“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

After the bleak narrative of “The Massacre”, the fifth episode of “CENTENNIAL”, the following episode is almost a joy to watch. I can state with absolute certainty that “The Longhorns” is one of my favorite episodes of the series.

“The Massascre” ended with Englishman Oliver Seccombe’s return to the West and his declaration to start a ranch in Northern Colorado on behalf of a major British investor, one Earl Venneford of Wye. Upon Levi Zendt’s recommendation, Seccombe hires John Zimmerhorn, the son of the disgraced militia colonel, to acquire Longhorn cattle in Texas and drive them back to Colorado. Upon his arrival in Texas, John meets a Latino cook by the name of Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez, who recommends that he hired an experienced trail boss named R.J. Poteet to lead the cattle drive to Colorado. Poteet hires a few experienced hands such as ex-slave Nate Pearson, Mule Canby and an ex-thief named Mike Lassiter to serve as cowboys for the drive. He also hires a handful of inexperienced young hands that includes a sharpshooter named Amos Calendar and a former Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Bufe Coker. To avoid any encounters with Commanche raiders and ex-Confederate bandits from Kansas, Poteet suggests to John that they travel through a trail established by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving that would take them through the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) and New Mexico. Before leaving Texas, Poteet hires one last cowboy – one Jim Lloyd, who happens to be the 14 year-old son of his best friend who was killed during the Civil War.

One of things that I like about “The Longhorns” is that it is filled with characters trying to make a new start in life, following the chaos of war. Most, if not all, are outsiders. For example:

*Jim Lloyd is the only cowhand on the drive who is under the age of 16.

*John Skimmerhorn has to deal with the reverberations of his father’s murderous actions in the last episode.

*”Nacho” Gomez is the only Latino and has to constantly deal with comments about his use of beans in his cooking.

*Nate Pearson is the only African-American on the drive and a former slave.

*Mike Lassiter is a former thief who uses the drive to clear his name and start a new life of respectability.

*Bufe Coker is the only Easterner (from South Carolina) with very little experiences in dealing with the West.

The ironic thing about “The Longhorns” is that instead of constant conflict between the cowboys, all of them managed to form a strong bond during the long drive between Texas and the Colorado Territory. This strong bond is formed through a series of shared experiences – battling the environment, Native American raiders and Kansas bandits; along with humorous stories around a campfire and sensible wisdom from the experienced hands. One of the episode’s long-running joke are Lassiter and Canby’s recollections of an eccentric named O.D. Cleaver. The drive not only introduced one of the miniseries’ major characters, Jim Lloyd; but also the strong bond formed by the cowboys that would end up having consequences in future episodes.

If viewers are expecting “The Longhorns” to be a 90-minute version of the 1989 CBS miniseries, “LONESOME DOVE”, they will be in for a disappointment. “The Longhorns” is basically a contribution to the narrative and history of “CENTENNIAL”, not a major storyline. The relationships formed in the episode does have consequences on the story . . . but that is about it. I certainly did not expect it to be another “LONESOME DOVE”. In fact, I was too busy enjoying the episode to really care.

When I said that I enjoyed “The Longhorns”, I was not joking. One, it featured one of my favorite themes in any story – long distance traveling. Two, I enjoyed watching the characters – major and minor – develop a strong camaraderie within the episode’s 97-minute running time. And thanks to screenwriter John Wilder and director Virgil W. Vogel, the miniseries featured some strong characterizations, allowing many of the actors to shine. I wish I could pinpoint which performance really impressed me. This episode was filled with some strong performances. But if I had to be honest, the performances that really impressed me came from Dennis Weaver as the tough and pragmatic trail boss, R.J. Poteet; Michael St. Clair as the young Jim Lloyd who in a poignant scene, eventually realizes that he will never see Texas and his family again; Cliff De Young, who continued his solid performance as the very steady John Skimmerhorn; Glynn Turman as the warm, yet competent Nate Pearson; Greg Mullavey as the gregarious Mule Canby; Rafael Campos as the tough, yet friendly “Nacho” Campos; Les Lannom as the slightly caustic Bufe Coker who is also desperate to start a new life in the post-war West; Jesse Vint as soft-spoken, yet slightly intimidating Amos Calendar; Dennis Frimple as the enthusiastic, but odor-challenged Buck; and Scott Hylands, who gave a very entertaining performance as the verbose teller of tall tales, Mike Lassiter.

For an episode that is considered part of a miniseries called “CENTENNIAL”, I found it interesting that it featured the setting in question in only two minor scenes. One of them featured the cowboys arrival in the vicinity of Centennial. The other and more important scene featured the continued feud between Seccombe and immigrant farmer Hans Brumbaugh. Both Timothy Dalton and Alex Karras played the hell out of this brief scene, reminding viewers that the hostility between the two is destined to spill over in a very ugly way.

What more can I say about “The Longhorns”? I loved it. I loved it when I first saw it and I still do. It featured long-distance traveling, strong characterizations and a strong, yet steady narrative. Both Virgil Vogel and John Wilder, along with the cast made this episode one of the most memorable in the entire miniseries.

“THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” (2017) Review

“THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” (2017) Review

It occurred to me that the buddy action film genre has become a dying breed in Hollywood summer blockbusters. I cannot think of the last one that did not feature science-fiction, fantasy or costumed heroes. So, imagine my surprise when Lionsgate released “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” during the late summer of 2017.

Directed by Patrick Hughes and written by Tom O’Connor, “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” is an action-filled travelogue about a private bodyguard who is hired to protect a professional hitman convinced to testify against a bloodthirsty dictator at the International Criminal Court. The movie began with Private European Union based bodyguard Michael Bryce protecting a Japanese arms dealer leaving London. Unfortunately for Bryce, the arms dealer is shot in the head through the airplane window after boarding a plane. Because of this failure, Bryce’s reputation declined within two years, until he found himself eking out a living protecting drug-addicted corporate executives in London.

During this time, the ruthless Belarus dictator, Vladislav Dukhovich has been put on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. But thanks to Dukhovich’s men assassinating potential witnesses, the prosecution has been unable to make headway in the case against him. The prosecution finally struck gold when they managed to make a deal with an incarcerated hitman named Darius Kincaid, who agreed to testify against Dukhovich in exchange for the release of his wife Sonia from prison. When Dukhovich’s men managed to kill nearly the entire security detail escorting Kincaid from Manchester, England to the Hague in Amsterdam; the surviving guard, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel recruited ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce to serve as Kincaid’s bodyguard.

Upon the release of “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD”, it received mixed reviews from critics. They loved the screen chemistry between the two stars – Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. But many of them found the movie’s narrative rather unoriginal. I must admit that I also found the plot unoriginal. An uptight, possibly “official” bodyguard or law enforcer escorting a criminal type across country? Reminds me of the 1988 movie, “MIDNIGHT RUN”, the recent film “HOT PURSUIT” and scores of other action-adventure comedies. I had another problem with “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” and it had to do with the character
Amelia Roussel. I found it difficult to believe that the same woman who managed to shoot it out with Dukhovich’s thugs in order to protect Kincaid had to be rescued by Bryce, when the dictator’s Interpol inside man tried to strangle her. After seeing Roussel in action earlier in the film, I would have preferred if she had rescued herself instead of depending upon one of the leading men to rescue her. Frustrating.

Otherwise, I enjoyed “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD”. It was not the best film I had seen during the summer of 2017. And it is certainly not the best action-adventure film I have ever seen. But I still enjoyed it. One, I liked the characters. Well, most of them. Two, aside from the last thirty minutes or so, the movie is basically a road trip . . . which I love. Three, the movie featured some first-rate action sequences, thanks to director Patrick Hughes. And four, the best aspect of “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD” proved to be the two leads – Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. I do not know if the pair had ever worked with each other before. But I must admit that they really had a strong chemistry. Between Reynolds’ portrayal of the uptight and proud Michael Bryce and Jackson’s sardonic and very clever Darius Kincaid . . . hell, they were dynamite.

The movie featured some pretty strong supporting performances from the cast. My favorite performances came from Élodie Yung, who portrayed Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, the strong-willed Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel; Joaquim de Almeida as the slippery Interpol Assistant Director Jean Foucher; Richard E. Grant as the very nervous and funny drug-addicted corporate executive, Mr. Seifert; and especially a very hilarious Salma Heyek as Kincaid’s temperamental wife, Sonia Kincaid. Gary Oldman portrayed the movie’s main villain, Vladislav Dukhovich. He made a very effective villain. But my problem is that I did not find his performance particularly memorable. I thought it was a bit too subtle – especially in a movie that featured several borderline over-the-top performances.

I found Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography rather lovely. His sharp and colorful photography brought out the best in his shots of Great Britain, Bulgaria and the Netherlands. And as I had stated earlier, I thought the action sequences were first-rate. But my two favorite sequences featured the Dukhovich thugs’ first attempt to kill Kincaid in Manchester; their attempt to kill him in Amsterdam, which led to an excellent boat chase along the city’s canals and the final action within the halls and on top of the Hague’s rooftop. More importantly, Hughes did an excellent in maintaining a steady pace for the film.

What else is there to say about “THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD”? It was not a perfect film. Nor was it one of the best action-adventure comedies I have ever seen. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining film that not only maintained my interest, but also had me in stitches. And it was all due to a decent screenplay written by Tom O’Connor, lively direction by Patrick Hughes and a first-rate cast led by Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson.

“ARGO” (2012) Review

“ARGO” (2012) Review

Nine years ago, Ben Affleck must have been at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had been released in theaters and quickly became a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. And he never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”.

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a “science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic. “ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the best movies of 2012. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” struck me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov. And that triumph resulted in a Best Picture Academy Award for the film.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010): Series One Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010): SERIES ONE RETROSPECTIVE

The original announcement of ITV’s 2010-2015 series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2010-2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie, “GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation.

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK” (which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as a swot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. After war was declared in the seventh episode, I had look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. Another re-watch of Series Two will determine whether my feelings for it had changed over the decade.

“FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER” (2007) Review

“THE FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER” (2007) Review

Back in 2006, I had been surprised by the news that 20th Century Fox had green-lighted a sequel to the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. When the latter was released, many critics had panned the movie as a ghost of other Marvel cinematic hits such as the “SPIDER-MAN” films, the “X-MEN” franchise movies and the DC Comics hit, “BATMAN BEGINS”.

Unlike the above-mentioned films and others such as 2003’s “DAREDEVIL”“THE FANTASTIC FOUR” told the story of how four people with close connections ended up with super powers . . . and how they dealt with it. It also introduced the quartet’s main antagonist, Victor Von Doom. But it felt more like a character study than a costumed action film. Although this new sequel, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER” managed to retain the comedic element of the first story, it turned out to be a surprisingly good action piece with strong character development.

The movie began with the arrival of a mysterious alien presence that caused havoc with the Earth’s resources in various locations. This alien turns out to be the Silver Surfer. The movie soon shifted to more familiar ground – namely the upcoming marriage of Reed Richards aka “Mr. Fantastic” and Sue Storm aka “The Invisible Woman”. Or should I say . . . another attempt by the couple to get married. It seemed their past efforts at matrimony have ended up being delayed by either their roles as costumed super heroes, or Reed’s anal obsession with his work. With the threat of the new alien presence announced by U.S. Army General Hager, Reed and Sue are forced to cancel their wedding plans once more and join other Fantastic Four members – Ben Grimm aka “The Thing” and Sue’s younger brother, Johnny Storm aka “The Human Torch” – to save the Earth from the Silver Surfer.

The blue-suited quartet are eventually embroiled in other crisis as well. As I had stated earlier, Reed and Sue end up enduring an angst fest over their failure to get married. Johnny’s first encounter with the Silver Surfer ended up changing his DNA structure. Because of this, he is able to exchange powers with any of his colleagues with only a touch. Even worse, Johnny’s uncertainty regarding his powers and his failure to seduce General Hager’s beautiful aide – Captain Raye – led him into an emotional crisis. Also, an old nemesis returned in the form of Dr. Victor von Doom aka “Doctor Doom”. Claiming a desire to help the Army and the Fantastic Four deal with the threat of the Silver Surfer, Victor’ real agenda turned out to be a desire to claim the Surfer’s power source for his own use.

As I had earlier stated, the 2005 movie mainly told the story about how the quarter acquired their powers and became a costumed super hero team. The 2007 sequel, on the other hand, features a solid action-filled story on how the Fantastic Four battled the Silver Surfer, Victor von Doom, the U.S. Army and their own neurosis. Which is probably why this new story is a lot better than the original one from the 2005. Yes, the humor had remained. But the new movie seemed better paced, more solid . . . and dare I say it? More mature. Their interactions with both the Silver Surfer and General Hager turned the story from a basic comic book action flick into something more complex. And adding to the complexity were Reed and Sue’s further obstacles facing their relationship, and Johnny Storm’s troubles with his powers and his own self esteem.

Thankfully, the people at Marvel had decided to reunite director Tim Story with the cast of the 2005 film. Because of this, Story was able to maintain the style created two years earlier and take the FANTASTIC FOUR franchise to a more complex level. With the exception of Michael Chiklis and Julian McMahon, the returning cast managed to take their roles to a new level in characterization. Do not get me wrong . . . both Chiklis and McMahon gave excellent performances. But their characters were never able to shine as much as the others. I suspect this was due to possible conflicting schedules with their respective TV series (“THE SHIELD” and “NIP/TUCK”). Andre Braugher’s tough and intimidating performance as General Hager seemed to have put the rest of the cast on their toes. Both Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba’s screen chemistry seemed a lot more believable in this film as their characters, Reed Richards and Sue Storm, struggled to take their relationship to another level despite the obstacles put in their paths.

The real surprise turned out to be Chris Evans’ portrayal as the usually shallow Johnny Storm, who discovered their was more to his life than fast vehicles, women and his celebrity status as one of the Fantastic Four. Who would have thought that this superficially charming character could possess real pathos? Yet, Evans’ first-class performance made this possible. He also provided one of the movie’s funniest scenes, when he “accidentally” torched the bridal bouquet before his new girlfriend, Captain Raye, could catch it. Although I found the Silver Surfer’s abilities and his impact upon the Fantastic Four impressive thanks to Doug Jones’ physical performance, I must say that his personality struck me as a little too distant for me to really care about him. At least the revelation of his bondage to a powerful and destructive alien entity made his character a little more interesting than I had originally believed. And I have to give Laurence Fishburne kudos for doing an excellent job with the character’s voice over.

I would highly recommend “THE FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER” if you are looking for in-house viewing. Granted, it did not have the level of angst or epic-like proportion of other Marvel movies around that decade and since such as the “SPIDER-MAN”, the “X-MEN” and the MCU franchises; it was still a more complex and interesting story than its 2005 predecessor, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”.

“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” (1991) Review

“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” (1991) Review

The late Joan Hickson starred as Miss Jane Marple in her 11th movie that featured the elderly sleuth, created by Agatha Christie. The movie in question was “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS”, an adaptation of Christie’s 1952 novel.

While paying a visit to her old friend, the American-born Ruth Van Rydock, Miss Jane Marple is asked to visit the other woman’s younger sister, Carrie Louise Serrocold. All three women were friends at the same school in Italy when they were girls. Ruth is worried that something is very wrong at Stonygates, the Victorian mansion where Carrie Louise lives with her husband Lewis Serrocold. She fears that Carrie Louise may be in danger of some kind. Ruth asks Miss Marple to find out what is going on. Miss Marple learns that Stonygates has been converted into a home for delinquent boys by Serrocold, who is devoted to the idea of reforming these boys. Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson from her first marriage and a member of the Stonygates Board of Trustees, everyone assumes he is there for a business meeting with Serrocold. The latter finally admits to Miss Marple that Later that evening, the visiting Ruth decides to show an old film of her, Carrie Louise and Miss Marple in Italy; when one of Stonybrook’s boys, an uber-nervous type named Edgar Lawson interrupts the festivities to accuse Serrocold of being his real father. While they quarreled in another room, the fuse to the house blows out. Within minutes, Gulbrandsen’s visit takes a tragic turn when he is found dead – shot in the head – inside his bedroom. Miss Marple, along with Chief Inspector Slack, scramble to find Gulbrandsen’s murderer.

From the articles I have read on the Web, “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” seemed to be highly regarded by many of Christie’s fans. I wish I could share their sentiments, but I cannot. I am not saying that the movie was terrible. It seemed pretty decent to me. But it did not exactly rock my boat. At the moment, I cannot put my finger on it. There is something . . . weak about the plot. One, I did not find the setting of a Victorian manor converted into a home for delinquent boys that intriguing. I suppose one has to blame Christie for creating this setting in the first place. I suspect that she was out of her league. And two, the mystery itself – the murder of Christian Gulbrandsen – did not seem particularly complicated. Judging from the title and the details that led to his murder, I did not find it particularly difficult to guess the murderer’s identity. And three, I thought the movie finished on a slightly weak note. After a murder attempt was made on another character, my attention to the movie gradually began to fade. I was not sleepy. My interest simply began to fade.

I also had a few problems with the cast. The characters of Carrie Louise Serrocold and Ruth van Rycock were portrayed by actresses Jean Simmons and Faith Brook. I had no problems with their performances. I thought both were first rate – especially Simmons, who captured Carrie Louise’s vague and slightly fey personality just right. But both actresses were at least a good twenty years younger than Joan Hickson. And I found the idea of their characters coming from the same generation as Miss Marple rather ludicrous. I also had a problem with Todd Boyce’s portrayal of Walter Rudd, Carrie Louise’s American-born grandson-in-law. At first, I thought he was English born, because I found his American accent rather questionable. I was surprised to learn that he was born in Toledo, Ohio. His family had moved to Australia when he was 16. I think what really annoyed me was that whenever he opened his mouth to speak, I heard a few bars of Western music – to indicate that the character in question was an American. (Pardon me, while I indulge in an eye roll) Thankfully, the music ceased about halfway into the film and I found Boyce’s performance a lot more enjoyable from then on.

“THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” also had its virtues. I must admit that the cast was first rate. Joss Ackland gave one of his more sympathetic performances as the well-meaning philanthropist who fears for his wife’s safety. I have already commented upon Simmons, Brooks and Boyce. I was also impressed by Christopher and Jay Villiers, who gave enjoyable performances as the Restarick brothers – Carrie Louise’s stepsons from her second marriage. I could say the same about Holly Aird, who portrayed Carrie Louise’s granddaughter, Gina Rudd. And for the first time, I actually enjoyed David Horovitch’s performance as recurring police sleuth, Chief Inspector Slack. However, I never understood the need to bring him back. I do not recall his character appearing in the novel. As for Joan Hickson, she was perfect as Jane Marple . . . as usual. In fact, she was a real class act in this film.

Personally, I feel that “THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS” is somewhat overrated by today’s Christie’s fans. I found the plot rather unoriginal and a bit weak in the last thirty minutes. But it had a first-rate cast and decent production values. If you want a pleasant movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon, it might be the ticket for you.

Five Favorite Episodes of “STAR TREK VOYAGER” Season Two (1995-1996)

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season Two of “STAR TREK VOYAGER”. Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller and Jeri Taylor; the series starred Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “STAR TREK VOYAGER” SEASON TWO (1995-1996)

1. (2.11) “Manuevers” – After a team of the Kazon-Nistrim warriors steal some Federation technology during a raid against U.S.S. Voyager, Commander Chakotay goes after them on his own and is captured. Martha Hackett and Anthony De Longis guest-starred.

2. (2.21) “Deadlock” – While attempting to evade the organ-stealing Vidiians, a duplicate Voyager is created after it passes through a spatial scission; leaving one of the duplicate ships under attack and the other impervious to attack. Nancy Hower and Simon Billig guest-starred.

3. (2.20) “Investigations” – Lieutenant Tom Paris leaves Voyager and joins a Talaxian space convoy. But when he is kidnapped by former crew mate Seska and the Kazon-Nistrim, Neelix tries to flush out the traitor on board who has been colluding with them. Raphael Sbarge, Martha Hackett and Simon Billig guest-starred.

4. (2.05) “Non-Sequitur” – While on an Away mission, Ensign Harry Kim mysteriously wakes up and finds himself back in 24th century San Francisco, with no record of him ever joining Voyager’s crew. Louis Giambalvo, Jennifer Gatti and Mark Kiely guest-starred.

5. (2.19) “Lifesigns” – Voyager picks up a dying Vidiian woman and the Doctor saves her life by placing her consciousness in a holographic body. As the pair attempts to find a cure for the Phage killing her and her species, he falls in love. Susan Diol, Raphael Sbarge and Martha Hackett guest-starred.

Honorable Mention: (2.08) “Persistence of Vision” – When Voyager enters a new region of space, the crew begins to experience hallucinations from their past and of their desires. Carolyn Seymour, Warren Munson and Marva Hicks guest-starred.

“DOCTOR THORNE” (2016) Review

“DOCTOR THORNE” (2016) Review

Five years ago, the ITV aired “DOCTOR THORNE”, Julian Fellowes’ four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel. As it turned out, the latter was the third novel in Trollope’s literary series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

From what I know, the 1858 novel seemed to have little in common to the rest of Trollope’s Barstshire series. Dr. Thomas Thorne, the main character in “DOCTOR THORNE”, was a distant cousin of Mr Wilfred Thorne, a minor character in “Barchester Towers”. Aside from that, the rest of the characters in “DOCTOR THORNE” seemed to have very little or no connections to the remaining Barstshire series.

The plot for “DOCTOR THORNE” seemed pretty straightforward. Our main protagonist is a respected doctor who has been raising his niece, Mary Thorne, on his own. Years earlier, Doctor Thorne’s ne’er-do-well older brother Henry had seduced one Mary Scatcherd. When her stonemason brother Roger Scatcherd had learned about his sister’s pregnancy, he engaged in a fight with Henry and killed him. Scatcherd ended in prison for several years, his sister gave birth to a daughter before moving to Australia with a new husband, and Doctor Thorne ended up raising his niece and keeping her parents’ identities a secret.

Following his release from prison, Roger Scatcherd becomes wealthy as railway project undertaker, got married, became a father and acquired a baronet. He also becomes a chronic alcoholic. Thorne becomes the family doctor to the Greshams, a local family of the landed gentry. He he persuades Scatcherd to lend money Mr. Francis Greshams, the local squire, who has troubles managing his finances. Within time, much of the Gresham estate is put up as collateral. Meanwhile, Mary forms a close friendship with the Gresham children and falls in love with Frank Gresham, Squire Gresham’s only son and heir of the squire, and he with her. But due to the family’s finances, Squire Gresham’s wife, Lady Arabella, plots to end Mary and Frank’s romance and find a wealthy wife for her son. However, Sir Roger’s only son and heir, Louis Scatcherd, also falls in love with Mary. And like his father, Louis has also acquired a drinking habit. Dr. Thorne is forced to struggle to help his niece find happiness, while at the same time, deal with Lady Arabella’s scheming for her son, and the tenuous financial situation between the Scatcherds and the Greshams.

“DOCTOR THORNE” received mixed reviews when it aired on both British and American television. I suspect that many critics believed that the production seemed to lack the bite of previous Trollope adaptations. And if I must be honest, I agree with them. Overall, “DOCTOR THORNE” struck me as a fluff piece into the life of Victorian society, despite the social snobbery portrayed in the miniseries, along with the fact that two of the characters were alcoholics. I believe it had something to do with the production’s tone. Thanks to Julian Fellowes’ writing, the miniseries felt more like a light comedy with flashes of melodrama. Especially for a story that featured social bigotry, family secrets and alcoholism.

It did not help that the only characters in this story who truly suffered in the end were the members of the Scatcherd family. Personally, I wish that Lady Arabella Gresham had suffered a lot more than a slight embarrassment over the discovery of Mary Thorne’s newly inherited wealth by the end of the story. I found the aristocratic matriarch’s efforts to break up Frank Jr.’s romance with Mary a lot more perfidious than the Scatcherds’ financial hold over the Greshams or even the malice and hostility that Sir Roger’s son Louis had harbored toward the high-born family. After all, the Greshams had found themselves in financial difficulties, thanks to Squire Gresham’s mishandling of the family’s income and the family’s spending habits.

But despite my qualms over the production, I still managed to enjoy it. “DOCTOR THORNE” proved to be a humorous and romantic story about Mary Thorne’s relationship with Frank Gresham Jr. and the obstacles – both socially and emotionally – they were forced to overcome. I also enjoyed the humorous subplot involving the political going-ons in Barsetshire and the upcoming election between Sir Roger Scatcherd and Mr. Moffat, another self-made man who had managed to gain support from the Gresham family. The miniseries also proved to be a poignant family drama involving the Thorne and Scatcherd families, with a big emotional payoff. And all of this romance and family drama was witnessed by the always dependable Doctor Thorne, who seemed to serve as the story’s backbone.

The production values for “DOCTOR THORNE” proved to be top-notch. Production designer Kristian Milsted did a solid job in re-creating Barsetshire, the fictional mid-19th century community (for its middle-class and upper-class citizens) featured in this story. Her efforts were ably assisted by Caroline Story’s art direction and Jan Jonaeus’s sharp and colorful photography, which did justice to various locations utilized in various counties in Southern England. I especially enjoyed the costumes created by Colleen Kelsall as shown below:

However, I felt a bit disturbed when I noticed that the day dresses worn by some of the women characters exposed a bit of cleavage:

Unless I happened to be wrong, 19th century women did not reveal any cleavage during the daytime. It was considered appropriate to do so in the evening for formal dinners and parties. I also noticed in the image above that actress Gwyneth Keyworth is also wearing a flower crown. A flower crown with daytime casual wear? I do not think so. Flower crowns – popularized by Queen Victoria during her wedding to Prince Albert – were usually worn by brides and bridemaids during wedding ceremonies, formal dinners and parties. I have one last complaint. The mid 19th century hairstyles worn by the women cast members seemed spot on to me . . . with one exception:

What on earth was the production’s hairstylist thinking by allowing this modern touch to actress Stefanie Martini’s hairstyle? Or was the hairstylist trying to copy the following look?

The problem is that the above style was prevalent in the 1840s, a decade before the setting for “DOCTOR THORNE”. And Ms. Martini’s “curls” are a tad too short.

The miniseries featured a mixture of solid and excellent acting. I can honestly say that there was not a bad performance in the production. Performers such as Nicholas Rowe, Alex Price, Cressida Bones, Janine Duvitski, Danny Kirrane, Tim McMullan, Nell Barlow all provided solid performances. More solid performances came from Edward Franklin, who seemed a tad over-the-top as the hostile and alcoholic Sir Louis Scatcherd; Harry Richardson, whose portrayal of Frank Gresham Jr. struck me as a bit bland; and Stefanie Martini’s performance as Mary Thorne struck me as charming, but not quite interesting. The real problem proved to be the character, who seemed to lack any interesting personality traits.

One of the more interesting performances came from Rebecca Front, who did an excellent job in conveying Lady Arabella Gresham’s snobbish and ruthless nature. Phoebe Nicholls’ Countess de Courcy (Lady Arabella’s sister-in-law) proved to be equally snobbish and ruthless. However, Nicholls skillfully conveyed how Lady de Courcy’s ruthlessness proved to be more subtle. Richard McCabe did an excellent job of portraying Francis Gresham’s likable, yet slightly weak nature. Gwyneth Keyworth gave an excellent performance as Frank Jr.’s complex and slightly mercenary sister, Augusta Gresham. Kate O’Flynn gave a skillful performance as Augusta’s equally mercenary cousin, Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, who proved to be a lot more manipulative. Alison Brie gave a very charming, yet sly performance as the wealthy American heiress Miss Dunstable, who proved to be a very sensible and wise woman. One of two best performances in the miniseries came from Ian McShane, who gave a superb performance as the alcoholic, yet proud and loyal Sir Roger Scatcherd. The other best performance came from Tom Hollander, who did a superb job as the leading character, Doctor Thomas Thorne, a sensible and put upon man, who constantly struggles to look after his niece from the likes of Lady Arabella and keep Squire Gresham from folding under the weight of debts.

What else can I say about “DOCTOR THORNE”? It is not one of the best television productions I have seen. It is probably the least impressive Anthony Trollope I have ever come across. But despite its flaws, I rather enjoyed it. I found it rather charming and likable, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and the excellent cast led by Tom Hollander.

“GET SMART” (2008) Review

“GET SMART” (2008) Review

Just recently, I saw “GET SMART” for the fifth time, a comic action movie based upon the 1965-1971 television comedy that starred Don Adams. Only this version starred Steve Carell as CONTROL Agent 86 – Maxwell Smart.

I can only think of five or six movies based upon old television series that I have ever really enjoyed. And if I must be honest, “GET SMART” is one of them. Many people have stated before its release eight years ago that they found the idea of someone other than Adams portraying the Clouseau-like spy, Maxwell Smart (Agent 86 of CONTROL). This attitude is understandable, considering it was Adams’ most famous role and he really made it his own.

I never thought I would say this, but Steve Carell can be the second actor who has the right to boast the Smart character as his own. He truly was superb. And what made his performance so astounding is that instead of attempting a replica of Adams’ performances, he portrayed the Smart character in his own style. What also made this movie different from the TV series is that Smart starts out as an intelligence analyst for CONTROL, who desires to become a field agent. He finally gets his chance when CONTROL Headquarters is attacked by their arch-enemy, the evil KAOS terrorist organization led by Siegfried (Terence Stamp). Almost all of CONTROL’s Agents are either exposed or killed. Max becomes Agent 86 and is partnered with one of CONTROL’s top operatives, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who underwent recent plastic surgery to protect her identity. Together, the pair investigate KAOS’s recent acquisition of nuclear weapons and the identity of the mole who had betrayed CONTROL.

Anne Hathaway portrayed Agent 99 and her take on the character is slightly different than Barbara Feldon’s from the television series. Hathaway’s Agent 99 is a cool and very competent agent like her television counterpart. However, her 99 is more experienced than Max. She is also slightly sardonic and a little more aggressive. What really surprised me was how Hathaway and Carell managed to create a sizzling screen chemistry between them. I mean they really sizzled. Alan Arkin (who co-starred with Carell in “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE”) really shined as the Chief of CONTROL. Like his television counterpart, he found the antics of Max and certain other CONTROL operatives rather exasperating. But what really seemed to annoy him is the idea that he might be too old for any action in the field.

The rest of the cast included Dwayne Johnson as CONTROL’S very top operative, Agent 23. He portrayed the agent with a mixture of charm, smoothness and arrogance that justified Max’s envious worship of him. Both Terry Crewes and David Koechner made a great comedic pair as CONTROL agents 91 and Larabee. So did Masi Oka (“HEROES”) and Nate Torrence as CONTROL’s two top techies – Bruce and Lloyd. My only complaint centered around Terrence Stamp, as KAOS’s head honcho, Siegfried. With that impervious expression fixed upon his face, Stamp seemed to try too hard in being funny. Well . . . at times. In other scenes, his sardonic style did strike me as funny. And I must admit that he managed to have one very hilarious scene involving Max’s attempt to penetrate a KAOS lair in Russia.

Thanks to screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, along with director Peter Segal (“MY FELLOW AMERICANS”) and Steve Carell, this version of “GET SMART” turned out to be just as funny as the television series from the 1960s. And believe it or, “GET SMART” also turned out to be a first-class action movie centered around betrayal in the intelligence community and the threat of a nuclear bomb. “GET SMART” is no comedic masterpiece, but I found it a lot of fun to watch.