Saturday, June 30, 2012

"GOSFORD PARK" (2001) Review

"GOSFORD PARK" (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, "GOSFORD PARK".

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle - Sir William's bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith - One of Sir William's brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist's financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge - Sir William's snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith - Sir William's younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft - Gosford Park's head cook and former employee at one of Sir William's factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson - Gosford Park's housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William's factories

*Lord Rupert Standish - a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William's opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham - Sir William's aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran - Lady Trentham's lady maid

*Elsie - Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello - Famous actor/singer and Sir William's cousin

*Morris Weissman - Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton - Weissman's valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks - Lord Stockbridge's new valet

*Jennings - Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt - A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt - The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge - Sir William's other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert - Sir William's personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved for him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William's murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings' World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady's maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, "GOSFORD PARK" remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind "GOSFORD PARK" has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of "GOSFORD PARK" seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting's atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects' motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie's pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie's last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me - namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe's performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes' portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a "CHARLIE CHAN" movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters - aristocratic and lower-class - would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry's lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes' reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of "GOSFORD PARK" proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device - "country house mystery" - and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. "GOSFORD PARK" revealed the changes that affected Britain's social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his "cousin" Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in "GOSFORD PARK" seemed to be divided into three categories - those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about "GOSFORD PARK" is that both servants and guests possessed positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie's warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about "GOSFORD PARK" that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock's set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren's art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan's costumes and the women's hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate - especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in "GOSFORD PARK". But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of "DOWNTON ABBEY", I had complained that Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in "GOSFORD PARK". I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith's portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery's main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe's portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith's wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson's portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie's moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham's new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie's emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

"GOSFORD PARK" earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted "GOSFORD PARK" as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson's adaptation of the first "LORD OF THE RINGS" movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes' screenplay and Robert Altman's direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Five - "INTO THE WEST" (2005)

Below is Part Five to my article about Hollywood's depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon "Manifest Destiny", the second episode of the 2005 television miniseries, "INTO THE WEST":

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Five - "INTO THE WEST" (2005)

I. Introduction

Steven Spielberg had served as executive producer for a miniseries about the history of the Old West, during a period that spanned from the mid-1820s to 1890-91. If this premise sounds familiar, it should. It bears a strong resemblance to the main plot for "HOW THE WEST WAS WON". Only the story for "INTO THE WEST" centered on two families - a family of wheelwrights from western Virginia and a family from the Lakota nation.

"INTO THE WEST" aired as a six-part miniseries during the summer of 2005. The second episode, "Manifest Destiny", focused on wagon journey from Independence, Missouri to California in 1841. The first episode, "Wheel to the Stars", introduced some of the saga's main characters - such as Jacob Wheeler, the son and grandson of Virginia wheelwrights; Thunder Heart Woman, the Lakota woman with whom he will fall in love and marry; his younger brother Jethro Wheeler, who was too frightened to follow Jacob on the latter's first journey to the West; and Thunder Heart Woman's three brothers, Loved By the Buffalo, Dog Star and Running Fox. This episode ended with Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman's marriage at her family's village.

"Manifest Destiny" picked up seven to eight years later with Jacob's return to Wheelerton, Virginia, with a pregnant Thunder Heart Woman and their four year-old daughter, Margaret Light Shines in two. With the exception of Jethro, the rest of the Wheeler family - including Jacob's three cousins, Naomi, Rachel and Leah - greet Thunder Heart Woman and Margaret with a chilly intolerance. After the birth of Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman's new son, Abraham High Wolf, Jacob learns of the death of the famous explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith.

Jacob realizes that Wheelerton is no longer home to him and decides to return to the West. This time, Jethro, Naomi, Rachel and Leah decide to accompany him and Thunder Heart Woman. The Wheelers spend at least three years traveling west, until they reach Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840. The family decides to travel to California and is forced to wait until the following spring of 1841 to start their journey. The Wheelers join a wagon party led by one Stephen Moxie. The Wheelers, along with their fellow emigrants experience bad weather, accidents, Native Americans, romance and tragedy during their journey to California.

II. History vs. Hollywood

With television miniseries like "CENTENNIAL" and "THE CHISHOLMS" as examples, one would think that Hollywood had finally learned to inject as much historical accuracy in its period dramas as possible. But "INTO THE WEST" - at least as far as "Manifest Destiny" is concerned - seemed to be an exception to the rule. Screenwriters William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh managed to toss historical facts to the wind, when they wrote this episode.

Mind you, Mastrosimone and Nowrasteh managed to begin the journey on the right note. The first known wagon party to attempt the journey to California (the Bartleson-Bidwell Party) did leave Westport, Missouri in 1841, the same year as the Wheelers' departure. "Manifest Destiny" did an excellent job in conveying the day-to-day chores performed by the emigrants. The wagons used by the Wheelers and other members of the Moxie wagon party were, thankfully, not the lumbering Conestogas seen in old Hollywood films. The episode also included the use of buffalo meat, dangers of cholera on the trail, river crossings and an accident caused by difficult terrain like the Windlass Hill around Ash Hollow. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode's portrayal of wagon train migration proved to have very little historical accuracy.

"Manifest Destiny" marked a return of an inaccurate portrayal of emigrant life that had not been seen for a while. Although none of the wagons featured in the episode are not Conestogas, all of them are being pulled by horses, instead of mules or oxen. I found it a miracle that none of the horses had dropped dead by the end of the episode. I also noticed that the emigrants in Moxie's party had to pay at least $80.00 or provide some valuable service (in Jacob and Jethro's case, provide wheelwright service) in order to join. However, I cannot say whether this is accurate or not. I have never come across such a thing during my studies of overland wagon travel. On the other hand, such transactions may have occurred.

One glance of the terrain featured in "Manifest Destiny" immediately alerted me to the fact that the episode had not been filmed anywhere near the locations from the actual Oregon and California trails. In fact, no famous landmarks from the two trails were shown in this episode. Not even a single fort. I discovered that the miniseries was either filmed in the Alberta Province of Canada and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This does not surprised me. The actors in this episode spent a good deal of time wearing coats or cloaks. Since the wagon journey from Missouri to California usually spanned between mid-spring and early fall, I found the presence of outer wear unrealistic.

The Lakota characters featured in the six-part miniseries proved to be just as complex as the white characters. This is not surprising. After all, some of Jacob Wheeler's in-laws were among the main characters - especially his three brothers-in-law. However, when it came to the Hoxie wagon party's encounter with members of the Cheyenne nation, historical accuracy was once again tossed into the wind.

Among the travelers that joined the Moxie wagon party was a family of free blacks from Illinois named Jones. When Mrs. Jones died from cholera, they were forced to remain behind, until they could be certain that no one else in their party had contracted the disease. The Wheelers - with the exception of Naomi, who was traveling with her new husband - were forced to remain with the Jones, due to being the closest with the family. Soon, Jethro came down with cholera. But he managed to overcome his illness. After his recovery, Jacob rode ahead to find the wagon party. He discovered that the entire wagon train - except for Naomi, who was taken - had been killed by Native Americans. Jacob returned to the Wheeler and Jones wagons, which found themselves under attack by Cheyenne dog soldiers, the very party that wiped out the Moxie wagon train. In other words, the viewers were expected to believe that a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers were able to wipe out a fairly-sized and well-armed wagon party. Yet, the only damage they were able to inflict upon the Wheeler and Jones families was a lance through Jacob Wheeler's shoulder. Ri-i-ii-i-ight! This was one the most ludicrous piece of historical inaccuracy I had ever encountered in a period drama.

There were other minor historical inaccuracies, which had nothing to do with the Moxie wagon party that I found in "Manifest Destiny". One, Jedediah Smith did not die around 1836-37. He was killed in 1831. And according to Jacob, there were no battles or any real violence in California during the Mexican-American War. Wrong! A few months after the Americans had taken over the province, the Californios took up arms against their new rulers, resulting in a few battles mainly fought in Southern California.

It seems ironic that "Manifest Destiny" turned out to be the least historically accurate episode of "INTO THE WEST". I say that it is ironic, because this episode happens to be my favorite from the entire miniseries. "Manifest Destiny" gave a fairly accurate picture of the daily activities of emigrants on the overland trails. But it turned out to be like many films from the past - more Hollywood than history.

III. Conclusion

This marks the end of my look at Hollywood's depiction of emigrant wagon trains. The two movies and three miniseries were not the only productions to feature this setting. And if these articles have increased your interest in this subject, you might want to consider other movie and television productions about it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"EL DORADO WEST" [PG] - Chapter Twenty-One

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

Chapter Twenty-One – Independence Rock

June 25, 1849
We finally reached Independence Rock . . . on the Twenty-fifth of June. We are nine days early, much to the disappointment of some. The Palmer brothers had plans for the wagon train to hold a Fourth of July celebration in the shadow of the rock. Alas . . . it did not happen.

The rock itself did not strike me as impressive, in compare to Scott's Bluff or Courthouse Rock. Alice declared that Independence Rock seemed more like a giant mound or hill than an actual mountain. And she did not seem particularly disappointed that we reached Independence Rock a day late. She found the efforts that many emmigrants made to reach this place by July 4th rather childish and ridiculous. She believes that we should be thankful that we have made it this far, reminding me that we have reached the halfway point between Missouri and California. I do wish she had not reminded me that we have another one thousand miles of travel, before we reach our destination.

Mr. Wendell appeared beside our wagon and invited both of us to join a small excursion to the rock. Some of our fellow travelers plan to leave their mark on the impassive wall. I was tempted to reject his offer, when I recalled my decision to have a talk with Mr. Wendell. The Palmers, Mr. Moore and Jonas Goodwin decided to climb upon the rock to make their marks. Alice, Mr. Wendell and I decided to remain on the ground. There was plenty of room. I wonder if historians would ever look back and wonder about the markings left on the rock.

While Alice accompanied the Palmers back to the camp, I led Mr. Wendell to the banks of the nearby Sweetwater River and quietly demanded that he end his "courtship" of my sister. I reminded him that Alice was an inexperienced and innocent young woman who was not used to spending a great deal of time in the outdoors. I also reminded him that the time they had spent alone was a detriment to Alice's reputation as a single woman. For a brief moment, I feared that Mr. Wendell was tempted to toss me into the river. But he merely gave me a long, hard stare and walked away. I followed him and demanded that he agree to keep his distance from Alice. He eventually agreed . . . in a rather brusque manner. Perhaps I should be ashamed of myself, but I do not. I know in my heart that the likes of Elias Wendell was not the right man for someone as refined as Alice.

End of Chapter Twenty-One

Monday, June 25, 2012

"THE AVIATOR" (2004) Photo Gallery

Below is a gallery featuring photos from Martin Scorsese's biopic about aviator/movie producer Howard Hughes. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly, Danny Huston and Alan Alda starred:

"THE AVIATOR" (2004) Photo Gallery

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"THE AVENGERS" (2012) Review

"THE AVENGERS" (2012) Review

Back in 2007, Marvel Studios set out to do something that DC Comics managed to achieve some forty years ago through a Saturday morning animated series. The studio created a series of movies based upon some of its company's popular comic book characters. This series culminated into the recent hit movie, "THE AVENGERS"

The group of comic book heroes that became a team in "THE AVENGERS", turned out to be the following - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first four starred in their own movies and the last two, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, appeared as supporting characters in 2010's "IRON MAN 2" and 2011's "THOR"respectively. And each movie, starting with 2008's "IRON MAN", hinted at the formation of Marvel Comics' team of superheroes.

Written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon and directed by the latter, "THE AVENGERS" begins with Loki, the villain from"THOR" and the latter's adopted brother, making a deal with the leader of the Chitauri aliens called the Other to lead an army on Earth, in order to subjigate the human race. In order to do this, Loki needs to retrieve the Tesseract, a powerful energy source originally found on Earth in "CAPTAIN AMERICA". The Tesseract opens a doorway that allows Loki to arrive a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D., use his scepter to enslave a few agents, Dr. Eric Selvig and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye and take the Tesseract. 

In response to Loki's attack, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative. He, along with agents Phil Coulson and Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow; recruits Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk to form a team and stop Loki's plans and recover the Tesseract. Both Captain America and Iron Man manage to capture Loki in Germany. But during a flight back to the States, Thorarrives and frees Loki, hoping to convince him to abandon his plan and return to Asgard. Instead, a confrontation ensues between the three heroes before Thor agrees to accompany them all back to the Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying aircraft carrier. Despite Loki being a captive, the Avengers still need to find the missing Tesseract. Even worse, Loki does not remain a captive very long.

Over a month has passed since "THE AVENGERS" hit the movie screens. And during that time, it managed to become the third highest-grossing film of all time. Most fans and critics of comic hero movies tend to view any film with more than one villain as a box office or critical disaster. And yet . . . many of these same critics and fans seemed to have no problem with a movie featuring six comic book heroes. I find that rather . . . odd and contradictory, but there is no explaining humanity's chaotic nature. I have never had a problem with a comic book movie featuring more than one villain or hero, as long as that movie was well written. And I cannot deny that Whedon and Zak Penn wrote a first-rate movie.

First of all, Marvel Studios made the wise decision to map out the movie's plot with four to five other movies. This enabled them to set up most of the characters before shooting "THE AVENGERS". Natasha Romanoff had received a small introduction in "IRON MAN 2". And Clint Barton was allowed nothing more than a cameo appearance in "THOR". This meant that these two were the only ones left to be properly introduced in this film, along with their previous relationship as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Tesseract, the energy source that Loki will use to allow Chitauri warriors to invade Manhattan in the movie's last act, had originally been introduced in "CAPTAIN AMERICA" and hinted briefly in"IRON MAN 2" and in the Easter Egg scene for "THOR". I wish I knew who had the idea to set up the story and characters for "THE AVENGERS" in previous movies. I would congratulate him or her for convincing Marvel to pursue this course of storytelling. For it paid off very well.

Second, I was impressed at how the main cast members - especially those portraying members of the Avengers - managed to click so well and create a viable screen team. Whedon and Penn's script did not make it easy for them. Only the Black Widow and Hawkeye initially felt comfortably working together and even their relationship was disrupted by Loki's temporary enslavement of Hawkeye's mind. I could point out one or two particular performances by the cast. But if I must be honest, practically all of them stepped up to bat and performed beautifully. Okay, I must admit there were a few dramatic scenes that really impressed me. 

I enjoyed the quarrel between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who did a great job in developing the characters from initial hostility and wariness to trust and teamwork. I also enjoyed Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who continued their outstanding work and screen chemistry as the two Asgardian siblings, in a scene in which Thor tries to convince Loki that he and their family still loved the latter, despite his actions in"THOR". Scarlett Johansson managed to appear in three scenes that impressed me. One featured a contest of will and intellect between her Black Widow and Hiddleston's Loki. Another featured both her and Mark Ruffalo, as she manages to convince Bruce Banner to help S.H.I.E.L.D. to track down the Tesseract. But my favorite scene featured a heart-to-heart conversation between Natasha and her old partner, Clint Barton, as they discussed her past and his mind enslavement by Loki. Samuel L. Jackson did an excellent job as the intimidating, yet manipulative director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. He also seemed surprisingly spry for a man in his 60s, as his character dodged several near death experiences. Clark Gregg was entertaining as ever as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s top agents, Phil Coulson. It was nice to see Stellan Skarsgård repeat his role as Dr. Eric Selvig. Although his role was not particularly big, Selvig had a major impact on the plot. And Skarsgård managed to give his usual, top-notch performance. Cobie Smulders managed to hold herself well as one of Fury's assistants, Maria Hill. It is a pity that Whedon was unable to showcase Alexis Denisof a little more as leader of the Chitauri aliens. I suspect that being cloaked and hidden in the small number of scenes probably did not help much, in the end.

I have heard that Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of Bruce Banner/the Hulk has received rave reviews from the critics and the fans. Many critics have also suggested his portrayal of the character was superior to both Eric Bana's performance in 2003 and Edward Norton's 2008 portrayal. I say bullshit to that. I suspect that the critics are spouting this crap, because Ruffalo got to portray the Hulk in a movie that is a box office and critical hit. Ruffalo did a great job in portraying Bruce at this later stage of his existence as the Hulk. However, I also feel there was nothing exceptional about his performance that made his Hulk superior to Bana and Norton's. This whole notion of Ruffalo giving a better performance than the other two actors strikes me as nothing but a lot of fanboy horseshit.

One cannot talk about "THE AVENGERS" without discussing the film's visual effects. What can I say? They were outstanding. Well . . . somewhat outstanding. Seamus McGarvey's photography struck me as very effective in giving the movie an epic feel. And his work was vastly assisted by the visual effects team led by Jake Morrison. For a movie set either in New York City, or over the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a flying aircraft carrier, I was very surprised to learn that a great deal of the movie was shot in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, the film crew only spent two days shooting in Manhattan. 

I do have a few complaints about "THE AVENGERS". One, although I was impressed by Whedon's direction and McGarvey's photography, I cannot say the same about the work they did for the Black Widow/Hawkeye fight scene aboard the Helicarrier. To be honest, I found it slightly murky and confusing. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek's editing did not help. Their work revived bad memories of Paul Greengrass' quick-cut editing at its worst. Honestly? Jon Favreau did a better job of shooting her fight scenes in "IRON MAN 2". I also realized that Whedon had been talking out of his ass, when he claimed that a good deal of the movie would be shown from Steve Rogers' point-of-view. Even worse, the film never really hinted any troubles Steve may have experienced dealing with the early 21st century. And could someone explain why the Hulk turned out to be more powerful than a pair of Norse gods - namely Thor and Loki? How in the hell did that come about? This certainly was not the case nearly 50 years ago, when Thor beat the pants of both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner in the Marvel issue, Avengers #3 (Jan. 1964). Could someone please explain this phenomenon?

I have a minor problem with the movie. In the past five years, fans of the MCU movies have been aware that the Titan supervillain, Thanos, has been collecting all of the Infinity stones, including the Tesseract featured in this film. And yet … Thanos handed over one of the stones - the Mind Stone set in a scepter - to Loki for the latter’s use during the Chitauri’s invasion of Earth. Why would he do that? Thanos is going through a great deal of trouble to get his hands on the Infinity stones. Why would he hand over the only stone - even temporarily - he had in his possession? That makes no sense to me. If I had been Thanos, I would have kept that stone close to me, no matter what.

"THE AVENGERS" may not be perfect. But it is obviously one of the best comic book movies I have seen, hands down. And so far, it has turned out to be one of the best movies of 2012. It deserves all of the accolades it has earned. And for the first time in his career, Joss Whedon seemed to have directed a movie that matched his work with his "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER" and "ANGEL" television series.

Friday, June 22, 2012

TIME MACHINE: The War of 1812


June 18 had marked the 200th anniversary of when President James Madison and the U.S. Congress declared war against Great Britain and the British Empire on June 18, 1812; an act that led to the beginning of the War of 1812 (1812-1814). 

The War of 1812 was a major conflict that lasted two-and-a-half years between the young United States nation and the British Empire, along with the latter's Native American allies. The conflict was fought on both land and the sea, on and near the North American continent. There were a handful of reasons that led the U.S. government to declare war on Great Britain. Here are a few:

Impressment of American Sailors - Due to the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) waged against Napoleon's French Empire, sailors aboard American ships found themselves impressed by the Royal Navy and French ships. The British, especially, claimed that many sailors that found themselves aboard American merchant ships were deserters from their Navy. And many of them were. Their efforts to impress sailors from American ships became even more excessive after 1805. The problem of impressment culminated in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, a naval engagement between naval engagement that occurred off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia; on June 22, 1807, between the British warship H.M.S. Leopard and American frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake. The crew of the Leopard pursued, attacked and boarded the American frigate, while looking for deserters from the British Navy. 

Orders in Council (1807) - This document was a series of decrees made by Great Britain that forbade French trade with the British Empire, its allies, or neutrals like the United States. The decrees were a response to France's Berlin Decree of 1806, which forbade the import of British goods into European countries allied with or dependent upon France, and installed the Continental System in Europe. The Orders in Council led the British to use the Royal Navy to enact a blockade of French ports. The British used the Orders in Council as an excuse to bombard Copenhagen, Denmark in September 1807 (Battle of Copenhagen). They did so to prevent the Danish from joining France's Continental System. The British also used their decrees as an excuse for their policy of stopping neutral (including American) ships from trading with France. President Thomas Jefferson responded to the Orders by passing the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade U.S. ships from trading with Britain and France. The act proved to be very ineffective, unpopular, and led to economic strain in the U.S., until it was repealed in 1809. Great Britain repealed the Orders in Council on June 16, 1812. But the news of the repeal, which gave great concessions to the U.S., did not reach American shores in time to prevent Congress from declaring war on the British.

American Expansion - This is believed to be one of the major causes of the war. The Americans wanted expansion into the Native American lands of the Northwest Territory and the Upper Mississippi Valley. However, the tribes blocked their expansion and the British supported this block. The British worried about American desire for Canada, a problem that first manifested during the American Revolution. Many American historians believe that the U.S. desire for the conquest of Canada is nothing more than a staple of Canadian opinion since the 1830s and that it was never a permanent war goal, merely a tool for negotiations. However, many do believe that if the U.S. had been successful in acquiring control of Canadian lands, the government would have been very reluctant to returned the occupied territory to the British.

Despite the many reasons that led to the beginning of the War of 1812, it took certain incidents that led the U.S. to declare war on Great Britain. Confrontations between the Royal Navy and American ships (both military and commercial) like the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the Leander Affair, the series of economic decrees and embargo acts, and military conflicts between the Native Americans and the Americans like the Tecumseh War in which the British supported the natives, finally led to the development of a coalition of young congressmen from the Democratic-Republican party (popular in the West and the South) called the "War Hawks". Led by Henry Clay Sr. of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the "War Hawks" pushed for a declaration of war against Britain. President James Madisongave a speech to the U.S. Congress on June 1, 1812; listing American grievances against Great Britain. The House of Representatives quickly voted to declare war against the British, followed by the Senate. The conflict formally began on June 18, 1812; when President Madison signed the measure into law. 

If you have any further interest in the War of 1812, the following is a sample of books you might want to read:

*"The War of 1812 - A Forgotten Conflict" by Donald R. Hickey

*"The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent" by J.C.A. Stagg

*"1812: War With America" by Jon Latimer

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Double Emnity" (R) - Chapter 2


Chapter 2

At the offices of Jackman, Carter and Kline, Cole and another client of his – Mark Giovanni – stared in shock at the two men who sat on the other side of the long table, inside one of the conference rooms. "I'm . . . excuse me, but could you repeat what you had just said?" Cole politely asked.

The two men, representatives of the Napa Valley Community Housing Corporation, exchanged quick glances. The older man, a balding fellow with a dark moustache named Mr. Prima, smiled. "The NVCHC would like to coordinate the purchase of Mr. Giovanni's property in Oakville. We see the market value for development in that particular area. The property's development could provide jobs and housing for many citizens."

Both Cole and Giovanni continued to stare at the government employees. The half-daemon wondered why the NVCHC had developed a sudden interest in Giovanni's property.

Before the dark-haired wine grower could reply, Prima added, "Mr. Giovanni, you stand to gain a profit of nine million dollars."

Giovanni inhaled. Cole did not blame him. The NVCHC seemed willing to offer six million dollars more than the Magan Corporation. He wondered if the viner would be able to make such a profit based upon a year's crop production. Cole glanced at his client. He could see the temptation gleaming in the other man's dark eyes. Then to his surprise, a deep resolution replaced the greed. "Thank you gentlemen, but no," Giovanni finally answered. "I have plans for that property."

The other NVCHC representative coughed slightly. "Mr. Giovanni, our organization has made an appraisal of your property. You might earn a profit from producing your wine, but our offer will provide you with a greater profit than what you might expect to earn within the next two years."

A long, silent pause followed. Cole wondered if Giovanni had changed his mind. The latter's next words ended the half-daemon's speculation. "I'm sorry, but the answer is still no. Believe it or not, winemaking is more important to me than any quick profit I could earn by selling my property to you. I hope to create a great vintage from that land."

The two government men exchanged ominous looks. "We're sorry to hear that Mr. Giovanni," Prima said. "Hopefully, you'll change your mind one day." He and his colleague gathered their files and briefcases before standing up. "Good day, gentlemen." Finally, the two men left.

Giovanni heaved a sigh. "We're going to hear from them soon, aren't we?"

Cole began to place his files and paperwork into an accordion folder. "I'm afraid so, Mark. I'm beginning to suspect that the Magan Corporation is behind this latest offer."


The half-daemon explained, "There's a good chance that this NVCH might file a Federal lawsuit to force you to sell your property. Eminent Domain. I've warned you about this, before."

Giovanni frowned. "What?"

"It's a legal power used by governments to acquire property for . . . 'public use'. Chances are that if the NVCH forces you to sell, they might sell the land to the Magan Corporation, if the latter promises to develop the property for reasons other than wine making."

Despair crept into Giovanni's dark eyes. "Can't you stop this from happening?"

Cole advised his client not to worry. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We don't know if the NVCH will file an Eminent Domain suit. And if they do, I'll do everything within my power to ensure they won't succeed." And if that does not work, Cole added silently, there are other ways. He smiled at his client.


The condominium on Bryan Street loomed before Olivia. She had not laid eyes upon it in two years. Not since she had renounced her vows as a witch and left San Francisco. In all honestly, she did not miss it. The location and atmosphere of the Manhattan condo that she now shared with Cole seemed more preferable.

The red-haired warlock heaved a sigh and glanced at her watch. It read four fifty-seven in the afternoon. Plenty of time for her to search her counterpart's apartment. Olivia took a deep breath and entered the building.

"May I help you?" greeted a uniformed concierge politely.

Olivia stared at the man. He looked nothing like the twenty-something Latino who had been one of the building's concierges during the three years she had lived here. "I'm sorry," she finally said with a smile. "Is . . . um, is Ms. Olivia McNeill at home?"

"McNeill?" The stocky, forty-something white man blinked. He diverted his attention to the computer terminal on his desk. "I'm sorry. We have no tenant by the name of Olivia McNeill living here."

"Are you sure?"

The concierge shook his head. "I'm sorry, miss. I've been working here for a year. The name does not sound familiar. And it's not on our list of tenants."

Great! Olivia thought darkly. Either her counterpart had never lived here or had moved over a year ago. She gave the concierge a cool smile. "Oh well, I must have the wrong address. Thanks anyway." Olivia turned on her heels and marched out of the building.

The redhead had not taken five steps when she nearly collided with a dark-haired woman walking from the opposite direction. A fuming Olivia opened her mouth to give the other woman a tongue lashing, when the latter cried, "Olivia? Is that you?"

Her fury dissipated, Olivia stared at the woman and immediately recognized her. "Serena Lund? Wow! It's been quite a while."

"It's Serena Grant," the woman said with a sigh. "I've divorced Gordon and have returned to using my maiden name." Olivia murmured a perfunctory apology, before Serena continued, "What are you doing here? I thought you had moved nearly a year-and-a-half ago."

Olivia quickly made an excuse about receiving a call regarding lost mail. "An old friend of mine from Australia didn't know that I had moved."

"Oh. I see." Then Serena added, "I also heard that you got married. Is that true?"

Married? Realizing that she lacked a wedding ring on her finger, Olivia immediately covered her right hand. "Yes. Yes, it's true," she answered politely. "Some . . . um, time ago." Then she glanced at her watch. "Wow! Would you look at that? It's after five already. I really need to get home." She smiled at Serena. "Perhaps we can get in touch again?" Fortunately for Olivia, the other woman casually acquiesced to the suggestion . . . as if it was an afterthought. The two females said good-bye and went their separate ways.

Married? Olivia's mind reeled from the new knowledge as she strode toward her rented car. When on earth did the other Olivia get married? And whom did she . . . She paused in her tracks as the realization hit her. Cole! Of course! The other Olivia must have married the Cole Turner of this dimension. During her time in Scotland last June, Olivia recalled that the two had been a couple. She also recalled that English warlock's revelations about this dimension Cole being a lot more powerful than her Cole. A sigh left her mouth. This little mission to take possession of that damn staff might proved to be more difficult than she had assumed.


Juggling two plastic grocery bags on her left wrist and Wyatt on her right hip, Piper struggled to unlock the manor's front door. She sighed in frustration. If only she possessed telekinesis like Prue or Olivia . . . or a teleportation ability like Paige, she would not have this trouble getting inside. She glanced at her one year-old son. Perhaps if she could get Wyatt . . . At that moment, Piper, Wyatt and the groceries orbed from the front stoop to inside the manor's foyer. "Thanks," she murmured to her son.

Voices and laughter drifted from the manor's Solarium. There she found Paige and Harry McNeill pouring over several family photo albums. "Paige, what are you doing home so early?"

"What do you mean . . . early?" Paige replied, as she glanced up. "I'm only early by a half hour. It's just a little past six. But if you must know, Barbara had closed the shop a little early, today. She had fainted and I orbed her to the doctor's office. I called Harry and he brought me home, after dropping Barbara off."

Barbara fainted? Piper asked about Paige's employer and Harry's sister-in-law. "Is she okay? What's wrong with her?"

Harry added, "Right now, we don't know. Dr. Palin took a few tests, but she told Barbara that she would get back to her later. The clinic was pretty busy, this afternoon."

"Clinic?" Piper frowned at Paige. "You didn't take her to the hospital?"

Paige shrugged her shoulders. "I started to, but Barbara had insisted that I take her to see this Dr. Palin."

"She's the family doctor," Harry added. "And a witch."

The front door slammed with a bang. "I'm home!" Phoebe's voice cried. "Piper, I've got some ne . . ." The middle Charmed One broke off at the sight of Paige and Harry. "Paige, you just got home?"

The youngest sister opened her mouth to answer, but Piper spoke. "Barbara wasn't feeling well and closed the shop a little early. You said something about news?"

Phoebe flopped down on the loveseat. She revealed that while having lunch with a fellow co-worker, she had spotted Cole entering Quake with Janet Hui and a new client. "Guess who this client is?"

"A demon?" Paige commented wryly.

Phoebe shot a quick glare at the younger woman. "I wish!" she snapped. "His new client is none other than Holly McMillan. You know, the wife of the very murdered Toby McMillan."

The news stunned Piper. "You're kidding!" How could Cole possibly believe that he could get the murderous Holly McMillan exonerated? And why would he even defend that woman?

"Are you serious?" Paige demanded. "Everyone knows that she's guilty. Why would Cole defend her?" She stared at Harry. "Did you know?"

Harry shrugged. "Sure. Cole and Livy told us about a month ago. Why?"

Her dark eyes blazing with outrage, Paige exclaimed, "You've known for a whole month? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Since when do you have to keep tabs on Cole's list of clients?" Harry retorted. "And I forgot. Big deal!"

Shaking her head, Piper demanded, "Why would Cole defend that McMillan woman, anyway? Does he actually think that she's innocent? And what about Olivia? She must be pissed."

With a sigh, Harry quickly dismissed that idea. "If Livy was pissed, she certainly didn't show it. She and Darryl didn't investigate the case. And even she has no say in what cases Cole might decide to accept."

Phoebe began, "Yeah, but . . ."

"Look," Harry said, interrupting Phoebe, "just accept the fact that Cole is now Holly McMillan's defender. She happens to be one of Jackman, Carter and Kline's clients. Cole works for them. Which means that he is just doing his job. And by the way, what ever happened to 'innocent before guilty'? Holly McMillan was arrested over a month ago and already, you three have judged her guilty."

"Who else wanted Toby McMillan dead?" Phoebe shot back.

Harry's next words took Piper by surprise. "I can think of a lot of people. Trust me."

"Toby McMillan was one of this city's biggest philanthropists," Piper reminded Harry. "For a rich man, he was pretty decent."

A derisive snort escaped from Harry's mouth. "Yeah . . . right. Listen, I would hang around and tell you the real truth about Toby McMillan, but . . ." He glanced at his watch. ". . . that's a long story and I have an appointment." The red-haired witch planted a kiss on Paige's cheek. "I'll see you all later." He left the Solarium and eventually, the manor.

Once the door slammed shut, Piper turned to her sisters. "What did he mean by that?"

"Who cares?" Phoebe retorted. "But I'm going to have a talk with Cole about his choices in clients."

Oh no! Piper bemoaned silently.

"I wouldn't if I were you," Paige warned. Piper shot her a grateful look.

Annoyance flickered across Phoebe's face. "Why not?"

Paige continued, "Because you're no longer married to Cole, Phoebe. I sometimes think that you forget that. He's not going to sit around and listen to his ex-wife lecture him about his job."

"If he really wants to be considered good so badly, he can listen," Phoebe shot back. "He seemed to think that he had a right to lecture me about Jason." She turned on her heels and started toward the Solarium's doorway. "I'm going upstairs to change."

The moment Phoebe left the Solarium, Piper heaved an exasperated sigh. Loudly. "Will she ever get over Cole?"

"I don't know," Paige commented. "Maybe. Ever since Jason dumped her and she found out about a possible baby in her life, Phoebe has become . . ."

"Impossible?" The word came out of Piper's mouth before she could stop herself. Paige stared at her. "What? You know I'm telling the truth."

This time, Paige heaved a sigh. "Yeah . . . I know."


The aroma of roasting meat greeted Cole's nostrils, as he entered the penthouse. Olivia must be home, he realized. After dumping his briefcase and coat on the sofa, he spotted his wife's Book of Shadows on the coffee table. He then headed toward the kitchen, where he found Olivia preparing dinner. She stood behind the counter, slicing cucumbers.

"Smells nice," he murmured. Then he leaned forward to kiss the back of Olivia's slender neck. "Steak?"

Olivia replied, "Chateaubriand Marchand de Vin. I came home a little early to finish it."

"Hmmm." Cole buried his face against the side of his wife's neck and sighed.

"Oh, oh," Olivia added. "Hard day?"

Instead of answering her question, Cole said, "I saw your Book of Shadows on the table. What's going on?"

Olivia turned around to give him a long stare. Then she sighed. "I was looking for an old teleportation spell of mine. I haven't used it in years. Not since college. After all, I can't always depend upon you, Paige or Nathalie. I can also use a variation on it to track someone via teleportation. Like your zoltars do."

"Sounds like a pretty good idea," Cole said. "And they were never my zoltars." He paused, recalling his tenure as the Source. "Okay, for a brief period." He rested his chin on top of Olivia's head.

"Aren't you going to tell me about your day?"

Cole removed his chin and murmured, "You know, there are times when I wish I had never given up being a demonic assassin. Of course, life hadn't been any easier back then."

Olivia tossed the cucumber slices into a salad bowl. "What happened?"

Cole told her about his lunch with his newest client, Holly McMillan. "That woman has a past that would make Messalina green with envy. You would not believe some of the stories she told me. Apparently, dear Toby was just as bad." Again, he sighed. "Even worse, I spotted Phoebe and a friend leaving the restaurant. You should have seen the look she gave me."

"Oh," Olivia murmured. "I just remembered that Jason used to be a regular contributor to some of Toby McMillan's . . . charities. This started right before we had broken up. I bet that Phoebe regarded McMillan as a saint."

With a derisive snort, Cole added, "Try the entire city of San Francisco."

Olivia began dicing tomatoes, while Cole sat on an empty stool on the other side of the counter. "Speaking of Holly McMillan," she said, "Jake Synder had confronted me about her becoming your client. I think he's worried that she'll be exonerated."

Concern crept into Cole's thoughts. "Wait a minute. Are you saying that you're being harassed at work because she's my client?"

"No, Jake Synder tried to harass me." A smug smile touched Olivia's lips. "And failed." Her green eyes met Cole's. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself."

Cole allowed himself a knowing smile. "I'm sure that you can." He snatched a sliced cucumber from the salad bowl and ate it. "Besides, not even Phoebe is my real problem. Mark Giovanni and I had a meeting with two men from the Napa Valley Community Housing Corporation. It seems they're interested in purchasing his Oakview property. To develop the area for a new housing community."

"What?" Olivia planted the knife on the counter.

Nodding, Cole continued, "In fact, they had offered an even higher price than the Magan Corporation. Mark said no, but something tells me that we haven't heard the last of the NVCHC."

Olivia glanced sharply at the half-daemon. "You think it might come down to an Eminent Domain lawsuit?" Again, Cole nodded. The redhead's expression grew reflective. "If the NVCHC wins, the Magan Corporation could easily purchase the property from them."

"Precisely," Cole grimly added. "Which is why I suspect that our favorite corporation is behind the NVCHC's sudden interest in the property." He shook his head in mild despair. "You know, I had a feeling that I was in for a shitty week when I woke up this morning. I wonder what else is the universe going to throw at me."


Inside an occult shop called the Red Pyramid, the warlock perused a shelf filled with various crystals and other stones and rocks of magical properties. Olivia wanted a scrying crystal – preferably a quartz – to help her locate her alter ego. And the staff.

Just as Olivia was about to reach for a small quartz that caught her eye, a tall, thin figure loomed in her view. Olivia immediately recognized him as a Khorne Order upper-level daemon named Dhurlac. He happened to be one of his order's top assassins.

An idea came to her. Olivia knew that the Khorne Order – like most top demonic sets within the Source's Realm – maintained a first-class source of information on all possible allies . . . and enemies. The order must have knowledge of the whereabouts of the present Aingeal Staff bearer and her demonic husband.

From afar, Olivia watched Dhurlac make his purchase. Dismissing the quartz from her mind, she followed the daemon outside of the shop and into a deserted alley. The moment he teleported out of sight, Olivia walked over to the very spot where he had last stood. Then she chanted:

"Winds of the North, East, South and West,

From this point of departure.

Trace the one who stood before me

Carry me henceforth to where he went."

A gust of wind surrounded the red-haired warlock before she found herself standing outside of an impressive Tudor-style manor made from red brick. A black iron gate blocked the driveway. Despite the evening's dim light, Olivia saw Dhurlac strode up the driveway before entering the manor. She also came to the realization that the property was located in one of San Francisco's most exclusive suburbs – Palo Alto.

Olivia walked over to the speaker box outside of the gate and activated it. "Yes?" a female's voice demanded sharply.

"Good evening," Olivia greeted politely. "I'm Inspector Olivia McNeill of the San Francisco Police. May I speak to the owner, please?" A video camera mounted near the top of the gate's right side swerved to focus upon her. Olivia responded with a wide, friendly smile.