Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga" - Padmé Amidala

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Here is the fifth article on moral ambiguity found in the STAR WARS saga: 


"The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga"

Padmé Amidala

When I had first started on this project, I realized that exploring the moral ambiguity of Padmé Amidala - mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa - might be something of a problem. I have always suspected that the majority of STAR WARSfans might regard her as an ideal figure, someone who could not possibly possess a shread of ambiguity in her nature. One could blame George Lucas for portraying Padmé as a one-dimensional character. But I cannot. One, I have difficulty accepting Padmé as an ideal and one-dimensional character. In her own quiet and ladylike way, Padmé never struck me as one-dimensional. True, she does reflect an ideal persona in a superficial way. But when I looked past her aura of serenity and wisdom, I saw a young woman who not only made some unwise choices in her life, but also possessed her own set of personal flaws.

Since she was a child, Padmé Nabierre had made her mark upon her homeworld of Naboo and the Galactic Republic. During her youth, Padmé participated in organizations such as the Refugee Relief Movement, the Legislative Youth Program and the Apprentice Legislative. At the age of thirteen, she was elected Princess of Theed, rallying those who opposed the rule of Naboo's last king, Ars Veruna. Highly regarded by Naboo's population and its elite, Padmé was elected Queen of Naboo during that same year and took the Regnal name of Amidala. Not long after her ascension to the throne, Padmé's rule was first tested when Naboo became embroiled in a conflict with the infamous Trade Federation over trade routes. This conflict spilled into an invasion and a brief war of liberation. After serving eight years as queen, she stepped down from the throne, the new Queen Jamilla urged her to run for senator. Padmé won easily and served as Naboo's main elected representative in the Galactic Senate. During her six years as senator, Padmé survived assassination attempts, found love with Jedi Anakin Skywalker, witnessed the destructive Clone Wars, witnessed the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire, lost her husband to the Sith and gave birth to twins before dying on the moon of Polis Massa. Recalling her life, I am not surprised that many would wonder what was so ambiguous about Padmé Amidala.

In a scene from "STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES", Padmé discussed her political career with her Jedi escort and future husband, Anakin Skywalker and expressed her belief that she may have been too young to serve as Queen of Naboo during her eight years on the throne. And honestly? I heartily agree. I have heard of reigning monarchs under the age of 18. But a regent is usually appointed to rule on the behalf of said monarch until the latter reaches 18 years old. At 13-14 years old, Padmé seemed too young to exercise such political power. This seemed very apparent in a decision she made in "STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE" - a decision that led to great consequences for the Galactic Republic.

Perhaps Padmé's lack of maturity and experience had nothing to do with her bad decision. It was one even an older and more experienced politician or head of state could have made. I am referring to Padmé's decision to declare a vote of no confidence against Chancellor Finis Valorum of the Galactic Republic. Originally, Padmé had no intention of making such a move, despite the insidious insistence of Naboo's Senator Palpatine. Perhaps my imagination had been in overdrive, but she seemed a bit resistant to Palpatine's suggestion. But when Chancellor Valorum failed to take action against the Trade Federation's invasion other than form a committee to investigate, Padmé allowed her anger and frustration to get the best of her and made two decisions. One of them resulted in her return to Naboo to lead a military resistance against the Trade Federation, which led to victory. And as Naboo's premiere political representative during her visit to Coruscant, she declared a vote of no confidence against Valorum. This act led to Palpatine's election as the Republic's new leader. I find it odd that many STAR WARS fans like to solely blame the Gungan Jar-Jar Binks for Palpatine's rise to power and the formation of the Galactic Empire. Yet, very few . . . if any have ever commented on Padmé's own contribution to Palpatine's rise.

By the beginning of "ATTACK OF THE CLONES" some ten years later, Padmé was no longer queen and serving as a representative for Naboo in the Galactic Senate. Had she become a more astute politician by this time? I believe so. She was among those senators who opposed the formation of a formal army to deal with the growing Separatist movement. Padmé saw nothing but disaster and more violence in dealing with the Separatists. She also dispensed some very wise advice to her new Jedi protector and old friend, Anakin Skywalker about trying to hard to prove himself to the Jedi Council. And when he later expressed his love for her during their visit to Naboo, she wisely pointed out the potential failures of a relationship between a senator and a Jedi padawan. It seemed crystal clear that Padmé had become a wiser individual during those ten years between "THE PHANTOM MENACE" and "ATTACK OF THE CLONES". And yet . . .

There is another scene in "ATTACK OF THE CLONES" that featured a conversation between Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padmé's current bodyguard, Captain Typho. In the scene, the two men were witnessing Padmé and Anakin's departure from Coruscant in the guise of refugees, following an assassination attempt on her life. Obi-Wan expressed his to Captain Typho over Anakin's ability to successfully serve as Padmé's sole bodyguard. Surprisingly, Typho, who remained on Coruscant to act as bodyguard for Padmé's decoy, expressed his own reservations about his political charge:

OBI-WAN: I hope he doesn't try anything foolish.

CAPTAIN TYPHO: I'd be more concerned about her doing
something, than him.


I have yet to come across any comments about Typho's remarks about Padmé. Perhaps many fans had dismissed his negative comment about his charge, considering the ideal view of her. But he proved to be right. Despite some acquired wisdom, Padmé proved that after eleven years in politics, she was still capable of making bad decisions.

Her first bad decision was to leave the safety of Naboo and accompany Anakin on his trip to Tatooine in order to learn of his mother's fate. Mind you, nothing personal happened to Padmé on Tatooine. But I believe her decision was not wise. She should have either insisted that Anakin continue his duties as her bodyguard on Naboo or arrange for more bodyguards to replace him. Padmé went on to commit a bigger blunder, when she and Anakin learned of Obi-Wan's capture by the Separatists on Geonosis. She insisted upon traveling to Geonosis, convinced that she could reason with the Separatist leaders and convince them to release Obi-Wan. Needless to say, Padmé's arrogant insistence on rushing to Geonosis to save Obi-Wan merely led to hers and Anakin's capture.

I also noticed that their capture by the Separatists, along with her participation in the Battle of Geonosis, also initiated a change in Padmé's heart regarding an army for the Republic. Perhaps the heat of combat between the Jedi forces and the Separatist battle droids led her to temporarily forget her objections against a Republic army. Or perhaps the indignities that she and Anakin had endured at the hands of Count Dooku and the Separatist leaders led her to change her mind about military action against them. Why do I comment on this? I noticed that during the Geonosis battle, Padmé seemed very enthusiastic . . . almost fey, while she and Anakin fought side-by-side during the battle. I found her attitude rather odd, considering her earlier attitude regarding a conflict against the Separatists.

Speaking of Anakin, her earlier reluctance to express her feelings for him had also disappeared during their time on Geonosis. When the pair was being led into the arena for execution, Padmé finally expressed her love him. I found nothing wrong with her confession. After all, she believed that she and Anakin were being led to their deaths and she wanted him to know her true feelings before being executed. However, the arrival of a Jedi force and the following Battle of Geonosis changed matters. But when she caught up with Anakin, who had been badly wounded during a duel with Separatist leader and former Jedi Master Count Dooku, Padmé rushed to his side. Her reaction to the sight of a wounded Anakin with a missing arm seemed a bit . . . well, indiscreet; considering that both Yoda and an equally wounded Obi-Wan were there to witness her blatant display of emotion. 

Padmé committed her biggest mistake when she married Anakin in a secret wedding ceremony after he escorted her back to Naboo. Unlike many other STAR WARS fans, I would have never viewed Padmé and Anakin's marriage as a mistake if they had been honest about it. Yes, a marriage did reinforce their attachment to each other. If Anakin had put Padmé behind him, chances are his attachment to the Jedi Order would have strengthened. But as I have pointed out in previous articles, the Jedi's attachment to the Order did not help them in the end. Padmé and Anakin's decision to marry in secret led them to do the very thing she had earlier warned him about - live a lie. And by living a lie, the couple reinforced their attachment to each other in a way that proved to be very unhealthy in the end.

The issue of Padmé's marriage to Anakin did not rear its head again until the next movie, "STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH". The Clone Wars have been raging for three years by this time. The movie found Padmé still a senator representing Naboo and still secretly married to Anakin. Padmé is also pregnant with their twin children - Luke and Leia. Following the Battle of Coruscant and the rescue of Chancellor Palpatine, Padmé and Anakin were reunited before she revealed the news about her pregnancy. During this three-year interval, Padmé's opposition against an army for the Republic had revived and extended to an opposition against the Clone Wars and apprehension over Chancellor Palpatine's continuing leadership over the Republic - a leadership that has lasted thirteen years by "REVENGE OF THE SITH". In fact, Padmé's current political beliefs has led her to become part of a cabal of senators determined to convince or force Palpatine to step down as chancellor. Padmé's oppositing against the Clone Wars was not only steeped in apprehension over the continuing violence throughout the Republic, but also in the belief that the majority of homeworlds that had joined the Separatists had a legitimate grief against the Galactic Senate. 

Despite Padmé's concerns over the Clone Wars and the Republic's political situation, all seemed to be right with her world. With Anakin back from the Republic's Outer Rim, she found herself with more time with her husband. She also seemed more politically astute and mature than in the previous two films. And yet . . . not all was right with her world. Despite their love for each other and Padmé's plans to return to Naboo for their child's birth, the Skywalkers seemed to be having trouble communicating with each other. One could blame Anakin for keeping his troubles with the Jedi Order to himself. But I did wonder if Padmé's growing opposition against Palpatine may have contributed to this surprising estrangement between the couple. This certainly seemed to be the case in one scene in which Padmé asked her husband to convince the Chancellor to step down as leader of the Republic. Anakin's reaction to Padmé's suggestion seemed to match his angry reaction to the Jedi Council's suggestion that he spy upon Palpatine's activities. Oddly enough, I understood the nature of his reaction. Both Padmé and the Jedi Council - upon whom Anakin had placed a great deal of trust - seemed willing to exploit not only his friendship with Palpatine, but also his trust in them in order to further their political agendas . . . no matter how benevolent.

However, Padmé's willingness to exploit Anakin's friendship with Palpatine seemed less problematic than her attachments to both the Republic and Anakin. Many fans have expressed admiration toward her devotion to both Naboo and the Republic. But this devotion has led her to shut out any possibilities of a personal life in the past. An episode of "THE CLONE WARS" called (2.04) "Senate Spy" revealed that during her early period as a senator, Padmé had befriended a young man and fellow senator named Rush Clovis. When their friendship developed into a romance, Padmé quickly ended their relationship due to her belief that romance between them would interfere with their profession. And when she finally opened herself to a personal relationship with Anakin, she acquired an attachment that proved to be even stronger than her attachment to her political career. This was very apparent in an early "REVENGE OF THE SITH" scene that featured Padmé and Anakin's reunion after Palpatine's rescue. Overjoyed from being reunited with his wife after months apart, Anakin suggested they finally confess their secret marriage to the Jedi Council and others. It did not take Padmé very long to squash this suggestion. In fact, her voice nearly trembled with fear when she did. It occurred to me that she feared losing Anakin to the Jedi Order a lot more than she feared losing him to the violence of war. Perhaps she had more faith in Anakin's ability to survive the Clone Wars than in his ability to withstand pressure from the Jedi Order and especially Obi-Wan to end their relationship. 

I also suspect that Padmé's willingness to continue the lie about her marriage was a strong indication of the level of her attachment to Anakin. While many fans might disagree with me, I believe that Anakin's embrace of the Sith Order and his actions at the Jedi Temple may have taken a terrible toll on Padmé's psyche. Anakin had been her chance for some kind of personal life, following the fall of the Republic. But his fall from grace and his attack upon her on Mustafar seemed to be the straws that broke her heart and possibly her spirit. And Padmé's tenacious attachment to her husband may have put her in a very vulnerable state - not only emotionally, but also physically.

While many fans have ranted against Padmé's "death by broken heart", others have expressed outrage over Padmé's reaction to Anakin's slaughter of the Tusken Raiders in "ATTACK OF THE CLONES". In a way, I can see their point. After all, Padmé did not react very well to Anakin's actions at the Jedi Temple in "REVENGE OF THE SITH" - especially his killings of many Jedi younglings. However, I have a theory that many fans may not like. This theory might shatter Padmé's reputation as an ideal woman within the STAR WARS fandom. And what is my theory regarding Padmé's reaction to the Tusken massacre? On a superficial level, I believe she may have been surprised . . . possibly shocked by Anakin's confession of the massacre. However, one should take into account that she understood his grief over the loss of his mother, Shmi Skywalker, which would epxlain her words to him:

"To be angry is to be human."

But many seemed to forget that Padmé had the chance to meet Shmi Skywalker Lars in "THE PHANTOM MENACE". And when one considers the circumstances that surrounded Shmi's death - the kidnapping and a brutal captivity that included weeks of torture - I cannot help but wonder if Padmé shared Cliegg Lars' assessment of the Tusken Raiders:

"Those Tuskens walk like men, but they're vicious, mindless monsters."

I would not be surprised if Padmé shared her future stepfather-in-law's opinion. In fact, I would not be surprised if somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, she felt the Tuskens deserved their brutal fates at Anakin's hands.

My last view of Padmé seemed rather ugly, did it not? As I had stated earlier, it is a portrait that many STAR WARS fans may not want to consider. I do not know. Perhaps it is easier to view Padmé as this ideal young woman, whose only mistake was that she fell in love with the wrong person. That is a view I cannot accept. Mind you, I do not believe that Padmé and Anakin had a perfect marriage. But I do believe that like her husband, Padmé Nabierre Amidala Skywalker possessed her own set of flaws. And those flaws made her a more interesting character than any ideal one ever could.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" (2013) Review

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"OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" (2013) Review

During the late winter/early spring of 2013, the American public found itself bombarded with constant media coverage of militaristic chest thumping from North Korea. By some strange coincidence, Hollywood released two movies featuring the North Koreans as the main villains between September 2012 and March 2013. One of those movies turned out to be the recent action thriller called "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN"

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" told the story of a disgraced U.S. Secret Service agent forced to rescue the President of the United from North Korean terrorists that have infiltrated and taken over the White House. I might as well start from the beginning. The movie begins with former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is serving as lead agent for the Presidential Detail that guards President Benjamin Asher and the latter's wife and son. During a drive from Camp David, the car conveying President Asher and First Lady Margaret Asher crashes against a bridge railing. Banning manages to save the President, but the vehicle falls into the river before he and the rest of the detail can save the First Lady and two other agents. Because the sight of Banning triggers President Asher's memories of his wife's death, Banning is taken off the Presidential Detail. 

Eighteen months later, President Asher finds himself facing a state visit from South Korea's Prime Minister Lee Tae-Woo. Korean-led guerilla forces launch a combined air and ground attack upon Washington D.C. and more specifically, the White House. The attack, led by an ex-North Korean terrorist named Kang Yeonsak, results in the murder of Prime Minister Lee and the capture of President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan. Kang wants the U.S. forces in South Korea to withdraw from the Korean Pennisula and the access codes to the Cerberus system: a fail-safe device that self-detonates any U.S. nuclear missiles during an abort. Meanwhile, Banning was on his way to the White House to ask the President to allow him back on the detail, when he gets caught up in the attack. Banning participates in the defense of the White House led by fellow Agent Roma, but nearly all of the defenders are killed. However Banning manages to get inside the White House and establish contact with Head of the Secret Service Lynne Jacobs, Speaker of the House Allan Trumball, and Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg. Then proceeds to find a way to save the President and other hostages.

The plot for "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" sounds very exciting. It also sounds very familiar. Some critic or blogger once compared it to some other movie I have never seen. But "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" reminded me of the 1997 Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman movie, "AIR FORCE ONE". Let me be frank. I despised "AIR FORCE ONE" when I first saw it in the theaters. I still despise it. There is nothing more ludicrous than the President of the United States as an action hero."OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" has its own share of flaws. But I am so relieved that screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt did not transform President Asher into an action hero. But the two movies do share a good number of similarities:

*Both movies feature the U.S. President and personnel being held hostage.
*The hostage situation in both movies are in the presidential settings of either the White House or Air Force One.
*The Vice-President becomes head of state in the 1997 movie. The Speaker of the House becomes head of state in the 2013 film.
*Kazakhstan terrorists disguised as foreign press infiltrate Air Force One. North Korean terrorists disguised as South Korean diplomats infiltrate the White House.
*A Secret Service agent is a mole for the Kazakh terrorists in the 1997 film. A former Secret Service agent is a mole for the North Korean terrorists.


But despite these similarities, I still liked "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN". Somewhat. For me, the movie's major virtue proved to be its more plausible hero. Instead of using the President of the United States as the main hero, the leading man for"OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" turned out to be a former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service agent. And the movie's action struck me as very exciting and well directed by Antoine Fuqua. I was especially impressed by the long sequence that featured the North Korean terrorists' attack upon and takeover of the White House. The movie also benefitted from the emotional connection between Banning and President Asher, thanks to Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart's performances. The pair's connection reminded me of the Jack Bauer/President David Palmer relationship from FOX-TV's "24". What made the Banning/Asher's relationship more interesting is that it was nearly severed by the First Lady's death in the film's first twenty minutes. Rothenberger and Benedikt's screenplay proved to be somewhat decent. But I do feel it may have been somewhat undermined by certain sequences and plotlines.

While watching the first half of "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN", I assumed that the North Koreans' takeover of the White House would prove to be a plot for something bigger - to generate a war between the U.S. and North Korea, resulting in the fall of Communism on the Korean Pennisula. The reason I had made such assumptions was due to my misguided belief that the Hollywood studios had learned to overcome such one-dimensional demonization of another country - especially one that did not harbor Western or non-Communist beliefs. I really should have known better, considering the release of the 2012 remake, "RED DAWN" and the media's continuing penchant for villifying all Muslims - regardless of whether or not they are terrorists. As much as I had enjoyed the action and relationships in "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN", a part of me felt disappointed by the realization that Kang and his followers were behind the attack and the hostage situation all along. I also felt somewhat perplexed.

Think of it. Two (or three) of Kang's people managed to steal a U.S. military plane for an aerial attack on the White House. The theft of the plane was never discovered or reported by the U.S. military. Nor was the plane detected, until it was flying over the capital's airspace. And the U.S. sent only one fighter jet to force it down. And all of this happened in a story set in the post-9/11 world. Are you kidding me? It gets worse. During the movie's last half hour, Kang's surviving men post a stolen advanced anti-aircraft called Hydra 6 on the White House roof to kill approaching teams of U.S. Navy SEALs being conveyed to the presidential home by helicopters. Once again, the terrorists managed to steal advanced U.S. military weaponry in the country's post-9/11 era. No wonder I had originally assumed that some kind of high-level American conspiracy was involved with the terrorists. 

Some of the performances in "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" struck me as first-rate. Gerard Butler made an excellent and likable action hero in his portrayal of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning. And if I must be honest, I have not really enjoyed a performance of his in four years. Considering that Aaron Eckhart is ten years younger than Harrison Ford was when the latter portrayed a U.S. president in "AIR FORCE ONE", I am surprised that the screenwriters and Fuqua did not allow him to indulge in some kind of heroic action. But I must admit that he conveyed his usual intensity and top-notch acting skills in portraying a head-of-state in a dangerous and vulnerable state. Angela Bassett proved to be equally intense and entertaining as Banning's immediate supervisor and head of Secret Service Lynne Jacobs. Actually, I enjoyed her performance in this film a lot more than I did her take on a C.I.A. station chief in "THIS MEANS WAR". Rick Yune gave a subtle, yet menacing performance as leader of the North Korean terrorists, Kang Yeonsak. It is a pity that he has been limited to portraying villains most of his career. With his looks and presence, he should be garnering "good guys" roles by now. Ashley Judd had a brief role as First Lady Margaret Asher and did a very nice job with it. Cole Hauser, whom I last saw in "A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD", portrayed Banning's Secret Service colleague, Agent Roma. Fortunately, he managed to last a bit longer on screen than he did in the former movie. And even more fortunate, his Agent Roma died at the hands of the terrorists with style and balls. I can only hope that his next screen appearance will last even longer.

And there were the performances that did not exactly impress me. Some of them came from actors and actresses for whom I usually have a high regard. I love Morgan Freeman, but his performance as Speaker of the House Allan Trumball struck me as somewhat . . . tired. He spent a good deal of the movie either looking tired or reacting to someone else's dialogue with a stare of disbelief. I am also a fan of Melissa Leo, but her portrayal of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan seemed a little hammy or frantic at times. I realize that her character was trying to be tough in the face of the terrorists, but . . . well . . . she struck me as a bit hammy. Speaking of hammy, Robert Forster's performance as Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg was in danger of going far beyond over-the-top. Perhaps his performance seemed unusually aggressive in comparison to Freeman's tiredness. Then again . . . who knows? Radha Mitchell gave a nice performance as Banning's wife, Leah. But if I must be honest, she came off as a second-rate Cathy Ryan from the Tom Clancy movies - especially since her character was a nurse. Worst of all, she did not have enough screen time, as far as I am concerned. And finally, there was Dylan McDermott, who portrayed ex-Secret Service Agent Dave Forbes, who became a private bodyguard and mole within the South Korean detail. Hmmm . . . how can I say this? McDermott did not exactly put much effort in hiding his villainy from the audience in the movie's first half. One glance at his shifty expressions led me to correctly guess that he would be working for the terrorists. And McDermott is usually more subtle than this.

I realize that in the end, "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" came off as a somewhat strident message against North Korea, leading me to compare it to one of those old anti-Communist films from the 1950s or even the 1980s. So . . . why do I still like it? One, screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt wrote a decent story, despite some flaws. Two, Antoine Fuqua handled the movie's action, pacing and a good number of performances with great skill. Three, there were some pretty good performances in the movie - especially from Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett and Rick Yune. But most importantly, "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN" did not follow the ludicrous example of "AIR FORCE ONE" by allowing its Presidential character engage in heroic actions. For that I am truly grateful to the screenwriters and Fuqua.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "THE GREAT GATSBY", the recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton:


"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Photo Gallery

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Friday, May 24, 2013

"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" (1985) - Episode One "1842-1844" Commentary

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"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" (1985) - EPISODE ONE "1842-1844" Commentary

The year nineteen eighty-two saw the publication of "North and South", the first novel of John Jakes' trilogy about the United States before, during and after the U.S. Civil War. This first novel, set during the United States' Antebellum Era, was adapted into a six-part miniseries in 1985. 

This first miniseries, "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I", told the story of two families during the years before the Civil War. The Hazards are a wealthy family that owns a successful iron foundry in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania - not far from Philadelphia. Just as wealthy are the Mains, a family from the low country of South Carolina that owns a cotton plantation (a rice plantation in the novel) called Mont Royal. George Hazard and Orry Main first meet in New York City in the summer of 1842, as both make their way to commence upon their four years as cadets at West Point, the U.S. Army Military Academy. The two become fast friends, despite regional differences, as they endure trials and tribulations during their four years at the Point and the violence of the Mexican-American War. Due to the perseverance of their friendship, George and Orry's families also form bonds, leading to the friendship of another Hazard and Main at West Point in the 1850s and marriage between two members of the families. By the end of miniseries, George and Orry's friendship, along with the bonds formed between their families are tested by the growing conflict between Northerners and Southerners and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Episode One of "NORTH AND SOUTH" is set between 1842 and 1844. It is more or less an introduction of the two main characters, their families and the entire saga. Although it is not my favorite episode of the miniseries, I must admit that director Richard T. Heffron, along with the series' staff of screenwriters (that includes John Jakes), did a solid job in setting up the miniseries. I noticed that some significant differences were made from Jakes' novel. One, the writers excluded the novel's prologue altogether, which had introduced the Hazards and Mains' family founders in the 1680s. Unlike the novel, the miniseries began with Orry Main's departure from Mont Royal, the family estate; and his first meeting with his future love, New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Actually, what the writers did was switch the Hazard family's introduction with the Mains, Madeline Fabray and Justin La Motte (neighbor of the Mains). Whereas Orry first met all of the Hazards in 1842 New York City in the novel, he did not meet them until his and George Hazard's three-month furlough in 1844 in the miniseries. The character of Elkhannah Bent underwent a physical transformation. He went from an overweight and unattractive Ohio-born man in the novel to a handsome Georgia-born young man in the miniseries. But the character remained insane and maintained his hatred of both George and Orry. As it turned out, the television Bent was a combination of the literary Bent and a character from the second novel, "Love and War" called Lamar Powell. The miniseries also allowed viewers to experience the venal Justin La Motte's courtship of Madeline during the two years between her first meeting with Orry and his 1844 furlough. Because Orry and Madeline met two years earlier than they did in the novel, the pair exchanged letters until their correspondence was secretly interrupted by Madeline's father, Nicholas Fabray. He was determined that Madeline marry La Motte. 

I also noticed that Orry's attitude toward slavery seemed to be less conservative than it was in the novel. I suspect that the writers decided to delete the character of Cooper Main, Orry's older brother, while incorporating some of his moderate political views into Orry. They had no problems with transferring all four Hazard siblings - George, Stanley, Virgilia and Billy - from the novel to the miniseries. Yet, they failed to do the same with the Main siblings. Only Orry, Ashton, Brett and Charles made it from the novel to the miniseries. Cooper remained missing until the third miniseries, "HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH - BOOK III". I found this strange. Why did the screenwriters feel it was necessary to delete Cooper's character from the miniseries? 

There were some other differences that did not sit right with me. One, the episode featured George and Orry's journey from New York City to West Point via the railroad. There was no railroad service between New York City and the West Point Academy in the 1840s. In fact, there is still no rail service between the two locations. The miniseries also featured a swordfight between the two friends' cadet drillmaster, the insane Elkhannah Bent and Orry - with the latter defeating the older cadet. Both the novel and the miniseries made it clear that Orry struggled with his studies. Because of this, Jakes made it clear in his novel that Orry was never able to become an accomplished swordsman. Yet, Orry defeated Bent in the miniseries because he was a member of the Southern planter class. The screenwriters utilized a cliche to make Orry an accomplished swordsman. And to this day, I am still puzzled at Orry's lack of reaction to his eight to ten year-old sister Ashton's knowledge of overseer Salem Jones' sexual tryst with house slave Semiramis. Surely, he would be upset that his young sister would not only know but openly discuss such a topic. 

But I was impressed by how the episode revealed the political conflicts that permeated the country during the early to mid 1840s. The miniseries mentioned such topics as the country's conflict with Mexico over Texas, Western expansion and its impact on the institution of slavery. I noticed that the Hazard family - George included - did not seem particularly concerned over the idea of Texas joining the Union as a slave state. Even more interesting was the family's contemptuous dismissal of Virgilia Hazard's pro-abolition stance. In one scene featuring Orry's dinner with the Hazard family at their Leigh Station home, the male members of the family tend to ignore Virgilia's comments altogether, until she was finally forced to raise her voice. The Hazard family's reaction to Virgilia's abolitionist stance seemed a true reflection of most Northerners' cool attitude toward the abolition of slavery. Another scene that took me by surprise featured a brief mention of Oberlin College in Ohio by Elkhannah Bent. During the 1830s, it became the first college institution to integrate blacks and women into its student body. Being a bigot, Bent naturally mentioned the college with a great deal of contempt. 

Anyone familiar with Jakes' literary trilogy would probably realize that the saga's main topic centered around American slavery and its impact upon the country's political and social scene between the 1840s and 1860s. There were four scenes that perfectly emphasized not only the horrors of slavery, but also the growing conflict between North and South. One scene in the episode's second half featured Orry's return to Mont Royal during his furlough. In this scene, he comes across the plantation's new overseer, Salem Jones, whipping a slave named Priam. Priam happened to be the older brother of Semiramis, the house slave whom Jones has coerced to be his slave mistress. Not only did the sight of the whip being cracked across actor David Harris' back filled me revulsion, but also Jones' reason for authorizing the whipping in the first place - to guarantee Priam's obedience. However, a scene featuring Madeline Fabray breakfasting with Justin La Motte during a visit to the latter's plantation, Resolute; proved to be even equally effective. In the scene, a house slave named Nancy spills coffee on Madeline's sleeve. While the latter disappears into the office to change clothes, a tense moment ensues when La Motte punishes Nancy with a brutal slap and a warning. 

The conflict between North and South first reared its ugly head in a confrontation between Orry and a Ohio-born cadet named Ned Fisk, who resented the financial competition that his father faced from Southern planters who used slave labor. But I thought there were two scenes that I believe more effectively conveyed the conflict between the two regions. One featured a scene in which Orry toured the grounds of Hazard Irons during his visit to Lehigh Station and commented rather negatively on the white immigrant labor used by the Hazard family at their foundry. His little comment nearly sparked the first argument between the two friends. But Virgilia's confrontation with Orry during a Hazard family dinner scene not only emphasized the Hazards' disregard toward the abolitionist movement, but also the conflict between abolition and the country's pro-slavery faction . . . especially in regard to American politics in the 1840s.

Production wise, Episode One looked gorgeous. Archie J. Bacon did an excellent job in bringing Antebellum America to the screen - both North and South. The miniseries was shot mainly in South Carolina and Mississippi and cinematographer Stevan Larner did justice to the locations, providing scenes with sharp color and elegance. I was especially impressed by the tracking shot that not only kick-started the miniseries, but also gave viewers a sweeping view of the operations at Mont Royal. Vicki Sánchez's costumes were beautiful to look at. I was especially impressed by the following dress worn by Lesley-Anne Down in one scene:

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The cast provided solid performances in the miniseries. Mind you, the performances by some of extras struck me as rather wooden and amateurish. But the main cast seemed to know what they were doing. Both James Read and Patrick Swayze formed a perfect screen team as the two best friends - George Hazard and Orry Main. I enjoyed Lesley-Anne Down's portrayal of the New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Although she had decent chemistry with Swayze, I was never a fan of the Orry-Madeline romance. It always struck me as a bit too ideal or Harlequin Romance for my tastes. David Carradine was both smooth and menacing as neighboring planter, Justin La Motte. Andrew Stahl nicely balanced both Ned Fisk's resentment toward the Southern planter class and wariness toward Elkhannah Bent. Olivia Cole provided solid support as the Fabrays' free housekeeper, Maum Sally. And Lee Bergere gave a subtle performance as Madeline's manipulative, but well meaning father, Nicholas Fabray. But the two performances that really made me sit up and notice were Philip Casnoff's intense portrayal of the borderline insane Elkhannah Bent and Kirstie Alley's equally intense performance as the dedicated abolitionist Virgilia Hazard.

So far, "NORTH AND SOUTH" seemed to be off to a good start. Mind you, there were a few setbacks in regard to historical accuracy and characterization. With the episode ending with Orry and Madeline's declaration of love for one another, along with her marriage to Justin La Motte, viewers were bound to be drawn to the next episode.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" (2012) Review

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"G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" (2012) Review

Following the success of 2009's "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA", Hasbro and Paramount Pictures followed up with a sequel set a few years after the first film. Unlike the 2009 movie, this latest film was not directed by Stephen Sommers. And several cast members from the first film did not reprise their roles. 

When the G.I. Joes are framed for stealing nuclear warheads from Pakistan, Cobra minion Zartan - in disguise as the President of the United States - orders their elimination at their camp in the Middle East via a military air strike. The latter kills most of the Joes, including one Conrad "Duke" Hauser, who had been awarded his own team of Joes following the incidents of the 2009 film. The survivors - Sergeant Marvin "Roadblock" Hinton, Alison "Lady Jaye" Hart-Burnett, and Dashiell "Flint" Faireborn - make their way to the U.S. to learn why the Joes had been destroyed by the President. When Zartan (as President) announces that COBRA troops will replace the Joes, Lady Jaye realizes that he is an impersonator. The trio seeks help from the original Joe, General Joseph Colton. Other Joe survivors include Snake Eyes, who has returned to his old order in Japan to train a new apprentice, Jinx. When COBRA operatives Storm Shadow (who had survived his duel with Snake Eyes in the 2009 film) and Firefly (an ex-Joe) rescue COBRA Commander and Destro from an underground maximum-security prison in Germany, the former sustains injuries during the escape attempt and heads for a Himalayan temple to recover. Snake Eyes' new order leader, the Blind Master, learn of Storm Shadow's new location and orders Snake Eyes and Jinx to capture him so that he can answer for the late Hard Master's death.

I might as well admit it . . . "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" was a disappointment. Many might be wondering about my disappointment, considering the prevailing view of the its predecessor, "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA". The 2009 movie may not have been a cinematic masterpiece or anything close to it. But I thought it was a fun movie filled with strong characterizations and a somewhat decent plot. This new "G.I. JOE" had its share of strong characterizations, but I cannot say that it was a lot of fun for me. Despite my disappointment, the movie did possess some virtues.

The main virtue turned out to be leading man, Dwayne Johnson. The man did the best he could to keep this movie together. And as he has done in his past movies, he gave it his all. I can say the same about Byung-hun Lee, whose portrayal of Storm Shadow proved to be even more interesting and complex in this second film. I was also impressed by the always talented and dependable Jonathan Pryce, who had the double duty of portraying the disguised Zartan and the real President of the United States. Adrianne Palicki injected some energy into the story with a lively performance as Lady Jaye Hart-Burnett. Despite his limited appearance, Channing Tatum seemed a lot more relaxed as Duke Hauser in this film. He also had a nice chemistry with Johnson. Also, the movie boasted one of the best action sequences I have seen in recent film. I speak of the Snake Eyes and Jinx's attempt to capture Storm Shadow from the Himalayan temple and prevent the latter's men from rescuing him. Director Jon M. Chu really outdid himself in that sequence.

So . . . what was it about the movie that I found disappointing? Despite Chu's outstanding direction in the Himalayan sequence, I was not that impressed by his work in the rest of the film. I missed Stephen Sommers. I also missed Channing Tatum's presence after his character was killed off 20-30 minutes into the movie. He went from leading man in the 2009 movie to a guest star in this latest film. Most of all, I missed some of the cast members from the first film. Not only did I miss them, I would like to know what the hell happened to them? What happened to Ripcord, who was Duke's longtime best friend? What happened to Scarlett, Heavy Duty, Breaker and General Hawk? Where they also killed during the airstrike against the Joes' Middle Eastern base? Did some of them leave the Joes before the events of this movie? What happened to them? What happened to Anna Lewis DeCobray? The end of the 2009 movie saw her in protective custody, awaiting for American scientists to remove nanomites from inside her body. Was she still in custody during the events of this movie? Did anyone bother to inform her about Duke's death? Apparently not, since she was never mentioned in the film. 

Some of the new additions to the cast did not help this movie. I hate to say this but D.J. Cotrona's portrayal as G.I. Joe Flint Faireborn struck me as dull. Boring. Mind numbing. My God! Even Joseph Mazzello, who made a brief appearance as a Joe sharpshooter on Duke's team struck me as ten times more livelier. I love Bruce Willis. I have been a fan of his for years. But what in the hell was he doing in this film? I could have understood if he had replaced Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, commander of the Joes. Instead, Willis portrayed the original Joe, General Colton. Yes, he participated in the movie's final action sequence. And yes, he provided some arms to the team. But what was he doing in this film? His character seemed like such a waste. And Willis seemed as if he was going through the motions. Ray Stevenson gave a lively performance as ex-Joe turned COBRA minion, Firefly. The problem is that the screenplay failed to mention what led him to leave the Joes and join COBRA. Luke Bracey replaced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as COBRA Commander. And honestly? He was not that interesting. Not only did I miss Gordon-Levitt, I now believe the movie should have allowed Zartan (as the President) serve as the movie's main villain. What else can I say about "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION"? Other than the main villain's goal seemed similar to the villain's goal in the 2009 movie? Okay . . . I said it. Thanks to the screenwriters, the details of COBRA Commander's plot seemed different. But using arms to achieve world power seemed disappointingly familiar.

Despite the presence of Dwayne Johnson, Byung-hun Lee, a few others and an outstanding action sequence in the Himalayans; "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" proved to be a disappointing follow-up to its 2009 predecessor. Mind you, "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA" was no masterpiece. But it was a hell of a lot more fun and substantial than this piece of work.