“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

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TIME MACHINE: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

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TIME MACHINE: THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE

For once I decided to write about a historical event that is not celebrating any particular anniversary.  Two months from now, September 2018, would mark as the 160th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.  Why I did not wait until September to post this article?  I have no idea.  Impatience, perhaps? 

Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Antebellum or Civil War history would know about this even.  The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a key event in the history of the American abolitionist movement before the Civil War. It centered around the arrest of an escaped slave named John Price in Oberlin, Ohio by Kentucky slave catchers and a U.S. marshal, two-and-a-half years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This story began over two years before the incident. Back in January 1856, Price and two other slaves escaped from a farm near Maysville, Kentucky. The three slaves made their way across the Ohio River, and with the help of Underground Railroad agents, they made it as far north as Oberlin, Ohio. The latter proved to be a racially integrated, liberal-minded community that served as the location of Oberlin College, a liberal arts college known for accepting both non-white and female students. Despite the presence of some conservative citizens, Oberlin was known for its strong support of the abolitionist movement. While his two companions continued north to Canada, Price decided to remain in the Ohio town, due to his poor health.

The fugitive slave spent the next two-and-a-half years struggling to make a living in Oberlin. But due to his limited skills as a farmhand, he found it difficult to make ends meet. On September 13, 1858, Price was hired by affluent farmer Lewis Boynton to work on the latter’s farm, just north of Oberlin. Boynton’s adolescent son, Shakespeare, picked up Price drove him out of town, with the intent to deliver the latter to his father’s farm by noon. Unbeknownst to Price, young Shakespeare had made a deal to deliver the fugitive to a pair of Kentucky slave catchers and a deputy U.S. marshal – Samuel Davis, Richard Mitchell and Jacob Lowe. The buggy conveying the three white men and the black fugitive swung south and headed for nearby Wellington, Ohio; where they would be able to catch a train further south to Columbus. Unfortunately for the two Kentuckians and Deputy Marshal Lowe, two Oberlin College students named Ansel Lyman and Seth Bartholomew passed them on the road. Once the two students reached Oberlin, they alerted the town’s citizens to Price’s kidnapping. Meanwhile, the slave catchers, Lowe and Price checked into a room at the Wadsworth Hotel to await for the southbound train.

Many Oberlin citizens formed a group and rushed toward Wellington to rescue Price. Among those part of the rescuers were Charles Henry Langston, Simeon E. Bushnell, and Oberlin student William E. Lincoln. Once they reached the other town around two o’clock in the afternoon, they were joined by some of Wellington’s citizens, who also harbored anti-slavery sentiments. The group formed into a mob and tried to coerce the slave catchers and the deputy marshal to release Price through intimidation and threats of violence. Davis, Mitchell and Lowe took Price to the hotel’s attic for safety. Langston and three others tried to free Price, via legal actions – the arrest of the slave catchers for kidnapping and a habeus corpus. Those efforts failed as well. Eventually, Lincoln, along with John Copeland, Jr. and Jerry Fox rushed the attic using force and firearms, grabbed Price and spirited him back to Oberlin, where they hid him inside the home of James Harris Fairchild, a future president of Oberlin College. Soon, Price’s rescuers escorted him to Canada.

A Federal grand jury indicted 37 members of the rescue party, including Langston, Lincoln, Bushnell and Copeland for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Bushnell and Langston were the only ones tried in court. Both were found guilty and convicted by a jury that consisted solely of pro-slavery Democrats. Bushnell was sentenced to sixty (60) days in prison and Langston, twenty (20) days. Their fellow prisoners continued to languish in the Cuyahoga County Jail. The two Kentucky slave catchers – Richard Mitchell and Samuel Davis – were arrested for Price’s kidnapping. In return for the charges against them being dropped, the Federal government chose to drop the charges against the rest of the rescuers. The entire event had attracted more notice than the James Buchanan Administration wanted. Even worse, the Federal attorneys realized that a trial for all of the Rescuers would cost the government at least $5 million dollars. After serving eighty-five (85) days in jail, the Rescuers (with the exception of Bushnell, who continued to serve out his 60-day sentence) were released on July 7, 1859. Bushnell was finally released on July 11, 1859.

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is considered by historians as an important contribution to the outbreak of the Civil War . . . along with John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and the Presidential Election of 1860. Two participants in the Oberlin–Wellington Rescue, Lewis Sheridan Leary and John A. Copeland participated in the Harper Ferry’s Raid. Leary was killed and Copeland was captured and later, executed. The Rescue attracted a great deal of attention in the National press. And after a decade that featured the passing of the Fugitive Slaw Law of 1850, the passing of Senator Stephen A. Douglas‘s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case; the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue proved to be the first breath of fresh air for the abolitionist cause.

For more information on the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, read the following book:

*“The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt

*“1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” [one chapter] by Bruce Chadwick

“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

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“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

I might as well be frank. After my recent viewing of “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, I have come to the conclusion that it just might truly be the worst Bond movie ever released by EON Productions. I certainly view it as an unworthy follow-up to the superb “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Yet, despite my low opinion of the movie, I also found it to be very funny. 

The movie’s pre-credits started the movie out with a montage featuring Bond’s search for Ernst Stravos Blofeld, head of SPECTRE and the man responsible for the brutal murder of the agent’s wife of a few hours, Teresa Bond. And yet . . . the movie had never clearly stated that Bond wanted revenge for his wife’s death. Rather curious. I suppose that Broccoli and Saltzman wanted the audience to forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” . . . and at the same time, remember that Bond had a reason to seek revenge against Blofeld. The movie eventually unfolded a tale featuring a diamond smuggling operation from South Africa to Amsterdam and finally to Las Vegas. Apparently, the operation seemed to becoming to an end, since two assassins – the very funny Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith – seemed to be killing every courier/link that formed the smuggling ring. Her Majesty’s government, worried that the stability of the diamond market might be threatened if all the hoarded diamonds are released at the same time, ordered MI-6 to investigate. M assigned Bond to investigate the matter. At first, the British agent (along with diamond smuggler Tiffany Case, Felix Leiter and the CIA) discovered that a reclusive American millionaire named Willard Whyte might be behind the smuggling operation and the murders. But this proves to be a red herring and Bond finally realized that Blofeld (whom he thought he had killed in the pre-credit sequence) had taken control of Whyte’s business operation to use the diamonds to create a satellite with a powerful laser on board in order to blackmail the world. And of course, Bond destroyed Blofeld’s operation before the villain could blow up Washington D.C.

What is it about “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” that made it such a terrible Bond movie? One of the main culprits had to be Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay. Their first mistake came in the form of Bond’s search for Ernst Stravo Blofeld in the movie’s pre-credit sequence. It all seemed so vague . . . almost pointless. In fact, it seemed as if the screenwriters and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had been torn between a desire to make fans forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”’s tragic ending and a fear that those same fans might not forget. Which would explain why the movie’s opening found Bond traveling from one location to another in search of Blofeld. He even managed to nearly strangle one contact with her bikini top, titillating certain fans of the franchise. Yet, not once did Bond ever mention his late bride or her murder – obviously the main reason behind his search for SPECTRE’s leader. I could not help but conclude that the entire sequence was nothing but a cop-out.

And the story had failed to improve following the opening credits. I never could understand why Her Majesty’s government had deemed it necessary for MI-6 to investigate a diamond smuggling operation. Why not seek the assistance of an agency like Interpol or something? And why would the CIA be interested in such a case? Both MI-6 and CIA’s interest all came about before the revelation of Blofeld using the diamonds to create a weapon to extort the major superpowers. And I never could understand this.

Bond’s investigation took him to Amsterdam, impersonating one of the links in the smuggling operation – Peter Franks. From this point forward, a serious of implausible moments appeared in the story. After a fight with the real Peter Franks, who had appeared at Tiffany Case’s Amsterdam apartment, Bond planted his own wallet in the dead smuggler’s jacket. Tiffany discovered the wallet and expressed dismay at the idea of someone killing ‘James Bond’. Could someone please explain how a diamond smuggler would know about a MI-6 government agent, yet have no knowledge of Blofeld or the fact that he had been her actual boss? And there are more implausible moments to follow:

-After Mr. Slumber prevented Bond from being incinerated, Bond accused him and Shady Tree of giving him bad money (they saved him, because he had switched the real diamonds for fakes). Yet, he pocketed the ’bad money’and used it at one of the Vegas hotel/casinos.

-Bond and Tiffany found dead prostitute Plenty O’Toole in the latter’s Vegas swimming pool. Apparently, there had been a scene in which Plenty (who had been dumped out of Bond’s hotel room and into a swimming pool by gangsters working for Tiffany) had returned to Bond’s room and found Tiffany’s purse. If this is true, I can see why this scene had been cut, because it lacked sense. But why had EON Productions failed to cut the scene featuring the discovery of Plenty’s body, as well?

-The stunt featuring Bond’s two-wheeler driving of Tiffany’s Red Mustang through a narrow alley seemed . . . questionable.

-Why on earth did Bond bother to wear a tuxedo in order to break into Willard Whyte’s penthouse?

-Since Blofeld had left instructions to Bond (impersonating as SPECTRE minion, Burt Saxby’s voice) over the telephone to kill Willard Whyte, how did Saxby learn of the assignment in order to appear at Whyte’s house to do the job?

-Why would Tiffany be suspicious of a Blofeld in drag and tail him, when she never knew how he looked in the first place? And I doubt that she knew about the cat.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s script had ended in a rather disappointing showdown on a SPECTRE-controlled oil rig off Baja California. Come to think of it, Blofeld’s “death” and Bond’s showdown with Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd seemed equally lame.

The movie had also marked Sean Connery’s last appearance as the agent in an EON Productions’ Bond film. He returned following George Lazenby’s decision not to continue with the Bond role. Granted, Connery’s performance had its moments. He seemed to be at his funniest in this movie, displaying a true flair for comedy. And his elevator fight with Joe Robinson (portraying Peter Franks0 made it apparent that he had not lost his touch with action films, following a four-year hiatus from the Bond franchise. And yet . . . I could not help but wish that Lazenby had continued his tenure as James Bond, following “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Perhaps the Australian’s presence could have guaranteed a more serious follow-up to Tracy Bond’s death. Then again . . . perhaps not. And despite Connery’s comedic touch, he seemed to have lost some of the fire that had made his earlier performances as Bond so memorable. In fact, he seemed to have sailed through the entire movie without any true depth.

There seemed to be a split opinion amongst fans regarding Jill St. John’s performance as smuggler Tiffany Case. Some viewed the red-haired Tiffany as a funny, smart and sassy woman. Others regarded her as nothing more than a bubble-headed bimbo. Personally, I agree with both views. I liked St. John’s sharp portrayal of Tiffany in the movie’s first hour or so. She portrayed the smuggler as a sharp-tongued woman who was shrewd enough to keep Bond’s paws off of her, until she needed him for her advantage. And she helped Bond infiltrate Willard Whyte’s desert laboratory. But once Blofeld was revealed to be alive, Tiffany became this idiot bimbo who allowed herself to get caught by Blofeld; and who helped Bond on the oil rig and later against Wint and Kidd with great ineptitude. Her character seemed to have lost its steam by the movie’s last half-hour.

Charles Gray, who had been last seen as a murdered MI-6 agent in “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE”, became the third actor to portray SPECTRE leader Ernst Blofeld on screen. I have to give points to the British actor for being the wittiest villain in the franchise’s history. Although he had spent most of his on-screen time in the movie’s second half, more witticism streamed out of Gray’s mouth than any other actor or actress. And as funny as he was, this abundance of witticism had also lessened his impact as a villain, I am sorry to say. This seemed rather odd for an actor like Gray, who has proven to be more intimidating in other roles.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s supporting cast had seemed at best, a mixed blessing. Not many Bond fans have been impressed by Norman Burton’s gruff performance as CIA agent Felix Leiter. Frankly, I found his gruffness rather amusing and witty . . . in a deliciously acidic way. Speaking of gruffness, Bernard Lee seemed downright acerbic and hostile during his brief appearance as M. Neither Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn as Moneypenny and Q, respectively, came off as memorable in this movie.

Marc Lawrence and Sig Haig had portrayed two of the gangsters who popped up during Bond’s first day in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, they came off as movie gangsters from a 30s crime melodrama, instead of modern day thugs. Donna Garratt and Trina Parks portrayed Willard Whyte’s bodyguards, Bambi and Thumper. I must admit that they were memorable, although Ms. Parks had struck me as a bit of a drama queen. Lana Wood (Natalie Wood’s younger sister) portrayed the unfortunate Plenty O’Toole. And honestly? I now feel that Ms. Wood was one of THE WORST actresses to appear in a Bond movie. Okay, make that the second worst. I consider Marguerite Le Wars, the actress who played the photographer in “DR. NO” to be the worst.

Speaking of bad acting, who on earth had the bright idea to cast Country-Western singer, Jimmy Dean, as Willard Whyte? No wonder he had never pursued a movie career. Dean must have been the biggest ham in the movie, considering his tendency to bellow nearly every word that came out of his mouth. Hollywood star Bruce Cabot (“KING KONG” [1933]) seemed like a waste of time in his role as Blofeld minion, Burt Saxby. What a shame, especially since “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” was his last film. The movie’s bright spot came in the forms of Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as Blofeld’s assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. Glover and Smith portrayed these two hitmen (and possible lovers?) with wit, style and a delicious touch of menace. It seemed a shame that they were killed off in one of the lamest action sequences of any Bond film.

I am trying to think of a Bond movie directed by Guy Hamilton that has really impressed me. So far, I cannot think of one.“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” is certainly not that movie. Granted, it has its bright points – the witty humor, a sassy Tiffany Case in the film’s first half, a great fight scene between Connery and Robinson; along with Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. I would also like to add that I also enjoyed the film’s musical score by John Barry and the theme song, performed by Shirley Bassey. Granted, the song lacked the excitement and brashness of “GOLDFINGER” and the lyrical beauty of “MOONRAKER”, but I still managed to enjoy it. But considering some of the second-rate performances found in this movie, along with poor editing and piss poor writing by Maibaum and Mankiewicz, “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” strikes me as being the complete nadir of the Bond franchise. And that is saying something about a movie that I still enjoy watching . . . much to my continuing surprise.

 

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

The last episode, ”Replacements” saw Easy Company reeling from the Allies’ disastrous defeat during the Operation Market Garden campaign in Holland. Directed by Tom Hanks, this latest episode depicted Richard Winters’ last combat engagement as the company’s commander, Operation Pegasus, and the company’s departure for Belguim as they prepare to participate in the Bastogne campaign. 

At the beginning of the aptly named ”Crossroads”; Winters, now the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion of 506th regiment, recounts his last combat mission as commander of Easy Company in a report for regimental headquarters that took place at a crossroads, near a dike in Holland. In the aftermath of the battle, Winters is informed that he has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel Strayer’s executive officer, leaving Easy without a commander. However, a new man – Frederick Theodore “Moose” Heyliger – becomes Easy’s new commander and leads them in Operation Pegasus, a military mission to escort a large number of British paratroopers trapped behind enemy lines, following the failure of Market Garden. Unfortunately, about a week later, Lieutenant Heyliger is seriously wounded by an American sentry and Easy ends up with a new commander named Norman Dike. Unlike Winters and Heyliger, Easy Company has no respect for their new leader and nicknames him ”Foxhole Norman”.

Not long after Dike becomes Easy’s new commander, a reluctant Winters is ordered to spend a few days of furlough in Paris. During his furlough, Winters is haunted by a moment when he killed a teenaged German soldier during the crossroads battle. Not long after his return to the regiment, the 101st Airborne learns about the German counterattack near Bastogne and is sent to Belgium to repel it. The episode ends with Easy company marching into the Belgian forest in the middle of the night, with minimum supplies and inadequate clothing.

I have always liked ”Crossroads” . . . despite itself. I cannot put my finger on it. Perhaps my feelings about the episode have to do with how Hanks directed the battle fought at the crossroads. He injected a great deal of style into that very moment that featured Winters leading a charge against S.S. troops at the crossroads. I also enjoyed Damian Lewis’ performance during the Paris furlough scenes and Neal McDonough as the slightly stressed out “Buck” Compton, who has returned from the hospital. And I enjoyed the sequence featuring the interaction of some of the company’s men, while watching a Marlene Dietrich film. However, my favorite sequence featured Easy Company’s brief journey to another crossroad – one near the town of Bastogne, Belgium. Screenwriter Erik Jendresen certainly did his best to ensure that the episode’s title adhere to its theme. A good deal seemed to be at a crossroads in this episode – including the location of a Dutch dike, where Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time; and the crossroads near Bastogne, where the company was sent to halt the German counterattack. Winters’ Army career was at a crossroads, as he went from company commander to battalion executive officer. And Easy Company endured a crisis of leadership following Winters’ promotion to battalion.

Yet, despite my positive feelings for ”Crossroads”, I cannot deny that it was one of the miniseries’ weaker episodes. For such a short episode, so much had occurred. Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time. The company participated in Operations Pegasus. It lost “Moose” Heyliger as its commander after he was accidentally shot and gained Norman Dike as the new commander – a man for whom no one seemed to have much respect. This episode should have been longer than 50 minutes. More importantly, watching both ”Replacements” and ”Crossroads” made me realize that Spielberg and Hanks had limited the company’s experiences in Holland to two engagements. The miniseries could have explored a lot more, judging from what I have read in Stephen Ambrose’s book.

It seemed a pity that Spielberg and Hanks failed to take the opportunity to explore more of Easy Company’s Holland experiences. Instead, the second half of this episode focused on Winters’ furlough in Paris and the company’s preparations for the Belgium campaign. And because of this ”Crossroads” seemed unfulfilled . . . and lacking. But it did provide an excellent performance from Damian Lewis as Richard Winters. And it featured a first-rate combat sequence and some personal interactions between the men that I found interesting. It was not a complete waste of time.

 

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES” was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

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“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility” has been a favorite with her modern-day fans. The novel has produced at least three television and two movie adaptations and a literary parody. However, this review is about the seven-part, 1981 BBC adaptation. 

Directed by Rodney Bennett and adapted by Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs as the two main protagonists – sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The story focused on the sisters’ attempts to find happiness in the tightly structured society of early 19th century England. Through their experiences with men and their relationship with each other, Elinor and Marianne learn that one must strive for a balance of both sense and sensibility.

From an overall point of view, this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” seemed to be a solid adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel. I have noticed in many articles and reviews of Austen adaptations made in the 1970s and 1980s, fans tend to view them as “faithful” in compare to later ones. Frankly, I have yet to see an Austen adaptation made before or after 1986 as completely faithful. And I can extend this opinion to this 1981 production. One, Baron and Constanduros’ screenplay began with the grieving Dashwood women returning to Norland Hall, after viewing a potential new home. And there is no sign of a Margaret Dashwood – the youngest of the three sisters – in sight. But since the other versions of the novel are no more or less faithful, I do not have a problem with this. But I did have a problem with the miniseries’ ending. It featured Edward Ferrars asking for Elinor’s hand in marriage and Colonel Brandon commencing his courtship of a receptive Marianne. That is it. The ending seemed a bit too abrupt for my tastes.

And I had other problems with “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Peter Woodward gave a charming performance as the novel’s ne’er-do-well, John Willoughby. Unfortunately, Woodward’s presence barely made a dent in the production. And his biggest scene – in which Willoughby expressed remorse for his bad treatment of Marianne to Elinor – featured some over-the-top acting. Watching Diana Fairfax’s performance as Mrs. Dashwood, I found myself wondering why Elinor was forced to assume so much responsibility for their household at Barton Cottage. Fairfax’s Mrs. Dashwood barely seemed like the emotional widow who was forced to come down to earth by her more sensible older daughter. She seemed just as sensible in her own way. I barely remember Marjorie Bland’s portrayal of Mrs. Jennings’ older daughter, Lady Middleton. She failed to leave a mark in my memories. I could say the same about Hetty Baynes as Mrs. Jennings’ younger daughter, Mrs. Charlotte Palmer. And Margot Van der Burgh’s Mrs. Ferrars seemed more like a dress rehearsal for Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

But there were performances that impressed me. Julia Chambers and Pippa Sparks made a very entertaining Lucy and Ann Steele. I was especially impressed by Chambers’ performance, which struck a fine balance between Lucy’s scheming and desperation to become a member of the respectable and wealthy Ferrars family. Philip Bowen’s portrayal of Robert Ferrars struck me as rather funny. He gave the character a foppish edge that I have never seen in other portrayals of the character. Donald Douglas was certainly down-to-earth in an affable manner as Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton. Amanda Boxer gave a spot-on portrayal of the cold-blooded and domineering Fanny Dashwood. But the one performance that really impressed me was Peter Gale’s as the Dashwood family’s new patriarch, John. Although he gave a solid performance in the miniseries’ early episodes, he really came into his own in the role, when the story shifted to London. I was especially impressed by one scene in which Gale’s John tried to point out the suitability of Colonel Brandon as a match for Elinor.

At first, I was not that impressed by Robert Swann’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon. However, as the story progressed, Swann skillfully revealed the character’s passion and emotions behind the stoic facade. There are two other performances of which I have a similar view. When I first saw “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, I had regarded Bosco Hogan’s portrayal of Edward Ferrars as boring. But numerous viewings made me realize that he gave a very subtle performance. With a bit of patience, I noticed how Hogan managed to express Edward’s feelings about Elinor and Lucy with the expressions on his face and in his eyes. I also became more appreciative of Annie Leon’s portrayal of the cheerful Mrs. Jennings. She was no Elizabeth Spriggs or Patricia Rutledge, but I must admit that I was very impressed by the manner in which she captured Mrs. Jennings’ friendly, yet vulgar personality . . . especially in the production’s second half. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The two actresses did a first-rate job of holding the miniseries together as the the leads. And both were somewhat spot-on in their portrayal of the two sisters. Mind you, I would have liked if Richards had revealed the passion that Elinor harbored for Edward in small moments. And I wish that Childs’ Marianne was not so sober – especially in a few scenes in the miniseries’ earlier episodes. But in the end, they did a very good job.

As far as production design goes, I am afraid that Paul Joel did a solid job. But there was nothing about his work that I found particularly impressive. I suspect that he may have been hampered by the budget. I was NOT impressed by Dorothea Wallace’s costumes. Frankly, I found them rather cheap looking and in some cases, slightly ill fitting. Like the miniseries’ production design, it was probably hampered by the budget. Overall, I would have to say that this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” was the least impressive looking adaptation I have ever seen.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” had its virtues. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances and kept this production together, along with director Rodney Bennett. The supporting cast also included memorable performances from the likes of Peter Gale, Amanda Boxer, Donald Douglas, Julia Chambers Bosco Hogan and Robert Swann. And screenwriters Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros managed to create a solid script that was nearly faithful to the story. And despite a few disappointing performances and some slightly underwhelming costumes, my regard for this production has risen over the years. Much to my great surprise.