“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

Recently, I became aware of the BBC series called “THE MUSKETEERS” and became an instant fan. Due to my renewed interest in Alexandre Dumas père’s work, I decided to focus my attention on 2011’s “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, the most recent adaptation of the author’s 1845 novel. 

Produced and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this cinematic version of Dumas père’s novel, proved to be a different kettle of fish. Yes, screenwriters Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak managed to adhere to some aspects of the 1845 novel. The movie closely followed d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his future three friends – Athos, Aramis and Porthos – along with Captain Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter. The rivalry between the Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s guard – led by Rochefort – remains intact. “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” also included a conspiracy created by Richelieu that centered around Queen Anne, Britain’s Duke of Buckingham and the former’s diamond necklace given to her by King Louis XIII.

But Davies and Litvak created changes to Dumas’ story. One, Milady de Winter begins the story working with the three musketeers to steal airship blueprints created by Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario, Milady and Athos are long time lovers and not a married couple. Their antipathy begins when Milady betray her compatriots and gives the plans to Britain’s Duke of Buckingham. Her betrayal leads to the disbandment of the Musketeers. So, when d’Artagnan arrives in Paris to join the military unit, he is a year too late. Also, the Duke of Buckingham is portrayed more as a villain, since he is not The Constance Bonacieux is not only single in this story, but also one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting; instead of married and a royal seamstress. Also, there is no real affair between Queen Anne and Buckingham. But Cardinal Richelieu decides to create false rumors using the Queen’s diamond necklace and false love letters in order to discredit her. This would lead to Anne’s execution, a war against Britain and a demand by the people that a more experienced leader – namely Richelieu himself – would rule France. Alas, thanks to Constance, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers step up to save the Queen’s reputation and ruin Richelieu’s plans.

It would be difficult for me to deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is a beautiful looking film. Germany served as 17th century France and Great Britain in this film and Glen MacPherson really did justice to the shooting locations, thanks to his beautifully sharp and colorful photography. MacPherson’s photography also did justice to Paul D. Austerberry’s production designs, whose re-creations of 17th century France and England struck me as spot on. Both MacPherson and Austerberry’s work benefited from Philippe Turlure’s set decorations and the art direction team of Nigel Churcher, Hucky Hornberger and David Scheunemann. But what really dazzled me about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” were Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s s costume designs. Personally, I found them worthy of an Oscar nomination. Below are three images just to prove my point:

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There are aspects of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” that did not exactly impress me. First of all, the chemistry between the four leads seemed a bit off. One might blame Logan Lerman, who was the only American in the team. But I had no problems with his chemistry with both Matthew MacFadyen and Ray Stevenson. And Luke Evans had a nice chemistry with both MacFadyen and Stevenson, despite his subdued take on his role. And I cannot blame MacFadyen, who seemed to be the odd man out as a screen swashbuckler. I am not saying that all four men – Lerman, MacFadyen, Evans and Stevenson – had no chemistry whatsoever. There was some inclination of a screen chemistry. But . . . their chemistry as the four musketeers never struck me as dynamic than in other versions I have seen.

Another major problem I had with the movie proved to be Davies and Litvak’s re-writing of the Milady de Winter character. I had no problem with Milady starting the movie as colleague of Athos, Aramis and Porthos. I had no problem with her being Athos’ lover, instead of his estranged spouse. I did have a problem with Milady being written as some kind of action woman. Many of her scenes featured actress Milla Jovovich engaged in some acrobatic stunt at a great height. I understand why. Both Jovovich and Anderson (who are married, by the way) are known for the “RESIDENT EVIL”movies, in which the actress had starred as the main protagonist. For some reason, the couple and the two screenwriters seemed to believe it was necessary to transform Milady into a female action figure. In doing so, all four robbed the Milady of the subtle villainy that made her such a memorable character in the novel and in other adaptations. I almost got the impression that Anderson and the screenwriters did not believe Jovovich lacked the ability to portray a seductive and manipulative villainess. Yet, one scene between Jovovich and actor Christoph Waltz (who portrayed Cardinal Richelieu) made it clear to me that the actress could have been a very effective Milady de Winter without resorting to countless number of stunts and other action scenes. Hmmm . . . pity.

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I enjoyed “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”. Much to my utter surprise. When I first saw the film, I was ready to reject it after the Venice sequence. The idea of Milady working with Athos, Aramis and Porthos on a mission in Venice was not how I recall previous adaptations of Dumas’ novel. But I gave it a chance and decided to finish the film. And I enjoyed it. Actually, there were aspects of the movie that made it enjoyable for me. Aside from the movie’s visual style and costumes, I enjoyed how Davies and and Litvak put a different spin on Dumas’ story arc about Queen Anne’s diamond necklace. I was also both surprised and impressed at how they utilized the heist movie trope in two major sequences – the opening scene in Venice and the Musketeers’ attempt to get their hands on the diamonds, which were stolen by Milady and planted inside London’s Tower of London.

Davies and Litvak’s screenplay displayed a nice sense of humor. This was apparent in the personalities of three major characters – Porthos (who has been the comic relief of nearly all versions of Dumas’ tale), King Louis XIII and surprisingly, the Duke of Buckingham, along with d’Artagnan’s first meetings with his future three friends. The movie also featured some excellent action sequences. My favorite include the Musketeers and d’Artagnan’s fight against Rochefort and the Cardinal’s guards, the four friends’ heist of the diamond necklace from the Tower of London, and their final showdown against Rochefort and his men upon their return to Paris. This last sequence featured an outstanding duel between d’Artagnan and Rochefort that in my opinion, rivaled the duel between the two characters in 1974’s “THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”.

I still stand by my belief that the chemistry between the four actors who portrayed the Musketeers and d’Artagnan was not as strong as it had been in other productions. But the movie did featured some solid performances from the four actors. Ray Stevenson displayed his usual talent for comedy in his performance as Porthos. Honestly, I think his comic skills are highly underrated. Luke Evans gave a decent performance as Aramis. However, I do wish he could have displayed a little more élan in his portrayal of the usually dashing womanizer. Matthew Macfadyen did a skillful job in portraying Athos’ brooding nature and role as the group’s leader. But I got the feeling that he was not the type of actor I would cast in a swashbuckling film. Of the four actors, he never struck me as the swashbuckling type. It is odd that I would say this about Macfadyen and not Logan Lerman, who portrayed d’Artagnan. But the thing about Lerman is that his looks strike me as mediocre and he seems to be the shortest of the four leads.  And yet, once he opens his mouth and move, he becomes a bundle of energy with a good deal of style and panache. Curious.

Despite my complaints by Anderson and the screenwriters’ attempt to turn Milady de Winter into an action queen, I must say that I still managed to enjoy Milla Jovovich’s performance. She is the only actress I know who conveyed the spy’s seduction skills with a good deal of sly humor. Christoph Waltz did a solid job as the villainous Cardinal Richilieu. But I must admit, I did not find his performance particularly memorable or energetic. I can also say the same about Gabriella Wilde, who portrayed Constance Bonacieux. I hate to say this, but I found her performance somewhat wooden. On the other hand, Juno Temple gave a very charming performance as Queen Anne (formerly of Austria). Not only did she give a charming performance, she also conveyed a good deal of the Queen’s strength of character.

I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Captain Rochefort. The Danish actor did an excellent job of conveying Rochefort’s subtle menace and talent for intimidation. Orlando Bloom proved to be quite a surprise as the villainous Duke of Buckingham. He was very funny in a sly, yet theatrical way. James Corden also gave a funny performance as Planchet, the Musketeers’ long suffering manservant. But the funniest performance came from Freddie Fox, who portrayed the rather young King Louis XIII. What can I say? He was hilarious in his portrayal of the King’s insecure nature and lack of experience as a leader. In fact, I believe he gave the best performance in the movie.

What else can I say about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”? It is not particularly faithful to Alexandre Dumas père’s novel. But to be honest, I do not really care. In my opinion, the movie’s lack of adherence to the novel was not a weak point. The worst I can say about the movie is that the chemistry between the four actors portraying the Musketeers was not particularly strong. I did not care for the use of 17th century airships in this story. And I was not that impressed by the movie’s tendency to portray Milady de Winter as an action figure. On the other hand, I still managed to enjoy the screenplay written by Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak, along with Paul W.S. Anderson’s direction. And the movie also featured some strong performances – especially from Logan Lerman, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom and Freddie Fox. In the end, I still enjoyed the film, despite my initial reservations.

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“EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Review

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“EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Review

Eleven years ago, I saw for the first time, the crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg called, ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. Viggo Mortensen had starred in the movie, portraying a happily-married café owner, whose Good Samaritan actions against two thugs led to his disclosure as a former mob enforcer. Both Cronenberg and Mortensen reunited two years later to collaborate on another crime thriller called, “EASTERN PROMISES”

Based upon a screenplay written by Steve Knight, ”EASTERN PROMISES” began with a gangland murder and the death of a 14 year-old Russian-born prostitute after giving birth to an infant girl. The two incidents would resonate over the lives of a London hospital midwife of Russian descent named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a Russian mob boss and restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his wastrel son Krill (Vincent Cassel), and the mob boss’ enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen).

The plot is a little too complex for me to explain in this review. Needless to say that it centered around the mob boss’ attempt to recover the dead prostitute’s diary, which found itself in the hands of the hospital midwife. I would suggest that one find a way to see the movie. It will not disappoint. I know I found it very interesting. Yes, it has violence, but not as much that was found in ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. But the amount of blood shown in the film – especially in the gangland slaying and the prostitute’s death – seemed to like a metaphor of the story’s theme . . . and the connection between the major characters.

On the surface, ”EASTERN PROMISES” seemed like a typical crime thriller centered around a Russian crime family in London. But the plot – like three of the major characters – turned out to be something quite different than what appears to be on the surface. What seemed like a gang war, turned out to be a lurid family secret that brings down the Russian mobster. As I had earlier pointed out, this theme is also apparent in three of the four major characters:

*Krill – who seemed like a crude and murderous monster on the surface, who proves to be more benign

*Semyon – a talented cook and mob boss, whose grandfatherly demeanor hides a darker and more ruthless personality

*Nikolai – the enigmatic chauffeur, whose practical and cynical nature makes him unsuited to merely be the family’s driver. As in the case of Semyon and Krill, he turns out to be someone very different.

And it is through the eyes of the London midwife, Anna that the audience becomes acquainted with the exotic (at least for American and British eyes) world of Russian émigrés mingled with the violence and degeneracy of the Vory v Zakone (Russian Mafia). Thanks to Cronenberg’s direction, the world of the Vory v Zakone seemed so exotic and something never seen before. In fact, it seemed so insular that the usual British atmosphere of London almost seemed miles away, despite the presence of Scotland Yard. One sequence that came to mind is the hand-to-hand fight between Nikolai and two Chechen assassins seeking revenge for the gangland murder featured in the movie’s opening scene. The sight of a nude Mortensen viciously defending his life against two burly assassins inside a London bathhouse is one that I will never forget. And I suspect that it will become an unforgettable scene in the minds of moviegoers for years to come.

I was also impressed by the performances in the movie. Despite having the least interesting character, Watts managed – with her usual competency – to infuse pathos and spirit into the London midwife. And Mueller-Stahl did an excellent job of portraying a brutal and ruthless man who manages to hide these traits under a veneer of warmth and civility. But I feel that Cassel deserves an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the pathetic Krill, who tries to hide his weaknesses (or what he conceives as weakness) with a crude and extroverted persona.

Finally, there is Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Nikolai might finally allow the critics to truly appreciate his skills as an actor. Instead of using words or openly expressed emotions, Mortensen manages to reveal his character to the audience through subtle words (in a Russian accent that surprisingly works), body language, costume and especially in his eyes. What makes Mortensen so remarkable as a film actor is that he has no need for big speeches (which he had attempted in ”LORD OF THE RINGS: Return of the King”) or outbursts of emotions to convey to express his characters’ personalities. This certainly seemed true in the scene in which Nikolai has sex with one of the prostitutes, in the whorehouse owned by Krill’s father. Nikolai does not simply have sex with the woman. He IS FORCED to do so . . . on the orders of Krill, who wants Nikolai to prove that he is not a homosexual. The audience was well aware that the prostitute felt violated and exploited. But Mortensen managed to convey through his eyes, Nikolai’s feelings of violation, exploitation . . . and disgust at Krill’s desire to watch him have sex with the prostitute. Good performances by Mortensen, Cassel and the actress who portrayed the prostitute.

What else can I say about “EASTERN PROMISES”? It is not the best movie I had seen back in 2007.  But I feel that it is a fascinating and emotionally complex story that seems different from the usual crime thriller. Unlike “A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”, it is not capped by a violence sequence that gives us the last word on the protagonist’s fate. Yet, all the same, I found it very tense and emotional.

 

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JANE AUSTEN’s Hero Gallery

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Below is a look at the fictional heroes created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . .

 

JANE AUSTEN’S HERO GALLERY

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Edward Ferrars – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Edward Ferrars does not seemed to be highly regarded by many Jane Austen fans or literary critics. People seemed to take this mild-mannered, unambitious young man for granted and in some cases, dismiss him as weak. Although mild-mannered, I would never regard Edward as weak. I found him stalwart and willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions . . . even if this trait nearly led him into matrimony with the manipulative Lucy Steele.

 

1. Robin Ellis (1971) – He gave a charming and solid performance as the likeable Edward. After many viewings, I even learned to tolerate the stuttering he used for portraying Edward. Ellis and actress Joanna David had a nice chemistry, but it did not exactly blow my mind.

 

2. Bosco Hogan (1981) – I must admit that I had originally found his performance in the 1981 miniseries as somewhat tepid. But on second viewing, I realized that I had underestimated him. Despite his low-key portrayal of Edward . . . or because of it, I detected some rather interesting moments in Hogan’s performance in which he effectively conveyed Edward’s emotional state, while trying to suppress it. I am impressed.

 

3. Hugh Grant (1995) – At first, I was not impressed by Grant’s portrayal of Grant. But on later viewings, I noticed that he injected a good deal of charm and humor into his performance. And he had some pretty good lines in the movie’s first half hour. More importantly, he had great chemistry with leading lady Emma Thompson.

 

4. Dan Stevens (2008) – He conveyed more emotion and charm into his performance than his predecessors and it worked for him. And like Grant before him, he had great chemistry with his leading lady Hattie Moran.

 

 

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Colonel Christopher Brandon – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

There are some critics and fans who believe that the quiet and always loyal Colonel Brandon was wrong for the much younger Marianne Dashwood. Personally, I found him a major improvement over John Willoughby. And despite his quiet demeanor, he seemed to be just as emotional as she . . . but with more control.

 

 

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1. Richard Owens (1971) – His performance slowly grew on me, as the miniseries progressed. I thought he gave a pretty good performance and did a solid job in slowly revealing Brandon’s feelings for Marianne.

 

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2. Robert Swann (1981) – He must be the most emotional Colonel Brandon I have ever seen on screen. At least once his character’s feelings for Marianne were finally exposed. Personally, I liked his take on Brandon very much, even though most fans do not seem to care for his performance.

 

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3. Alan Rickman (1995) – He made an excellent Colonel Brandon. I was impressed by how he revealed the character’s romantic nature behind the stoic facade. I also feeling that Brandon is one of the actor’s best roles.

 

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4. David Morrissey (2008) – He is the last actor I could imagine portraying the reserved, yet passionate Colonel Brandon. And yet, not only did he did a great job in the role, he also gave one of the best performances in the miniseries.

 

 

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Fitzwilliam Darcy – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

Unless I am mistaken, Fitzwilliam Darcy must be the most popular leading man created by Jane Austen. There are times when he seems more popular than the novel’s leading character, Elizabeth Bennet. Although he is not my favorite Austen leading man, I must say that he is one of the most fascinating. However, I found his “redemption” in the story’s third act a bit too good to be true.

 

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1. Laurence Olivier (1940) – He gave a very good performance as Fitzwilliam Darcy and was properly haughty. But there were times when he displayed Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth Bennet a little too openly . . . especially in the movie’s first half.

 

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2. David Rintoul (1980) – His Mr. Darcy was probably the most haughty I have ever seen on screen. There were moments when his portrayal seemed a bit too haughty, especially scenes in which his feelings for Elizabeth should have been obvious. But I believe he still have a first-rate performance.

 

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3. Colin Firth (1995) – He received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 miniseries. And I believe he fully deserved it. Hell, I would have given him the award. He did a great job in portraying the character’s complexity with a balance I have never seen in the other actors who portrayed the same character.

 

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4. Matthew McFadyen (2005) – He gave a very good performance as Mr. Darcy. However, I think Joe Wright’s script emphasized a bit too much on the character’s shyness and inability to easily socialize with others.

 

 

   

Charles Bingley – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

I have always found this character to be sociable, charming and very likable. However, he has never struck me as complex as Fitzwilliam Darcy. And to be honest, I found his willingness to allow Mr. Darcy to dictate his social life a little irritating. But I suppose this should not be surprising, considering he is from a class lower than his friend.

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1. Bruce Lester (1940) – I did not find his performance particularly memorable, but I must say that he gave a charming performance as young Mr. Bingley. And he had a nice, strong chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane Bennet.

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2. Osmund Bullock (1980) – He gave a nice, solid performance as Mr. Bingley. But I found his portrayal even less memorable than Bruce Lester’s. That is the best thing I can say about him.

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3. Crispin Bonham-Carter (1995) – I thought he gave a very warm and friendly performance as Mr. Bingley. In fact, he seemed to be the epitome of the literary character. I also enjoyed how the actor conveyed Mr. Bingley’s attempts to hide his discomfort at either the Bennet family’s behavior, or his own sisters’. My only complaint is there were times when he came off as a bit too broad and theatrical.

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4. Simon Woods (2005) – I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate performance. But I believe the latter was hampered by a script that portrayed Mr. Bingley as somewhat shy. I never had the impression from Austen’s novel that the character was a shy man.

  

Edmund Bertram – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Oh dear. I might as well be frank. I have never liked the Edmund Bertram character. He never struck me as a completely negative personality. Edmund was capable of great kindness – especially toward his cousin Fanny Price, who was basically an outsider. He had decent moral values and he knew what he wanted to do with his life. But he was such a prig . . . and a hypocrite. Even worse, he failed to become aware of his own shortcomings and develop as a character.

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1. Nicholas Farrell (1983) – Despite my dislike of the character, he was excellent as the “Dudley Do-Right” Edmund. In fact, I think he was the best Edmund ever. And that is saying something, considering the excellent performances of the other actors who portrayed the role.

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2. Jonny Lee Miller (1999) – He also gave a first-rate performance as Edmund. More importantly, he was given a chance to convey the character’s growing attraction to his cousin, thanks to Patricia Rozema’s screenplay.

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3. Blake Ritson (2007) – After watching his performance as Edmund in the 2007 movie, I am beginning to suspect that any actor worth his salt could portray this role with great success. And that is exactly what Ritson managed to do.

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George Knightley – “Emma” (1815)

George Knightley must be the most mature Austen hero I have ever encountered – not only in age, but in temperament. But due to his sly wit and admission of his own shortcomings, he has always been a big favorite of mine.

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1. John Carson (1972) – Many have pointed out his age (45 years old at the time) as detrimental to his portrayal of Mr. Knightley. However, I was so impressed by his performance and screen chemistry with his leading lady, Doran Godwin, that I honestly did not care. I still do not care. He gave an excellent performance.

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2. Jeremy Northam (1996) – His portrayal of Knightley seemed to be the epitome of level-headed charm. And I especially enjoyed how he managed to convey Knightley’s jealousy of Emma’s friendship with Frank Churchill with some memorable brief looks.

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3. Mark Strong (1996-97) – I have to give him kudos for conveying a great deal of common sense and decency into his portrayal of Mr. Knightley. He also had very good screen chemistry with the leading lady. But . . . I found him too intense and too angry. He made a somewhat scary Mr. Knightley.

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4. Jonny Lee Miller (2009) – I really enjoyed his portrayal of the level-headed Mr. Knightley. He managed to convey a great deal of charm and wit into his performance with great ease. I am almost inclined to view his performance as my favorite.

 

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Reverend Henry Tilney – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

If I had to choose my favorite Austen hero, it would have to be him. Henry Tilney. Despite the fact that he is a clergyman, Henry is charming, clever, witty and sardonic. The type of man who could keep me in stitches forever. And he still manages to be complicated. What can I say? I adore him.

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1. Peter Firth (1986) – His portrayal of Tilney nearly ruined my love of the character. I do not blame him. Firth gave it his all and also participated in one of the best screen kisses I have ever seen in a period drama. But thanks to screenwriter Maggie Wadey, Firth’s Henry ended up as an attractive but condescending character, instead of a witty and playful one.

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2. J.J. Feild (2007) – His portrayal of Henry restored my love of the character. Field was fortunate not to be hampered by a transformed Henry. And I adored how he captured every aspect of Austen’s literary character – the charm, wit, playfulness and common sense. And Field added one aspect to his performance that I adore . . . that delicious voice.

 

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Captain Frederick Wentworth – “Persuasion” (1818)

If I must be honest, Frederick Wentworth is tied with George Knightley as my second favorite Austen hero . . . but for different reasons. He had the charm, humor and looks to attract the eye of any red-blooded female. However, his character was marred by a penchant for lingering anger and so much insecurity, especially eight years after being rejected by Anne Elliot. Wentworth has to be the most insecure Austen hero I have ever come across. That is why I find him so fascinating.

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1. Bryan Marshall (1971) – I really enjoyed how he conveyed Frederick’s extroverted sense of humor and charm. But I never got a strong sense of his character’s insecurity, along with his lingering anger and love for the leading lady, until the second half of the miniseries’ first part.

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2. Ciarán Hinds (1995) – He did an excellent job in conveying all of the complicated aspects of Frederick’s personality. However, there were moments when I felt his performance could have been a little more subtle. In the end, I still enjoyed his take on the character.

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3. Rupert Penry-Jones (2007) – Some have complained that his take on the character seemed a bit too introverted. I have to agree . . . at least in the television movie’s first half hour. But I thought he did an excellent job in portraying Frederick’s insecurity, anger and lingering love for the leading lady.

 

 

 

“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

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“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

One would think after the release of last year’s “THE AVENGERS”, Marvel Studios would call it quits on its saga about the team of superheroes who foiled an alien invasion in said movie. But the “THE AVENGERS” opened the possibility of a new threat to Earth, paving the way for a new slew of stories for the costumed Avengers. 

The beginning of this new group of films resulted in the release of “IRON MAN 3”, the third movie about the sole adventures of billionaire Tony Stark aka Iron Man. The alien invasion from “THE AVENGERS” had left its mark on Tony. He has become even more popular than ever with the public. The U.S. government (including S.H.I.E.L.D.) seemed to be leaving him alone for the moment. And his relationship with Pepper Potts seemed to be going strong. However, Tony also seemed to be in the process of ironing out the kinks for his new method of accessing his Iron Man armor – a method that turned out to be a technological copy of Thor’s habit of summoning the Mjölnir hammer. His chauffeur Happy Hogan has been promoted to Head of Security for Stark Industries. But Happy’s caustic “Super Friends” indicated the latter’s resentment toward Tony’s newly forged connections to the other Avengers. Worst of all, Tony has been experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the Avengers’ battle against the invading Chitauri aliens. 

But these problems are nothing in compare to the re-emergence of an old acquaintance whom Tony first met at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Thirteen years earlier, a drunken Tony and his date Dr. Maya Hansen encountered the disabled scientist Aldrich Killian, who offered them positions in his new company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. However, Tony rejects the offer, humiliating Killian in the process. Sometime after this encounter, Killian met Dr. Hansen and used her Extremis virus – an experimental regenerative treatment intended to allow recovery from crippling injuries – to heal his own disabilities. However, Extremis also gives the individual superhuman strength and allows him or her to generate heat. As it turns out, Killian is working for the latest threat to strike into the heart of American intelligence, a terrorist known as Mandarin. The latter has been responsible for a string of bombings that have left the intelligence agencies bewildered by any lack of forensic evidence. But Happy’s encounter with Killian’s major henchman, a former Army officer named Eric Savrin, in front of the Hollywood Chinese Theater leads him badly injured. And a very angry Tony issues a televised threat to capture the Mandarin. Former paramour Dr. Hansen appears at Stark’s Malibu home to warn him about Killian and the Mandarin, but the latter orders Savrin to lead an attack on the house. Tony, Pepper and Dr. Hansen all survive. But the house is destroyed and Tony is forced to disappear to somewhere in Tennessee and discover a way to defeat the Mandarin.

I was surprised to learn that Jon Favreau did not return as director for this third IRON MAN movie. Although “IRON MAN 2” proved to be a box office hit, many critics and moviegoers claimed that it was not as good as the first movie, “IRON MAN”. It was not an opinion that I shared, but . . . it was an opinion that led Marvel Studios to ask Favreau to step down as director of “IRON MAN 3”. Star Robert Downey Jr. suggested that the studio hire Shane Black to direct this third film. Downey Jr. and Black had first worked with each other in the 2005 comedy, “KISS KISS BANG BANG”. Did changing directors help the IRON MAN franchise? I do not think so. I am not saying that “IRON MAN 3” was a bad movie. I thought it was far from bad. But a change in directors did not improve the franchise. It was a change that I believe was unnecessary in the first place. However . . . I still enjoyed this third film very much.

One of the best things I could say about “”IRON MAN 3” is that it presented Tony with a very formidable opponent. The Mandarin proved to be not only scary, but very intelligent. The attack on Tony’s Malibu home was mind boggling. But the manner in which the Mandarin managed to track Tony down to a small Tennessee town and steal the War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot) armor by tricking American intelligence and the military regarding his location, and luring James Rhodes (aka War Machine) into a trap struck me as pretty flawless. And in using the Hansen/Killian Extremis virus on disabled military veterans, the Mandarin managed to create a formidable private army. There were other aspects of Black and Drew Pearce’s screenplay that I found very appealing. Although I had no problems with the Pepper Potts character in the previous two movies, I enjoyed the fact that Black and Pearce really put her through the wringer in this one – dealing with Tony’s panic attacks, surviving the Malibu house attack, and becoming a prisoner. Pepper’s ordeals finally paid off when she played a major role in defeating the Mandarin. Although Rhodey had a small presence in the movie’s first half, his presence increased tenfold in the second half. And like Pepper, he played a major role in the Mandarin’s defeat that I personally found very satisfying.

The movie also featured some top-notch action sequences. For me, the second best of them all was the Mandarin’s attack on Tony’s Malibu house. But there were other sequences that I found impressive; including Happy’s encounter with Eric Savrin and another benefactor of the Extremis virus in Hollywood, Tony’s encounter with Savrin and Extremis muscle Ellen Brandt in Tennessee, and the final battle on an oil rig. Mind you, the latter was not perfect, but Pepper and Rhodey’s actions in this sequence made it memorable for me. If the Malibu house attack was my second favorite action sequence, my favorite turned out to be Iron Man’s encounter with Savrin aboard Air Force One and his rescue of the President’s personnel following the plane’s destruction. The use of free fall in Iron Man’s rescue of the Presidential passengers really blew my mind. 

There were some complaints that Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be going through the motions in his portrayal of Tony Stark in this film. I cannot say that I agree with this opinion. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony seemed more sober or stressed out, due to the character’s inability to deal with the aftermath of the events in “THE AVENGERS”. Perhaps this is not a Tony Stark that fans and critics wanted to see. But I congratulate both Downey Jr., Black and Pearce for allowing audiences to see how Tony dealt with the aftermath of encountering invading aliens. My only complaint is that his PTSD seemed to have resolved by the end of the film without any explanation.  I had been impressed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of a stressed out Pepper Potts in “IRON MAN 2”. Considering what she had endured in this movie, Paltrow pulled out the stops as she conveyed Pepper’s array of emotions from wariness to fear and finally to anger. Frankly, I feel this movie featured her best performance as Pepper. I noticed that Don Cheadle seemed a lot more relaxed in the role of Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes aka War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot). As I had earlier stated, his presence in the movie’s first half seemed rather minimal. But once the movie shifted toward Tony and the American government going after the Mandarin in Miami, his role became more prominent. Not only did Cheadle displayed his talent for comedy, but his James Rhodes proved to be just as much of a bad ass without his War Machine armor, as he was with it. Denied the director’s chair for this movie, the screenwriters gave Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan was allowed a bigger role in the story, when the injuries he suffered at Eric Savrin’s hands snapped Tony out of his lethargy to deal with the Mandarin. And Favreau gave a performance that I found both funny and poignant.

In one article I had read, Guy Pearce described his role in “IRON MAN 3” as merely a cameo. Frankly, I think he may have exaggerated a bit. Like Don Cheadle, Pearce’s presence in the movie’s first half seemed minimal. In fact, his presence as Aldrich Killian did not seem to fully develop until the movie’s last forty-five minutes or so. And his character slightly reminded me of the Dr. Curt Conners (the Lizard) character from last year’s “THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN”. But I must admit that Pearce did a great job of conveying the character’s development from a pathetic and desperate man eager to use science to heal his disabilities to a charming former acquaintance of Pepper’s and finally a truly scary and difficult-to-beat villain. I have never seen James Badge Dale portray a villain. But I have heard that he once portrayed a serial killer on two carryover episodes from “CSI: MIAMI” and “CSI: NEW YORK”. I need to see those episodes, but I found Badge Dale’s portrayal of henchman Eric Sevrin rather frightening and intimidating. Rebecca Hall portrayed Dr. Maya Hensen, the true creator of the Extremis virus, who found herself regretting her decision to work with Dr. Killian. Hall gave a sharp and witty performance, but I think her presence seemed pretty much wasted. William Sadler gave a solid performance as the President of the United States. Considering his talent, I do wish the script had allowed him to do more. I can say the same about Miguel Ferrer’s ambiguous portrayal of the Vice-President. I finally come to Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Many fans were upset over the changes that Black and Pearce made to the Mandarin character. I was not. I found their portrayal of the super villain amazing and mind boggling. And one has to thank Kingsley for giving what I feel was the most entertaining performance in the movie. In fact, I feel that the scene in which Tony meets the Mandarin for the first time is one of my favorite “hero-meets-villain” scenes of all time from any Marvel film. It is a scene I will always cherish.

I do have a few complaints about “IRON MAN 3”. I had already pointed out my slight disappointment at the limited manner in which the Maya Hensen character was utilized. And I had a complaint about the quick resolution of Tony’s PTSD.  Also, Tony’s trip to Tennessee seemed a bit offbeat to em. I did not need to watch his developing friendship with the kid Harley, which struck me as trite. And I also wish that the script had been a little clear on how the Mandarin and Killian tracked Tony down to Tennessee. Although I found some satisfaction in the oil rig sequence – especially in regard to Pepper and Rhodey’s action – I must admit that overall, it struck me as somewhat convoluted. It did not help that the entire sequence was shot at night. Between the night setting, Jeffrey Ford and Peter S. Elliot’s shaky editing and the numerous Iron Man droids, I almost found the sequence very disappointing. Well, let me put it another way . . . I have seen better.

Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures are promoting this film as the best IRON MAN film ever. I cannot say that I agree. I feel it has a more complex story than the somewhat simplistic narrative  for “IRON MAN”. But it has a set of flaws that makes it difficult for me to declare it as “the best”. I guess “IRON MAN 2” is still my favorite. But I do believe that “IRON MAN 3”proved to be a very entertaining and exciting film. In the end, Shane Black did a top-notch job with the help of a decent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Robert Downey Jr.

 

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released“THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

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Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.

 

“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

UNTITLED TORNADO PROJECT

 

“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

When I first learned about the theater release of the 2014 disaster movie, “INTO THE STORM”, my first instinct was to go see it. The summer of 2014 proved to be a very hot and dry one for Southern California. And I had longed to see rain of any kind – even on the movie screen. But in the end, I never did. 

Caution eventually overrode my desire to see “INTO THE STORM” and I had decided to skip it. After all, movie tickets these days are not as cheap as they used to be. I was enduring a period of financial straits at the time. And “INTO THE STORM” had been released in August . . . a graveyard period for summer movies. So, I decided to watch the movie after it was released on DVD. And you know what? The movie turned out to be everything I had imagined.

“INTO THE STORM” is basically as disaster movie about how a team of storm chasers and citizens of a small Oklahoma town deal with a series of major tornadoes and rain storms. The movie begins with the deaths of a group of teenagers killed by a major tornado in some nameless small town. Unfortunately, the storm chasers led by a wealthy man named Peter Moore, failed to be in the storm’s vicinity, thanks to the team’s meteorologist, Dr. Allison Stone. The latter eventually discovers another storm/tornado heading in the direction of Sillerton, Oklahoma. Among the Sillerton citizens unaware of the incoming storms are Gary Fuller, vice-principal of the local high school and his two sons, Donnie and Trey; and Donnie’s fellow classmate, Kaitlyn Johnston. Since his wife’s death, Gary has been somewhat withdrawn and brusque toward his sons. Donnie seems to resent his father’s cold behavior, despite his willingness to video record the upcoming graduation ceremony for the town’s time capsule. In fact, Donnie has no trouble handing over the video recording task to younger brother Trey, when the latter suggests he do the job. Instead, Donnie helps Kaitlyn video record a school project at an abandoned paper mill as a means to get emotionally close to her. In the end, the lives of the Fuller family, other Sillerton citizens, Allison, Pete and the rest of the storm chasing team are endangered by on coming hail storms and tornadoes.

I would never classify “INTO THE STORM” as a major disaster movie on the scale of “EARTHQUAKE” or “2012”. It felt more like a small scale production limited to a small town or farm community setting. To be honest, it reminded me of movies like “DANTE’S PEAK” or “TWISTER”. Especially the latter. And like the last two mentioned films, “INTO THE STORM” almost seemed to have a B-movie veneer. Only the film’s special effects, which impressed me very much, made it difficult for me to view it as a B-movie. In the end, I am not surprised that “INTO THE STORM” was released in August.

Brining up “TWISTER” reminded me that this movie has more in common with the 1995 movie than any other. Both featured the following – heavy rain, hail, tornadoes, storm chasers and a Midwest setting. “TWISTER” was publicized as more of an “A” quality film and featured well-known actors in the lead. And yet . . . I came away feeling more impressed with “INTO THE STORM”. How odd. Mind you, “INTO THE STORM” was not perfect. As I had earlier pointed out, it seemed to have a B-movie veneer about it, despite the production values and special effects. But the movie also possessed two aspects that failed to impress me. One, I could have done without the two yahoos who had decided to face the storms for the sake of thrills. I found their characters so idiotic and not worthy of remembering their names. And two, I was not that impressed with the movie’s dénouement in which the storms’ survivors express their relief over being alive and what their experiences meant to them. I found the sequence a bit wince inducing, pretentious and a bore. I honestly could have dealt without the “meaning of life” speeches.

Despite these annoyances, “INTO THE STORM” proved to be an entertaining movie for me. Director Steven Quale and John Swetnam’s screenplay kept the narrative taut, well-paced and to the point. Some might say that the screenplay could have delved more into the characters’ background before placing them in the midst of the storm. I am not sure if such a ploy would have been necessary. The few scenes that focused on the private lives of the Fuller family and the storm chasers pretty much told me all I needed to know about them. Swetnam was pretty blunt about the characters’ personalities and their situations in their lives before the storms hit Sillerton. I also have to comment on the movie’s production values. I was very impressed by Brian Pearson’s photography. Surprisingly, the movie was shot in Michigan, instead of Oklahoma. Michigan or Oklahoma, I cannot deny that I found Pearson’s photography sharp, colorful and rather beautiful. Pearson’s photography also enhanced the work of the movie’s special effects team. Speaking of speacial effects . . . I thought the movie makers did an outstanding job in creating both the storms and tornadoes featured in the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s last tornado and one particular scene in which one of the characters ended up in the center of the storm – namely the eye.

I was also surprised that “INTO THE STORM” avoided the usual cliché of a romance between the two leading characters. There was a great deal of potential for romance between the Gary Fuller and Allison Stone characters. Both were portrayed by very attractive performers. Gary Fuller was a widower with two sons and Allison Stone was a single mother with a five year-old daughter. Whether she was divorced or single, I have no idea. The chemistry between the two seemed pretty obvious when they first met. And yet Swetnam’s screenplay merely allowed them to become friendly acquaintances and co-survivors . . . and nothing else. I would have been disappointed, if I had not found their lack of a romance surprisingly refreshing.

Considering that “INTO THE STORM” was not exactly a major Hollywood production, I felt rather relieved that the cast managed to give decent performances. Aside from the two actors who played the two thrill seeking yahoos, I was very satisfied with the rest of the cast. Both Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies clicked on screen as Gary Fuller and Dr. Allison Stone, despite the fact that they were not portraying a romantic pair. And Armitage’s American accent struck me as a bit of an improvement over his accent in 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. Max Deacon and Nathan Kress gave solid support as Fuller’s two sons – Donnie and Trey. I could also say the same about Alycia Debnam Carey, who portrayed Kaitlyn Johnston, and the actors who portrayed other members of Pete Moore’s storm chasing team. Speaking of the Pete Moore character, he struck me as quite a pip. I could not decide whether to like or dislike him. And I have to give kudos to Matt Walsh for making him such an effectively ambiguous character. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie.

In a nutshell, “INTO THE STORM” did not strike me as a particularly mind blowing or memorable film. I am not saying that it was terrible or even mediocre. I would say that it was a pretty solid and entertaining film, despite its flaws or 89 minute running time. I thought director Steven Quale did a good job in creating a decent film, backed by superb special effects and competent acting by a solid cast led by Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies.

“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

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“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

Nearly sixty-one years ago, the Walt Disney Studios produced a television movie set during a three year period that focused on the years in Boston, Massachusetts Colony prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. The name of that movie was 1957’s “JOHNNY TREMAIN”

Directed by Robert Stevenson, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” was an adaptation of Esther Forbes’ 1944 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel. It told the story of an arrogant adolescent named Johnny Tremain, who happened to be an apprentice for a silversmith living in Boston. Johnny has dreams of owning his shop one day and becoming wealthy and respected in the process.

When a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Lyte commissions his master to repair a family’s christening cup, Johnny takes it upon himself to do the actual repairs and win the arrogant Lyte’s patronage. Unfortunately, Johnny picked the Sabbath to repair Lyte’s cup. And in his haste to repair it before being discovered for breaking the Sabbath, Johnny damages his hand. While repairing Lyte’s cup, Johnny discovers that he is the merchant’s long lost nephew on his mother’s side. But Lyte refuses to acknowledge Johnny as his kinsman and has the boy locked up. Johnny’s difficulties with Lyte and in acquiring a job eventually leads him to join the Sons of Liberty, an organization dedicated to American independence from the British Empire. Along the way Johnny befriends several historical giants including Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren. The story reaches its climax with the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution.

It had been a long time since I first saw this movie. A very long time. And considering that it had been originally produced as a Disney television movie, I was ready to harbor a low opinion of it. Considering the Disney Studios’ reputation for churning out a superficial take on American History, one would be inclined to dismiss the film. And if I must be honest,“JOHNNY TREMAIN” has a superficial take on the later years of the Colonial Era and the beginning of the American Revolution. Although there is some depth in the movie’s characters, there seemed to be lacking any ambiguity whatsoever. Well . . . I take that back. Aside from Johnny Tremain’s brief foray into arrogance in the movie’s first fifteen minutes, there were no ambiguity in the other American characters. Thankfully, screenwriters Esther Forbes and Tom Blackburn allowed some ambiguity in the British characters and prevented them from being portrayed as cold-blooded and one-dimensional villains. Even Sebastian Cabot’s Jonathan Lyte (Johnny’s British uncle) was saved from a fate of one-note villainy in his final reaction to Johnny’s decision not to accept his patronage.

Disney film or not, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” is an entertaining historical drama infused with energy, good solid performances and a somewhat in-depth look into American history in Boston, between 1772 and 1775. Despite a running time of 80 minutes, the movie explored some of the events during that period – events that included an introduction of some of the important members of the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the British closure of Boston’s port, Paul Revere’s famous ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It is also the first costume drama that revealed the establishment of slavery in a Northern state – or in this case, colony. In the midst of all this history, Forbes and Blackburn delved into Johnny’s personal drama – including his conflicts with his uncle, dealing with his physical disability and his relationship with Priscilla Lapham, his former master’s daughter – with solid detail.

With the use of matte paintings, colorful photography by Charles P. Boyle and Peter Ellenshaw’s production designs, director Robert Stevenson did a good job in transforming television viewers back to Boston of the 1770s. But the one production aspect of “JOHNNY TREMAIN” that really impressed me was the original song, “Liberty Tree”, written by Blackburn and George Bruns. The song struck me as very catchy and remained stuck in my mind some time after watching the movie. The performances are pretty solid, but not particularly memorable. Again, allow me to correct myself. There was one outstanding performance . . . and it came from the late Sebastian Cabot, who portrayed Johnny’s arrogant uncle, Jonathan Lyte. Everyone else – including leads Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten and Richard Beymer, who would enjoy brief stardom in the early 1960s – did not exactly dazzle me.

My gut instinct tells me that the average adult might lacked the patience to watch a movie like “JOHNNY TREMAIN”. Although historical drama remains very popular with moviegoers and television viewers, I suspect that Disney’s early superficial style of portraying history might be slightly off-putting. However, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” might serve as a first-rate introduction to American History for children. And if one is in the mood for Disney nostalgia, I see no reason not to watch it again. Even after sixty years or so, it is still an entertaining little movie.