Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"LOST" RETROSPECT: (2.10) "The 23rd Psalm"

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"LOST" RETROSPECT: (2.10) "The 23rd Psalm"

During its six years on the air, "LOST" managed to earn five Emmy nominations for Writing in a Drama Series. The series earned its second writing nomination for its Season Two episode called (2.10) "The 23rd Psalm"

Written by showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and directed by Matt Earl Beesley; "The 23rd Psalm" is the first"LOST" episode to explore the backstory of Tail Section survivor, Mr. Eko. The episode began several decades earlier, when guerilla fighters arrived at a small Nigerian village. The guerilla fighters are there to recruit young boys for their army. They try to force one of the boys to shoot an old boy. When the boy hesitates, his older brother takes the gun and commits the deed. The older brother, the future Mr. Eko, is forced to join the guerilla fighters. Over two decades later, Eko (now a warlord) meets with drug dealers who needs to get their heroin out of the country. Eko offers to buy the drugs at a low price and get them out of Nigeria. The drug runners' leader agrees to the deal. But after he makes a commit about Eko's soul, the latter kills them all and appropriate the drugs. He later returns to his home village and asks his younger brother Yemi, now a Catholic priest, for a plane via the United Nations to get the drugs out of Nigeria. At first, Yemi refuses to help. But when Eko threatens to burn down the village's church, Yemi not only agrees to help arrange for a plane, but also sign ordination papers that would identify Eko and his two associates as Catholic priests. He also buys Virgin Mary statues to hide the heroin and ship it out of Nigeria. But Yemi's sudden appearance at the airport and a shoot-out with the military leaves Yemi wounded and on the plane . . . and Eko left behind and mistaken as a priest. 

On the island, Eko gets into a conversation with Claire Littleton, when she inadvertently reveals that another castaway, Charlie Pace, carries around a Virgin Mary statue, which he had found in the Season One finale, (1.24-25) "Exodus, Part II". When she shows Eko the statue, he breaks it open and reveals a stash of heroin inside. Claire becomes angry at Charlie, because she believes he has resumed his drug addiction. And Eko coerces Charlie into showing him where the latter found the statue. Their island journey leads the pair to the Beechcraft airplane that John Locke and Boone Caryle had discovered in (1.19) "Deus Ex Machina". And Eko has his first encounter with the Smoke Monster aka the Man in Black.

"The 23rd Psalm" is not the first "LOST" episode to deal with redemption. But I must admit that it is probably one of the best ones on the subject with any real closure. Many viewers had wondered about Eko's position as a priest between his introduction in (2.04) "Everybody Hates Hugo" and this episode. As it turned out, Eko's role as a priest was a false one. And yet . . . his religious beliefs seemed to be genuine, especially in episodes like (2.07) "The Other 48 Days" and (2.09) "What Kate Did". And although this episode explained how Eko became "a priest", it left the question of his embrace of Christianity left open for future episodes.

But the most important factor about "The 23rd Psalm" proved to be the story between Eko and his younger brother, Yemi. I find it ironic that Eko committed a major crime to save Yemi when they were kids. Yet, his role as a warlord and his crimes regarding the heroin he had "acquired" from the drug runners inadvertently led to Yemi's death. The so-called "circle of life" can be quite cruel. Poor Yemi. He tried so hard to save Eko from a life of crime and evil. And yet, it took his death to set the older brother on a life of redemption. There is one scene that has left me scratching my head since the end of the series. It was Eko's first encounter with the Smoke Monster. During that encounter, the Smoke Monster revealed images of Eko's past. Instead of running away, Eko stood his ground. This left me feeling that Eko was willing to face the ugliness of his past, instead of running from it. This also left me wondering if the Smoke Monster served as some symbol of of a supernatural judge. After the Man in Black's true nature was revealed in Season Six, I realized I had been wrong about it. And I also found myself questioning Cuse and Lindelof's decision to have it confront Mr. Eko in "The 23rd Psalm" in the first place.

"The 23rd Psalm" also featured a few minor subplots that not only moved along the series' main narrative, but also the narratives for some of the characters. Due to Eko's exposure of the heroin found in the Virgin Mary statue, an angry Claire decided to distance herself from Charlie. Kate began paying a good deal of attention toward Sawyer, following his recovery from his gunshot wound. I suspect her current estrangement from Jack and his friendship toward Ana-Lucia Cortez played roles in her attention. She also pointed out that Sawyer was no longer "persona non grata" since his recovery, making him feel very uneasy. And since communicating with Walt on the hatch's computer, Michael commenced on his plans to search for Walt. In this episode, he approached Locke to teach him how to use a firearm. Jack told Michael that everyone cared about Walt's situation and that he plans to get Walt back. Judging by Michael's preparations, I suspect the latter did not believe Jack. And honestly . . . I do not blame him. As everyone knows, the Losties - especially Jack and Locke - barely lifted a finger to help Michael find Walt, until tragedy drove them to move against the Others near the end of the season with disastrous results. 

The episode featured a well-written back story about Mr. Eko and a few subplots that moved the series along. It also featured some excellent performances. Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Josh Holloway and Terry O'Quinn gave solid performances. But if I must be honest, I did not find their work particularly mind blowing. I was impressed by Harold Perrineau's portrayal of a tense Michael Dawson, struggling to keep his desire to run after Walt temporarily in check. And I also enjoyed Emilie de Ravin's scenes with both Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Dominic Monaghan. I liked how she transformed Claire Littleton's emotions from a cheerful and friendly woman, to one frightened by Eko's intense questioning and finally anger over the possibility that Charlie might be using drugs again.

However, there were three performances in this episode that struck me as outstanding. One came from Dominic Monaghan, who continued his excellent portrayal of the flawed, yet quirky former rock star, Charlie Pace. Monaghan did an excellent job in portraying Charlie's friendliness, sarcasm and occasional flashes of desperation. The episode also featured Adetokumboh McCormack, who gave a superb performance as Yemi (surname unknown), a priest and Eko's younger brother. I was especially impressed in his scenes with Akinnuoye-Agbaje, in which revealed a character just as intimidating as Mr. Eko - but in a more subtle way. By the way, McCormack appeared in the 2011 science-fiction thriller, "BATTLE: LOS ANGELES", with Michelle Rodriguez. But the man of the hour . . . or episode was undoubtedly Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. He was outstanding as the very complex and mysterious Mr. Eko. Despite portraying a character who seemed to be all over the map, Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave a very controlled performance. More importantly, he did a great job in conveying Eko's personal and emotional journey from ruthless warlord to penitent fake priest and castaway. There were two scenes in which I found performance particularly outstanding - Eko's second attempt to coerce a favor from Yemi and his discovery of the latter's corpse inside the Beechcraft plane on the island.

Ironically, I do not consider "The 23rd Psalm" as one of my top ten favorite "LOST" episodes. I would consider it among my top twenty favorites. And I have to admit that I found Cuse and Lindelof's work on this episode particularly outstanding . . . even if their use of the Smoke Monster proved to be puzzling in the future. As I had earlier noted, "The 23rd Psalm" earned an Emmy nomination for writing. It is a pity that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje did not receive one for acting. Because I believe that he truly deserved one . . . especially for this particular episode.

Monday, April 28, 2014

"THE MOVING FINGER" (1985) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "THE MOVING FINGER", the 1985 television adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1942 novel. The movie starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple: 


"THE MOVING FINGER" (1985) Photo Gallery

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

"EMMA" (1996) Review

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"EMMA" (1996) Review

There are times that I find it hard to believe I have seen at least four adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, "Emma", in the past year-and-a-half. Four adaptations. There have been a good deal more than four adaptations. But I have yet to watch any of them. The last adaptation I watched turned out to be writer/director Douglas McGrath's 1996 film, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow. 

Although the actress had been working for a few years, it was her performance as Emma Woodhouse that put her on the map to stardom. In fact, I would say that "EMMA" also proved to be a professional milestone for co-stars Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. "EMMA" turned out to be the second movie that featured both Paltrow and Collette as co-stars. And the movie also proved to be the directorial debut of Douglas McGrath. Was the movie worth the importance in the careers of the four mentioned? Perhaps. 

I would never claim that "EMMA" was the best adaptation of Austen's 1815 novel. There were aspects of it that I found unappealing or troubling. McGrath's use of the Jane Fairfax character struck me as rather minimal. In fact, poor Polly Walker was barely able to speak more than five or six lines during her entire appearance in the movie. I got the feeling that the director/writer was not particularly interested in the character. And his limited use of poor Jane made me wonder why Emma would harbor any jealousy toward her in the first place. The characters of Isabella and John Knightley were barely used as well. I found this disappointing, since both have proved to be very interesting in other adaptations - especially the slightly rude John Knightley. Another problem I had with "EMMA" proved to be Ewan McGregor's portrayal of Frank Churchill. I am more inclined to blame McGrath's written portrayal of the character, instead of McGregor's performance. But despite the actor's efforts, the portrayal of the character seemed . . . off. Frank seemed more busy trying to hide his feelings for Jane, instead of forming any kind of connection to Emma. In other words, this movie did not do justice to the characters of Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and the John Knightleys.

But despite these flaws, I must admit that "EMMA" turned out to be a very entertaining and first-rate movie. Personally, I believe that the movie's top-notch owned a great deal to McGrath's direction. The director shot "EMMA" with a steady pace that allowed the audience to enjoy the greater details of Austen's tale. This is really a well paced movie, despite the few nips and tuck McGrath inflicted into the story. "EMMA" could never bore me with a slow pacing. Yet, at the same time, it did not race by with the speed of a comet. Another aspect that contributed greatly to "EMMA" proved to be its comic timing. I honestly have to say that the 1996 film might be the funniest adaptation of Austen's novel. This was especially apparent in two particular scenes - the Westons' Christmas party, Emma and Mr. Knightley's conversation about Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and a specific moment during the Coles' supper party that I cannot really explain with words. 

There were changes to Austen's novel that many have protested against, but did not bother me one whit. Some have pointed out that Sophie Thompson had been too young in 1995-96 to portray the middle-aged Miss Bates. She was in her early 30s at the time. Even McGrath had initially rejected her for the role when she first auditioned. But once Thompson donned a pair of glasses that made her seem several years older. And the age range for middle-age is pretty uncertain - even to this day. One range stretches from the mid-30s to the mid-60s, in which Miss Bates would fit. Besides . . . Thompson's portrayal of the chatty Miss Bates is so deliciously funny that in the end, I am glad that McGrath had cast her in the role. Other changes include both Harriet Smith and Emma being rescued from the gypsies by Frank Churchill, the location of Emma's first meeting with Frank, and the convergence of both the strawberry picking and the Box Hill picnic into one outing. 

Two of the bigger changes proved to be Harriet's reaction to Emma's engagement to Mr. Knightley and the circumstances that surrounded Emma's insult to Miss Bates. I found these last two changes somewhat of an improvement to Austen's story. I have always thought that Austen had glossed over Harriet's reaction to Emma and Mr. Knightley's engagement. After allowing Harriet to develop a crush over Donwell Abbey's master, Austen went out of her way to avoid or evade how Harriet might have reacted to the news. McGrath, on the other hand, approached the matter with a little more realism by allowing Harriet to react with tears. The other change featured Emma's insult to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In the novel and other versions, Emma's insult regarding Miss Bates' intelligence had been laced with humor. Emma's insult was tinged with malice in this version, due to her anger over the Eltons' cold reaction to Frank's regard for her. And instead of Jane Fairfax refusing to see Emma during the latter's visit to the Bates' home following the picnic, it was Miss Bates who refused to see her. Now many "purists" might have a problem with these changes. I did not. As far as I am concerned, these changes did not harm the story.

I can say this about "EMMA" . . . it proved to be one of the most beautiful looking Austen adaptations I have ever seen. I am not familiar with Ian Wilson's work, other than his photography for the 1981 miniseries, "THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA". And I have not laid eyes on that particular production in many years. I only hope that it looks as beautiful and lush as Wilson's photography in "EMMA". My God, I never thought that such lush and sharp colors could look so elegant. The look and style of Wilson's photography seemed to match Ruth Meyer's costume designs. The light elegance and pastel coloring featured in Meyer's costumes almost gave them an ethereal vision - especially those costumes for the female cast. Meyer had received criticism from those who claimed that her costumes did not accurately reflect the Regency decade or English fashion. I was too busy enjoying Meyer's costume designs to really care.

"EMMA" provided some first-rate performances from the cast. Well . . . let me rephrase that statement. From most of the cast. Poor Ewan McGregor was nearly defeated by McGrath's portrayal of Frank Churchill in the script and that damn wig he was forced to wear. The London Film Critics' Circle gave him the British Actor of the Year award. I am sorry, but I do believe he did not deserve this award. And he would be the first to agree with me, considering his past criticism of his performance. And poor Polly Walker was damn near wasted in her role as Jane Fairfax, due to McGrath's failure to give her any depth. And lines. There were times I felt that McGrath was more interested in Emma's reaction to Jane's "perfections" than in the character. But the rest of the cast fared just fine. Both Greta Scacchi and James Cosmo gave solid performances as Mrs. and Mr. Weston (Emma's former governess and Frank's father). I could say the same for Phyllida Law's silent portrayal of the defeated Mrs. Bates. Denys Hawthorne gave a charmingly humorous portrayal of Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse. But I did not find his performance as memorable as some of the other actors who have portrayed the character. But there were performances that really knocked the wind out of me. Juliet Stevenson was hilarious as the verbose and vulgar Mrs. Augusta Elton. She was so perfect (and annoying) in the role that I found myself wishing someone would bash her over the head to stop her prattling. However, I could stand and listen to Sophie Thompson's prattling all day. I really enjoyed her portrayal as the equally verbose, yet pitiful Miss Bates. I especially enjoyed her habit of loudly repeating a word or line in order for her silent mother to hear. Alan Cummings struck me as deliciously insidious as the fortune seeking Reverend Philip Elton. What I found amazing about his performance was his transformation from the slimy courtier to Mrs. Elton's henpecked and dominated husband.

The three performances that really caught my attention came from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. The latter gave one of the best comic performances I have ever seen in an Austen production. Her portrayal of the easily manipulated Harriet Smith reminded me of Debbie Bowen's portrayal in the 1972 miniseries. But I believe Collette injected more comic skill into the role. Although Jeremy Northam was slightly younger than the literary George Knightley, he easily conveyed the character's dignity and wisdom . . . and at the same time injected a great deal of wit and excellent comic timing into his performance. One of my favorite Northam moments turned out to be Knightley's silent reaction to Emma's duet with Frank Churchill at the Coles' party. Northam's Mr. Knightley looked as if he had found a worm in his salad and his expression had me shaking with laughter. Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Emma Woodhouse projected her into stardom. And I can see why. She not only gave one of the best performances in her early career, but I also believe that she proved to be the funniest Emma I have yet to see in any adaptation. Yet, at the same time, Paltrow did a great job in conveying Emma's more dramatic moments and character development.

Although I do not consider "EMMA" to be the best adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel, I have to admit that Douglas McGrath both wrote and directed an excellent film. He was ably supported by Ian Wilson's beautiful photography, Ruth Meyer's gorgeous costumes and a first-rate cast led by the excellent Gwyneth Paltrow. McGrath's body of work may not have been that perfect, but I believe he can look back on his work for "EMMA" with great pride.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"FASHION: A HISTORY FROM THE 18TH TO THE 20TH CENTURY" Gallery

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Below are images from the 2005 book called "FASHION: A HISTORY FROM THE 18th TO THE 20th CENTURY". This beautiful book features images of clothes that showcases the history of fashion for women between the 18th and 20th century. The outfits featured in this book are from the Kyoto Costume Institute, in Japan. Founded in 1978, the KCI holds one of the world's most extensive clothing collections. Its collection emphasizes on Western women's fashion. 


"FASHION: A HISTORY FROM THE 18TH TO THE 20TH CENTURY" Gallery

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If you are interested in reading other opinions of the book, you can find it here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"SPIDER-MAN 3" (2007) Review




"SPIDER-MAN 3" (2007) Review”

Over the years I have learned not to anticipate or make assumptions about new movies. About two weeks before the debut of the 2007 SPIDER-MAN movie, "SPIDER-MAN 3", I had read mixed reviews of it. Although there were a few positive opinions, most of them seemed to be negative. After reading this, my anticipation of the movie had receded a bit. But I still maintained a "wait-and-see" attitude. When I finally saw "SPIDER-MAN 3", I was happy to discover that that my fears had become meaningless. Although not as well-crafted as "SPIDER-MAN 2", the third film in Sam Rami's SPIDER-MANtrilogy still managed to thrill me. 

Before I can wax lyrical over the movie, I must address the movie’s flaws. And it had a few. One, I felt a sense of disappointment over some of the movie’s action sequences that featured Spider-Man’s web swinging around New York. They seemed to lack the crisp and detailed style shown in the two previous films and almost struck me as confusing and overblown. Two, I had a problem or two with the Gwen Stacy character. I realize that there are differences between the movie versions and the comic book versions of the Spider-Man universe. In the comic books, the blond-haired Gwen happened to be Peter Parker’s first true love. Her death at the hands of the Green Goblin (aka Norman Osborn) eventually paved the way for Peter’s romance with and marriage to Mary Jane Watson. It is quite obvious in "SPIDER-MAN 3" that although classmates at Columbia University, Peter and Gwen were not in love. Just friends. I had no problems with this. Nor did I have any problems with a symbiote-possessed Peter using her to make Mary Jane jealous. But I did have problems with the fact that the story never followed up on the mess that Peter had created between Gwen and Mary Jane. The story never allowed us to learn whether Peter had apologized to Gwen for using her . . . or if she had forgiven him. And what was she doing at Harry’s funeral? I do not recall them being acquainted in the movieverse. In the comics, Gwen and Harry were old high school chums that dated briefly in college.

My last problem with "SPIDER-MAN 3" involved the triangle between Peter, Mary Jane and Harry Osborn (aka Green Goblin 2). Near the beginning of the story, Harry had decided to take the opportunity to get his revenge upon Peter for his father’s death in "SPIDER-MAN". The opportunity resulted in a brutal fight and Harry seriously injured in the hospital. Harry woke up as a partial amnesiac – forgetting the reason behind his animosity toward Peter. And the two managed to resume their friendship, until an evening spent with Mary Jane (who was trying to forget her present unhappiness with Peter) resurrected Harry’s memories. In the end, Harry managed to coerce Mary Jane into breaking up with Peter permanently. Unfortunately, the writers never revealed what argument that Harry had used to coerce Mary Jane. Instead, they left the audience in the dark.

But what did I like about "SPIDER-MAN 3"? For one . . . the story. It was easy for me to see that the story’s main theme seemed to be about vengeance and how – as Aunt May had put it to Peter – it can spread poison within a person until it completely consumes that person. Of all the major characters aside from Aunt May, only two were not touched or consumed by a desire for revenge – Gwen Stacy and Flint Marko. Marko’s actions stemmed from his desperate desire to acquire money to aid his ailing daughter. And poor Gwen became a victim of Peter’s desire for revenge against Mary Jane. But for the rest of the characters, revenge seemed to be the order of the day:

-Peter Parker aka Spider-Man: the Webslinger becomes consumed with revenge when he learns that his Uncle Ben’s true killer – namely Flint Marko – had escaped from prison. He later seeks revenge against Mary Jane for breaking up with him, with Harry for the latter’s earlier vengeful attack against him and for initiating the break-up with Mary Jane; and against Eddie Brock for the libelous photo of Spider-Man and winning the position of staff photographer at the DAILY BUGLE. He certainly was a busy boy.

-Harry Osborn aka New Goblin: Peter’s best friend has desired revenge against Peter (as Spider-Man) for killing his father in the first movie. He also has revenge against Mary Jane because she used him to forget her troubles with Peter.

-Mary Jane Watson: a part of me is not sure whether to include her on this list. But I could not help but wonder if her bitchiness toward Peter was a result of her own professional failure on Broadway, combined with her growing distaste toward Peter’s pride over his popularity as Spider-Man. And when Peter shares a publicized kiss with Gwen Stacy that is reminiscent of that famous kiss from the first movie, Mary Jane’s jealousy eventually overwhelms her . . . and she turns to Harry for comfort. I would not be surprised if her action came from a small desire to get back at Peter.

-Eddie Brock Jr. aka Venom: Even before the alien symbiote had taken over him, Eddie seemed like an unpleasant piece of goods. And when Peter rather maliciously exposed his chicanery over a faked Spider-Man photograph, it did not take Eddie long to rush to the nearest church and ask God . . . to kill Peter Parker. Like I had said, he was an unpleasant person. Eventually, Eddie’s desire for revenge would soon present itself.

-Flint Marko aka Sandman: Although I had earlier stated that Marko had no desire for revenge in the movie. I now realize that I may have been mistaken. After two frustrating encounters with Spider-Man, Marko finally gave in to a desire for revenge when he allowed Venom to manipulate him into using Mary Jane to lure and kill Peter.

The one theme that had dominated the Spider-Man saga in both the comics and the movies seemed to be: "With great power comes great responsibility." I do not know if I fully agree with that motto. I really cannot see how Peter Parker mustbecome a costumed crime fighter, because he accidentally got bitten by a radioactive spider. On the other hand, I do believe that one should face the responsibilities and consequences for the deliberate choices you make in life. And this, along with facing demons that include a desire for vengeance, seemed to be the drive behind the movie’s plot.

Each major character ended up facing his or her own personal demons – Peter’s pride as Spider-Man becomes a forerunner of the exposure of his own darker nature that includes a cruel desire for revenge; Mary Jane’s insecurity about her self-worth; Harry’s desire to revenge the death of his father to fulfill his own lack of self-worth; Marko’s desperation to do anything for his ill daughter; and Eddie’s own shallowness and deceptive nature. What made "SPIDER-MAN 3"’s plot so interesting is that the characters’ flaws and decisions served as different points that converged in the emotional final sequence at the construction site in Manhattan. There, the characters make final choices in how to deal with their demons and only one emerged as the true loser - Eddie Brock.

As in the previous two movies, the third one boasted some fine performances by the cast. J.K. Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson managed to be his usual funny self. I especially enjoyed his interaction with Elizabeth Banks – secretary Betty Brandt – in a duel of nerves in which Betty seemed determined to annoy Jonah every second with some crazy alarm. If someone knows what it was, please tell me. Although in a smaller role than the previous two movies, Rosemary Harris returned to give a warm performance as Peter’s aging Aunt May. In a marvelous scene in which Peter informs his aunt of Flint Marko’s "death" at Spider-Man’s hands, Harris’ May delivered the movie’s theme in a foreboding line about the true nature of vengeance. Last, but not least there was Bryce Dallas Howard, who portrayed Peter’s beautiful blond classmate, Gwen Stacy. Granted, her role was not as large as it was in the comics, Howard gave a fine performance as the warm and friendly Gwen. Some critic had complained that the movie turned Gwen from Peter’s true love to some kind of temptress. I found this criticism rather ridiculous for two reasons – a) Mary Jane had been established as Peter’s true love since the first movie; and b) Gwen was not portrayed as some temptress, but a nice girl who became a victim of Peter’s vengeance against Mary Jane. 

Thomas Haden Church’s portrayal of Marko Flint aka Sandman seemed like a far cry from his past performances that I have seen in which he portrayed more extroverted characters. His Marko/Sandman must be one of the most introverted villains I have ever seen on the movie screens. In fact, his character reminded me of some melancholy circus clown with a black cloud of tragedy hovering about him. Considering the circumstances of Marko’s life – a failed criminal career, a failed marriage, ill child and imprisoned for a crime that was merely an accident – it was not hard for me to imagine this. In the end, I was very impressed by Church’s subtle performance. And I was also impressed by Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, Jr. aka Venom, as well. Originally, he was not suppose to be part of the movie’s cast of characters. But former CEO Ari Arvad convinced director Sam Rami to include the character. And I am glad. Brock turned out to be a very interesting character. When first introduced, he seemed like an affable and gregarious young man, who also worked as freelance photographer for ”THE DAILY BUGLE”. With great skill and subtlety, Grace allowed the audience to gradually see the character’s dark emptiness, underneath the charm. Two scenes seemed to reflect this – the one that featured Gwen Stacy dangling from a Manhattan high-rise and Brock’s visit to a church after losing his job. In the first scene, I found it interesting that although Brock seemed mildly concerned over Gwen’s near death situation, he seemed more interested in taking photos of her and Spider-Man’s rescue . . . than doing everything in his power to ensure that she would be rescued. After losing his staff photographer job at THE BUGLE, Brock ended up at a church, where I thought he would confess to a priest or express remorse over his past behavior. Instead, he prayed to God . . . for the death of the man who caused his unemployment, Peter Parker. This is the second time I have seen Grace skillfully portray a character with one trait hidden underneath another one. 

When Spidey fans last saw Harry Osborn in "SPIDER-MAN 2", he had learned two disquieting facts – the man he held responsible for his father’s death (namely Spider-Man), turned out to be his best friend, Peter Parker; and his father, Norman Osborn, had been the infamous Green Goblin who terrorized Manhattan in the first movie. Three years later, Harry still wants revenge for Norman’s death and he finally decided to take action as the New Goblin A failed attack upon Peter resulted in a serious injury for Harry and a temporary amnesia. The audience got to see what Harry would be without his insecurity and the ghost of his father haunting him. And he seemed like a pretty nice . . . and well-balanced young man. I tried to find something wrong with James Franco’s performance, but . . . I could not find a thing. Honestly. Franco managed to perfectly capture Harry’s emotional journey from the vengeful son to the sweet-tempered amnesiac to the cruel manipulator who broke up Peter and MJ’s relationship, to the loyal and brave man who sacrificed himself to save his friends. Franco covered it all.

I have always liked Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson in the first two movies. But I found her a lot more interesting in"SPIDER-MAN 3". Beneath the sweet and cheerful persona, Dunst revealed a Mary Jane still racked by an inferiority complex stemmed from her bad relationship with her verbally abusive father. This lack of self-esteem came from Mary Jane losing her job as leading lady of a Broadway musical. Even worse, Peter’s own success as Spider-Man not only fueled Mary Jane’s insecurity, but fueled her envy as well. Matters did not help when Peter/Spidey had agreed to exchange a public kiss with Gwen Stacy, re-creating Mary Jane’s first kiss with him in the first movie. What I liked about Dunst’s performance is that she allowed all of these negative aspects of Mary Jane’s personality to manifest without resorting to over-the-top theatrics. I have come to the conclusion that very few screen actors and actresses seem capable of avoiding scene chewing. Especially those of Dunst’s generation. Fortunately, she did just that – avoid any hammy acting, while projecting Mary Jane’s darker impulses. As for her singing voice, I got the impression that it had been dubbed during MJ’s Broadway performance. But I could detect Dunst’s voice, when Mary Jane sang at a jazz club during the movie’s final scene. She had a nice, but slightly nasal voice.

As for the man himself – Tobey Maguire – I must say that Sam Rami had not been joking when he called Maguire one of the best actors of his generation. I felt more than impressed by his performance in "SPIDER-MAN 3". Although Maguire was able to briefly tap into Peter Parker aka Spider-Man’s dark psyche in the first movie (when he allowed a thief to get away with money stolen from a wrestling match), he was truly allowed to explore Peter’s darker nature in this film. There are two particular scenes that verified Maguire’s extraordinary skills as an actor:

*Peter’s misguided belief in his "cool" image, while walking the streets of Manhattan. Even evil (thanks to the symbiote suit), Peter could not help being a nerd. Watching Peter wallow in the illusion of his "coolness", while oblivious of passing females’ contempt made this sequence one of the funniest in the movie. It also showcased Maguire’s comedic skills.

*Peter’s second confrontation with Harry, inside the Osborn manor, revealed the depths of how monstrous he could be. He seemed truly dark in this scene. Maguire even managed to allow the contempt and hatred reflected in his eyes, when Peter ridiculed Harry for attempting to follow in Norman Osborn’s footsteps. In all, it was a very excellent performance on Maguire’s part.


From what I have read, "SPIDER-MAN 3" has received mixed reviews. Hmmm. Well, I certainly cannot influence the opinions of others. I can only express my own views. Personally, I enjoyed the movie very much. It possessed an emotional depth that went even further than first two movies. When I first heard that Spider-Man would be facing three villains – the New Goblin (Harry), the Sandman (Flint Marko) and Venom (Eddie Brock, Jr.) – I had my doubts about the movie’s success. It seemed like one or two villains too many. Oddly enough, after seeing the movie, it now seemed to work within its plot for me – despite the number of villains. Now that I think about it, the one true villain of the story – aside from the major characters’ inner darkness – seemed to be Venom. Unlike Peter or Harry, Eddie Brock never could break away from his darker impulses . . . even when Peter managed to force him away from the symbiote. And unlike Marko, Eddie never felt any remorse for his actions . . . right to the end.

To my amazement, I realized that my view of Rami's "SPIDER-MAN" trilogy seemed to match my view of the first three X-MEN movies. For me, the first movie of both trilogies struck me as very entertaining, but slightly mediocre ("SPIDER-MAN" is “almost” mediocre). The second movie for each trilogy was superb. Period. And the third movies for the two trilogies were excellent, but flawed. Five years after this movie, Marvel and Sony Pictures initiated a new SPIDER-MAN movie trilogy, starring Andrew Garfield as the web slinger. The first movie struck me as pretty good. But I do hope that it will evolve into a first-rate trilogy like the ones directed by Sam Rami.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"CHINA SEAS" (1935) Review



"CHINA SEAS" (1935) Review

For years, film critics and moviegoers have claimed that either Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie, "JAWS" or George Lucas' 1977 movie, "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE" ushered in or created the summer box office film. I had believed this for years, until I saw Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1935 film, "CHINA SEAS"

To understand how "CHINA SEAS" came about, one would have to look into the career of MGM producer, Irving Thalberg. For several years, he served as the studio's Production Chief, supervising the output of movies being released by MGM. After suffering a heart attack around Christmas Eve 1932, he was ordered by his doctor to take a long rest. Thalberg and his wife, Norma Shearer, spent several months traveling in Europe. When they finally returned during the summer of 1933, Thalberg discovered that studio chief Louis B. Mayer and the CEO of parent company Loew's, had changed the studio's managerial structure. The position of Production Chief had been eliminated and Thalberg became one of many producers on the lot with their own production unit. Thalberg struggled for two years to personally produce a major hit. He scored a few hits. But he did not really hit it big, until this 1935 movie that starred Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.

Based on the 1931 novel written by Crosbie Garstin, "CHINA SEAS" is an ocean going adventure film about a merchant ship carrying both passengers and important cargo from Hong Kong to Shanghai. British sea captain Alan Gaskell is recruited by his company's owner to transport a secret shipment of gold in order to fool high seas pirates into believing that the gold is being transported by another ship. Naturally, the plan fails due to an old friend named Jamesy McArdle's discovering the plot. The latter recruits Malay pirates to board the ship as passengers and crewman so that the gold can be hijacked during the voyager. Also along for the ride are two of Captain Gaskell's former paramours - a brassy prostitute, dance hall girl or mistress (hell, I have no idea which one) named Dolly Portland and Sybil Barclay, the elegant widow of an old friend; an alcoholic American named Charlie McCaleb; a disgraced ship's officer formerly accused of cowardice named Tom David; an elegant Chinese lady named Soo Young; and Dolly's extroverted maid, Isabel McCarthy . . . among others. Not only does Gaskell and his crew have to deal with marauding pirates, but also a typhoon.

Undoubtedly, "CHINA SEAS" is an entertaining movie. It possesses one of the elements that make certain movies particularly enjoyable for me - namely a story featuring long distance travel. In fact, watching "CHINA SEAS" strongly reminded me of a film released by Paramount Pictures over three years ago - 1932's "SHANGHAI EXPRESS". Both movies were set in or around Asia. Both movies featured long distance traveling with Shanghai as the final destination . Both movies featured a leading male character who is British, a leading female character in a sexual profession, and a Chinese woman as a supporting character. Both movies featured the violent takeover by non-Western men - Chinese troops in "SHANGHAI EXPRESS" and Malay pirates in "CHINA SEAS". And both movies featured Jules Furthman as screenwriter. The similarities between the two movies are so strong that their differences almost seem irrelevant to me. If it were not for the fact that "CHINA SEAS" was an adaptation of Garstin's novel, I would have accused Thalberg and MGM of plagarism.

The reason I brought up the topic of summer blockbusters when I first began this review is that "CHINA SEAS" seemed like a prime example of one. Think about it. "CHINA SEAS" possessed a cast of major stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. Rosalind Russell was not quite a star when she co-starred in this film. The movie was given a large budget for its production - at least one million dollars. A good deal of that budget was spent on visual effects. The movie featured heavy action and over-the-top melodrama. And even more ironic, "CHINA SEAS" was released during the summer of 1935, made tons of money and put Irving Thalberg back on top, professionally. If the movie had been made today, Roland Emmerich probably would have directed it. After watching "CHINA SEAS", I could not help but wonder why film critics and historians failed to remember this film, when citing the origins of the summer blockbuster movie.

Mind you, "CHINA SEAS" is not a terrible film. I would rank it between very good and mediocre. But for some reason, I hardly found it appealing. The problem is that it did not strike me as particularly original. The movie's portrayal of its non-white characters struck me as wince-inducing. One aspect of the movie that really annoyed me was how the movie portrayed the Malay pirates a lot worse than Jamesy McArdle, despite the fact that the ship's hijacking was his plan. However, Hattie McDaniel managed to overcome this racial limitation with a very entertaining performance and warm chemistry with leading lady Jean Harlow. And like 1937's "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", most of the action in "CHINA SEAS" is set during its second half. The violence, by the way, struck me pretty harsh for a mid-1930s film - especially the tortures of Clark Gable and Lewis Stone's characters. 

Most of the characters struck me as cardboard archetypes, even the more amusing ones portrayed by McDaniel, Bencheley, Edward Brophy and Akim Tamiroff. Lewis Stone's character, the doomed Tom Davids, came close to being an interesting and complex character. But when all said and done, even the "coward who redeems himself" aspect of his character proved to be a cliche. I love Jean Harlow. And I found her Dolly Portland a lively addition to the cast. And the insecurities that plagued her character proved to be very interesting. But in the end, her performance came off as a bit too shrill for my tastes. I have to give kudos to Rosalind Russell for giving a credible portrayal of an upper-class Englishwoman . . . even if the Sybil Barclay character struck me as one-dimensional. Only Wallace Beery's Jamesy McArdle managed to avoid any one-dimensional or cliched characterization. His Jamesy proved to be the most complex and ambiguous character in the movie. This would explain why despite his villainy, his character was portrayed with a good deal of sympathy. 

From a casting point of view, the biggest problem for me proved to be Clark Gable as Captain Alan Gaskell. Gable was not the first American actor to portray a British character . . . even during that period in Hollywood. Gary Cooper did it. So did Robert Taylor. But they got away with it, due to their ability to project the image of a European (especially British) male without losing their American accent. Through body language and attitude, certain American actors like Cooper and Taylor knew how to get away with portraying British men. They knew how to sell it. Gable, on the other hand, did not. Mind you, as a Midwesterner from Ohio, he did a damn good job in portraying an aristocratic Southerner in 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND". But he was still portraying an American. When Gable's Captain Gaskell started spouting sentiments about the glories of England, I swear I was simply to astounded to break into laughter. During my second viewing of "CHINA SEAS", I laughed. I am sorry. Gable was a first-rate actor. The torture sequence obviously proved this. But he lacked . . . something that prevented him from portraying an Englishman with an American accent with any plausibility.

From the numerous reviews I have read, many seemed to view "CHINA SEAS" as an example of the best that Old Hollywood had to offer. Look, the movie is filled with a good deal of action and melodrama that prevents it from being boring. And one can thank director Tay Garnett for keeping it lively. But for me, it is basically a 1930s version of a summer blockbuster movie - one that did not particularly knock my socks off. I do not hate the movie, but I certainly do not view it as among the best that Old Hollywood had offered.