Sunday, June 30, 2013

"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" (1985) - Episode Three "1848-1854" Commentary

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"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" (1985) - EPISODE THREE "1848-1854" Commentary

Episode Three of the 1985 miniseries, "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I", immediately picked up where the previous episode left off. And unlike Episode Two, this particular episode stretches over a slightly longer period of time of six-and-a-half years - between the late winter of 1848 and the early summer of 1854. 

This episode began less than 24 four hours after Episode Two left off. Following his resignation from the U.S. Army, George Hazard paid a visit to his friend Orry Main to inform the latter of his upcoming wedding to Constance Flynn and to invite Orry to serve as best man. In Episode Three, Orry escorts George to the local rail stop in order for the latter to catch a northbound passenger train. Before George's train arrives, the two friends spot escaped Mont Royal slave Priam attempt to board a passing freight train. Orry prevents Priam's escape. But as he prepares to shoot the slave in order to prevent the latter from enduring more punishment, George begs Orry to simply allow Priam to go. An angry Orry concedes to George's request and Priam continues his escape to the North. About a month later, George marries Constance at a local Catholic chapel in Lehigh Station with Orry and the Hazard family in attendance. During the wedding reception, Maude Hazard announces that George and older brother Stanley will operate Hazard Iron together, while Stanley remains control of the finances. And Virgilia Hazard invites Orry to attend an abolitionist meeting where she is scheduled to serve as one of the speakers. Several months later, a major accident at Hazard Iron leads Maude to place financial control of the company in George's hands, much to the consternation of Stanley and his shrewish wife, Isabel.

The story eventually jumps to the early 1850s, which finds the Main family and others attending the funeral of Tillet Main. One of the attendants is Orry's Cousin Charles, who has been staying with the family since the death of his parents. Unbeknownst to Orry, sister Ashton has developed a slight lust toward her cousin. However, Charles is attracted to house slave Semiramis, much to the consternation of both Ashton and Jones. Speaking of the latter, he is fired by Orry, who now serves as master of Mont Royal; and later has a fight with Charles at a local tavern. Also, Charles has become involved with a local belle named Sue Marie Smith and is later challenged to a duel by her fiancé Whitney Smith. When Orry helps train Charles for the duel, the two cousins become close. He also suggests that Charles considers a career as an Army officer and arranges for Charles' entry into the West Point Academy. Orry discovers during the Mains' visit to Pennsylvania that George has made arrangements for younger brother Billy into the Academy, as well. Also during the South Carolina family's visit, Virgilia incurs the wrath of her family and the Southern visitors with her comments about the recent Compromise of 1850. Also, George and Orry become partners in the construction of a cotton mill in South Carolina, to the pleasure of both Stanley and Isabel, who believe that George has made a serious mistake. This episode also features Madeline La Motte's discovery of her husband's sexual tryst with a slave, and encounters his wrath. George joins Constance in her activities with the Undercover Railroad. She also convinces him to bring Virgilia along with the Hazard family's visit to Mont Royal by the end of the episode.

As one can see a great deal occurred in this episode. This is not surprising, considering that Episode Three has a longer time span than the other five episodes and stretches across the fringe of two decades. Because of this longer time span and the fact that so much occurred in this episode, I cannot help but wonder if this episode would have benefited from an additional 30-45 minutes. Speaking of time, this is the first time a major blooper regarding the saga's time span. Following the accident at Hazard Iron in the summer of 1848, the story jumped five years to 1853. The reason this is impossible is that during the Mains' visit to Pennsylvania a few months after Tillet Main's funeral, both George and Orry revealed that their younger kinsmen - Billy Hazard and Charles Main - would be entering West Point later that fall. Like I said . . . this is impossible, considering that both Billy and Charles will graduate from West Point in 1856 in the following episode. There is no way in the world those two will spend only three years at the West Point Military Academy. Tillet Main's death should have occurred either in late 1851 or early 1852. Another scene featured Madeline LaMotte stumbling across her husband Justin LaMotte in a tryst with a female slave at Salvation Chapel, where she and Orry usually meet. My question is . . . why on earth would LaMotte go out of his way to have a rendezvous with one of his slaves, when he could have easily went to her quarters or have her sent to his room? 

Although the character of Semiramis has been featured since Episode One, this episode ended up being the only one in which she had a prominent speaking role. Naturally, Erica Gimpel was excellent in the role, I suspect that the writers only used her character in this episode as a set up for the expansion of her role in "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II (1986) - including her attraction to Charles Main. I have a deep suspicion that Semiramis was more or less wasted in this miniseries, because Episode Three will prove to be her last appearance until the next miniseries. Perhaps the roles of Semiramis and the other slaves in "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" could be seen as indicative of the writers and producers' limited attempt to explore the impact of slavery in mid-19th century America. Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh. But the saga's exploration of the African-American characters seemed a bit more broad in the second and third miniseries that it was in the first. 

It did not help that both John Jakes and the writers who adapted his novel for television managed to create a major blooper regarding the institution of slavery. Both the novel and the miniseries featured an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia where Virgilia Hazard proved to be one of the speakers. First of all, the producers hired actor Robert Guillaume to portrayed famous African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who also served as one of the meeting's speakers. Mind you, Guillaume gave an excellent performance. But he was at least 57 when he appeared in this episode. But the abolitionist meeting occurred in the early spring of 1848 . . . when Douglass was just barely 30 years old. Fifty-seven . . . thirty. Hmmm . . . talk about a historical blooper. Virgilia's speech centered on the topic of slave breeding. Naturally, Orry Main, who was at the meeting, expressed outrage and claimed that her accusations were false. Both George and Constance - who were also at the meeting - shared his feelings. Even Jakes seemed to support this belief in his novel. But despite her lurid words, Virgilia was right. Slave breeding was practiced in pre-Civil War America. Why would Jakes or the writers who wrote the miniseries treat this subject as some lurid fantasy in Virgilia's mind?

Fortunately, Episode Three had its virtues. It featured another first-rate performance from Kirstie Alley as the volatile Virgilia Hazard. Not only did she give what I believe what was the best performance in the episode, she had at least two dazzling costumes:

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Other cast members such as Patrick Swayze, James Read, Inga Swenson, Wendy Kilbourne, Jean Simmons, Jonathan Frakes, Erica Gimpel, Tony Franks, David Odgen Stiers and Wendy Fulton also gave excellent performances. However, it is obvious this episode, especially the 1850s sequences, were all about the younger generation. Actors John Stockwell, Genie Francis, Terri Garber and Lewis Smith made their debuts in this episode as Billy Hazard and the three younger Mains - Brett, Ashton and Charles. All four did a great job in establishing their characters. I was especially impressed by Francis and Garber who did an excellent job in establishing the complicated relationship between sisters Brett and Ashton Main in a delicious scene featured in their Mont Royal bedroom. There were other scenes that I found not only enjoyable, but well acted - the Hazard Iron accident, the Philadelphia abolitionist meeting (despite a few historical bloopers), Orry's blooming relationship with his younger cousin Charles, Virgilia's quarrel with Isabel Hazard and Ashton Main during the Mains' Northern visit and Constance's revelation of her Underground Railroad activities to George. The episode ended with a deliciously funny scene between Read and Alley, when Virgilia convinces brother George to allow her to accompany the family south to Mont Royal.

With Virgilia and the rest of the Hazards leaving Lehigh Station for their trip to South Carolina, the story is set to get even more interesting in the next episode. And I cannot wait to see what will happen.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

"STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" (2013) Review

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"STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" (2013) Review

Following the success of the 2009 movie, "STAR TREK", producer/director J.J. Abrams continued the saga of this alternate STAR TREK with a sequel called "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS". This latest film not only continued the adventures of Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk and his crew, but also re-introduced a well-known villain from the franchise's past. 

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" begins a year following the events of the 2009 movie. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has been ordered to observe the volcanic activities of Nibiru, a class "M" planet that serves as home for its primitive inhabitants. Unfortunately, Kirk and his crew violate the Federation's Prime Directive by using a cold fusion device to deactivate the volcano. Worse, in order to fetch Spoke from the volcano's depth, the Enterprise rises out of the planet's ocean and is seen by the Nibirians. Upon the starship's return to Earth, both Kirk and his first officer, Spock, are chewed out by Admiral Christopher Pike for violating the Prime Directive on Nibiru. Spock is reassigned to another starship and Kirk has lost command of the Enterprise and ordered to finish Starfleet Academy. 

Meanwhile, a mysterious man offers a vial of blood to a Starfleet officer named Thomas Harewood in order to save the life of the latter's dying daughter. In exchange, Harewood used the mysterious ring to blow up the Kelvin Memorial Archives (a secret Section 31 facility) on the mysterious man's behalf. This new emergency leads Starfleet to assign Admiral Pike as commander of the Enterprise. Pike manages to convince Marcus to assign Kirk as his new First Officer. The bombing of the Kelvin Archives leads to a meeting of starship commanders ordered to hunt down the mysterious perpetrator, revealed as rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison. However, an attack upon the meeting by a jumpship piloted by Harrison leaves several Starfleet officers dead - including Pike. Admiral Marcus reinstates Kirk as commander of the Enterprise and orders the latter to hunt down Harrison to the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, and destroy the rogue agent's base with 72 prototype photon torpedoes placed aboard the Enterprise. However, the manhunt for Harrison ends up providing a good deal of surprises for Kirk and his crew - including the revelation of Harrison's true identity.

When I first saw "STAR TREK" four years ago, my initial response to J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise had been . . . somewhat positive, yet slightly uneasy. A second viewing of the movie made me realize that it was a piece of crap, thanks to a script riddled with plot holes. I still maintained hope that this new sequel would prove to be a improvement. And it did . . . to a certain extent. The plot for "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" did not strike me as particularly original. Rogue Starfleet officers have been used in the franchise before - especially in "STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE" and the 1991 film, "STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY". The John Harrison character proved to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh, originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalban in an episode of "STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES"and the 1982 movie, "STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN". In fact, the screenwriters not only used the Khan character, but also Dr. Carol Marcus and put a different spin on a famous scene from the 1982 movie. Khan/Harrison's attack on Admiral Marcus' meeting bore a strong resemblance to a scene from a "STAR TREK VOYAGER" episode called(2.14) "Alliances".

Despite the lack of originality that seemed to permeate the film, I must admit that I enjoyed a good deal of it. I found the conspiracy that surrounded Khan's connections to Admiral Marcus rather interesting. This was especially the case in the jumpship attack scene, the phaser fight on Kronos, Carol Marcus' rescue of Doctor McCoy from one of the photon torpedoes and finally Kirk and Khan's transportation to Admiral Marcus' ship U.S.S. Vengeance via a "space jump". These scene proved to be very exciting, thanks to Abrams' excellent direction. The chemistry between Zachary Quinto and Zoë Saldaña as lovers Spock and Nyota Uhura seemed to have vastly improved from the 2009 film. Perhaps the emotions between the two characters seemed more two-way and genuine the second time around. The chemistry between Quinto and Chris Pine's James Kirk seemed stronger than ever. Bruce Greenwood gave an intense and superb performance as Admirable Christopher Pike, even if I found the character's faith in Kirk rather questionable. On the other hand, I found Peter Weller's portrayal as the warmongering Admiral Marcus a bit hammy. And Simon Pegg's Scots accent became slightly more bearable in this film. But I do feel that Karl Urban, John Cho and Anton Yelchin had less to do in this film, than they did in "STAR TREK". Benedict Cumberbatch struck me as effectively ambiguous and sinister at the same time. However, if J.J. Abrams needed someone to portray the Indian-born Khan, why did he not consider another actor he had worked with in the past? Namely "LOST" alumni Naveen Andrews. He would have been perfect. 

Do I consider "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" a vast improvement over "STAR TREK"? There are a good number of fans who view the first film as superior. I simply do not share this opinion. However, I would not exactly label "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS" as one of the better movies for the summer of 2013. In fact, I view it slightly better than the first film . . . and nothing more.

However, this movie did have its share of problems. And one of them proved to be the film's opening sequence on Nibiru, which found Kirk and Dr. McCoy being chased through some kind of forest by some of the planet's inhabitants. Apparently, Kirk had stolen some sacred scroll to led the Nibirians away from the volcano. This tactic proved to be unnecessary, considering there were only two means to save the Nibirians - Spock's cold fusion device into the volcano's core, or the physical removal of the planet's inhabitants. In other words, this chase scene proved to be completely irrelevant. Another aspect of this sequence that proved to be irrelevant was Spock's protests against Kirk raising the Enterprise from the planet's ocean floor and exposing it to the Nibirians. One, what was the Enterprise doing below the ocean? Why not simply allow it to orbit the planet? And the Enterprise does not have the ability to land on the ocean floor, let alone on solid ground. It was never the 23rd century version of the U.S.S. Voyager. And why was Spock complaining about Kirk violating the Prime Directive in regard to the Enterprise's exposure, when he was violating it by saving the planet with the cold fusion device? I suspect his decision to save Nibiru may have been related to the loss of Vulcan in the first movie. But why did he even bother to protest against Kirk's actions, when he was just as guilty? And by the way, what happened to Earth's defense system? This movie is set in the mid 23rd century. There is a defense system for early 21st century Washington D.C. Why was there not one for mid 23rd century San Francisco, the main location for the Federation and Starfleet? Khan's ship could have been easily destroyed before it had a chance to enter Earth's atmosphere. I would go on about the photon torpedoes that harbored members of Khan's crew. But I found this scenario too confusing to discuss.

There were other problems. Why did Khan risk his hide to fire at the room of Starfleet captains and Admiral Marcus, when he could have easily achieved his goal with a bomb? What happened to the situation on Kronos? Marcus had sent the Enterprise to Kronos in order to hunt down Khan and start a war against the Klingons. Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Khan's encounter with the Klingons proved to be violent and especially deadly for the latter. But no war manifested after the incident on Kronos. In fact, the screenwriters and Abrams completely forgot about the Klingons once Admiral Marcus appeared aboard the Vengeance. Many critics complained about Alice Eve (who portrayed Carol Marcus) being shown in her underwear, accusing Abrams of exploiting the actress. Where were these same critics, four years ago, when both Zoë Saldaña (as Uhura) and an actress who portrayed Uhura's roommate stripped down to undies in "STAR TREK"? I found both Khan and Admiral Marcus' plans somewhat convoluted. But I was willing to . . . tolerate them. What I could not tolerate was the movie's last twenty to thirty minutes. Apparently, the screenwriters and Abrams decided it would be cool to pay some kind of "homage" to the famous Spock death scene in "STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN". I wish to God they had not. I really do. I found it embarrassing to watch Kirk and Spock switch roles with the former sacrificing his life to prevent the Enterprise from crashing upon Earth. Listening to some of the titters from other members of the audience did not help. And when Zachary Quinto channeled William Shatner's cry of "Khaaaannn!", my inner mind screamed "Whhhhyyyy?" I have never been so embarrassed for any actor as I was for Quinto at that moment. To make matters worse - if that was possible - McCoy brought Kirk back to life by using Khan's superpower blood. And all I can say is . . . "Whhhhyyyy?"

We come to the main problem of "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS". James T. Kirk. I had no problem with Chris Pine's performance. But I am still wondering why his Kirk is in command of a top-of-the-grade starship. Why? He never finished Starfleet Academy. He never even finished his third year. Yet, Christopher Pike not only saw fit to give him command of the Enterprise at the end of "STAR TREK", but also prevent Kirk from being sent back to the Academy to finish it. Even after watching "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS", it was plain to see that Kirk was not ready to be a starship commander. Yes, he sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise. Hell, anyone - crewman or officer - could have done this. It was Spock who discovered a way to damage the Vengeance . . . . and prevent it from destroying the Enterprise. He should be the one in command of the Enterprise, not Kirk. I wish I could say that Pike paid his decision to make Kirk a starship commander with his life. Unfortunately, Kirk's command skills had nothing to do with his death. Only bad writing.

What else can I say about "STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS"? I found it somewhat more bearable than 2009's "STAR TREK". I found the movie's photography and special effects rather impressive - except for the lens flares, which I despise. And the movie did feature some solid direction by J.J. Abrams and very solid performances from a cast led by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. But in the end, I was not that impressed by the movie. If I must be honest, the screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof nearly sunk it in the end. Better luck next time, fellas.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"THE DECEIVERS" (1988) Image Gallery

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Below are images from "THE DECEIVERS", the 1988 adventure film based upon John Masters' 1952 novel. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie starred Pierce Brosnan and Saeed Jaffrey: 


"THE DECEIVERS" (1988) Image Gallery

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Drug Addiction and the U.S. Civil War




DRUG ADDICTION AND THE U.S. CIVIL WAR

I have rarely been aware of the problems of drug addiction in the nineteenth century. It took one episode of an old TV western to bring my attention to it. 

Just recently, I came across an old episode of "RAWHIDE", the 1959-66 Western television series that starred Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood. This particular episode called (3.12) "Incident at the Top of the World", told the tragic story of a Confederate veteran (Robert Culp), who became addicted to morphine after he was badly wounded during the Civil War. His addiction continued after the war and nearly disrupts the cattle drive featured in the episode.



Television has returned to the topic of the Civil War Era and drug addiction in the new BBC America series called"COPPER". The series features at least two major characters who are regular morphine users. After viewing the excellent"RAWHIDE" episode and some of those from "COPPER", I decided to look more into the connection between the U.S. Civil War and drug addiction. I came up with this interesting article. I think you will find it interesting.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"THE THREE MUSKETEERS" (1948) Review

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"THE THREE MUSKETEERS" (1948) Review

There are times when I find myself amazed at the longevity of Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel, "The Three Musketeers". The novel has been in circulation for nearly 170 years. Hollywood and other film industries have been adapting the novel for the movies or television for nearly a century. One adaptation I recently viewed was the Hollywood movie produced and released by MGM Studios in 1948. 

We all know the story. A young Frenchman from Gascon sets out for Paris in the early 17th century to join the King's Musketeers. During this journey, he meets a beautiful, mysterious woman and picks a fight with one of the lady's escorts. Upon his arrival in Paris, d'Artagnan presents himself to Commander de Treville of the Musketeers and successfully joins the unit, despite losing his father's letter of introduction. D'Artagnan also manages to annoy three of the most skillful Musketeers - Athos, Aramis and Porthos - and schedule a duel with all three of them. His duel with Athos ends when members of Cardinal Richelieu's men tries to arrest the Musketeers. And d'Artagnan assists the Musketeers in their fight against the Cardinal's men. The young Gascon befriends his fellow Musketeers, acquires a valet named Planchet and falls in love with the goddaughter of his new landlord, Constance Bonacieux. However, Constance also happens to be Queen Anne's dressmaker. Thanks to her romance with d'Artagnan, the latter becomes involved in royal and political intrigue as he helps Constance prevent Cardinal Richelieu from exposing the Queen's romance with England's Duke of Buckingham; and becomes the target of one of the Cardinal's top agents - the beautiful and deadly Milady de Winter, who happened to be the mysterious woman he had briefly encountered on the road to Paris.

Directed by George Sidney and written by Robert Ardrey, "THE THREE MUSKETEERS" turned out to be the second most faithful adaptation of Dumas' novel. Mind you, there were differences. Due to Code restrictions, Constance Bonacieux was the goddaughter of d'Artagnan's landlord, not the wife. Therefore, this version avoided any adulterous taint in the relationship between the hero and his lady love. The war conducted between France and Spain featured in Dumas' novel was transformed into a private military campaign conducted behind King Louis XIII's back, between Richelieu and Buckingham. And Milady de Winter's prison guard in England turned out to be Constance (in hiding from Richelieu), instead of John Felton, one of the Duke's officers. Which meant that Constance's death occurred at Buckingham's castle, instead of inside a monastery in France. Fortunately, these changes barely made any negative impact on my viewing pleasure. But there were some aspects of the movie that did not sit well with me.

Mind you, Gene Kelly's overall performance as d'Artagnan struck me as well done, despite the actor being over a decade older than the actual character. But there were times in the movie's first half when I found his performance a little hammy and strident - especially in his effort to convey the image of a passionate and impetuous youth. A good example of this hamminess was his reaction to his first sight of Constance Bonacieux. Screenwriter Robert Ardrey did very little to showcase the Comte de Rochefort character in the film and ended up wasting the presence of actor Ian Keith, who portrayed the character in this film and in the 1935 adaptation. I liked Frank Morgan's portrayal of King Louis XIII, but I must admit that he seemed to old for the role. And the Queen Anne character, portrayed wonderfully by Angela Landsbury, practically disappeared in the movie's second half, despite the major roles played by Constance and the Duke of Buckingham during that period.

Despite these quibbles, I must admit that "THE THREE MUSKETEERS" is probably my second favorite adaptation of Dumas' novel. One thing, the Technicolor featured in this film is absolutely beautiful. The color, combined with Robert H. Planck's photography of the movie's locations really took my breath away . . . especially in scenes that featured some of the characters' travels across France and England. Herbert Stothart, who had won an Oscar for his work on 1939's "THE WIZARD OF OZ", did an admirable job of blending the movie's score with the on-screen drama and action. Speaking of action, this movie featured some of the best sword fighting choreography I have ever seen on screen. The fight scenes definitely benefited from Kelly's dancing skills and athleticism. But Kelly was not the only one who looked good in the action scenes. So did Van Heflin, Robert Coote and especially Gig Young. Even Keenan Wynn, who portrayed d'Artagnan's valet Planchet, looked good in one or two scenes. I must admit that Walter Plunkett's costume designs looked absolutely beautiful - for both the male and female characters. However, a part of me suspected they were not an accurate reflection of early 17th century France.

Ardrey's adaptation of Dumas' novel may not have been perfect. But I cannot deny that the screenwriter still fashioned a first-rate script. He did an excellent job in meshing the two major plotlines of the novels - the theft of Queen Anne's diamonds and Milady de Winter's activities against d'Artagnan and the Duke of Buckingham in the movie's second half. George Sidney's energetic direction and excellent performances from the cast elevated the script even higher. Not only did the sword fighting sequences impressed me, I especially enjoyed the long sequence that featured d'Artagnan's journey to England to fetch Queen Anne's diamonds. The movie also featured some fine dramatic scenes. One of them featured superb performances from Lana Turner and Vincent Price, in which the two villainous characters discuss the fates of both the Duke of Buckingham and d'Artagnan. Another turned out to be a showcase for Van Heflin in which the drunken Athos revealed the details of his failed marriage. But my favorite featured Athos' revelation of Milady as his estranged wife in a conversation with d'Artagnan. This scene revealed some outstanding performances from both Heflin and Kelly.

No movie is perfect. I can honestly say that the 1948 movie, "THE THREE MUSKETEERS" is no bastion of perfection. It has its flaws. But it also possesses virtues that outweigh its flaws - including an excellent cast, beautiful photography, and a well-written adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel. Most of all, all the movie's virtues were increased tenfold from a well-paced and energetic direction from George Sidney. It is a pity that MGM Studios failed to profit from "THE THREE MUSKETEERS". The studio certainly deserved to.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"THIS GUN FOR HIRE" (1942) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "THIS GUN FOR HIRE", the 1942 adaptation of Graham Greene's 1936 novel, "A Gun For Sale". Directed by Frank Tuttle, the movie starred Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar and Alan Ladd: 



"THIS GUN FOR HIRE" (1942) Photo Gallery

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Friday, June 21, 2013

The Incredible Hulk Meets Thor - Part I

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THE INCREDIBLE HULK MEETS THOR - PART I

Twenty-five years ago, a television movie called "THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS" aired on CBS. It served as a continuation of the popular 1978-1982 television series and starred Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk.

"THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS" not only features another attempt by Banner to rid himself of the Hulk for good, but also his meeting Dr. Donald Blake aka Thor, God of Thunder (Steve Levitt and Eric Allan Kramer). Here is a recap and REVIEW of the movie.

Unless there is another movie that features both the Hulk and Thor, "THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS" features their first on-screen meeting until 24 years later in the 2012 summer blockbuster, "THE AVENGERS". I think.


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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Review

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"THE GREAT GATSBY" (2013) Review

Before the release of Baz Luhrmann's recent adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby", there have been three previous movie adaptations and a television movie version. None of these versions have been well received by the critics. Even this latest adaptation has been receiving mixed reviews. I must admit that I had been reluctant to see the movie, myself. But dazzled by the movie's MTV-style trailer, I decided to see it for the sake of the visual effects.

Many who have read Fitzgerald's novel or seen any of the previous adaptations, know the story. "THE GREAT GATSBY" told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby who settles in a large house in the fictional town of West Egg (for the noveau riche), on prosperous Long Island, during the summer of 1922 - the early years of the Jazz Age. Narrated by Gatsby's neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire's desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I and Nick's cousin. Unfortunately for Gatsby, Daisy is married to one of Nick's former Yale classmates, Tom Buchanan, who comes from old Chicago money. Tom is engaged in an extramarital affair with one Myrtle Wilson, who is the wife of a gas station owner located in the Valley of Ashes - a stretch of road between Long Island and Manhattan. Gatsby invites Nick to one of his nightly lavish parties, given to impress Daisy, who lives across Oyster Bay at East Egg, a neighborhood for those from old money. Nick learns from Jordan Baker, an old Louisville friend of Daisy's, that Gatsby would like him to arrange a meeting with his former love over afternoon tea. The two former lovers reunite on a rainy afternoon and re-ignite their love affair that eventually ends in tragedy.

If critics were hoping that Baz Luhrmann would produce and direct a flawless or near flawless adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel, they were bound to be disappointed. "THE GREAT GATSBY" is not flawless. There were times when I found the movie a bit too melodramatic - especially during the party sequences. And I never saw the need to open the film with Nick Carraway being treated for alcoholism in a sanatorium. Luhrmann and the movie's other screenwriter, Craig Pearce, apparently included the sanatorium additions to transform Nick's character into some F. Scott Fitzgerald clone. The movie even ended with Nick's written recollections being given the title of Fitzgerald's novel. Frankly, I found this dumb and unnecessary. I also found the party sequence held by Tom and his married lover Myrtle Wilson at a New York apartment rather frantic. I realize that Nick became drunk at this party. But this scene proved to be one in which Luhrmann's colorful style nearly got the best of him.

I suspect that many expect me to complain about some of the music featured in "THE GREAT GATSBY" - namely the director's use of hip hop music. However . . . I have no complaints about Luhrmann using modern day music in a film set in 1922. For some reason I cannot explain, I believe Luhrmann and composer Craig Armstrong did a pretty bang-up job in blending their occasional use of modern-day music with some of the movie's scenes. There were also complaints that Catherine Martin's costumes were not a complete accurate projection of 1920s fashion. I did notice that although the movie was set in 1922, the clothes seemed to be a reflection of the mid or late period of that decade. Then I saw images like the following:

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Or images like the following for the male characters:

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I had wept with exultation and joy at my first sight of Martin's costumes. Her costumes for this film are some of the most gorgeous I have seen in a period drama in quite a while. Absolutely . . . bloody . . . gorgeous. The moment I set eyes on those costumes, I realized that I could not care less whether her work was an accurate reflection of 1922 fashion or not. Martin also served as the movie's production designer. If there was any justice, this would earn double Academy Award nominations for both her costumes and the movie's production designs. Baz Luhrmann filmed "THE GREAT GATSBY" in Australia, which means that he and his crew had to re-create 1922 Long Island and Manhattan from scratch. Martin was basically responsible for the movie's early Art Deco look - especially for scenes set in Gatsby's East Egg manor, his Manhattan speakeasy, the Manhattan restaurant where Nick and Jordan met, the Buchanans' East Egg home and especially the bleak-looking Valley of Ashes, the location of George Wilson's garage and the infamous Dr. T. J. Eckleburg billboard. Needless to say, I was more than impressed. I was dazzled.

I have been so busy discussing the movie's technical aspects that I failed to say anything about Luhrmann and Pearce's adaptation of Fitzgerald's film. I have already expressed my displeasure at their attempt to transform Nick Carraway into some kind of Fitzgerald clone at the movie's beginning and end. But aside from this faux paus, I feel that the two did a pretty damn good job. Were they completely faithful to the novel? No. Did this spell disaster? For some moviegoers and fans of Fitzgerald's novel, it did. But I do not share their feelings. I do not demand that a movie or television production re-create a novel or play in exact details. That road leads to insanity and sometimes, disaster. Aside from what was done to Nick's character at the beginning and end, the movie featured a few other changes. In this movie, a grieving George Wilson learned from Tom Buchanan that Jay Gatsby owned the yellow car that killed Myrtle at the former's gas station. Unless I am mistaken, Tom had conveyed this news to George, when the latter paid a visit to his East Egg mansion in the novel. The movie featured flashbacks of Gatsby's life in North Dakota and his years spent with a millionaire named Dan Cody. But Gatsby's father did not make an appearance near the end of the movie (for which I am utterly grateful). Did these changes bother me? Nope, they did not. I was too busy admiring the energy that Luhrmann injected into Fitzgerald's tale. This was especially apparent in the pivotal scene featuring Gatsby and Tom's showdown over Daisy's affections in a Plaza Hotel suite. The scene crackled with emotions and an energy that seemed to be either lacking or at best, muted, in other adaptations. More importantly, Luhrmann and Pearce's screenplay finally lifted a fog and allowed me to fully understand and appreciate Fitzgerald's tale for the first time. I am afraid that the previous two adaptations (1974 and 2000) had bored me to the point that the emotions and theme behind the story had failed to elude me in the past. And that is the best part of Luhrmann's adaptation. For the first time, I finally understood the pathetic nature of the Jay Gatsby/Daisy Buchanan love story. And I am being complimentary.

A movie review would not be complete with a discussion on the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio became the fifth actor to portray Jay Gatsby aka James Gatz. And as usual, he was magnificent. In fact, I believe his Gatsby was the best I have ever seen on screen. He managed to maintain the character's mystery in the movie's first half without eliminating any of the character's strong emotions. Despite the attempt to transform Nick Carraway into a Fitzgerald clone, I had no problems with Tobey Maguire's portrayal of the character. In fact, he did an excellent job of conveying both Nick's observant nature and emotional attachment to Gatsby, while injecting a bit of warm humor and slight goofiness in the role. I realize that Maguire and DiCaprio had been friends for over two decades. I suspect that friendship made it easy for the pair to convey the growing friendship between Nick and Gatsby.

Carey Mulligan gave an exquisite performance as the quixotic Daisy Buchanan. Mulligan made it easy for viewers to understand how Gatsby fell so hard for her. She perfectly conveyed Daisy's superficial idealism and warmth. But Mulligan also skillfully allowed Daisy's more unpleasant side - her selfishness, mild snobbery and lack of courage - to ooze between the cracks in the character's facade. Joel Edgerton really impressed me in his portrayal of the brutish Tom Buchanan. In the actor's first scene, I felt as if he was laying it a bit thick in conveying the character's unpleasant nature. But Edgerton quickly grew into the role and portrayed Tom's brutality with more subtlety. He also did a great job in portraying the character's surprising talent for manipulation and genuine feelings for the doomed Myrtle.

For the role of Daisy's Louisville friend and golfer Jordan Baker, Luhrmann chose Australian-born stage-trained actress named Elizabeth Debicki for the role. And she did a pretty damn good job. In fact, I thought Debicki did a solid job of conveying Jordan's fast-living and cynical personality with great skill. Isla Fisher knocked it out of the ballpark as the fun-loving Myrtle Fisher. Not only did she gave a first-rate portrayal of Myrtle's garishness and warmth, but also the character's grasping ambition and desperation to escape from her stagnant and dull marriage to gas station owner George. Myrtle is not highly regarded by many Fitzgerald fans. But Fisher made it easy for me to feel some sparks of pity toward the latter's situation regarding her marriage to George. Speaking of the latter, "THE GREAT GATSBY" marked the third period drama in which I have seen Jason Clarke. His role as the pathetic George Wilson is a bit smaller, but Clarke made the best of it, especially in two scenes. One scene featured Clarke perfectly conveying George's clumsy attempt to toady Tom for a business transaction regarding the latter's car. And in another, he did a beautiful job in portraying George's pathetic grief over a woman who had stopped loving him a long time ago. This movie also marked a reunion for Clarke and Edgerton. Both had appeared in "ZERO DARK THIRTY". I also want to point out Amitabh Bachchan's much talked about portrayal of Gatsby's gambling friend, Meyer Wolfshiem - a fictionalized take on gambler/gangster Arnold Rothstein. No only did the actor looked unusual, he gave a lively, yet brief performance that I found quite captivating. And Jack Thompson gave a quiet (almost speechless) and subtle performance as Nick's psychiatrist Dr. Walter Perkins. STAR WARS fans should take note that eleven years ago, Thompson portrayed Cliegg Lars - father to Edgerton's Owen Lars - in "STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES".

I am the last person who will ever claim that this latest "THE GREAT GATSBY" is perfect. Trust me, it is not. But it is a very entertaining film that I believe captured the emotions and theme behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel better than any previous adaptation. More importantly, director Baz Luhrmann injected style and energy not only into the story itself, but also its visual look and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. I would have no qualms about watching this movie again.