“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

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“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

Several years ago, I had noticed that Hollywood has released a minor political thriller during the first or second month of a new year. And to my surprise, I discovered that I found all of them quite entertaining. The latest political thriller to hit the movie screens during the winter season is film starring Liam Neeson called “UNKNOWN”

Based upon Didier van Cauwelaert’s 2003 French novel published in English as “Out of My Head”“UNKNOWN” is about an American scientist named Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth, to attend a science conference held at an upscale hotel. Upon their arrival at the hotel, Dr. Harris discovers that one of his suitcases had been left behind at the airport. While Elizabeth checks into the hotel, Martin hires a taxi to take him back to the airport. Unfortunately, the taxi becomes involved in a serious accident en route, and Martin’s life is saved by the driver. Several days later, Martin wakes up from a coma and returns to the hotel. He discovers that his wife has checked into the hotel with another man assuming his identity. Not only is Martin taken aback by this turn of events, he becomes aware of a mysterious stranger that has made one or two attempts upon his life. Martin recruits the help of the taxi driver, an Eastern European immigrant named Gina; and a former Stasi agent named Ernst Jürgen to help him learn the truth behind the deception being perpetrated with his wife and the man assuming his identity.

I really did not know how I would react to ”UNKNOWN”, when I first saw the trailer. It struck me as one of those movies in which the best parts were featured in the previews. I had also suspected it would be another ”TAKEN” or ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, a lightweight thriller with a great deal of action and a simplified plot. As much as I had liked those two movies, I never really found them that impressive. On the other hand, ”UNKNOWN” seemed to possess more substance as a complex political thriller. The movie had mysteries and plot twists that took me by surprise, before its denouement.

Director Jaume Collet-Serr certainly did justice to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay. Whether they did justice to the novel is another matter, considering that I have never read it. But ”UNKNOWN” featured exciting and well-dramatized scenes that provided both depth and atmosphere to the movie. One of my favorite scenes featured the recently hospitalized Martin’s attempt to connect with one of the conference’s other scientists, a Professor Bressler. Unfortunately for Martin, the man impersonating him happened to be at Professor Bressler’s laboratory. And both Martin Harrises’ attempts to prove themselves as the real McCoy were both strangely humorous and frustrating . . . at least for Martin and the audience. The meeting between Martin’s longtime colleague, Professor Rodney Cole and Ernst Jürgen, the former Stasi agent, proved to be fascinating and tense, thanks to the first-rate performances by Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. And Martin’s first attempt to reunite with his wife, Liz, came off as rather creepy, due to both January Jones and Aidan Quinn’s skillful acting. 

However, I found myself greatly impressed by Collet-Serr’s direction of two major action scenes. One of those scenes featured the finale in which Martin attempts to prevent an assassination attempt that proved to be one of the plot’s surprising twists. I also enjoyed the action sequence at a Berlin hospital that began with the murder of a nurse and the first attempt on Martin’s life. But I must admit that I believe Collet-Serr did justice to what I consider to be the movie’s best sequence – another murder attempt on Martin’s life at Gina’s apartment that segued into an exciting car chase through Berlin’s streets.

”UNKNOWN” provided some first-rate performances by a cast that included Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, and Frank Langella. Diane Kruger proved to be a surprisingly effective action heroine that racked up a higher body count than the rest of the cast. January Jones gave one of the most enigmatic performances I have ever seen in quite a while. She effectively kept me speculating upon the reasons behind her character’s failure to acknowledge Martin as her husband. However, the movie really belonged to Liam Neeson, whose portrayal of the beleaguered scientist proved to be the movie’s backbone. Neeson perfectly captured all the emotions that his character experienced throughout the story, without missing a beat. My only complaint is that I found his American accent a bit stiff and formal.

I really had no idea on how I would accept ”UNKNOWN”, once I saw it. The only reason I went to see it in the first place was because I had nothing else to do. I am glad that I saw the movie. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it for a second time. And I enjoyed it even more.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

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“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

There have been two adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”. Well . . . as far as I know. I have already seen the recent adaptation that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series in 2009. Recently, I watched an earlier adaptation that aired on the BBC “MISS MARPLE” series in 1985.

Directed by Guy Slater, this earlier adaptation starred Joan Hickson as the story’s main sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The story begins in the London office of financier Rex Fortescue, who suddenly dies after drinking his morning tea. At first suspicion falls upon the employees of Fortescue’s firm. But the police coroner discovers that Fortescue had died from taxine, n alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Due to this discovery, Detective-Inspector Neele realizes that someone within the Foretescue household may have poisoned the financier during breakfast. Suspicion falls upon Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele after Neele learns of her affair with a local golf pro at a resort. However, Adele is murdered during tea, via poison. Even worse, a third victim, a maid named Gladys Martin, is found in the garden, strangled to death and with a peg on her nose. After Adele and Gladys’ murders are reported by the media; Miss Marple, who used to be Gladys’ employer, pays a visit to the Fortescue home to discover the murderer’s identity among the list of suspects:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient and mysterious housekeeper
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Aunt Effie Ramsbottom – Rex’s fanatically religious ex-sister-in-law

Despite Inspector Neele’s initial inclination to dismiss the elderly Miss Marple, he comes to appreciate her help in solving the three murders.

I like “A POCKETFUL OF RYE”. I like it a lot. I have always been a fan of Christie’s 1953 novel. And if I must be honest, I also enjoyed the 2009 adaptation, as well. Originally, one would be inclined to believe that this earlier adaptation is more faithful to Christie’s novel. Surprisingly, it is not. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen eliminated at least three characters from the novel and changed the murderer’s fate in the end. Otherwise, this adaptation was pretty faithful. But it is not its faithfulness to Christie’s novel that made me enjoy this production. I have read plenty of first-rate novels that translated badly to the television or movie screen. Fortunately, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” does not suffer from this fate. At least not too much.

Overall, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” is an entertaining and solid story that left me intrigued. It is also one of the few Christie stories in which the revelation of the murderer’s identity left me feeling very surprised . . . and a little sad. However, even sadder was the third murder . . . that of Gladys Martin. She was the only one of the three victims that was likable. Not only did I find her death sad, but also cruel. But it was also good drama. The movie also featured some strong characterization that I believe enhanced the story. Between the interactions between the members of the Fortescue family members, the interactions between Miss Marple and Inspector Neele, and the interaction between the latter and his assistant Sergeant Hay; this production reeked with strong characterization.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” did have its problems. One, I thought the movie’s pacing dragged a bit, following the death of Rex Fortescue. And because of this, the story took its time in reaching Miss Marple’s arrival at the Fortescues’ home. Another problem with Bowen’s script is that it strongly hinted the killer’s identity before Miss Marple could to the police. This problem has been a problem with the Joan Hickson movies throughout its run. For me, the real problem with “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be the killer’s fate. Apparently, Bowen and director Guy Slater decided that Christie’s version of what happened to the murderer was not enough. Instead, they decided to kill off the murderer in a convoluted manner via a traffic accident. Frankly, I found Christie’s original version more emotionally satisfying.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s performances. Joan Hickson was top-notch as usual, as Jane Marple. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s very entertaining performance as Inspector Neele. I find it hard to believe that it took another 13 years or so for him to achieve stardom. There were three other performances that I truly enjoyed. One came from Rachel Bell, who was first-rate in her portrayal the victim’s enigmatic daughter-in-law. Selina Cadell’s portrayal of housekeeper Mary Dove proved to be just as enigmatic and impressive. Both Peter Davidson and Clive Merrison gave interesting performances as the two Fortescue brothers, Lance and Percival, who seemed such complete opposites of one another. I also enjoyed Fabia Drake, who gave an excellent performance as the victim’s religious, yet observant sister-in-law, Effie Ramsbottom. The movie also featured solid performances from Timothy West (whose appearance was sadly too brief), Annette Badland, Stacy Dorning, Jon Glover, Frances Low and Martyn Stanbridge.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining and solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, thanks to director Guy Slater and screenwriter T.R. Bowen. The movie also featured excellent performances from a cast led by the always incomparable Joan Hickson. However, I do feel that the movie was somewhat marred by a slow pacing in the middle of the story and an early and unsatisfying revelation of the killer’s identity. Oh well. At least “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” was not a bust or even mediocre.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Five “Peleliu Landing” Commentary

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“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Five “Peleliu Landing” Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the fifth episode of “THE PACIFIC”:

Episode Five began with war hero John Basilone in the middle of a war bond drive with Hollywood actress, Virginia Grey. Everything seemed to be hunky-dory with the Marine. Many servicemen seemed recognize his face on sight. And the good sergeant is also enjoying more passionate moments with the actress. This brief scene into the life of Basilone also featured his reunion with his younger brother George, already a Marine sergeant. The younger Basilone tried to express hope that he would be able to live to the older sibling’s name and reputation. But John immediately warned him not to bother. The last thing Basilone wants is his younger brother getting killed in combat over some reckless attempt to live up to his reputation.

This episode also marked Eugene Sledge’s baptism of fire, as he join Robert Leckie and his other fellow Marines of the First Division land on Peleliu for a major assault in September 1944. Three months earlier, Sledge had arrived on Pavuvu, where he had a joyful reunion with his childhood buddy, Sid Phillips and engaged in a brief conversation with Leckie on the meaning of war. But the privations of Pavuvu proved to be minor for Sledge, when the First Marines land on the hellish beaches of Peleliu.

Around the same time Sledge arrived on Pavuvu, Leckie returned to How Company and enjoyed a happy reunion with his three buddies – Chuckler, Runner and Hoosier. In typical Leckie fashion, he kept silent about his experiences at the psych ward on Banika and his encounter with the mentally unstable Ronnie Gibson. But he did find the time for a brief conversation in which he expressed his slightly more cynical views on what the war really meant. Sledge’s expression seemed to hint a reluctance to consider Leckie’s view. Peleliu will end up providing a different lesson for the Mobile, Alabama native. As for Leckie, Peleliu – at least in this episode – provided both some pain and a great personal fear.

Producers Gary Goetzman, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made it clear that the Battle of Peleliu (which was fought between September and November 1944) would be shown in three episodes. Episode Five featured the First Marines Division landing on the island. And director Carl Franklin did a superb job in conveying the horrors that Leckie, Sledge and their fellow Marines had experienced in landing on the island and establishing a beach hold. The most interesting aspect of that landing came from Sledge’s point-of-view, as the camera followed him from his boarding of the amtrack (amphibious tracked vehicles) to the fury of battle on the beach.

With Sledge finally experiencing combat for the first time, the miniseries introduced new characters – Merriell “SNAFU” Shelton (Rami Malek); Bill Leyden (Brendan Fletcher); R.V. Burgin (Martin McCann); and Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane (Scott Gibson). Burgin barely uttered a word in this episode. I cannot even remember Leyden’s face. And Haldane seemed to be an officer in the tradition of Richard Winters of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Shelton is another matter. Judging from the comments on the Web, I suspect that many viewers had been looking forward to experiencing Malek’s performance as Shelton, as much as seeing Sledge experience combat for the first time. And the actor did not fail to deliver. He gave a riveting, yet eccentric performance as the slightly soulless Shelton.

As I had stated earlier, Peleliu provided a great deal of pain and anxiety for Leckie. One, his breakdown in Episode Four led Hoosier to fret over him during the Peleliu landing – much to his annoyance. The two eventually got separated from Chuckler and Runner before disaster happened. Poor Hoosier became seriously wounded in the leg. Although Leckie managed to summon a medic, poor Hoosier lost consciousness before he was carried away. Both Leckie and the audience were left in a state of anxiety over the Marine’s fate. Leckie finally managed to hook up with Runner. Unfortunately, both men seemed to be at a loss over Chuckler, who has yet to make an appearance. And they, along with Sledge and the rest of the First Marines Division were poised to begin the assault on the airfield on Peleliu.

In the end, Episode Five proved to be a solid and very interesting look into Eugene Sledge’s arrival in the Pacific Theater’s war zone. It also provided a peak into John Basilone’s experiences as a war hero on the homefront and what might possibly be the beginning of the end of Robert Leckie’s circle of friends. The episode provided some interesting moments. I enjoyed hometown friends Sledge and Phillips’ immediate reconciliation and its interruption by Sledge’s company commander, Captain Andy Haldane. For some reason, it reminded me of a scene from 1994’s ”FORREST GUMP” depicting the lead character’s arrival in Vietnam. Their reunion became more serious as Phillips tries to warn Sledge that combat was not as they had imaged when they were kids. Leckie’s reunion with his friends brought a smile to my face. I have grown accustomed to all four of them that much. Did anyone notice the grizzled sergeant who was practicing bayonet thrusts when Sledge first arrived on Parvuvu? Keep an eye on him. The episode also featured a poignant moment when Sledge discovered that Phillips had left Parvuvu for leave, back home in Mobile.

But the one scene that caught me by surprise centered on a brief conversation between Leckie and Sledge, inside the former’s tent. That the producers would feature a meeting between the two did not surprise me. After all, ”THE PACIFIC” is a historical drama, not a documentary. There were bound to be some historical inaccuracies. I have yet to see a historical drama that DID NOT have historical inaccuracies – including the much lauded ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. What I found surprising about this scene was that actors James Badge Dale and Joseph Mazello had made it clear in this ARTICLE that they did not have any scenes together. Guys? Lying is a big “no, no” to me.

The episode finally shifted to the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and it was a doozy. The scene featuring Sledge’s beach landing struck me as surreal, especially in that brief moment when the sun shone in the Marine’s eyes as the amtrack conveying his regiment prepared to leave the ship and hit the water. The actual beach landings for both Sledge and Leckie were graphic and rather scary. The scene in which Sledge witnessed Shelton removing gold teeth from a Japanese soldier struck me as an ominous sign of more darkness for the naïve Sledge to encounter. But the biggest heartbreak – at least for me – was the moment when Leckie witnessed Hoosier being seriously wounded by Japanese artillery.

The acting, as usual, was up to par. Joseph Mazello gave a excellent performance as the intense, yet naïve Sledge. In fact, I have to point out that the actor really knows how to use his eyes to convey his character’s emotional state. I could probably say the same about James Badge Dale, who continued to give consistently first-rate performances as Robert Leckie. Both he and Mazello were perfectly understated in their one scene together. Jon Seda, whom we have not seen since Episode Three was solid as war hero John Basilone. I especially enjoyed his performance in a scene with Mark Casamento, who portrayed his younger brother George. As Sid Phillips, Ashton Holmes gave one of his better performances by perfectly balancing his character’s joy at seeing childhood friend Sledge and war weariness at trying to explain the realities of combat to his buddy. Many fans had been anticipating Rami Malek’s debut as Sledge’s very eccentric comrade, Merriell “SNAFU” Shelton. And Malek managed to brilliantly live up to Shelton’s reputation as an eccentric and somewhat cold-blooded warrior. However, I felt a slight disappointment that the Shelton character had already arrived at this emotional point upon his introduction. Considering that his character was already a veteran of the Cape Gloucester campaign, I am not surprised. But the audience will never get to witness Malek develop his character to that point, as we got to witness Ronnie Gibson develop from a rather nervous Marine, to a slightly demented warrior and emotional wreck.

Episode Five was a pretty damn good episode. Audiences managed to witness a full-fledged battle sequence in the daylight for the first time since this episode aired. But I have one major complaint. It ended too soon. I realize that the Peleliu campaign will stretch out in two more episodes, but I still believe that this particular episode should have had a longer running time. Other than that I am looking forward to Episode Six.

 

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director Kathryn Bigelow hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001.

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” had acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades after its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of planning to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign.  GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date for December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It was eventually proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and Golden Globe award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt and Mark Strong? All four had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle, Pratt and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry.  I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I found that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I had noticed how the media consistently labeled Quentin Tarantino’s movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, along with a Golden Globe win for Jessica Chastain. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It struck me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

After the 2011 movie “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II” hit the movie theaters, I had assumed that would be the last film set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world of Harry Potter”. Her 2007 novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was her last one in a series of seven books. But . . . lo and behold, Warner Brothers Studios, who had released the films based upon her novel, found a way to continue the series. The end result was the release of the recent film, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” is based upon a 2001 book written by Rowling. Somewhat. First of all, the book is not a novel, but a “scholarly” book about the magical creatures found in the Harry Potter universe. Second of all, the book was published under the fictional pen name of one Newt Scamander. What Rowlings, who served as the film’s screenwriter, did was used the Newt Scamander pen name and transformed him into the movie’s main character. In the film, British wizard and “magizoologist” Newt Scamander arrives by boat to New York City in the fall of 1926. Newt has arrived in the United States to release a magical creature called the Thunderbird in the Arizona desert. While listening to a sidewalk speech given by a non-magical (No-Maj) fanatic named Mary Lou Barebone, one of his charges – a creature called Nifler escapes from his magically expanded suitcase, which contains other magical creatures. Even worse, he meets No-Maj cannery worker and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, and they accidentally swap suitcases. As Newt struggles to regain possession of his suitcase, Nifler and other magical creatures that have managed to escape; he runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), thanks to a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, eager to regain her position. Between his search for his missing magical creatures, regaining his suitcase from Jacob Kowalski and the MACUSA; Newt has to deal with a creature called the Obscurus, which uses children as host bodies and is causing destruction around Manhattan and not attract the attention of Ms. Barebone and her abused adopted children – including the adolescent Credence Barebone.

When I first saw “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling was the movie’s sole screenwriter. I found this especially surprising, considering that one of the movie’s producers happened to be Steve Kloves, who had served as screenwriter for seven of the eight “HARRY POTTER” movies. And I must say that I thought she did a pretty damn good job. At first, I thought Rowling had created a disjointed tale. The movie seemed to possess at least three separate plot lines:

*Newt’s search for the missing creatures in his possession

*The Obscurus’ destruction

*Mary Lou Barebone’s anti-magic campaign

But Tina Goldstein finally exposed Newt’s magical suitcase to MACUSA, Newt’s plot line became connected to the story arc regarding the Obscurus. And both story arcs became connected to Mrs. Barebone’s anti-magic campaign when audiences learned that MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves had recruited Credence to help him locate the child who might be the Obscurus. Seeing how these individual story arcs formed to become part of one main narrative reminded me of the 2008 World War II Spike Lee drama, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. Speaking of World War II, I was happily surprised to learn that a major plot twist near the end of “FANTASTIC BEASTS” promises to lead to the featured a major plot twist that will serve as part of this new series’ main narrative about the upcoming Global wizarding war that will play out during the rise of fascism and the war. How clever of Rowling.

What else did I like about the movie? Frankly, the production designs. I was very impressed by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s re-creation of 1926 Manhattan. For me, among their best work proved to be their creation of a 1920s magical speakeasy operated by a goblin gangster named Gnarlack. Nor am I surprised that the pair managed to earn an Oscar nomination for their work. I was also impressed by Colleen Atwood’s costume designs for the film. One, she did an excellent job in re-creating the fashion of the mid-1920s. More importantly, Atwood put an interesting fantasy twist for the costumes worn by the magical characters. For some reason, the clothes worn by the American wizarding community of the 1920s seemed to be more tasteful and elegant than those worn by the British wizarding community of the late 20th/early 21st century. And guess what? Ms. Atwood also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. The only problem I had with the movie’s technical effects was Philippe Rousselot’s photography. Mind you, I had no problems with the film’s epic sweep. But I did not particularly care for the photography’s brown tint – a color that I personally found unnecessary and rather disappointing. I realize that the story is set during the middle of autumn. But was it really necessary to photograph the movie with an unflattering brown tint to indicate the time of the year?

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Eddie Redmayne did a marvelous job in portraying the introverted wizard Newt Scamander, who seemed to have an easier job of interacting with the creatures in his care instead of his fellow humans. I also noticed that in one hilarious scene, which involved Newt’s attempt to recapture an African Erumpent at the city zoo, Redmayne displayed a talent for physical comedy by engaging with a “mating dance” with the animal. Katherine Waterston, whom I last saw in the 2015 drama “STEVE JOBS”, gave a very intense, yet engaging performance as the demoted auror, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein. I was impressed by how Waterston combined two aspects of Tina’s personality – her driving ambition, which has come close to undermining her strong penchant for decency on a few occasions. Dan Fogler gave a very entertaining and funny performance as the No-Maj cannery worker and wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski. Not only did I find his performance very funny, he also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with both Eddie Redmayne and Alison Sudol, who portrayed Tina’s sister Quennie Goldstein. Sudol was an absolute delight as the carefree witch, who is not only proficient in Legilimens, but who also falls in love with Jacob.

I never thought I would see Colin Farrell in a “HARRY POTTER” film. To be honest, he never struck me as the type. But he seemed to fit quite well in his excellent portrayal of the ruthless and intense Auror and Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, Percival Graves. I was especially impressed with his performance in scenes that featured Graves’ interactions with Credence Barebone – scenes that seemed to hint some mild form of erotic manipulation. Speaking of Mr. Barebone, Ezra Miller was in fine form as the emotionally repressed Credence. The ironic thing about Miller’s performance is that at first, his character seemed slightly creepy. In fact, one could label his Credence a “young American Severus Snape with a bad haircut and no wit”. Thanks to Rowling’s screenplay and Miller’s performance, I came away with a portrait of a sad and abused young man, who hand channeled his anger at those who exploit him via magic.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” marked the first time in which I can recall a magical person of color as a major supporting role – namely the MACUSA’s elegant president Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo. Unlike characters such as Dean Thomas or Kingsley Shacklebolt, President Picquery was not simply allowed to speak a few lines before being swept to the sidelines or off screen. Audiences received more than a glimpse of the glamorous Seraphina. I was also happy to discover that President Picquery was not portrayed as some one-dimensional character without any depth. Thanks to Ejogo’s skillful performance, she portrayed the MACUSA as a pragmatic and ruthless woman who could be quite ambiguous in her efforts to maintain order within the American wizarding community. I found myself equally impressed by Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the religious fanatic, Mary Lou Barebone. What really impressed me about Morton’s performance is that she did not resort to excessive dramatics to convey Mrs. Barebone’s fanatical . . . and abusive personality. Morton gave a subtle and intense performance that conveyed a portrait of a rather frightening woman – especially one who was not magical. The movie also featured solid performances from Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman’s voice. The movie also featured a surprise cameo appearance from Johnny Depp, whose character will play an important role in the sequel films that will follow this one.

I find it ironic that when I had first learned about the plans for “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was against it. I thought J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studio had taken the Harry Potter franchise as far as it could go after seven novels and eight films. And yet . . . after seeing this film, I immediately fell in love with it. The movie had a few flaws. But I ended up enjoying it, thanks to the complex plot written by Rowling, David Yates’ solid direction, the visual effects and the first-rate cast led by Eddie Redmayne. And now . . . I look forward to seeing more films about the different wizarding communities during the early 20th century.

 

 

“CHARMED” RETROSPECT: (6.10) “Chris-Crossed”

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”CHARMED” RETROSPECT: (6.10) “Chris-Crossed”

For the past five or six years, I have never hesitated to express my scorn toward Seasons Five to Eight of ”CHARMED”. Granted, I would never consider the series’ first four seasons as examples of television excellence. Yet, in compare to the last four seasons, Seasons One to Four might as well be considered masterpieces. However, ”CHARMED” did managed to air a few noteworthy episodes during its latter seasons. And one of those episodes happened to be Season Six’s (6.10) “Chris-Crossed”.

Penned by Cameron Litvack and directed by Joel J. Feigenbaum, ”Chris-Crossed” features a story in which the Charmed Ones’ new whitelighter, Chris Perry aka Chris Halliwell (Drew Fuller) faces a love from the future who is determined to jeopardize his current mission – namely to prevent Wyatt (Wes Ramsey) from embarking upon a path of evil- in order to save his life. Chris’ mission nearly unravels when his fiancée from the future, a Phoenix witch/assassin named Bianca (Marisa Nichols) appears in order to bring Chris back to the future by whatever means necessary.

”Chris-Crossed” marked another example of how the series in its latter years managed to derive its energy from memorable supporting characters or guest stars. This episode not only bridled with energy, thanks to an intriguing narrative penned by Cameron Litvak; but also from the on-screen dynamics between Drew Fuller and Marisa Nichols. Wes Ramsey made an impressive villain as the future, evil Wyatt Halliwell. And I have to say the same for Rebecca McFarland, who portrayed Bianca’s 2003 mother, Lynn. In fact, I have to give kudos to both Nichols and McFarland for portraying Bianca and Lynn as a complex and fascinating mother/daughter pair. The regular cast – Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan and Brian Krause – all gave solid performances. But I certainly did not find their performances as impressive as Fuller or the episode’s guest stars.

Litvack’s script did have its flaws. One, I could not conceive future Wyatt using his family’s home to be used as a museum in honor of his mother and aunts. Especially since Chris had made it clear that Wyatt murdered Phoebe, following Piper and Paige’s deaths. Two, the idea that Chris’ reason for traveling to the past seemed to contradict his original concerns from the Season Five finale, (5.22 & 5.23) “Oh My Goddesses!” – namely to prevent the Titans from destroying the Whitelighter Realm and killing Paige.

My final complaint centers around Wyatt’s Halliwell museum again. How on earth did Piper’s oldest son got hold of the mermaid fins that Phoebe wore in (5.01 & 5.02) “A Witch’s Tail? And how did he get his hands on the super heroine costumes that the Halliwell sisters wore in (5.05) “Witches in Tights”? The mermaid fins should have disappeared completely once Phoebe changed back to a mortal. And the super heroine costumes worn by the sisters had been a figment in the imagination of a young witch named Kevin, who possessed the ability of though projection. I also had problems with Piper and Paige’s visit to the home of Bianca’s mother, Lynn. How did they plan to deal with her, when they surreptiously (if you can call it that) let it known to Lynn that they knew she was a Phoenix witch? What were they planning to do? Kill her and leave five year-old Bianca as an orphan, after getting some information? Kill the five year-old Bianca, as well?

Thankfully, the episodes’ virtues outweighed the flaws. Litvack penned a first-rate script that gave the Halliwells the opportunity to discover that Chris might be more than what he seemed. He also provided a poignant romance between Chris and his loving witch/assassin Bianca. Viewers were even able to witness an interesting confrontation between Bianca and the Charmed Ones. Bianca proved in that scene that she could be just as formidable (or perhaps a little more) than the Power of Three, using her brains and skills. Most importantly, ”Chris-Crossed” gave viewers a detailed peek into one possible future for Piper’s two sons. A future filled with violence, chaos, secrecy, love and loss. A future that Chris is determined to alter via the fate of his older and more powerful brother.

As I had stated earlier, I have an extremely low opinion of Seasons Five to Eight of ”CHARMED”. Yet, due to some miracle, producer Brad Kern and one of his writers – Cameron Litvack – managed to create a “diamond in the rough”, namely ”Chris-Crossed”. Not only did the episode proved to be a rare gem in an otherwise dismal period in the series’ history, I believe that it might be considered – on my part – as one of the best episodes of ”CHARMED” period.

 

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

Jane Eyre (1996)

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation.

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completely BORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s “PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.