“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES” was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.

 

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Top Five Favorite “MAD MEN” Season One (2007) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes of AMC’s “MAD MEN”

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “MAD MEN” SEASON ONE (2007) Episodes

1 - 1.12 Nixon vs. Kennedy

1. (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy” – In this superb episode, Sterling-Cooper’s employees have an all-night party to watch the results of the 1960 Presidential Election. Also, Pete Campbell discovers that Don Draper’s real name is Dick Whitman, who had been officially declared dead during the Korean War.

2 - 1.10 The Long Weekend

2. (1.10) “The Long Weekend” – During the Labor Day weekend, Roger Sterling decides to cheer up Don over the loss of a client by arranging a double date with twins. During the date, he suffers a heart attack. Meanwhile, Joan Holloway has a double date with her roommate and two out-of-town businessmen.

3 - 1.05 5G

3. (1.05) “5G” – In this poignant episode, Don receives an unwelcome visitor in the form of his half-brother, Adam Whitman, whom he had not seen since the Korean War. And when Ken Cosgrove gets his short story published in a magazine, a jealous Pete asks wife Trudy to convince an old boyfriend to publish his story.

4 - 1.01 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

4. (1.01) “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – The series’ pilot episode introduces Manhattan advertisement executive Don Draper and his co-workers at the Sterling-Cooper agency, as he struggles to maintain Lucky Strike as a client for the agency.

5 - 1.09 Shoot

5. (1.09) “Shoot” – A larger ad agency tries to lure Don from Sterling-Cooper by hiring wife Betty Draper for a modeling job. Meanwhile, Pete devises a strategy to help the Nixon campaign.

 

 

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“X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

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“X-MEN: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I had first learned of Marvel’s plans to release a fourth movie in the ”X-MEN” franchise nearly six years ago, I did not warm to the idea. And when I learned that this fourth movie would focus upon the origins of James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine, my wariness deepened. 

Fortunately, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” eased most of my doubts. It turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining movie. Directed by Gavin Hood, it told the story of how a Canadian mutant named James Howlett (or Logan) became the amnesiac Wolverine first introduced in the 2000 film, ”X-MEN”. The movie not only provided a brief glimpse of his tragic childhood in mid-19th century Canada, which included the deaths of his stepfather; and real father and his relationship with his half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth, along with an extraordinary title sequence that highlighted the two brothers’ experiences as Canadian mercenaries for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. But the gist of the film centered around their work as mercenaries for the U.S. Army’s “Team X”, led by military scientist Major William Stryker; and James’ (Logan’s) later conflicts with Victor and Stryker after he left the team.

”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” had received some bad word of mouth before its release at the beginning of May. A rumor circulated that either Marvel or 20th Century-Fox had meddled with director Hood’s finished work. Since I do not know whether this is true or not, all I can do is comment upon what I had seen on the movie screen. And to be honest, I am not a big fan of the Wolverine character . . . despite Hugh Jackman’s portrayal. Yes, he can be very entertaining. But uber-macho types like Logan have never been my forte. But I went ahead saw the movie, anyway.

First, I have to say that ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” was not perfect. One, I never understood why James and Victor had served as mercenaries for the U.S. Army during both World War I and II, since Canada had participated in both wars and at least seven decades had passed between the deaths of John Howlett and Thomas Logan (James’ step-father and father) in 1845 and their participation in World War I in 1917-1918. And two, how did Stryker know that Victor had less chance of surviving the adamantium process than James? Was it ever explained in the movie? I also had problems with two of the characters in the movie, along with Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing. But I will discuss those later.

Despite some of the flaws mentioned in the previous paragraph, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” turned out to be better than I had expected. The movie took viewers on James Howlett’s emotional journey that started with him as a young boy in 1845 Canadian Northwest Territories, who stumbled upon an unpleasant truth about his parentage in the worst possible way. By the time the movie ended, James (or Logan) had fought in several wars, participated in Team X’s black operations, estranged himself from Victor, fallen in love, experienced loss, acquired his adamantium claws and lost his memories. Several fans had complained that Logan’s character did not seem like the complex loner from ”X-MEN” throughout most of the movie. Instead, he seemed more like the slightly benign team player that had emerged at the end of ”X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND”. I must admit that these fans have a point. Only . . . I am not complaining. This only tells me that screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods had properly done their jobs. If Logan’s character had remained the cynical loner throughout the entire film, I would have been disappointed. One key to good writing is character development. In all of the previous three ”X-MEN”, Logan’s character had developed slowly from the loner to the team player shown at the end of ”THE LAST STAND”. But ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”is only one movie. And in that single film, the screenwriters, along with Hood and actor Hugh Jackman had to show the audience how James Howlett became that amnesiac loner. The last thing I wanted to see was a one-dimensional portrayal of his character. And I am thankful that I have no reason to complain about Logan’s character arc.

Not only was I impressed by Logan’s character development (which was the gist of the story), I was also impressed by how Hood, Benioff, Woods and Jackman handled Logan’s relationships with Victor and Stryker. I enjoyed how the screenwriters created the con job that both Stryker and Victor had committed against Logan. They had manipulated Logan into volunteering for the adamantium process, so that he could seek revenge against Victor for his girlfriend’s death. What Logan did not know was that he had been nothing more than an experiment – a test run – to see if the process would work for Stryker’s new weapon – a mutant called Weapon XI or Deadpool that had been injected with the abilities of other mutants, including Logan’s healing factor. I feel that Benioff and Woods’ creation of the con job was an imaginative twist to the story . . . and very essential to Logan’s character development.

Speaking of Logan, I must say that Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of conveying Logan’s emotional journey in the film. Thanks to his first-class performance, he took Logan from the loyal, yet wary half-brother of the increasingly violent Victor Creed to the amnesiac mutant who ended up rejecting Remy LaBeau’s help amidst the ashes of Three Mile Island. Mind you, Jackman’s portrayal of Logan has always been first-rate. But since this movie featured a more in-depth look into the character’s development, I feel that it may have featured Jackman’s best performance as aggressive and self-regenerative mutant.

Liev Schreiber seemed equally impressive in his portrayal of Logan’s half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth. Like Logan, Victor possessed a regenerative healing factor, an aggressive nature and superhuman senses. But Schreiber’s Victor seemed not to have embarked on an emotional journey. Instead, his character seemed to be in some kind of quandary. Not only did Schreiber portray Victor as a more aggressive and violent man than Logan, but he did so with a touch of style that seemed to be lacking in Tyler Mane’s portrayal in the 2000 movie. Schreiber also did a magnificent job in revealing Victor’s conflicted feelings toward the character’s younger half-brother. He loves James, yet at the same time, harbors several resentments toward the younger man – including one toward Logan’s abandonment of Team X and him.

Normally I would pity the actor forced to fill Brian Cox’s shoes in the role of U.S. Army scientist William Stryker. The Scottish actor had given a superb performance in ”X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED”. Fortunately, Marvel hired Danny Huston for the role. Not only did he successfully fill Cox’s shoes in my opinion, he managed to put his own stamp on the role. Like Cox, Huston did a great portrayal of Stryker as the soft-spoken, yet ruthless and manipulative military scientist who would do anything to achieve his goals regarding the existence of mutants. But whereas the older Stryker simply wanted to destroy mutants, Huston’s Stryker seemed to desire control over them . . . for his own personal experiments. And Huston . . . was superb.

I felt more than satisfied with most of the movie’s supporting cast. Ryan Reynolds was memorable in his brief role of a wisecracking mercenary with lethal swordsmanship named Wade Wilson. He was both hilarious and chilling as the mutant who eventually became Stryker’s premiere experiment – Weapon XI aka Deadpool. Taylor Kitsch made a charming, yet intense Remy LaBeau, the New Orleans hustler and mutant who had escaped from Stryker’s laboratory on Three Mile Island. Rapper will.i.am made a solid screen debut as the soft spoken teleporter, John Wraith. Dominic Monaghan gave a quiet and poignant performance as Bradley, another member of Stryker’s Team X that happened to be a technopath. Kevin Durand as funny as the super strong Fred Dukes aka Blob, who developed an eating disorder after leaving Team X. Daniel Henney was intense and unforgettable as Team X’s ruthless tracker and marksman, Agent Zero. I enjoyed Tahyna Tozzi’s portrayal of the strong-willed Emma “Frost” so much that I found myself wishing she had been the movie’s leading lady.

Which brings me to Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox. I am sure that Ms. Collins is a competent actress. But her performance as Kayla, Logan’s telepathic girlfriend struck me as a bit uninspiring. Oddly enough, she physically reminded me of Evangeline Lilly of ”LOST”. In fact, her portrayal of Kayla damn near came off as flat so much that her acting skills almost seemed as mediocre as Ms. Lilly’s. Considering Ms. Collins’ reputation as an actress, I suspect that screenwriters Benioff and Woods are to blame for the flat portrayal of Kayla, instead of Ms. Collins’ acting skills. Tim Peacock gave a competent, yet unmemorable performance as the younger Scott Summers aka Cyclops – another mutant who became one of Stryker’s prisoners on Three Mile Island and a part of the Weapon XI experiment. If this Cyclops is supposed to be twenty years younger than the one featured in the first three ”X-MEN” films, then I believe that a younger actor should have been cast in this film. Why? I never got the impression that James Marsden’s Cyclops had been somewhere between 34 and 38 in the three previous films.

As I had stated earlier, I was not impressed by Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing of the film. At times, it struck me as slightly choppy and amateurish. Only the editing featured in the opening title sequence struck me as impressive. And imaginative. However, Donald McAlpine’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Dean Franklin, Craig Veytia and Mike Rotella struck me as very impressive – especially in the title sequence and the scene featuring Logan and Victor’s fight against Deadpool on Three Mile Island.

In conclusion, I found ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” to be surprisingly enjoyable. It turned out better than I had expected, despite some flaws. It would probably rank third for me in the ”X-MEN” franchise – somewhere between ”X-MEN 3” and ”X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I find this astonishing, considering I did not have any real hopes for this film when it first hit the theaters nearly nine years ago. I realize that many fans of the franchise have low opinions of the film. But you know what? I guess I really do not care.

 

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“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

George-Lazenby

 

“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

At least ten years or more must have passed since I last saw the 1969 Bond movie, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS)”. EON Production’s sixth entry in the Bond franchise has the distinction of being the only movie that starred Australian male model-turned-actor, George Lazenby. It was the first EON movie that did not star Sean Connery – already fixed in the public’s mind as the only actor who can portray James Bond. And it was the only movie that was directed by former film editor, Peter Hunt. 

I first became aware of “OHMSS” back in the mid-1980s. I had seen it on television once, when I was a child. But ABC Television’s botched editing had turned me off from the movie. I eventually became a fan during repeated viewings of the movie during the mid and late 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, “OHMSS” had been fixed as my favorite Bond movie. For years, it remained in this position, despite repeating viewings of other Bond movies, the release of the Brosnan films and my own mysterious reluctance to watch “OHMSS”. It seemed as if I was afraid to watch it again, fearful that my earlier adulation of the film might prove to be misguided. And then EON Productions released “CASINO ROYALE” in the theaters back in 2006. “CASINO ROYALE” had impressed me so much that my doubts about “OHMSS”increased even further. After seeing “CASINO ROYALE” for the third time and 2008’s “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I finally decided to watch “OHMSS” for the first time in years.

In the end, my fears seemed groundless. My latest viewing of “OHMSS” proved that I had every right to view it as one of my all time favorite Bond movies. After 41 years, the movie still holds up as one of the finest Bond movies in the entire franchise, if not the finest. And it also one of the few Bond films to closely follow its source, namely the 1963 novel penned by Ian Fleming. What makes the latter remarkable is that the previous Bond entry, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” barely resembled its literary source, aside from a few characters and the setting.

“OHMSS” picks up with Bond searching for Blofeld, now wanted by various governments for his past forays into international terrorism and extortion. His search leads to meeting the most important woman in his life other than Vesper Lynd – Teresa (Tracy) Draco di Vicenzo. Not only will his meeting with Tracy lead to a serious change in his private life, it will also affect his professional life, thanks to Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange Draco when he provides Bond with information leading to Blofeld. Of course, Draco was only willing to provide this information, if Bond courts his daughter. In the end, Bond not only tracks down Blofeld, but destroy the latter’s latest attempt to extort the United Nations. But as many know, Bond’s latest professional conflict will result in tragedy for his private life.

I only have a few problems with “OHMSS”. One of them was the director Peter Hunt’s decision to have actor George Baker (portraying the real Sir Hilary Bray), dub Lazenby’s voice, while Bond is impersonating Sir Hilary at Piz Gloria. Why they had decided to do this confounds me. It seemed very unnecessary, unless the director was aiming for Sir Hilary to sound like a cliché of a British scholar. Another problem I had were some of the jokes that came out of Bond’s mouth. I consider this problem minor, since “OHMSS” – like many other Bond movies had its share of good and bad jokes. One particularly good joke was the St. Bernard who came to Bond’s “rescue” after the latter had survived his bobsled fight against Blofeld. And last, but not least, there were a few moments when the editing seemed a bit . . . questionable. A good example would be the scene that featured Bond’s first meeting with Draco. There is a moment when it seemed that Bond had asked Draco for Blofeld’s whereabouts. It seemed as if Lazenby had spoken too soon, cutting off actor Gabriele Ferzetti’s lines too soon. Another viewing seemed to reveal that poor editing might have been at fault and not Lazenby’s acting. And another review seemed to agree with my findings.

Aside from the previously mentioned quibbles, I had no problems with “OHMSS”. In fact there is so much to enjoy about this movie – including the main star, George Lazenby. Many critics and fans either tend to dismiss his performance as wooden or give him minor credit for his valiant attempt at a decent performance. Frankly, I think that he was a lot better than many give him credit for. I must admit that he has a rather odd voice (which I suspect has been influenced by his Australian accent), but so did most of the other Bonds – including Connery’s tendency to indulge in pre-adolescent diction, Moore’s drawl, Dalton’s Welsh accent and Brosnan’s . . . well, I cannot really describe Brosnan’s voice. I just find it odd. But despite Lazenby’s odd voice, his acting comes off very natural and he seems to project Bond’s emotions with an ease that should not have come easy to him. But he does. And instead of portraying Bond as some kind of action/sexual icon, he portrays the character as very human. This is very obvious in the following scenes:

-Bond’s growing impatience with Tracy’s antics
-Bond’s surprise that M had given him leave instead of accepting his resignation
-Bond’s breakthrough with Tracy
-the Piz Gloria dinner sequence
-Bond’s fear of capture during his escape from Piz Gloria
-Bond’s proposal of marriage to Tracy
-Bond’s quarrel with M over Tracy and Blofeld
-Tracy’s death

Personally, I thought that Lazenby really shined in the marriage proposal scene, those scenes that featured Bond’s quarrels with M and the Piz Gloria dinner sequence. Despite having his voice dubbed by George Baker in the latter, Lazenby managed to express Bond’s emotions during that scene effortlessly without having to say a word.

The movie also benefited from the presence of Diana Rigg, who had recently left “THE AVENGERS” to begin a movie career. What can one say about the great Diana? Not only did she effortlessly combine all the complex personality traits of Tracy di Vicenzo – witty, emotional, sad, brave, determined, etc. Is it any wonder that Tracy is viewed by many actresses as the ultimate Bond woman? Even better, both Rigg and Lazenby managed to create great chemistry together as the romantically doomed pair.

Not only did “OHMSS” benefited from both Lazenby and Rigg’s performances, the pair was ably supported by a fine cast that included the warm and charismatic Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, the talented Ilse Steppat who portrayed the intimidating Irma Bunt shortly before her death (she never lived to experience the movie’s release), the always dependable Bernard Lee as M – giving one of his better performances, and the charming and fun Angela Scoular as Blofeld’s English patient, Ruby. Of course one cannot forget the legendary Telly Savalas, who became the second actor to portray Ernst Blofeld on-screen. And as far as I’m concerned, he was the best. He was not impeded by Donald Pleasance’s ridiculous scar and questionable accent or Charles Gray’s foppish portrayal. Instead, he radiated intelligence and menace, making him the only Blofeld (in my opinion) worthy of being Bond’s nemesis.

I also have to commend Peter Hunt’s direction. “OHMSS” was his first time at bat as a director. Any other inexperienced director could have turned one of Ian Fleming’s best novels into a hash job. Fortunately, Hunt proved to be a talented director and did justice to the novel – although I did have a problem with the editing of a few of his scenes. Hunt was not only ably supported by a fine cast, but by screenwriter Richard Maibaum, editor and future director John Glen, and John Barry’s marvelous score and Hal David’s haunting lyrics to the song, “We Have All the Time In the World”. Cinematographer Michael Reed superbly recaptured the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the exotic elegance of Portugal with his photography. And one cannot forget skier Willy Bogner Jr. and Alex Barbey for creating the first and probably best ski chase in the Bond franchise.

I could probably go on about how much I love “OHMSS”, but I do not want to sound repetitive. What can I say? After 48 years, I consider to still be one of the best Bond movies in the franchise . . . and definitely one of my favorites. And I am happy to see that “OHMSS” is finally being recognized by many as the fine film it is. If you have not seen this film, I suggest that you rent or buy it as soon as possible. Or else you will be missing something special.

 

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

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“THIRTEEN DAYS” (2000) Review

In 1991, Kevin Costner starred in “J.F.K.”, Oliver Stone’s Oscar nominated film that explored the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nine years later, Kevin Costner returned to the land of this country’s own “Camelot”, in this docudrama about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 from the viewpoint of President Kennedy and the men who served his Administration. 

“THIRTEEN DAYS” got its title from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1969 posthumous memoirs about the incident. Yet, David Self’s screenplay is actually based upon Philip D. Zelikow’s 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis”“THIRTEEN DAYS” began in early October 1962, when the Kennedy Administration receive U-2 surveillance photos revealing nuclear missiles in Cuba that were placed by the Soviet Union. Because these missiles have the capability to wipe out most of the Eastern and Southern United States if operational, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers are forced to find a way to prevent their operational status. Also, Kennedy’s authority is challenged by top civilian and military advisers like Chief of Staff U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who wanted the President to display more obvious signs of military strength in order to scare the Soviets in to removing the missiles. Most of the interactions between Kennedy and his men are witnessed by Kenneth O’Donnell, a presidential adviser and close school friend of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

There have been complaints that “THIRTEEN DAYS” is not a completely accurate portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that the Kenny O”Donnell character, portrayed by star Kevin Costner, was unnecessarily prominent in this film. I do not know if the last complaint is relevant. After all, O’Donnell was one of Kennedy’s advisers during the crisis. But since Costner was the star of the movie and one of the producers, perhaps there is some minor cause for complaint. As for any historical inaccuracy . . . this is a movie adaptation of history. People should realize that complete historical accuracy is extremely rare in fictional adaptations – not only in Hollywood movies and television, but also in productions outside of the country, novels, plays and even paintings.

Were there any aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I found . . . uh, annoying or off putting? Well, Kevin Costner’s attempt at a Boston accent was pretty terrible. And if I must be frank, there was nothing exceptional about Roger Donaldson’s direction. I am not stating that he did a poor job directing the film. On the contrary, he did a solid job. But there were moments when I felt I was watching a TV movie-of-the-week, instead of a major motion picture – especially in one of the final shots that revealed the President’s advisers discussing policy in Vietnam, while Kennedy prepared to compose a letter to the relatives of a downed U-2 pilot.

Other than Costner’s Boston accent and Donaldson’s less than spectacular direction, I have no real complaints about the movie. In fact, I enjoyed it very much when I first saw it, twelve years ago. And I still enjoyed it very much when I recently viewed my DVD copy of it. “THIRTEEN DAYS” is a solid, yet tense and fascinating look into the Missile Crisis from the viewpoints of President Kennedy and his advisers. Before I first saw this film, I had no idea that Kennedy faced so much trouble from the military elite and the more conservative advisers of his administration. I was especially surprised by the latter, considering that the President himself was not only a borderline conservative, but also harbored hawkish views against Communism.

Although I would never view Donaldson as one of the finest directors around, I must admit that I was more than impressed by his ability to energized a story that could have easily been bogged down by a series of scenes featuring nothing but discussions and meetings. Instead, both Donaldson and Self energized “THIRTEEN DAYS” with a good number of scenes that featured tension between characters, emotional confrontations and two action sequences that featured military flights over Cuba. Among my favorite scenes are Kennedy’s confrontation with Curtis Le May, his angry outburst over Le May’s decision to engage in nuclear testing as a scare tactic against the Soviets; the flight of two U.S. Navy pilots over Cuban airspace; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s confrontation with U.S. Navy Admiral George Anderson; and especially U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s confrontation with the Soviet U.N. Ambassador Valerian Zorin.

However, Donaldson’s direction and Self’s script were not the only aspects of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that prevented the movie from becoming a dull history lesson. The cast, led by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp, provided some superb performances that helped keep the story alive. I am not going to deny that I found Costner’s Boston accent cringe worthy. One would have to be deaf not to notice. But a bad accent does not mean a bad performance. And Costner proved to be a very lively and intense Kenny O’Donnell, whose close relationship and loyalty to the Kennedys allowed him to be brutally frank to them, when others could not get away with such frankness. Steven Culp was equally intense as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who seemed to inject energy into every scene in which he appeared. But the one performance that really impressed me came from Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of the 35th President of the United States. Instead of portraying Kennedy as some one-note political icon or womanizing bad boy, Greenwood portrayed Kennedy as a intelligent, multi-faceted politician struggling to prevent the outbreak of a third world war, while keeping his high-ranking military officers in check. Personally, I feel that Greenwood may have given the best portrayal of Kennedy I have yet to see on either the movie or television screen. The movie also featured some first-rate and memorable supporting performances from the likes of Dylan Baker (as Robert McNamara), Michael Fairman (as Adlai Stevenson), Lucinda Jenney (as Helen O’Donnell), Kevin Conway (as Curtis LeMay), Madison Mason (as Admiral Anderson), Len Cariou (as Dean Acheson), Bill Smitrovich (as General Maxwell Taylor), and especially Karen Ludwig and Christopher Lawson as the sharp-tongued White House operator Margaret and the sardonic U.S. Navy pilot Commander William Ecker.

I want to say something about the film’s production designs and setting. If there is one aspect of “THIRTEEN DAYS” that I truly appreciated how J. Dennis Washington’s production designs re-created the year 1962. And he did so without any over-the-top attempt at early 1960s style. Unlike some productions set during this period, “THIRTEEN DAYS” did not scream “THIS IS THE SIXTIES!”. Washington’s production designs, along with Denise Pizzini’s set decorations and Isis Mussenden’s costume designs presented the early 1960s with an elegance and accuracy I found very satisfying. Their work was ably assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak’s photography. Bartkowiak’s work also supported Conrad Buff IV’s excellent editing, which prevented the film from becoming a dull period piece.

I do not know what else I could say about “THIRTEEN DAYS”. I do not claim that it is a perfect film. I found Roger Donaldson’s direction excellent, but not particularly dazzling or outstanding. And yes, Kevin Costner’s otherwise first-rate performance was marred by a bad Boston accent. But he, along with an excellent Steven Culp, a superb Bruce Greenwood, a solid cast and a satisfying script by David Self made “THIRTEEN DAYS” an interesting and well made account of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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