Monday, March 31, 2014
Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:
TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s
1. "Django Unchained" (2012) - Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.
2. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1938) - Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.
3. "Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad" (1994) - Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.
4. "Skin Game" (1971) - James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.
5. "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" (1954) - Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.
6. "The First Great Train Robbery" (1979) - Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.
7. "Wuthering Heights" (1939) - William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë's 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.
8. "Westward the Women" (1951) - William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher's valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.
9. "Mountains of the Moon" (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke's expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.
10. "Jezebel" (1938) - William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.'s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
"A ROOM WITH A VIEW" (1985-86) Review
Ah, Merchant and Ivory! Whenever I hear those particular names, my mind usually generates images of Britons in Edwardian dress, strolling along a London street, across a wide lawn or even along some city boulevard in a country other than Great Britain. In other words, the images from their movie, "A ROOM WITH A VIEW" usually fills my brain.
Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory produced and directed this adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, which first hit the theaters in Great Britain during the early winter of 1985. Four months later, the movie was released in American movie theaters. Forster's tale is basically a coming-of-age story about a young Edwardian woman, who finds herself torn between her superficial and snobbish fiancé and the free-thinking son of a retired journalist, whom she had met during her Italian vacation. The movie begins with the arrival of young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Barlett to a small pensione in Florence, Italy. Not only does Lucy have a reunion with her family's local clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Beebe; she and Charlotte meet a non-conformist father and son pair named Mr. Emerson and his son, George. The Emersons agree to exchange their room - which has a view - with the one occupied by Lucy and Charlotte. Lucy becomes further acquainted with George after the pair witness a murder in the city's square and he openly expresses his feelings to her. Matters come to a head between the young couple when George kisses Lucy during a picnic for the pensione's British visitors, outside of the city. Charlotte witnesses the kiss and not only insists that she and Lucy return to the pensione, but also put some distance between them and the Emersons by leaving Florence.
A few months later finds Lucy back at her home in Windy Corners, England. She had just accepted a marriage proposal from the wealthy, yet intellectually snobbish Cecil Vyse; much to her mother and brother Freddy's silent displeasure. Matters take a turn for the worse when George and Mr. Emerson move to an empty cottage in Windy Corners, she soon learns that both George and his father have moved to her small village, thanks to Cecil's recommendation. With George back in her life, Lucy's suppressed feelings return. It is not long before she is internally divided between her feelings for George and her growing fear that Cecil might not be the man for her.
What can I say about "A ROOM WITH THE VIEW"? It was the first British-produced costume drama I had ever seen in the movie theaters. Hell, it was the first Merchant-Ivory production I had ever seen . . . period. Has it held up in the past twenty-eight years? Well . . . it is not perfect. The problem is other than Julian Sands' performance, I cannot think of any real imperfections in the movie. A view have pointed out that its quaintness has made it more dated over the years. Frankly, I found it fresh as ever. Who am I kidding? I loved the movie when I first saw it 28 years ago, and still loved it when I recently watched it.
One would think that the movie's critique of a conservative society would seem outdated in the early 21st century. But considering the growing conservatism of the past decade or so, perhaps "A ROOM WITH A VIEW" is not as outdated as one would believe, considering its Edwardian setting. Mind you, I found some the Emersons' commentaries on life rather pretentious and in George's case, a bit long-winded. But I cannot deny that their observations, however long-winded, struck me as dead on. More importantly, Foster's novel and by extension, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, makes Foster's observations more easy to swallow thanks to a very humorous and witty tale. Another aspect that I enjoyed about "A ROOM WITH A VIEW" was how Foster's liberalism had an impact on the love story between Lucy and George. I find it interesting how Foster managed to point out the differences between genuine liberals like the Emersons and pretenders like Cecil Vyse, who use such beliefs to feed his own sense of superiority.
While watching "A ROOM WITH A VIEW", it seemed very apparent to me, that it is still a beautiful movie to look at. The movie not only won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; but also two technical awards for the movie's visual style. Gianni Quaranta, Brian Ackland-Snow, Brian Savegar, Elio Altamura served as the team for the movie's art direction and won an Academy Award for their efforts. The art designs they created for the movie's Edwardian setting is stunning. I can also say the same about the Academy Award winning costume designs created by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Below are two examples of their work:
And Tony Pierce-Roberts earned a much deserved Oscar for his beautiful and lush photography of both Tuscany in Italy and various English locations that served as the movie's settings.
One of the best aspects of "A ROOM WITH A VIEW" has to be its cast of entertaining, yet flawed characters. First of all, the movie featured rich, supporting characters like Lucy's charming, yet gauche brother Freddy; the very verbose and open-minded Reverend Beebe; the always exasperated Mrs. Honeychurch; the indiscreet and pretentious novelist, Eleanor Lavish (in some ways another Cecil); and the snobbish and controlling Reverend Eager. And it is due to the superb performances of Rupert Graves, the always entertaining Simon Callow, Rosemary Leach, the even more amazing Judi Dench and Patrick Godfrey that allowed these characters to come to life.
Both Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their unforgettable performances as Charlotte Barlett, Lucy's passive-aggressive cousin; and George's brash and open-minded father, Mr. Emerson. Charlotte must be one of the most fidgety characters ever portrayed by Smith, yet she conveyed this trait with such subtlety that I could not help but feel disappointed that she did not collect that Oscar. And Elliot did a marvelous job in portraying Mr. Emerson with the right balance of humor and pathos. Daniel Day-Lewis did not earn an Oscar nomination for his hilarious portrayal of Lucy's snobbish and pretentious fiancé, Cecil Vyse. But he did win the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor. Although there were moments when I found his performance a bit too mannered, I cannot deny that he deserved that award.
The role of Lucy Honeychurch made Helena Bonham-Carter a star. And it is easy to see why. The actress did an excellent job of not only portraying Lucy's quiet, yet steady persona as a well-bred Englishwoman. And at the same time, she also managed to convey the character's peevishness and a passive-aggressive streak that strongly reminded me of Charlotte Barlett. The only bad apple in the barrel proved to be Julian Sands' performance as the overtly romantic, yet brooding George Emerson. Too be honest, I found a good deal of his performance rather flat. This flatness usually came out when Sands opened his mouth. He has never struck me as a verbose actor. However, I must admit that he actually managed to shine in one scene in which George openly declared his feelings for Lucy. And with his mouth shut, Sands proved he could be a very effective screen actor.
Looking back on "A ROOM WITH A VIEW", I still find it difficult to agree with that blogger who stated that it had become somewhat dated over the years. Not only does the movie seem livelier than ever after 28 years or so, its theme of freedom from social repression still resonates . . . something I suspect that many would refuse to admit. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with Oscar winner screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala created a work of art that has not lost its beauty and its bite after so many years.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Below are images from "THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS", the 2010 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1925 novel. The movie starred Julia McKenzie as Miss Jane Marple:
"THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS" (2010) Photo Gallery
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
"HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III" (1994) - EPISODE ONE Commentary
If there is one chapter in John Jakes' NORTH AND SOUTH saga that is reviled by the fans, it the television adaptation of the third one, set after the American Civil War. First of all, the theme of post-war Reconstruction has never been that popular with tales about the four-year war. More importantly, fans of Jakes' saga seemed to have a low opinion of "HEAVEN AND HELL", the 1994 adaptation of Jakes' third North and South novel, published back in 1987.
My opinion of the 1994 miniseries slightly differs from the opinions formed by the majority of the saga's fans. The three-part miniseries failed to achieve the same level of production quality that its two predecessors had enjoyed. But unlike the second miniseries, 1986's "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II", this third miniseries was more faithful to Jakes' original novel - as I had pointed out in a previous article. And to my surprise, I discovered that some aspects of the miniseries were an improvement from the novel.
Episode One of "BOOK THREE" struck me as a solid return to John Jakes' saga. Not only did it re-introduce some of the old characters from the previous two miniseries, but also introduced new characters. Ironcially, one of the new characters turned out to be the oldest Main sibling - Cooper Main. As many fans know, his character was left out of the first two miniseries. Why? I do not know. But Cooper was introduced as a humorless man, embittered by the South's defeat. And Robert Wagner gave one of the best performances in the miniseries in his portrayal of Cooper. Another praiseworthy addition turned out to be Rya Kihlstedt, who portrayed Charles Main's new love interest, actress Willa Parker. Not only did Kihlstedt did a great job in portraying the idealistic Willa, she had great chemistry with Kyle Chandler, who took over the role of Charles Main. Many fans had howled with outrage over Chandler assuming the role of Charles, following Lewis Smith's portrayal in the previous miniseries. So did I. But after seeing Chandler do a superb job of conveying Charles' post-war angst and desperation to find a living to support his son. James Read gave a solid performance as a grieving George Hazard, who seemed to be having difficulty in dealing with the death of his best friend, Orry Main, at the hands of their former enemy, Elkhannah Bent. Cliff De Young made a surprisingly effective villain as Gettys LaMotte, the manipulative and vindictive leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.
Unfortunately, there were performances that failed to impress me. I got the feeling that director Larry Peerce harbored an odd idea on how a 19th century upper-class Southern woman would behave. This was quite apparent in the performances of Lesley-Anne Down as Madeline Fabray Main and Terri Garber as Ashton Main Huntoon. The performances of both actresses struck me as unusually exaggerated and melodramatic - something which they had managed to avoid in "BOOK I" and "BOOK II". Fortunately for Garber, she occasionally broke out of her caricature, when portraying Ashton's more sardonic nature. Down only got worse, when her voice acquired a breathless tone. Being a fan of character actor Keith Szarabajka from his stint on "ANGEL" and other television and movie appearances, I was shocked by his hammy performance as a vengeful Kentucky-born Union officer named Captain Venable, whose family had been ravaged by Confederate troops. His performance was one of the most wince-inducing I have witnessed in years.
Episode One possessed some bloopers that left me scratching my head. Cooper's sudden appearance in the miniseries was never explained by the screenwriters. Neither was the introduction of former slave Isaac, who was portrayed by Stan Shaw. And I am still curious about how Gettys LaMotte learned about Madeline's African-American ancestry, let alone the other neighbors in the parish. I do not recall Ashton or Bent telling anyone.
Fortunately, Episode One was filled with excellent scenes and moments. One of the scenes that really seemed to stand out featured George and Madeline's argument about the state of post-war Mont Royal. Charles' hilarious introduction to a Cheyenne village involved marvelous acting by Chandler and Rip Torn, who portrayed mountain man Adolphus Jackson. One other scene that had me on the floor laughing featured Ashton, who became a prostitute in Santa Fe, kicking a smelly would-be customer out of her room. The episode featured very chilly moments. One of them featured Gettys LaMotte's creepy rendition of the KKK theme song (I forgot that De Young was also a singer). Another was the murder of Adolphus Jackson and his nephew Jim by a Cheyenne warrior named Scar. But the best scene in the entire miniseries (and probably the entire trilogy) was Elkhannah Bent's murder of Constance Hazard, George's wife. I found it subtle, creepy and beautifully shot by Peerce. Also, Philip Casnoff and Wendy Kilbourne acted the hell out of that scene.
Despite some bloopers that either left me confused or wincing with discomfort - including some hammy performances by a few members of the cast - I can honestly say that"HEAVEN AND HELL: BOOK III" started off rather well. Better than I had originally assumed it would.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" (2002) Review
Thirty-three years ago saw the release of "The Bourne Identity", Robert Ludlum's first novel about the amnesiac government agent called Jason Bourne. The novel became a best-seller and spawned two sequels written by Ludlum. Then in 1988, ABC aired a two-part miniseries adaptation of Ludlum's novel, which starred Richard Chamberlain and Jacyln Smith. The miniseries turned out to be a big ratings hit. But it did not stop there. Over fourteen years later, Universal Pictures released its own adaptation of the novel, starring Matt Damon as the amnesiac Jason Bourne.
Directed by Doug Liman, the beginning of "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" more or less followed Ludlum's novel. Italian fisherman (instead of French) rescue an unconscious man floating adrift with two gunshot wounds in his back. The boat's medic finds a display of a safe deposit number surgically implanted under the unknown man's skin. The man wakes up and discovers he is suffering from extreme memory loss. Over the next few days, the man finds he is fluent in several languages and has unusual skills. But he cannot remember anything about himself or why he was in the sea. When the ship docks, the doctor sends him off to Zurich with some money to investigate the mystery of the safe deposit box. In Zurich, the man discovers money, a pistol and passports with his photograph. One of the photographs identify him as an American named Jason Bourne with an address in Paris.
Here, "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" begins to veer from both Ludlum's novel and the 1988 miniseries. Instead of alerting the forces of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Bourne's trip to the bank alerted the CIA black ops program Treadstone to his whereabouts. And instead of coercing French-Canadian Marie St. Jacques to drive him to safety and using her as a hostage, Damon's Bourne offered money to a German-born Marie Kreutz to drive him to Paris. Before they can part, a Treadstone assassin attack Bourne at his Paris apartment. Due to the attack, Bourne is forced to kill the assassin and keep Marie by his side for her protection. And with her help, he sets out to discover his true identity and the truth that led to his wounded state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, Treadstone - led by the cankerous Alexander Conklin and the anxious Deputy Director Ward Abbott - continues sending assassins to kill Bourne and prevent him from revealing the organization's desire to kill a volatile exiled African dictator named Nykwana Wombosi.
I might as well put my cards on the table. "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" is a terrific movie. Director Doug Liman, along with screenwriters Tony Gilory and William Blake Herron, did a first-rate job of transferring . . . well, their vision of Ludlum's novel. Although the movie is not as faithful to the novel as the miniseries, I believe it is just as good. Liman, Gilroy and Herron decided to reject a good deal of Ludlum's novel in order to reflect the current political climate and to conform to Liman's opinions regarding American foreign policy. In the movie, Bourne is a CIA assassin who works for a black ops group called Treadstone that carries out unofficial hits on those they consider threats to the American government. He lost his memory after a failed attempt on the exiled Nykwana Wombosi. The movie is more of a criticism or indictment (depending on how one would view it) on U.S. foreign policy than Ludlum's novel . But the director and the two screenwriters made sure that they retained the novel's central theme - a CIA agent who loses his memory on the heels of a failed mission. Does this mean I believe Liman, Gilroy and Herron's changes are superior to Ludlum's original story? Not really. Ludlum's tale and the 1988 adaptation were reflections of the times they hit both the bookstores and television screens. By the time "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" was in production, the political scene had change. The real Carlos the Jackal had been in prison for about seven to eight years by the time the movie went into production. And in my opinion, Liman and the two screenwriters wisely reflected this change.
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" also reflected some first rate action sequences, thanks to Liman's direction, Oliver Wood's photography and especially Saar Klein's editing. My favorite sequences include Bourne's escape from the U.S. Embassy in Zurich, a car chase sequence through the streets of Paris, Bourne's final encounter with Conklin and two of the latter's flunkies inside Treadstone's Parisian safe house and especially the fight sequence between Bourne and another Treadstone assassin named Castel. I also enjoyed John Powell's atmospheric score for the film, which I believe more or less served as the basis for his work on the second and third BOURNE movies. And speaking of music, one could hardly discuss anyBOURNE film withou mentioning Moby's 2002 hit song, "Extreme Ways". The lyrics to Moby's song, supported by a very entertaining score, literally captured the nuance of the franchise's main characters . . . especially Bourne. Is it any wonder that it has become the franchise's theme song? Also, I have to commend Liman's insistence upon filming "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" in Paris, especially since executives at Universal Studios wanted him to use Montreal or Prague as substitutes for the City of Lights. Mind you, both Montreal and Prague are beautiful cities. But even I would have guessed they were not really Paris in the film.
I read somewhere that Liman had considered a wide range of actors like Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone for the role of David Webb aka Jason Bourne. Mind you, I think Crowe could have pulled it off. But I am not so sure about Stallone. Then again, he could have done so a decade earlier. However, Liman eventually settled for Matt Damon and the rest, as they say, is history. Damon not only gave a superb performance as the introverted and haunted Bourne, he also handled some of the action scenes very well, considering this was his first time in such a physically demanding role. He also had superb chemistry with his leading lady, Franka Potente. The latter was excellent as the free-spirited Marie Kreutz, who finds herself drawn to the mysterious Bourne . . . almost against her will. Other first-rate performances include Chris Cooper as the intense and hot-tempered Alexander Conklin; Brian Cox, who performance as the cautious Ward Abbott almost strikes me as insidious; and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose performance as the arrogant and verbose Nykwana Wombosi pretty much lit up the screen. The movie also featured first-rate performances from two cast members who said very little. Julia Stiles did an excellent job in conveying both the professionalism and wariness of Treadstone logistics technician Nicky Parsons with very little dialogue. Clive Owen had even less to say as Treadstone assassin "The Professor" and yet, he perfectly projected an intense and intimidating presence as a government killer.
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" is probably my second favorite movie in the franchise. Yet, it is not perfect. One of the problems I had featured the death of Treadstone assassin Castel, who jumped out of the window and killed himself, following his fight with Bourne inside the latter's Parisian apartment. Marie asked Bourne why he did it. And honestly, I wondered why he did it myself. But Gilroy and Herron's screenplay failed to explain Castel's suicide. And to this day, I am still wondering why the guy jumped. Ward Abbott made the decision to shut down Treadstone, following its failure to kill Bourne. But instead of having everyone connected to Treadstone killed - something that Edward Norton's character in"THE BOURNE LEGACY" attempted to do - Abbott only had one person bumped off. And I could not help but wondering if his efforts were half-assed. I also had a problem with the CIA's reaction to Nykwana Wombosi's death. Following Bourne's failed attempt to kill him, the CIA Director had a fit over the unauthorized attempted hit on the former dictator. But when "The Professor" finally killed Wombossi, no one made a fuss or worried over the possibility that the dictator's death might attract more attention from the media. I thought this was rather sloppy on Gilroy and Herron's part. Finally, the movie's second half was in danger of losing my attention, due to Liman's slow pacing. If it were not for the sequence featuring Bourne and Marie's visit to her friend (or step brother) Eaumon's French farmhouse, I would have fallen asleep and missed Bourne's final confrontation with Conklin.
What else is there to say about "THE BOURNE IDENTITY"? Like I said, it is my second favorite of the four movies in theBOURNE franchise. In its own way, it is just as good (but not better) than the 1988 miniseries that starred Richard Chamberlain. Not only did the movie featured a first-rate, if flawed screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron; it also featured fine direction by Doug Liman, along with a superb cast led by Matt Damon who proved to be an excellent Jason Bourne.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Below are images from "THE GREAT GATSBY", the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel. Directed by Jack Clayton, the movie starred Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterson:
"THE GREAT GATSBY" (1974) Photo Gallery