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 any BOURNE 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 third 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 third favorite of the five movies in the BOURNE 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.


“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”



“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”

I had never meant to write an article on (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”, the Season One episode of ABC’s ”LOST”. Honestly. But after I recently re-watched the episode, I realized that I had to say or write something about it. 

”Whatever the Case May Be” happened to be the second episode that featured Kate Austen as a main character. While frolicking in what looked like a spring, Kate and fellow castaway James “Sawyer” Ford came across another chunk of Oceanic Airlines 815’s fuselage section and several dead passengers. Kate also discovered a silver Halliburton case that she asked Sawyer to retrieve for her. The case belonged to the recently dead U.S. Marshal Edward Mars, who had been escorting Kate back to United States soil in order for her to face criminal charges. Being Kate, she decided to tell Sawyer that he could keep the case . . . before making several attempts to get her hands on it by theft. The case not only contained Marshal Mars’ firearms and some money, but also a sentimental object that meant very much to Kate.

How much did that object mean to Kate? As shown in the episode’s flashbacks, it meant so much to her that she staged a bank robbery (in which she pretended to be a potential loan customer and victim) in New Mexico in order to acquire it from one of the bank’s safety deposit box. It seemed that Marshal Mars had placed it there to entrap Kate. As for the object of Kate’s desire, it turned out to be a toy airplane that once belonged to a former childhood sweetheart named Tom Brennan, whose death she was partially responsible for, as shown in a later episode called (1.22) “Born to Run”. Not only was Kate willing to stage a bank robbery in New Mexico and steal the Marshal’s case on the island for it, she was also willing to manipulate and lie to castaway leader Jack Shephard in order to get her hands on it.

Several “B” plots also abound in this episode. One of them featured on Charlie Pace’s continuing melancholy and guilt over Claire Littleton’s kidnapping at the end of (1.10) “Raised By Another”. In short, Charlie sat around and moped over Claire, while the other castaways moved their belongings to another beach in order to prevent everything and everyone from a rising tide that threatened to wash over their camp. In the end, Rose Nadler helped him snapped out of his gloom with tough words and a prayer. John Locke and Boone Carlyle focused on finding ways to open the hatch they had discovered near the end of(1.11) “Even the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” and met with failure. And Sayid Jarrah asked Boone’s stepsister, Shannon Rutherford, to help him translate longtime castaway Danielle Rousseau’s maps and notes, which are written in French. His request attracted Boone’s jealous attention.

Did I like ”Whatever the Case May Be”? No, I did not. In my opinion, it was one of the worst episodes from Season One. In other words, I thought it was a piece of crap. One, the entire storyline about Kate’s efforts to get her hands on the toy airplane struck me as an exercise in irrelevancy. The fact that this particular episode was resolved in ”Born to Run”, the next Kate-centric episode, not only convinced me of the uselessness of this storyline, but also the flaky nature of Kate’s personality. Look, I understand that she had felt guilty for inadvertently causing Tom Brennan’s death. But was it really necessary to set in motion a bank robbery in New Mexico or piss off Jack and Sawyer for that damn toy plane? I do not think so.



Kate’s quest for the toy airplane produced two sequences that really annoyed me. One, her attempts to steal the Halliburton case from Sawyer left me shaking my head in disbelief. At one point, I felt as if I was watching two adolescents behaving like ten year-olds. Both of them seemed ridiculous and immature in their efforts to steal the case from each other . . . not sexy. And why did Kate hand over the case to Sawyer in the first place? She could have maintained the lie that the case belonged to her. Nor did she have to tell Sawyer what was inside the case. At least she would have been spared resorting to childish efforts to get the damn thing. The quest for the toy airplane also produced one of the most ludicrous flashbacks in the series’ history, and one of the dumbest bank robberies in movies or television. The fact that Kate had staged the robbery for the airplane makes me want to upchuck. And if she knew that Marshal Mars had placed the airplane inside the bank, why did she have to enter the bank, unmasked? Why not simply act as one of the masked robbers? And if the whole thing was a trap set up by Marshal Mars, where in the hell was he? Where was the stakeout? And what were Damon Lindelof and Jennifer Johnson thinking when they wrote this episode?

And if the main plot seemed ludicrous beyond belief, the subplots were no better. After discovering the infamous hatch to the Swan Station at the end of the previous episode, (1.11) “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”, John Locke and Boone Carlyle decided to keep their discovery a secret. Well . . . Locke did. Boone rather idiotically decided to follow his lead. To this day, I am amazed that so many ”LOST” fans had continued to regard Locke as the castaways’ wise mentor by this point in Season One, considering that his decision to keep the hatch a secret struck me as incredibly stupid. Oh well. Perhaps Lindelhof and Johnson needed this secretive behavior as fodder for future storylines. Another subplot featured Sayid Jarrah and Shannon Rutherford’s efforts to translate the charts and notes that he had stolen from Danielle Rousseau in (1.09) “Solitary”. The storyline regarding the charts and notes amounted to nothing. But it did initiate the romance between the former Iraqi soldier and California dance student. We finally come to the subplot regarding Charlie Pace’s guilt and despair over Claire Littleton’s kidnapping and Rose Nadler’s attempts to help him deal with the latter. One, I found subplot boring. And two, Rose’s attempts to revive him from his despair struck me as a perpetration of the ”Religious Black Woman” cliché. Not only could I have done without this subplot, I could have also done without her dialogue.

Many fans have viewed Jack’s behavior toward Kate in this episode as abusive and controlling. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I found his reaction to Kate’s revelation about her tracking skills in ”All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” as controlling and abusive. Frankly, I thought he was being a prick. However, I completely understood his behavior with Kate in this episode. Honestly? Kate had manipulated him and lied to him for the sake of case and a toy airplane. Instead of keeping the case in the first damn place and explaining to Jack why she wanted it opened, Kate behaved like an erratic child. And Jack treated her like one, in a fit of disgust and anger. Boone continued his verbal abuse of Shannon’s self-esteem in this episode. I realize that she had behaved abominably to him, back in Australia. I also realize that Shannon can be a bitch. But she had done nothing to earn such constant and persistent abuse. So . . . Boone behaved like a prick. Sawyer did not treat anyone with such abuse. I found his efforts to open the case rather childish, but that is all. But I thought that Kate treated him in an abusive manner in an effort to get her hands on the case. I realize that she did not want him to know about her criminal past. But as I had stated earlier, she could have continued to claim the case as hers and recruit Jack’s help to open the damn thing. Instead, she allowed Sawyer to take the case. The she resorted to stealth and physical abuse to get it back. Kate had behaved like a prick . . . or a female version of one.

“Whatever the Case May Be” had one or two virtues. Actually, it had one. Larry Fong’s photography of the Hawaiian jungles and beaches remained fresh and beautiful as ever. But with so much infantile and stupid behavior by the characters, and incompetent writing by Damon Lindelhof and Jennifer Johnson, is it any wonder that I hold this episode in deep contempt?

“GODZILLA” (2014) Review



“GODZILLA” (2014) Review

“Godzilla again?” That was my first reaction when I learned about a new Godzilla movie to be released for the summer of 2014 over four years ago.  The last movie about the iconic Japanese monster had been released some 16 years previously and was met with a good deal of derision. Mind you, I rather liked the 1998 film, but I did not love it.  But . . . I was willing to give this new film a chance. 

“GODZILLA” 2014 begins with a montage of atomic test bombings in the Pacific Ocean by the U.S. Navy. In the last montage, a large creature emerges from the ocean depths. The story immediately shifts to the Philippines Islands in 1999, when a pair of scientists named Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham investigate a large skeleton discovered inside a collapsed mine. They also discover two egg-shaped pods. The broken one leaves a trail leading to the sea. The Janjira nuclear plant in Japan experiences unusual seismic activity. The plant’s American-born supervisor, Joe Brody, sends his wife Sandra and a team of technicians into the reactor to check the sensors. When the team is inside, an explosion occurs, threatening to release radiation to the outside. Sandra and her team are unable to escape and the plant collapses into ruin. The disaster is attributed to an earthquake. But Brody suspects otherwise and spends a good number of years investigating the disaster.

Fifteen years later, Brody’s son, Ford, has become a U.S. Navy bomb disposal officer, living in San Francisco with his wife and son. When Brody is arrested for trespassing at the Janjira exclusion zone, Ford is forced to travel to Japan. Convinced of a cover-up of the true cause of the disaster, Brody convinces Ford to accompany him to their old home to retrieve vital seismic data he had recorded before the plant disaster. Father and son discover that Janjira is not contaminated with radiation, unlike the official report. After recovering the data, they are arrested and taken to a facility containing a massive chrysalis within the plant’s ruins. As they watch, a colossal winged creature emerges and escapes. After Brody is wounded by the creature, he dies from his wounds. Ford, Serizawa and Graham join a U.S. Navy strike force led by Admiral William Stenz on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga to track the creature, which has been labeled as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Serizawa and Graham reveal that only one creature can stop MUTO, an ancient alpha predator known as Godzilla. When the MUTO causes the wreck of a Russian submarine, Godzilla emerges to feed off the sub’s radiation and pursue MUTO. More bad news arrives when Stenz, Serizawa and Graham learn about the emergence of a female MUTO in Las Vegas. The two scientists suspect that the MUTO from Japan is on his way to breed with his female counterpart.

Well, this was a first . . . at least for me. Godzilla as the main protagonist? That is exactly how writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham portrayed the monster. I suspect this has been done before in previous Godzilla films. Since I have never seen one, aside from the 1998 flick in which he was clearly the antagonist, this was news to me. Did I like the movie? Hmmmm . . . yes and no.

Let me explain. There are aspects of “GODZILLA” that I liked. The cast is pretty decent. Bryan Cranston chewed the scenery during his appearances in the movie’s first half hour. Usually, this would bother me, but for once I welcomed his over-the-top acting for I thought it gave the movie a lot of energy. One would think I dislike the rest of the cast. Honestly, I do not. I enjoyed Aaron Johnson-Taylor’s subtle portrayal of Brody’s more reserved and equally intense son, Ford. Actually, I thought Cranston and Johnson-Taylor balanced each other very well and it seemed a pity that the elder Brody was killed off after a half hour. Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed Ford’s more ellubient wife. Like Cranston, she also balanced very well with Johnson-Taylor. Unfortunately, the two younger stars spent most of the movie away from each other. Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn gave solid performances as Admiral Stenz, who is willing to resort to anything to get rid of MUTO (and perhaps Godzilla) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, who believes that the only way to solve the situation regarding MUTO and Godzilla is to let them fight it off.

“GODZILLA” also benefited from some first-class photography, thanks to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s stunning work. I was especially impressed by one sequence featuring the HALO jump of Ford and a team of Army soldiers into San Francisco in order to prevent a missing warhead from detonating, as shown in this image:

There were some sequences in the movie that I enjoyed, including the original accident at the Janjira plant, the first MUTO’s emergence in Japan and especially the arrival of Godzilla and the first MUTO in Honolulu. Unfortunately, “GODZILLA” is not perfect.

I feel that “GODZILLA” lacked two qualities that made the 1998 movie so likable for me – a more centralized story and more colorful characters. I hate to say this, but Borenstein and Callaham’s story could have been a little more tighter. Actually, it could have been a lot more tighter. It seemed to be all over the map. Although the movie more or less ended in San Francisco, it took a long time for the story to arrive at that location. Gareth Edwards’ occasionally lackluster direction did not help. Also, I was not that impressed by the writers’ use of Godzilla as the main protagonist. It just did not work for me . At least not now. Perhaps one day, I might learn to embrace the concept. My problem is I found myself wondering why Godzilla went after the MUTOs in the first place. I doubt it he went after them for the sake of the human race.

And this movie lacked some serious characterization. Characters like Admiral Stenz, Doctors Serizawa and Graham were tight-lipped and professional, while struggling to keep their emotions in check. But I did not find them particularly interesting or found myself caring about their fates. I also feel that Juliette Binoche (who portrayed Cranston’s doomed wife) and Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham) were simply wasted in this movie. I realize that many critics do not seem to care for Aaron Johnson-Taylor. I simply feel otherwise. I like him a lot as an actor. But he has a rather subtle screen presence and he needed someone more colorful to balance his more quiet persona. He had the explosive Bryan Cranston and an emotional Elizabeth Olsen. But Cranston’s character was killed off after the first half hour. And Olson had very few scenes with him. In the end, the writers failed to provide Johnson-Taylor with more colorful characters to balance his style . . . something that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich managed to do for Matthew Broderick in the 1998 film.
Did I bothered to purchase a copy of “GODZILLA” when it is released on DVD? Yes, I did. The movie is far from perfect, but I cannot deny that I still liked it.  A lot.




“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review



“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review

When I first saw Disney’s 2007 live-action film, “ENCHANTED”, I found myself experiencing mixed reactions.  On one hand, the movie – more or less – turned out to be exactly how I had expected. The trailer had pretty much revealed the gist of the movie. Yet, when I finally saw it, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I had expected I would. 

The story is basically about an animated heroine named Giselle (Amy Adams) who lives in the blissful animated world of Andalasia, where magical beings frolic freely, animals are talkative companions and musical interludes punctuate every interaction. Giselle becomes engaged to the handsome, valiant, and bumbling Prince Edward (James Marsden). Her fate takes a turn for the worse when his stepmother, the villainous Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), throws her through a magic portal, apparently to her doom, in order to keep her stepson single and remain queen of Andalasia. Giselle’s plunge into darkness lands her in the strange and chaotic world of New York City. As the cruelty of this new place wears down the fairy-tale idealism of the once carefree maiden – like a homeless man stealing her tiara – the frightened Giselle meets the pragmatic divorce attorney Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who takes her into his apartment, despite belief that she is a little crazy. Robert also has to deal with his own fiancée, a very attractive attorney with a penchant for romance named Nancy Tremaine (Idina Menzel). When Giselle’s chipmunk friend, Pip, reveals Giselle’s whereabouts to Edward, Narissa orders her besotted henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) to accompany Edward and Pip to New York and prevent her stepson and the missing bride-to-be from reconciling.

“ENCHANTED” is basically a predictable story. Even before the last reel, I knew that Giselle and Robert would fall in love. From the moment Edward met Nancy at the ball, I knew those two would also become a couple. I knew that Nathaniel would eventually realize that Narissa viewed him as worthless and betray her. And I knew that Narissa would end up in New York and nearly kill Giselle. But what I did not expect was how I would enjoy the way the cast – especially Adams, Marsden, Spall, Menzel and Sarandon, screenwriter Bill Kelly and director Kevin Lima poked fun at the Disney animated fantasy legacy. They did it with fun, color and gentle humor. Okay, the humor was not always gentle. Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel of “THE LITTLE MERMAID” and who portrayed Robert’s assistant) caustically made fun of Giselle’s “fairy princess” voice. Giselle’s talent for making friends with animals of all kinds was definitely a spoof of several Disney princesses’ friendships with . . . animals. Only Giselle may have taken it to an extreme by summoning them to clean Robert’s house. I do not know about you, but I would be freaking out at the thought of birds, mice and cockroaches inside my home. The “happily ever after” for most of the characters seemed a little saccharine, but on the whole I enjoyed the movie very much.

“ENCHANTED” proved to be the first time I saw Amy Adams in action. And quite frankly, I was impressed. I still am. Not only did I admire her singing voice, I especially admired how she maintained Giselle’s perky “fairy princess” personality up until the end – even if it suffered the occasional bumps from Robert’s more cynical views on love, her disappointing reunion with Edward and her encounter with Narissa. I realize that Patrick Dempsey’s career had bounced back with the TV series, “GREY’S ANATOMY”, but since I do not watch the show . . . this was my first time in seeing him in action since his days as a leading man during the late 1980s and 1990s. And it was nice to see that his talent has not waned one bit. He is still as charismatic and professional as ever. I must admit that it was a bit strange seeing him portray a character less extroverted than his roles from the past.

James Marsden. Dear James. I think his talent was wasted in the “X-MEN” movies and “SUPERMAN RETURNS”. He really shone in his role as the valiant, yet slightly pompous Prince Edward. Hell, the man was perfect. And he was also charming enough for me to be happy that his character had a happy ending with someone – namely Nancy- in the film. It was good to see Timothy Spall again, after his appearances in two “HARRY POTTER” films. Actually, his role as Narissa’s henchman, Nathaniel, strongly reminded me of his other famous role – Peter Pettigrew. But unlike Peter, Nathaniel proved to have more balls . . . and something of a moral compass in the end. But his performance was thoroughly first-class as usual. Broadway star Idina Menzel did a first-class job in projecting an interesting mixture of romance and a little cynicism in her portrayal of Robert’s more romantic-minded fiancée, Nancy. I was surprised that she did not perform any songs in this film. But since I enjoyed her performance anyway, I did not see the need for a musical performance from her. And of course there is Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who portrayed the villainess – the conniving and greedy – Queen Narissa. Sarandon spent most of the movie peforming Narissa’s voice in the animated sequences. But she was just as deliciously evil when her flesh-and-blood counterpart arrived in New York City. One could tell that Sarandon was enjoying herself. And for a brief moment, we got to see how she had manipulated Prince Edward all of those years, pretending to be his loving stepmother. I have only one complaint – I did not really care for the platform shoes she wore. Visually, it did not exactly mesh with the rest of her image.

If you are expecting surprises from this charming spoof of Disney fantasy animation, you are going to be disappointed. As I had stated before, it is a rather predictable movie. But if you are expecting first-class entertainment, laughs, music and a good story, then “ENCHANTED” is your movie and I suggest that you see it as soon as possible.





Despite the tragic ending of the last episode, Episode Two of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” proved to be even darker. Bent continued his crime spree by assaulting an Illinois farm girl and kidnapping Charles’ son, Gus in St. Louis. Charles’ decision to become an Army scout in order to hunt down Scar led to his breakup with Willa Parker. Worse, he witnessed the massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village by U.S. troopers led by Captain Venable. Madeline’s conflict with Cooper, Gettys LaMotte and the local Ku Klux Klan resulted in tragedy for one of the Mont Royal workers.

Overall, Episode Two was pretty first-rate. I only had a few quibbles. Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) made a re-appearance in the saga without any explanation of how they avoided conviction for war profiteering. I guess anyone can assume that they were exonerated. Keith Szarabajka continued his over-the-top portrayal of Harry Venable. Even Gary Grubbs, usually a very dependable performer, indulged in some hammy acting during a scene that featured the KKK’s ambush of two Mont Royal workers. And aside from a few scenes of solid acting, Lesley Anne Down continued her exaggerated take on the Southern belle.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Ashton discovered that manipulating her second husband, Will Fenway, might proved to be difficult in a well-acted scene between Terri Garber and Tom Noonan. Genie Francis appeared like a breath of fresh air, when her character, Brett Main Hazard attended Constance’s funeral. This episode also featured an outstanding performance by Stan Shaw, in a scene about Isaac’s attendance of a political conference for freed slaves in Charleston. By the way, this particular conference actually happened and was hosted by activist Francis Cardoza, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Both Kyle Chandler and Rya Kihlstedt continued their strong screen chemistry, as they played out Charles and Willa’s stormy relationship. And James Read did an exceptional job in portraying George Hazard’s grief over the murdered Constance.

But the episode’s three showcases featured the KKK’s attack upon the two Mont Royal workers – Isaac and Titus, the U.S. Calvary’s massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village and a kidnapping. Thanks to Peerce’s direction, I found all three scenes very chilling. Grubbs’ hammy acting was unable to spoil the scene featuring the KKK attack. And I could say the same about Szarabajka in the cavalry massacre scene. One last chilling moment featured Bent’s latest attack upon the Hazards and the Mains – namely his kidnapping of young Gus. The entire sequence was swiftly shot, but Peerce’s direction and Casnoff’s performance left chills down my spine.

By the end of Episode Two, I found myself wondering about the fandom’s hostile attitude toward this third miniseries. Granted, the production values of “HEAVEN AND HELL” did not exactly matched the same level as the first two miniseries. But the miniseries’ writing seemed to match and sometimes improve the quality of the writing found in the 1986 series. So far, so good.

“CHINA SEAS” (1935) Review

Annex - Harlow, Jean (China Seas)_01

“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 I 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. But when all said and done, even his “coward who redeems himself” 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 too 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.


“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review



“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

I am amazed at how long I have ignored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 opus, “The Great Gatsby”. I saw the 1974 movie adaptation of the novel years ago, but I found it difficult to appreciate the story. It was not until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation that my full interest in the story was finally ignited. After watching that particular film, I came across this adaptation that aired on the A&E Channel in 2000. 

Directed by Robert Markowitz and adapted by John J. McLaughlin, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a 90 minute teleplay set in the early years of the Jazz Age. The movie told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby, who settles in a large house on the West Egg side (for the newly rich) on prosperous Long Island. Narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire’s desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I, who also happens to be Nick’s cousin. However, standing in Gatsby’s way is Daisy’s wealthy and boorish husband and Nick’s former Yale schoolmate, Tom Buchanan; Daisy’s own uncertainty about a serious relationship with the lovesick Gatsby and the latter’s questionable origin of his fortune. This clash between class and romantic aspirations leads to an emotional clash in a New York City hotel suite and later, tragedy and death.

There are some aspects of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that I found admirable. The best aspect of this television movie proved to be the showdown between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan for the love of one Daisy Fay Buchanan. I thought it was well-acted – especially by Mira Sorvino and Martin Donovan as the Buchanans. And director Robert Markowitz injected with a good deal of intensity. I was also impressed by Markowitz’s handling of the tragic hit-and-run of Myrtle Wison, Tom’s working-class mistress, near her husband’s Valley of Ashes gas station. This is the only version in which a distraught Daisy is briefly distracted by the infamous “Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” billboard before she avoids an oncoming car and kills Myrtle, while driving Gatsby’s white convertible. I suspect this was an addition created for this movie, not featured in the novel. By allowing the billboard to indirectly lead to Myrtle’s death struck me as inspired writing on McLaughlin’s part, or inspired direction from Markowitz. Who knows? And it seemed a pity that no one else – Fitzgerald included – never considered it. The Nick Carraway-Jordan Baker romance had never seemed as sexy as it did in this movie. In fact, this is the only adaptation in which their relationship seemed to radiate with any real sexuality.

But despite these virtues, “THE GREAT GATSBY” seemed marred by a great deal of flaws. Perhaps too many flaws. There is so much about this movie that seemed off. One could tell at first glance that this production was lacking in serious cash. I realize that “THE GREAT GATSBY” is supposed to be a television production. But I find it odd that a production financed by both the A&E Cable Network in the United States, and Granada Productions in Great Britain; could look like a poor man’s version of Fitzgerald’s novel. The costumes designed by Nicoletta Massone left me shaking my head in disbelief. The clothes worn by wealthy characters such as Gatsby, the Buchanans and Jordan Baker seemed more appropriate for middle-class characters of the same era – the early 1920s. In one scene, Tom Buchanan made a snarky comment about Gatsby’s wardrobe. Mind you, the latter was not wearing the infamous pink suit (much to my disappointment). But the cream-colored suit with the dark tie, white socks and dark shoes even made wince. Since the Nick Carraway character wore a similar outfit in the same scene, I found myself wondering why Tom did not extend his contempt to his cousin-in-law’s wardrobe. Although elegant, the Buchanans’ home struck me as more quaint than opulent. The exteriors of Gatsby’s home seemed more opulent, but it had an elegant quality that seemed beyond Gatsby’s tastes. And the interiors struck me as somewhat drab and middle-class. So much for the ostentation – and somewhat tasteless – mansion owned by the mysterious millionaire. I really enjoyed Carl Davis’ score for this movie. But it seemed more appropriate for a neo-noir movie like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” or “MULHOLLAND FALLS”, instead of a period drama like “THE GREAT GATSBY”.

Although I had complimented Markowitz’s direction in two sequences, I found most of his direction rather flaccid and uninspiring. There were moments I felt that he was simply going through the motions. And both he and McLaughlin did not do the audience any favors by including flashbacks of Gatsby and Daisy’s World War I courtship. Those scenes were not only shot in soft focus, but also nearly put me to sleep. My God, they were boring! The parties held by Gatsby disappointed me, as well. Most of it – with the exception of the party attended by the Buchanans – struck me as mediocre and a ghost of those parties featured in Fitzgerald’s novel and the other movie adaptations. And why on earth did McLaughlin’s screenplay begin with Gatsby’s murder? Was he and Markowitz trying to be different? Unique? It is bad enough that Fitzgerald’s prose, in the form of Nick’s narration, hinted that Gatsby was no longer around. Why wipe away the mystery altogether by starting the movie with Gatsby’s murder? But if there is one thing that nearly tripped up “THE GREAT GATSBY”, it had to be its casting.

Due to Granada Productions being a co-producer of the film, it was inevitable that a British actor or actress would be cast. That person turned out to be Toby Stephens, who was given the leading role of Jay Gatsby. Before I continue, I want to say that I have been a fan of Stephens for years, thanks to his outstanding work. Unfortunately, I cannot view Jay Gatsby as one of his best performances. He simply seemed so wrong for the role. Not only did he portray Gatsby with a stiff and unconvincing American accent, but also with a grin that threatened to form a smirk. Aside from a few emotional . . . or semi-emotional moments, I found his portrayal of Gatsby rather cocky. Paul Rudd could have made a decent Nick Carraway, if it were not for the bored expression on his face that occasionally marred his performance. I realize that Nick harbored some contempt toward Gatsby when they first met. But that contempt had disappeared by the time he arranged Gatsby and Daisy’s afternoon reunion. Unfortunately, Rudd’s Nick maintained that same contempt even throughout the reunion and did not really disappear until the blow up at the Plaza Hotel. What the hell? I wish I could simply blame Rudd, but I cannot. As the director, Markowitz should have realized what was going on and put a stop to it. He failed to do so. Martin Donovan gave an excellent performance as the brutish Tom Buchanan. However, he still proved to be the wrong actor for the role. Donovan’s Tom never struck me as an egotistical ex-jock . . . merely an ill-tempered Moaning Minnie with too much money on his hands. Not only did I also have great difficulty in viewing him as a ladies’ man, but also Nick’s classmate at Yale. Martin Donovan and Paul Rudd are a good deal twelve years apart. And it shows. Jerry Grayson’s brief portrayal of gambler/gangster Meyer Wolfsheim did not strike me as memorable. On the other hand, I will never forget William Camp’s portrayal of Myrtle’s loser husband, George Wilson. I found it incredible bad.

The three actresses in “THE GREAT GATSBY” fared better. Somewhat. I enjoyed Mira Sorvino’s performance as the very feminine and flaky Daisy Buchanan. She did an excellent job of recapturing Daisy’s warm, flirtatious personality and shallowness. My only problem with Sorvino is that she utilized a Northeastern accent to portray Daisy. And the latter came from the Upper South – Louisville, Kentucky. Thankfully, Francie Swift, who hails from Texas, used a soft Southern accent in her portrayal of Daisy’s Louisville friend, golfer Jordan Baker. Mind you, Swift’s Jordan did not strike me as a female athlete. But she gave a sly and sexy performance that I found satisfying. In fact, she might be the best Jordan Baker I have seen on screen – despite the Dutch Boy haircut and dull wardrobe. Heather Goldenhersh did a pretty good job of portraying the vulgar and ambitious Myrtle Wilson. I said good . . . not great. The actress portrayed a high, light voice that I would not associate with a character like Myrtle. And I did not find her desperation to escape from a life with the dull George Wilson particularly convincing. But I was impressed by Goldenhersh’s one scene in which she conveyed Mrytle’s account of her first meeting with Tom.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” had a few virtues – including some well done performances from the movie’s three leading ladies and two exceptional sequences. But the flaws overwhelmed the virtues – including lackluster direction from Robert Markowitz and the producers’ miscasting of Toby Stephens in the leading role. I have seen at least three versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. I hate to say it, but this 2000 television movie has to be the least impressive I have seen.