“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”

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“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”

I had never meant to write an article on (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”, the Season One episode of ABC’s ”LOST”. Honestly. But after I recently re-watched the episode, I realized that I had to say or write something about it. 

”Whatever the Case May Be” happened to be the second episode that featured Kate Austen as a main character. While frolicking in what looked like a spring, Kate and fellow castaway James “Sawyer” Ford came across another chunk of Oceanic Airlines 815’s fuselage section and several dead passengers. Kate also discovered a silver Halliburton case that she asked Sawyer to retrieve for her. The case belonged to the recently dead U.S. Marshal Edward Mars, who had been escorting Kate back to United States soil in order for her to face criminal charges. Being Kate, she decided to tell Sawyer that he could keep the case . . . before making several attempts to get her hands on it by theft. The case not only contained Marshal Mars’ firearms and some money, but also a sentimental object that meant very much to Kate.

How much did that object mean to Kate? As shown in the episode’s flashbacks, it meant so much to her that she staged a bank robbery (in which she pretended to be a potential loan customer and victim) in New Mexico in order to acquire it from one of the bank’s safety deposit box. It seemed that Marshal Mars had placed it there to entrap Kate. As for the object of Kate’s desire, it turned out to be a toy airplane that once belonged to a former childhood sweetheart named Tom Brennan, whose death she was partially responsible for, as shown in a later episode called (1.22) “Born to Run”. Not only was Kate willing to stage a bank robbery in New Mexico and steal the Marshal’s case on the island for it, she was also willing to manipulate and lie to castaway leader Jack Shephard in order to get her hands on it.

Several “B” plots also abound in this episode. One of them featured on Charlie Pace’s continuing melancholy and guilt over Claire Littleton’s kidnapping at the end of (1.10) “Raised By Another”. In short, Charlie sat around and moped over Claire, while the other castaways moved their belongings to another beach in order to prevent everything and everyone from a rising tide that threatened to wash over their camp. In the end, Rose Nadler helped him snapped out of his gloom with tough words and a prayer. John Locke and Boone Carlyle focused on finding ways to open the hatch they had discovered near the end of(1.11) “Even the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” and met with failure. And Sayid Jarrah asked Boone’s stepsister, Shannon Rutherford, to help him translate longtime castaway Danielle Rousseau’s maps and notes, which are written in French. His request attracted Boone’s jealous attention.

Did I like ”Whatever the Case May Be”? No, I did not. In my opinion, it was one of the worst episodes from Season One. In other words, I thought it was a piece of crap. One, the entire storyline about Kate’s efforts to get her hands on the toy airplane struck me as an exercise in irrelevancy. The fact that this particular episode was resolved in ”Born to Run”, the next Kate-centric episode, not only convinced me of the uselessness of this storyline, but also the flaky nature of Kate’s personality. Look, I understand that she had felt guilty for inadvertently causing Tom Brennan’s death. But was it really necessary to set in motion a bank robbery in New Mexico or piss off Jack and Sawyer for that damn toy plane? I do not think so.

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Kate’s quest for the toy airplane produced two sequences that really annoyed me. One, her attempts to steal the Halliburton case from Sawyer left me shaking my head in disbelief. At one point, I felt as if I was watching two adolescents behaving like ten year-olds. Both of them seemed ridiculous and immature in their efforts to steal the case from each other . . . not sexy. And why did Kate hand over the case to Sawyer in the first place? She could have maintained the lie that the case belonged to her. Nor did she have to tell Sawyer what was inside the case. At least she would have been spared resorting to childish efforts to get the damn thing. The quest for the toy airplane also produced one of the most ludicrous flashbacks in the series’ history, and one of the dumbest bank robberies in movies or television. The fact that Kate had staged the robbery for the airplane makes me want to upchuck. And if she knew that Marshal Mars had placed the airplane inside the bank, why did she have to enter the bank, unmasked? Why not simply act as one of the masked robbers? And if the whole thing was a trap set up by Marshal Mars, where in the hell was he? Where was the stakeout? And what were Damon Lindelof and Jennifer Johnson thinking when they wrote this episode?

And if the main plot seemed ludicrous beyond belief, the subplots were no better. After discovering the infamous hatch to the Swan Station at the end of the previous episode, (1.11) “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues”, John Locke and Boone Carlyle decided to keep their discovery a secret. Well . . . Locke did. Boone rather idiotically decided to follow his lead. To this day, I am amazed that so many ”LOST” fans had continued to regard Locke as the castaways’ wise mentor by this point in Season One, considering that his decision to keep the hatch a secret struck me as incredibly stupid. Oh well. Perhaps Lindelhof and Johnson needed this secretive behavior as fodder for future storylines. Another subplot featured Sayid Jarrah and Shannon Rutherford’s efforts to translate the charts and notes that he had stolen from Danielle Rousseau in (1.09) “Solitary”. The storyline regarding the charts and notes amounted to nothing. But it did initiate the romance between the former Iraqi soldier and California dance student. We finally come to the subplot regarding Charlie Pace’s guilt and despair over Claire Littleton’s kidnapping and Rose Nadler’s attempts to help him deal with the latter. One, I found subplot boring. And two, Rose’s attempts to revive him from his despair struck me as a perpetration of the ”Religious Black Woman” cliché. Not only could I have done without this subplot, I could have also done without her dialogue.

Many fans have viewed Jack’s behavior toward Kate in this episode as abusive and controlling. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I found his reaction to Kate’s revelation about her tracking skills in ”All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” as controlling and abusive. Frankly, I thought he was being a prick. However, I completely understood his behavior with Kate in this episode. Honestly? Kate had manipulated him and lied to him for the sake of case and a toy airplane. Instead of keeping the case in the first damn place and explaining to Jack why she wanted it opened, Kate behaved like an erratic child. And Jack treated her like one, in a fit of disgust and anger. Boone continued his verbal abuse of Shannon’s self-esteem in this episode. I realize that she had behaved abominably to him, back in Australia. I also realize that Shannon can be a bitch. But she had done nothing to earn such constant and persistent abuse. So . . . Boone behaved like a prick. Sawyer did not treat anyone with such abuse. I found his efforts to open the case rather childish, but that is all. But I thought that Kate treated him in an abusive manner in an effort to get her hands on the case. I realize that she did not want him to know about her criminal past. But as I had stated earlier, she could have continued to claim the case as hers and recruit Jack’s help to open the damn thing. Instead, she allowed Sawyer to take the case. The she resorted to stealth and physical abuse to get it back. Kate had behaved like a prick . . . or a female version of one.

“Whatever the Case May Be” had one or two virtues. Actually, it had one. Larry Fong’s photography of the Hawaiian jungles and beaches remained fresh and beautiful as ever. But with so much infantile and stupid behavior by the characters, and incompetent writing by Damon Lindelhof and Jennifer Johnson, is it any wonder that I hold this episode in deep contempt?

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“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review

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“ENCHANTED” (2007) Review

When I first saw Disney’s 2007 live-action film, “ENCHANTED”, I found myself experiencing mixed reactions.  On one hand, the movie – more or less – turned out to be exactly how I had expected. The trailer had pretty much revealed the gist of the movie. Yet, when I finally saw it, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I had expected I would. 

The story is basically about an animated heroine named Giselle (Amy Adams) who lives in the blissful animated world of Andalasia, where magical beings frolic freely, animals are talkative companions and musical interludes punctuate every interaction. Giselle becomes engaged to the handsome, valiant, and bumbling Prince Edward (James Marsden). Her fate takes a turn for the worse when his stepmother, the villainous Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), throws her through a magic portal, apparently to her doom, in order to keep her stepson single and remain queen of Andalasia. Giselle’s plunge into darkness lands her in the strange and chaotic world of New York City. As the cruelty of this new place wears down the fairy-tale idealism of the once carefree maiden – like a homeless man stealing her tiara – the frightened Giselle meets the pragmatic divorce attorney Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who takes her into his apartment, despite belief that she is a little crazy. Robert also has to deal with his own fiancée, a very attractive attorney with a penchant for romance named Nancy Tremaine (Idina Menzel). When Giselle’s chipmunk friend, Pip, reveals Giselle’s whereabouts to Edward, Narissa orders her besotted henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) to accompany Edward and Pip to New York and prevent her stepson and the missing bride-to-be from reconciling.

“ENCHANTED” is basically a predictable story. Even before the last reel, I knew that Giselle and Robert would fall in love. From the moment Edward met Nancy at the ball, I knew those two would also become a couple. I knew that Nathaniel would eventually realize that Narissa viewed him as worthless and betray her. And I knew that Narissa would end up in New York and nearly kill Giselle. But what I did not expect was how I would enjoy the way the cast – especially Adams, Marsden, Spall, Menzel and Sarandon, screenwriter Bill Kelly and director Kevin Lima poked fun at the Disney animated fantasy legacy. They did it with fun, color and gentle humor. Okay, the humor was not always gentle. Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel of “THE LITTLE MERMAID” and who portrayed Robert’s assistant) caustically made fun of Giselle’s “fairy princess” voice. Giselle’s talent for making friends with animals of all kinds was definitely a spoof of several Disney princesses’ friendships with . . . animals. Only Giselle may have taken it to an extreme by summoning them to clean Robert’s house. I do not know about you, but I would be freaking out at the thought of birds, mice and cockroaches inside my home. The “happily ever after” for most of the characters seemed a little saccharine, but on the whole I enjoyed the movie very much.

“ENCHANTED” proved to be the first time I saw Amy Adams in action. And quite frankly, I was impressed. I still am. Not only did I admire her singing voice, I especially admired how she maintained Giselle’s perky “fairy princess” personality up until the end – even if it suffered the occasional bumps from Robert’s more cynical views on love, her disappointing reunion with Edward and her encounter with Narissa. I realize that Patrick Dempsey’s career had bounced back with the TV series, “GREY’S ANATOMY”, but since I do not watch the show . . . this was my first time in seeing him in action since his days as a leading man during the late 1980s and 1990s. And it was nice to see that his talent has not waned one bit. He is still as charismatic and professional as ever. I must admit that it was a bit strange seeing him portray a character less extroverted than his roles from the past.

James Marsden. Dear James. I think his talent was wasted in the “X-MEN” movies and “SUPERMAN RETURNS”. He really shone in his role as the valiant, yet slightly pompous Prince Edward. Hell, the man was perfect. And he was also charming enough for me to be happy that his character had a happy ending with someone – namely Nancy- in the film. It was good to see Timothy Spall again, after his appearances in two “HARRY POTTER” films. Actually, his role as Narissa’s henchman, Nathaniel, strongly reminded me of his other famous role – Peter Pettigrew. But unlike Peter, Nathaniel proved to have more balls . . . and something of a moral compass in the end. But his performance was thoroughly first-class as usual. Broadway star Idina Menzel did a first-class job in projecting an interesting mixture of romance and a little cynicism in her portrayal of Robert’s more romantic-minded fiancée, Nancy. I was surprised that she did not perform any songs in this film. But since I enjoyed her performance anyway, I did not see the need for a musical performance from her. And of course there is Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, who portrayed the villainess – the conniving and greedy – Queen Narissa. Sarandon spent most of the movie peforming Narissa’s voice in the animated sequences. But she was just as deliciously evil when her flesh-and-blood counterpart arrived in New York City. One could tell that Sarandon was enjoying herself. And for a brief moment, we got to see how she had manipulated Prince Edward all of those years, pretending to be his loving stepmother. I have only one complaint – I did not really care for the platform shoes she wore. Visually, it did not exactly mesh with the rest of her image.

If you are expecting surprises from this charming spoof of Disney fantasy animation, you are going to be disappointed. As I had stated before, it is a rather predictable movie. But if you are expecting first-class entertainment, laughs, music and a good story, then “ENCHANTED” is your movie and I suggest that you see it as soon as possible.

“ONCE UPON A TIME” – Relationship Mystery

Welcome to Storybrooke Regina, Sheriff Graham

“ONCE UPON A TIME” – RELATIONSHIP MYSTERY

Since the Season One seventh episode of “ONCE UPON A TIME” called (1.07) “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” aired, many viewers have assumed that the relationship between the Evil Queen aka Mayor Regina Mills and the Huntsman aka Sheriff Graham was one of rape. They believed that after ripping his heart from his chest, Regina used it to force him into having sex with her. Ever since that episode aired, many have accused Regina of being a rapist.

I had believed this as well, until sometime later in Season One.  While reading a Tumblr account from over four years ago, someone posted an exchange between one of the show’s producers, Adam Horowitz, and a fan. The latter accused Regina of not only using the Huntsman’s heart to have sex with him after she ordered her guards to take him to her bedchamber. The fan also accused Regina of using Graham’s heart to continue their sexual affair after the curse led them all to Storybrooke, Maine. Horowitz hinted otherwise in this Twitter exchange:

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If Regina did not use Graham’s heart to coerce him into having sex with him – as claimed by Horowitz – how did their sexual affair begin?

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

The Great “ONCE UPON A TIME” Costume Gallery

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Below is a gallery featuring the costumes designed by Eduardo Castro for Seasons One and Two of the ABC series, “ONCE UPON A TIME”. Do not expect to find Jennifer Morrison, Jared S. Gilmore, Eion Bailey or others performers not featured in any of the Fairy Tale Land flashback sequences:

THE GREAT “ONCE UPON A TIME” COSTUME Gallery

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’“STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. I find it unsurprising that John Boyega managed to win the BAFTA Rising Star Award. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in“THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. She should have received an award for her work. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between“THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (2002) Review

“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (2002) Review

Let me make something clear . . . I have never read the literary version of “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO”, written by Alexandre Dumas. I have seen three movie versions – including this latest one starring James Caviezel. But I have never read the novel. So, for me to compare the literary version to this movie would be irrelevant.

In short, “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” is the story about a French sailor named Edmond Dantès (Caviezel), who finds himself a victim of French political machinations, thanks to the Emperor Napoleon, a jealous first mate named Danglars, his best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) and an ambitious local magistrate named J.F. Villefort (James Frain). Edmond ends up on an island prison called Château d’If, where he meets a fellow prisoner, a priest and a former soldier in Napoleon’s army named Abbé Faria (Richard Harris). Faria is killed in an accident after informing Edmond about a fabulous hidden treasure. After Edmond uses Faria’s death to escape from Château d’If, he befriends a smuggler and thief named Jacopo (Luis Guzmán). The two find the treasure that Faria had talked about and Edmond uses it to establish the persona of the Count of Monte Cristo. His aim? To avenge himself against those who had betrayed him – Danglars, Villefort, Mondego and his fiancée Mercédès Iguanada (Dagmara Dominczyk), who had married Mondego after his arrest.

I have to give kudos to director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert for creating a first-class adaptation of Dumas’ novel. From what I have read, it is not an exact adaptation of the novel. As if that was possible. Not that I care whether it was or not. I still enjoyed the movie. Despite some of the changes to the story, “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” still managed to retain its emotional ambiguity. Villains such as Villefort and especially Mondego are not as one-dimensional ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ as one might believe. The origin of Villefort came from his father’s ego-driven ambition. As for Mondego, his dislike and betrayal of Edmond had its roots in his own insecurity and bouts of self-hatred, despite his position as an aristocrat. As for Edmond, he becomes so blinded by his hatred and desire for revenge that his actions nearly ends in tragedy for Mercédès and her adolescent son, Albert (Henry Cavill) – the only innocents in this tale of betrayal and vengeance.

The cast was first rate. James Caviezel gave a superb performance as Edmond Dantès, the naïve French sailor who becomes a wealthy man bent upon vengeance. Caviezel took Edmond’s character and emotional make-up all over the map without missing a beat. And Guy Pearce was equally superb as the villainous Fernand Mondego, an arrogant aristocrat whose own jealousy and bouts of self-loathing led him to betray the only friend he would ever have. James Frain gave a solid performance as the ambitious Villefort, whose greed allows Edmond takes advantage of in order to exact his revenge. And I could say the same for both Dagmara Dominczyk, who portrayed Mercédès Iguanada, Edmond’s charming fiancée who found herself stuck in a loveless marriage with Mondego due to certain circumstances; and Luis Guzmán’s portrayal as the wise and loyal Jacapo. Henry Cavill gave a solid performance as Edmund’s guiless, yet emotional son who gets caught up in the crossfire between Edmund and Fernand. And the late Richard Harris managed to create great chemistry with Caviezel as Edmond’s wise mentor, Abbé Faria.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn and production designer Andrew Dunn did a great job of transforming locations in Ireland and the island of Malta into early 19th century France. And they were ably assisted by Tom Rand’s costume designs. Along with a first-rate cast, Kevin Reynolds’ competent direction and Jay Wolpert’s script, this version of “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” turned out to be an entertaining movie filled with exciting action, great drama and excellent storytelling. A first-rate movie all around.