“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Eight “Iwo Jima” Commentary

 

tv_the_pacific08

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

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Eight “Iwo Jima” Commentary

The eighth episode of “THE PACIFIC” managed to affect me in a very emotional way. To my great surprise. And I find this amazing. After all, I knew what it was about – namely John Basilone’s return to active duty, along with his courtship and marriage to fellow Marine, Sergeant Lena Riggi. And I knew how it would end. Yet, Episode Eight had a great emotional impact upon me. 

In a nutshell, the episode began with a glimpse of Eugene Sledge and his fellow 5th Regiment Marines at Pavuvu, recovering from their ordeal on Peleliu. Not much really happened in this little sequence. Eugene discovered that someone had tossed one of the late Captain Haldane’s books into the garbage. He became irritated by ‘Snafu’ Shelton’s claims of coming down with a tropical disease. The sequence ended with Jay De L’Eau informing Sledge and Shelton that he had been transferred to either regimental or company headquarters.

The meat of Episode Eight centered on the last months of one Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. The beginning of the episode featured Basilone and his brothers participating at a radio program at NBC in New York City. Whereas his brothers and the rest of the family seemed thrilled by the Marine’s celebrity, he seemed sick to his stomach. No longer able to deal with the publicity and longing to return to active duty, Basilone reenlisted into the Marines.

He found himself at Camp Pendleton, California; transferred to the Fifth Marines Division. Among the new recruits assigned to his company are future war hero Charles “Chuck” Tatum and Steve Evanson. The two ended up becoming While Basilone prepared them and other recruits for combat, he met the love of his life – Marine Sergeant Lena Piggi. I could say that it was love at first sight for the both of them, but I would be lying. Basilone obviously fell completely in love with Lena. However, she did not seem to want anything to do with him. At first. But when she realized that the war hero had no interest in simply wooing her for the sake of a one-night stand or two during a breakfast date, she finally opened her feelings toward him. After learning that his division was about to be shipped overseas, Basilone proposed marriage to Lena . . . and she accepted. But all good things must come to an end. And it did for Basilone; when he, Tatum, Evanson and the rest of the Fifth Marines landed smack into the violence and chaos of Iwo Jima.

When I had first contemplated Basilone’s fate a few days before Episode Eight had aired, I found myself crying. And I asked myself . . . why? After all, I knew that the Marine hero would die. So, I dismissed my little outburst of emotion and anticipated the episode. And I watched it. I enjoyed Basilone’s interactions with Tatum and Evanson, and their humorous reactions to his training. I especially enjoyed his courtship of Lena and the peek into wartime New York and Southern California. I spent most of the Iwo Jima sequence holding my breath and wincing at the graphic violence that unfolded. But it was not until my family and I discussed the manner of Basilone’s death that I found myself on the verge of tears again. The following day, I found myself thinking about the episode . . . and I cried again.

It finally occurred to me that Episode Eight had an underlying sense of doom that I found slightly depressing. It was interesting that Andrew Haldane’s death, which took me by surprise, barely affected me. Yet, Basilone’s death had a strong impact upon me. Of course it did. I had been emotionally invested in Basilone since the first episode. And Jon Seda’s subtle and spot-on portrayal of the war hero had a lot to do with that. The fact that he found true love just before departing for Iwo Jima made his death all the more poignant. Actress Annie Parisse gave a complex and feisty performance as Basilone’s wife, Lena Riggi Basilone. More importantly, she and Seda created a strong screen chemistry. And I found Ben Esler and Dwight Braswell rather hilarious as the two friends and witnesses to Basilone’s last months, Chuck Tatum and Steve Evanson. In many ways, they almost seemed like a comedy act. It seemed a pity that they would only be featured in this episode.

Many have complained that the Iwo Jima battle sequence could have lasted longer. I honestly do not see how. The episode more or less covered the events leading to his death. And he was killed during the battle’s first day. I believe that screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Michelle Ashford were right to focus most of the episode on his months at Camp Pendleton and his courtship of Lena Riggi. The fact that his death capped a romantic episode made it all more poignant and slightly depressing for me. However, I do have one complaint about the episode – namely the Sledge sequence. I simply found it unnecessary. Unless Episode Nine end up proving otherwise, I could not see how the events on Parvuvu continued Sledge’s story.

But despite the Parvuvu sequence, I still enjoyed Episode Eight. Superficially, it did not seem like it would prove to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. But the love story between John Basilone and Lena Riggi, topped by his death at Iwo Jima, made it – at least for me – one of the most poignant ones in the series.

Advertisements

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

david-suchet-and-the-crowd

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, “Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Bonneville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army officer at the beginning of the story; and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that also bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man. Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him. As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the “POIROT” series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.

article-0-0C9180F2000005DC-637_468x428

“HUGO” (2011) Review

0038d9b5

“HUGO” (2011) Review

To the surprise of many, the top two contenders for Best Picture of 2011 featured on the history of film in the early 20th century. One of them was the Oscar winning “silent” film, “THE ARTIST”. The other turned out to be Martin Scorsese’s endeavor of that year called “HUGO”

Based upon Brian Selznick’s 2008 novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”“HUGO” told the story of a 12 year-old boy named Hugo Cabret, who lives with his widowed father, a clockmaker in 1931 Paris. Hugo’s father, who is a fan of Georges Méliès’s films, takes him to the theater on many occasions. When Hugo’s father dies in a museum fire, the boy is forced to live with his alcoholic Uncle Claude, who is also a watchmaker at the railway station, Gare Montparnasse. After teaching Hugo to maintain clocks, Claude disappears. His body is later found in the Seine River, drowned. Hugo lives between the walls of the railway station, maintaining clocks, stealing food and doing his best to avoid the attention of the tough stationmaster to avoid being shipped to a local orphanage. 

He also becomes obsessed with repairing his father’s broken automaton – a mechanical man that writes with a pen. Convinced the automaton contains a message from his father, Hugo steals mechanical parts in order to repair the automaton. However, he is caught by a toy store owner, Papa Georges, who takes Hugo’s notebook from him, with notes and drawings for fixing the automaton. Hugo follows Georges home and befriends a girl close to his age named Isabelle and the latter’s goddaughter. When Hugo is finally able to repair the automaton, it produces a drawing straight from a Georges Méliès film. Thanks to the drawing and a film historian, Hugo and Isabelle discover that the latter’s godfather is the famous filmmaker, now financially strapped and forgotten.

When I first learned about “HUGO”, I heard that it was based upon a children’s book. And I found it unusual that Martin Scorsese would make a film for children. As it turned out, “HUGO” is more than just a story for children. It eventually turned out to be a peek into another chapter in film history, slowly focusing on the work of Georges Méliès, who was responsible for early silent films such as “A TRIP TO THE MOON” (1902) and “THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE” (2004). I noticed that Scorsese utilized his usual formula in unfolding the movie’s plot. As in most of his other movies, he slowly introduced the characters – both major and minor – before setting up his plot. And while this formula worked in such films as “GOODFELLAS”“THE AGE OF INNOCENCE” and “CASINO”, it did not quite work for “HUGO”.

For me, “HUGO” suffered from two problems. One, the movie lingered just a bit too long on the introduction of all the characters – especially those who did not have any effect on Hugo’s situation or with the discovery . And because of this, the pacing in its first half dragged incredibly long. In fact, it dragged so long that I almost lost interest in finishing the film. It was not until Hugo managed to repair the automaton and continue his and his father’s love of films when life finally breathed into the film. From the moment the automaton produced the drawing of the moon from “A TRIP TO THE MOON”, I became increasingly interested in the film. “HUGO” soon became a interesting trip into the world of early French filmmaking. And it ended as a poignant story about how a boy’s love for his father and movies allowed a forgotten artist to be remembered by a new generation of filmgoers. I found myself practically on the verge of tears by the last frame.

If there was one aspect of “HUGO” that truly impressed me was the movie’s production design. Thanks to the legendary Dante Ferretti, it is truly one of the most beautiful looking films I have seen in the past few years. The movie’s visual style was enhanced by David Warren’s supervision of the movie’s art direction, and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s recreation of the Multicolor process – which he also used in the first half of “THE AVIATOR”. Although I was mildly impressed by Sandy Powell’s costume designs, it was Francesca Lo Schiavo’s set decorations, especially for the re-creation of the Gare Montparnasse station circa 1931, which really impressed me. In the end, the movie almost conveyed a Jules Verne visual style that I suspect seemed appropriate for a film about Georges Méliès. I could comment on Howard Shore’s score. But if I must be honest, I have no memories of it.

The film’s other real strength came from the cast led by young Asa Butterfield’s poignant portrayal of Hugo Calvert. He was ably supported by Chloë Grace Moretz, who gave a charming performance as Hugo’s friend Isabelle, and Helen McCrory’s skillful portrayal of Méliès’s supportive wife. Performers such as Ray Winstone, Jude Law, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths gave solid, yet brief performances. But aside from Butterfield, the most impressive performance came from Ben Kingsley, who was superb as Méliès. Kingsley conveyed every aspect of Méliès’s personality and life experiences. I am still astounded that he was never given any kind of acting nomination for his performance.

I cannot deny that “HUGO” is a very beautiful looking film. And I also cannot deny that I was mesmerized by the film’s second half – especially when it focused on Hugo and Isabelle’s discovery of Méliès’ past as a filmmaker. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast and especially from superb performances from Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley. But Martin Scorsese tried to create a small epic out of a story that was part children’s tale/part film history. Which is why I believe “HUGO” fell short of becoming – at least in my eyes – one of the better movies of 2011. 

 

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Seven “Peleliu III” Commentary

kinopoisk.ru

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Seven “Peleliu III” Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the seventh episode of “THE PACIFIC”.

In Episode Seven“THE PACIFIC” finally ended its three-part focus on the Battle of Peleliu. This particular one centered on Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) and his experiences with the 5th Marines regiment in the hills of Peleliu Island in October 1944.

The episode began with a montage featuring Sledge and the 5th Marines battling it out against the Japanese Army for a period of time – a first for the miniseries – until their return to the airfield for a brief respite. There, Sledge has a conversation with his company commander, Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane (Scott Gibson). As the 5th Marines prepare to head back into the hills, Sledge spotted Colonel Chesty Puller (William Sadler) and the 1st Marines regiment heading back toward the beach. One of that regiment’s wounded turned out to be one Lou “Chuckler” Juergens (Josh Helman), barely conscious, while smoking a cigarette.

As Sledge and the 5th Marines returned to the hills, the episode gave viewers another peek into John Basilone’s (Jon Seda) continuing publicity tour as a war hero. Only this time, the novelty has finally worn off. The war bond drive and celebrity status has driven Basilone into his own personal hell. He also seemed to be haunted by memories of Guadalcanal and the death of Manny Rodriguez (Jon Bernthal). This brief glimpse of Basilone’s dissatisfaction will eventually lead to his decision to request a return to active duty.

But most of the episode featured Sledge and the 5th Marines’ continuing experiences on Peleliu. The horrors that the Mobile native had experienced during the landing and the battle across the airfield almost seemed like child’s play in comparison to his experiences in the Peleliu hills. I say . . . almost. What Sledge and the others had experienced during Episode Five and Episode Sixseemed pretty hellish to me. In this episode, Sledge, his fellow Marines and the Japanese soldiers all seemed, at times, to be experiencing the lowest forms of humanity. And Episode Seven provided it all with brutal combat scenes, gruesome deaths and worst of all, mutilation of bodies – dead or alive.

Earlier in the episode, Sledge had looked upon some of his fellow Marines’ mutilation of dead Japanese soldiers with disgust. One particular Marine even tried to remove the gold teeth from a Japanese soldier, who was badly wounded but still alive. Sledge expressed his disgust aloud, demanding that the enemy soldier be put out of his misery. Later in the episode, he sang a different tune after his company suffered major losses in the command structure. First, a wounded Lieutenant Edward “Hillbilly” Jones (Leon Ford) was killed by stray bullets, while being carried from the battlefield by stretcher bearers. Not much time had passed before Corporal R. V. Burgin (Martin McCann) announced Captain Haldane’s death from a sniper to his platoon. Following Haldane’s death, Sledge finally had an urge to engage in a little mutilation of Japanese soldiers on his own. Fortunately, “Snafu” Shelton (Rami Malek) managed to talk him out of committing an act he would have eventually regretted. The episode ended with the 5th Marines returning to Parvuvu. However, Sledge returned as someone different from the inexperienced Marine that had a reunion with his childhood friend, some four months ago. This was especially apparent in his reaction to the sight of nurses greeting returning Marines on Parvuvu. Perhaps in his mind, they seemed like an illusion amidst the realities of war.

Many fans seemed to view Episode Seven as the best in the entire miniseries, so far. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Some also believe that it is the series’ most depressing episode. At the moment, I believe that Episode Four still holds that honor. But I do believe that Episode Seven was the most brutal in the series so far – with both Episode Two and Episode Six tying for second place. Director Tim Van Patten did an exceptional job in conveying the brutality and chaos of war in the Pacific Theater. Two scenes that really drove home the fact to me were the surprising death of Hillbilly Jones, which took me completely by surprise; and the image of “Snafu” Shelton tossing pebbles into the head of a dead Japanese soldier. By the time Sledge and his fellow Marines had returned to Parvuvu, I felt as if I had experienced the combat version of hell and beyond. However, I do have two quibbles about the episode.

In real life, a Navy corpsman named Doc Caswell had been the one to convince Sledge not to mutilate a dead Japanese soldier. In the miniseries, it was “Snafu”. My problem with this particular scene stemmed from another in last week’s episode, in which “Snafu” had supported Sledge’s pragmatic reaction to Hillbilly’s order for someone to shut up a wailing Marine with a deadly whack on the head. I found it difficult to view that “Snafu” as the same man who stopped Sledge from mutilating a dead Japanese soldier. And I feel that Captain Haldane’s death lacked any real drama. Do not get me wrong. Haldane was probably an excellent leader and a good Marine. But Scott Gibson’s portrayal of the officer made him seem like a 2.0 version of the Richard Winters character in ”BAND OF BROTHER”. I also found it difficult to experience any surge of emotion over his death, considering that it had occurred off-screen. If screenwriter Bruce McKenna could change history and allow “Snafu” to convince Sledge not to commit any mutilation, then surely he could have allowed the Alabamian to witness Haldane’s death.

The episode did feature some superb performances – especially by Joseph Mazzello and Rami Melek. And while I had a slight problem with the idea of “Snafu” convincing Sledge not to mutilate that Japanese soldier, I must admit that this scene has led me to believe that the two actors had given the best performances in the entire episode. But I also feel that Martin McCann did a fine job in developing Burgin into a top-notch squad leader. When I first saw Gary Sweet’s portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Elmo Haney back in Season Five, I thought it was a bit too exaggerated and something of a joke. But I must admit that not only did he managed to grow on me, I found his portrayal of Haney’s growing sense of despair over the bloodbath on Peleliu very impressive. But I cannot forget Jon Seda’s brief, yet memorable performance as war hero John Basilone. With a minimum of words and a great deal of facial expressions and body language, he did a superb job of conveying Basilone’s despair over being trapped into some kind of celebrity hell. He has grown a great deal as an actor.

Episode Seven capped what I believe to be the best part of “THE PACIFIC” – a three-part glimpse into the brutality of the controversial battle, Peleliu. I suspect that many viewers might find this surprising. Because so many combatants had died on the beaches and in the caves of Peleliu, the island now has a war memorial honoring the dead of both the Americans and the Japanese.

Next, John Basilone is transferred to the Fifth Marine Division and experiences combat on Iwo Jima.

 

 

 

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

08.12.28

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2005 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – “COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick. 

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony. 

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. The movie earned thirteen (13) Academy Award nominations and won three (3). I have no problems with the Oscars that it won, since they turned out to be in the technical categories. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I had first seen back in 2008.

 

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Six “Peleliu Airfield” Commentary

MV5BMTI4NTAwMjI5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTA1OTM0Mw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1693,1000_AL_

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Six “Peleliu II” Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the sixth episode of “THE PACIFIC”.

Before the first episode of “THE PACIFIC” first aired, the producers had pointed out that the miniseries’ centerpiece would focus upon the Battle of Peleliu. Fought between September and November 1944, the battle is considered controversial amongst war historians. Many U.S. Marines had been decimated in a campaign that historians now view as unnecessary, because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the very high death toll. In fact, Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific Theater.

Since many Marine veterans have considered Peleliu as an important battle in their personal history, the miniseries’ producers decided to devote three episodes on the infamous battle. Last week, Episode Five featured the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and Eugene Sledge’s (Joseph Mazzello) baptism of fire. By the time the episode ended; Sledge, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and their fellow Marines were ready to storm and capture the airfield on South Peleliu.

The efforts of the First Marines Division to capture the airfield turned out to be a brutal and bloody affair. Before storming the airfield, the Marines had to deal with a lack of water, thanks to the top brass’ poor preparations for the invasion. But the episode’s pièce de résistance focused upon the battle that raged on the airfield. And so much happened. Both Robert Leckie and his remaining close friend, Bud “Runner” Conley (Keith Nobbs), were badly wounded during the assault. Eugene Sledge and his fellow Marines in the 5th regiment made it to the other side of the airfield . . . with a notable casualty in his company – PFC Robert Oswalt (Andrew Lees). He was the Marine who had described to Sledge a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon near the end of the previous episode. While Leckie and Runner found themselves conveyed to a nearby hospital ship, Sledge’s company continued its foray into the hills of Peleliu.

Many fans of the miniseries have waxed lyrical over this particular episode. And I can see why. Director Tony To did a marvelous job in conveying the chaos, insanity and brutality that the First Marines and the Japanese soldiers suffered during the battle for the airfield to the television screen. I have not seen such a brutal combat sequence since . . . well, since the landing in last week’s episode and the Guadalcanal action in which John Basilone (Jon Seda) earned his Medal of Honor in Episode Two. Viewers also got a chance to see other interesting scenes that included Sidney Phillips’ surprise visit to the Sledge family back in Mobile; the death of a Marine in Sledge’s company at the hands of his fellow combatants, due to his constant wailings that threatened to reveal their position in the Peleliu hills; another Marine in Sledge’s company who went off the deep end by counting the number of unseen Japanese soldiers to himself; Leckie’s attempt to find a corpsman (Navy medic) for a wounded Runner; the two friends’ reunion aboard the hospital ship; and the growing friendship between Sledge and the very eccentric SNAFU Shelton.

I have to hand it to both Joseph Mazzello and Rami Malek for doing such a superb job in portraying the two Marines’ growing friendship. And both actors made it so believable, considering they were portraying two characters that barely seemed to have anything in common. My favorite scene featured a moment in which Sledge supported Lieutenant “Hillibilly” Jones’ decision to have someone knock out that wailing Marine. And who was the first to immediately back up Sledge? SNAFU Shelton. This scene also seemed to hint that Sledge was learning to desensitize himself from the horrors of war. Consciously. 

Ashton Holmes gave an understated, yet first-rate performance as the returning Sidney Phillips, who paid a visit to Sledge’s family in Mobile. His Phillips seemed bent upon reassuring Sledge’s anxious parents that their son would make it through the war safely. Yet, the oblique expression in his eyes and his slightly intense manner seemed to hint that he is trying to convince himself, as well.

Once more, James Badge Dale delivered a brilliant performance as Robert Leckie. In one scene, Leckie’s platoon leader ordered him to fetch both a corpsman for the wounded Runner and a radio amidst the raging battle in the middle of the airfield. The expression on JBD’s face told volumes about Leckie’s dread of putting himself back into the line of fire. But his performance aboard the hospital ship really impressed me. The actor beautifully conveyed Leckie’s despair at being permanently separated from his three friends. There was a moment that found him staring despondently at a bowl of peaches. And then out of the blue, someone calls his name. It turned out to be the very person who gave him the nickname of “Peaches” on Guadalcanal – a very much alive Runner. What followed was a poignant scene between JBD and Keith Nobbs (“Runner” Conley) in which the latter assured that he knew the former tried his best to find a corpsman.

Well . . . that is it for Episode Six. Next, Sledge and company fight the Japanese in the hills of Peleliu.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

gatsby47party1

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw “THE GREAT GATSBY”, the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Many years. I must have been in my twenties when I last viewed the movie on television. After the release of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation, I found myself curious to see how this 43 year-old movie still held up. 

Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a Jazz Age tale about a World War I veteran who becomes rich via bootlegging. His story is told from the viewpoint of another war veteran and Midwestern transplant, Nick Carraway, who happens to be his neighbor. Through Nick’s narration, audiences become aware of Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former paramour and Nick’s second cousin, a Louisville native named Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby became rich, purchased a Long Island estate and befriended Nick in order to be near Daisy, who lived in the more socially elite part of Long Island with her husband Tom Buchanan and their daughter. With Nick’s help, Gatsby hopes to renew his romance with Daisy and convince her to leave the brutish Tom in order to recapture their romantic past.

So . . . what can I say about “THE GREAT GATSBY”? For one thing, it is an elegant looking film. And one can thank John Box’s production designs, which beautifully recapture the super rich of the Jazz Age. Box’s designs were aptly supported by the set decorations of Peter Howitt and Herbert F. Mulligan. Good examples of Howitt and Mulligan’s work can be found in the movie’s opening shot that feature the interiors of Gatsby’s Long Island home. Another aspect of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that contributed to the film’s elegance was Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. I must admit that they are gorgeous. Take a look:

110571-111018-mia-farrow tumblr_mmv31mtvEM1r4lsbyo1_500

Aldredge had stiff competition for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, but in the end she won. Did she deserve that Oscar? I do not know. One of her competitors was Anthea Sylbert, who was nominated for her work on “CHINATOWN”. As much as I enjoyed Aldredge’s work, Sylbert’s work struck me as equally impressive. The two designers could have easily shared an Oscar. However, I did discover something interesting – although Aldredge did most of the work for the female leads and supporting characters, producer David Merrick hired designer Ralph Lauren to design the costumes for leading male characters – Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. Although Lauren did not receive any recognition for his work, I must admit they looked great, even if I possess a bigger preference for Aldredge’s work. 

Douglas Slocombe’s photography also contributed the elegant look and style of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Mind you, Slocombe’s shots of the film’s locations – New York, Rhode Island and Great Britain – looked beautiful. But his photography also had that soft focus look that practically screamed PERIOD DRAMA!”. It was the kind of photography that was very popular in the 1970s and still annoys me to this day. Nelson Riddle won an Academy Award for the score he wrote for the film. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it and found it very effective. Actually, I found Riddle’s score to be incredibly boring. The music sounded as if it belonged in a television one-hour drama, instead of a Hollywood film adaptation of a classic novel. The only music that I managed to enjoy in the film were the 1920s tunes featured in the Gatsby party scenes.

What can I say about Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel? Actually, I cannot say a word. According to Coppola, what he wrote and what ended on the screen proved to be two different entities. Even screenwriter William Goldman, who had read Coppola’s original screenplay, seemed indifferent to Jack Clayton’s changes to the script. I have seen at least three adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel. This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have come across. Unfortunately, this close adaptation did not really help the movie. I have no idea what kind of movie “THE GREAT GATSBY” would have become if Clayton had adhered to Coppola’s script. But judging from the nature of Clayton’s direction, I suspect that it would not have helped in the end. Clayton’s direction proved to be incredibly dull. In fact, he nearly drained the life out of Fitzgerald’s tale. I think Clayton took the concept of period drama a bit too far. I got the feeling that I was watching a “MASTERPIECE THEATER” production that originated on the BBC, instead of a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. And honestly? I have come across “MASTERPIECE THEATER” productions that proved to be a lot more energetic. 

Some of the movie’s scenes turned out well. I was impressed by the party scenes at Gatsby’s house, even if screenwriter William Goldman found them vulgar. The scenes’ “vulgarity” did not bother me, because I found them entertaining and energetic. Those scenes, by the way, featured appearances by future star Edward Herrmann, who eventually starred in his own 1920s opus, “THE CAT’S MEOW” twenty-seven years later. I also enjoyed the party held by the adulterous Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at their own New York hideaway, even if it was nearly bogged down by Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I also thought that Clayton handled the discovery of Myrtle’s death very well. It struck me as especially effective, thanks to a flashback of the hit-and-run that claimed her life. The movie’s best scene proved to be Gatsby and Tom’s confrontation over Daisy at the Plaza Hotel suite. This is not surprising, since this scene has proven to be the best in all of the adaptations I have seen and in the novel. My only complaint is that Clayton or the script cut it short by allowing Daisy to flee the suite before she could say anything or make a decision about her relationships with both Gatsby and Tom.

But the movie’s slow pace and reverent exploration of the Jazz Age wealth featured in the production designs nearly grounded “THE GREAT GATSBY” to a halt. I take that back. The slow pacing and obsession with the 1920s production designs proved to be impediments to the movie. But the Gatsby-Daisy love scenes nearly grounded the movie to a halt. I found them incredibly boring. Mindlessly dull. I had to hit the “fast-forward” button of my DVD remote every time Robert Redford and Mia Farrow appeared in a scene alone. They had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Between Redford’s silent intensity and Farrow’s over-the-top impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald, there seemed to be no middle ground between them in order to form a believable romance. Daisy Buchanan was supposed to be Jay Gatsby’s “American Dream” – his final rung into the world of the American elite. But I had a difficult time accepting this, while growing increasingly bored over Redford and Farrow’s non-existent screen chemistry. Redford and Farrow are partially to blame, due to their performances. But I place most of the blame on Clayton who did not even bother to rectify this flaw.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” was also sabotaged by one particular scene in which Gatsby confronted Daisy over her decision to marry Tom and not bother to wait for his return from the war and France. I must admit that Redford did some of his best acting in this scene. Unfortunately, I found his efforts a complete waste of time. There was no need for this scene. Why would Gatsby confront Daisy on this matter? He knew why she had dumped him in the first place. Why else would he bother to get into bootlegging in order to quickly acquire a great deal of money and a mansion across the bay from her husband’s Long Island home? Even after Daisy finally admitted that “nice rich girls do not marry poor boys”, either Clayton, Coppola’s screenplay or both failed to explore the consequences of Daisy’s confession. Instead, the movie immediately jumped to the scene featuring the Buchanans’ visit to one of Gatsy’s Saturday night parties. In other words, this scene was a complete waste of time. 

I also found the lack of African-Americans in this movie rather puzzling. “THE GREAT GATSBY” is set in Manhattan and Long Island, during the early years of the Jazz Age (although the movie changed the story’s setting to 1925). One would think some of the super rich had black servants. The movie did feature a few black characters in the scene at Wilson’s Garage, following Myrtle’s death in the Valley of Ashes. But that is it. I did not expect any major or supporting black characters in this story. But the servants featured in the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby’s mansions were all white. Even the jazz musicians who performed at Gatsby’s parties were white. Even more incredible, they were white, middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 55. This sounds plausible in the post-World War II era in which one would find such bands engaged in musical nostalgia at some quaint nightclub or community event. However, we are talking about the 1920s. All white jazz bands seem plausible if the performers had been between the ages of 18 and 30. But these jazz musicians were middle-aged. White, middle-aged jazz musicians in 1925? Perhaps some did exist. But this is the only adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel in which I have come across this phenomenon.

Jack Clayton’s direction did nothing for most of the performances in this film. As I had earlier pointed out, Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby spent most of the film looking iconic and acting mysterious. What happened to the hopeful loser from Fitzgerald’s tale? Even Redford managed to beautifully portray a similar character with great success in 1973’s “THE STING”. Perhaps he simply lost interest, thanks to Clayton’s direction. However, I must admit that Redford had at least two great moments. Despite my dislike of the scene in which Gatsby demanded an explanation from Daisy regarding her earlier rejection of him, Redford gave a perfectly intense performance. But I was really impressed by that moment in which Gatsby met Daisy and Tom’s daughter, Pammy. Redford conveyed a perfect mixture of surprise and wariness. In fact, I would say it was his best moment in the entire movie.Mia Farrow has received a good deal of praise for her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She will not receive any from me. I found her performance rather strident and grating. Her performance reminded me more like the wild and unstable Zelda Fitzgerald than the seductive and flaky Daisy. Another over-the-top performance came from Karen Black, who portrayed the grasping and adulterous Myrtle Wilson. She had some nice moments. But most of her scenes found her nearly screaming at the top of her lungs. “THE GREAT GATSBY” featured Lois Chiles’ third screen role, in which she portrayed Daisy’s Louisville friend, Jordan Baker. Honestly? I really do not know what to say about Chiles’ performance other than I found it flat and dull. She looked good. That, I cannot deny. If one wants to see both Farrow and Chiles at their best, I would recommend 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”, in which both actresses gave better performances.

The movie did feature some good performances. Sam Waterston gave a nice, subtle performance as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. He managed to project a good deal of emotion, while being subtle at the same time. My only complaint is that both he and Redford failed to generate any kind of chemistry as two neighbors who become friends. Scott Wilson gave an emotional, yet textured performance as Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, George Wilson. The actor did a very good job in conveying both the character’s passionate love for Myrtle and whipped personality. I also enjoyed Howard Da Silva’s performance as Gatsby’s bootlegging colleague, Meyer Wolfsheim. Although brief, I found his performance very entertaining and charming. By the way, Da Silva portrayed George Wilson in the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s novel. If I had to give an award for the movie’s best performance, I would hand it over to Bruce Dern for his portrayal of Daisy’s brutish and elitist husband, Tom Buchanan. Mind you, Dern did not exactly convey the picture of a sports-obsessed ex-jock with a powerful build. But he did an excellent job in portraying Tom’s obsession with social position, warm passion for Myrtle and possessive regard for Daisy. More importantly, he managed to inject a great deal of energy in all of his scenes – especially the one featured at the Plaza Hotel suite. I must admit that I found one of his lines rather funny for two different reasons. Tom’s complaint about Gatsby’s pink suit struck me rather funny, thanks to Dern’s delivery. But I also found it hilarious that Tom would complain about the color of Gatsby’s suit, while wearing a purple one. If you doubt me, take a gander at the following image:

603080_300

If the purple in Tom’s suit had been any deeper, one would think he was a gauche social climber . . . or a pimp. Frankly, Dern’s line would have been more effective if the actor’s suit had possessed a more conservative color in that scene.

Overall, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a beautiful looking movie to behold. And I believe it could have become a more energetic and interesting tale if the producers had hired a better director. I realize that Jack Clayton’s reputation had been made due to his work on 1959’s “ROOM AT THE TOP”. But he really dropped the ball some fifteen years later, thanks to his dull and lethargic direction of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Cast members such as Bruce Dern and Sam Waterson managed to overcome Clayton’s direction. Others failed to do so. This was especially the case for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, who portrayed the movie’s two main characters. And because of Clayton’s poor direction, this version of “THE GREAT GATSBY” proved to be a big disappointment for me.