“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

red-headed-woman-harlow

 

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”

Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.

In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.

Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN” such a big hit would have felt the same.

I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.

The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.

Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.

 

BestHappyBedbug-small

Advertisements

“SPIDER-MAN” (2002) Review

08-spider-man-2002

 

“SPIDER-MAN” (2002) Review

I have been a major fan of the Marvel Comics character, Spider-Man, for a long time.  When I was a kid, I used to read “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip from my local newspaper on a daily basis. I was also a regular viewer of the reruns from the 1967-70 animated series “SPIDER-MAN” and the 1978-79 television series, “THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN”, which starred Nicholas Hammond. So when Columbia Pictures released a movie version of the comic book web crawler twelve years ago, I was a happy camper.

Ironically, I have no memories of any particular episode from either the animated series or the live-action series. All I know is that I used to watch both. But there is no way I could ever forget director Sam Rami’s 2002 film adaptation, which starred Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. How could I? I own a DVD copy of the movie.

“SPIDER-MAN” is basically Rami and screenwriter David Koepp’s take on the web slinger’s origins. The movie begins with teenager Peter Parker living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Forest Hills, a suburb in Queens, New York. Peter is in love with next door neighbor Mary Jane Watson and is best friends with Harry Osborn, the son of millionaire/scientist and Oscorp CEO, Dr. Norman Osborn; who seems to regard Peter more as a son than Harry.  Peter attends a field trip with Mary Jane, Harry and other fellow students to a genetics lab. when he is bitten by a genetically engineered spider. He wakes up the following morning with perfect vision, fast reflexes, superhuman strength and the ability to emit web strings. His school fight with Mary Jane’s bullying boyfriend, Flash Thompson, attracts Uncle Ben’s attention, who has become concerned with Peter’s recently distant behavior.

Meanwhile, Norman Osborn’s company is in danger of losing its bid for a contract with the U.S. Army for weapons. Osborn tests his company’s new performance-enhancing drug and becomes stronger. He also acquires a maniacal alter ego and murders his assistant. And Peter decides to use his new abilities to raise money. He enters a wrestling match to win $300 dollars. But the promoter scams him out of his full reward and Peter retaliates by refusing to help stop a thief from stealing the box office returns. The same thief ends up killing Uncle Ben during a carjacking. When Peter realizes that the thief and his uncle’s killer are one and the same, he becomes guilt-ridden and decides to use his powers to become a masked vigilante following graduation from high school. In time, Peter aka Spider-Man and Osborn aka the Green Goblin battle it out for the safety of New York.

As much as I enjoyed “SPIDER-MAN”, I must admit that it had its flaws. All of those flaws centered around Koepp’s screenplay. One, I thought the story was a bit episodic, especially the first half that revealed both Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’s origins. In fact, the movie could be easily divided into two halves – from the beginning to Peter’s graduation from high school, and his activities and battles with the Green Goblin. Another major problem that stemmed from Koepp’s screenplay was the dialogue. “SPIDER-MAN” turned out to be one of the two top movies that were released during the summer of 2002. The other was “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. While fans and critics criticized some of the dialogue in the latter film, they easily overlooked the cheesy dialogue that tainted “SPIDER-MAN”, especially the smart-ass comments that poured from Spider-Man’s mouth. And I found the Green Goblin’s early attempt to convince Spider-Man to become an ally a bit contrived.

Fortunately, “SPIDER-MAN” possessed virtues that outnumbered its flaws. One, the movie was fortunate to have Danny Elfman as its composer. I thought he did a top-notch job that contributed greatly to not only the movie’s, but the entire trilogy’s atmosphere. Neil Spisak and his team did a superb job with the movie’s production designs that gave it a colorful, comic-book style without going over-the-top.  I was especially impressed by Spisak’s designs for the genetic lab sequence and the Oscorp-sponsored fair sequence that featured the murders of the Oscorp directors. Spisak’s production work was ably assisted by Don Burgess’ photography. In fact, I would say that Burgess’ work more than Spisak’s gave the movie its colorful comic-book style.

Although I found Koepp’s screenplay a bit episodic, I must admit that it featured some very exciting scenes that I will never forget. My favorites include Peter’s wrestling match with Bonesaw McGraw, the murder of the Oscorp directors, and Spider-Man’s rescue of Mary Jane from a bunch of thugs. But the two scenes that truly stood out for me and struck me as well directed by Rami were the Thanksgiving dinner at Peter and Harry’s Manhattan apartment; and the final showdown between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. The Thanksgiving dinner not only led to Osborn’s discovery of Peter’s identity as Spider-Man, it provided a deliciously subtle interaction between the millionaire and Aunt May, due to wonderful performances by Willem Dafoe and Rosemary Harris.  Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’s final confrontation led to a nail-biting moment in which the latter forced Spider-Man to choose between saving Mary Jane and the underage passengers of a Roosevelt Island Tramway car.  The sequence also led to a brutal fight between the adversaries and one of the best lines ever to be uttered by a Marvel villain:

“This is why only fools are heroes – because you never know when some lunatic will come along with a sadistic choice.”

I will also add that when I criticized Koepp’s screenplay for being episodic, I really meant that it seemed to be somewhat divided between two complete stories. Once Peter assumed the role of Spider-Man, became a photographer for The Daily Bugle and engaged in his conflict with the Green Goblin, the movie picked up to become a force of nature.

Tobey Maguire nearly failed to become Peter Parker aka Spider-Man.  Although Rami wanted him for the role, Columbia Pictures executives were hesitant to cast someone who did not seem to fit the ranks of “adrenaline-pumping, tail-kicking titans”.  Apparently, these guys never read any of the comic books.  Without his Spider-Man outfit, Peter Parker was supposed to be a quiet, nerdy science student with a slight built.  Not only did Maguire physically and emotionally fulfilled Peter’s character with perfection, he also worked with a physical trainer to improve his physique for the Spider-Man scenes.  His performances as Spider-Man really took me by surprise.  I did not realize that he would be so effective as both an action hero and quiet nerd.  And I like being surprised.

Koepp’s portrayal of the Mary Jane Watson character differed from the comic books in many ways.  One, Peter and Mary Jane never met until both were students at Empire State University in the comic books.  Two, the comic book Mary Jane was a little more extroverted than the cinematic Mary Jane portrayed by Kirsten Dunst.  And she seemed quite taken by Spider-Man, after he saved her during the Goblin’s murder of the Oscorp directors.  Despite these changes, Dunst gave an excellent performance with the character she was given and she had a very strong screen chemistry with Maguire, which culminated in the famous screen kiss that is still considered iconic.  Also, Dunst’s Mary Jane proved that friendship was a more valuable component than mere muscles, when she revealed at the end that Peter meant more to her than Spider-Man.  Dunst also had a strong screen chemistry with actor James Franco, who gave an excellent performance as the insecure Harry Osborn, who longed for his father’s attention and especially respect.  Come to think of it, Franco also had strong chemistry with both Maguire and Willem Dafoe.  Cliff Robertson was wonderful as Peter’s Uncle Ben.  He and Maguire were excellent in the Peter/Uncle Ben scenes that would end up reverberating in the next two movies.  And Rosemary Harris was a delight as the warm-hearted Aunt May, especially in the Thanksgiving dinner scene and the hospital scene that featured her own heartwarming conversation with Peter.  Despite being forced to utter some very cheesy dialogue, Willem Dafoe overcame this defect and gave a truly scary and fascinating performance as Norman Osborn aka the Green Goblin.  Some of his best moments featured those scenes in which Osborn had conversations with his alter ego – the Goblin.  No wonder his Green Goblin is still considered to be the best on-screen Spider-Man villain.

Stan Lee was ecstatic over J.K. Simmons’ portrayal o The Daily Bugle ditor-in-chief, J. Jonah Jameson.  And I can see why.  In some ways, it is a rather one-dimensional performance.  Then again, I have always remembered Jameson as a one-dimensional character.  But Simmons breathed life and humor into the role and ended up giving one of the best performances in the movie. t is too bad that the Betty Brant character was regulated as a supporting one.  In the comic books, she was Peter’s high school girlfriend and his first love.  In “SPIDER-MAN”, she is Jameson’s friendly secretary, who was always coming to Peter’s aid.  Yet, Elizabeth Banks effused a great deal of warmth into the character that made her very likeable.  I can also say the same about Bill Nunn’s performance as editor Joseph “Robbie” Robertson.  Bruce Campbell and Octavia Spencer provided some humorous moments as a wrestling announcer and a clerk who signs Peter up for a match.

Unlike many other fans of the “SPIDER-MAN” movie franchise, I never considered the 2002 movie to be the second best of those directed by Sam Rami.  David Koepp’s screenplay seemed a bit episodic to me.  And it was filled with too many cheesy dialogue.  But the screenplay did provide a strong and action-packed second half for the story.  And I am one who cannot deny that Rami’s direction, along with the production crew and an excellent cast led by Tobey Maguire overcame the screenplay’s flaws and provided a first-rate comic book movie that I will never forget.

 

vKzClzI

 

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

12-years-a-slave-2013-003-row-of-slaves-in-cotton-shed

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So five years later, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE” has gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It is already considered a front-runner for the Academy Awards. Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Blatt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portryal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Lupita Nyong’o and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor. Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza also struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially one headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats was warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the early 20th century? Check out the image below:

128a_df-03580small_wide-879620131931ee255e493bfe53f31a385ed0b2b5-s6-c30

The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made its debut in the early 20th century, nearly a century after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years. But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

665806_300

For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 television movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserved its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.  But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie had garnered, may have been undeserved. As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

 

 

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” Season One (2013-2014)

ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." - Season One

Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season One of Marvel’s “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen; the series stars Clark Gregg.: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” SEASON ONE (2013-2014)

1 - 1.17 Turn Turn Turn

1. (1.17) “Turn, Turn, Turn” – All hell breaks loose when the events of “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” leads to the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the exposure of HYDRA moles within their ranks.

2 - 1.21 Nothing Personal

2. (1.20) “Nothing Personal” – Former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill helps Coulson and his team track down fellow agent Skye, who has been snatched by HYDRA and former ally, Mike Peterson aka Deathlok.

3 - 1.13 - T.R.A.C.K.S.

3. (1.13) “T.R.A.C.K.S.” – The team’s search for the head of the Centipede organization, the Clairvoyant, takes a troubling turn when they board a train in Italy on which a Cybertek employee is shipping a package to Ian Quinn, a wealthy follower of the Clairvoyant.

4 - 1.10 The Bridge

4. (1.10) “The Bridge” – Coulson recruits Mike, who has become a new S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, to help him and the team track down fugitive Edison Po and the Centipede organization, which is a part of HYDRA. Unfortunately, trouble ensues when Centipede manages to kidnap Mike’s son.

5 - 1.15 Yes Men

5. (1.15) “Yes Men” – The team helps Asgardian Lady Sif hunt down enchantress Lorelei, who has plans to create an army with the help of Human males. Unfortunately, the team and Sif encounter trouble when Agent Grant Ward falls under her spell.

HM - 1.22 Beginning of the End

Honorable Mention: (1.22) “Beginning of the End” – In the first season’s finale, Coulson and his team raid the Cybertek facility controlled by HYDRA agents and receive much needed help from former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury.

 

tumblr_inline_o0094vsezz1rxmqx0_500

“SOME LIKE IT HOT” (1959) Review

475857_800

“SOME LIKE IT” (1959) Review

It has been called one of the greatest film comedies of all time . . . and possibly the greatest. Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” has been the topic of many books and documentaries on both Hollywood and the director’s career. I have seen the movie more times than I can remember. And for the first time, I have decided to publicize my feelings on it.

Directed by Billy Wilder and co-written by him and I.A.L. Diamond, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” is a remake of a 1935 French film called “FANFARE D’AMOUR”, which was based upon a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan. “FANFARE D’AMOUR” was first remade in 1951 by director Kurt Hoffmann as “FANFAREN DER LIEBE”. However, the French and German versions did not feature gangsters as an integral part of their plots. “SOME LIKE IT HOT” told the story of a pair of struggling jazz musicians who end up witnessing the Saint Valentine Day Massacre – at least a fictionalized account of it. When the Chicago gangsters, led by “Spats” Columbo see them, the two flee Chicago for their lives by taking a job as members of an all-girl band heading for Florida . . . disguised as women. The musicians, Joe and Jerry, become enamored of a “Sugar” Kane Kowalczyk, the band’s vocalist and ukulele player. And both struggle for her affection, while maintaining their disguises. In order to win Sugar’s affection, Joe assume a second disguise as a millionaire named “Junior”, the heir to Shell Oil. As for Joe, he has attracted the attention of a real millionaire named Osgood Fielding III. But when “Spats” Columbo and his men make an unexpected appearance at a gangster’s convention at their hotel, all hell breaks loose.

Does “SOME LIKE IT HOT” deserve its reputation as one of the greatest film comedies of all time? I believe it does. In fact, it happens to be my personal favorite comedy of all time. Fifty-nine years have passed since it was first released and it is just as fresh and hilarious as ever. More importantly, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” features some twisted humor that does not seem dated at all. Mind you, there have been other movies and television series (think “BOSOM BUDDIES” of the early 1980s) with a gender bender theme. But not one of them have been as funny as “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. Not even 1982’s “VICTOR/VICTORIA” – which is a close second for me – is not as funny. Both movies featured the insidious possibilities of cross-dressing. But whereas the 1982 movie is a bit more obvious and a little preachy in its attempt to convince moviegoers to accept what is presented on the screen, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” is a lot more subtle and funny, thanks to Wilder and Diamond’s script. In fact, the movie’s last line said a lot more about the consequences of cross dressing than any other movie ever had. I only have one complaint about Wilder and Diamond’s script. From the moment “Spats” Columbo and his men arrived in Florida, I found the movie’s plot and pacing somewhat rushed. Only Marilyn Monroe’s poignant rendition of “I’m Through With Love”, Pat O’Brien, Nehemiah Persoff and the last scene saved the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes.

Production-wise, “SOME LIKE IT HOT” seemed pretty top-notch. Production manager Allen K. Wood did his best to re-create the late 1920s for the film. I certainly had nothing to complain about Edward G. Boyle’s sets and Ted Haworth’s art direction, both earning Academy Award nominations. Although a part of me find the idea of “SOME LIKE IT HOT” shot in color somewhat appealing (see the photograph above), I must admit that Charles Lang’s black-and-white photography (also an Oscar nominee) looked very attractive – especially his photography of San Diego’s famous Hotel Del Coronado standing in as the Florida hotel where Sweet Sue’s band performed. Legendary Hollywood veteran Orry-Kelly won the film’s only Academy Award for his costume designs. I must admit that I found them very impressive and captured the late 1920s beautifully. I only wish that the women’s shoes worn with the costumes had been just as accurate. Looking at Marilyn Monroe’s famous walk along the train station platform, I could easily tell that her shoes were circa 1958-59. And I could say the same for the hairstyles worn by the female cast members.

Speaking of the cast,they were superb . . . every last member. The supporting cast provided brief, but memorable moments from the likes of Billy Gray as a young hotel bellhop lusting after Joe (as Josephine), Nehemiah Persoff as the colorful crime boss Little Bonaparte, Beverly Willis as band member and lover of raunchy jokes Dolores, Dave Barry as the band’s “dignified” manager Beinstock and a delicious Pat O’Brien as the sardonic police detective Mulligan. The movie also featured a funny performance from Joan Shawnlee as the band’s tough talking leader, Sweet Sue. And George Raft was effectively menacing as bootlegger/gangster “Spats” Columbo. I have only seen Joe E. Brown in perhaps two roles . . . and one of them was Osgood Fielding III, the sweet and hilarious millionaire whose heart is captured by Jerry aka “Daphne”. I have a deep suspicion that Osgood may have been one of Brown’s best movie roles ever. And he also had the good luck to utter one of the funniest and memorable last lines in Hollywood history.

But the movie truly belonged to Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Monroe won a Golden Globe award for her performance as the love-sick chartreuse, “Sugar” Kane Kowalczyk. She may or may not have been difficult during the movie’s production, but she more than earned that Golden Globe award. She was funny, poignant, sweet . . . and slightly mercenary – especially in her character’s pursuit of the fictional Shell Oil heir, “Junior”. It is heartening to see that so many have finally learned to appreciate Tony Curtis’ talents as an actor. While co-stars Monroe earned a Golden Globe and Jack Lemmon earned an Oscar nomination, Curtis ended up with the “short end of the lollipop”. Pity, because he was just as funny as the seductive trombone player Joe. But I found his portrayal of the fictional “Junior” even funnier and he managed to utter the second funniest line in the movie. Bull fiddler Jerry aka “Daphne” led to a second Academy Award nomination for Jack Lemmon . . . and he deserved it. One, he formed a great comedy team with Curtis (with whom he would reunite six years later in “THE GREAT RACE”). Two, watching him assume the airs of woman had me rolling on the floor. But what really cracked me up were his acceptance of the possibility of becoming Osgood’s next bride, while basking in the throes of their night together at a Cuban restaurant. It was a superb comedic moment for Lemmon and I would not be surprised if it was the very one that led to his nomination.

What else can I say about “SOME LIKE IT HOT”? Okay, it is not perfect. I was able to spot a few flaws in the costumes and one in the plot. But it is the closest to a perfect film comedy I have seen so far. And remember . . . this movie had been made fifty-nine years ago. William Wyler’s remake, “BEN-HUR” ended up sweeping the Oscars for that year. Pity. I have never been a fan of that movie. And if it had been up to me, I would have given the top awards to “SOME LIKE IT HOT”.

some-like-it-hot-1959-walking-gif

 

 

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

The-Mirror-Crack-d-1980-1-agatha-christie-39027638-1024-547

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

As far as I know, Guy Hamilton is the only director who has helmed two movie adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. The 1982 movie, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” was the second adaptation. The first was his 1980 adaptation of Christie’s 1962 novel, “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side”

A big Hollywood production has arrived at St. Mary’s Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple, to film a costume movie about Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England, starring two Hollywood stars – Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster. The two actresses are rivals who despise each other. Marina and her husband, director Jason Rudd, have taken residence at Gossington Hall, where Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly used to live. Due to Colonel Bantry’s death, Mrs. Bantry – who is one of Miss Marple’s closest friends – has moved to a smaller home.

Excitement runs high in the village as the locals have been invited to a reception held by the movie company in a manor house, Gossington Hall, to meet the celebrities. Lola and Marina come face to face at the reception and exchange some potent and comical insults, nasty one-liners, as they smile and pose for the cameras. The two square off in a series of clever cat-fights throughout the movie.

Marina, however, has been receiving anonymous death threats. After her initial exchange with Lola at the reception, she is cornered by a gushing, devoted fan, Heather Badcock (played by Maureen Bennett), who bores her with a long and detailed story about having actually met Marina in person during World War II. After recounting the meeting they had all those years ago, when she arose from her sickbed to go and meet the glamorous star, Babcock drinks a cocktail that was made for Marina and quickly dies from poisoning. It is up to Miss Marple and her nephew, Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock of Scotland Yard to discover the killer.

I surprised to learn that Guy Hamilton was the director of “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. This movie was the first of two times in which he directed an Agatha Christie adaptation that placed murder in the world of show business. Frankly? I am beginning to suspect that he was more suited for this particular genre that he was for the James Bond franchise. Like the 1982 film, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”, I enjoyed it very much. I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1962 novel. I understand that the origin of its plot came from Hollywood history, which gives it a touch of pathos. Along with the quaint portrayal of English village life and the delicious bitch fest that surrounded the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster, I believe that Hamilton and screenwriters Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler in exploring that pathos in the end. There is one aspect of Christie’s story that the screenwriters left out – namely the connection between Marina and the photographer Margot Bence. Honestly, I do not mind. I never cared for it in the first place. I found this connection between Marina and Ms. Bence a little too coincidental for my tastes.

I did not mind the little touches of English village life featured in “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. Although I must admit that I found them occasionally boring. Only when the citizens of St. Mary’s Mead interacted with the Hollywood visitors did I find them interesting. On the other hand, the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster was a joy to watch. And I feel that Hamilton and the two screenwriters handled it a lot better than Christie’s novel or the 1992 television movie. And to be honest, I have to give Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak most of the credit for the venomous and hilarious manner in which their characters’ rivalry played out on screen.

The behind-the-scene productions for “THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly seemed top-notch. Christopher Challis’ photography struck me as colorful and beautiful. However, there were moments when he seemed to indulge in that old habit of hazy photography to indicate a period film. Only a few moments. Production designer Michael Stringer did a solid job of re-creating the English countryside circa early-to-mid 1950s. His work was ably supported by John Roberts’ art direction and Peter Howitt’s set decorations. Phyllis Dalton did a very good job of re-creating the fashions of the movie’s 1950s setting. I especially enjoyed the costumes she created for the fête sequence. The only aspect of the production that seemed less than impressive was John Cameron’s score. Personally, I found it wishy-washy. His score for the St. Mary’s Mead setting struck me as simple and uninspiring. Then he went to another extreme for the scenes featuring the Hollywood characters – especially Marina Gregg – with a score that seemed to be a bad imitation of some of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly featured some first-rate performances. Angela Landsbury made a very effective Jane Marple. She not only seemed born to play such a role, there were times when her portrayal of the elderly sleuth seemed like a dress rehearsal for the Jessica Fletcher role she portrayed on television. Elizabeth Taylor gave an excellent performance as the temperamental Marina Gregg. She did a great job in portraying all aspects of what must have been a complex role. Rock Hudson was equally first-rate as Marina’s husband, the sardonic and world-weary director, Jason Rudd. He did a great job in conveying the character’s struggles to keep his temperamental wife happy and the impact these struggles had on him. Edward Fox was charming and very subtle as Miss Marple’s nephew, Scotland Yard Inspector Dermot Craddock. I especially enjoyed how his Craddock used a mild-mannered persona to get the suspects and others he interrogated to open up to him.

I was never impressed by Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the Lola Brewster character . . . or of two other actresses who portrayed the role. But Kim Novak was a knockout as the somewhat crude and highly sexual Hollywood starlet. Watching the comic timing and skill she injected into the role, made me suspect that Hollywood had underestimated not only her acting talent, but comedy skills. Tony Curtis certainly got a chance to display his comedic skills as the fast-talking and somewhat crude film producer, Martin Fenn. And I rather enjoyed Geraldine Chaplin’s sardonic portrayal of Ella Zielinsky, Jason Rudd’s caustic-tongued secretary, who seemed to be in love with him. The movie also featured solid performances from Charles Gray, Wendy Morgan, Margaret Courtenay and Maureen Bennett. And if you look carefully, you just might spot a young Pierce Brosnan portraying a cast member of Marina’s movie.

Overall, I enjoyed “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. I thought Guy Hamilton did an excellent job in creating a enjoyable murder mystery that effectively combined the vibrancy of Hollywood life and the quaintness of an English village. He was assisted by a first-rate crew, a witty script by Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler, and a very talented cast led by Angela Landsbury.

 

“LIVE AND LET DIE” (1973) Review

 

Live-and-Let-Die_Roger-Moore_Chesterfield-coat_taxi.bmp2

 

“LIVE AND LET DIE” (1973) Review

Between 1967 and 1972, EON Productions spent a chaotic five years trying to find one man to portray James Bond following Sean Connery’s decision to retire from the role. Nineteen sixty-eight found Australian model, George Lazenby in the role. But after one movie, the excellent “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”, Lazenby decided that he did not want to continue the role. Connery came back for one last movie – “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, but did not bother to stick around. 

Then in 1972, Broccoli and Saltzman hired Roger Moore (famous for the TV series, “THE SAINT”) to portray the British agent. And Moore went on to play the role for the next 12 years. But he had to start somewhere and he did with 1973’s “LIVE AND LET DIE”, an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel. This was the very first Bond movie I had ever seen. Although I have a great sentimental attachment to the movie, I do not really consider it to be among the finest in the franchise. Nor is it a personal favorite of mine.

Following the murders of three MI-6 agents (in New York, New Orleans and the fictional island of San Monique), Bond is assigned by “M” to investigate their deaths. His investigations in New York leads him to a Harlem gangster named Mr. Big. But as it turns out, Mr. Big is also San Monique’s foreign minister, Dr. Kanaga. Bond eventually learns that Kanaga/Mr. Big plans to use the heroin grown in the San Monique opium fields to flood the current heroin market and gain complete control of the U.S. drug market (very similar to the schemes of Harlem gangster, Frank Lucas). He ordered the three British agents killed, because apparently they were in danger of stumbling upon his scheme.

I am going to be frank. As much as I like “LIVE AND LET DIE”, I have never been impressed by the screenplay written by Tom Mankiewicz. It never made any sense to me that the British government would be interested in the activities of a diplomat from an island that had obviously been a former French colony, or an American gangster. If the three agents and Bond had been French, I could see them working with CIA agent Felix Leiter on this case. But there you have it. And Bond’s San Monique showdown with Kanaga had always struck me as being rather disappointing. Another aspect of the movie I found disappointing was the leading lady – namely Jane Seymour as Kanaga’s Tarot card seer, Solitaire. I have nothing against Seymour’s performance. She seemed to be her usual, competent self. But other than predicting Bond’s arrival in New York and later, at Kanaga’s San Monique estate; and warning Bond about Rosie Carver (via a Tarot card), I found nothing impressive about Solitaire’s role in the story. Especially since she eventually became nothing more than a moaning damsel-in-distress. And Geoffrey Holder as Baron Semedi did not really do much for me, but his ghostly appearance at the end of the movie was memorable.

tumblr_nbd6k1szwA1tkvjb3o1_500

Fortunately, “LIVE AN LET DIE” had its virtues. Roger Moore’s long experience with action roles in television (“MAVERICK”“THE SAINT”, and “THE PERSUADERS”) allowed him to segued into the Bond role with great ease. He already seemed very comfortable in the role. And without any problems, Moore managed to establish his own style. Unfortunately, very few people appreciated this at the time. And Yaphet Kotto created an impressive villain in an interesting duel role as the smooth and intelligent Kanaga/the bombastic Mr. Big. To this day, Julius Harris’ TeeHee remains one of my favorite Bond henchmen of all time. All I can say was that the man was perfect – humorous, yet very menacing. David Hedison’s friendship with Moore proved to be very effective in his first outing as CIA agent, Felix Leiter. The warmth and easy manner between Leiter and Bond seemed more apparent than in any other Bond film. And I rather enjoyed Gloria Hendry’s performance as the amusingly clumsy, yet treacherous Rosie Carver. And let us not forget the hilarious and unforgettable Clifton James as the long-suffering Southern lawman, Sheriff J.W. Pepper. James’ peformance was so impressive that the producers brought him back to reprise his role in 1974’s “THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”.

Also among the movie’s virtues was its smooth direction by Guy Hamilton, which included a rather fun boat chase through the Louisiana bayou, fine performances and the rich atmosphere of New York’s Harlem and New Orleans. Cinematographer Ted Moore did much to contribute to the film’s atmosphere. But it is the movie’s score by George Martin and theme song by Paul McCartnery and Wings that seemed to be the movie’s most impressive virtue . . . other than Moore, Kotto, Harris and James’ performances. Although the story for “LIVE AND LET DIE” struck me as unimpressive, I still find the movie to be very entertaining.

 

Roger_Moore_jamesbondreview.filminspector.com_1