“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Three “September 1862 – August 1863” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE THREE “September 1862 – August 1863”

I have mixed feelings about Episode Three of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Fortunately, most of my feelings are positive. This episode featured the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, and a major schism in the Main family, regarding Madeline Main and her two sisters-in-law – Brett Hazard and Ashton Huntoon. But there was still certain aspects of this episode that I did not find particularly appealing. 

I found the first half of this episode to be rather dull. Those reading this article would find this statement surprising, since the Battle of Antietam was featured in this first third of the episode. But I did. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one of the Mains’ slaves, Jim, decided to take matters into hands and run away. Unfortunately, he was caught and killed by the Mains’ former overseer, Salem Jones. I will admit that the reaction to Jim’s death proved to be slightly interesting, thanks to the excellent acting by Erica Gimbel, Beau Billingslea and especially Forest Whitaker; who portrayed Semiramis, Ezra and Cuffey. I was especially impressed by Whitaker’s performance as he conveyed Cuffey’s bitterness over being owned by the Mains. However, I found Brett and Madeline’s presence at Jim’s funeral to be a touch patronizing. But that is merely a private opinion.

Now, I had no problems with Kevin Connor’s direction of the Battle of Antietam. I believe he did the right thing by keeping the battle solely focused upon Billy Hazard and Charles Main. This allowed their brief reunion to be not only surprising, but dramatic. But I do have one major quibble about this particular sequence. How did Charles and his fellow officer, Ambrose Pell go from being cavalry scouts to leading large bodies of infantry troops on the field? If the miniseries had earlier included a small band of scouts under their command, I could see them leading these men into battle. But large bodies of infantry troops? Were the officers of these troops dead? And what kind of troops were they leading? Infantry or dismounted cavalry? I found this kind of inconsistent vagueness very irritating. The Battle of Gettysburg was better handled . . . somewhat. Considering it was one of the major conflicts of the war and fought in the same region – Southern Pennsylvania – as the Hazards’ hometown of Lehigh Station, I was surprised that the screenplay did not focus too highly on it. The battle was simply used as a literary device for the reunion of George and Billy Hazard and an excuse for the latter to go AWOL and see Brett.

The second half of Episode Three turned out to be a big improvement. Most of the slaves left Mont Royal and I did not blame them one bit. Orry’s reaction to their departure was interesting, considering how “BOOK I” had established his slight aversion to slavery. More importantly, his character came off as increasingly conservative. I found this surprising, considering that in the novel, “Love and War”, his views on slavery and racial relations had become slightly more radical. I found that little moment in which Orry bid his mother Clarissa Main good-bye, following his furlough, rather lovely and touching, thanks to the performances of Patrick Swayze and Jean Simmons. But I have mixed feelings about Billy’s decision to go AWOL in order to see Brett in South Carolina. Frankly, I found it disturbing. I do not blame him for missing Brett. But if the writers had not sent her to South Carolina in that ridiculous story line in Episode 2, she would have remained in the North and Billy would not have went AWOL. And his decision to head for South Carolina will prove to be troublesome for Episode Four‘s plot. I am also remain dumfounded by George’s position in the Union Army. During his reunion with Billy before the Gettysburg battle, he claimed that he had been transferred to field duty. And he was seen commanding artillery units. Yet, after the battle, he was seen attending another meeting with President Lincoln and his Cabinet. What the hell? The screenwriters really screwed up this time.

The episode’s second half, Ashton Main Huntoon’s appearance at Mont Royal really stirred things a bit. I found it to be the episode’s most enjoyable segment. Before I explain why I enjoyed it, I have to say a few words regarding Ashton’s reason for visiting her home – namely to confront Madeline about her African ancestry and drive her from Mont Royal and Orry’s radar. If I must be frank, I found Ashton and Bent’s revenge against Orry by using Madeline’s family secret, a bit . . . anti-climatic. Frankly, I thought they could have exposed Madeline’s secret in a more dramatic and satisfying moment – like during a political party in Richmond (which happened in the novel) or expose the secret to the Mains’ neighbors. However, their act of revenge did result in a marvelous scene well acted by Terri Garber and Lesley Anne Down. Semiramis’ rant against Ashton, thanks to another great piece of acting from Gimpel, was nice touch, although a bit fruitless. But it was Brett’s confrontation with Ashton that really did justice to this episode. Kudos to Garber and especially Genie Francis. Francis also shared an excellent scene with Parker Stevenson, who as Billy Hazard expressed his growing discontent with the war.

There is one major problem with this sequence. When Ashton arrived at Mont Royal, she carried foodstuff for the plantation. This made no sense whatsoever. Ashton was traveling from a state – namely Virginia – that had been ravaged by two years of war. The amount of foodstuff she was carrying from Virginia should have been rare. South Carolina, on the other hand, had been freed of any battles by 1863, aside from the Sea Islands and the forts off the coast of Charleston. There should have been plenty of foodstuff at Mont Royal, thanks to Madeline, Brett, Semiramis and Ezra.

Anthony Zerbe made his first appearance as General Ulysses S. Grant, whom George had traveled all the way to Tennessee to meet, on behalf of President Lincoln. Veteran stars James Stewart and Olivia De Havilland appeared near the end of this episode. Did anyone know that those two had once dated in the late 1930s? Anyway, Stewart gave a charming performance as Madeline’s Charleston attorney, despite his Midwestern accent. However, De Havilland’s portrayal as Virgilia Hazard’s field hospital supervisor, Mrs. Neal, proved to be more interesting and complex. I could not decide which character was more irritating – Virgilia’s arrogant disregard for Mrs. Neal’s advice, or the latter’s patronizing concern for Southern patients at the expense of the other patients and her unfounded suspicions that Virgilia was ignoring them. Both De Havilland and Kirstie Alley gave superb performances in their scenes together.

Although Episode Three had its flaws, I cannot deny that Kevin Connor did an excellent job as the director. But I believe he was ably supported by the miniseries’ crew. Once again, Jacques R. Marquette’s photography provided a good deal of color and style to this episode – especially in the Battle of Antietam sequences. Jospeh R. Jennings continued his excellent production designs, ably transforming viewers back to the United States of the early 1860s. I could say the say about Robert Fletcher’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by his wardrobe for Maude and Isobel Hazard, along with Ashton Huntoon, who ended up being the best-dressed character of the episode. Below are examples of Fletcher’s work:

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Despite a some quibbles and a dull first half hour, Episode Three was an improvement over Episode Two. I was surprised by the number of excellent dramatic moments and first-rate acting in this episode. Also Kevin Connor’s direction of the Battle of Antietam and Gettysburg struck me as pretty damn good. I could say that Episode Three was the highlight of the 1986 miniseries. But I do not believe I would go that far.

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“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

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“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

Beginning on March 23, 1977, British journalist David Frost conducted a series of twelve (12) interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the former commander-in-chief gave his only public apology for the scandals of his administration. Some 29 years later, Peter Morgan’s play – based upon the interviews – reached the London stage and later, Broadway, with rave reviews. Eight years ago, Ron Howard directed the film adaptation of the play, starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. 

I first became interested in Nixon and the Watergate scandals in my mid-teens, when I came across a series of books that featured columnist Art Buchwald’s humorous articles on the famous political scandal. As I grew older, I became acquainted with other scandals that had plagued the American scandal. But it was Watergate that managed to maintain my interest for so long. Ironically, I have never seen the famous Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in August 1977 – not even on video or DVD. But when I saw the trailer for ”FROST/NIXON”, I knew I had to see this movie. There was one aspect of the trailer that put me off – namely the sight of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. For some reason, the performance – of which I only saw a minor example – seemed rather off to me. However, my family went ahead and saw the film. And I must admit that I am glad that we did. Not only did ”FROST/NIXON” seemed only better than I had expected. I ended up being veryimpressed by Langella’s performance. And Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Frost merely increased my positive view of the film.

Speaking of the cast, ”FROST/NIXON” had the good luck to be blessed with a cast that featured first rate actors. Matthew MacFadyen gave solid support as John Birt, David Frost’s friend and producer for the London Weekend Television. I felt the same about Oliver Platt’s slightly humorous portrayal of one of Frost’s researchers, Bob Zelnick. Rebecca Hall gave a charming, yet not exactly an exciting performance as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing. One of the two supporting performances that really impressed me was Kevin Bacon, who portrayed former Marine officer-turned Nixon aide, Jack Brennan. Bacon managed to convey Brennan’s conservatism and intense loyalty toward the former president without going over-the-top. Another intense performance came from Sam Rockwell, who portrayed another of Frost’s researcher, author James Reston Jr. Rockwell’s performance came as a surprise to me, considering I am more used to seeing him in comedic roles. And I must say that I was very impressed.

But the two characters that drove the movie were Richard M. Nixon and David Frost. Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen first portrayed these roles in the Broadway version of Peter Morgan’s play. If their stage performances were anything like their work on the silver screen, the theatergoers who had first-hand experience of their stage performances must have enjoyed quite a treat. As I had earlier stated, I originally harbored qualms about Frank Langella portraying Richard Nixon. What I did not know was that the man had already won a Tony award for his stage performance of the role. After watching ”FROST/NIXON”, I could see why. Richard Nixon had possessed a personality and set of mannerisms that were easily caricatured. I have never come across an actor who has captured Nixon’s true self with any real accuracy. But I can think of at least three actors who have left their own memorable stamps in their interpretations of the former president – the late Lane Smith, Sir Anthony Hopkins and now, Frank Langella. One of Langella’s most memorable moments featured a telephone call from Nixon to Frost, in which the former attempts to further psyche the journalist and ends up delivering an angry tirade against the wealthy establishment that he had resented, yet kowtowed toward most of his political career. Michael Sheen had the difficult task of portraying a more complicated character in David Frost and delivered in spades. Sheen’s Frost is an ambitious television personality who wants to be known for more than just frothy talk show host. This reputation makes it impossible for Frost to be taken seriously by Nixon, Zelnick and especially the judgmental Reston.

I also have to compliment Peter Morgan for what struck me as a first-rate adaptation of his stage play. Morgan managed to expand or open up a story that depended heavily upon dialogue. The movie could have easily turned into a filmed play. Thankfully, Morgan’s script managed to avoid this pitfall. And so did Ron Howard’s direction. I must admit that Howard did a great job in ensuring that what could have simply been a well-acted, would turn out to be a tightly paced psychological drama. Hell, the interactions between Frost and Nixon seemed more like a game of psychological warfare between two antagonists, instead of a series of interviews of historical value.

I am trying to think of what I did not like about ”FROST/NIXON”. So far, I am hard pressed to think of a flaw. Actually, I have thought of a flaw – namely the usually competent Toby Jones. Considering how impressed I had been of his performances for the past decade, it seemed a shame that his Swifty Lazar seemed more like a caricature than a flesh-and-blood individual. Perhaps it was a good thing that his appearance in the film had been short. Also, knowing that Frost had questioned Nixon in a series of twelve interviews, it seemed a shame that the movie only focused upon three of those interviews. Naturally, Howard and Morgan could not have included all twelve interviews for fear of dragging the movie’s running time. However, I still could not help but feel that three interviews were not enough and that the film could have benefited from at least one more interview – one that could have effectively bridged the gap between Frost’s second disastrous interview, until the third that led to his own triumph and Nixon’s rare admission.

”FROST/NIXON” could have easily become dialogue-laden film with no action and a slow pace. But thanks to Ron Howard’s direction, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his play and the superb performances of the two leads – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, the movie struck me as a fascinating character piece about two very different men who had met during the spring of 1977 for a historical series of interviews that seemed to resemble more of a game of psychological warfare.

 

 

Boston Creme Pie

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Below is a brief look at and recipe for the famous New England dessert called the “Boston Creme Pie”:


BOSTON CREME PIE

Judging by the name of this famous dessert, one would assume that the Boston Creme Pie was created in Boston, Massachusetts. And one would be right. However, there is a slight confusion over the dessert’s origins. According to John F. Mariani’s 1999 book, “Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink”, the Boston Creme Pie originated during the Early American period and was known as either the “Pudding-Cake Pie”; or when made with a raspberry jelly filling, “Mrs. Washington’s Pie”.

But the current dessert that features the chocolate topping is known as the Boston Creme Pie. And according to many cookbooks, Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian created the dessert at Boston’s famous Parker House Hotel in 1855 or 1856. Like the Pudding-Cake Pie and Mrs. Washington’s Pie, the Boston Creme Pie is actually a pudding and cake combination that comprises at least two or three layers of sponge cake filled with vanilla flavored custard or crème pâtissière. In the case of the Boston Creme Pie, the cake is topped with a chocolate glaze called Ganache. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts declared the Boston Creme Pie as its official dessert in 1996.

The following is a recipe for the dish from thehungrymouse.com website:

Boston Creme Pie

Ingredients

Cake
1/2 cup butter (that’s 1 stick), softened on the counter for 20 minutes or so
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt

Cream Filling
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
6 Tbls. flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Chocolate Frosting
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 Tbls. butter

Preparations

Cake
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Spray 2 8-inch round cake pans with oil, then line with circles of parchment paper. Set them aside. Combine the sugar and butter in the bowl of your mixer. Beat them together until well combined. Add in the egg yolks. Beat again until well combined and kind of fluffy. Scrape down the sides of your bowl with a spatula. Add the milk. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Stir them together with a whisk to combine well. Toss the dry mixture into the butter/sugar in the mixing bowl. Mix on medim-high for maybe 20 or 30 seconds to combine, just until the batter comes together.

The batter will be relatively thick and stiff. Give the batter a stir or two with a spatula to be sure that it’s mixed well and no dry ingredients remain in the very bottom of the bowl. Divide the batter evenly between your two prepared cake pans. Smooth it down with a spatula so it fills the whole pan and is relatively even. Bake cake the 2 cakes for 20-23 minutes at 375 degrees.

They are done when they are golden brown on top and feel firm (not jiggly) in the middle when pressed with a finger. When inserted in the center, a toothpick should come out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for about 10 minutes. Then, gently run a knife around the whole edge to loosen it, and remove each cake from the pan. (Because you lined each pan with parchment paper, this should be easy). Set the cakes on a rack to cool completely. If your cakes wound up a little crusty on the edges, like this, don’t worry. You’re going to trim those crisp edges right off when you assemble your Boston Cream Pie.

Custard
Fill a medium-sized pot with a few inches of water. Set it on the stove over high heat to bring it up to a boil. Then put the sugar and egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl. Whisk together until well combined. Add the flour. Whisk to combine. Pour in the milk. And the vanilla. Whisk to combine. When your pot of water is boiling, drop the heat to low. Set the bowl on top of the pot of water. Whisk it constantly for 5-7 minutes until it starts thicken. Keep whisking until the custard gets very thick. It’s done when it coats the back of a spoon. Give it a taste. It should have a nice custard-y taste, without any hint of raw flour. When it is done, take it off the heat. Cool it on the counter to room temperature, then pop it in the fridge to chill it completely.

Chocolate Frosting
Fill a medium-sized pot with a few inches of water. Set it on the stove over high heat to bring it up to a boil. If you are making the frosting right after the custard, just use the same pot of simmering water. Chop up the chocolate. Put it into a large heatproof bowl. Pour in the cream. When your pot of water is boiling, drop the heat to low. Set the bowl on top of the pot of water. Toss in the butter. The chocolate should start to melt almost immediately. Whisk to combine. Keep whisking until all the chocolate is melted and you have a uniform mixture. Set the chocolate frosting aside to cool. As it cools, it will thicken up. If you put it in the fridge, keep a close eye on it. It can go from nice and thick to solid fudge in no time flat.

Assemble the Dessert

Do not do this until all of your components are completely cool. If you try to put it together when any piece is warm, you will wind up with a slippery, drippy mess.

Start by trimming your cakes. Carefully set them one on top of the other. With a serrated bread knife, cut the edges off. Go slowly and press down on the top of the cake with one hand to keep it from ripping. Should you have an accident with one of the cakes, like this, do not fret. Just use that cake as the bottom layer. The custard filling will help glue the whole thing together once it gets cold in the fridge.

Set one cake on your serving platter, bottom side facing up. Do this so that your custard goes on a flat—not slightly domed—surface. Grab the custard filling from the fridge. It should be nice and thick. Spoon it out onto the cake. Reserve a few spoonfuls of custard for later, to help stick the almonds to the side of the cake. Spread the custard to the edges with a rubber spatula. Put the second cake right on top. Grab your chocolate frosting. Spoon it out onto the top of the cake. Spread it around until the top of the cake is covered. Pop two toothpicks into the cake to hold the layers together for now, until it’s completely chilled. With your finger, brush the leftover custard onto the edges of the cake, so it’s covered in a thin layer.

Note

According to this recipe, the Boston Cream Pie is best served on the day that it is put together. The dessert has three parts – the cake, the custard filling and the chocolate frosting. Following the preparation of all three parts, they need to be completely cooled before the dessert is assembled.

 

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“THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938) Review

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“THE ADVENTUERS OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938) Review

Eighty-one years ago last April, the 1938 film, ”THE ADVENTUERS OF ROBIN HOOD”, was released in theaters for the first time. For many fans and film critics, the swashbuckler is considered the definitive Errol Flynn movie. They also view his character, Sir Robin of Locksley, as the pinnacle of the Australian actor’s career.

There have been previous versions of the Robin Hood tale before and after. The other most famous versions are the 1922 silent film that starred Douglas Fairbanks and the 1950s TV series that starred Richard Greene. Like the other versions, the movie told the story of the young Saxon nobleman (Flynn) who created a band of outlaws to protest against the reign of Prince John (Claude Rains) in England during the early 1190s. With King Richard the Lionhearted (Ian Hunter) a hostage of Austria’s king, John usurps the royal power to oppress the English poor – especially the Saxons – with the help of Sir Guy Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Robin and his right hand man, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), recruits the likes of Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.), Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), Much the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin) and a band of outlaws. Soon, Prince John and his Norman cronies find their cruelties opposed and themselves harassed beyond all bearing. Robin also finds the time to fall in love with the Norman noblewoman and royal ward, Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland).

To be frank, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” is a glorious triumph not only for the Warner Bros. studio, but for Flynn as well. It has everything that the moviegoer could possibly want in a swashbuckler – great action, rich color, a superb score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and a leading man who more than embodied what the main character stood for. Warner Bros. executives Jack Warner and Hal Wallis had originally cast James Cagney in the lead. But the actor became embroiled in one of his many feuds with the studio and two years later, Flynn won the role. I cannot say how Cagney would have portrayed Robin of Locksley. But Warner and Wallis certainly struck it rich with Flynn in the lead. Not only did he look the part, he handled the physical aspects of the role, perfectly. And he managed to inject Robin with a great mixture of roguish humor and sincere compassion.

The rest of the cast were also superb. Olivia de Havilland was never more lovelier. Even better, her Maid Marian became more than just the love interest and damsel-in-distress. Once Robin had swayed her to his cause, she turned out to be a valuable recruit. Not only did she managed to come up with a plan to save Robin from execution, she was the one who discovered a plot by Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff to assassinate the returning King Richard.

Claude Rains, with his soft voice, made a deliciously sly Prince John. Basil Rathbone was tough enough to serve as a physical adversary for Robin. Their duel in the final scene at Nottingham Castle is considered a classic, thanks to the fencing choreography staged by Fred Cavens. And Melville Cooper was his usual funny self as the buffoonish Sheriff of Nottingham. Although I find it odd that he was the only one who was able to come up with a successful plan to capture Sir Robin. And where would ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” be without its supporting cast that portrayed Robin’s Merry Men? The handsome Patric Knowles made a sly and witty Will Scarlett. Alan Dale Sr. returned as Little John, a role he had first made famous in the 1922 film. Eugene Pallette made great use of his frog voice and gruff demeanor as Friar Tuck. And Herbert Mundin, as Much the Miller’s Son, seemed to be the best of the bunch. Not only did he proved to be as brave as Robin, he also won the hand of Marian’s nurse, Bess, portrayed by the always memorable Una O’Connor.

Surprisingly, ”THE ADVENTUES OF ROBIN HOOD” had two directors. Hal Wallis first assigned the film to William Keighley, who had directed Flynn in ”THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER” (1937). But Hal Wallis felt slightly dissatisfied with Keighley’s slow handling of the action sequences and replaced him with Warner Bros’ reliable warhorse, Michael Curtiz. Flynn, who detested the Hungarian-born director, must have screamed in frustration. But Curtiz’s direction gave the film a tighter pace and better action sequences for which the movie is famous. ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”was one of the first films of the studio to use the old three-strip Technicolor process. And it paid off, giving the movie a rich color and vibrancy. And what would this version of Robin Hood be without Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Academy Award winning score. I am still surprised that Korngold had originally turned down the assignment because he felt that his score could not live up to the movie’s action. Thankfully, he proved himself wrong.

”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” seemed to have everything going for it – great cast, great photography, great action and great music. And it all seemed to blend seamlessly.  And yet . . . it is not my favorite Errol Flynn movie. I had come across a review of the film in which a critic stated that one of the reasons this was his favorite Flynn movie was its light-hearted tone and simplistic characterizations that allowed the audience to escape from the more complex, modern world. And I could see those traits in the movie.

But as much as I had enjoyed it, there were times when the movie came off as a little too light or simple for me. Sir Robin of Locksley may be considered Flynn’s best role, but I must admit that I found his performances in four other films more complex and interesting.  In fact, I consider at least two of these movies to be my favorites that Flynn ever made. However, I do love ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and consider it one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen.

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“BOTTLE SHOCK” (2008) Review

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”BOTTLE SHOCK” (2008) Review

If someone had suggested I go see a movie about California wines and its impact upon the business in the mid-1970s, I would have smiled politely and ignored that person. As it turned out, no one had told me about the 2008 comedy-drama, ”BOTTLE SHOCK”. Two years would pass before I found myself intrigued by it, while watching the movie on cable television. 

Directed and co-written by Randall Miller, ”BOTTLE SHOCK” told the story of Jim and Bo Barrett and how their Chardonnay became the first American-grown vintage to win a famous blind wine tasting contest now known as ”the Judgment of Paris”. The contest was sponsored by a British wine connoisseur named Steven Spurrier and held in France. Spurrier wanted to use the contest as a means to be accepted by the French wine connoisseur community. The movie also chronicled the Barretts’ difficulties in maintaining their vineyard, the Chateau Montelena, in the face of mounting debts, Jim Barrett’s reluctance to participate in Spurrier’s contest, and the efforts of a Barrett employee named Gustavo Bambini and his father to start their own vineyard. The desires of the Barretts, Bambini and Spurrier centered on the latter’s blind wine testing competition that made history for the Barretts and California wines.

While reading about ”BOTTLE SHOCK”, I discovered that the movie had received a standing ovation following its screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Personally, I believe that Miller and fellow screenwriters Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz did an excellent job in creating a heartwarming movie filled with sharp humor, adversity, human drama, some romance and a good deal of warmth and whimsy. More importantly, Miller, Savin and Schwartz, along with the cast, gave the movie such energy and drive that I found myself developing interest in the topic of wine growing – something that would usually bore me to tears. There have been complaints about some of the historical accuracy in the movie. Why bother? ”BOTTLE SHOCK” is a movie, not a documentary. I have yet to come across a movie or play with a historical backdrop that was completely accurate.

Cinematographer Michael J. Ozier did a marvelous job in capturing the warmth and natural beauty of Napa Valley, with its rolling hills and vast vineyards. With different lightning, he captured the cool elegance of Paris and the French countryside. And costume designer Jillian Kreiner had the more difficult job of capturing the basic styles of the mid-1970s. This was at a time when fashion was in a transition from the wild, Age of Aquarius styles of the early 1970s, to the more ersatz elegance of the latter part of the decade and the 1980s. By the way, one should keep an eye on Dennis Farina’s loud, leisure suits that seemed to symbolize the entire decade . . . at least for me.

I had felt a bit confused over the identity of the film’s leading man. I could not decide whether it was Alan Rickman, Chris Pine or Bill Pullman. In the end, I decided to view all three as the film’s leads. And they led a very fine cast that included Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Miguel Sandoval and Eliza Dushku. I had a ball watching Rickman’s portrayal of the sharp-tongued wine connoisseur, Steven Spurrier, who found himself dealing with a new culture in California wine country and the possibility that European countries like Italy, Germany and especially France were not the only places to produce fine wines. At first, Chris Pine’s portrayal of the young Bo Barrett reminded me of a possible dress rehearsal for his performance as a loutish James Kirk in 2009’s ”STAR TREK”. Thankfully, his performance as the younger Barrett proved to possess more nuance, as Pine revealed him to be a vulnerable young man that seemed unsure about whether he was ready to embrace his father’s passion for winemaking, as his own. My only problem with Pine was the blond wig that he wore. I found it atrocious and wished that he had been allowed to portray the character with his natural hair. I personally believe that Bill Pullman gave one of the movie’s two best performances as the complex Jim Barrett – the man who originally injected new life into the Chateau Montelena during the 1970s. His Barrett was a proud and stubborn man that was passionate about his vineyard and who masked his insecurities with a great deal of pig-headed behavior.

Also providing top notch performances were Dennis Farina (of the loud leisure suits), who provided a great deal of amusement and wit as Spurrier’s fictional American friend in Paris and fellow wine connoisseur, Maurice Cantavale; Rachael Taylor as Sam Fulton, the free-spirited intern at Chateau Montelena and Bo’s object of desire; Miguel Sandoval, who was deliciously sardonic as Mr. Garcia, another worker at Chateau Montelena; and Eliza Dushku, who gave an amusingly edgy performance as a local bar owner named Jo. At last, I come to Freddy Rodriguez, who portrayed the Barretts’ ambitious employee, Gustovo Bambini. He gave the movie’s other best performance, conveying not only his character’s ambition and wit, but also a raging passion for wintry and a short temper.

What else can I say about ”BOTTLE SHOCK”? I laughed, I cried and I managed to enjoy both the story and the performances, thanks to Randall Miller and the script he co-wrote with Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz . But more importantly, I found myself surprisingly interested in a topic that I would not have usually wasted time even discussing. On that point alone, I would heartily recommend this film.

 

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“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes Nine to Twelve

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES NINE TO TWELVE

It has been a while since I had last viewed “POLDARK”, the BBC’s 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s literary series about the post-war life of a British Army officer American Revolutionary War veteran named Ross Poldark. Real life and several movies releases distracted my attention from the series. Eventually, I found the time to watch Series One’s adaptation of Graham’s 1950 novel, “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”

Episode Eight had ended on a grim note. Ross’ new smelting company ended in failure after his cousin Francis Poldark revealed the shareholders’ names to the former’s rival, George Warleggan. Ross now finds himself in financial straights. Francis was stricken with Putrid’s Throat and Ross’ wife, Demelza Carne Poldark, helped Francis’ wife, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, nurse the stricken man back to health. Unfortunately, both Demelza and young daughter Julia were stricken with the same illness. Demelza recovered. Julia did not. Following Julia’s death, one of the Warleggans’ ships were wrecked off the coast of Poldark land. Despite Ross’ efforts to conduct a rescue of the survivors (in this version, at least), many of the locals salvaged the goods from the ship and caused a riot on the ship. The episode ended with Ross being arrested for instigating the riot.

Episode Nine began with Ross’ return to his estate, Nampara, after spending a short period in jail. While he prepares to find a barrister (attorney) to represent him in court, Demelza tries to recruit help from the local gentry to have the charges dropped against Ross or ensure a not guilty verdict. Much against Ross’ wishes, who stubbornly wants to guarantee his freedom on his own. Ross’ friend, Dr. Dwight Enrys, meets the spoiled heiress Caroline Peneven, when she mistakes him for a veterinarian for her pug. Francis, who continues to feels guilty over his betrayal of the Carnmore Copper Company, sinks to a new low before sets out to make amends with Ross. And George and Nicholas Warleggan, who had arranged Ross’ arrest in the first place, tries to guarantee a guilty verdict for Ross by bribing the latter’s former servant, Jud Paynter, to testify against him.

Following the trial in which Ross is exonerated, the Poldarks at both Nampara and Trenwith are forced to deal with their low financial straits. Ross and Francis reconcile and make plans to re-open Wheal Grace and dig for copper. To finance re-opening the mine, Ross allows local smugglers led by a man named Mr. Trencom to use the cove on Nampara land for a smuggling operation. Demelza is against the idea, but Ross refuses to listen to her. Meanwhile, Demelza discovers that she is pregnant with their second child. Due to their financial straits and the trauma of baby Julia’s death, she fears that Ross will be unhappy by the news of her pregnancy. Demelza also resorts to solo fishing trips behind her husband’s back to provide food for Nampara’s inhabitants, while Ross’ finances suffer. In fact, Episode Twelve ends with a very pregnant Demelza struggling to row back to the shore, while she goes into labor.

What can I say about the 1975 adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”? I have mixed feelings about it. Perhaps my feelings for this adaptation is due to the source material. “Jeremy Poldark” is probably the shortest novel in Graham’s twelve-book series. A novel’s lenghth should not determine one’s opinion of it. But if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high regard for “Jeremy Poldark”. It seemed more like a filler episode of a television series with a long-term narrative structure. The most interesting aspects of the novel were the emotional estrangement between Ross and Demelza, following their daughter’s death and his deal with smugglers; Francis’ attempt to reconcile with Ross; and of course, Ross’ trial for the riot that had occurred near the end of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”.

Episode Nine mainly focused on Ross’ preparations for the trial, Demelza’s attempts to seek help for him, and the Warleggans’ preparations to ensure that Ross will be convicted. That included recruiting Jud Paynter to testify against Ross. It was a pretty interesting episode. Somewhat. I thought the episode featured a colorful quality once the setting shifted to Bodmin for both the trial and upcoming local elections. It also featured a colorful assembly ball where Demelza, wearing the same gown she had worn at the Warleggans’ ball in Episode Six, tries to recruit support and help for Ross. The episode ended with a cliffhanger, as Francis Poldark, who was also at the ball and in Bodmin to support Ross, contemplates committing suicide with a pistol in his hand.

Episode Eleven mainly focused on Ross and Demelza’s separate efforts to maintain their survival and rejuvenate their fortunes. And for the first time, the series delved into the strains that their their problems and Julia’s death had placed upon their marriage. For Ross and Demelza, the honeymoon is finally over and I could not be any more happier. There is nothing that will bore me quicker than an idealized romance. Finally, the saga settles down to forcing the couple to work at making their marriage work. And I have to give credit to both Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees for their skillful portrayal of Ross and Demelza’s struggles to make their marriage work. This was especially apparent in one scene that featured a quarrel between the couple following a supper party they had attended at Trenwith. Sometime during the evening, Ross and his former love, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, had the opportunity for a private conversation that ended with Ross complimenting her appearance. Unfortunately, Demelza appeared and was able to overhear his compliment. Which would explained the Ross and Demelza’s quarrel.

Ever since the current adaptation of “POLDARK” had first aired, I have encountered complaints about how actor Kyle Soller had portrayed Francis Poldark as an ill-tempered loser during the show’s first season. To be honest, Clive Francis had did the same in the 1975 adaptations of “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and “Demelza”. I noticed that once Francis had put his friendship with the manipulative George Warleggan behind him and reconciled with Ross, he finally became that wry and witty man that so many had commented about. And the actor gave a very charming and subtle performance.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of the burgeoning romance between Dr. Dwight Enys and heiress Caroline Penvenen, thanks to Richard Morant and Judy Geeson’s sparkling performances. The beginning of their relationship reminded me of the numerous Hollywood comedies between the late 1950s and mid 1960s. This was especially highlighted by Caroline’s mistaken assumption that Dwight was more of a veterinarian and the latter’s subtle contempt toward her privileged behavior. In a way, I find their relationship a bit more realistic than the one between Ross and Demelza. Dwight and Caroline’s relationship strike me as good example of how class differences can effect a potential romance between two people of such disparate backgrounds.

But the one episode that I truly enjoyed was Episode Ten. It featured the assizes in Bodmin and especially Ross’ trial. If I must be brutally honest, Episode Ten did not feature one of Robin Ellis’ best performances as Ross Poldark. He spent most of the episode looking rather stoic and occasionally, disapproving. It seemed as if the world of 18th century Cornwall had merely revolved around him. And a colorful world it turned out to be. The excitement actually began in the second half of Episode Nine, which featured the local elections, a local ball and the preparations for Ross’ trial. But it was the assizes itself, which included Ross’ trial that made Episode Ten fascinated for me. Not only did it feature Ross’ trial, filled with attempts by the corrupt prosecutor to circumvent the law; but also another in which a woman was convicted for a minor crime and punished with a public whipping.

At least three performances made Episode Ten very interesting. One of those performances came from Paul Curran, who portrayed Ross’ former servant (at the time), Jud Paynter. Curran’s Jud spent most of the episode getting drunk in order to shore up his courage to testify against Ross. It almost seemed as if Curran had to sustain the image of a drunken Jud throughout the entire episode. He also had to constantly irritate George Warleggan, portrayed by Ralph Bates. And the latter is the second performance that really caught my interest. I really enjoyed Bates in this episode. His George Warleggan was a man irritated not only by Jud’s drunkeness, but also by the tight-fisted Nicholas Warleggan. Bates did an excellent job in basically portraying a straight man to a pair of comic performances. That second comic performance belonged to Nicholas Selby, who gave a rather subtle, yet funny performance as the venal, yet penny-pinching Nicholas. Poor George. His father is vindictive enough to demand that Ross suffers for the looting of his shipwrecked ship, but cheap enough to demand that George pay a small amount to arrange for Ross’ conviction. Talk about a man between a rock and a hard place.

Despite these narrative and character virtues, I still remained somewhat unimpressed by Episodes Nine to Twelve. I was not impressed by how screenwriters Peter Draper and Paul Wheeler, along with director Kenneth Ives; structured the narrative for these episodes. One, their use of cliffhangers seemed a bit off kilter to me. In two episodes – Episodes Nine and Ten – the screenwriters and the director used cliffhangers to tell the audience what happened and not show. Episode Nine ended with a despondent Francis Poldark pressing a pistol to his head, as he prepared to commit suicide. Yet, there was no gunshot or anything to hint what happened. Audiences did not learn that the suicide attempt had failed due to the pistol’s misfire in a conversation between Francis and Dwight Enys. I found this handling of Francis’ suicide attempt extremely annoying. Apparently, it was easier for Draper and Ives to tell the audience what happened via Francis’ revelation than show it.

As for Episode Ten, it ended with the judge about to announce the verdict at the end of Ross’ trial. But audiences did not learn about the verdict, until George Warleggan had informed his father . . . at the beginning of Episode Eleven. It seemed ridiculously unnecessary to end Episode Ten in this manner. Worse, it was another example of the writer and director telling what happened, instead of showing. Speaking of “episodic interruptus”, Episode Twelve, which is the last one that served as an adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”, ended with a pregnant Demelza rowing back to shore as she goes into labor. One, this is not how the novel ended. It ended with a conciliation between Ross and Francis during the newborn Jeremy Poldark’s christening; along with Ross and Demelza at home, as they contemplated on keeping their family and household. I see now that the screenwriter had allowed Ross and Francis to reconcile before Jeremy’s birth, so that they could end the episode on this cliffhanger with Demelza struggling to reach the shore. I found this a waste of time. This was simply another example of telling the audience what happened, instead of showing. Episode Thirteen, which began the adaptation of “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793”, began with Demelza reaching the shore and later, Ross announcing the presence of his newborn son. Frustrating! And unnecessary.

Although I had earlier complimented Paul Curran’s comic performance of the drunken Jud Paynter, I must admit there is so much of Jud that I can take. He almost became something of a fly on the ointment to me during my favorite episode, Episode Ten. But Episode Twelve truly became something of a chore for me, due to the whole “Jud is dead” story arc. After double-crossing the Warleggans by failing to testify against Ross and keeping the fifteen shillings they had given him, Jud is assaulted by some of George Warleggan’s men at the end of Episode Eleven. A great deal of Episode Twelve focused on Jud’s funeral and wake, while Ross and Demelza attended another supper party at Trenwith. A great deal. To make matters worse, it turned out that Jud was never dead . . . just unconscious. No one had bothered to verify whether he was dead or not. Instead, they had mistaken his unconscious body as a corpse. Not only was I irritated that Jud was not dead, I believe that Winston Graham had committed something of a cheat with this story line. Worse, I had to endure thirty to forty minutes of Jud’s wake, which seemed more than I was able to bear. I really wish he had remained dead.

I have one last quibble and it involved at least four missing characters. What happened to Jinny Carter? You know . . . Jinny? Ross and Demelza’s kitchen maid? The widow of one Jim Carter? What happened to her? Actress Gillian Bailey, who had portrayed Ginny in the adaptation of “Ross Poldark” and “Demelza”, seemed to be missing during these four episodes. Worse, no mention was made about her lack of presence. I find this ironic, considering that Jinny’s father, Zacky Martin, was not missing. Forbes Collins, who had portrayed Zacky, had a strong presence in these four episodes – including the sequence involving Jud’s funeral. So why was Jinny missing? And I also noticed that after twelve episodes and adaptations of three novels, Aunt Agatha Poldark also remained missing. I realize that she plays an important role in “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793” and “The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795”. But why has she been missing for so long in this adaptation of Winston Graham’s saga? How did producers Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn explain her appearance in future episodes, beginning with the adaptation of “Warleggan”? And what happened to Verity’s stepchildren? They were first introduced in “Jeremy Poldark” and I had assumed (for which I should have known better) they would make their appearances by at least Episode Eleven or Episode Twelve. Perhaps they will appear in the production’s adaptation of “Warleggan”. Who knows?

There were some highlights from Barry and Coburn’s adaptation of “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791”. These highlights include Ross Poldark’s trial in Episode Ten; the burgeoning romance between Dr. Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen; and the performances of three cast members – Paul Curran, Nicholas Selby and especially Ralph Bates. But overall, I was not that impressed by Episodes Nine to Twelve. I found the narrative structure of these episodes rather troubling, especially with how cliffhangers were used. And the handling of the Jud Paynter character struck me as well, somewhat overbearing. Oh well. Onward to Episode Thirteen.

1950s Costumes in Movies and Television

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Below are images of fashion during the 1950s, found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

1950s COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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“Back to the Future” (1985)

 

 

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“Boycott” (2001)

 

 

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“Far From Heaven” (2002)

 

 

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“Sylvia” (2003)

 

 

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“The Company” (2007)

 

 

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“The Hour” (2011-2012)

 

 

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“Trumbo” (2015)

 

 

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“The Crown” (2016-present)

 

 

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“The Crown” (2016-present)