Saturday, June 30, 2012
"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 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
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)
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.
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
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
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
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?
"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