“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

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“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up. 

Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the 2015 series. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 1975 series.

Series One of “POLDARK”, which aired in 1975, is based upon Winston Graham’s first four novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”“Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” (1946), 1950’s “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 and 1953’s “Warleggan (Poldark). Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the first novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark returning home to Cornwall following military service with the British Army during the American Revolution. Ross spent the last year or two as a prisoner-of-war, unaware that he had been declared dead. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his father’s solicitor that Joshua Poldark had died financially broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his Uncle Charles Poldark had promised to sell his estate Nampara to the banking family, the Warleggans. And lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had become engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left are his father’s estate, Nampara, which is now in ruins, two mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, the Warleggans, who have risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, seemed to be gaining financial control over the neighborhood. In Episode Two, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight at a local fair. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

When I finally began to embark upon this series, I had no idea of its reputation as one of Britain’s most beloved period dramas. I discovered that “POLDARK” was regarded just as highly in the 1970s, as “DOWNTON ABBEY” had become some thirty-five to forty years later. Mind you, I regard Julian Fellowes’ series as the inferior series. My viewing of the first four episodes of this series made me finally appreciate why it was so highly regarded. It really is first-rate production. However . . . it had its problems. What movie or television production does not?

When it comes to an accurate adaptation of any novel or play, I tend to harbor ambiguous views on the matter. It depends upon how well it serves the story on screen or if it makes sense. Anyone familiar with Graham’s novels know that the 1975 adaptation is not accurate. I had no problems with the production starting with Ross’ stage journey to his home in Cornwall, considering that the novel started with a meeting between Ross’ dying father and his Uncle Charles. I had no problems with Elizabeth’s final reason for marrying Francis – to ensure that Charles Poldark would pay off her father’s debts. This little scenario even included an interesting scene in which Ross had volunteered to use his loan for Wheal Leisure to pay off Mr. Chynoweth’s debts in order to gain Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, she stopped him from committing such a stupid act. But I had a problem with one major change and a few minor ones.

My biggest problem with these first four episodes of “POLDARK” centered on the circumstances that led Ross to marry his kitchen maid, Demelza Carne. Apparently, the series’ producers and screenwriter Jack Pulman must have found Graham’s portrayal of this situation hard to swallow and decided to change the circumstances leading to Ross and Demelza’s marriage. In this version, Ross became drunk following his failure to prevent his former farmhand Jim Carter from being sentenced to prison for poaching. Demelza, who had been harboring a yen for Ross, decided to comfort him with sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes.h sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes. One episode featured Francis’ violent encounter with Verity’s wannabee suitor, Captain Blamey and the other, a fight between Ross and his future father-in-law, Tom Carne. And I thought Christopher Barry handled both scenes in a rather clumsy manner. Both situations seemed to be a case of “now you see it, now you don’t”. In Ross’ fight with Carne, the 17 year-old Demelza got into the melee (which did not happen in the novel), allowing her to spout some nonsense about women’s right in one of those “a woman’s travails” speeches that came off as . . . well, clumsy and contrived. It did not help that actress Angharad Rees seemed to be screeching at the top of her voice at the time. In fact, screeching seemed to be the hallmark of Rees’ early portrayal of the adolescent Demelza in an emotional state. Some fans have waxed lyrical over Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark. So far, I have yet to see what the big deal was about. Other than three scenes, Francis spent these first four episodes portraying a cold and rather aloof Francis. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in the character.

Considering all of the problems I had with Episodes One-Four, one would wonder why I enjoyed “POLDARK”. The series may not be perfect, but it was damn entertaining. Some have compared the production to the 1939 film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But honestly, it reminds me of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ literary trilogy, “North and South”. Both the Seventies series and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy between 1985 and 1994 share so many similarities. Both series featured their own set of flaws, entertaining melodrama, strong characterizations and a historical backdrop. In the case of “POLDARK”, the historical backdrop featured Great Britain – especially Cornwall – after the American Revolution, during the last two decades of the 18th century. It is a period of which I have never been familiar – especially in Britain. I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had such a negative impact upon the country’s economic state. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I never knew about Britain’s struggles. I also recently learned about the impact of the fallen tin and copper prices on Cornwall, during the 1770s and especially the 1780s. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths. 

I thought this economic depression was well-handled by the production team. Not once did the producers, Barry or Pulman rush through Ross’ struggles to establish a new fortune. They also took their time in conveying the struggles of nearly everyone else in the neighborhood – the other members of the Poldark family, the Cynoweths, and especially the working-class. This struggle of the working-class manifested not only Demelza’s story arc, but also that of Jim and Jinny Carter in the first three episodes. This struggled boiled down to a heartbreaking moment in which Jim was caught poaching on a local estate and sentenced to prison – despite Ross’ futile efforts to help him. I noticed that although the Warleggan family loomed menacingly in the background, only one member had made at least two appearances in these first four episodes – Nicholas Warleggan. The most famous member of the family – George Warleggan – had yet to make an appearance.

And despite my complaints about the situation that led to Ross and Demelza’s marriage, I must admit that the emotional journey of Ross and the other leading characters managed to grab my attention. Being familiar with Graham’s novel, I am well aware that Ross’ return, Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis, Ross’ meeting with Demelza, the marital fallout between Elizabeth and Francis and Ross’ inability to get over losing Elizabeth will have consequences down the road. I have to admit that “POLDARK” did a pretty damn good job in setting up the entire saga . . . despite a few hiccups. I found it interesting that Episode One solely featured Ross’ return and his emotional reaction to Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis. He did not even meet Demelza until Episode Two

These first four episodes also set up a conflict between Demelza and Elizabeth. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I rather liked how Debbie Horsfield managed to set up a quasi-friendship between the two women in the new adaptation. But since Demelza and Elizabeth were probably doomed not to be friends, I see that screenwriter Jack Pulman decided to immediately go for the jugular and set up hostilities between the pair. In Episode Three, a jealous Demelza had maliciously blamed Elizabeth for Francis’ infidelity, even though she had yet to meet the pair. I found this even more ironic, considering the episode also featured a minor scene in which Elizabeth actually made an attempt to emotionally reach out to Francis. He rejected her due to an assignation with some prostitute. And the whole scenario regarding Ross’ suggestion that Elizabeth leave Francis and Demelza’s pregnancy boiled down to a long scene in which Ross informed Elizabeth of the situation and her angry reaction. Which included calling Demelza a whore. By the end of Episode Four, Pulman and Barry had firmly established hostility between the two women.

Much has been said about the series’ exteriors shot in Cornwall. Yes, they looked beautiful, wild and almost exotic for Great Britain. Not even the faded photography can hide the beauty of the Cornish landscape. I also found John Bloomfield’s costume designs very attractive, but not exactly mind blowing. Also, a few of the costumes for actress Jill Townsend seemed a bit loose – especially in the first two episodes. As for the series’ score written by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts . . . not exactly memorable.

I might as well come to the performances featured in Episodes One to Four. Overall, I found them pretty solid. Although I came away with the feeling that some of the cast members and director Christopher Barry thought “POLDARK” was a stage play. Yes, I found some of the performances a bit theatrical. And I have to include some of the main cast members. I have always liked the Charles Poldark character – not because he was likable. I simply found him rather colorful. And I thought actor Frank Middlemass did an excellent job in conveying this aspect of Mr. Poldark Senior. Jonathan Newth gave a solid, yet intense performance as the barely volatile Captain Blamey. Both Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush gave very colorful performances as Ross’ slothful servants, Jud and Prudie Paynter. And yet, some of that color threatened to become very theatrical. On the other hand, Stuart Doughty gave a solid and subtle performance as Ross’ former servant-turned-miner, Jim Carter. I could also say the same for Jillian Bailey, who portrayed Jim’s wife, Jinny. By the way, fans of the 1983 miniseries, “JANE EYRE” should be able to spot Zelah Clarke (a future Jane Eyre) in a small role as one of the stagecoach passengers in the opening scene of Episode One.

There have been a great deal of praise for Angharad Rees’ portrayal of Demelza Carne, Ross’ kitchen maid and soon-to-be wife. And yes, I believe she earned that praise . . . at least in the second half of Episode Three and all of Episode Four. I found her performance very lively and when the scene demanded it, subtle. I thought she was outstanding in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross. However, she was at least thirty or thirty-one when she portrayed Demelza in Series One. And her portrayal of a Demelza in early-to-mid adolescence struck me as loud and over-the-top. Thankfully, the screeching ceased in the second half of Episode Three. Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark struck me as somewhat subdued or a bit on the cold side – except in two scenes. One of them featured Francis’ near death inside the Wheal Leisure mine, when he feared Ross would allow him to drown. Another featured his confrontation with Captain Blamey, the sea captain who became romantically interested in Francis’ sister Verity. In both cases, the actor came off as a bit theatrical. But I thought his performance in Episode Four, which featured Elizabeth’s announcement that she would leave Francis, seemed more controlled, yet properly emotional at the same time.

If I have to give awards for the best two performances in these first four episodes, I would give them to Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Norma Streader as Verity Poldark. It seemed to me they were the only two members of the cast who managed to avoid any theatrical acting in any of their scenes. Even when their characters were in an emotional state. One of Streader’s finest moments occurred in Season Two, when she expressed her feelings about Captain Blamey in a conversation with her cousin Ross. Despite expressing Verity’s emotions in a fervent manner, Streader still managed to maintain control of her performance. For me, Townsend’s finest moments occurred throughout Episode Four. From the moment Ross suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for good, Townsend conveyed Elizabeth’s emotional journey throughout this episode – from surprise to hopeful to desperation, relief, happiness, disbelief, anger and finally bittersweet disappointment. I may not have approved the producers’ decision to include a scene featuring Demelza’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s decision to leave Francis. But dammit, Townsend acted her ass off and gave the best performance from the entire cast during this particular sequence. One of her best scenes featured a one-on-one conversation with Streader’s Verity.

I have seen actor Robin Ellis in other movie and television productions, including 1971’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and 1981’s “THE GOOD SOLDIER”. If I were to pick his best roles, I would choose two – the passive aggressive American John Dowell in “THE GOOD SOLDIER” and of course, Ross Poldark. The producers of the series selected the right actor to portray the volatile war veteran-turned-mine owner from Graham’s saga. He is Ross Poldark . . . of the 1970s that is. Granted, Ellis had his moments of theatrical acting. There were times during the first four episodes in which I had to turn down my television volume. But despite this, I thought he did an excellent job in capturing all aspects – both good and bad – of his character’s personality. Two scenes featuring his performance caught my attention. Ellis seemed a bit scary and intense when he expressed Ross’ reaction to being rejected by Elizabeth Chynoweth in Episode One. And I thought he gave a poignant performance in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross.

There you have it . . . my impression of the first four episodes from the 1975 series, “POLDARK”. So far, this adaptation of the first novel in Winston Graham’s literary series had its share of flaws. But I feel that its virtues overshadowed the former. In fact, I found myself so captivated by Episodes One to Four that I feel more than ready to continue this saga. Onward to Episode Five!

 

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

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“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. 

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.

Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.

And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.

Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR” screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of “THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unnecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by Lee.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unnecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.

 

“THE GLASS KEY” (1935) Review

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“THE GLASS KEY” (1935) Review

Years ago, I watched the 1942 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930-31 novel called “The Glass Key”. At the time, I had no idea that there had been a previous adaptation. Then I stumbled across one – produced and released by the same movie studio, Paramount Pictures, back in 1935. 

“THE GLASS KEY” told the story of Ed Beaumont, a gambler and the brainy aide of a crooked political boss named Paul Madvig. The latter plans to support the political campaign of the corrupt Senator John T. Henry and marry the latter’s daughter Janet. Unfortunately, the senator’s son, Taylor Henry, is a gambling addict who is in debt to a gangster named Shad O’Rory, a gangster whose club Paul intends to put out of business. Also, Taylor has been romancing Paul’s younger sister, Opal Madvig, much to the political boss’ dismay. When Ed finds Taylor’s dead body not far from Paul’s home, everyone begins to suspect him of murder. Ed begins an investigation to discover Taylor’s true killer, much to the displeasure of not only O’Rory, but also the Henry family and Paul.

I have read a few reviews of “THE GLASS KEY”. Most of the reviews seemed to be of the opinion that it is more of a film noir than the 1942 version. To be honest, I did not make a big deal of trying to determine how much of a noir movie it was. I was too busy trying to maintain my interest in the story. What can I say? The plot seemed pretty damn good. And screenwriters Kathryn Scola and Kubec Glascom, along with dialogue scribe Harry Ruskin did a very solid job of adapting Hammett’s novel. Sure, they made a few nips and tucks in the narrative. But overall, I had no real problems with the story. 

The performances in “THE GLASS KEY” struck me as pretty solid. I thought the most memorable performances came from Edward Arnold as political boss Paul Madvig, Claire Dodd as Janet Henry, Guinn Williams as the O’Rory thug Jeff, and Ray Milland as the privileged and weak senator’s son, Paul Henry. All gave very interesting performances. Rosalind Keith, Charles Richman and Robert Glecker also gave solid performances as Opal Madvig, Senator Henry and Shad O’Rory. One would notice that I have not said anything about lead actor George Raft. Before one assumes that I have a low opinion of his performance . . . I do not. I thought he did a pretty solid job, even if there were moments he came off as slightly wooden. He certainly did a pretty good job in carrying the film.

So, if I had no problems with the movie’s narrative and the acting . . . why did I find it so difficult to maintain my interesting in the film? I have to lay most of the blame on director Frank Tuttle. I found his direction of the film rather dull and lifeless. Boring. It is a miracle that the cast managed to rise above his insipid direction. In fact, I find it a crime that a director could make a movie with a first-rate narrative and an eighty minute running time so dull and slow. Even the famous scene in which Ed Beaumont suffered a beating at the hands of Jeff the Thug came off as slightly dull.

Another problem I had with “THE GLASS KEY” proved to be its production values. Just because a movie has been labeled as a film noir does not mean I had to spend most of the film trying to make out the shapes and figures on the screen. There were plenty of moments when I could barely make out the images on the screen, due to Henry Sharp’s photography. I found it incredibly dark at times. Sharp’s dim photography was not helped by Hans Dreier and A. Earl Hedrick’s art direction for this film. I was less than impressed by the film’s production designs and art direction. The entire film looked as if it had been produced as an off-Broadway stage play. I have seen Warner Brothers B-movies released three or four years earlier that looked more prestigious. When one combines dark photography with less-than-mediocre production designs, well . . . it does not look good for a movie based upon a first-rate novel by Dashiell Hammett.

“THE GLASS KEY” had plenty of virtues to offer – solid and excellent acting from a cast led by George Raft, and first-rate adaptation of Hammett’s novel. It seems a pity that those virtues seemed wasted by the movie’s mediocre production values, a slow pacing and limpid direction by Frank Tuttle. Oh well. It has been years since I saw the 1942 version of Hammett’s story. It would be interesting to see how it fares in compare to this film.

 

“WESTWARD HO”: Introduction

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Below is the introduction to an article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in the United States – especially during the 1840s: 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Introduction 

I. History vs. Hollywood

Between 2001 and 2004, the A&E Channel used to air a series called “HISTORY vs. HOLLYWOOD”. Each episode featured experts that were interviewed about the historical accuracy of a film or television special that was based on a historical event. These experts or historians would examine a newly released film – usually a period drama – and comment on the historical accuracy featured in the story. Not surprisingly, most productions would receive a verdict of “both Hollywood fiction and historical fact”.

A rising demand for more historical accuracy seemed to have become very prevalent in recent years. I cannot explain this demand. And if I must be honest, I do not know if I would always agree. If such accuracy ever got in the way of a whopping good story, I believe it should be tossed in favor of the story. Many of William Shakespeare’s dramas have proven to be historically inaccurate. I can think of a good number of well-regarded productions that I would never consider to be completely accurate as far as history is concerned – “GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939)“GLORY” (1989)“ENIGMA” (2001) and “THE TUDORS” (2007-2010).

All of this brings me to this article’s main topic – namely the depiction of the 19th century western migration in various movies and television productions. I thought it would be interesting to examine five productions and see how they compare to historical accuracy. I will focus upon two movies and three television miniseries:

*“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

*“THE WAY WEST” (1967)

*“CENTENNIAL: The Wagon and the Elephant” [Episode 3] (1978-79)

*“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

*“INTO THE WEST: Manifest Destiny” [Episode 2] (2005)

II. The Essentials of Western Travel

Before I start making comparisons, I might as well focus on the correct essentials needed by westbound emigrants during their trek to either Oregon, California or other destinations. The essentials are the following:

1. Farm wagon/Prairie schooner vs. Conestoga wagon – The Conestoga wagon is well-known among those who study American history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a heavy, broad-wheeled covered wagon used extensively during that period in the United States east of the Mississippi River and Canada to transport goods up to 8 tons. It was designed to resemble a boat in order to help it cross rivers and streams. 

However, the Conestoga wagon was considered too large and bulky for the 2,000 miles journey between Western Missouri and the West Coast – especially for the teams of stock pulling the wagon. It was highly recommended for emigrants to use regular farm wagons. The farm wagon was primarily used to transport goods. However, small children, the elderly, and the sick/or injured rode in them. But since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they had horses to ride. The wagon – depending on luck – was sturdy enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 westbound trek. More importantly, the wagon would not wear down the team of animals pulling it.

2. Draft animals – The westbound emigrants depended upon draft animals to haul their wagons for the long trek. Horses were out of the questions. A single rider could travel to Oregon or California astride a horse. But horses were not sturdy enough for the 2,000 miles trek and would die before reaching the end of the journey. It was recommended that emigrants use oxen or mules to pull their wagons.

Both oxen and mules were considered sturdy enough for the long trek. However, most would recommend oxen to haul a wagon, for they were cheaper and could survive slightly better on the grazing found along the trails. Mules could do the same, but at a lesser rate. But they were more expensive than oxen. They had a tendency to be temperamental. And they were more inclined to attract the attention of Native Americans.

3. Supplies and Goods – It was very essential for emigrants to haul supplies and goods during their long, westward trek. Upon leaving Independence, Missouri; there were very little opportunities to purchase food and supplies. The only locations that offered such opportunities to purchase more goods were a small number of trading and military outposts along the western trails. However, many emigrants attempted to bring along furniture, family heirlooms and other valuable possessions. They realized it was wiser to rid said possessions in order to lighten their wagon loads. And this would explain why these discarded possessions practically littered the major emigrant trails during the second half of the 19th century.

4. Western Outposts – As I had stated earlier, westbound emigrants encountered very little opportunities to re-stock on supplies during their journey west. Only a series of trading or military outposts on the western plains offered emigrants opportunities for more supplies. Emigrants encountered Fort Laramie (present day eastern Wyoming), Fort Hall (present day Idaho) and Fort Laramie after 1848 (present day Nebraska) along the Oregon/California Trails. Along the Santa Fe Trail, they would eventually encounter Fort Leavenworth (present day northeastern Kansas). Fort Bent (present day southeastern Colorado) and eventually Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.

5. Native American Encounters – The portrayal of emigrants’ encounters with Native Americans during the western trek could either be chalked up to Hollywood exaggeration, American racism or a mixture of both. But many movie and television productions about the western migration tend to feature large scale attacks upon wagon trains by Native American warriors. One, such attacks never happened – at least as far as I know. The various nations and tribes possessed too much sense to attack a wagon train that was likely to be well-armed. And the number of Native Americans portrayed in these cinematic attacks tend to be ridiculously large. A small band of warriors might be inclined to steal some horses or stock in the middle of the night, or attack a lone wagon traveling on the plains for the same reason. However, westbound emigrants either socialized or traded with the Native Americans they encountered. Or perhaps some trigger-happy emigrant or more might be inclined to take pot shots at a lone rider or two. But large scale attacks by Native Americans ended up being figments of a filmmaker’s imagination.

In the following article, I will focus upon the history accuracy or lack thereof featured in 1962’s “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

From a certain point of view, I find it hard to believe that the 1980 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” has become the most critically acclaimed STAR WARS movie by the franchise’s fans. And I find it hard to believe, due to the film’s original box office performance. 

I was also surprised that “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was released in the first place. Despite the ambiguous nature of villain Darth Vader’s fate in the 1977 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, I had assumed that film’s happy ending meant the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends was over. But my assumption proved to be wrong three years later. Many other filmgoers and critics also expressed surprise at the release of a second STAR WARS movie. More importantly, a surprising revelation and an ending with a cliffhanger resulted in a smaller box office for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” than either “A NEW HOPE” or the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Yet, thirty-three years later, the movie is now viewed as the most critically acclaimed – not just among the first three movies, but also among those released between 1999 and 2005.

“THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” begins three years following the events of ” A NEW HOPE”. Despite the Rebel Alliance’s major victory above the planet of Yavin and the destruction of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, the rebellion continues to rage on. Luke Skywalker, now a wing commander at the Rebels’ base on Hoth, patrols beyond the base’s perimenter with close friend and former smuggler Han Solo. After the latter returns to base, Luke is attacked by a wampa and dragged into the latter’s cave. Meanwhile, Han receives word from Princess Leia, one of the Rebel leaders and a friend of both men, that Luke has not returned. He leaves the base to find Luke, while the latter manages to escape from the wampa’s lair. Luke stumbles into a snowstorm and before losing consciousness, receives a message from the Force spirit of his late mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to seek out another Jedi named Yoda on Dagobah for further training. Han eventually finds Luke before a Rebel patrol finds them both. 

While Luke recovers from his ordeal, Leia and General Rieekan learn from Han and his Wookie companion Chewbacca have discovered an Imperial probe. They surmise that Imperial forces know the location of their base and might be on their way. The Rebel Alliance forces prepare to evacuate Hoth. But an Imperial presence on the planet served as a bigger problem for the heroes. Unbeknownst to them, Darth Vader seeks out Luke, following his discovery of the young man’s connection to the Force three years ago. Although the three friends will separate for a period of time and experience adventures of their own, Lord Vader’s hunt for Luke will result in great danger and a surprising revelation in the end.

I once came across a post on the TheForce.net – Jedi Council Forums message board that complained of the lack of a main narrative for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me could understand why this person reached such an opinion. Despite the circumstances on Hoth and the finale on the Bespin mining colony, our heroes barely spent any time together. Following the Rebel Alliance’s defeat on Hoth, Luke and R2-D2 traveled to Dagobah, where the former continued his Jedi training under Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca helped Leia and C3-P0 evade Darth Vader and Imperial forces on Hoth and in space before seeking refuge on Bespin. I believe this person failed to realize that other than Luke’s Jedi training with Yoda, most of the movie’s narrative centered on Vader’s attempts to capture Luke – the Imperial invasion of Hoth, his pursuit of Han and Leia aboard the Millennium Falcon, and their subsequent capture on Bespin. Even Luke’s Jedi training was interrupted by visions of his friends in danger and journeyed into the trap set by Vader. And this is why I found it hard to accept this complaint about “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”.

Most fans tend to regard the movie as perfect or near perfect. Despite my feelings for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I cannot agree with this view. I believe that the movie has its flaws. One could find cheesy dialogue in the movie, especially from Darth Vader. He possessed an annoying penchant for constantly using the phrase “It is your destiny” in the movie’s last half hour. Some of Leia and Han’s “romantic dialogue” in the movie’s first half struck me as somewhat childish and pedantic. Speaking of those two – how did they end up attracted to each other in the first place? “A NEW HOPE” ended with Han making a brief pass at Leia during the medal ceremony. But she seemed to regard him as a mere annoyance and nothing else. Three years later, both are exchanging longing glances and engaging in verbal foreplay at least ten to fifteen minutes into the story. I would have allowed this to slide if a novel or comic story had explained this sudden shift toward romance between them. But no such publication exists, as far as I know. This little romance seemed to have developed out of the blue.

There were other problems. The movie never explained the reason behind Leia’s presence at the Rebels’ Hoth base. She was, after all, a political leader; not a military one. The base already possessed a more than competent military leader in the form of General Rieekan. Watching Leia give orders to the pilots during the base’s evacuation made me realize that she really had no business interfering in the Rebels’ military protocol. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” also failed to explain why Han was being hunted by Jabba the Hutt after three years. I thought the payment he had received for delivering Leia and the Death Star plans to Yavin was enough to settle his debt to the Tattooine gangster. Apparently not. And the movie failed to explain why. Perhaps there is a STAR WARS that offered an explanation. I hope so. For years, I never understood the symbolism behind Luke’s experiences inside the Dagobah cave during his Jedi training. And I am not sure if I still do. Finally, how long did Luke’s training on Dagobah last? And how long did it take the Millennium Falcon to reach Bespin with a broken hyperdrive? LucasFilm eventually revealed that both incidents took at least three months. If so, why did the movie failed to convey this particular time span?

Thankfully, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” more than rose above its flaws. For me, it is still one of the best science-fiction adventure films I have ever seen. I am amazed that such a complex tale arose from two simple premises – Darth Vader’s hunt for Luke Skywalker and the continuation of the latter’s Jedi training. From these simple premises, audiences were exposed to a richly detailed and action-filled narrative, thanks to George Lucas’ story, Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (which was also credited to Leigh Brackett) and Irvin Kershner’s direction. The movie featured many exciting sequences and dramatic moments that simply enthralled me. Among my favorite action sequences were the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Hoth, Yoda’s introduction, Han’s seduction of Leia inside the giant asteroid worm, the Falcon’s escape from the worm. For me, the movie’s best sequence proved to be the last – namely those scenes on the mining colony of Bespin. I would compare this last act in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” to the Death Star sequence in “A NEW HOPE” or the Mos Espa podrace sequence in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. The Bespin sequence featured a few truly iconic moments. Well . . . if I must be honest, I would say that it featured two iconic moments – Han’s response to Leia’s declaration of love and Darth Vader’s revelation of his true identity.

Naturally, one cannot discuss a STAR WARS movie without mentioning its technical aspects. In my review of “A NEW HOPE”, I had failed to mention Ben Burtt’s outstanding sound effects. I will add that his work in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” proved to be equally outstanding. I could also say the same for the movie’s sound mixing, which earned Academy Awards for Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Greg Landaker, and Peter Sutton. Composer John Williams’ additions to his famous STAR WARS score were not only outstanding, but earned him an Academy Award nomination. Those additions included a love theme for the Leia/Han romance and the memorable “Imperial March”, which is also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme” As far as I am concerned, the tune might as well be known as the Sith Order’s theme song. The team of Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson did an outstanding job with the movie’s visual effects – especially for the Battle of Hoth sequence. I can also say the same for Peter Suschitzky’s photography. However, my favorite cinematic moment turned out to be Luke’s initial encounter with Darth Vader on Bespin. Even to this day, I experience a chill whenever I see that moment when they meet face-to-face for the first time. Although John Mollo’s costumes caught Hollywood’s attention after “A NEW HOPE” was first released (he won an Oscar for his effort), his costumes for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” seemed like a continuation of the same. In fact, I found the costumes somewhat on the conservative side, even if they blended well with the story.

It is interesting that the performances of both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher garnered most of the attention when “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” first came out. The Leia/Han romance was very popular with fans. Mind you, both gave very good performances. But I believe that Mark Hamill acted circles around them. And not surprising, he won a Saturn Award for his performance as Luke Skywalker in this film. Billy Dee Williams also gave a first-rate performance as the roguish smuggler-turned-administrator, whose charming persona hid a desperation to do anything to save the inhabitants of Bespin from Imperial annihilation. James Earl Jones and David Prowse continued their outstanding portrayal of Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker, with one serving as the voice and the other, the physical embodiment of the Sith Lord. Julian Glover, who later appeared in “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” made a brief appearance as the commander of the Imperial walkers, General Veers. Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew continued their excellent work as C3-P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. But I was particularly impressed by Frank Oz’s voice work as the veteran Jedi Master Yoda, and Kenneth Colley as the Imperial Admiral Piett, whose cautious and competency led him to rise in the ranks and avoid Vader’s wrath for any incompetence.

Is “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” my favorite STAR WARS movie of all time? Almost. Not quite. For me, it is tied in first place with one other movie from the franchise. But after thirty-seven years and in spite of its flaws, I still love it. And I have give credit to not only the talented cast and crew, but also director Irwin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and especially the man behind all of this talent, George Lucas.

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

 

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

When I first heard that another movie based upon the Marvel Comics character – Bruce Banner/the Hulk – would hit the theaters soon, the word in both Hollywood and on the Internet was that it would be better than the 2003 film directed by Ang Lee, namely “THE HULK”. After watching “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” for the umpteenth time, I decided to write about whether the film had surpassed the 2003 movie. 

The first film that starred Eric Bana as Bruce Banner ended with the main character in South America, providing medical services to impoverished local citizens. This movie, in which Edward Norton takes up the role, picks up with Bruce in South America – namely Brazil. Only he is working as a day laborer at a soft drink factory in Rio de Janeiro, while at the same time seeking a cure to get rid of the Hulk within him with the help of an internet friend. At the same time, he is being pursued by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and a Russian-born, British Royal Marine on loan to the U.S. Army named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).

There are some changes in which director Louis Leterrier, screenwriters Zak Penn and an uncredited Edward Norton made changes. One, aside from Brazil and Mexico, the movie is mainly set on the East Coast – suburban Virginia and New York City; whereas the 2003 version was set in San Francisco, Berkeley and Nevada. The movie’s opening credits showed the origins of the Hulk, which had nothing to do with the 2003 story. In the 2008 version, Bruce and Betty were assisting General Ross in an experiment to create “the Perfect Soldier”. Only Bruce became exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment and injured and/or killed a number of people, including Betty. In the 2003 movie, Bruce unwittingly became the subject of his father’s DNA research not long after his birth. His altered DNA is exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment as an adult, and the Hulk is born. And of course, there are different actors in the major roles.

Naturally, Edward Norton did a great job portraying Bruce Banner. He managed to capture all the pathos, desperation and anger of the fugitive scientist/comic book hero. He managed to put his personal stamp on the role just as Bana had done, five years before. At first I had a hard time accepting Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, Bruce’s love and former colleague. She did not seem as effective as Jennifer Connelly in projecting Betty’s emotional personality. And I found it slightly hard to believe that she was a scientist. But she eventually grew into the role. I must admit that I have to say the same about William Hurt as General Thaddeus Ross. There were times when it seemed that Hurt was trying too hard to portray Ross’ obsessive and hostile personality. To be perfectly frank, he lacked Sam Elliot’s natural intensity. But he eventually did a good job. Tim Roth had no such problems. I thought he was perfect as Emil Blonsky, the Royal Marine determined to take down Bruce/the Hulk in any way. It really came as no surprise when he was willing to become a subject of another one of Ross’ Perfect Soldiers. And finally there is Tim Blake Nelson, who portrayed Dr. Samuel Stern, an eccentric scientist and Internet ally of Bruce, who becomes infatuated with the potential power of Gamma radiation, after he witnesses Bruce’s transformation. Although a little over-the-top at times, Nelson does a good job in portraying Sterns’ eccentric nature.

Do I believe that this new version of the Hulk is better than the 2003 version? Honestly? NO. And my family feels the same. I had expected this version to be better and was slightly disappointed that it failed to live up to the hype. At least for me. I wish that Marvel Films and Universal Pictures had allowed this film to simply be a sequel to the 2003 film. Instead, they tried to reboot the saga by changing the story of the Hulk’s origins from what was joined in the previous film. I feel that the story involving Bruce’s father gave the Hulk a special angst factor that the 2008 film lacked. Now, some people have claimed that the 2003 film had too much angst. We are talking about the Incredible Hulk that is a major character from Marvel Comics. Angst is Marvel’s middle name. And most of its movies – especially those focusing upon Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have angst up the yahoo. This movie is a little more action oriented than the 2003 movie. Actually, I feel that it is more action oriented than “IRON MAN”, another 2008 Marvel film. But I do not believe that the presence of more action made this movie better than the 2003 movie or “IRON MAN”.

I really had a problem with the story’s finale. Granted, I was not fond of Bruce’s showdown with his father in the 2003 film. It came off as too vague for me. Although the Hulk/Abomination showdown was less vague in this film, I was not that impressed by it. The fight came off as too crude for my tastes. But the really problem is that the movie ended on a vague note. Perhaps this was Leterrier, Penn and Norton’s way of saying that the saga will continue. I think it could have been written better. The movie made it clear that it only defeated and not killed Abomination, but what later happened to Blonsky? Did he end up as Ross’ prisoner? Did the Army general really believe he could control Abomination? And those familiar with the Hulk comic saga knows that Sterns, who was exposed to Bruce’s blood in a confrontation with Blonsky, eventually became another one of the Hulk’s comic nemesis, the Leader. Unfortunately, not everyone would know this and the movie’s script makes this hint rather vague. It is almost as if the writers and the directors were afraid to give the story a more solid ending – like “IRON MAN” or even “THE HULK”. Not even the last shot of Bruce with a Norman Bates-style grin on his face or Robert Downey Jr’s cameo appearance as Tony Stark could really stave off my disappointment over the ending.

Despite the ending, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” is a damn good movie . . . one that Marvel Films could be proud of. But the vague ending and my initial problems with Tyler and Hurt make it impossible for me to accept the prevailing view that it is better than 2003’s “THE HULK”.