“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

If I have to be perfectly honest, I do not recall the initial reaction to many Marvel fans, when Disney/Marvel Films first released the news of the upcoming release of the second Captain America film. I do recall various comments regarding the first one – 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The comments for that film ranged from mediocre to box office disappointment.  I found the former opinion odd, considering that movie managed to generate favorable reviews.  And besides . . . “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” proved to be a favorite of mine from 2011.

It was not until the release of this second Captain America film was less than a month away in June 2014, when I finally heard some excellent word-of-mouth about it. Some were even claiming that it was better than the 2012 blockbuster hit, “THE AVENGERS”. Personally, I could not see how any comic book movie could top that. But I did look forward to seeing “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially after I learned that Robert Redford, of all people, had been cast in the film. I mean . . . honestly, can you imagine an actor like Redford appearing in a Marvel Comics movie? And yet . . . he appeared in this one. Either he was desperate for work, or he really liked Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” begins two years after the events of “THE AVENGERS”. Steve Rogers aka Captain America now works as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Washington D.C. During an early morning jog, he meets and befriends an Army veteran named Sam Wilson, before he is summoned by Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow for a new mission. Steve, Natasha and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Agent Brock Rumlow are ordered to free hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from a group of mercenaries. During the mission, Steve discovers that Romanoff has another agenda – to extract data from the ship’s computers for Director Nick Fury. When Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, to confront Fury, the latter briefs him on Project Insight, which consists of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats. After failing to decrypt Romanoff’s recovered data, Fury becomes suspicious about Insight and asks World Security Council member Alexander Pierce to delay the project.

Fury is later ambushed by assailants and a mysterious assassin named the Winter Soldier. After reaching Steve’s apartment and giving the latter a flash drive of the information acquired by Natasha, Fury is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Steve is summoned by Pierce to explain what happened between him and Fury. But Steve refuses to cooperate and is later declared a fugitive by Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. When Natasha helps him evade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she also becomes a fugitive. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that Steve’s old World War II nemesis, HYDRA, had been infiltrating the agency for years. They seek sanctuary with Sam Wilson, who turns out to be a former U.S. Air Force pararescueman, trained for combat and the use of an EXO-7 “Falcon” wingpack. The trio sets out to learn more details about HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their agenda, before they can do something about it.

If I must be brutally honest, I feel that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”is not only one of the best Marvel Comics movies I have ever seen, but also one of my top favorite comic book movies. It is superb. Some have claimed that it is better than “THE AVENGERS”. I do not share that belief. I have yet to see a comic book movie that is better than the 2012 film. But this movie was fantastic. I could see why Robert Redford was willing to be cast in this film. I agree with many that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was reminiscent of the political thrillers released during the 1970s. But this particular film did more . . . it shook up the Marvel Movieverse in ways that no one saw coming. The revelation of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had a major impact on the ABC television series, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, which is a spin-off of the Marvel films. I also have to say a word about the fight sequences. There have been fight scenes from other Marvel movies and the TV series “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” that I found admirable. But the fight scenes featured in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially those between Steve and the brainwashed Bucky – were probably the best I have ever seen in a Marvel movie, let alone in recent years.

Many film critics and some moviegoers have commented on the movie’s action sequences. To them, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” seemed to be a movie with a great deal of action sequences and very little dramatic moments. That was not the movie I saw. Mind you, Anthony and Joe Russo handled the movie’s action sequences very well. Their work was aptly supported by Trent Opaloch’s gorgeous cinematography, Jeffrey Ford’s excellent editing and the exciting work from the visual effects team. I was especially impressed by the following sequences: the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s rescue of the hostages; HYDRA’s attack upon Nick Fury on the streets of Washington D.C.; Steve, Natasha and Sam deal with a team of HYDRA agents led by the Winter Soldier; and especially the big finale in which the trio and Maria Hill attempted to stop HYDRA’s plans to use the three newly constructed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

But as I had earlier stated, I do not believe that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was all action and very little drama. The film featured some dramatic moments that not only brought out the best in the cast, but also struck me as very well written. There were a good deal of verbal confrontations in this film. And most of them seemed to feature the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. I was especially impressed by the drama and the acting in scenes that featured Fury’s two conversations with Steve – one regarding the helicarriers and the other about the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. I also enjoyed Fury’s final confrontation with Alexander Pierce inside the Triskelion. I was also impressed by how the screenwriters and the Russo brothers managed to inject some very good drama in the middle of Steve’s final fight against Bucky, while he tried to convince the latter to remember the past. Speaking of the past, this movie also featured a poignant moment that displayed the strength of Steve and Bucky’s friendship in a late 1930s flashback regarding the death of Steve’s mother. The movie also featured another friendship – the budding one between Steve and Sam. This was especially apparent in one poignant scene in which Steve and Sam discussed the latter’s experiences in Afghanistan.But the best scene, as far as I am concerned, featured Steve’s last conversation with a very elderly and dying Peggy Carter. That moment between the two former lovers seemed so sad that I found myself crying a little. How this particular scene managed to evade the memories of those who claimed that the movie was basically an action fest baffles me.

Was there anything about “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” that baffled me or turned me off? I found it hard to believe that Fury actually accepted Steve’s rather ludicrous suggestion regarding the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. Why he did not laugh in the super soldier’s face or told the latter that suggestion was dangerously naive is beyond me. Why did the movie make such a big deal about HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., when certain characters made it pretty obvious that it had infiltrated other government agencies . . . all over the world? And considering that Steve’s personality was not suited for espionage, I am still wondering why Marvel – both in the comics and in the movies – would have him join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And what happened to World Council Member Hawley in the movie’s climax? The movie never explained.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Once again, Chris Evans proved that he could be a first-rate dramatic actor in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. Although he injected a little more humor into his character – especially in the movie’s first half hour – he did an excellent job of expressing Steve’s continuing discomfort of being a man in the wrong time period, his penchant for making friends with people who are not Tony Stark, and his priggish nature. I should have known that since Evans, who can be a first-rate comedic actor, should also prove to be excellent in drama. He certainly proved it in his scene with Hayley Atwell, who reprise her role as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Peggy Carter. And she was marvelous as the aging Peggy, who wavered between joy at being with Steve again, sadness that they are now far apart age wise, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Evans’ leading lady in this film proved to be Scarlett Johansson, who reprised her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. And as usual, she was fantastic. I do not know whether she did all of her stunts, but she certain looked good. And . . . as usual, Johansson did a great job in conveying the agent’s ambiguous nature – especially in the film’s first half hour. I was especially impressed by her chemistry with Evans in this film. Mind you, they did a good job of projecting a newly developed friendship in“THE AVENGERS”. But in this film, there seemed to be an extra sexual charge between the two characters.

By 2014, Samuel L. Jackson had appeared in at least six Marvel films. Of the six, he had a somewhat sizeable role in“IRON MAN 2”, and major roles in both “THE AVENGERS”and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.  He did such a marvelous job as the manipulative Fury in “THE AVENGERS” that I did not think he could repeat himself in portraying that aspect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director’s character. I was wrong. He not only did a great job in portraying Fury as being manipulative as ever, but at the same time, conveyed Fury’s own anger at being a victim of his mentor’s betrayal. Speaking of which, a part of me still cannot imagine Robert Redford in a comic book movie. And I cannot help but wonder if he felt the same. I wonder who approached him – the people at Marvel or his agent? Nevertheless, I am glad he accepted the role of World Security Council Alexander Pierce. This is the first time I have seen Redford portray a genuine villain and he was great. His Pierce was intelligent, soft-spoken, friendly, manipulative as Fury, and cold-blooded. It is a pity that he did not portray similar roles in the past.

Anthony Mackie joined the cast as Steve’s new friend, Army veteran Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. And like the rest of the cast, he gave a great performance. Mackie injected a good of down-to-earth sensibility to the story, along with some much-needed humor – especially in scenes in which Sam expressed annoyance at the machismo of both Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow. I was especially impressed in one scene in which Mackie poignantly conveyed Sam’s memories of his time in Afghanistan and the death of a fellow Army comrade. Sebastian Stan reprised his role as James “Buchanan” Barnes, Steve’s old childhood friend. Only his Bucky Barnes in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is, like Steve, a man out of time. More importantly, he is a brainwashed amnesiac and super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. I have to give kudos to Stan for skillful portrayal this seemingly cold-blooded assassin, who seemed torn between his role as a HYDRA killer and a confused man haunted by memories of his friendship with Steve.

The movie also featured some solid supporting performances from Cobie Smulders, who portrayed Fury’s no-nonsense second-in-command Maria Hill; Emily Van Kamp, who portrayed the warm and uber-competent S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13; Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell; Frank Grillo, who portrayed the down-to-earth, but cocky Brock Rumlow; Gary Shandling as Senator Stern, and the members of the World Security Council – Alan Dale, Chin Han, Bernard White and Jenny Agutter. By the way, many fans will be amazed to see Jenny Agutter kick butt in one particular scene. And for fans of “LOST”, you might be able to spot Adetokumboh M’Cormack, who portrayed Mr. Eko’s brother in the series, as one of the mercenaries who took control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship early in the movie.

There may have been a few things that left me feeling a bit uneasy in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. But if I must be brutally honest, I think it is the best Marvel film and one of the best comic book films I have ever seen . . . period. And one has to thank Kevin Fiege’s excellent control of the Marvel films that centered on the Avengers Initiative, the marvelous screenplay scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, Anthony and Joseph Russo’s superb direction and an excellent cast led by Chris Evans. Not only is this a superb film, but it managed to shake up the Marvel Movie Universe considerably.

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

This sixth episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” featured the experiences of Easy Company during the Battle of the Bulge and their participation in the Allies’ efforts to hold the ground near Bastogne, Belgium; while low on ammunition and supplies. The episode focused on Easy Company medic, Eugene “Doc” Roe, as he tended his fellow soldiers where he can, while also scrounging for medical supplies. 

”Bastogne” turned out to be the first of two episodes centered on Easy Company’s experiences in Belgium. Shown from Eugene Roe’s point-of-view; the audience saw Easy Company deal with many difficulties and traumas during this campaign. Aside from ammunition and supplies, Roe and the company had to deal with freezing temperatures, low morale, the encircling German Army and worst of all, an ineffectual company commander by the name of Norman Dike. The episode featured a good deal of combat sequences. But since they were shown through “Doc” Roe’s eyes, the audience’s views of these sequences were at best minimal.

One sequence had First Platoon on a reconnaissance patrol in order to probe for the German line. The patrol led to several wounded troopers and the death of a replacement trooper named Private Julian. Supporting characters like Lieutenant Harry Welsh and Wayne “Skinny” Sisk suffered serious leg wounds from occasional German artillery shelling. And Walter “Smokey” Gordon was wounded and paralyzed during a German tank assault. During this time, Roe struck up a fictionalized friendship and potential romance with a Belgian nurse named Renée LeMaire. Their relationship ended in tragedy, when Renée was killed during the German bombing of Bastogne on Christmas Eve. Replacement trooper Edward “Babe” Heffron also figured heavily in ”Bastogne”. Although the episode was mainly told from Roe’s point-of-view, it allowed one sequence told from Babe’s point-of-view. In it, Babe and another medic named Ralph Spina had a humorous encounter with German troops in a foxhole, while searching for medical supplies for Easy Company.

There are three episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I consider to be personal favorites of mine. And one of them is ”Bastogne”. In my reviews of episodes like “Day of Days” and “Replacements”, I had complained of the lack of epic scope in episodes that featured important and historic battles. In ”Bastogne”, director David Leland and screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna gave the episode that epic scope needed for an episode about the famous siege of Bastogne. And the fact that they told the episode through the eyes of medic Eugene Roe made their efforts all the more amazing. Was this particular episode filmed inside a soundstage? It is possible. If it was, I am impressed. I wish I knew the name of the production designer for this particular episode, because he or she did a magnificent job in re-creating the Ardennes Forest during the winter. I also found the photography very impressive, especially in the scene that featured the Army Air Corps’ attempt to re-supply the division by air and the German bombing of Bastogne near the end of the episode. Once again, ”BAND OF BROTHERS” allowed viewers to get a peek into the personal interactions between the troopers of Easy Company. Most of these interactions occurred during Christmas Eve . . . right before Harry Welsh was wounded by German artillery. However, I also enjoyed the two major interactions between Roe and Heffron – especially one scene in which both Roe and Spina tried to comfort Heffron, who was distraught over Private Julian’s death.

”Bastogne” featured some excellent performances from certain members of the cast. Neal McDonough gave a subtle and convincing performance as platoon leader Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton , whose emotional stability seemed to be in danger of spiraling out of control after getting shot in Holland. Another memorable performance came from actress Lucie Jeanne, who portrayed Renée Lemaire, the Belgian nurse in Bastogne that Roe befriended. Robin Laing got a chance to shine as Edward “Babe” Heffron, the replacement trooper that hailed from Bill Guarnere’s Philadelphia neighborhood. He was especially effectively poignant in a scene in which Heffron grieved over Private Julian’s death. But the star of this particular episode was Irish-born actor Shane Taylor. Recalling my complaint about the questionable American accents of some of the British cast members, I can happily say that Taylor was not one of them. He did an excellent job in recapturing the Louisiana-born Roe’s native accent. More importantly, he gave a subtle, yet superb performance as the quiet and efficient medic, struggling to perform his duty and prevent himself from getting affected by the suffering around him. In the end, Taylor not only gave one of the miniseries’ best performances, but also managed to carry a very important episode on his shoulders.

”Bastogne” is not completely perfect. Despite the strong chemistry between Taylor and Jeanne, there were moments when I found the nuance of their relationship – especially the silent exchange of glances – a bit heavy-handed. And I am somewhat confused about the fate of the wounded men that Roe escorted to one of the hospitals in Bastogne. Earlier in the episode, he had escorted Sisk and Gordon to the hospital where Renée worked. He was about to deliver Welsh to the same hospital, when he witnessed its destruction from German bombers. The episode made it clear that Bastogne had remained encircled by German forces, until the arrival of elements from General George C. Patton’s Third Army on December 26, 1944. So . . . what happened to Sisk and Gordon? They did not meet Renée’s fate. Both men survived the war. How did they get out of that hospital and Bastogne before the December 24 bombing?

Perfect or not, ”Bastogne” is one of my personal favorite episodes in ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. And thanks to director David Leland, screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna and actor Shane Taylor, the episode conveyed an epic point-of-view of the siege of Bastogne that made it one of the best (at least in my opinion) episodes in the entire miniseries.

“DEFIANCE” (2008) Review

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“DEFIANCE” (2008) Review

After watching Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War II film, “DEFIANCE”, I finally began to realize that it does not pay to make assumptions about a movie, based upon a theater trailer. I had made this mistake several times throughout my life and it irks me that I am still capable of making it. I certainly made this mistake when I saw the trailer for “DEFIANCE”, a World War II drama that told the story of the war experiences of four Polish-Jewish brothers who ended up forming a partisan resistance group against the occupying Nazis between 1941 and 1942. 

Based upon the book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec, “DEFIANCE” centered around the Bielski brothers – Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay – who had escaped their Nazi-occupied of Eastern Poland/West Belarus and joined the Soviet partisans to combat the Nazis. The brothers eventually rescued roughly 1,200 Jews. The film tracked their struggle to evade invading German forces, while still maintaining their mission to save Jewish lives. When I had first learned about this film ten years ago, I had assumed this would be some rousing World War II tale about a brave resistance against the Nazi horde. I really should have known better. I should have taken into account the film’s director – namely Edward Zwick.

The first Zwick film I had ever seen was the 1989 Civil War drama, “GLORY”. In that movie and other movies directed by him, most of the characters are never presented as one-dimensional, black-and-white characters. Shades of gray permeated most, if not all of his characters, including most memorably – Denzel Washington in “GLORY”, Annette Bening in “SIEGE”, Tom Cruise in ”THE LAST SAMURAI” and both Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou in “BLOOD DIAMONDS”.  Zwick continued his tradition of presenting ambiguous characters and morally conflicting issues in “DEFIANCE”. Moral ambiguity seemed to be the hallmark in the portrayal of at least two of the Bielski brothers. Both Tuvial and Zus Bielski (Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber) are strong-willed and ruthless men, willing to kill anyone who crossed them. And both seemed willing to enact vengeance against anyone have harmed their loved ones. But they had their differences.

Daniel Craig had the job of portraying Tuvial Bielski, the oldest sibling who decides to create a community and a brigade with the Jewish refugees hiding from the Nazis and their Polish allies. His Tuvial seemed a little reluctant to take on this task – at least at first. And he also seemed unsure whether he could be a competent leader. Thanks to Craig’s performance, this insecurity of Tuvial’s seemed to slowly grow more apparent by the movie’s second half. Being the more-than-competent actor that he is, Craig also managed to portray other aspects of Tuvial’s nature – his ruthlessness, tenderness and sardonic sense of humor (which seemed to be apparent in the Bielski family overall). And like any good actor, he does not try to hog the limelight at the expense of his co-stars. Craig created sizzling on-screen chemistry with Schreiber, Bell and the actress who portrayed Tuvial’s future wife, Alexa Davalos.

Liev Schreiber portrayed Zus, the second oldest Bielski brother. And being the charismatic actor that he is, Schreiber did an excellent job of portraying the volatile second brother, Zus. Upon learning the deaths of his wife and child, Schreiber’s Zus seemed determined to exact revenge upon the Nazis for their deaths. Even if it meant walking away from his brothers and joining the Soviet partisans. Another aspect of Zus’ character that Schreiber made so memorable was the intense sibling rivalry he injected into his relationship with Craig’s Tuvial. Unlike his older brother, Zus’s volatile nature made him more inclined to exact revenge against the Nazis and other enemies. Also, Schreiber perfectly brought out Zus’ contempt and dislike toward those Jewish refugees who came from a higher social class than his family’s.

Portraying the third Bielski brother is Jamie Bell, who has become well known over the years, thanks to his roles in “KING KONG” (2005)“JUMPER” (2008) “JANE EYRE” (2011) and especially his starring role in the TV series “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES”. Bell did an excellent job of portraying the young and slightly naïve Asael, the third Bielski brother who experiences as a partisan with Tuvial enabled him to mature as a fighter and a man. His Asael does not seem to possess his older brothers’ ruthlessness . . . on the surface. But as the refugees struggle to survive their first winter together and evade the Nazis in the movie’s last half hour, Bell brought out Asael’s toughness that had been hidden by a reserved and slightly shy nature.

“DEFIANCE” also included an additional cast that greatly supported the three leads. There were at least three that caught my interest. Alexa Davalos expertly portrayed Lilka Ticktin, an aristocratic Polish Jew, whose delicate looks and quiet personality hid a strong will and warmly supportive nature. Both Mark Feuerstein as the intellectual Isaac Malbin and Allan Corduner as a professor named Shamon Haretz humorously provided comic relief in their never-ending philosophical debates that seemed to elude the less intellectual Bielskis.  Sam Spruell gave a very effective performance as the vengeful and resentful Arkady Lubczanski, another refugee who is jealous of the Bielskis’ authority.  The rest of the cast featured supporting players and local Lithuanians portraying the refugees. Basically, they did a pretty good job in conveying the refugees’ plight. There were moments when their acting seemed like one, long running cliché. And there were moments – like the sequence featuring their fatal beating of the captured German soldier – in which they seemed very effective.

“DEFIANCE” is not perfect. As I had stated earlier, the supporting and background characters tend to drift into cliché performances sometimes. The movie’s pacing threatened to drag in two places – when the Bielskis first began to gather the refugees that followed them; and later in the film when Tuvial’s camp suffer their first “winter of discontent”. James Newton Howard’s score did not help matters. I found it slow and unoriginal and it threatened to bog down the film in certain scenes.

But the movie definitely had its moments – including the sequence featuring the lynching of the German soldier. It was one of many that accentuated the gray and complex nature of “DEFIANCE”. On one hand, the audience could not help but empathize with the refugees’ anger at what the German soldier represented – the deaths of their loved ones and the dark turn their lives had taken. On the other hand, the entire sequence struck me as ugly and dark. Mob violence at its worse. Even Asael (Bell) seemed disgusted by the refugees’ lynching of the soldier . . . and Tuvial’s failure to stop them. Another ambiguous scene centered around one of the refugees – a rogue soldier of Tuvial’s brigade named Arkady Lubczanski – who tries to lead a rebellion against an ill Tuvial during a food shortage. Arkady is portrayed as an unpleasant man who lusts after Asael’s bride and believes that he and his fellow soldiers in the brigade are entitled to more food than the refugees. Tuvial ends the rebellion by killing Arkady. Granted, Arkady had not harmed anyone – aside from giving Asael a shiner. On the other hand, his practice of hoarding the food could have ended with death by starvation for most of the refugees. Had Tuvial been right to commit murder? Apparently, the refugees did not seem so. They did not protest against his act of murder.

This is what Edward Zwick is all about. This is why I am a fan of many of his movies. Superficially, he presents his story in a black-and-white situation. The Nazis, their Polish allies, anti-Semitic Soviet troops and unpleasant refugees like Arkady are presented superficially as one-note villains. Yet, the people who oppose them – the Bielski brothers, their loved ones, their Polish and Soviet allies and the refugees – turn out not to be as “good” or perfect as many would believe. In Ed Zwick’s movies, the world is not as black and white as we might believe . . . or wish it would be.

“TITANIC” (1953) Review

 

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“TITANIC” (1953) Review

As many moviegoers know, there have been numerous film and television productions about the maiden voyage and sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 15, 1912. The most famous production happens to be James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar winning opus. However, I do wonder if there are any fans who are aware that another Titanic movie managed to strike Oscar gold.

Directed by Jean Negulesco, the 1953 movie “TITANIC” focused on the personal lives of a wealthy American family torn asunder by marital strife, a deep secret and the historic sinking of the Titanic. Family matriarch Mrs. Julia Sturges and her two children, 17 year-old Annette and 10 year-old Norman board the R.M.S. Titanic in Cherbourg, France. Julia hopes to remove her children from the influence of a privileged European lifestyle embraced by her husband Richard and raise them in her hometown of Mackinac, Michigan. Unfortunately, Richard gets wind of their departure and manages to board the Titanic at the last moment by purchasing a steerage ticket from a Basque immigrant and intercept his family. The Sturges family also meet other passengers aboard ship:

*20 year-old Purdue University tennis player Gifford Rogers, who falls for Annette
*the wealthy middle-aged Maude Young (based upon Molly Brown)
*a social-climbing snob named Earl Meeker
*a priest named George S. Healey, who has been defrocked for alcoholism
*American businessman John Jacob Astor IV and his second wife Madeleine

Julia and Richard clash over the future of their children during the voyage. Their conflict is reinforced by Annette’s budding romance with college student Gifford Rogers and a dark secret revealed by Julia. But the couple’s conflict eventually takes a back seat after the Titanic strikes an iceberg during the last hour of April 14, 1912.

There seemed to be a habit among moviegoers lately to judge historical dramas more on their historical accuracy than on the story. As a history buff, I can understand this penchant. But I am also a fan of fiction – especially historical fiction. And I learned a long time ago that when writing a historical drama, one has to consider the story and the character over historical accuracy. If the latter gets in the way of the story . . . toss it aside. It is apparent that screenwriters Charles Brackett (who also served as producer), Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch did just that when they created the screenplay for “TITANIC”. Any history buff about the famous White Star liner’s sinking would be appalled at the amount of historical accuracy in this movie. However, I feel that many lovers of period drama would be more than satisfied with“TITANIC”, thanks to a well-written personal story and top-notch direction by Jean Negulesco.

Superficially, “TITANIC” is a melodrama about the disintegration of a late 19th century/early 20th century marriage. The marital discord between Julia and Richard Sturges is filled with personality clashes, class warfare, disappointment and betrayal. And actors Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb did their very best to make the clash of wills between husband and wife fascinating and in the end . . . poignant. One of the movie’s best scenes featured a confession from one spouse about a past discretion. I am not claiming that the scene was particularly original. But I cannot deny that thanks to the stellar performances from Stanwyck and Webb, I believe it was one of the best moments of melodrama I have ever seen on screen . . . period. But their final scene together, during the Titanic’s sinking, turned out to be one of the most poignant for me. And by the way, fans of the 1997 movie would not be hard pressed to recognize one of Webb’s lines in the film . . . a line that also ended up in Cameron’s movie.

“TITANIC” featured other subplots that allowed the supporting cast to shine. Audrey Dalton portrayed Julia and Richard’s oldest offspring, the beautiful 17 year-old Annette, who had become enamored of her father’s penchant for European high society. Dalton did an excellent job of slowly transforming Annette from the shallow socialite wannabe to the shy and naturally charming young woman who has become more interested in enjoying her youth. And the character’s transformation came about from her budding friendship and romance with the gregarious Gifford Rogers. Robert Wagner seemed a far cry from the sophisticated man that both moviegoers and television viewers have come to know. His Gifford is young, friendly and open-hearted. Wagner made it easier for moviegoers to see why Annette fell for him and Julia found him likeable. However, I was not that enthusiastic about his singing. Harper Carter did an excellent job of holding his own against the likes of Stanwyck, Webb and Dalton as the Sturges’ son Norman. In fact, I found him very believable as the 10 year-old boy eager to maintain his father’s interest without accepting the snobbery that marked Annette’s personality. Perhaps he was simply too young.

The movie’s screenplay also featured a subplot involving a young priest named George Healey, who dreaded his return to the U.S. and facing his family with the shameful news of his defrocking. Thanks to Richard Basehart’s subtle, yet sardonic performance, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward his plight, instead of disgusted by his alcoholism. Thelma Ritter gave her usual top-notch performance as the sarcastic noveau riche Maude Young. Allyn Joslyn was amusing as the social-climbing card shark, Earl Meeker. And Brian Aherne’s portrayal of the Titanic’s doomed captain, was not only subtle, but he also kept the character from wallowing into some kind of second-rate nobility that usually makes my teeth hurt.

For a movie that did not have James Cameron’s advantages of creating the technical effects of the 1997 movie,“TITANIC” proved to be an attractive looking movie. Production manager Joseph C. Behm and his team did a solid job of re-creating life aboard an ocean liner, circa 1912. Behm was also assisted by costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, Don B. Greenwood’s art department, Maurice Ransford and Oscar winner Lyle R. Wheeler’s art directions, and Stuart A. Reiss’ set decorations. Although the movie did not feature an accurate re-creation of the Titanic’s sinking, I have to admit that visually, the special effects created by a team team led by Ray Kellogg were very impressive, especially for 1953. They were ably assisted Joseph MacDonald’s black-and-white photography and Louis R. Loeffler’s editing.

Earlier in this review, I pointed out that James Cameron’s 1997 film was not the only one about the Titanic that struck Oscar gold. Although “TITANIC” did not win eleven Academy Awards, it was nominated for two Oscars and won a single one – namely a Best Original Screenplay award for Brackett, Breen and Reisch. But despite an award winning script, a superb cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb and a first-rate production team, “TITANIC” still could have ended in disaster. But it had the good luck to have an excellent director like Jean Negulesco at the helm.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

The last episode, ”Replacements” saw Easy Company reeling from the Allies’ disastrous defeat during the Operation Market Garden campaign in Holland. Directed by Tom Hanks, this latest episode depicted Richard Winters’ last combat engagement as the company’s commander, Operation Pegasus, and the company’s departure for Belguim as they prepare to participate in the Bastogne campaign. 

At the beginning of the aptly named ”Crossroads”; Winters, now the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion of 506th regiment, recounts his last combat mission as commander of Easy Company in a report for regimental headquarters that took place at a crossroads, near a dike in Holland. In the aftermath of the battle, Winters is informed that he has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel Strayer’s executive officer, leaving Easy without a commander. However, a new man – Frederick Theodore “Moose” Heyliger – becomes Easy’s new commander and leads them in Operation Pegasus, a military mission to escort a large number of British paratroopers trapped behind enemy lines, following the failure of Market Garden. Unfortunately, about a week later, Lieutenant Heyliger is seriously wounded by an American sentry and Easy ends up with a new commander named Norman Dike. Unlike Winters and Heyliger, Easy Company has no respect for their new leader and nicknames him ”Foxhole Norman”.

Not long after Dike becomes Easy’s new commander, a reluctant Winters is ordered to spend a few days of furlough in Paris. During his furlough, Winters is haunted by a moment when he killed a teenaged German soldier during the crossroads battle. Not long after his return to the regiment, the 101st Airborne learns about the German counterattack near Bastogne and is sent to Belgium to repel it. The episode ends with Easy company marching into the Belgian forest in the middle of the night, with minimum supplies and inadequate clothing.

I have always liked ”Crossroads” . . . despite itself. I cannot put my finger on it. Perhaps my feelings about the episode have to do with how Hanks directed the battle fought at the crossroads. He injected a great deal of style into that very moment that featured Winters leading a charge against S.S. troops at the crossroads. I also enjoyed Damian Lewis’ performance during the Paris furlough scenes and Neal McDonough as the slightly stressed out “Buck” Compton, who has returned from the hospital. And I enjoyed the sequence featuring the interaction of some of the company’s men, while watching a Marlene Dietrich film. However, my favorite sequence featured Easy Company’s brief journey to another crossroad – one near the town of Bastogne, Belgium. Screenwriter Erik Jendresen certainly did his best to ensure that the episode’s title adhere to its theme. A good deal seemed to be at a crossroads in this episode – including the location of a Dutch dike, where Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time; and the crossroads near Bastogne, where the company was sent to halt the German counterattack. Winters’ Army career was at a crossroads, as he went from company commander to battalion executive officer. And Easy Company endured a crisis of leadership following Winters’ promotion to battalion.

Yet, despite my positive feelings for ”Crossroads”, I cannot deny that it was one of the miniseries’ weaker episodes. For such a short episode, so much had occurred. Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time. The company participated in Operations Pegasus. It lost “Moose” Heyliger as its commander after he was accidentally shot and gained Norman Dike as the new commander – a man for whom no one seemed to have much respect. This episode should have been longer than 50 minutes. More importantly, watching both ”Replacements” and ”Crossroads” made me realize that Spielberg and Hanks had limited the company’s experiences in Holland to two engagements. The miniseries could have explored a lot more, judging from what I have read in Stephen Ambrose’s book.

It seemed a pity that Spielberg and Hanks failed to take the opportunity to explore more of Easy Company’s Holland experiences. Instead, the second half of this episode focused on Winters’ furlough in Paris and the company’s preparations for the Belgium campaign. And because of this ”Crossroads” seemed unfulfilled . . . and lacking. But it did provide an excellent performance from Damian Lewis as Richard Winters. And it featured a first-rate combat sequence and some personal interactions between the men that I found interesting. It was not a complete waste of time.

 

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