Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

Warner Brothers is the last studio I would associate with a heartwarming family comedy set in the 19th century. At least the Warner Brothers of the 1940s. And yet, the studio did exactly that when it adapted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1939 play, “Life With Father”, which happened to be an adaptation of Clarence Day’s 1935 novel.

If I must be frank, I am a little confused on how to describe the plot for “LIFE WITH FATHER”. But I will give it my best shot. The movie is basically a cinematic account in the life of one Clarence Day, a stockbroker in 1880s Manhattan, who wants to be master of his house and run his household, just as he runs his Wall Street office. However, standing in his way is his wife, Vinnie, and their four sons, who are more inclined to be more obedient of their mother than their father. You see, Vinnie is the real head of the Day household. And along with their children, she continues to demand that Mr. Day overcome his stubbornness and make changes in his life.

Thanks to Donald Odgen Stewart’s screenplay, “LIFE WITH FATHER” focused on Mr. Day’s attempt to find a new maid; a romance between his oldest son Clarence Junior and pretty out-of-towner named Mary Skinner, who is the ward of his cousin-in-law Cora Cartwright; a plan by Clarence Jr. and second son John to make easy money selling patent medicines; Mrs. Day’s health scare; Mr. Day’s general contempt toward the trappings of organized religion; and Mrs. Day’s agenda to get him baptized. Some of these story lines seem somewhat disconnected. But after watching the movie, I noticed that the story lines regarding Clarence Junior and John’s patent medicine scheme were connected to Clarence Junior’s romance with Mary and Mrs. Day’s health scare. Which played a major role in Mrs. Day’s attempt to get her husband baptized. Even the baptism story line originated from Cousin Cora and Mary’s visit.

Many would be surprised to learn that Michael Curtiz was the director of “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Curtiz was not usually associated with light comedies like “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Instead, he has been known for some of Errol Flynn’s best swashbucklers, noir melodramas like “MILDRED PIERCE”, the occasional crime drama and melodramas like the Oscar winning film, “CASABLANCA”. However, Curtiz had also directed musicals, “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” and “FOUR DAUGHTERS”; so perhaps “LIFE WITH FATHER” was not a stretch for him, after all. I certainly had no problem with this direction for this film. I found it well paced and sharp. And for a movie that heavily relied upon interior shots – especially inside the Days’ home, I find it miraculous that the movie lacked the feel of a filmed play. It also helped that “LIFE WITH FATHER” featured some top notch performers.

William Powell earned his third and last Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Clarence Day Senior, the family’s stubborn and temperamental patriarch. Although the Nick Charles character will always be my personal favorite, I believe that Clarence Day is Powell’s best. He really did an excellent job in immersing himself in the role . . . to the point that there were times that I forgot he was an actor. Powell also clicked very well with Irene Dunne, who portrayed the family’s charming, yet manipulative matriarch, Vinnie Day. It is a testament to Dunne’s skill as an actress that she managed to convey to the audience that despite Clarence Senior’s bombastic manner, she was the real head of the Day household. Unlike Powell, Dunne did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Frankly, I think this is a shame, because she was just as good as her co-star . . . as far as I am concerned.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” also featured excellent performances from the supporting cast. Jimmy Lydon did a wonderful job portraying the Days’ oldest offspring, Clarence Junior. Although Lydon was excellent portraying a character similar in personality to Vinnie Day, I found him especially funny when his Clarence Junior unintentionally project Mr. Day’s personality quirks when his romance with Mary Skinner threatened to go off the rails. Speaking of Mary Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor gave a very funny and superb performance as the young lady who shakes up the Day household with a burgeoning romance with Clarence Junior and an innocent remark that leads Mrs. Day to learn that her husband was not baptized. Edmund Gwenn gave a skillful and subtle performance as Mrs. Day’s minister, who is constantly irritated by Mr. Day’s hostile stance against organized religion. The movie also featured excellent performances from Martin Milner, ZaSu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Derek Scott and Heather Wilde.

Another aspect of “LIFE WITH FATHER” that I found admirable was its production values. When it comes to period films, many of the Old Hollywood films tend to be on shaky ground, sometimes. For the likes of me, I tried to find something wrong with the production for “LIFE WITH FATHER”, but I could not. J. Peverell Marley and William V. Skall’s photography, along with Robert M. Haas’ art direction, and George James Hopkins’ set decorations all combined to the household of an upper middle-class family in 1885 Manhattan. But the one aspect of the film’s production that really impressed me was Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Quite frankly, I thought they were beautiful. Not only did they seem indicative of the movie’s setting and the characters’ class, they . . . well, I thought they were beautiful. Especially the costumes that Irene Dunne wore.

As much as I had enjoyed “LIFE WITH FATHER”, I could not help but notice that it seemed to possess one major flaw. Either this movie lacked a main narrative, or it possessed a very weak one. What is this movie about? Is it about Clarence Junior’s efforts to get a new suit to impress Mary Skinner? Is it about Mrs. Day’s health scare? Or is it about her efforts to get Mr. Day baptized? I suspect that the main plot is the latter . . . and if so, I feel that is pretty weak. If this was the main plot in the 1939 Broadway play, then screenwriter Donald Odgen Stewart should have changed the main narrative. But my gut feeling tells me that he was instructed to be as faithful to the stage play as possible. Too bad.

I see now that the only way to really enjoy “LIFE WITH FATHER” is to regard it as a character study. Between the strong characterizations, and superb performances from a cast led by Oscar nominee William Powell and Irene Dunne, this is easy for me to do. It also helped that despite the weak narrative, the movie could boast some excellent production values and first-rate direction from Michael Curtiz. You know what? Regardless of the weak narrative, “LIFE WITH FATHER” is a movie I could watch over and over again. I enjoyed it that much.

“THE TERMINATOR” (1984) Review

“THE TERMINATOR” (1984) Review

Back in 1984, director James Cameron and his fellow co-writers, Gale Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr., created a science-fiction thriller about a time traveling cyborg assassin in a movie called “THE TERMINATOR”. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen and Paul Winfield; the movie not only spawned four movie sequels within the next thirty-one years, but also a television series and video games.

The story began in post-apocalypse world of 2029 where artificially intelligent machines controlled by a computer system called Skynet are bent upon the extermination of the human race. Two beings from this era are sent back to 1984 – a “Terminator” or a cyborg assassin (Schwarzenegger) programmed to kill a young woman named Sarah Connor (Hamilton); and a human resistance fighter named Kyle Reese (Biehn) charged with protecting her. Sarah happened to be the future mother of the human resistance leader named John Connor. After the Terminator killed two women with the same name as hers, Sarah came to the conclusion that she might be next on the list of some serial killer. Both the Terminator and Kyle manage to track her to a West Los Angeles nightclub, where Kyle manages to save her from being killed by the cyborg. He eventually told Sarah the truth about her destiny and the reason behind the Terminator’s hunt for her.

What can I say about “THE TERMINATOR”? That it is a first-rate science-fiction thriller that has every right to be considered a Hollywood classic? Well . . . yes. It is. For a movie that has a running time of 103 minutes, it is filled with action, pathos, romance, horror and history. Director James Cameron has stated that “THE TERMINATOR” was inspired by two episodes from the 1960s television science fiction series, “THE OUTER LIMITS”“Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand” – both written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Cameron, Hurd and Wisher did such a great job with their story that Ellison threatened to sue them for plagiarism. The movie’s production company and distributor, Hemdale Film Corporation and Orion Pictures, gave him an “acknowledgement to the works of” credit on video and cable releases of “THE TERMINATOR”, as well as a cash settlement of an undisclosed amount.

The movie also boasts some pretty good dark humor – especially in scenes featuring the two Los Angeles detectives (Winfield and Henriksen) determined to save Sarah’s life; and the criminal psychiatrist (Earl Boen), who manages to avoid the carnage at the police station where Sarah and Kyle were taken after their arrest. I also enjoyed some of the action sequences that were well staged by Cameron – Sarah and Kyle’s attempts to escape from both the police and the Terminator on the streets of Los Angeles, the cyborg’s attack upon the police station, its murder of Sarah’s roommate Ginger and the latter’s boyfriend; and the Terminator’s last confrontation with Sarah and Kyle. But my favorite scene featured the Terminator’s attempt to kill Sarah at Technoir, the West Los Angeles nightclub. Not only did it bring back memories of the 1980s for me, I thought it was well staged and acted, despite very little dialogue. The entire sequence was enhanced by the Tahnee Cain & Tryanglz song, “Burning in the Third Degree”.

As much as I enjoyed “THE TERMINATOR”, I had some problems with it. One problem I had were the Los Angeles location sites in the movie. I realize that Cameron did not have a large budget for the film. But did he have to shoot nearly every scene in the eastern half of downtown Los Angeles? Aside from a residential street, the exterior of Sarah’s West Los Angeles apartment, the location where the Terminator meets the three thugs (that include Cameron favorite, Bill Paxton) and the street outside of the Technoir nightclub, just about all of the exterior scenes were shot in the scummy part of downtown L.A. He even used that particular area to serve as West Los Angeles. And how on earth could Sarah Connor, who was a waitress, afford to live in a slightly upscale West L.A. apartment building? The only excuse I have is that her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) had wealthy parents. And where did Sarah and Kyle go after their escape from the carnage at the police station? It looked as if they were leaving Los Angeles. Yet, when the Terminator managed to track them down to a motel, it looked as if they had returned to downtown Los Angeles. One last problem I had was – and I cannot believe I am saying this – the character of Kyle Reese. He seemed to have lost any common sense whatsoever, while being held by the police. Instead of keeping his mouth shut or spinning a lie about how he came to Sarah’s rescue from a killer at the Technoir, he tried to warn the cops about the Terminator and the future apocalypse . . . as if they could do anything about it. I can only assume that the last 24 hours and time travel had affected his brain patterns. Because I found his attempt to warn the cops rather stupid.

Arnold Schwarzenegger led the cast as the cybernetic killer, the Terminator. What did I think of his performance? Hmmm . . . by only saying a few words, he managed to convey the image of a ruthless and efficient killer. Otherwise, I found nothing spectacular about his performance. Michael Biehn was intense as the time traveling Resistance fighter, Kyle Reese. There were moments when he threatened to sail into the waters of hammy acting – his scenes at the police station are prime examples – but I thought he gave a first-rate performance. I was really impressed by Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor, the mother of future Resistance leader, John Connor. She managed to skillfully develop the role of Sarah from a slightly mild-mannered and girlish young Californian to a tough and wiser woman determined to survive the future for the sake of her unborn son. Earl Boen – who will end up appearing the next two movies – gave a snide and funny performance as police psychologist, Dr. Peter Silberman, who abandoned all semblance of delicacy to express his belief of Kyle’s lunacy. Both Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen made a funny and sarcastic screen team as Ed Traxler and Hal Vukovich, the two L.A.P.D. detectives who traded insulting barbs, while trying their best to prevent Sarah from being killed. And if you are careful, you might spot future star, Bill Paxton, who ended up appearing in a few other James Cameron productions.

“THE TERMINATOR” is considered one of the best science-fiction movies of all time and among the two best films in the franchise. Do I believe that it deserved this kind of accolade? Well, it is one of my two favorite TERMINATOR films. As for it being one of the best science-fiction movies ever made . . . no. Not quite in my book. I do believe that it is one of the best movies that feature the topic of time travel. In the end, “THE TERMINATOR” is an entertaining and original film that I never get tired of watching. Kudos to James Cameron for kick-starting a well-made franchise.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode One “Guadalcanal I” Commentary

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“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE ONE “Guadalcanal I” Commentary

Six years ago saw the premiere of the ten-part miniseries, “THE PACIFIC”; which was produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman.

The miniseries focuses upon the lives and experiences of three U.S. Marines who had fought in the Pacific Theater – writer Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), war hero John Basilone (Jon Seda) and professor/writer Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello).

This first episode featured the three men’s reaction to the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Basilone is already a one-year veteran of the Marines around this time, as he says good-bye to his family. Leckie joins the Marines about a month after the Hawaii attack and forms a friendship with a local girl named Vera before saying good-bye to his father. And Sledge is forced to realize that his heart murmur will prevent him from joining the Marines with his friend and neighbor, Sid Phillips (Ashton Holmes). Not long after this opening, both Leckie and Basilone find themselves being shipped out to deal with the Japanese threat on Guadalcanal. Most of the episode focuses upon Leckie and Phillips’ early experiences on Guadalcanal. By the end of the episode, Basilone and the 7th Marines Regiment have arrived.

If there is one thing I can say, “THE PACIFIC” is definitely different from 2001’s “BAND OF BROTHERS”. But I guess I expected it to be. One thing, this episode made it clear that there will be scenes featuring the three characters’ experiences on the home front and among other civilians. That scene between Leckie saying good-bye to his father at the bus depot was very interesting – especially with the writer dealing with his father’s reluctance to say good-bye. And it was interesting to watch Sledge deal with his frustration at being unable to join up, due to his heart murmur. I found myself wondering if he had any idea what he would experience during the war’s later years, would he be so frustrated.

The main difference between “THE PACIFIC” and “BAND OF BROTHERS” is that the latter was mainly a retelling of the experience of an Army company, with an officer as the series’ main character. I think that “THE PACIFIC” is being presented in a way that is similar to the 2000 movie, “TRAFFIC” or the 2005 movie, “CRASH” . . . in which the same topic is presented from different perspectives. In this case, the miniseries is from the viewpoints of three men who DID NOT serve in combat together. And yet, there are connections between them. Leckie served in the same Marine company as Sledge’s best friend, Phillips. Both Leckie and Basilone fought on Guadalcanal and have a brief encounter with one another at the end of Episode One. And later, we will see both Leckie and Sledge fight in another campaign together – Peleliu. I only hope that many people will understand and learn to accept the fact that “THE PACIFIC” had a different style of storytelling than “BAND OF BROTHERS”.

By the way, I want to say a few last things. I must say that the action in this episode was amazing, along with the jungle setting. And the birthday tune that Leckie and the other Marines sang to Phillips was not only funny, but had an ominous aura as well. Well done. Well done.

“IRON MAN 2” (2010) Review

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Below is my review of “IRON MAN 2”, the 2010 sequel to 2008’s “IRON MAN”:

”IRON MAN 2” (2010) Review

I must say that I am grateful to the filmmakers of ”IRON MAN 2”, sequel to the 2008 blockbuster, ”IRON MAN”. I am grateful that they only waited two years to make this movie, instead of three years or more. But even if they had made the movie more than two years after the original film, I believe the movie proved to be worth any wait.

Some IRON MAN fans and film critics have expressed the opinion that ”IRON MAN 2” was inferior to the original 2008 movie. I certainly feel differently. I believe that this movie was superior to ”IRON MAN”. Mind you, this new film had a few flaws. One, I was baffled by Tony Stark’s reluctance to join S.H.I.E.L.D. I had assumed after the appearance of the organization’s leader, Nick Fury, in the original film’s Easter egg sequence that he was eager to join. Even Tony’s appearance in 2008’s ”THE INCREDIBLE HULK” seemed to hint this. So what happened? Is it possible that screenwriter Justin Theroux failed to see the last ”HULK” film? One would think so. As much as I was impressed by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, I must admit that I did not find it as impressive as his photography in the 2008 film. But I discuss this subject in greater detail, later.

”IRON MAN 2” may not have been perfect; but as I had stated earlier, I believe that it is superior to the first film. Do not get me wrong. I loved ”IRON MAN”. I still do. But in an article I had written about some of the Summer 2008 movies, its plot struck me as simple and a little unoriginal. I cannot say the same about its sequel. Thanks to Theroux and director Jon Farveau, ”IRON MAN 2” focused upon the consequences of Tony Stark becoming and admitting to being Iron Man in the last film. During the six months since the end of the last film, Iron Man’s actions as a superhero has allowed him to maintain world peace. His actions have also attracted the attention of a U.S. Senate committee, led by Senator Stern, who demanded that Tony release the Iron Man technology for military application. Stark refused, claiming his competitors are years away from successfully recreating the technology. But more trouble seemed to plague Tony. The palladium core inside the miniaturized arc reactor that he had created to power his Iron Man armor and prevent the shrapnel from a disastrous Afghanistan trip in the last film from reaching his heart . . . was slowly poisoning his blood system. Foreknowledge of a possible early death led Tony to acts of excessive and dangerous behavior – including re-instituting the Stark Expo first initiated by his father back in the 1970s, appointing his personal assistant Pepper Potts as the new CEO of Stark Industries, in and participating in the Monaco Grand Prix, at the Circuit de Monaco.

It is in Monaco where Tony has his first encounter with Ivan Vanko, a Bratva member and Russian physicist who happened to be the son of another physicist and former Stark Industries employee, Anton Vanko, who was fired by Howard Stark and deported back to the Soviet Union. Anton Vanko had also worked on the original plans of the arc reactor with Stark Sr., but the plans remained in the hands of Stark Enterprises. Vanko Sr.’s death at the beginning of the movie sent Ivan into a spiral of grief, leading him to create his own suit containing an arc reactor. Vanko used his new suit to attack Tony at Monaco. The attack attracted the attention of another weapons industrialist named Justin Hammer, an arch-rival of Tony’s. Hammer arranged Vanko’s escape from jail and recruited the Russian physicist to design drones similar to the Iron Man armor for the Stark Expo.

Tony also has to deal with the return of S.H.I.E.L.D. in his life. Unbeknownst to him, the organization’s leader, Nick Fury had assigned one of his agents to infiltrate Stark Enterprises to assess Tony as a possible agent. His spy turned out to be Tony and Pepper’s new assistant, Natalie Rushman aka Natasha Romanoff. Although Fury has become reluctant to recruit Tony for membership in S.H.I.E.L.D., he managed to provide vital materials to the industrialist to allow him to develop a safe element for his arc reactor implant that also provides superior power.

One would begin to wonder if the screenwriters had dumped one too many plotlines in the movie’s script. Some critics have complained that the movie possessed one too many villains. I would disagree. ”IRON MAN 2” simply had a complex plot that did not – in my opinion – struck me as difficult to follow. In fact, I believe that the plot’s complexity allowed the movie to be superior to the 2008 film. As for the number of villains, there were two – Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer.”IRON MAN” also had two villains.

Robert Downey Jr. reprised his role as Tony Stark aka Iron Man. I am trying to think of something to say about his performance. But what is there to say? He was magnificent as always by skillfully portraying every aspect of Tony’s personality – both the good and the bad. Yes, Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was a charming, caring, brilliant and strong-willed man. But he was also narcissist, egotistical, and somewhat self-centered. This is a man who used his Iron Man technology to bring about world peace, instead of using it for personal gain and who had enough trust in his personal assistant to name her as the new CEO of his company. Yet, this same man resorts to alcohol to escape from his demons and is thoughtless enough to give his new CEO strawberries as a gift – completely forgetting that she is allergic to the fruit. Downey Jr.’s performance as Stark seemed to be among the best comic book hero portrayals I have ever seen on the silver screen.

In one of the last scenes in ”IRON MAN”, Tony said the following to his personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts:

”You know, if I were Iron Man, I’d have this girlfriend who knew my true identity. She’d be a wreck, ’cause she’d always be worrying that I was going to die, yet so proud of the man I’d become. She’d be wildly conflicted, which would only make her more crazy about me.”

In ”IRON MAN 2” Pepper certainly discovered how stressful her life could be as the object of affection (or desire) of a celebrated costumed hero. Gwyneth Paltrow returned to the role of Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s personal assistant-turned-new CEO of Stark Industries. And I have to say that the actress did a skillful job of conveying the stress and anxiety that threatened to overwhelm her character. One of my favorite scenes featured a moment when Pepper’s emotions finally overwhelmed her, as she tendered her resignation in an angry tirade.

As everyone knows, Marvel Entertainment had decided to replace Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle for the role of Tony’s best friend, Lieutenant-Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes U.S.A.F. I will not discuss the circumstances that led Cheadle to replace Howard. I will say that Cheadle gave a top notch performance as Rhodey. Do I consider him to be a better choice than Howard? No. I would say that the quality of both actors’ performances struck me as equal. Not that I find that surprising. Both Cheadle and Howard are excellent actors with a strong screen presence. I did notice that Cheadle’s sense of humor never had the opportunity to flourish, until the movie’s final scenes. And his screen chemistry with Downey Jr. did not seem as strong as the Downey Jr./Howard pairing. But he certainly did not disappoint.

I must confess that I have only seen Mickey Rourke in three other movies, besides ”IRON MAN 2”. Aside from his award winning performance in ”THE WRESTLER”, I was never that impressed by him. When I had learned that he would be cast as the main villain, Ivan Vanko, I had qualms about Jon Farveau and Marvel’s decision. In the end, I found myself very impressed by his performance. He managed to portray a menacing, yet emotional personality in a suitably low-key manner. However, I could barely understand some of his lines through the thick Russian accent. Sam Rockwell was as volatile as Rourke was low key. And surprisingly, his volatile performance perfectly suited his character, Tony Stark’s fellow defense contractor – Justin Hammer. What I especially enjoyed about Rockwell’s performance was his ability to inject a raging inferiority complex underneath the gregarious personality.

Scarlett Johanssen had the opportunity to strut her stuff as Natalie Rushman aka Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow, Pepper’s new assistant and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. I must admit there were times I wondered if Johanssen’s character had a personality. It finally dawned on me that she simply possessed a no-nonsense persona that could kick ass. Director Jon Farveau returned as Tony’s bodyguard and chauffeur, Happy Hogan. Thankfully, he got to do a lot more in ”IRON MAN 2”, which included coming to Tony’s rescue with the Iron Man suit during Vanko’s attack during the Monaco Grand Prix, and assisting (somewhat) Natasha during the latter’s breach at Hammer Industries. Samuel L. Jackson’s role as head of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, was increased in this second film. And all I can say is . . . thank goodness! I really enjoyed his strong screen presence and lively conversations with Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. I got the feeling that the two actors really enjoyed working with one another (unless I happened to be wrong).

Clark Gregg returned in the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson. Not only was he his usual quiet and assuming self, but also deliciously snarky. John Sterling of ”MAD MEN” made an appearance as Tony’s father, the late Howard Stark, in old film clips viewed by Tony. Slattery’s Howard Stark struck me as lively and witty as Downey Jr.’s Tony. His performance made it easy for me to see the genesis of Tony’s own personality. And Gary Shandling tossed aside his usual comic persona to convincingly portray U.S. Senator Stern, a determined politician who wants the Iron Man armor in government hands. However, he was allowed a rather snarky and very subtle joke in the film’s last scene.

As I had stated earlier, I was not that impressed by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography in ”IRON MAN 2”. Mind you, I did not find it terrible or a travesty to the art of motion pictures. But I cannot recall viewing any fantastic airborne sequences that were featured in ”IRON MAN”. Aside from Rhodey’s arrival at the Edwards Air Force Base in the War Machine armor, the movie did not feature any daytime aerial scenes, just slightly confusing night time sequences near the beginning and the end of the film. But, as I will point out later, there was one exception. However, I found most of the film’s action sequences very exciting – especially Vanko’s attack upon Tony in Monaco; the birthday brawl between Tony and Rhodey in the Iron Man and War Machine suits; Natasha’s fight against Hammer’s security guards; and the aerial chase sequence over the Stark Expo between Iron Man and the Vanko-controlled War Machine.

I could end the article with a recommendation to see ”IRON MAN 2”. But what would be the point? The movie has already earned over four times its budget, during the past month. However, in case you have not seen it, I recommend that you do.  I consider it better than the 2008 film.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production.

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you, “MIDDLEMARCH”is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching“MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. Davies’ screenplay did an excellent job in balancing Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon and the early period of Lydgate and Rosamond’s relationship in the first three episodes. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I did found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. And Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order without allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

The Charlotte

Here is some information and an old recipe for a dessert dish known as the Charlotte:

THE CHARLOTTE

I first heard about the Charlotte or one of its variations in the 1992 movie, “HOWARD’S END”. One of the supporting characters seemed to have a real enthusiasm for the dessert being served to him by his family’s maid. I have never forgotten that particular scene. And when I came across some information on the Charlotte, I found myself inspired to post an article about it.

The Charlotee is a type of dessert that can be served hot or cold and was believed to be created in the late 18th century. It can also be known as an ‘ice-box cake’. Bread, sponge cake or biscuits/cookies are used to line a mould, which is then filled with a fruit puree or custard. It can also be made using layers of breadcrumbs. Classically, stale bread dipped in butter was used as the lining, but sponge cake or sponge fingers may be used today. The filling may be covered with a thin layer of similarly flavoured gelatin.

Many different varieties have developed. Most Charlottes are served cool, so they are more common in warmer seasons. Fruit Charlottes usually combine a fruit puree or preserve with a custard filling or whipped cream. Some flavors include strawberry, raspberry, apple, pear, and banana. Other types do not include fruit but use a custard or bavarian cream. A citrus curd is a more contemporary choice.

There is a lot of doubt surrounding the origins of the name charlotte. Despite the fact that Charlottes are served across Europe, one etymology suggests it is a corruption of the Old English word charlyt meaning “a dish of custard.” Meat dishes that were known as charlets were popular in the 15th century. Some claim that the charlotte had its origin in the dessert, Charlotte Russe, which was invented by the French chef Marie Antoine Carême (1784-1833). Apparently, he named it in honor of Charlotte of Prussia, the sister of his Russian employer Czar Alexander I (russe being the French word for “Russian”). Other historians say that this sweet dish originated with the Apple Charlotte, which took its name from Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of George III – patron of apple growers in Britain.

The various types of Charlotee desserts include:

*Charlotte Russe – a cake is which the mold is lined with sponge fingers (Ladyfingers) and filled with a custard. It is served cold with whipped cream.

*Apple Charlotte – a golden-crusted dessert made by baking a thick apple compote in a mold lined with buttered bread. This dessert was originally created as a way to use leftover or stale bread.

*Chocolate Charlotte – a cake that uses chocolate mousse within its layers

*Charlotte Malakoff – a cake with a lining of ladyfingers and a center filling of a soufflé mixture of cream, butter, sugar, a liqueur, chopped almonds, and whipped cream. It is decorated with strawberries.

*Cold charlottes – made in a ladyfinger-lined mold and filled with a Bavarian cream. For frozen charlottes, a frozen soufflé or mousse replaces the Bavarian cream.

Here is an old American recipe for Apple Charlotte:

“Cut as many very thin slices of white bread as will cover the bottom and line the sides of a baking dish, but first rub it thick with butter. Put apples, in thin slices, into the dish, in layers, till full, stewing sugar between and bits of butter. In the mean time, soak as many thin slices of bread as will cover the whole, in warm milk, over which lay a plate, and a weight to keep the bread close on the apples. Bake slowly three hours. To a middling-sized dish use a half pound of butter in the whole.” – “A New System of Domestic Cookery, Formed Upon Principles of Economy, and Adapted to the Use of Private Families” by Maria Rundell, 1807

Here is a more modern recipe for the same dish:

Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter 1 (1 pound) loaf white bread, crusts trimmed 8 apples – peeled, cored and chopped 1/3 cup white sugar 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons butter, cubed nonstick cooking spray.

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Grease a 9×5 inch bread pan with 1 tablespoon butter. Press bread slices onto the bottom and sides of pan, making sure there are no gaps.

In a large bowl, combine apples, sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons cubed butter. Place apple mixture in bread lined pan. Cover top with bread slices, and coat with nonstick cooking spray. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes in pan, then invert onto serving dish. – allrecipes.com