“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released “THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

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Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.

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“ONCE UPON A TIME” – Relationship Mystery

Welcome to Storybrooke Regina, Sheriff Graham

“ONCE UPON A TIME” – RELATIONSHIP MYSTERY

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

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

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

“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

Twenty-nine years ago, 20th Century Fox released an action-adventure film that kicked off a movie franchise that has lasted with the addition of four other films and twenty-five years. I am speaking of the 1988 movie called “DIE HARD”. And the ironic thing is that I had no intention of seeing the film when it first hit the movie theaters during that summer of ’88. 

Based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever” (which sounds like a title for a Bond movie), “DIE HARD” was directed by John McTiernan. Many would be surprised to know that the 1979 movie was a sequel to an earlier Thorp novel published in 1966 called “The Detective”, which was adapted into a 1968 movie that starred Frank Sinatra. Thorp had hoped a movie adaptation of the 1979 novel would also star Sinatra. But the singer-actor was not interested in a sequel to his movie. Later, the novel was being considered as a sequel to the Arnold Schwartzenegger 1985 movie, “COMMANDO”. But Schartzenegger was not interested. Oh dear. Finally, the novel became a literary source for “DIE HARD”. However, the Fox studio executives were not thrilled at the idea of Bruce Willis being cast as the movie’s lead, due to his reputation as a comedic television actor. But cast he was . . . and the rest is Hollywood history.

“DIE HARD” told the story of off-duty NYPD detective John McClane, who arrived in Los Angeles to reconciled with his estranged wife, Holly Gennero McClane. Husband and wife had clashed several months earlier when she accepted a job promotion with the Nakatomi Corporation that sent her to Los Angeles. A hired limousine driver named Argyle drives McClane to the Nakatomi Plaza building in Century City for the company’s Christmas party. While, the detective changes clothes, the party is disrupted by the arrival of terrorist Hans Gruber and his armed followers. The latter seize control of the tower and the partygoers as hostages. Only McClane, armed with a pistol, manages to evade capture. Gruber’s intentions are revealed, when he interrogates Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi for the code to the building’s vault that holds $640 million in bearer bonds. When Takagi refuses to cooperate, Gruber executes him. McClane manages to kill one of Gruber’s men, taking the latter’s weapon and radio. He uses the radio to contact the Los Angeles Police Department during a gunfight with more of Gruber’s men on the roof. The L.A.P.D. eventually sends patrolman Sergeant Al Powell to investigate. When McClane drops one of Gruber’s dead associates on Powell’s patrol car roof, the latter finally summons the police force to respond. The incident also draws the attention of an ambitious local news reporter named Richard Thornburg, who is determined to learn McClane’s identity. Despite the arrival of Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson, numerous men that include a S.W.A.T. team, and later the F.B.I., McClane and Holly eventually realizes that matters have grown worse for both of them.

Most moviegoers and critics view “DIE HARD” as the best in the franchise. Is it the best? Hmmm . . . I really cannot say. As much as I love the movie, I certainly do not consider it perfect. The movie possesses flaws that I had not noticed during previous viewings and one particular flaw that I have noticed since I first saw it years ago. One aspect about “DIE HARD” that I found particularly annoying was the movie’s pacing. Director John McTiernan did a pretty good job with the movie’s pacing. Unfortunately, two-thirds into the movie, McTiernan began to lose steam and the pacing began to drag. Trimming the story would not have helped. I had no problem with the narrative during this film’s period. But I did have a problem with the director’s pacing. One of Roger Ebert’s complaints about “DIE HARD” was its unflattering portrayal of the Los Angeles Police Department. And if I must be brutally honest, I share his complaint. I am not a great admirer of the L.A.P.D. or any police force. But the police’s incompetency portrayed in the movie struck me as damn near unrealistic. I feel that McTiernan and screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart went a bit to the extreme to make John McClane look good. And if I must be brutally frank, the movie does feature some rather cheesy dialogue – especially from the villains. However, my biggest complaint regarding “DIE HARD” – the one flaw I have been aware of since I first saw the film – occurred in the final action scene. Back in the 1980s, it was popular in action or thriller movies to temporarily “resurrect” a villain/villainess before killing him or her for good. This happened with Glenn Close’s character in the 1987 movie, “FATAL ATTRACTION”. This also happened with Alexander Godunov’s character in “DIE HARD”. And you know what? I hate this kind of showy action. I found it stupid and cringe-worthy when I first saw the movie. And I still find it a major blot on this otherwise first-rate movie.

Flaws or no flaws, “DIE HARD” is without a doubt, a first-rate action thriller that helped defined the genre during the 1980s. While reading the plot for Roderick Thorp’s 1978 novel, I was surprised to discover how much it resembled the 1988 film. There were some changes made in the latter. The main hero acquired a new name and shed at least two decades in age. Instead of a daughter, McClane’s wife ended up as one of the hostages. The franchise’s producers used the daughter character in the fourth film, “LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”. The German terrorist – renamed Hans Gruber – was more interested in pulling a heist than making a political statement. The Al Powell character is at least fifteen years older. And unlike Thorp’s novel, “DIE HARD” ended on a more optimistic note for the two main characters.

Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver were lucky to gather such a talented cast and director for this movie. Thanks to the actors and director John McTiernan, “DIE HARD” featured some excellent dramatic moments. My favorite dramatic scenes include the tense quarrel between John and Holly before Gruber’s arrival at the Christmas party, Gruber’s interrogation of Joseph Takagi for the codes to the executive vault, Holly’s tense interactions with Gruber, Takagi employee Harry Ellis’ attempt to convince McClane to surrender to Gruber, McClane’s accidental encounter with Gruber, and the many radio conversations between McClane and Powell. I found the latter especially impressive, considering that Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson spent most of the movie apart.

But “DIE HARD” is, above all, an action film. And thanks to some members of the cast, a group of talented stuntmen and crew, the action sequences featured in the movie proved to be very memorable. If I had to choose those scenes that really impressed me, they would have to be the ones that featured Al Powell’s awareness of the presence of terrorists at the Nakatomi Tower thanks to some gunfire and a dead body that landed on his patrol car, the S.W.A.T. team’s failed assault on the building, and McClane’s retaliation against the terrorists’ massacre of the S.W.A.T. team (using explosives strapped to a chair). I was also impressed by the brief, yet final confrontation between the McClanes and Gruber. But for me, the most spectacular sequence turned out to be the rooftop explosion that claimed the lives of more Gruber men and two F.B.I. agents hovering above in an helicopter. Well-known cinematographer Jan de Bont and the special effects team really outdid themselves in that particular sequence.

As I had earlier pointed out, “DIE HARD” featured some outstanding performances. Bruce Willis was already a television star thanks to the 1980s series, “MOONLIGHTING”. But his superb, yet tough performance as the besieged N.Y.P.D. detective John McClane not only made him an action star, but also a bonafide movie star. I believe that Holly Gennero McClane proved to be one of Bonnie Bedelia’s best roles, thanks to her excellent performance as McClane’s passionate and no-nonsense wife. “DIE HARD” also made a star of Alan Rickman, thanks to his deliciously sardonic performance as the ruthless Hans Gruber. In fact, his Gruber happens to be one of my favorite cinematic villains of all time. Reginald VelJohnson’s career also benefited from his first-rate performance as the compassionate L.A.P.D. officer, Sergeant Al Powell.

There were other performances in “DIE HARD” that caught my attention. Ballet dancer Alexander Godunov gave a very competent performance as Gruber’s right-hand man, Hans, who wants revenge for McClane’s killing of his younger brother. Hart Bochner was very entertaining as Holly’s gauche co-worker, Harry Ellis. However, I must admit that I found the character somewhat one-dimensional. William Atherton was very memorable as the ambitious and slimy news reporter, Richard Thornburg. Clarence Gilyard revealed a talent for comic acting, in his excellent portrayal of Gruber’s sardonic and cold-blooded computer specialist, Theo. Andreas Wisniewski was excellent as Hans’ younger brother, the no-nonsense Karl. Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush (who reunited in the 1989 James Bond movie, “LICENSE TO KILL”) made a great screen team as the arrogant F.B.I. Special Agents Johnson and Johnson. De’voreaux White, someone I have not seen in years, provided his own brand of sharp humor and the movie’s best line as McClane’s limousine driver, Argyle. And finally, the late Paul Gleason proved to be very entertaining as the not-so-bright Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson.

I find myself back at that moment in which I pondered over the reputation of “DIE HARD”. Do I still believe it is one of the best action movies ever made? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have seen my share of action movies that strike me as equally good – including other films in the DIE HARD franchise. And the movie does have its share of flaws. But “DIE HARD” is also a personal favorite of mine, thanks to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a first-rate adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel, superb action-sequences and outstanding performances from a stellar cast led by Bruce Willis. Over twenty-five years have passed since the movie’s initial release. And honestly . . . it has not lost one bit of its magic.

 

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1940) Review

There have been at least eight adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. But as far as I know, only four are well known or constantly mentioned by many of the novelist’s present-day fans. And one of the four happens to be the movie adapted in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of the five unmarried daughters of a 19th century English landowner and the efforts of his shrill wife to get them married before his estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. For years, this version of Austen’s novel has been highly regarded by fans and critics alike. But ever since the advent of numerous Austen adaptations in the past 15 to 20 years, these same critics and fans have been incredibly harsh toward this Hollywood classic. Many have complained that the movie failed to be a faithful adaptation of the 1813 novel.

Many of the complaints volleyed by recent Austen fans include:

*The movie’s fashions and setting changed to the late 1820s and early 1830s
*The deletion of Elizabeth Bennet’s trip to Derbyshire and Pemberly
*Mr. Darcy’s slightly less haughty manner
*Instead of a ball, Charles Bingley held a fête for the Hertfordshire neighborhood
*The change in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s reason for visiting Longbourn

The 1940 movie was the first version of Austen’s novel I had ever seen. Since then, I have become a major fan of some of the adaptations that followed – including the 1980 miniseries, the 1995 miniseries and the 2005 movie. So, when I had decided to watch this version again, I wondered if my high regard of the film would remain. Needless to say, it has.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had a running time of 117 minutes. To expect it to be a completely faithful adaptation of the novel seemed ridiculous to me. If I must be frank, I have NEVER SEEN a completely faithful adaptation. But I can say this about the 1940 movie, it remains as delightfully entertaining as ever.

However, the movie is not without its faults. And I was able to spot a few. One, I found Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of the haughty Fitzwilliam Darcy as not quite so haughty . . . especially in his pursuit of Elizabeth Bennet during the Netherfield Fête. The time span between Elizabeth’s departure from the Collins household in Kent and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire, to announce his knowledge of Lydia Bennet and George Wickham’s elopement seemed ridiculously short. Since the movie was nearly two hours long, it could have spared a scene in which Colonel Fitzwilliam had revealed Mr. Darcy’s part in Charles Bingley’s departure from Hertfordshire. Instead, we are given a scene in which Elizabeth angrily conveyed the colonel’s revelation to her friend, Charlotte Lucas. And speaking of Charlotte, I was rather disappointed by her portrayal. It made Gerald Oliver Smith’s (Colonel Fitzwilliam) appearance in the movie rather irrelevant. I found nothing wrong with Karen Morely’s performance. But screenwriters Aldous Huxley, Helen Jerome and Jane Muffin failed to do justice to Charlotte’s character or her friendship with Elizabeth.

Despite these disappointments, I managed to enjoy “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” as much as ever. A good deal of Austen’s words and wit remained in the screenplay. And the screenwriters also added some of their own memorable lines that left me laughing aloud. After my recent viewing of the movie, I believe this “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is one of the funniest Austen adaptations I have ever seen. Director Robert Z. Leonard has been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award at least twice in his career – for 1930’s “THE DIVORCEE” and 1936’s “THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD”. It seems a pity that he was never nominated for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, because I believe that he did an excellent job of injecting a great deal of atmosphere, humor and zest into the film. And his pacing of the film is top-notch. Not once did I ever have the inclination to fall asleep, while watching it.

While many Austen fans were busy bemoaning that the movie was not completely faithful to the novel, I was too busy enjoying it. And if I must be brutally honest, there was one major change to Austen’s story that really impressed me. At the Netherfield Fête, Elizabeth began to show signs of warming up to Mr. Darcy, following her demonstration of her prowess as an archer. But when he noticed the less pleasant sides of the Bennet family, Mr. Darcy withdrew himself from Elizabeth, deepening her dislike toward him even further. This was a creation of the screenwriters and to my surprise, I ended up enjoying it.

As I had hinted earlier, I found it to be one of the funniest adaptations I have ever seen. There were so many scenes that either had me laughing on the floor or smirking (with delight). Some of them included the Bennet family’s introduction to Mr. Collins, poor Mary Bennet’s attempt to entertain the guests at the Netherfield Fête, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas’ race to reach their respective homes in order to order their husbands to call upon Charles Bingley, Elizabeth’s first meeting with George Wickham at the Meryton Assembly, and Caroline Bingley’s attempt to express interest in Mr. Darcy’s letter to his sister Georgiana. But the few scenes that I consider my personal favorites were the interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during a game of archery, Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal to Elizabeth and the dinner sequence at Rosings with the verbose Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

I tried to find a performance that seemed out of step for me. The only one that left me feeling less than satisfied came from Karen Morely, who portrayed Charlotte Lucas. Her Charlotte seemed to fade into the background, in compare to the other characters. I suspect that the problem had more to do with Huxley, Jerome and Muffin’s screenplay than the actress’ performance. But everyone else seemed to be at the top of their game. Both Ann Rutherford and Heather Angel were outrageously silly as the younger Bennet sisters. Marsha Hunt was hilarious as the Bennet family’s wallflower, Mary. Bruce Lester was charming as the extroverted Charles Bingley. He also made a strong screen chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who was equally charming as the eldest Bennet sibling, Jane. Frieda Inescort was both convincingly cool and sometimes rather funny as the imperious and ambitious Caroline Bingley. Edward Ashley Cooper gave what I believe to be the second best portrayal of the roguish George Wickham. He was charming, smooth and insidious. And Edmund Gwenn gave a subtle, yet witty performance as the quietly sarcastic Mr. Bennet.

However, there were five performances that really impressed me. One came from Melville Cooper, who had me laughing so hard, thanks to his hilarious portrayed the obsequious William Collins, Mr. Bennet’s annoying heir presumptive for the Longbourn estate. Equally funny was the unforgettable character actress, Edna May Oliver as Mr. Darcy’s overbearing aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role as an English aristocrat seemed so convincing that I was amazed to discover that she was an American from Massachusetts. Mary Boland gave a superb and entertaining performance as the equally overbearing and gauche Mrs. Bennet. In fact, I have to say that her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet is my absolute favorite. My God . . . that voice! She really knew how to put it to good use. Fresh from his success in 1939’s “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, Laurence Olivier tackled the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy, regarded as the favorite Austen hero by many fans. Personally, I thought he did an excellent job, although his Darcy never struck me as haughty as the other interpretations I have seen. From what I have heard, he was not that fond of the picture or his role. I was also amazed that he had such a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, considering that he thought she was wrong for the part. Olivier had this to say in his autobiography:

“I was very unhappy with the picture. It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.”

I thought it was nice of Olivier to call Greer Garson “darling”. But I do not think I can take his comments about her performance that seriously . . . especially since he wanted Vivien Leigh – his paramour at the time and soon-to-be future wife to portray Elizabeth. Personally, I am glad that Garson ended up portraying Elizabeth. I thought she was superb. Garson had a deliciously sly wit that she put to good use in her performance . . . more so than any other actress I have seen in this role. Some have commented that in her mid-thirties, she was too old to portray Elizabeth. Perhaps. But Garson did such an excellent job of conveying Elizabeth’s immaturities – especially when it came to passing judgment on Mr. Darcy that I never gave her age any thought. All I can say is that she was brilliant and I heartily disagree with Olivier.

Many fans have commented upon Adrian’s costume designs for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. They seemed to have taken umbrage that he designed the costumes from the late Georgian Era – namely the late 1820s or early 1830s, claiming that Austen’s story should have been set during the Regency Era. However, Austen first wrote the novel in the late 1790s. And she did not change it that much before it was finally published in 1813. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s – especially when one considers there was a version set in early 21st century India. Personally, I found Adrian’s costumes beautiful, even if they were filmed in black-and-white. And since “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” was not a historical drama, I simply do not understand the fuss.

After reading so many negative comments about “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” in recent years, I wondered how I react to watching it again after so many years. To my surprise, I discovered that I still love it. Even after so many years. I admit that it is not perfect. But neither are the other versions I have seen. The magic of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and director Robert Z. Leonard still holds up after so many years.

“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

There were a few movies released in 2012 that I was very reluctant to see in the theaters. One of those movies turned out to be “LES MISERABLES”, the recent adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 stage musical of the same name. And that musical was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, “LES MISERABLES” told the story of early 19th century French convict Jean Valjean released from prison on parole by a guard named Javert in 1815. Nineteen years earlier, Valjean had been imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family. Because of his paroled status, Valjean is driven out of every town. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals the latter’s silver during the night. Valjean’s former prison guard, the police captures him. But the Bishop informs them that he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. The former convict eventually breaks his parole and Javert vows to capture him. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Some of Valjean’s factory workers discover that one of their own, a woman named Fantine, one of his workers, has been sending money to an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. Fantine uses her salary to pay an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thénardiers, his equally shady wife and their daughter Éponine to take care of Cosette. However, Valjean’s foreman dismisses Fantine and she resorts to desperate measures to support her daughter by selling her hair and teeth, before becoming a prostitute. Javert, who has become the town’s chief inspector, arrests Fantine for striking an abusive customer. Valjean saves her and has her hospitalized. He also learns that a man believed to be him, has been arrested. Refusing to allow an innocent man to become condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity during the man’s trial. Then then returns to the hospital and he promises the dying Fantine that he will look after Cosette.

Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean escape with a jump into the local river. He then pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take Cosette. The pair elude Javert’s pursuit and begin a new life in Paris. The story jumps nine years later in which the grandson of a wealthy man and student and named Marius Pontmercy becomes involved in a growing revolutionary movement following the death a government official sympathetic to the poor named Jean Maximilien Lamarque. He also falls in love with Cosette, much to Valjean’s dismay, who believes he is an agent of Javert’s. Meanwhile, Marius is unaware that Éponine Thénardier, the daughter of Cosette’s former caretakers, has fallen in love with him. Most of these storylines – Valjean’s reluctance to acknowledge Cosette and Marius’ love; Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius; and Valjean’s problems with Javert, who has joined the Paris police force, culminates in the long and detailed sequence that features the June Rebellion of 1832.

After watching my DVD copy of “LES MISERABLES”, I cannot deny that the movie has some great moments and struck me as pretty damn good. The sequence featuring Fantine’s troubles greatly moved me. After winning an Academy Award for her outstanding performance as the doomed woman, Anne Hathaway had expressed a hope that one day the misfortunes of Fantine would be found only in fiction in the future. That is a lovely hope, but knowing human nature, I doubt it will ever happen. And watching Fantine’s life spin out of control, due to the narrow-minded views of society and male objectivity of her body, I think my views on human nature sunk even further. Some critics had the nerve to claim that Fantine’s situation was something from the past and could never be considered relevant today. I am still amazed that adults – even those who considered themselves civilized and intelligent – could be so completely blind and idiotic. Even Valjean’s attempts to make a life for himself, following his release from prison struck me as relevant – echoing the attempts of some convicts to overcome the criminal pasts and records in an effort to make a new life. Usually with little or no success, thanks to the chilly attitude of the public. Hugh Jackman’s performance beautifully reflected the struggles of many convicts – past and present – to make new lives for themselves – especially in the movie’s first half hour. Although many people tend to view the police officer Javert as evil, I suspect they view his villainy as a product of any society that creates rules – at times rigid – to keep the general population in check. While watching “LES MISERABLES”, I realized that I could never view Javert as a villain of any kind. He merely seemed to be a foil or object to Valjean’s chances for a new life. More than anything, Javert seemed to be a victim of his own rigid views on good, evil and upholding the law. Russell Crowe did a beautiful job of expressing Javert’s inability to be flexible in his views on morality . . . even when his own flexibility comes to the fore when he allows Valjean to finally escape in the end. And it is a shame that he never earned an Academy Award or Golden Globe Award nomination.

“LES MISERABLES” has a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Yet, only 50 minutes of the film focused on Valjean’s early years as an ex-convict, his tenure as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Merhis, Fantine’s troubles and young Cosette’s time with the Thénardiers. The rest of the movie is set in 1832 Paris, leading up to the outbreak of the June Rebellion. And if I must honest . . . I found that a little disappointing. Mind you, not all of the 1832 segment was a waste. Thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, the segment featured a well directed and detailed account of the June Rebellion – especially from Marius Pontmercy, Valjean and Javert’s viewpoints. It featured more fine performances from Jackman and Crowe, as Valjean and Javert continued their game of cat and mouse. It also featured an excellent performance from Samantha Barks, who made a very impressive film debut as Éponine Thénardier, the oldest daughter of Cosette’s cruel caretakers. Many filmgoers and critics had complained about the romance between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy, claiming that it seemed forced. I do not know if I could agree with that assessment. I thought Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did a pretty good job in conveying the young couple’s romantic interest in each other. The problem with their romance centered on Cosette’s character.

I realized that Seyfried did all she could to infuse some kind of energy into the role. I could say the same for Isabelle Allen. Both Seyfriend and Allen gave first-rate performances. Unfortunately, both were saddled with a one-dimensional character. At times, I found myself wishing that Éponine and not Cosette had ended up with Marius. In fact, I felt the movie could have explored Cosette and the Thénardiers’ relationship with a little more depth. As for the Thénardiers, they proved to be the story’s true villains. Unfortunately, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen injected a little too much comedy into their performances. The couple came off more as comic relief, instead of villains. And I blame both Hooper and the screenwriters. Cosette and the Thénardiers were not the only problems. Although I had complimented Hooper’s direction of the June Rebellion scenes, the entire sequence threatened to go on and on . . . almost forever. I ended up as one relieved moviegoer when the sequence ended with quick violence and Valjean’s rescue of Marius. I have a deep suspicion that “LES MISERABLES” was really about the June Rebellion. Many claimed that Hugo was inspired by his witness of the insurrection. Which would explain why the story’s earlier period between 1815 and 1823 were rushed in a span of 50 minutes or so. Pity. Other moviegoers complained about Hooper’s constant use of close-ups in the film. And I have to agree with them. For a movie that was supposed to be a historic epic wrapped in a musical production, the balance between wide shots and close-ups somewhat unbalanced. During Valjean’s death scene, he envisioned not only the long dead Fatine, but also the insurrectionists who had fought alongside Marius before getting killed. One of those insurrectionists turned out to be Éponine Thénardier. Only she had died before Valjean had arrived at Marius’ barricade. So . . . why was he experiencing images of her?

I could comment on the singing performances of the cast. I thought they had more or less did a pretty good job. Many had criticized Crowe’s singing, but I honestly felt nothing wrong about it. Hathaway’s acting during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” impressed me a lot more than her singing voice, which struck me as pretty solid. I had expected Jackman’s singing to knock my socks off. It did not quite reach that level. Like Hathaway and Crowe, his acting impressed me a lot more than his singing. Both Redmayne and Seyfried sang pretty well. So did Helen Bonham-Carter and Cohen. But the one musical performance that really impressed me was Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own”. The actress/singer has a beautiful voice.

I liked “LES MISERABLES” very much. The movie featured fine performances from the cast. And Tom Hooper did a very good job in directing the film, despite the many close-ups. And I do believe that it deserved a Best Picture nomination. Do not get me wrong. I enjoy musicals very much. But I simply could not endure a musical that not only featured songs, but dialogue acted out in song. It stretched my patience just a little too much – like the drawn out sequences leading up to the violence that ended the June Rebellion. I would like to say that I regret missing “LES MISERABLES” in the movie theaters. But I would be lying. I have no regrets . . . as much as I like the film.

 

The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

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The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

Any fan of the John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy would be more than happy to tell you that the worst entry in the author’s saga about two American families in the mid 19th century was the last one, ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. Those fans would be speaking of the 1994 television adaptation, not the novel itself. Unlike many of these fans, I do not share their low opinion of the three-part miniseries. But I will not deny that ”HEAVEN AND HELL” had its share of problems. Below is a list of I consider to be its major flaws. 

*Use of Montages – The miniseries did not hesitate to use montages to indicate a passage of time. Most of these montages centered on the Charles Main character, portrayed by Kyle Chandler. The problem with these montages was that they had exposed a blooper regarding Charles’ rank with the post-war U.S. Army in the first episode.

During a montage that featured Charles’ early courtship of actress Willa Parker (Rya Kihlstedt), Charles either wore corporal or sergeant stripes on his jacket. It went like this – Charles first wore corporal stripes, a fringe jacket and then sergeant stripes. And after the montage, Charles wore corporal stripes again.

*Orry and Madeline Main’s Presence in Richmond – BOOK II ended with Orry and Madeline Main (Patrick Swayze and Lesley Anne Down) attending the funeral of family matriarch, Clarissa Main. However, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” began with Orry and Madeline staying at a friend’s home in Richmond, in order to raise funds to feed the defeated post-war South. What in the hell for? The pair had a burnt home, an estate and family to care. They had no form of income or cash. And yet, they left their devastated home to raise funds for a cause that would have been implausible for them to achieve. 

I realize that screenwriters Suzanne Clauser and John Jakes wanted an excuse to get Orry in Richmond so that he would be murdered by his old nemesis, Elkhannah Bent (Philip Casnoff). This could have been achieved in simpler fashion. For example, Clauser and Jakes could have used a funeral for an old comrade as an excuse to get Orry and Madeline to Richmond. This seems simple enough to me.

*Augustus “Gus” Main’s Age – In an article I had written about ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, I had pointed out that the screenwriters managed to foul up the age of Augustus Main, Charles Main’s (Kyle Chandler) only son by his first love, Augusta Main. Jakes and Clauser managed to repeat this mistake in their screenplay for ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. The third miniseries began with young Gus around the age of five. According to Charles, Gus had been born just before the war. Where did this come from? It was bad enough that Gus looked older than he should have in ”BOOK II”. Then they aged Gus even more, despite the fact that only a few months had passed between the second and third miniseries. Worse, Gus failed to age, as the story for ”HEAVEN AND HELL” progressed. Especially since the miniseries was obviously set between 1865 and 1868.

During my last viewing of ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”, I was surprised to discover that a good number of its so-called “bloopers” originated from writing mistakes that appeared in both ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Those “bloopers” include: 

*Cooper Main – Prodigal Son – In John Jakes’ literary saga, South Carolina planter Tillet Main and his wife Clarissa had one nephew – Charles, and four children – Orry, Ashton, Brett and the oldest offspring, Cooper (Robert Wagner). However, Cooper was never featured in the first two miniseries. His appearance finally came in the third miniseries, ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. Those fans who had never read Jakes’ novels had accused the producers and screenwriters of creating the character for the miniseries. Personally, I never understood why the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had failed to include Cooper. After all, his presence proved to be vital to the saga by the third novel.

My only problem with Cooper’s presence in this third miniseries is that Jakes and Clauser had failed to create a back story to explain his disappearance from the first two miniseries. This failure made his appearance in this third chapter rather incongruous.

*Charles Main and Elkhannah Bent in Texas – Another plotline that took the fans of Jakes’ saga by surprise was the revelation that Charles Main had served under Elkhannah Bent in Texas, during the late 1850s . . . before the Civil War. No such story arc had been present in the first miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. However, this plotline was present in Jakes’ 1982 novel. The first miniseries did show Charles serving in the U.S. Army in 1850s Texas. It also revealed Bent as an Army officer, visiting New Orleans, Louisiana around the same period. And New Orleans had served as one the main terminals in and out of Texas, east of the Mississippi River during the early and mid 19th century. 

Charles’ past with Elkhannah Bent proved to be one of the major storylines in third story. The screenwriters for the miniseries had no choice but to include it. Especially since Charles and Bent’s past history played a major role in Jakes’ story. Most fans would probably hate for me to say this, but I believe that the screenwriters and producers for ”BOOK I” made a major mistake in their failure to include Charles’ experiences in Texas in the miniseries. Especially, since it proved to become an important storyline.

*The Return of Stanley and Isobel Hazard – I am surprised that many fans of the saga were surprised to see Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) footloose and fancy free in this third miniseries. After all, they were last seen in ”BOOK II” facing prosecution for war profiteering. As it turned out, the couple was never investigated or prosecuted for war profiteering in Jakes’ second NORTH AND SOUTH novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. Also, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” portrayed Stanley pursuing a political career, something that never happened in the first two miniseries. Yet, the literary Stanley Hazard had began his political career as far back as the second half of the first novel, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. Again, another so-called “blooper” in ”HEAVEN AND HELL” originated from the screenwriters’ failure to be faithful to the novels when it counted.

*Revelation of Madeline Main’s Ancestry – In the first miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the character Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main learned from her father that her mother was a quadroon (one-quarter African descent) and that she was an octoroon (one-eighth African descent). She eventually revealed this information to her love, Orry Main. Her secret ended up being exposed to both Elkhannah Bent and her despised sister-in-law, Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber) in the second miniseries, due to Bent’s discovery of a painting of Madeline’s mother in a New Orleans whorehouse. Somehow, the Mains’ local neighbors – including the local Klan leader, Gettys LaMotte (Cliff DeYoung) – learned about her ancestry. I would love to know how they managed this, because Bent and Ashton never had the opportunity to expose Madeline’s secret. In fact, the entire storyline regarding the exposure of Madeline’s ancestry is riddled with a good number of bloopers that originated in Jakes’ first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

*Miscellaneous Characters – Characters last seen in ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” failed to make an appearance in the third miniseries:

-Semiramis – the Mont Royal house slave was last seen engaged to another one named Ezra. Both had been given land to farm by Clarissa Main in the last episode. A former slave named Jane (Sharon Washington) took Semiramis’ place in the third miniseries. However, Semiramis was only featured in the first novel. And Jane was featured in both the second and third novels.

-Ezra – Semiramis’ future husband and a character that had been created solely for the second miniseries and not featured in any of the novels.

-Hope Hazard – George and Constance Hazard’s (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) had been a month before the Civil War broke out in the first miniseries and was seen in the second miniseries. However, she never existed in any of the novels. The literary George and Constance had two children – William and Patricia – in all three novels. And they were seen in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”.

-Virgilia Hazard – Portrayed by Kirstie Alley, George Hazard’s younger sister had been killed at the end of ”BOOK II” – executed for the murder of a congressman. However . . . this never happened in the second novel. And her character played a major role in the third novel. Unfortunately, she did not appear in the third miniseries. Her presence was sorely missed by me.

”HEAVEN AND HELL” was not a perfect miniseries. Its production values did not strike me as impressive as the first two miniseries. And it had its share of flaws. However, I was surprised to discover that it was a lot more faithful to Jakes’ third novel, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” than ”BOOK II” was to the second novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. More importantly, a good number of changes made by the screenwriters of the first two miniseries produced some of the “bloopers” found in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. I could accuse Wolper Productions and the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for failing to consult author John Jakes on how he would continue his saga in the third novel. But the problem is that Jakes also happened to be one of the screenwriters for all three miniseries. While co-writing the first two miniseries, he should have stood his ground and resisted some of the major changes made in them – especially in the second miniseries.

 

“HUGO” (2011) Review

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“HUGO” (2011) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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