“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.

 

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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“THE GREEN HORNET” (2011) Review

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”THE GREEN HORNET” (2011) Review

My memories of the costumed hero, the Green Hornet, are pretty sketchy. I can only recall actor Van Williams portraying the character in the short-lived television series from the mid-1960s, with future martial arts icon, Bruce Lee, portraying his manservant and partner-in-crime fighting, Kato. But if I must be honest, I never saw any of the episodes from the series. My memories of Williams and Lee as the Green Hornet and Kato were limited to their guest appearances on the ABC series, ”BATMAN”.

When I had first heard about plans to release a movie about the Green Hornet featuring comic actor, Seth Rogen in the title role, I met the news with less than enthusiasm. One, I have never been a fan of the Green Hornet character. Two, I have never been a fan of Rogen’s. And three, the fact that this new version of ”THE GREEN HORNET” was filmed as a comedy-adventure put it completely out of my mind, after I received the news. It was not until the movie was released in theaters and I found myself with nothing else to do for a weekend, when I went ahead and saw the movie.

In a nutshell, ”THE GREEN HORNET” is an origins tale about Britt Reid, the playboy heir to a Los Angeles newspaper owner. Following the death of his autocratic father, Britt befriends the latter’s mechanic and assistant – a technical genius and martial arts fighter named Kato. The pair manages to save a couple from being robbed and assaulted one night, while vandalizing a statue of the late James Reid. Inspired by their act of good deed and some close calls with the criminals and the police, Britt and Kato decide to make something of their lives by becoming a masked crime fighting team called the Green Hornet and his unnamed partner. Due to their close call with the police, Britt and Kato pretend to be criminals in order to in order to infiltrate real criminals, and also to prevent enemies from using innocents against them. Their first target turns out to be a Russian mobster named Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), who is uniting the criminal families of Los Angeles under his command, and whom James Reed was trying to expose. To get Chudnofsky’s attention, Britt uses his newspaper, the Daily Sentinel as a vehicle to publish articles about the “high-profile criminal” the Green Hornet. Britt hires an assistant and researcher named Lenore Case, who has a degree in criminology, and uses her unwitting advice to raise the Green Hornet’s profile.

What was my opinion of ”THE GREEN HORNET”? Honestly? I enjoyed it very much. I found it funny, entertaining, and exciting. First and foremost, the movie possessed plenty of laughs, thanks to Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script. I usually do not find Rogen all that funny. But I must admit that his attempts at being the big crime fighter, while Kato saved his ass time-and-again, left me in stitches. Realizing that Britt lacked any self-defense skills, Kato created a gun filled with stun gas for the former to use against their enemies. And I found Rogen’s portrayal of Britt’s egotistical reaction to the gun rather hilarious. Not only did ”THE GREEN HORNET” provide plenty of laughs, but it also had some first-rate action sequences. My favorites include the Green Hornet and Kato’s encounter with a group of street thugs that led them to a meth lad controlled by Chudnofsky, their attempt to extract themselves from a trap set by the gangster at a construction site and the fight between Britt and Kato at the Reid mansion over the many issues developed between the two. But the major sequence that started at the Japanese restaurant and ended at the Daily Sentinel really impressed me and I have to give kudos to Michel Gondry for his direction.

I suppose that Seth Rogen could have portrayed Britt Reid/the Green Hornet in a straight manner, but I do not know if I would have bought it. A more conventional leading man could have been hired for the role, but if I must be honest, I was too impressed by Rogen to really care. Many critics complained that Rogen portrayed Reid/the Green Hornet as a man-child. And he did . . . at first. But the script and Rogen’s performance allowed (or forced) Reid to face the consequences of his massive ego and his decision to become a crime fighter and grow up in a very painful way. I have never heard of Jay Chou, who is a well-known musician and actor from Taiwan. But I must admit that I was very impressed by his performance as Kato, Britt’s talented and exasperated partner in crime fighting. His acting style seemed to strongly remind me of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen’s – very subtle and very quiet. Yet, Chou also displayed a wry sense of humor that I found entertaining. And I was surprised to discover that he managed to convey not only Kato’s resentment and fear that the latter might be regulated to becoming the Green Hornet’s “sidekick”, but also his own egotistical nature. More importantly, his subtle acting style contrasted perfectly with Rogen’s more bombastic style and the two formed a first-rate screen team.

I had been appalled by the news that Christoph Waltz was cast as the main villain in ”THE GREEN HORNET”, especially on the heels of his success in 2009’s ”INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”. The idea of an acclaimed actor in a costumed hero action movie with comic overtones seemed so beneath him. But after seeing the movie, I am soooo glad that he was cast as the Russian gangster, Benjamin Chudnofsky. He was both hilarious and scary at the same time. Most villains featured in comedy action films tend to be either bland or simply ruthless and scary. Thankfully, Waltz’s Chudnofsky was not bland. But he was scary, ruthless . . . and funny as a middle-aged gangster, suffering from a mid-life crisis. Now, how often does one come across a villain like that in action movies? I had assumed Cameron Diaz’s role as Britt’s assistant, Lenore Case, would be a rehash of the Pepper Potts character from the ”IRON MAN” franchise. Thankfully, Rogen and Goldberg wrote the Lenore role as an intelligent woman, whose brains provided plenty of information for the Green Hornet and Kato; and as a no-nonsense woman who refused to replay the Tony Stark/Pepper Potts scenario or be in the middle of a love triangle between Britt and Kato, despite their attraction to her. And Diaz perfectly captured all aspects of the Lenore character with her usual charm and skill. I was also impressed by David Harbour’s performance as the charming, yet morally questionable District Attorney, Frank Scanlon. Edward James Olmos was on board to provide solidity as Britt’s personal moral guide and editor of the the Daily Sentinel

There were a few flies in the ointment in ”THE GREEN HORNET”. One came from Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Britt’s father, James Reid. I realize that he was portraying a negative authority figure – the cold and demanding father. But his performance came off as bombastic and somewhat flat. I also found the pacing in the movie’s first fifteen minutes rather uneven. Britt’s relationship with his father and the latter’s death seemed to move along at a pace that I found a bit too fast. But at the same time, Chudnofsky’s meeting with a local gangster portrayed by James Franco was conveyed with more depth and at a slower pace. Fortunately, Gondry seemed to have found his pacing after this uneven beginning and movie rolled along with a balanced mixture of action, angst, and laughs.

For Green Hornet purists like actor Van Williams that were upset over Rogen’s comedic interpretation of the crime fighter, there is nothing I can say. I do not particularly agree with them that the movie should have been a straight action-drama. ”THE GREEN HORNET” could have been another ”BATMAN BEGINS” or even ”DAREDEVIL”. Perhaps I would have liked it. But I did like Rogen’s interpretation very much. Hell, I more than liked it. I enjoyed it so much that I saw it in the theaters for a second time. This is probably the first movie that I have ever enjoyed Rogen as an actor. My enjoyment increased tenfold, thanks to his screen chemistry with musician/actor Jay Chou. And this is the first time I have ever enjoyed the story of the Green Hornet.

“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up. 

Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the 2015 series. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 1975 series.

Series One of “POLDARK”, which aired in 1975, is based upon Winston Graham’s first four novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”“Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” (1946), 1950’s “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 and 1953’s “Warleggan (Poldark). Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the first novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark returning home to Cornwall following military service with the British Army during the American Revolution. Ross spent the last year or two as a prisoner-of-war, unaware that he had been declared dead. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his father’s solicitor that Joshua Poldark had died financially broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his Uncle Charles Poldark had promised to sell his estate Nampara to the banking family, the Warleggans. And lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had become engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left are his father’s estate, Nampara, which is now in ruins, two mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, the Warleggans, who have risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, seemed to be gaining financial control over the neighborhood. In Episode Two, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight at a local fair. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

When I finally began to embark upon this series, I had no idea of its reputation as one of Britain’s most beloved period dramas. I discovered that “POLDARK” was regarded just as highly in the 1970s, as “DOWNTON ABBEY” had become some thirty-five to forty years later. Mind you, I regard Julian Fellowes’ series as the inferior series. My viewing of the first four episodes of this series made me finally appreciate why it was so highly regarded. It really is first-rate production. However . . . it had its problems. What movie or television production does not?

When it comes to an accurate adaptation of any novel or play, I tend to harbor ambiguous views on the matter. It depends upon how well it serves the story on screen or if it makes sense. Anyone familiar with Graham’s novels know that the 1975 adaptation is not accurate. I had no problems with the production starting with Ross’ stage journey to his home in Cornwall, considering that the novel started with a meeting between Ross’ dying father and his Uncle Charles. I had no problems with Elizabeth’s final reason for marrying Francis – to ensure that Charles Poldark would pay off her father’s debts. This little scenario even included an interesting scene in which Ross had volunteered to use his loan for Wheal Leisure to pay off Mr. Chynoweth’s debts in order to gain Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, she stopped him from committing such a stupid act. But I had a problem with one major change and a few minor ones.

My biggest problem with these first four episodes of “POLDARK” centered on the circumstances that led Ross to marry his kitchen maid, Demelza Carne. Apparently, the series’ producers and screenwriter Jack Pulman must have found Graham’s portrayal of this situation hard to swallow and decided to change the circumstances leading to Ross and Demelza’s marriage. In this version, Ross became drunk following his failure to prevent his former farmhand Jim Carter from being sentenced to prison for poaching. Demelza, who had been harboring a yen for Ross, decided to comfort him with sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes.h sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes. One episode featured Francis’ violent encounter with Verity’s wannabee suitor, Captain Blamey and the other, a fight between Ross and his future father-in-law, Tom Carne. And I thought Christopher Barry handled both scenes in a rather clumsy manner. Both situations seemed to be a case of “now you see it, now you don’t”. In Ross’ fight with Carne, the 17 year-old Demelza got into the melee (which did not happen in the novel), allowing her to spout some nonsense about women’s right in one of those “a woman’s travails” speeches that came off as . . . well, clumsy and contrived. It did not help that actress Angharad Rees seemed to be screeching at the top of her voice at the time. In fact, screeching seemed to be the hallmark of Rees’ early portrayal of the adolescent Demelza in an emotional state. Some fans have waxed lyrical over Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark. So far, I have yet to see what the big deal was about. Other than three scenes, Francis spent these first four episodes portraying a cold and rather aloof Francis. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in the character.

Considering all of the problems I had with Episodes One-Four, one would wonder why I enjoyed “POLDARK”. The series may not be perfect, but it was damn entertaining. Some have compared the production to the 1939 film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But honestly, it reminds me of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ literary trilogy, “North and South”. Both the Seventies series and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy between 1985 and 1994 share so many similarities. Both series featured their own set of flaws, entertaining melodrama, strong characterizations and a historical backdrop. In the case of “POLDARK”, the historical backdrop featured Great Britain – especially Cornwall – after the American Revolution, during the last two decades of the 18th century. It is a period of which I have never been familiar – especially in Britain. I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had such a negative impact upon the country’s economic state. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I never knew about Britain’s struggles. I also recently learned about the impact of the fallen tin and copper prices on Cornwall, during the 1770s and especially the 1780s. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths. 

I thought this economic depression was well-handled by the production team. Not once did the producers, Barry or Pulman rush through Ross’ struggles to establish a new fortune. They also took their time in conveying the struggles of nearly everyone else in the neighborhood – the other members of the Poldark family, the Cynoweths, and especially the working-class. This struggle of the working-class manifested not only Demelza’s story arc, but also that of Jim and Jinny Carter in the first three episodes. This struggled boiled down to a heartbreaking moment in which Jim was caught poaching on a local estate and sentenced to prison – despite Ross’ futile efforts to help him. I noticed that although the Warleggan family loomed menacingly in the background, only one member had made at least two appearances in these first four episodes – Nicholas Warleggan. The most famous member of the family – George Warleggan – had yet to make an appearance.

And despite my complaints about the situation that led to Ross and Demelza’s marriage, I must admit that the emotional journey of Ross and the other leading characters managed to grab my attention. Being familiar with Graham’s novel, I am well aware that Ross’ return, Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis, Ross’ meeting with Demelza, the marital fallout between Elizabeth and Francis and Ross’ inability to get over losing Elizabeth will have consequences down the road. I have to admit that “POLDARK” did a pretty damn good job in setting up the entire saga . . . despite a few hiccups. I found it interesting that Episode One solely featured Ross’ return and his emotional reaction to Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis. He did not even meet Demelza until Episode Two

These first four episodes also set up a conflict between Demelza and Elizabeth. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I rather liked how Debbie Horsfield managed to set up a quasi-friendship between the two women in the new adaptation. But since Demelza and Elizabeth were probably doomed not to be friends, I see that screenwriter Jack Pulman decided to immediately go for the jugular and set up hostilities between the pair. In Episode Three, a jealous Demelza had maliciously blamed Elizabeth for Francis’ infidelity, even though she had yet to meet the pair. I found this even more ironic, considering the episode also featured a minor scene in which Elizabeth actually made an attempt to emotionally reach out to Francis. He rejected her due to an assignation with some prostitute. And the whole scenario regarding Ross’ suggestion that Elizabeth leave Francis and Demelza’s pregnancy boiled down to a long scene in which Ross informed Elizabeth of the situation and her angry reaction. Which included calling Demelza a whore. By the end of Episode Four, Pulman and Barry had firmly established hostility between the two women.

Much has been said about the series’ exteriors shot in Cornwall. Yes, they looked beautiful, wild and almost exotic for Great Britain. Not even the faded photography can hide the beauty of the Cornish landscape. I also found John Bloomfield’s costume designs very attractive, but not exactly mind blowing. Also, a few of the costumes for actress Jill Townsend seemed a bit loose – especially in the first two episodes. As for the series’ score written by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts . . . not exactly memorable.

I might as well come to the performances featured in Episodes One to Four. Overall, I found them pretty solid. Although I came away with the feeling that some of the cast members and director Christopher Barry thought “POLDARK” was a stage play. Yes, I found some of the performances a bit theatrical. And I have to include some of the main cast members. I have always liked the Charles Poldark character – not because he was likable. I simply found him rather colorful. And I thought actor Frank Middlemass did an excellent job in conveying this aspect of Mr. Poldark Senior. Jonathan Newth gave a solid, yet intense performance as the barely volatile Captain Blamey. Both Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush gave very colorful performances as Ross’ slothful servants, Jud and Prudie Paynter. And yet, some of that color threatened to become very theatrical. On the other hand, Stuart Doughty gave a solid and subtle performance as Ross’ former servant-turned-miner, Jim Carter. I could also say the same for Jillian Bailey, who portrayed Jim’s wife, Jinny. By the way, fans of the 1983 miniseries, “JANE EYRE” should be able to spot Zelah Clarke (a future Jane Eyre) in a small role as one of the stagecoach passengers in the opening scene of Episode One.

There have been a great deal of praise for Angharad Rees’ portrayal of Demelza Carne, Ross’ kitchen maid and soon-to-be wife. And yes, I believe she earned that praise . . . at least in the second half of Episode Three and all of Episode Four. I found her performance very lively and when the scene demanded it, subtle. I thought she was outstanding in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross. However, she was at least thirty or thirty-one when she portrayed Demelza in Series One. And her portrayal of a Demelza in early-to-mid adolescence struck me as loud and over-the-top. Thankfully, the screeching ceased in the second half of Episode Three. Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark struck me as somewhat subdued or a bit on the cold side – except in two scenes. One of them featured Francis’ near death inside the Wheal Leisure mine, when he feared Ross would allow him to drown. Another featured his confrontation with Captain Blamey, the sea captain who became romantically interested in Francis’ sister Verity. In both cases, the actor came off as a bit theatrical. But I thought his performance in Episode Four, which featured Elizabeth’s announcement that she would leave Francis, seemed more controlled, yet properly emotional at the same time.

If I have to give awards for the best two performances in these first four episodes, I would give them to Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Norma Streader as Verity Poldark. It seemed to me they were the only two members of the cast who managed to avoid any theatrical acting in any of their scenes. Even when their characters were in an emotional state. One of Streader’s finest moments occurred in Season Two, when she expressed her feelings about Captain Blamey in a conversation with her cousin Ross. Despite expressing Verity’s emotions in a fervent manner, Streader still managed to maintain control of her performance. For me, Townsend’s finest moments occurred throughout Episode Four. From the moment Ross suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for good, Townsend conveyed Elizabeth’s emotional journey throughout this episode – from surprise to hopeful to desperation, relief, happiness, disbelief, anger and finally bittersweet disappointment. I may not have approved the producers’ decision to include a scene featuring Demelza’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s decision to leave Francis. But dammit, Townsend acted her ass off and gave the best performance from the entire cast during this particular sequence. One of her best scenes featured a one-on-one conversation with Streader’s Verity.

I have seen actor Robin Ellis in other movie and television productions, including 1971’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and 1981’s “THE GOOD SOLDIER”. If I were to pick his best roles, I would choose two – the passive aggressive American John Dowell in “THE GOOD SOLDIER” and of course, Ross Poldark. The producers of the series selected the right actor to portray the volatile war veteran-turned-mine owner from Graham’s saga. He is Ross Poldark . . . of the 1970s that is. Granted, Ellis had his moments of theatrical acting. There were times during the first four episodes in which I had to turn down my television volume. But despite this, I thought he did an excellent job in capturing all aspects – both good and bad – of his character’s personality. Two scenes featuring his performance caught my attention. Ellis seemed a bit scary and intense when he expressed Ross’ reaction to being rejected by Elizabeth Chynoweth in Episode One. And I thought he gave a poignant performance in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross.

There you have it . . . my impression of the first four episodes from the 1975 series, “POLDARK”. So far, this adaptation of the first novel in Winston Graham’s literary series had its share of flaws. But I feel that its virtues overshadowed the former. In fact, I found myself so captivated by Episodes One to Four that I feel more than ready to continue this saga. Onward to Episode Five!