lie about the Island and their their experiences during the past three months . . . to protect the Island. Jack had announced his intentions to follow Locke's instructions in (5.02) "The Lie". Kate, Sun and Sayid agreed to support his lies. Hurley did not, claiming that they were unnecessary. Eventually, Hurley capitulated to Jack's demands. I never understood why Jack had created such unnecessary lies about the island. It had disappeared after Ben had pushed the Orchid Station's donkey wheel. By the time the Oceanic Six were "rescued", they had traveled many miles away from the island, thanks to Kahuna freighter's helicopter, floating in the ocean for several days and Penny Widmore's yacht, which conveyed them to the Java Trench, where a fake Oceanic 815 airplane was planted by Penny's father, Charles Widmore and near the island of Sumba. The only person who could have found the Island was Widmore. Being a former resident of the Island, he knew how to acquire information on the Island's locations. And once he did, Widmore dispatched Martin Keamy and his thugs there to collect Ben Linus. The authorities would have never found the Island, and the lie did not prevente Widmore from finding it again, as Season Six eventually proved. Leaving behind so many castaways and pretending they were dead did not serve a damn thing.
There was another lie that proved to be even more destructive . . . namely the lie about fugitive Kate Austen being the mother of Aaron Littleton, Claire's son. When "Something Nice Back Home" first aired, many viewers believed that Jack had coerced Kate into pretending to be Aaron's mother in order to protect him from the foster care system or Charles Widmore. In "There's No Place Like Home, Part I", both Jack and Kate learned that Claire's mother, Carole Littleton, was alive and well. Both realized they were keeping Aaron from his grandmother via the lie, but both continued the deception. A flashback in "The Little Prince" revealed that it was Kate who had suggested she pretend to be Aaron's mother, due to her selfish desire to use Aaron as an emotional comfort blanket:
KATE: I've been thinking a lot about him. Did you know that Claire was flying to L.A. to give him up for adoption?
JACK: No. No, I didn't.
KATE: I think we should say he's mine.
KATE: We could say that I was six months pregnant when I was arrested and that I gave birth to him on the Island. No one would ever know.
JACK: Kate, no. You don't have to... [sighs] There's other ways too this.
KATE: After everyone we've lost--Michael, Jin, Sawyer... I can't lose him, too.
JACK: Sawyer's not dead.
KATE: No. But he's gone. Good night, Jack.
JACK: Kate... If we're gonna be safe, if we're gonna protect the people that we left behind, tomorrow morning, I'm gonna have to convince everyone to lie. If it's just me, they're never gonna go for it. So I'm gonna turn to you first. Are you with me?
KATE: I have always been with you.
Wow. I find it interesting that so many fans have complained about Jack's controlling nature. Yet, it is also easy to see that he can be very susceptible to Kate's manipulations. Yet, very few people have commented on this. By the way, Kate's suggestion was confirmed in a confession that she had made to Cassidy Phillips, Sawyer's ex-girlfriend and fellow grifter, in "Whatever Happened, Happened". And Jack . . . due to his selfish desire to earn or maintain Kate's love, agreed to support her lie. I suspect his encounter with Carole Littleton at his father's funeral service dealt two major blows to Jack's psyche. He learned that Claire Littleton was his half-sister, due to an affair between Christian Shephard and Carole. And two, he had allowed Kate to use his nephew as an emotional blanket, while keeping said nephew from the latter's very healthy grandmother. I suspect that this discovery had led Jack to stay away from Kate for a while. But after seeing her at her trial, he realized he could not stay away and caved in to her demand that he need to accept Aaron as hers in order for them to have a relationship.
But Jack's conversation with Hurley at the mental hospital only proved something that Jack could not face - he was living a life based upon lies about the Island, the survivors of the crash and especially Aaron. And I also suspect that his discovery of Kate's deception about the favor she did for Sawyer made him realized that he was maintaining lies for the love of a woman who was lying to him. No wonder he freaked out in the end with booze, pills and anger. I suspect that Jack's outburst about Kate not being related to Aaron was a hint of her own meltdown and realization, a few months later.
"Something Nice Back Home" was not perfect. The episode featured one entertaining and suspenseful subplot that brought up questions behind Claire Littleton's disappearance - questions that were never really explored after Claire's reappearance in Season Six. It featured another subplot regarding Jack's appendicitis that raised both questions and minor subplots that were never dealt with any satisfaction. The only subplot I believe that had any meat or merit was the flash forward featuring Jack Shephard's meltdown regarding the Island, Kate Austen and his nephew Aaron Littleton. So in the end, all was not lost for "Something Nice Back Home".