“PUSH” (2009) Review

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“PUSH” (2009) Review

When I first saw the 2009 science-fiction thriller, “PUSH”, I had assumed that it was based upon some novel, comic book series or graphic novel. Several years passed before I discovered that the movie’s plot was actually the brainchild of the screenwriter, David Bourla.

Directed by Paul McGuigan, the movie is about a group of people with psychic abilities, who band together to stop a government agency from using a dangerous drug to enhance the abilities of others like them. The story began with a boy named Nick Gant and his father Jonah, two “Movers” (or telekinetics), who are on the run from Division, the government agency established in 1945 to hunt down and experiment on psychics. Before one of the Division’s operatives, Agent Henry Carver, can catch up with them, Jonah tells Nick that he had received a vision from a “Watcher” (seer) about a young girl that Nick must help in the future in order to take down Division. Jonah helps his son finally escape as Carver arrives and kills him.

Ten years later, Nick is hiding in Hong Kong, as an expatriate. A young girl named Cassie Holmes arrives at his apartment, claiming to be a Watcher. She needs his help in finding a mysterious case that she believes will bring down the Division and lead to the release of her mother (another and more powerful Watcher) from prison. The case that Cassie seeks contains a power boosting drug developed by the Division. Agent Carver has used this drug on several test subjects who have ended up dead. The only subject to survive the drug is a Pusher (telepathic manipulator) named Kira, who was an old love of Nick’s. Kira manages to steal a sample of the drug and place in a case that she had hidden upon her arrival in Hong Kong. Not only are Cassie and Nick looking for the case, but so are members of the Pop family, who have formed a psychic Triad and of course . . . the Division.

I could go into more detail about the movie’s plot, but right now, that is all I am willing to disclose. Overall, I liked the plot. It struck me as a very interesting twist on the whole topic of those with psychic abilities at war with each other. And the movie even featured a surprising twist in the end. I also enjoyed how the movie handled the visual effects. Mark Meddings did an excellent job in supervising those effects that featured the characters’ abilities. And these visual effects were enhanced by Peter Sova’s colorful cinematography. Sova’s photography also enchanced the movie’s views of Hong Kong and other parts of China.

But there were moments when I found the plot a bit convoluted and confusing, despite Dakota Fanning’s voice over. Judging from what I had revealed in the previous episode, one would find my comment confusing. But honestly, there were moments when it seemed that the movie was so caught up in revealing new characters and new psychic abilities that I almost lost track of the plot. If I must be brutally honest, Paul McGuigan’s uneven direction did not help. I had no problems with McGuigan’s handling of some of the action sequences – especially the prologue sequence featuring Nick and his father, Kira’s escape from two Division agents, and Nick’s encounters with Carver and the latter’s henchman, Victor Budarin. But his non-action sequences – especially in the movie’s second half – tend to drag. Sometimes, the cast manages to rise above his lethargic direction and sometimes, they cannot.

I had no problems with the cast. Chris Evans made a first-rate leading man. He also did a great job in developing his character from the embittered and self-involved young man hiding from authorities, to a more strong-will character willing to toe the line for others. Evans had two leading ladies – Dakota Fanning and Camilla Belle. I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with Belle. Fanning, on the other hand, gave a very spirited and skillful performance as the strong-willed and sardonic Cassie, who seemed more than determined to bring down the Division and help her mother. More importantly, both she and Evans had a very strong screen presence . . . which did not bode well for Belle. There are times when I find myself wondering if Djimon Hounsou is underrated as an actor. His performance as villain, Agent Henry Carver, is one of the best aspects of this movie. Hounsou can do ambiguity like nobody’s business and more importantly, his Carver is not some mustache twirling villain or one-note block of ice. The movie also featured excellent performances from a supporting cast that featured Joel Gretsch, Ming-Na Wen, Nate Mooney, Corey Stoll, Scott Michael Campbell, Maggie Sif, Kwan Fung Chi and Jacky Heung. I have to give special kudos to Cliff Curtis’ charming and colorful portrayal of a former Division agent named Hook Waters and Xiao Lu Li as the sly and malevolent Pop Girl, a Watcher for the Pop Triad.

Overall, I have mixed feelings for “PUSH”. It featured a pretty interesting premise, thanks to David Bourla’s screenplay. The movie also featured some first-class visual effects supervised by Mark Meddings. Unfortunately, Paul McGuigan’s direction struck me as slightly uneven. If it were not for the screenplay, the visual effects and excellent performances from the likes of Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning and Kjimon Hounsou; this movie would have sank to the ground . . . at least for me.

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

“AMERICAN GANGSTER” (2007) Review

Six years ago, I saw a movie that managed to more than spark my interest. I am talking about the 2007 drama directed by Ridley Scott called, “AMERICAN GANGSTER”. The movie, which starred Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, told the story about drug lord Frank Lucas and the New Jersey cop who brought him down, Ritchie Roberts.

Set between 1968 and 1976, “AMERICAN GANGSTER” began with the death of Harlem mobster and Lucas’ own boss, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. Following Johnson’s death, Lucas found himself embroiled in a rivalry for control of Harlem. Realizing that he lacked the cash to assume control, he began a scheme that cut out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in Southeast Asia. He also organized the smuggling of heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. by using the coffins of dead American servicemen (“Cadaver Connection”).

The story also focused upon the man who had eventually captured Lucas, namely a New Jersey cop for Essex County named Ritchie Roberts. Roberts turned out to be a rare case amongst the law enforcers in the Tri-State area – namely an honest cop. When he and his partner, Javier Rivera stumbled across a cache of untraceable drug money, Roberts had insisted that it be reported. This one act not only drove his fellow cops (apparently honest cops were not trusted) to ostracize both Roberts and Rivera, and drove the latter to overdose on drugs that happened to be part of Lucas’ new product called ‘Blue Angel’. The movie not only focused upon Lucas and Roberts’ professional lives, which would eventually lead to the former’s arrest in 1975; it also focused on their private lives. Whereas drug lord Lucas is a loyal family man and faithful husband, honest cop Roberts turned out to be a notorious philanderer who had allowed an old friend and local mobster to be his son’s godfather.

Director Ridley Scott did a superb job of steering the audience into the world of the drug trade, East Coast organized crime and law enforcement from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. With Steve Zillian’s script, he also managed to give the audience a clear view of capitalism and its corrupting influence on mobsters, the police and local neighborhoods. This was especially conveyed in two scenes. One featured a conversation between Lucas and competitor Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a cameo role), the former gave the latter a lesson on brand names and other forms of capitalism. It seemed that Barnes had been selling his product using Lucas’ brand name of Blue Angel. Believe or not, drug dealers apparently did stamp brand names on their products. Why not? Alcohol and tobacco companies do. The other featured a segment on how corrupt cops like NYPD Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) extort both money and drugs and cut into the mobs’ profits by selling the latter on the street.

Also Scott and Zillian gave the audience a look at the devastating impact that street drugs had on society – including soldiers in Vietnam, local citizens of Harlem and cops like Roberts’ partner, Rivera. Scott managed to re-create this setting without allowing the movie’s setting to slide into a cliche. I got so caught up in the movie that by the time it ended, two hours and forty mintues had passed without me realizing it.

In 1995, both Washington and Crowe did a movie together – a science-fiction thriller called, “VIRTUOSITY”. Needless to say that by the time the movie’s first half hour had end, I realized it was a stinker. And yes, it did deservedly bomb at the box office. Fortunately for Scott, he was lucky to work with the two dynamic actors’ second collaboration. And both Washington and Crowe were lucky to co-star in a movie that turned out to be twenty times better than “VIRTUOSITY”. Washington effortlessly re-created both the charm and the menace of the drug lord. And Crowe infused his usual intensity into the solidly honest Roberts. “AMERICAN GANGSTER” was also blessed by a solid cast led by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. as the very splashy drug kingpin Nicky Barnes, the intense John Ortiz as Roberts’ drug addicted partner, Javier Rivera, Ruby Dee as the staunchly emotional Mama Lucas and Josh Brolin in his deliciously corrupt portrayal of NYPD Detective Trupo.

I was very disappointed when “AMERICAN GANGSTER” failed to receive numerous Academy Award nominations during the 2007-2008 movie award seasons. In fact, it only earned two – a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee and a Best Art Direction nomination for Arthur Max and Beth A. Rubino. And nothing else. Like I said, I felt very disappointed. If you have not seen “AMERICAN GANGSTER” yet, I recommend that you do so. After all, it is now available on DVD.

“FLASHFORWARD: A Potential Nipped in the Bud”

“FLASHFORWARD: A POTENTIAL NIPPED IN THE BUD”

Ever since ABC cancelled its 2009 science-fiction drama called “FLASHFORWARD” after one season, many television critics and fans have expressed the belief that the series failed to garner enough viewers due to its less than stellar writing. But there were a good number of viewers who believed that the network should have given the series a chance to grow over the years. I happen to be one of those who agree with the latter.

Based upon the 1999 novel written by Robert J. Sawyer, “FLASHFORWARD” revolved around the lives of several people after a mysterious event caused nearly everyone on the planet to simultaneously lose consciousness for two minutes and seventeen seconds on October 6, 2009. During this “blackout” people saw what appeared to be visions of their lives on April 29, 2010 – a global “flashforward”. Created by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, the series starred Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Courtney B. Vance, Christine Woods, Jack Davenport, Sonia Walger and Dominic Monaghan.

When the series first aired in late September 2009, it became an immediate ratings hit and stayed that way during its first ten (10) episodes. Then ABC made the decision to put the series on hiatus for three-and-a-half months. Why? I have no idea. But after the series resumed its run in mid-March 2010, its ratings tanked. In fact, the ratings remained low until it was finally cancelled by ABC some two-and-a-half months later. Does this story sound familiar? Why, yes it does. The very same fate nearly befell the CBS science-fiction/post-apocalypse series, ”JERICHO”. Thanks to a campaign by fans to save the series, “JERICHO” was given a second season – which amounted to seven episodes that aired in a new time slot. Namely Tuesday nights at 10:00 PM. And yes . . . CBS finally got rid of it after those seven episodes aired. No amount of fan campaign could convince ABC to give “FLASHFORWARD” a second chance. But there are a good number of fans who are angry at how the network handled the series.

Yet, those critics and fans who did not criticize ABC’s handling of the series have claimed that“FLASHFORWARD” was a failure that was destined for cancellation. Many of these critics and viewers claimed that the series failed to live up to the same quality as another ABC series, namely the pop culture 2004-2010 hit, “LOST”. Personally, I have a problem with this assessment. One, “FLASHFORWARD” was only able to finish one season. Its story had barely began before it was cancelled. This expectation for a series to be perfect right off the bat struck me as ridiculous. Now, I realize that both “LOST” and the NBC series,“HEROES”, managed to immediately dazzle U.S. viewers and critics with highly regarded series premieres and well written first seasons. But a closer look would reveal that after their remarkable first seasons, the storytelling qualities of both shows ended up declining following their first seasons. The problem I had with both “LOST” and “HEROES” was that they tried to maintain the momentum of their dazzling debuts . . . and failed. Mind you, “LOST” managed to occasionally deliver some exceptional episodes and story arcs over its remaining five seasons. But it was never able to deliver a consistently top-notched season after its first one. As for “HEROES”, it simply went down the drain following its first season. How it managed to stay on the air for another three seasons is still a mystery to me.

Ever since the dazzling debuts of “LOST” and “HEROES”; television network executives have expected and demanded that other multi-seasonal series with a science-fiction/fantasy background repeat their initial success. I believe that this was a mistake. Some of the best science-fiction/fantasy television series I have seen have started out with a less than dazzling or even mediocre season debut. Good examples of this are“BABYLON 5”, “JERICHO” and “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”. Both “BABYLON 5” and “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” were given chances to fulfill their potential. By the middle of its first season, “JERICHO”had started to develop into a well-written series. But after a long, mid-season hiatus and an addition seven(?)episodes, CBS permanently pulled its plug . . . aborting its chances of fulfilling any further potential.

As I had stated earlier, “FLASH FORWARD” also started its season with a less than dazzling debut. I might as well be frank. It was not perfect. But I do believe that it had great potential to grow into a well written saga. If the series had aired in the previous decade, I suspect that might have been given the chance to develop into something remarkable. It certainly had potential. But, we are stuck in the “LOST” era of television broadcasting. Today’s television network executives do not seem to have the patience or willingness to give a series a chance to grow. They want and demand instant success. And unless they are willing to change theirmodis operandi, future science-fiction/fantasy television series with levels of qualities similar to “BABYLON 5”and “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” threaten to become a thing of the past, never to be shown on television again. I certainly did not see that level of developing quality writing in shows like “LOST” or “HEROES”, despite their longevity on the air.

“THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

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Below is my review of “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”, a new comedy-drama directed by Grant Heslov that stars George Clooney and Ewan McGregor:

“THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Grant Heslov directed this comedic adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The movie starred George Clooney as one of the participants in this program and Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a journalist who stumbles across the story, while reporting on businesses with military contracts in Iraq. One of the surprising aspects of this movie is that its story is based upon fact. According to author Jon Ronson, there was actually a similar unit actually existed within the U.S. Army. The names were changed . . . and probably some of the facts, but the Army did explore New Age concepts and military applications of the paranormal.

The movie followed McGregor’s character, a journalist with the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram named Bob Wilton who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) after flying to Kuwait out of anger, due to a recent divorce with his wife. During a trip across the Iraqi countryside, Cassady revealed his participation in an Army unit that trained to develop a range of par psychological skills by using New Age concepts. The unit ended up being named the New Earth Army. While the pair endured a journey that included encounters with a gang of Iraqi criminals, their fellow kidnap victim (Waleed Zuaiter), the head of a private security firm named Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick) and two rival groups of American contractors who engage in a gunfight against each other in Ramadi.

During Wilton and Cassady’s journey, the latter revealed the story behind the creation of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam War veteran named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who travelled across America in the 1970s for six years to explore a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement) after getting shot during the Vietnam War. Django used these experiences to create the New Earth Army. Django’s recruits ended up being nicknamed”Jedi Warriors”. By the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who developed a lifelong rivalry because of their opposing views of how to implement the First Earth philosophy. Lyn wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Larry was more interested in the dark side of the philosophy. Wilton and Cassady’s journey ended when they located a military base in the middle of the desert. They discovered that Larry Hooper has become the founder and head of PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. A dismayed Cassady also learned that a now decrepit Django has become an employee of PSIC.

I must admit that I was not in a big hurry to see ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”. In fact, I never had any intention of seeing it in the first place. The only reason I went to see the movie in the first place was that I was desperate for something to watch. The movie season for the past two months has seemed pretty deplorable to me. Aside from ”THE INFORMANT’, I have not been able to stumble across a movie that I would find appealing. And what about ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”? Did I find it appealing? Honestly? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I must admit that thanks to Grant Heslov’s direction and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, I found the movie rather humorous in an off-kilter manner. Some of the most humorous scenes featured:

*Wilton and Cassady’s flight from a group of Iraqi criminals

*The ”Battle of Ramadi” between two American private security armies

*Bill Django’s six year exploration of New Age movements

*The results of Wilton and Django’s spiking of the Army base food with LSD.

At first, the movie’s approach to New Age religion and movements seemed inconsistent. The first half of the film did not seem to treat it as a joke. However, once Wilton and Cassady reached the base housing the PSIC, Straughan’s script treated the subject with a lot more respect. It took me a while to realize that the story was told from Bob Wilton’s point-of-view. It only seemed natural that he would first view the New Earth Army and New Age beliefs as a joke. But after time spent with Cassady and later Django at the PSIC base, Wilton naturally developed a newfound respect for both topics. The movie also provided a slightly pointed attack upon the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Normally, I would have cringed at such protesting in a comedy. Fortunately, Heslov used humor – and very sharp humor at that – to mock American presence in the Middle Eastern country.

I think that Lyn Cassady might turn out to be one of my favorite roles portrayed by George Clooney. One, he gave a hilarious performance. And two, he also did a marvelous job in infusing Cassady’s role with a mixture of super-military machismo and wide-eyed innocence. And despite his questionable American accent, I was very impressed by Ewan McGregor’s poignant performance as the lovelorn Michigan journalist (his wife left him for his editor), who travels to Iraq to prove his bravery to his former wife . . . only to discover something more unique. Another joyous addition to the cast turned out to be Jeff Bridges, who gave a wonderfully off-kilter performance as Cassady’s mentor and founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django. And Larry Hooper, the one man allegedly responsible for bringing down Django’s New Earth Army, turned out to be another one of Kevin Spacey’s delicious villainous roles.
I suspect that ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” did not turn out to be a hit film, I was not that surprised. I suspect that many moviegoers might found the film’s use of topics such as the Army’s exploration of New Age movements and the paranormal to mock American military presence in Iraq a bit hard to take. And there is the possibility that filmgoers might find Straughan’s script used constant flashbacks to tell the story of the New Earth Army during Cassady and Wilton’s journey throughout Iraq rather confusing. Personally, I rather liked the movie. I doubt that it will ever be a big favorite of mine, but I still found it entertaining and interesting.

“IRON MAN 2” (2010) Review

“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.  I later discovered that “IRON MAN 2”is supposed to be set before the events of “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” . . . despite the fact that the latter film was set later in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s timeline.  What can I say?  Confusing . . .  and a little unnecessary.  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. into 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 in order to allow the latter 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 proved to be a box office hit anyway . . . despite the critical complaints.  However, in case you have not seen it, I recommend that you do.  Quite frankly, I consider it better than the 2008 film.

JANE AUSTEN’s Heroine Gallery

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

JANE AUSTEN’S HEROINE GALLERY

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Elinor Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Elinor Dashwood is the oldest Dashwood sister who symbolizes a coolness of judgement and strength of understanding. This leads her to be her mother’s frequent counsellor, and sometimes shows more common sense than the rest of her family. Elinor could have easily been regarded as a flawless character, if it were not for her penchant of suppressing her emotions just a little too much. Ironically, none of the actresses I have seen portray Elinor were never able to portray a nineteen year-old woman accurately.

Elinor - Joanna David

1. Joanna David (1971) – She gave an excellent performance and was among the few who did not indulge in histronics. My only complaint was her slight inability to project Elinor’s passionate nature behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Irene Richards

2. Irene Richards (1981) – I found her portrayal of Elinor to be solid and competent. But like David, she failed to expose Elinor’s passionate nature behind the stoic behavior.

Elinor - Emma Thompson

3. Emma Thompson (1995) – Many have complained that she was too old to portray Elinor. Since the other actresses failed to convincingly portray a nineteen year-old woman, no matter how sensible, I find the complaints against Thompson irrelevant. Thankfully, Thompson did not bother to portray Elinor as a 19 year-old. And she managed to perfectly convey Elinor’s complexities behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Hattie Morahan

4. Hattie Morahan (2008) – She gave an excellent performance and was able to convey Elinor’s passionate nature without any histronics. My only complaint was her tendency to express Elinor’s surprise with this deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.

 

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Marianne Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

This second Dashwood sister is a different kettle of fish from the first. Unlike Elinor, Marianne is an emotional adolescent who worships the idea of romance and excessive sentimentality. She can also be somewhat self-absorbed, yet at the same time, very loyal to her family.
Marianne - Ciaran Madden

1. Ciaran Madden – Either Madden had a bad director or the actress simply lacked the skills to portray the emotional and complex Marianne. Because she gave a very hammy performance.

Marianne - Tracey Childs

2. Tracey Childs – She was quite good as Marianne, but there were times when she portrayed Marianne as a little too sober and sensible – even early in the story.

Marianne - Kate Winslet

3. Kate Winslet (1995) – The actress was in my personal opinion, the best Marianne Dashwood I have ever seen. She conveyed Marianne’s complex and emotional nature with great skill, leading her to deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.

Marianne - Charity Wakefield

4. Charity Wakefield (2008) – She solidly portrayed the emotional Marianne, but there were moments when her performance seemed a bit mechanical.

 

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Elizabeth Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

Elizabeth is the second of five daughters of an English gentleman and member of the landed gentry. She is probably the wittiest and most beloved of Austen’s heroines. Due to her father’s financial circumstances – despite being a landowner – Elizabeth is required to seek a marriage of convenience for economic security, despite her desire to marry for love.

Elizabeth - Greer Garson

1. Greer Garson (1940) – Her performance as Elizabeth Bennet has been greatly maligned in recent years, due to the discovery that she was in her mid-30s when she portrayed the role. Personally, I could not care less about her age. She was still marvelous as Elizabeth, capturing both the character’s wit and flaws perfectly.

Elizabeth - Elizabeth Garvie

2. Elizabeth Garvie (1980) – More than any other actress, Garvie portrayed Elizabeth with a soft-spoken gentility. Yet, she still managed to infuse a good deal of the character’s wit and steel with great skill.

Elizabeth - Jennifer Ehle

3. Jennifer Ehle (1995) – Ehle is probably the most popular actress to portray Elizabeth and I can see why. She was perfect as the witty, yet prejudiced Elizabeth. And she deservedly won a BAFTA award for her performance.

Elizabeth - Keira Knightley

4. Keira Knightley (2005) – The actress is not very popular with the public these days. Which is why many tend to be critical of her take on Elizabeth Bennet. Personally, I found it unique in that hers was the only Elizabeth in which the audience was given more than a glimpse of the effects of the Bennet family’s antics upon her psyche. I was more than impressed with Knightley’s performance and thought she truly deserved her Oscar nomination.

 

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Jane Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

The oldest of the Bennet daughters is more beautiful, but just as sensible as her younger sister, Elizabeth. However, she has a sweet and shy nature and tends to make an effort to see the best in everyone. Her fate of a happily ever after proved to be almost as important as Elizabeth’s.

Jane - Maureen O Sullivan

1. Maureen O’Sullivan (1940) – She was very charming as Jane Bennet. However, her Jane seemed to lack the sense that Austen’s literary character possessed.

Jane - Sabina Franklin

2. Sabina Franklyn (1980) – She gave a solid performance as the sweet-tempered Jane. However, her take on the role made the character a little more livelier than Austen’s original character.

Jane - Susannah Harker

3. Susannah Harker (1995) – I really enjoyed Harker’s take on the Jane Bennet role. She did a great job in balancing Jane’s sweet temper, inclination to find the best in everyone and good sense that Elizabeth ignored many times.

Jane - Rosamund Pike

4. Rosamund Pike (2005) – She gave a pretty good performance as the sweet and charming Jane, but rarely got the chance to act as the sensible older sister, due to director Joe Wright’s screenplay.

 

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Fanny Price – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Unfortunately, Fanny happens to be my least favorite Jane Austen heroine. While I might find some of her moral compass admirable and resistance to familial pressure to marry someone she did not love, I did not admire her hypocrisy and passive aggressive behavior. It is a pity that she acquired what she wanted in the end – namely her cousin Edmund Bertram as a spouse – without confronting his or her own personality flaws.
Fanny - Sylvestra de Tourzel

1. Sylvestra de Tourzel (1983) – She had some good moments in her performance as Fanny Price. Unfortunately, there were other moments when I found her portrayal stiff and emotionally unconvincing. Thankfully, de Tourzel became a much better actress over the years.

Fanny - Frances O Connor

2. Frances O’Connor (1999) – The actress portrayed Fanny as a literary version of author Jane Austen – witty and literary minded. She skillfully infused a great deal of wit and charm into the character, yet at the same time, managed to maintain Fanny’s innocence and hypocrisy.

Fanny - Billie Piper

3. Billie Piper (2007) – Many Austen fans disliked her portrayal of Fanny. I did not mind her performance at all. She made Fanny a good deal more bearable to me. Piper’s Fanny lacked de Tourzel’s mechanical acting and O’Connor’s portrayal of Fanny as Jane Austen 2.0. More importantly, she did not portray Fanny as a hypocrite, as the other two did.

Emma 4 Emma 3 Emma 2 Emma 1

Emma Woodhouse – “Emma” (1815)

When Jane Austen first created the Emma Woodhouse character, she described the latter as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”. And while there might be a good deal to dislike about Emma – her snobbery, selfishness and occasional lack of consideration for others – I cannot deny that she still remains one of the most likeable Austen heroines for me. In fact, she might be my favorite. She is very flawed, yet very approachable.

Emma - Doran Godwin

1. Doran Godwin (1972) – She came off as a bit haughty in the first half of the 1972 miniseries. But halfway into the production, she became warmer and funnier. Godwin also had strong chemistry with her co-stars John Carson and Debbie Bowen.

Emma - Gwyneth Paltrow

2. Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) – Paltrow’s portryal of Emma has to be the funniest I have ever seen. She was fantastic. Paltrow captured all of Emma’s caprices and positive traits with superb comic timing.

Emma - Kate Beckinsale

3. Kate Beckinsale (1996-97) – She did a very good job in capturing Emma’s snobbery and controlling manner. But . . . her Emma never struck me as particularly funny. I think Beckinsale developed good comic timing within a few years after this movie.

Emma - Romola Garai

4. Romola Garai (2009) – Garai was another whose great comic timing was perfect for the role of Emma. My only complaint was her tendency to mug when expressing Emma’s surprise.

 

Catherine 2 Catherine 1

Catherine Morland – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I have something in common with the Catherine Morland character . . . we are both bookworms. However, Catherine is addicted to Gothic novel and has an imagination that nearly got the best of her. But she is also a charmer who proved to be capable of growth.

Catherine - Katharine Schlesinger

1. Katharine Schlesinger (1986) – I cannot deny that I disliked the 1986 version of Austen’s 1817 novel. However, I was impressed by Schlesinger’s spot on portrayal of the innocent and suggestive Katherine.

Catherine - Felicity Jones

2. Felicity Jones (2007) – She did a superb job in not only capturing Catherine’s personality, she also gave the character a touch of humor in her scenes with actor J.J. Feild that I really appreciated.

 

Anne 3 Anne 2 Anne 1

Anne Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)

Anne - Ann Firbank

1. Ann Firbank (1971) – Although I had issues with her early 70s beehive and constant use of a pensive expression, I must admit that I rather enjoyed her portrayal of the regretful Anne. And unlike many others, her age – late 30s – did not bother me one bit.

Anne - Amanda Root

2. Amanda Root (1995) – Root’s performance probably created the most nervous Anne Elliot I have ever seen on screen. However, she still gave a superb performance.

Anne - Sally Hawkins

3. Sally Hawkins (2007) – She was excellent as the soft-spoken Anne. More importantly, she did a wonderful job in expressing Anne’s emotions through her eyes.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of “LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.