“TITANIC” (1953) Review

 

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“TITANIC” (1953) Review

As many moviegoers know, there have been numerous film and television productions about the maiden voyage and sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912. The most famous production happens to be James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar winning opus. However, I do wonder if there are any fans who are aware that another Titanic movie managed to strike Oscar gold.

Directed by Jean Negulesco, the 1953 movie “TITANIC” focused on the personal lives of a wealthy American family torn asunder by marital strife, a deep secret and the historic sinking of the Titanic. Family matriarch Mrs. Julia Sturges and her two children, 17 year-old Annette and 10 year-old Norman board the R.M.S. Titanic in Cherbourg, France. Julia hopes to remove her children from the influence of a privileged European lifestyle embraced by her husband Richard and raise them in her hometown of Mackinac, Michigan. Unfortunately, Richard gets wind of their departure and manages to board the Titanic at the last moment by purchasing a steerage ticket from a Basque immigrant and intercept his family. The Sturges family also meet other passengers aboard ship:

*20 year-old Purdue University tennis player Gifford Rogers, who falls for Annette
*the wealthy middle-aged Maude Young (based upon Molly Brown)
*a social-climbing snob named Earl Meeker
*a priest named George S. Healey, who has been defrocked for alcoholism
*American businessman John Jacob Astor IV and his second wife Madeleine

Julia and Richard clash over the future of their children during the voyage. Their conflict is reinforced by Annette’s budding romance with college student Gifford Rogers and a dark secret revealed by Julia. But the couple’s conflict eventually takes a back seat after the Titanic strikes an iceberg during the last hour of April 14, 1912.

There seemed to be a habit among moviegoers lately to judge historical dramas more on their historical accuracy than on the story. As a history buff, I can understand this penchant. But I am also a fan of fiction – especially historical fiction. And I learned a long time ago that when writing a historical drama, one has to consider the story and the character over historical accuracy. If the latter gets in the way of the story . . . toss it aside. It is apparent that screenwriters Charles Brackett (who also served as producer), Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch did just that when they created the screenplay for “TITANIC”. Any history buff about the famous White Star liner’s sinking would be appalled at the amount of historical accuracy in this movie. However, I feel that many lovers of period drama would be more than satisfied with“TITANIC”, thanks to a well-written personal story and top-notch direction by Jean Negulesco.

Superficially, “TITANIC” is a melodrama about the disintegration of a late 19th century/early 20th century marriage. The marital discord between Julia and Richard Sturges is filled with personality clashes, class warfare, disappointment and betrayal. And actors Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb did their very best to make the clash of wills between husband and wife fascinating and in the end . . . poignant. One of the movie’s best scenes featured a confession from one spouse about a past discretion. I am not claiming that the scene was particularly original. But I cannot deny that thanks to the stellar performances from Stanwyck and Webb, I believe it was one of the best moments of melodrama I have ever seen on screen . . . period. But their final scene together, during the Titanic’s sinking, turned out to be one of the most poignant for me. And by the way, fans of the 1997 movie would not be hard pressed to recognize one of Webb’s lines in the film . . . a line that also ended up in Cameron’s movie.

“TITANIC” featured other subplots that allowed the supporting cast to shine. Audrey Dalton portrayed Julia and Richard’s oldest offspring, the beautiful 17 year-old Annette, who had become enamored of her father’s penchant for European high society. Dalton did an excellent job of slowly transforming Annette from the shallow socialite wannabe to the shy and naturally charming young woman who has become more interested in enjoying her youth. And the character’s transformation came about from her budding friendship and romance with the gregarious Gifford Rogers. Robert Wagner seemed a far cry from the sophisticated man that both moviegoers and television viewers have come to know. His Gifford is young, friendly and open-hearted. Wagner made it easier for moviegoers to see why Annette fell for him and Julia found him likeable. However, I was not that enthusiastic about his singing. Harper Carter did an excellent job of holding his own against the likes of Stanwyck, Webb and Dalton as the Sturges’ son Norman. In fact, I found him very believable as the 10 year-old boy eager to maintain his father’s interest without accepting the snobbery that marked Annette’s personality. Perhaps he was simply too young.

The movie’s screenplay also featured a subplot involving a young priest named George Healey, who dreaded his return to the U.S. and facing his family with the shameful news of his defrocking. Thanks to Richard Basehart’s subtle, yet sardonic performance, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward his plight, instead of disgusted by his alcoholism. Thelma Ritter gave her usual top-notch performance as the sarcastic noveau riche Maude Young. Allyn Joslyn was amusing as the social-climbing card shark, Earl Meeker. And Brian Aherne’s portrayal of the Titanic’s doomed captain, was not only subtle, but he also kept the character from wallowing into some kind of second-rate nobility that usually makes my teeth hurt.

For a movie that did not have James Cameron’s advantages of creating the technical effects of the 1997 movie,“TITANIC” proved to be an attractive looking movie. Production manager Joseph C. Behm and his team did a solid job of re-creating life aboard an ocean liner, circa 1912. Behm was also assisted by costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, Don B. Greenwood’s art department, Maurice Ransford and Oscar winner Lyle R. Wheeler’s art directions, and Stuart A. Reiss’ set decorations. Although the movie did not feature an accurate re-creation of the Titanic’s sinking, I have to admit that visually, the special effects created by a team team led by Ray Kellogg were very impressive, especially for 1953. They were ably assisted Joseph MacDonald’s black-and-white photography and Louis R. Loeffler’s editing.

Earlier in this review, I pointed out that James Cameron’s 1997 film was not the only one about the Titanic that struck Oscar gold. Although “TITANIC” did not win eleven Academy Awards, it was nominated for two Oscars and won a single one – namely a Best Original Screenplay award for Brackett, Breen and Reisch. But despite an award winning script, a superb cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb and a first-rate production team, “TITANIC” still could have ended in disaster. But it had the good luck to have an excellent director like Jean Negulesco at the helm.

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise.

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!”Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

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But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for“THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after sixteen years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

 

 

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” (2013) Review

As I had stated in my review of “IRON MAN 3”, I had assumed that the release of the 2012 blockbuster, “THE AVENGERS” would signal the end of Marvel’s multi-film saga about the group of comic book heroes and their government allies, S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only did “IRON MAN 3” prove me wrong, but also the recent television series, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”and the second movie about the God of Thunder, “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”

Like the 2011 movie, “THOR”, this latest film begins thousands of years ago. Back in day (or year); Bor, the father of Odin, clash with the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and their leader Malekith, who seeks to destroy the universe using a weapon known as the Aether. After conquering Malekith’s forces, Bor hides the Aether within a stone column. He was also unaware that Malekith, his lieutenant Algrim, and a handful of Dark Elves have managed to escape by going into suspended animation.

Many years later, Thor and his fellow Asgardians (which include his friends Lady Sif, Fandral and Volstagg) help their comrade Hogun repel marauders on the latter’s homeworld, Vanaheim. It proves to be the last battle in a war to pacify the Nine Realms, which had fallen into chaos following the destruction of the Bifröst. And in London, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster is led by her intern Darcy Lewis and the latter’s intern, Ian, to an abandoned factory where objects have begun to disobey the laws of physics by disappearing into thin air. Jane is teleported to another world, where she is infected by the Aether. Both the Asgardians and Jane’s former mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig learn on separate occasions that the Convergence, a rare alignment of the Nine Realms, is imminent. While the event approaches, portals (one of which Jane had fallen into) linking the worlds appear at random. Heimdall alerts Thor of Jane’s recent disappearance, leading the latter to search for her on Earth. When she inadvertently releases an unearthly force upon a group of London policemen, Thor takes her to Asgard. Unfortunately, the Asgardian healers do not know how to treat her. Odin, recognizing the Aether, warns Jane’s infection will kill her given enough time, and that the Aether’s return heralds a catastrophic prophecy. Unbeknownst to Odin, the re-emergence of the Aether also ends the Dark Elves’ suspended animation and revives their determination to use the substance to darken the universe.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” has proven to be a major box office, after its release nearly five years ago. This is not surprising, considering the enormous success of Marvel’s Avenger saga. “IRON MAN 3”, set six months after the events of the 2012 film, also proved to be a big hit. Some people have claimed that the first film about Thor was superior. As much as I had enjoyed “THOR”, I cannot say that I would agree. It reeked just a bit too much of a superhero origin tale. Personally, I found the plot for “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” more satisfying.

Mind you, this second God of Thunder movie did not strike me as perfect. It had a few flaws. Although I applaud director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s expansion of the Asgard setting beyond the royal palace and the Bifröst, the latter’s photography for that particular setting seemed to lack Haris Zambarloukos’ dazzling and colorful photography from the 2011 film. Instead, there seemed to be a slightly dull cast to Morgenthau’s photography of Asgard. Thor’s friends did not particularly project that same screen chemistry that I found so enjoyable in the first film. Aside from one major scene in which Thor plotted Jane’s escape from Asgard, they rarely had any scenes together. And Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun had even less scenes. I wonder if this was due to the actor’s major role in the 2013 movie, “47 RONIN”.

Aside from these nitpicks, I enjoyed “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” very much. As I had earlier stated, I found it more enjoyable than the first film. Thanks to the screenplay written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the movie provided a stronger narrative, beyond a simple origin tale. The three screenwriters explored the consequences of past events from both “THOR” and “THE AVENGERS” – Loki’s actions in both movies; Thor’s original destruction of the Bifröst, which led to chaos in the Nine Realms and his long separation from Jane Foster, the latter’s inability to move on, and the impact upon Erik Selvig from being possessed by Loki. However, the movie also explored how a past event in the Asgardians’ history – their conflict with the Dark Elves – managed to once again, have a negative impact upon Earth. For a movie that was juggling a good number of subplots, along with a major plot, I thought the writers and director Alan Taylor did a first-rate job in balancing it all in the end.

Taylor has limited experience as a movie director, but he has a long history as a television direction. Despite his longer experience with television, I must admit that I found myself more than pleased with his direction of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And I was also very impressed. I was especially impressed by his handling of certain action scenes, like the Dark Elves’ invasion of Asgard, the fight scene between Queen Frigga and Malekith, the escape from Asgard, and Thor and Loki’s confrontation against Malekith and the Dark Elves. But the one action scene that really impressed me turned out to be Thor and Jane’s attempt to prevent Malekith’s use of the Aether against Earth and the rest of the universe. This scene not only benefited from Taylor’s direction, but also Dan Lebental and Wyatt Smith’s editing. The movie’s action sequences were nicely balanced by some of its dramatic and comedic scenes. I especially enjoyed Thor and Loki’s quarrel over the latter’s past actions, Thor’s reunion with Jane, and Darcy and Ian’s attempt to free Erik from a mental institution. One particular scene featured a quarrel between Thor and Odin over how to deal with the threat of the Dark Elves. It strongly reminded me of the two men’s quarrel over the Frost Giants in the first film . . . but with an ironic twist. Instead of Odin being the mature and reasonable one, this time it is Thor.

My only complaint about the movie’s performances has to do with Tadanobu Asano. Due to his limited appearance in the film, he never really had a chance to give a memorable performance. I hope to see more of him in the next film. Both Jamie Alexander and Ray Stevenson gave competent performances as Thor’s two other friends – Lady Sif and Volstagg. Instead of Josh Dallas, this movie featured Zachary Levi in the role of Thor’s fourth friend, Fandral. Levi had been originally cast in the role for the 2011 film. But due to his commitments to NBC’s “CHUCK”, Dallas got the role. But the latter’s commitment to ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” forced Marvel and Disney to give the role back to Levi. Aside from the initial shock of seeing him in a blond wig, I must admit that Levi made a very dashing Fandral. I was very happy to see Kat Dennings reprise her role of Jane’s intern, Darcy Lewis. She was as funny as ever. She also had an extra straight man in the form of Jonathan Howard, who portrayed “her” intern, Ian Boothby. The movie also featured a very funny cameo by Chris Evans, who portrayed Loki disguised as Steve Rogers/Captain America.

Christopher Eccleston may not have made the most witty villain from the Marvel canon, but I found his portrayal of Malekith very scary . . . in an unrelenting way. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje struck me as equally impressive as Malekith’s lieutenant, Algrim. It was a pity that I could barely make him out in his new appearance as the Kurse. Renee Russo’s role as Queen Frigga was expanded in this second film and I am so thankful that it was. Not only did she have a marvelous dramatic scene with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, but watching her sword fight against Eccleston’s Malekith reminded me of her role in the “LETHAL WEAPON” films. Idris Elba repeated his masterful portrayal of Asgard’s gatekeeper, Heimdall. I especially enjoyed him in two scenes – Heimdall’s efforts to prevent the Dark Elves’ attack and his discussion with Thor about helping Jane leave Asgard against Odin’s will. More importantly, audiences get to see him in even more scenes. Stellan Skarsgård was very hilarious in his portrayal of Dr. Erik Selvig in this film. I realize that one should not laugh at the idea of someone suffering from a mental trauma, but I could not help it. I do not think I have ever seen Skarsgård so entertaining in a Marvel film. Anthony Hopkins did a marvelous job in conveying Odin’s increasing fragile rule over Asgard and control of his emotions. This was especially apparent in the scene featuring Odin and Thor’s disagreement over the Dark Elves.

For the first time in a Marvel film, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is not portrayed as an out-and-out villain, but a more morally complex character, thanks to his relationships with Asgard’s royal family – especially Thor and Frigga. Hiddleston was as playful and witty as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Chris Hemsworth. In fact, I can say the same about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Thor’s love, astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster. Personally, I found her funnier and her chemistry with Hemsworth a lot stronger in this second film. And I was especially happy to see her take a more active role in helping Thor defeat the main villain. As for Chris Hemsworth, he continued to roll as the God of Thunder, Thor. He did a marvelous job in developing his character into more complex waters, especially in regard to his relationships with Jane, Loki and Odin. And one of my favorite scenes in the movie featured Thor’s silent reaction to his discovery that Jane had a date with another man. I hope that one day, people will truly appreciate what a first-rate actor he can be.

“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” had a few flaws. What movie does not? But thanks to Alan Taylor’s direction, an excellent cast led by a talented Chris Hemsworth and a very complex script written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it not only turned to be very entertaining, but also better than the previous film. At least for me.

 

WellinformedBountifulGelada

“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” (2013) Review

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“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” (2013) Review

When “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” first hit the movie screens in 2001, I never imagined that it would be such a major hit . . . or spawn five sequels. The franchise seemed in danger of ending with a whimper with 2006’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT”, due to its lack of critical success. Three years later saw the rejuvenation of the franchise with the success of 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS”. This movie spawned a mini trilogy of its own, culminating in the latest film, “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”

The franchise’s fifth installment, “FAST FIVE” ended with Dominic Toretto and his accomplices reaping the rewards of a successful heist from a Rio drug lord. In the film’s Easter egg segment, U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs learns from U.S. Customs agent Monica Fuentes (from 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”) that Dom’s former girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, is alive and well, and working with one Owen Shaw, a British criminal (and former Special Forces soldier) who had recently pulled a heist on a Russian military convoy. Hobbs and his new partner, Riley Hicks, recruit Dom, Brian O’Conner and other members of the gang who helped pull off the Rio heist; to help them take down Shaw. Hobbes convinces Dom to help him, revealing Letty’s existence and offering full amnesty for past crimes. With the exception of Mia Torretto and former Rio police officer Elena Neves (who remain behind to care for Mia and Brian’s new baby), along with Leo Tego and Rico Santos (who remain on the French Riviera gambling); Dom, Brian and the rest of the gang arrive in London to help Hobbes and Hicks to track down Shaw. Upon their arrival, they discover that Letty has amnesia and that capturing Shaw might prove to be more difficult than they had originally imagined.

After watching “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, I came to the conclusion that it was my second favorite movie in the franchise after “FAST FIVE”. However, I am not so sure anymore. There are certain aspects of this latest film that makes me reluctant to view as the franchise’s second best. One, the movie’s premise is not that original – even for a FAST AND FURIOUS movie. In fact, the story premise for “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” bears a strong resemblance to the premise for the 2003 movie, “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”. In that movie, Brian O’Conner and Roman Pearce helped the Feds bring down a Miami-based drug lord in exchange for pardons and clean records. Brian, Roman, Dom and others help Fed Luke Hobbes take down international criminal Owen Shaw for . . . what else? Pardons and clean records. I also had a problem with the Roman Pearce character. I had no problem with Tyrese Gibson’s portrayal of the character. But I found it odd that Roman would immediately drop his airborne love fest with a group of models due to a summons from Dom Toretto, of all people.“FAST FIVE” did not exactly end with Roman and Dom as the best of friends. If the movie had established that Roman had received the summons from Brian, who was his childhood friend, I could accept his immediate decision to join the team. One last problem I had with “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” proved to be a flashback from 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS” regarding the origin of Letty Ortiz’s amnesia. The 2009 movie hinted that Letty had been killed by Arturo Braga’s henchman, Fenix Calderon. But a flashback in “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” revealed that Calderon missed Letty completely and shot the car to which she was standing near. The car exploded, injuring Letty. Why Calderon failed to confirm her death after the explosion remains a mystery to me. The entire scene struck me as clumsily handled. I also noticed that Dom’s ridiculous “Daddy issues” and desire to be “Papa Toretto” to anyone close to him still remains. When he made a comment at the end of the movie about Brian and Mia’s son, Jack O’Conner, being solely a Toretto, I merely laughed. When he repeated the “joke” again, I began to wonder if he was making a demented attempt to claim the toddler as his own offspring. Right now, I feel that Brian and Mia should leave the Toretto home and purchase their own house to raise their kid.

But despite these problems, “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” turned out to be a pretty damn good movie. The franchise’s street-racing theme played a major part in the efforts of Dom’s team to stop Shaw’s team from carrying out their crimes. This theme was definitely apparent in four scenes. One of them was a car chase through the streets of nighttime London that ended with the team’s failure to capture Shaw, as he was fleeing his hideout. Another scene featured Dom and an amnesiac Letty in a street race that ended in a sexy moment in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. There was also the film’s final action sequence at a NATO air strip in which Dom and his team finally prevented Shaw from escaping by plane. I found that particular sequence a little hard to bear, considering that at times, it seemed to go on forever and it was shot at night. The only daytime sequence that featured vehicles on a highway not far from that NATO base in Spain. What made this sequence memorable for was the spectacular car chase that featured an outstanding stunt performed by Tyrese Gibson . . . or his double. There is a spectacular fight scene between Letty and Hobbes’ partner, Riley Hicks, in the London Underground. I heard that Michelle Rodriguez felt a bit wary in doing a fight scene with Gina Carano . . . and I do not blame her, considering the latter is a mixed martial arts champ. There was also a pretty decent Dom and Hobbes vs. Shaw and his men aboard the cargo plane in Spain.

Action sequences were not the only staple that made “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” entertaining for me. The movie also featured some pretty damn good dramatic moments and rather funny scenes. I have already pointed out that sexy moment between Dom and Letty in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. I also enjoyed the sequence in which Brian allowed himself to be “arrested” (courtesy of Luke Hobbes’ Federal connections) by the FBI, in order to question former adversary Arturo Braga about Letty’s connections to Shaw. Not only did it featured a humorous reunion between Brian and his former FBI colleague, Special Agent Stasiak; but also a very dramatic one between Brian and Braga. “FAST FIVE” featured the beginning of a romance between Han and Gisele. But their relationship took on a more poignant note in this movie, which I found very satisfying. I especially enjoyed how Roman quickly figured out Han’s true feelings for Gisele. Speaking of Roman and Han, the movie featured a very funny moment in which both of them secretly agreed not to inform the others of their defeat against one of Shaw’s men in the London Underground. In fact, Roman proved to have the best lines in the movie. My ultimate favorite? Read the following scene between him and Tej Parker:

[Roman asks Tej for change to use the vending machine]
TEJ: You’re a millionaire and still asking for money?
ROMAN: That’s how you stay a millionaire.

“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” featured some pretty decent performances. But there were those that stood out for me. I especially enjoyed Tyrese Gibson, who not only proved to be even funnier as Roman Pearce, but shared a nice dramatic moment with Sung Kang, while the two discussed Han’s feelings for Gisele. Michelle Rodriguez gave one of her better performances as an intense and amnesiac Letty Ortiz, who is torn between her confusion over her identity and her growing wariness toward Shaw. Dwayne Johnson continued his energetic portrayal of DSS Agent Luke Hobbes with great style. Luke Evans made a particularly formidable foe as former Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw, who proves to be a very difficult to take down. Then again, the franchise has always featured some first-rate villains. Not only did Vin Diesel provided an unexpectedly sexy performance in one particular scene with Rodriguez, he and Elsa Pataky provided a nice poignant moment between Dom and former Brazil cop Elena Neves, who end their relationship due to Letty’s re-emergence in Dom’s life. However, Paul Walker really surprised me in this film. He has always struck me as mediocre or solid actor in the past. But his acting skills seemed to have grown considerably between “FAST FIVE” and “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”. This was apparent in his scenes with John Ortiz, which featured a hostile reunion between Brian and Braga in a California prison.

I feel that “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” had its share of flaws. But thanks to Justin Lin’s direction, a charasmatic cast and a solid script written by Chris Morgan, I feel that it not only proved to be one of the better films for the summer of 2013, but also one of the better films in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise.

 

“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.

 

“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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