Sunday, November 30, 2014

"JANE EYRE" (1996) Review

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"JANE EYRE" (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, "Jane Eyre". And there have been ten television adaptations of the novel. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 movie adaptation. 

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, "JANE EYRE" told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie's plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie's production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall's production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin's photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore's adaptation of Brontë's novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë's tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane's departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester's death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane's departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane's inheritance of her uncle's fortune and St. John's loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie's weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that "JANE EYRE" received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli's casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt's English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester's meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg's portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie's weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg's performance to be completely BORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane's deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995's"PERSUASION" - Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane's cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane's favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane's religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie's script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane's religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Geraldine Chaplin's portrayal of Mr. Brocklehurt's faithful and cold-blooded assistant, Miss Scatcherd, struck me as very intense . . . in a positive way. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson's effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester's emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester's friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin's portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Brontë's novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë's tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg's flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, "JANE EYRE" did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sacher Torte

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Below is an article I had written about the Austrian dessert known as Sacher Torte


SACHER TORTE

During my viewing of travel series episode that focused on the city of Vienna, Austria; I first learned about the dessert known as Sacher Torte. Although the dessert looked delicious, I found myself wondering about the differences between a cake and a torte. We all know that a cake is a sweetened bread-like dish that serves as a dessert. A torte is a multi-layered cake filled with creams, fruit jams and jellies, mousses, buttercreams and very little flour. I have yet to learn about the origin of the torte. But I recently learned about the origin of one of the most well-known tortes - namely the Sacher Torte.

In 1832, the famous Austrian statesman, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, charged his personal chef to create a special dessert for important guests. However, the chef fell ill and the task was given to his sixteen year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, then in his second year of training in Metternich's kitchen. Sacher created a torte made from chocolate meringue that was filled with apricot jam, covered by a dark chocolate icing and served with unsweetened whipped cream. 

The guests and Prince Metternich enjoyed Sacher's dessert very much, but no further attention was paid to it. Sacher completed his training as a chef, worked in Pressburg and Budapest, before returning to Vienna. There, he opened a specialty delicatessen and wine shop. Sacher's eldest son, Eduard, carried on his father's culinary legacy by completing his own training in Vienna with the Royal and Imperial Pastry Chef at the Demel bakery and chocolatier. There, he perfected his father's torte recipe and developed the dessert into its current form. The cake was first served at the Demel and later at the Hotel Sacher, established by Eduard in 1876. Since then, the dessert remains one of Vienna's most famous culinary specialties.

Below is the recipe for "Sacher Torte" from the epicurious.com website:


Sacher Torte

Ingredients

4 1/2 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
1 cup confectioners' sugar
6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour (spoon gently into cup and level top)
1 cup Apricot Glaze
Small Batch Chocolate Glaze
Sweetened Whipped Cream, for serving


Preparation

1. To make the torte: Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 400°F. Lightly butter a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment or wax paper. Dust the sides of the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

2. In the top part of a double boiler over very hot, but not simmering, water, or in a microwave at medium power, melt the chocolate. Remove from the heat or the oven, and let stand, stirring often, until cool.

3. Beat the butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty standing mixer fitted with the paddle blade on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. On low speed, beat in the confectioners' sugar. Return the speed to medium-high and beat until light in color and texture, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the chocolate and vanilla.

4. Beat the egg whites and granulated sugar in a large bowl with a handheld electric mixer on high speed just until they form soft, shiny peaks. Do not overbeat. Stir about one fourth of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites, leaving a few visible wisps of whites. Sift half of the flour over the chocolate mixture, and fold in with a large balloon whisk or rubber spatula. Repeat with the remaining flour.

5. Spread evenly in the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. (The cake will dome in the center.) Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the pan, and invert the cake onto the rack. Remove the paper and re-invert on another rack to turn right side up. Cool completely.

6. To assemble: Using a long serrated knife, trim the top of the cake to make it level. Cut the cake horizontally into two equal layers. Place one cake layer on an 8-inch cardboard round. Brush the top of the cake layer with the apricot glaze. Place the second cake layer on top and brush again. Brush the top and sides of the cake with the remaining glaze. Transfer the cake to a wire rack placed over a jelly-roll pan lined with waxed paper. Let cool until the glaze is set.

7. Make the chocolate glaze (it must be freshly made and warm). Pour all of the warm chocolate glaze on top of the cake. Using a metal offset spatula, gently smooth the glaze over the cake, allowing it to run down the sides, being sure that the glaze completely coats the cake (patch any bare spots with the spatula and the icing that has dripped). Cool until the glaze is barely set, then transfer the cake to a serving plate. Refrigerate until the glaze is completely set, at least 1 hour. Remove the cake from the refrigerator about 1 hour before serving.

8. To serve, slice with a sharp knife dipped into hot water. Serve with a large dollop of whipped cream on the side.


MAKE AHEAD:
The cake can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored in an airtight cake container at room temperature.

Extra! Tips from Epicurious:

Quality ingredients will really make a difference in this cake. Valhrona chocolate is perfect because of its dark, almost bitter flavor. For the most authenticity, look for the Austrian brand D'Arbo apricot preserves and Austrian Stroh rum for the glaze. For the best results, be generous with the apricot glaze — don't miss a spot, and let plenty sink into the cake before you pour on the chocolate.


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Friday, November 28, 2014

"RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD" (1994) Image Gallery

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Below are images from the 1994 television movie, "RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD". Produced by Tim Reid and directed by Don McBrearty, the movie starred Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance:


"RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD" (1994) Image Gallery

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE" (2005) Review

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"HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE" (2005) Review

Despite the release of the first two movies in the film franchise, I did not become a fan of the "HARRY POTTER" series until I saw the 2004 movie, "HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN". I became so enamored of this third film that I regarded the release of its successor, "HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE", with great anticipation. 

Released during the fall of 2005 and based upon J.K. Rowling's 2000 novel, "HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE" follows boy wizard Harry Potter's fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This year proves to be a special one for Harry when he unexpectedly finds himself competing in the wizard world's Tri-Wizard Tournament, a magical competition for young wizards from three different schools, who are 17 years old or older. Not only does the 14 year-old Harry have to deal with the contempt from Hogswarts students who believe he had cheated to enter the competition, he also have to deal with the dangerous tasks that make up the competition and an unpleasant surprise that awaits him once the tournament ends. 

When the movie first hit the theaters nine years ago, many had hailed "GOBLET OF FIRE" as the best of the four HARRY POTTER movies, released thus far. I wish I could have agreed with that assessment of"GOBLET OF FIRE". I really wish I could. But . . . I cannot. Personally, I feel that these critics may have overrated the 2005 film. Why? I considered it the weakest of the first four movies. I would not consider the movie a complete waste of my time. It did feature some very entertaining and mesmerizing scenes. My favorites include the opening sequence in which Harry dreams of Lord Voldemort, Peter Pettigrew and a mysterious man being interrupted by an elderly handyman named Frank Bryce inside a mansion, before the latter is killed by Pettigrew; Headmaster Albus Dumbledore pulling the names of the Tri-Wizard Tournament competitors from the Goblet of Fire; Harry and Ron's quarrel over the former being one of the tournament's competitors; the competition's second task; the third task inside the claustrophobic maze and Harry's encounter with the . . . uh, unpleasant surprise. But my favorite sequence in the entire film has to be the Yule Ball - the Christmas celebration for the tournament's participants, the foreign visitors and Hogswarts' students and faculty staff. I would say that it is one of the best sequences in the entire "HARRY POTTER"film franchise. It is just a joy to watch . . . from the preparations for the ball (that included finding dates and learning how to dance) to the immediate aftermath of the special night.

"HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE" featured some pretty decent performances. But they seemed far and between. Both Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint gave excellent performances as the two best friends - Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. I was especially impressed that they managed to restrain from any theatrical acting when their characters became drawn into a quarrel over Harry's participation in the tournament. Maggie Smith was her usual competent self as the always dependable Professor Minerva McGonagall. Alan Rickman's portrayal of potions teacher Severus Snape continued to be a joy to watch. My only disappointment was that his role seemed rather diminished in this film. I was pleasantly surprised by Brendan Gleeson's portrayal of the colorful teacher and former wizard aurorer, Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody. Gleeson could have indulged in a great deal of hamminess with such an eccentric character. But he kept his performance in full control, while conveying the oddball nature of "Mad Eye". Miranda Richardson gave a deliciously wicked performance as Rita Skeeter, a reporter who harbored an indulgence for yellow journalism that annoyed poor Harry to no end. I found Jason Isaac's portrayal of Lucius Malfoy rather theatrical in the Quidditch World Cup scene. But I must admit that I was very impressed by the subtle manner in which he portrayed his character's obsequious manner in the film's last half hour. The movie also featured solid performances from Robert Pattison and Katie Leung, who portrayed the student lovers, Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang; Timothy Spall as Death Eater Peter Pettigrew; Robbie Coltrane as Hogwarts teacher Rubeus Hagrid; Frances de la Tour as Beauxbaton Headmistress Olympe Maxime and Eric Sykes as Riddle handyman, Frank Bryce.

Unfortunately, I could find nothing further to admire about "HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE". My first problem turned out to be the screenplay written by Steve Kloves. I did not expect him to be completely faithful to Rowling's novel. It would take a two-week miniseries to be completely faithful to it. But there were some scenes I with Kloves had eliminated. One, he cut the scene featuring the Weasleys' visit to the Dursley home on Privet Drive to pick up Harry for the Qudditch World Cup. I mourned this cut, for I believe it was one of the funniest scenes in Rowling's book series. But Kloves' further cuts left the main narrative with some serious plot holes. Kloves' screenplay never explained how Death Eater Barty Couch Jr. managed to escape from the wizarding world's prison, Azkaban, without the authority's knowledge. How did Lord Voldemort and Couch Jr. learn about the Tri-Wizard Tournament in the first place? Also, there was one scene that featured "Mad Eye" Moody's arrival at Hogwarts with no luggage or trunk. Yet, there was another scene in which Harry visited Moody's room and spotted a trunk. How did the teacher convey his trunk to the castle?

There were other problems that marred my enjoyment of the film. I read an article in which director Mike Newell decided to portray the Hogwarts students in a more "realistic" manner - in other words, as British school children would behave in real life. Unfortunately, his attempt at "realism" merely allowed most of the actors and actresses portraying Hogwarts students engage in theatrical performances. Even worse, Newell did the opposite with the visiting foreign students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons by wallowing in one-dimensional cliches with their portrayals. I found one scene in which Harry's trip to the school prefects' bath was interrupted by a ghost known as Moaning Myrtle. I realize that Myrtle was supposed to be around 14 (the age of her death), the same age as Harry was in this story. But watching actress Shirley Henderson, who was 39-40 years old at the time, flirt with a half-naked or naked Daniel Radcliffe made me squirm in my seat with a good deal of discomfort. On the other hand, I felt a great deal of disappointment toward the movie's production style and look. I get the feeling that Production Designer Stuart Craig and Cinematographer Roger Pratt, along with Newell, were trying to recapture the look or style of Middle Earth, as shown in "LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS" and "LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING". I hated the look in those movies and I hated it in this film.

My biggest problem with "GOBLET OF FIRE" turned out to be the acting. I have already pointed out what I believe were the better performances in the film. As for the rest of the cast . . . sigh. I have never encountered so much hammy acting in my life. It seemed that three-quarters of the cast spent most of the time shouting their dialogue. I am not just talking about the performances of those portraying the students, but especially the adult actors and actresses. There were some questionable performances that really caught my attention. Emma Watson is a first-rate actress, but she seemed to be trying to hard in her portrayal of Hermione Granger in this film. Michael Gambon, who had done such a wonderful job in his debut as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, gave a completely different - and very hammy - performance in "GOBLET OF FIRE". Roger Lloyd-Pack was another actor whom one could depend upon for a first-rate performance. Not in this film. He seemed to be a bundle of out-of-control nerves and theatrical in his role as head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Barty Crouch Sr. The previous performances mentioned were nothing in compare to both David Tennant and Ralph Fiennes. Lloyd-Pack's twitchy performance was nothing in compare to David Tennant, whose performance as Death Eater Barty Crouch Jr. revealed more twitchy mannerisms in this one movie than Bette Davis did in her entire film career. But when it came to chewing the scenery, no one did it better than Ralph Fiennes in his debut as the series' main villain, Tom Riddle Jr. aka Lord Voldemort. Words cannot describe the over-the-top performance he gave in the movie's climatic scene. And I cannot help but wonder why Newell did not reign in his performance. Then again, he was barely able to do the same with other cast members, as well.

Yes, "HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE" struck me as far from perfect. Thanks to the plot holes, unattractive production look and the numerous hammy performances, I found it difficult to consider it a great favorite of mine. But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy the film. It just strikes me as a pity that it turned out to be a comedown after the franchise's first three films . . . at least for me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TIME MACHINE: Sherman's March to the Sea - Part One

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TIME MACHINE: SHERMAN'S MARCH TO THE SEA - PART ONE

November 15 marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's military march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Following the Union Army's successful end of the Atlanta Campaign two months earlier, Sherman and Union Army commander Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant decided that the only way to put an end to the Civil War was to end the Confederacy's strategic, economic and psychological capacity for warfare. 

Sherman proposed an operation to march through the state of Georgia via liberal foraging of the local countryside that the Union Army would march through. Many historians have compared this to the modern principles of scorched earth warfare or total war. He hoped this operation would have a destructive effect upon the morale of Georgia's civilian population. Sherman's second objective was to increase pressure on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which was under siege in Petersburg, Virginia by Grant and the Army of the Potomoc. By moving in Lee's rear and performing a massive turning movement against him, Sherman hoped to allow Grant the opportunity to break through or keep other Southern reinforcements away from Virginia. The campaign began with the Army of the Tennessee leaving Atlanta, Georgia on November 15. During the next 40 days or so, Sherman's forces destroyed military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and civilian property and disrupted not only the State of Georgia's economy and its transportation networks, but also those that belonged to the Confederacy.

The Army of the Tennessee first consumed its 20 days of rations at the beginning of the march. Then it reduced its need for traditional supply lines by "living off the land". Foragers, known as "bummers" provided food seized from local farms for the Army, while the latter destroyed the railroads and the manufacturing and agricultural infrastructure of Georgia. While planning the march, Sherman used livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census to lead his troops through areas where he believed they would be able to forage most effectively. The troops twisted and broke railroad rails before heating them over fires and wrapping them around tree trunks. Those twisted rails became known as "Sherman's neckties">. Since the Army was out of touch with the North during the March, Sherman gave explicit orders regarding the conduct of the campaign. It became known as Sherman's Special Field Orders, No. 120.

William Sherman not only commanded the Army of the Tennessee during this period, but also the entire Military Division of the Mississippi. This meant he did not employ all of the men under his command to the Savannah Campaign. Since Confederate Lieutenant General John Bell Hood's army was threatening Sherman's supply line from Chattanooga, Tennessee; Sherman detached the Army of the Cumberland under Major General George H. Thomas to deal with Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Sherman's personal escort on the march was the First Alabama Cavalry Regiment, a unit mainly staffed by Southerners who remained loyal to the Union. In the end, Sherman had to face opposition fromLieutenant-General William J. Hardee's Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; of which Hood had taken with him during his campaign in Tennessee. Sherman's troops also faced the Georgia state militia, under the command of Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith. Most of the state's militia consisted of elderly men and boys. 

Many military historians tend to view William Sherman's decision to march his army through the state of Georgia, deep within enemy territory and without supply lines as revolutionary in the annals of war. Yet, his plans for the march were based upon Grant's successful Vicksburg Campaign. And Grant had based that particular campaign on Winfield Scott's march to Mexico City, during the Mexican-American War. Perhaps Sherman's strategy and tactics for the Savannah Campaign was not as original as many seemed to believe. But it proved to be very effective.

This is Part One on my look at Sherman's March to the Sea.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"MOONRAKER" (1979) 35th Anniversary Photo Gallery

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This year marked the 35th anniversary of the release of the 1979 James Bond movie, "MOONRAKER". Based on Ian Fleming's 1955 novel and directed by Lewis Gilbert, the movie starred Roger Moore as James Bond 007. 


"MOONRAKER" (1979) 35th ANNIVERSARY PHOTO GALLERY

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