“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2009) Review

Aside from the Liam Neeson thriller, ”TAKEN”, I must admit that I had never regarded those movies released between January and April of 2009, all that impressive. Many of them were not terrible.  But for me, it seemed as if I had been wallowing in a sea of mediocrity during that period.  Thankfully, this cinematic slog ended when I saw Kevin Macdonald’s 2009 thriller called, ”STATE OF PLAY”.

Based upon the critically acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name, ”STATE OF PLAY” is about a Washington D.C. newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young congressional aide named Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) and centers around the relationship between leading journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his old friend Robert Collins (Ben Affleck), a U.S. congressman on the fast track and Baker’s employer. When Congressman Collins learns of his aide’s death, he asks his old friend, McAffrey to investigate her death when it is labeled as a suicide. McAffrey and a blogger with his newspaper named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) not only learn that Baker was Congressman Collins’ mistress, but there might be a connection between her death and the private military company that the congressman was investigating.

I have heard a few proclaim that the original British miniseries is superior to this version. If so, then it must have been one hell of a production. I have never seen the miniseries, but I must admit that I found this version of ”STATE OF PLAY” to be very impressive. Kevin Macdonald’s solid direction, along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, Peter Morgan, and Billy Ray created a tight thriller filled with interesting glimpses into the press and Washington politics. I doubt that this film will ever be critically acclaimed like the British miniseries or earn any award nominations, but it was a solid, well-acted movie filled with first-rate performances. And its story – unlike previous movies I have recently watched – did not end on a disappointing note. The movie ended with an unexpected twist that surprised me.

Russell Crowe led the cast, portraying Washington Globe journalist, Cal McAffrey. I would not consider his role as interesting as the Ed Hoffman character from ”BODY OF LIES”, Bud White in ”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, Jeffrey Wigand in ”THE INSIDER” or his Oscar winning role in ”GLADIATOR” – Maximus Decimus Meridius. His Cal McAffrey is on the surface, an affable, yet slightly jaded reporter who becomes a relentless truth-seeker when pursuing a special story. In the case of Sonia Baker, McAffrey’s relentless investigation seemed rooted in his desire to extract his friend Collins from the gossip slingers over the latter’s affair with the aide and focus upon bringing down the private military company being investigated by Collins. Crowe is at turns relaxed and at the same time, intense and single-minded in his pursuit of journalistic truth.

Years ago, I had found myself thinking that if there was ever a remake of the 1950 classic, ”SUNSET BOULEVARD”, who could portray the doomed Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis. The first person that immediately came to my mind was Ben Affleck. Actress Nancy Olson once described William Holden at the time that particular movie was filmed as the typical handsome Hollywood leading actor . . . but with a touch of corruption that made his Joe Gillis so memorable. Frankly, I could say the same about Affleck. I saw him display this same trait in movies like ”BOUNCE””HOLLYWOODLAND”, “GONE GIRL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”.  And I could see it in his performance as Congressman Robert Collins. Affleck managed to skillfully project Collins not only as a dedicated crusader who is determined to bring down the private military company with a congressional investigation, but also a flawed man who became sexually attracted to his beautiful aide, while struggling to control his anger at the knowledge of his wife Anne’s (Robin Wright Penn) past affair with McAffrey.

The rest of the cast included Rachel McAdams’ solid portrayal of a popular blogger turned junior political reporter named Della Frye, who finds herself in the midst of the career-making story and mentored by McAffrey. Helen Mirren’s Washington Globeeditor Cameron Lynne is wonderfully splashy and strong, without being over-the-top. I could say the same for Jason Bateman’s performance as a bisexual fetish club promoter named Dominic Foy, who has the information that McAffrey and Frye need. Michael Berresse portrayed a mysterious hitman named Robert Bingham and he does a pretty good job. However, I must admit that I found his performance as a sociopath a little over-the-top . . . especially in his last scene. Although not as memorable as some of the other supporting cast, both Harry Lennix as a Washington D.C. cop and Jeff Daniels as Affleck’s congressional mentor gave solid support to the movie. And there is Robin Wright Penn, who portrayed the congressman’s wife, Anne Collins. Penn gave a complex performance as the politician’s wife who is not only hurt and betrayed by her husband’s infidelity, but wracked with guilt over her own past indiscretion with McAffrey, along with desire for him.

If you are expecting ”STATE OF PLAY” to be the next ”ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” or ”SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”, you are going to be slightly disappointed.  I have seen better quality political films than this movie. But I can honestly say that I still found ”STATE OF PLAY” to be a solid and entertaining movie filled with intelligence, humor and a strong and steady cast.

 

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Notes and Observations on “STAR WARS – EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2003)

 

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NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON “STAR WARS – EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2003)

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*How ironic that this story begins with the “rescue” of Chancellor Palpatine – the very person who has exploited the Jedi’s weaknesses to bring about their downfall. I wonder if both Anakin and Obi-Wan ever came to regret the success of their mission.

*I noticed how both Anakin and Obi-Wan seemed to be flying in perfect sync with each other in the opening sequences. And yet, as they get closer to Palpatine (who is “being held prisoner” aboard Grievous’ ship), things begin to go wrong. Perhaps this situation is an allegory of their relationship at this stage of the story.

*”Flying is for droids.” – Odd comment for Obi-Wan to make, considering that his former padawan is such an excellent pilot. Does this mean that Anakin can be viewed as a future droid?

*Poor R4-D17. At least he had three good years with Obi-Wan

*The usually cautious Obi-Wan zips out of his starfighter cockpit in a flash and starts striking down droids. Meanwhile, Anakin takes his time to unfasten his safety restraint and climb out of his cockpit. This might possibly be a sign of how the two men have adopted each other’s way of handling matters. This also reminds me of how both men had dealt with their “animus” nature inside the Geonosis arena in AOTC.

*Notice how both Count Dooku and General Grievous seem to foreshadow Anakin’s future as Darth Vader. Count Dooku represented the Jedi Knight/Master who became Palpatine’s Sith apprentice. Grievous represented the cyborg that Anakin will become.

*R2-D2’s efforts to hide from the Separatist droids must be one of the funniest sequences I have ever seen in a STAR WARS movie.

*”Uh, no loose wire jokes.” – Dear Anakin. It’s nice to see there is one advocate for the droids.

*The Chancellor’s seat on Grievous’ ship strongly reminds me of his throne in ROTJ.

*”Chancellor Palpatine, Sith Lords are our specialty.” – Oh dear. Obi-Wan seemed to be in danger of becoming too self-assured. The last time he had believed that he and Anakin could take out Dooku, Yoda ended up saving them.

*”Good! Twice the pride. Double the fall.” – It seems that Count Dooku is also suffering from the same kind of arrogance.

*Anakin tells Dooku that he has become twice as powerful, since their last encounter on Geonosis. How is it that despite the loss of an arm, his connection to the Force has strengthened? Makes me wonder if Lucas’ comment that Anakin’s loss of limbs on Mustafar had weakened his connection to the Force is a lot of bull.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s pride and aggression nearly cost them in their second duel against Dooku. Only Dooku’s own pride and arrogance saved them in the long run.

*Dooku had been right to criticize Anakin for not using his anger in their lightsaber duel. When Anakin finally did, he pretty much had it in control . . . until Palpatine convinced him to lose that control and kill Dooku.

*I also noticed that unlike Obi-Wan and Dooku, Anakin’s lightsaber skills do not seem as flashy as theirs. His style seemed to be similar to Qui-Gon and Mace – very direct and with very little complicated moves.

*I could not help but wonder what was going through Palpatine’s mind, when his life – along with Anakin and Obi-Wan’s – were in danger, while trying to escape from Grievous’ ship.

*”General Grievous . . . you’re shorter than I had expected.” – Hmm, now I see from whom Leia had inherited her sardonic manner.

*Has Obi-Wan become a little too cocky about his skills? He had chopped off the head of a Magna guard and walked away . . . only to be surprised to learn that it could still fight.

*Meanwhile, Anakin managed to show a predilection for patience – only in the wrong situation. It almost seemed as if an alien spirit had taken control of his body. Obi-Wan noticed and quite wisely disapproved. He knew that Anakin was not being true to himself.

*General Grievous’s escape from his ship struck me as being quite daring and masterful. I could also say the same about how Anakin had landed Grievous’ ship on Coruscant. As Obi-Wan said, “Another happy landing.”

*For the first time, I had noticed that the skies of Coruscant were cloudy . . . overcast. They seemed to hint the rising storm that will eventually erupt throughout the Republic.

*Was that Lucas’ daughter – a blue-skinned alien – among the welcoming committee for Palpatine?

*This is rare – Leia’s future father and stepfather actually have a scene together.

*Although Padme seemed to be wearing Leia’s infamous bun hairdo, I noticed that her hairstyle is slightly different.

*The moment that Anakin expressed his desire to end the deception over his marriage to Padme, she quickly opposed the idea. She must have been afraid of facing the consequences of their deception.

*John Williams’ score for this movie seemed darker and more martial than anything else heard in a STAR WARS movie. Has anyone else noticed this?

*I simply love the shot of Padme brushing her hair on the balcony, while Anakin watches her. Very romantic.

*”So, love has blinded you?” –Padme may have been speaking of Anakin. Then again, she may have been speaking of herself. Or both.

*It is interesting that Anakin has been reluctant to express his troubles to Padme. This must have been the case ever since his murder of the Tusken Raiders on Tatooine. One would say that all is not paradise with their marriage. But I must say . . . if their marriage had seemed like paradise, I would have been suspicious.

*The scene between Anakin and Yoda struck me as being rather cold. I wonder if this had been the first time Anakin had sought the counsel of the Jedi Master.

*I am curious as to why Obi-Wan had never exerted more effort to discourage Anakin’s friendship with Palpatine.

*I find it interesting that Anakin seemed more disturbed by the Jedi Council’s suggestion that he spy upon Palpatine than he was by the latter’s suggestion that he does the same with the Jedi Council. Especially after he had insisted that Anakin join the Council.

*After Mace reveals the Jedi Council’s decision not to make Anakin a Master, I noticed that both he and Obi-Wan seemed to express momentary flashes of guilt. And Yoda seemed to be making an attempt to distance himself from Anakin’s reaction by closing his eyes for a brief moment.

*Of course, Anakin’s reaction to the decision did seem very immature, as indicated by Mace’s order that he take a seat. But after Anakin had apologized for his outburst, Obi-Wan shook his head in silent disapproval of his former padawan.

*”It’s what you wanted. Your friendship with Chancellor Palpatine seemed to have paid off.” – For those who claimed that Obi-Wan understood Anakin very well, really need to read the above statement or watch that scene again. Why would Obi-Wan assume that Anakin had used his friendship with Palpatine to become a member of the Jedi Council? Why would he accuse Anakin of harboring ambitions to become a Council member, when he had admonished Qui-Gon, years earlier, for failing to reach such an achievement? What a curious man.

*If Obi-Wan was against Anakin spying on Palpatine, why did he insist that the young Knight accept the assignment in the first place? And why didn’t Anakin act on his feelings and refuse the assignment? I believe this scene is a clear case of Obi-Wan failing Anakin . . . and Anakin failing himself.

*Someone once stated that Padme had maintained her idealism of the Republic to the bitter end. And yet, in one scene, she tries to convince Anakin that the Republic was in danger of becoming the very evil she had opposed for so long.

*Why did Padme ask Anakin to discuss ending the war with Palpatine? I can see why he was upset. Like the Jedi, Padme seemed willing to use Anakin to further her own agenda regarding Palpatine.

*I noticed that Padme managed to change the subject from politics to personal matters in the same way Anakin had done during the Naboo picnic scene in AOTC.

*”All who gain power are afraid to lose it.” – Who would have thought that Palpatine would utter the very words that seemed to be the theme of the Prequel Trilogy. His words – more or less – seemed to describe all of the major characters. Including himself.

*Anakin must have been very desperate to believe Palpatine’s claim that he had knowledge of a way to save Padme through the use of the Force.

*Why was the Jedi Council so determined to refrain Anakin from going to Utaapau? Was their decision a reaction to the revelation that Palpatine had suggested that Anakin take part in that military operation?

*I wonder what was going through Anakin’s mind when he and Obi-Wan spoke for the last time as friends.

*So, not only does Anakin believe that the Jedi Council mistrust him, but also Obi-Wan. And I don’t know if he was right or wrong.

*”You expect too much of yourself.” – Padme was right. No wonder Anakin was determined to save her from death. A way to make up for Shmi’s death, perhaps?

*I like the look and style of the official that greeted Obi-Wan on Utaapau.

*Once again, Obi-Wan manages to remind me that he can be a little too arrogant in dealing with opponents. Facing Grievous turned out to be more difficult than had possibly imagined. Even if the Separatist general could barely use a lightsaber with barely any skill.

*I find it fascinating that the Jedi Council would even consider getting rid of Palpatine without the Senate’s authority. Even if it meant accepting Ki-Adi Mundi’s suggestion that the Council take control of the Senate.

*Palpatine was right that one must accept all aspects of nature – both the light and the dark. What he had failed to add was that the Sith were just as narrow and dogmatic in their view of the Force, as the Jedi.

*”So uncivilized.” – There’s nothing like a good blaster at your side, eh Obi-Wan?

*”For your own good, stay out of this affair. I sense a great deal of confusion in you, young Skywalker. There is much fear that clouds your judgment.” – Many people believe that Mace was wrong not to include Anakin in Palpatine’s arrest. I feel differently. Just listening to his words, made me realize that he had accurately sensed Anakin’s emotional state. If only he had heeded Mace’s words, Anakin would not have ended up with more blood on his hands. For those who say that Anakin would have destroyed Palpatine if Mace had allowed him to participate in the arrest. In truth, no one really knows what would have happened. Unfortunately, no one wants to admit this.

*Mace and the other three Jedi Knights did activate their lightsabers first. If they were there to arrest Palpatine, surely they should have received permission from the Senate. However, I noticed that Palpatine was the first to attack. And he nearly paid the price for his act of aggression.

*Aside from Mace, Palpatine failed to immediately kill Kit Fisto. And all because Mace had briefly intervened.

*Anakin arrived when Mace declared Palpatine under arrest. Then the latter attacked the Jedi Master with Force electrokinesis. Because he had disobeyed Mace, Anakin took his final steps into becoming a Sith Lord.

*”To cheat death is a power that only one has achieved.” Who was Palpatine talking about? Surely not Plageuis, who had failed to cheat death, thanks to his apprentice. And Palpatine knew nothing of Qui-Gon’s spiritual achievement.

*Although Anakin seemed willing to assist and agree with Palpatine, his face seemed to express great reluctance.

*Magnificent shot of Anakin leading the clone troopers to the Jedi Temple.

*Probably one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the entire STAR WARS saga is the execution of Order 66.

*What sort of vehicles were the clone troopers riding during their search for Yoda on Kashyyyk?

*I wonder what would have happened if Anakin had not told Padme of his intent to travel to Mustafar?

*Yoda had expressed belief that it would be easy for him and Obi-Wan to infiltrate the Jedi Temple. Yet, the two Jedi Masters found themselves forced to battle clone troopers guarding the Temple.

*It is interesting that Anakin’s murder of the Separatists leaders occurred around the same time as Palpatine’s declaration as the galaxy’s first emperor.

*Once more, a Jedi Master decides to move against Palpatine without the Senate’s consent. This time, it is Yoda, who decides to kill the Sith Lord. No wonder it was easy for Anakin to view the Jedi as a threat to the galaxy.

*Padme looked particularly heartbroken when Obi-Wan informed her that Anakin had become a Sith Lord.

*Why couldn’t Obi-Wan simply planted a tracker on Padme’s ship, instead of stowing away?

*You can hear signs of the Anakin/Padme love theme from AOTC, when Padme arrived on Mustafar.

*Anakin had an odd, calm expression on his face, while Padme was talking to him. And when he began talking about ruling the galaxy, his expression became even odder.

*Boy, Obi-Wan’s appearance on Mustafar was badly time. Which makes me question his decision to stowaway aboard Padme’s skiff even more.

*I forgot that Padme had been unconscious during Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel.

*It is interesting that Obi-Wan was the first to light up his lightsaber.

*I now realize that Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel was not about good versus evil. I believe that it was about years of resentment and anger finally exploding between two men who once loved each other as brothers, despite their disagreements. Hence, the use of blue lightsabers by both and the exploding fire and lava that surrounded them.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s out-of-control emotions during the duel seemed like a clear indication of why both had failed to achieve their goals. Anakin’s rash move near the lava bank had resulted in the loss of his legs and his other arm – and spending the rest of his life in the suit. Obi-Wan’s failure to immediately kill Anakin on that lava bank resulted in Vader’s impact upon the galaxy for over the next twenty years . . . and Obi-Wan’s eventual death.

*Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor’s moved very fast in their duel scenes. And I’m not simply referring to what was shown on the movie screen. I’m also referring to their practice sessions shown in the DVD’s Special Features disk.

*”Your arrogance blinds you, Master Yoda.” – I hate to say this, but Palpatine was right. But he could have also been referring to himself. As for Yoda, he made the worse mistake of attacking Palpatine’s guards upon entering the Emperor’s office. He had attacked the guards in the presence of Mas Amedda, the Senate’s leader. An accusation of an assassination attempt by the Jedi would not be far from the truth.

*”My little green friend.” – I would not be surprised if those words had pissed off Yoda.

*Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel lasted longer than Yoda and Palpatine’s.

*”You were the Chosen One!” – Obi-Wan went into full rant after chopping off Anakin’s limbs. This is an example that he was just as emotional as Anakin during the duel. Of course, I cannot help but wonder why he did not kill Anakin, and allowed the latter to suffer a possible prolonged death on the lava bank.

*Palpatine’s return to Coruscant with a wounded Anakin happened in the midst of fierce rain storm. This scene reminded of that old lady’s words to the nine year-old Anakin in TPM – “Storm’s comin, Ani!” This had occurred before Maul’s arrival on Tatooine. Palpatine and Anakin’s return in the first mentioned scene truly indicated that the storm has finally struck the Republic.

*The expression on Anakin’s face as his Vader mask was being lowered upon him was truly heartbreaking.

*”There’s still good in him.” – If only Obi-Wan had heeded Padme’s words. But . . . he thought that Anakin was dead. On the other hand, the infant Luke did listen. This was perhaps, Padme’s greatest contribution.

*Palpatine seemed pleased by Anakin’s show of power inside the infirmary, when the latter learned of Padme’s death.

*The movie’s last shot of Padme is her body in a  casket, with the japoor snippet that Anakin had given her in her hands.

*I think I must have cried during the movie’s last ten to fifteen minutes. For me, it is a beautifully depressing film.  Oh well. On to A NEW HOPE.

 

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

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“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” (2012) Review

Seven years after it began, Christopher Nolan’s three-movie saga about the D.C. Comics character, Batman, finally came to an end. The saga that began with 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”, ended with 2012’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”.

This third film, set seven years after 2008’s “THE DARK KNIGHT”, began with the aerial kidnapping of a nuclear scientist by an escaped terrorist named Bane. The scene shifted to Gotham City, where a fund-raiser was being held at Wayne Manor. The only person missing was millionaire Bruce Wayne, who had given up his vigilante activities as Batman after claiming he had murdered former District Attorney Harvey Dent. During the fundraiser, Bruce caught a maid breaking into his private safe. She turned out to be a resourceful cat burglar named Selina Kyle. Aside from a necklace that once belonged to Bruce’s late mother, Selina did not steal any other object from the safe.

Curious over Selina’s actions, Bruce resumed his Batman alter ego and tracked down Selina. He discovered that she had been hired by a rival corporate CEO named John Daggett to lift and steal his fingerprints. Bruce also learned that Daggett had hired the terrorist Bane to attack Gotham’s stock exchange and bankrupt Wayne Enterprises. And along with Police Commissioner James Gordon and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox, Bruce also discovered that Bane was a former member of the League of Shadows and planned to continue Henri Ducard’s (aka Ra’s al Ghul) goal of Gotham City’s destruction. Bruce asked fellow millionaire Miranda Tate to take control of Wayne Enterprises to ensure that Daggett and Bane will not gain control of their clean energy project, a device designed to harness fusion power.

Re-reading the above made me realize that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had created a very complicated plot. For me, the plot became even more complicated two-thirds into the movie. “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” obviously exists under the shadow of its two predecessors – “BATMAN BEGINS” and “THE DARK KNIGHT”. I would say that this especially seemed to be the case for the 2005 movie. Batman and James Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Harvey Dent’s death in the second movie had a minor impact upon this third movie. But Bruce’s relationship and later conflict with Ra’s al Ghul seemed to be the driving force behind his conflict with Bane in this third film.

I had heard rumors that Christopher Nolan was initially reluctant to make a third BATMAN movie. Personally, I found that rumor a bit hard to believe, considering how “THE DARK KNIGHT” ended with Batman accepting the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes and death. But there were certain aspects of the script he wrote with his brother Jonathan that made me wonder if he had truly been reluctant. There were certain aspects of “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” that I found troubling.

It seemed a pity that the second movie ended with Batman and Jim Gordon’s decision to lie about the circumstances behind Dent’s death. I found their decision unnecessary back in 2008 and I still do. The impact behind their lie proved to be hollow. It merely kept Batman off Gotham City’s streets and led Mayor Anthony Garcia and the city to pass a strong anti-criminal law that proved to be hollow following Bane’s arrival in Gotham City. I also found Bane’s mid-air kidnapping of a nuclear scientist and escape from a U.S. marshal (portrayed by Aidan Gillen) rather somewhat idiotic. I understood that Bane needed that scientist to weaponize the Wayne Enterprise device.  But I never understood why that U.S. marshal failed to take the trouble to identify the hooded prisoner (Bane) before boarding the plane.  In the end, the movie’s opening sequence struck struck me as unnecessarily showy. Was this the Nolan brothers’ way of conveying Bane’s role as a badass to the audience? If so, I was too busy trying to comprehend the villain’s dialogue to care. I understood why Batman had not been seen in Gotham for so long. But what was the reason behind Bruce Wayne’s disappearance from the public eye?  His physical state was not really that severe.  Rachel Dawes’ death? Rachel’s death did not stop him from going after the Joker and Harvey Dent in the last movie’s half hour. Was it an injured leg? How did he injured it? And why did Gotham’s citizens failed to put two-and-two together, when both Bruce and Batman finally appeared in the public eye a day or two apart after many years? The only person who managed to discover Bruce’s alter ego – namely Officer John Blake – did so through a contrived reason.

For me, the movie’s real misstep proved to be Bane’s three-month control over Gotham City. As a former member of Henri Ducard’s League of Shadows, he planned to achieve his former leader’s goal of destroying Gotham City. And he planned to use Wayne Enterprise’s energy device to achieve this. One – why not simply build or snatch his own nuclear device? Why go through so much trouble to get his hands on the energy device? Why did Wayne Enterprises create a device that not only saved energy, but could be used as a bomb, as well? And why did it take three months before the device could become an effective bomb? The Nolans’ script could have frustrated Bane’s attempts to acquire the bomb during that three-month period . . . or anything to spare the audiences of that second-rate version of the French Resistance. The latter scenario seemed so riddled with bad writing that it would take another article to discuss it. And what was the point of the presence of Juno Temple’s character Jen? What was she there for, other than being Selina’s useless and cloying girlfriend? And Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox was last seen declaring his intentions to leave the corporation for good, following Batman’s misuse of cell phones in “THE DARK KNIGHT”. In this movie, he is back, working for Wayne Enterprises. What made him change his mind?

But not all was lost. I found Bruce’s introduction to Selina Kyle very entertaining and sexy. Even better, the incident served as Batman’s re-introduction to Gotham City and allowed him to discover Bane’s plans regarding Wayne Enterprises and the energy device. One of the more interesting consequences of “THE DARK KNIGHT” proved to be Rachel Dawes’ last letter to Bruce. Its revelation by Alfred Pennyworth after seven years led to an emotional quarrel between the millionaire and the manservant and their estrangement. At first, I had balked at the idea of Bane carrying out Ra’s al Ghul’s original goal to destroy Gotham. After all, why would he continue the plans of the very person who had him kicked out of the League of Shadows? But a surprising plot twist made Bane’s plan plausible . . . even when I continue to have problems with his three-month occupation of Gotham.

Many critics had lamented the lack of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the movie. As much as I had appreciated and enjoyed Ledger’s performance in the 2008 movie, I did not need or wanted him in “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. Tom Hardy’s performance as the terrorist Bane was good enough for me. Mind you, I found it difficult to understand some of his dialogue. And when I did, he sounded like the now aging Sean Connery. But I cannot deny that Bane made one scary villain, thanks to Hardy’s performance and intimidating presence. Before I saw the movie, I never understood the need for Marion Cotillard’s presence in the film. I thought her character, Miranda Tate, would merely be a bland love interest for Bruce. Not only did Cotillard ended up providing a subtle and intelligent performance, her Miranda Tate proved to be important to the story as the co-investor in the energy device and for the plot twist in the end.

“THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” provided some solid performances from other members of the cast. Matthew Modine shined as the ambitious and arrogant Assistant Police Commissioner Peter Foley, who proved to be capable of character development. Another solid performance came from Brett Cullen, who portrayed a lustful congressman that had the bad luck to cross paths with Selina Kyle. Both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman continued their excellent performances as Bruce Wayne’s “heart” and “mind”, manservant Alfred Pennyworth and Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox.

In the end, the movie was fortunate to benefit from four outstanding performances. One came from Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of the now weary, yet determined police commissioner, James Gordon. His guilt over the Harvey Dent lie and discovery of Batman’s true identity provided Oldman with some of his best moments in the trilogy. Another came from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was superb as Gotham City beat cop John Blake. The actor did a wonderful job of balancing Officer Blake’s intelligence, passion for justice and disgust toward the bureaucracy.

When I learned that Anne Hathaway would end up being the fifth actress to portray Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, I must admit that I had my doubts. Then I remembered that Hathaway was an Oscar nominee (less than a year before she finally won her Oscar), who had also done action before. Watching her sexy, yet complicated performance as the complex cat burglar removed all of my doubts. She was superb and her sizzling screen chemistry with star Christian Bale made me wish Selina had been Bruce’s love interest throughout the movie. Speaking of Bruce Wayne, Bale returned to portray the Caped Crusader for the third and final time. I must admit that I found his performance more subtle and complex than his performances in the previous two movies. Bale did an excellent job in re-creating a slightly aging Bruce Wayne/Batman, who found himself faced with a more formidable opponent.

I was a little disappointed to see that “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” lacked the Chicago exteriors of the 2008 movie. In the end, Gotham City resembled a collection of East Coast and British cities. But I cannot deny that I found Wally Pfister’s photography very eye catching. And Hans Zimmer’s entertaining score brought back memories of his earlier work in both the 2005 and 2008 movies.

I have a good deal of complaints about “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”. It is probably my least favorite entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For me, the movie’s main problem centered around the script written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. But despite its flaws, the movie still managed to be both entertaining and intriguing. It also has an excellent cast led by the always superb Christian Bale. It was not perfect, but “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” did entertain me.

 

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“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

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“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

Between the late 1980s and the first few years of the 21st century, communications mogul Ted Turner had produced or oversaw a series of period dramas in the forms of movies and miniseries. Aside from two or three productions, most of them were aired as television movies on the cable network TNT, which is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System. One of those productions was the 1991 movie, “IRONCLADS”

Set during the first year of the U.S. Civil War, “IRONCLADS” is a fictional account of the creations of the first two American ironclads, C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the U.S.S. Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor, and their clash during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The movie began in April 1861 with the U.S. Navy personnel being forced to evacuate the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, following the state of Virginia’s secession from the United States. During the evacuation, Quartermaster’s Mate Leslie Harmon deliberately interfered with the militarily necessary demolition of the Navy Yard’s dry dock at Hampton Roads Naval Base in order to prevent collateral damage and civilian casualties in the city, as Confederates overran the base. While stationed in Norfolk, Leslie had made friends. Unfortunately, his actions were noticed and he found himself facing court-martial. It seemed the newly formed Confederate Navy used the undamaged naval yard to raise the sunken U.S.S. Merrimack and refit it into an ironclad ship.

Union officer Commodore Joseph Smith gave him the choice between facing court-martial or serving as a Union spy. Leslie was assigned to work with a Virginia belle from Norfolk named Betty Stuart, who had become an abolitionist and Unionist during her years at a boarding school in Baltimore. Betty had also recruited her mother’s maid named Opal and the latter’s husband, Cletus, as part of her spy ring. Using Leslie’s past actions during the Union evacuation as an excuse to label him a Confederate sympathizer, Betty introduced him to Norfolk society. This allowed the pair to spy upon the activities surrounding the development of the Confederate Navy’s new ironclad ship. At the same time, the Union Navy recruited John Ericsson to design their own ironclad ship.

Many years – and I do mean many of them – had passed since I last saw “IRONCLADS”. It is a miracle that I was able to watch it, considering that it has yet to be released on DVD. When I first saw “IRONCLADS” over twenty years ago, I had been impressed, despite it being a low-budget television movie that aired on a Basic cable station. But seeing it again after twenty-five years or so . . . I am still impressed. I honestly did not think this movie would hold up after a quarter of a century. Mind you, “IRONCLADS”had its flaws. I think this movie could have been longer . . . at least thirty (30) to forty-five (45) minutes longer. After all, it is about the first two ironclads in both U.S. and world history and I believe that Leslie and Betty’s activities as spies in Norfolk could have been expanded a bit.

But my one real problem with the movie is the romance between Betty Stuart and Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate Navy. It was bad enough that Lieutenant Jones, who was roughly 39 to 40 years old during the movie’s setting was portrayed by actor Alex Hyde-White, who must have been at least roughly 31 years old during the movie’s production. Worse, Betty Stuart was a fictional character. Lieutenant Jones . . . was not. The movie did an excellent job in portraying historical characters such as John Ericsson, Commodore Joseph Smith, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the C.S.S. Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and yes, President Abraham Lincoln. But the movie made a major misstep in creating a romance between the fictional Betty and the historical Lieutenant Jones. I hate it when writers do that. I still have bad memories of George MacDonald Fraser allowing a historical character to be the illegitimate son of his fictional character, Harry Flashman. And the real Catesby ap Jones was already a married man with children during that first year of the Civil War. For the likes of me, I could not understand why screenwriter Harold Gast could not allow Betty to have a romance with another fictional character, who happened to serve aboard the C.S.S. Virginia under Buchanan and Jones.

Despite the above problems, I can honestly say that I still managed to enjoy “IRONCLADS”. Thanks to Delmar Mann’s direction and Harold Gast’s screenplay, the movie proved to be a heady mixture of espionage, military conflict and history. Step-by-step, the movie took television viewers on a road mixed with fiction and fact to that famous sea battle that stunned the rest of the world. What I found even more interesting – and I am sure that many might find this a reason to criticize – is that in an odd way, the production provided well-rounded characters from both the North and the South.

The Betty Stuart character proved to be rather ambiguous. She was a product of the Virginia upper-class, who became an abolitionist and pro-Union . . . without informing her friends and family about her change of allegiance. And yet, her love for Lieutenant Jones led her to betray her allegiance and beliefs. Her situation proved to be so complicated that the only advice I can give is to watch the film, if you can find it. Another complicated character proved to be the Northern-born navy quartermaster-turned-spy, Leslie Harmon. He got into trouble in the first place, because he thought more of the Norfolk civilians than destroying that dry dock. And while one can admire him for his humanity, I found it interesting that he never really considered the slaves who served the upper-and-middle-class citizens of that city. Until he became a spy and witnessed a Confederate Naval intelligence officer named Lieutenant Gilford harshly ordered Cletus to provide another glass of champagne for him. Leslie eventually confessed that he had never paid attention to Norfolk’s slaves before the war.

As anyone can see, the topic of slavery managed to play a strong role in this production. After all, Betty’s embrace of the abolitionist movement led her to become a pro-Union spy against her fellow Virginians. And she had recruited two of her mother’s slaves as part of her slave ring. What I found interesting about this movie is that it presented two incidents in which Opal and Cletus had individually faced the price of being slaves. I have already mentioned Leslie witnessing Lieutenant Gilford’s harsh and racist attitude toward Cletus. But for me, I was really put off by Mrs. Stuart’s decision to limit Opal’s “visit” to her sister to once a year. It was the manner in which she made this order. I found it cool, subtle, indifferent and self-involved. Naturally, Opal serving Mrs. Stuart’s needs was more important than the latter having the opportunity to see a relative.

However, this story is about the Monitor and the Merrimack. As I had earlier stated, the movie did a pretty damn good job in leading up to the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads. But let us be honest . . . the actual battle proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance – from that first day when the Merrimack nearly made the Union blockade near Norfolk and Newport News obsolete; to the second in which the two ironclads faced each other. In fact, the battle took up the entire second half. Here, I think Mann, along with film editor Millie Moore, visual effects artist Doug Ferris and the special effects team led by Joel P. Blanchard did an exceptional job of re-creating the Battle of Hampton Roads.

However, the Battle of Hampton Roads sequence was not the only aspect of “IRONCLADS” that I enjoyed. Moore, Ferris and the visual and special effects teams did an admirable job in recreating Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia circa 1861-62. Their work was ably supported by Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs; the sound effects created by the sound editing team led by Burton Weinstein; the sound mixing team led by Kenneth B. Ross; Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs. By the way, the two sound teams both earned Emmy nominations for their work. I was surprised to discover that another Emmy nomination was given to Noel Taylor for his costume designs. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed looking at them, especially those costumes worn by Virginia Masden, as shown below:

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I found Taylor’s costumes colorful and yes . . . beautiful to look at. But if I must be honest, his costumes seemed to have a touch of late 20th century glamour – namely those worn by the Virginian elite – that I found unrealistic.

Looking back at “IRONCLADS”, I can honestly say that there was not a performance that blew my mind. The television movie did not feature a performance I would consider worthy of an Emmy nomination. Solid performances came from the likes of E.G. Marshall, Kevin O’Rourke, Leon B. Stevens, Carl Jackson, Andy Park, Burt Edwards and Marty Terry. I thought James Getty was pretty serviceable as President Abraham Lincoln. However, I think he managed to really evoke the memory of “Old Abe” with one particular line – “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. It (the U.S.S. Monitor) strikes me there’s something in it.”

But there were performances that I found very noticeable and effective. One would think that Philip Casnoff’s portrayal of naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Guilford, to be a remake of the villainous character he had portrayed in the television adaptations of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels. However, Casnoff’s Guilford was no copycat of Elkhannah Bent. The actor effectively portrayed a cool and ruthless spymaster willing to do what it took to protect his new nation. Joanne Dorian gave a very interesting and varied performance as Betty Stuart’s shallow and self-involved mother, Blossom Stuart. At times, I found her portrayal of Mrs. Stuart hilarious or amusing. And yet . . . there was that scene in which the actress conveyed the ugliness of her character’s selfishness and racism.

Another performance that caught my eye came from Beatrice Bush, who portrayed Mrs. Stuart’s enslaved maid, Opal and Betty’s fellow spy. During the teleplay’s first half, Bush gave a solid performance. But I was truly impressed by how the actress had expressed Opal’s shock and suppressed anger over Betty’s decision to inform Catesby about their findings regarding the C.S.S. Virginia’s plating. I wsa impressed by how Bush effortlessly expressed Opal’s anger without allowing the character to lose control. I also enjoyed Fritz Weaver’s portrayal of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born immigrant, who became one of the best naval engineers of the 19th century and designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Weaver gave a very entertaining performance as the tart-tongued engineer who was constantly irritated by U.S. Navy and the Lincoln Administration’s doubts over his work or the use of iron clad ships.

Alex Hyde-White gave a charismatic portrayal of Confederate Naval officer, Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. The actor did a good job in conveying his character charm, professionalism. He also effectively conveyed Jones’ anger and confusion upon discovering his love’s role as a Union spy. I really enjoyed Reed Diamond’s engaging portrayal of the earnest Union Navy quartermaster, Leslie Harmon. I enjoyed how his character had learned a lesson about himself and what this war was about. He also gave, what I believe to be one of the best lines in the movies. Both Hyde-White and Reed managed to create solid chemistry with leading actress, Virginia Madsen.

Speaking of Madsen, and managed to create a solid screen chemistry with lead Virginia Madsen. Superficially, Madsen’s Betty Stuart seemed like the typical lead in a period drama – a beautiful and noble woman of high birth who has become dedicated to a cause. What made Betty interesting is that she was a Southern-born woman from a slave-owning family who became a dedicated abolitionist. And this led her to become an effective and yes, manipulative spy. But what I found interesting about Madsen’s skillful portrayal is that her character proved to be surprisingly a bit complicated . . . especially when her role as a spy and her feelings for Catsby Jones produced a conflict within her.

I am not going to push the idea that TNT’s “IRONCLADS” was a television hallmark or masterpiece. It was a solid 94-minute account of the circumstances that led to the creations of the world’s first two ironclads – the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor – and their historic clash in Virginia waters. A part of me wished that this movie – especially the details leading to the Battle of Hampton Roads – had been a bit longer. And I am not that thrilled over screenwriter Harold Gast using a historical figure like Catesby ap Jones as the love interest of the fictional Betty Stuart. But I believe that both Gast and director Delmar Mann had created an interesting, complex and exciting narrative that was enhanced by excellent performances from a cast led by Virginia Madsen.

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

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“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

Twenty-four years before the award-winning HBO miniseries “JOHN ADAMS” aired, the CBS network aired a miniseries about the first U.S. President, George Washington. Simply titled “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, this three-part miniseries was based upon two biographies written by James Thomas Flexner – 1965’s “George Washington, the Forge of Experience, 1732–1775” and 1968’s “George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783”

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” spanned at least forty years in the life of the first president – from 1743, when his father Augustine Washington died from a sudden illness; to 1783, when Washington bid good-bye to the officers who had served under him during the American Revolutionary War. The miniseries covered some of the major events of Washington’s life:

*His training and profession as a surveyor of Western lands
*His experiences as an officer of the Virginia militia during the Seven Years War
*His friendship with neighbors George William and Sally Cary Fairfax between the 1750s and the 1770s
*The romantic feelings between him and Sally Fairfax
*His marriage to widow Martha Dandridge Custis and his role as stepfather to her two children
*His life as a Virginia planter
*His role as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses
*His growing disenchantment with the British Parliament
*His brief experiences as a representative of the Second Continental Congress
*And his experiences as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Actually, one half of the miniseries covered Washington’s life from his childhood to his years as a Virginia planter. The other half covered his experiences during the American Revolution. Glancing at the list above, I realized that “GEORGE WASHINGTON”covered a great deal in Washington’s life. More importantly, Jon Boothe and Richard Fielder did a first-rate job by delving into the many aspects of the man’s life and his relationships with great details and depth. This was especially apparent in Washington’s relationships with his controlling mother, Mary Ball Washington; his friendship with George William Fairfax; his light romance with Sally Fairfax; his relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution and especially his marriage to Martha Custis.

I found it interesting that the miniseries managed to convey how difficult and controlling Mary Washington was as a parent. However, I found it slightly disappointing that the miniseries did not further explore Washington’s relationship with his mother, once he became swept up into the Seven Year’s War – especially since she had survived long enough to witness him become the first U.S. president.

Washington’s relationship with George William “Will” Fairfax proved to be a complex matter for two reasons. One, Will Fairfax had remained loyal to the British Crown throughout his life. During the decade leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution, that relationship threatened to fall apart due to the two friends’ different political belief – something I was happy to see that the miniseries had conveyed. Another aspect that posed a threat to Washington’s friendship with Fairfax was his romantic feelings for the man’s wife, Sally Fairfax . . . and her feelings for him. There have been rumors that Washington’s relationship with Sally had led to physical adultery, but no proof. But there is proof that they had strong feelings for one another and the miniseries; due to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay, along with the performances of Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith; did an excellent job of conveying the pair’s emotional regard for each other in a subtle and elegant manner. What I found even more amazing was the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s courtship of and his marriage to Martha Custis. I was surprised that Boothe and Fiedler had portrayed Washington’s feelings toward her with such ambiguity. This left me wondering if he had married her for love . . . or for her fortune. By the last half hour or so of the miniseries, Washington finally admitted to Martha that he did love her. However, the manner in which Bostwick portrayed that scene, I found myself wondering if Washington was himself amazed by how much his feelings for Martha had grown.

I do not know what to say about the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution. I do not doubt that his aides were loyal to him or probably even worship him. But I must admit that it seemed the miniseries’ portrayal of this relationship seemed to make Washington’s character just a touch too ideal for my tastes. In fact, one of the miniseries’ main problems seemed to be its idealistic portrayal of the main character. Aside from Washington’s bouts of quick temper, his ambiguous affections for his wife Martha, and his cold relationship with his less than ideal stepson, John “Jacky” Parke Custis; the miniseries made very little effort to portray Washington in any negative light. In fact, Washington’s demand for higher rank within the Virginia militia and British Army during the Seven Years War is portrayed as justified, thanks to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay. Personally, I found his demand rather arrogant, considering his young age (early to mid-20s) and limited training and experience as a military officer at the time. Not only did I found his demand arrogant, but also rather astounding. What I found even more astounding was the miniseries’ attitude that television viewers were supposed to automatically sympathize with Washington’s demands.

The miniseries’ portrayal of Washington in the second half – the period that covered the American Revolution – nearly portrayed the planter-turned-commander as a demigod. Honestly. Aside from his occasional bursts of temper, General George Washington of the Continental Army – at least in this miniseries – was a man who could do no wrong. And at times, I found this rather boring. I cannot recall any moment during the miniseries’ second half that questioned Washington’s decisions or behavior. Most of his military failures were blamed on either military rivals or limited support from the Continental Congress.

And then . . . there was the matter of black soldiers serving in the Continental Army. According to “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, Southern representative in Congress wanted blacks – whether they were former slaves or freemen – banned from serving in the army. It was Washington who demanded that Congress allow black men to fight alongside white men in the country’s rebellion against the British Empire. By the way . . . this was a complete lie. Despite black men fighting in the Massachusetts militias during the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington signed an order forbidding them to become part of the Continental Army when the white New England militiamen did. Come to think of it, when it came to racism and slavery, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” presented a completely whitewashed portrait of the future president. The miniseries even featured a pre-war scene in which Washington prevented his overseer from breaking apart slave families at Mount Vernon by selling some of the slaves for needed funds for the plantation. In reality, Washington was not above selling off slaves or breaking up families for the sake of profit or punishing a slave. At a time when historians and many factions of the American public were willing to view the Founding Fathers in a more ambiguous light; Fiedler and co-producers Buzz Kulik and David Gerber lacked the guts to portray Washington with a bit more honestly . . . especially in regard to race and slavery. If they had been more honest, they could have portrayed Washington’s growing unease over slavery and race, following Congress’ decision to allow them within the ranks of the Continental Army in 1777. Unfortunately, putting Washington on a pedestal seemed more important than allowing him some semblance of character development.

Production wise, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” struck me as first-rate. The miniseries had been shot in locales in Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, adding to the production’s 18th century Colonial America atmosphere. I cannot say whether Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography also contributed to the miniseries’ setting. If I must be honest, I did not find his photography that memorable. But I was impressed by Alfred Sweeney’s production designs, along with Sig Tingloff’s art direction and Arthur Jeph Parker’s set decorations. However, I had a problem with the costume choices selected by a costume team supervised by Michael W. Hoffman. To be honest, I did not have much trouble with the costumes for the men. The women’s costumes proved to be another man. A good deal of the story is set among the colonial Virginia gentry. I hate to say this, but I found a good deal of the women’s costumes less than impressive. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in the middle of Hollywood. I especially had a problem with Jaclyn Smith’s wardrobe as Sally Fairfax. I realize that she is supposed to be an 18th century version of a Southern belle. But there were one or two costumes that seemed to be some confusing mixture of mid 18th and mid 19th centuries. Yikes.

I certainly had no problem with the performances featured in the 1984 miniseries. The latter featured solid performances from legendary actors like Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Jeremy Kemp, Clive Revill, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Stack and Hal Holbrook. However, I really enjoyed James Mason’s energetic portrayal of the doomed General Edward Braddock; Rosemary Murphy’s skillful performance as the future president’s demanding mother, Mary Ball Washington; Richard Kiley’s emotional portrayal of Washington’s neighbor, planter George Mason; and John Glover’s ambiguous performance as the ambitious Revolutionary officer, Charles Lee. I was also impressed by Stephen Macht’s performance as the ambitious and volatile Benedict Arnold. I could also say the same about Megan Gallagher’s portrayal of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen. Ron Canada provided a good deal of depth in his limited appearances as Washington’s slave valet, Billy Lee. Philip Casnoff, who was a year away from his stint in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, gave a very charming and humorous performance as Washington’s French-born aide and close friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. And Leo Burmester gave an excellent performance as Eban Krutch, the New England born Continental soldier, who served as the viewers’ eyes of both Washington and the war throughout the miniseries’ second half.

I really enjoyed David Dukes’ performance as Washington’s neighbor, mentor and close friend, Will Fairfax. I found it quite energetic and charming. And he managed to develop a first-rate chemistry with Barry Bostwick. Come to think of it, so did Jaclyn Smith, who portrayed Fairfax’s wife and the object of Washington’s desire, Sally Fairfax. I also found Smith’s performance rather complex as she had to convey her character’s feelings for Washington in a subtle manner. At first, I found Patty Duke’s portrayal of the future First Lady, Martha Washington, solid but not particularly interesting. Thankfully, the last quarter of the miniseries allowed Duke to prove what a first-rate actress she could be, as it explored Mrs. Washington’s reaction to the privations suffered by the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. Her performance led to an Emmy nomination. And finally, I come to the man of the hour himself, Barry Bostwick. Despite the miniseries being guilty of whitewashing some of Washington’s character, I cannot deny that Bostwick gave a superb performance. The actor skillfully conveyed Washington’s character from the callow youth who was dominated by his mother and his ambition to the weary, yet iconic military general who carried the rebellion and the birth of a country on his shoulders. It is a pity that he did not receive any award nominations for his performance.

I may have my complaints about “GEORGE WASHINGTON”. Despite its detailed account of the first president’s life, I believe it went out of its way to protect his reputation with occasional whitewashing. And some of the miniseries’ production values – namely the women’s costumes – struck me as a bit underwhelming. But despite its flaws, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” proved to be a first-rate miniseries that delved into the history of the United States during the mid-and-late 18th century, via the life of one man. It also benefited from excellent direction from Buzz Kulik and superb performances led by the talented Barry Bostwick. Not surprisingly, the miniseries managed to earn at least six Emmy nominations.

“SHANE” (1953) Review

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“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

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Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

If I have to be perfectly honest, I do not recall the initial reaction to many Marvel fans, when Disney/Marvel Films first released the news of the upcoming release of the second Captain America film. I do recall various comments regarding the first one – 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The comments for that film ranged from mediocre to box office disappointment.  I found the former opinion odd, considering that movie managed to generate favorable reviews.  And besides . . . “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” proved to be a favorite of mine from 2011.

It was not until the release of this second Captain America film was less than a month away in June 2014, when I finally heard some excellent word-of-mouth about it. Some were even claiming that it was better than the 2012 blockbuster hit, “THE AVENGERS”. Personally, I could not see how any comic book movie could top that. But I did look forward to seeing “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially after I learned that Robert Redford, of all people, had been cast in the film. I mean . . . honestly, can you imagine an actor like Redford appearing in a Marvel Comics movie? And yet . . . he appeared in this one. Either he was desperate for work, or he really liked Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” begins two years after the events of “THE AVENGERS”. Steve Rogers aka Captain America now works as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Washington D.C. During an early morning jog, he meets and befriends an Army veteran named Sam Wilson, before he is summoned by Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow for a new mission. Steve, Natasha and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Agent Brock Rumlow are ordered to free hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from a group of mercenaries. During the mission, Steve discovers that Romanoff has another agenda – to extract data from the ship’s computers for Director Nick Fury. When Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, to confront Fury, the latter briefs him on Project Insight, which consists of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats. After failing to decrypt Romanoff’s recovered data, Fury becomes suspicious about Insight and asks World Security Council member Alexander Pierce to delay the project.

Fury is later ambushed by assailants and a mysterious assassin named the Winter Soldier. After reaching Steve’s apartment and giving the latter a flash drive of the information acquired by Natasha, Fury is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Steve is summoned by Pierce to explain what happened between him and Fury. But Steve refuses to cooperate and is later declared a fugitive by Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. When Natasha helps him evade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she also becomes a fugitive. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that Steve’s old World War II nemesis, HYDRA, had been infiltrating the agency for years. They seek sanctuary with Sam Wilson, who turns out to be a former U.S. Air Force pararescueman, trained for combat and the use of an EXO-7 “Falcon” wingpack. The trio sets out to learn more details about HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their agenda, before they can do something about it.

If I must be brutally honest, I feel that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”is not only one of the best Marvel Comics movies I have ever seen, but also one of my top favorite comic book movies. It is superb. Some have claimed that it is better than “THE AVENGERS”. I do not share that belief. I have yet to see a comic book movie that is better than the 2012 film. But this movie was fantastic. I could see why Robert Redford was willing to be cast in this film. I agree with many that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was reminiscent of the political thrillers released during the 1970s. But this particular film did more . . . it shook up the Marvel Movieverse in ways that no one saw coming. The revelation of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had a major impact on the ABC television series, “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, which is a spin-off of the Marvel films. I also have to say a word about the fight sequences. There have been fight scenes from other Marvel movies and the TV series “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” that I found admirable. But the fight scenes featured in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially those between Steve and the brainwashed Bucky – were probably the best I have ever seen in a Marvel movie, let alone in recent years.

Many film critics and some moviegoers have commented on the movie’s action sequences. To them, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” seemed to be a movie with a great deal of action sequences and very little dramatic moments. That was not the movie I saw. Mind you, Anthony and Joe Russo handled the movie’s action sequences very well. Their work was aptly supported by Trent Opaloch’s gorgeous cinematography, Jeffrey Ford’s excellent editing and the exciting work from the visual effects team. I was especially impressed by the following sequences: the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s rescue of the hostages; HYDRA’s attack upon Nick Fury on the streets of Washington D.C.; Steve, Natasha and Sam deal with a team of HYDRA agents led by the Winter Soldier; and especially the big finale in which the trio and Maria Hill attempted to stop HYDRA’s plans to use the three newly constructed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

But as I had earlier stated, I do not believe that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was all action and very little drama. The film featured some dramatic moments that not only brought out the best in the cast, but also struck me as very well written. There were a good deal of verbal confrontations in this film. And most of them seemed to feature the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. I was especially impressed by the drama and the acting in scenes that featured Fury’s two conversations with Steve – one regarding the helicarriers and the other about the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. I also enjoyed Fury’s final confrontation with Alexander Pierce inside the Triskelion. I was also impressed by how the screenwriters and the Russo brothers managed to inject some very good drama in the middle of Steve’s final fight against Bucky, while he tried to convince the latter to remember the past. Speaking of the past, this movie also featured a poignant moment that displayed the strength of Steve and Bucky’s friendship in a late 1930s flashback regarding the death of Steve’s mother. The movie also featured another friendship – the budding one between Steve and Sam. This was especially apparent in one poignant scene in which Steve and Sam discussed the latter’s experiences in Afghanistan.But the best scene, as far as I am concerned, featured Steve’s last conversation with a very elderly and dying Peggy Carter. That moment between the two former lovers seemed so sad that I found myself crying a little. How this particular scene managed to evade the memories of those who claimed that the movie was basically an action fest baffles me.

Was there anything about “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” that baffled me or turned me off? I found it hard to believe that Fury actually accepted Steve’s rather ludicrous suggestion regarding the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. Why he did not laugh in the super soldier’s face or told the latter that suggestion was dangerously naive is beyond me. Why did the movie make such a big deal about HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., when certain characters made it pretty obvious that it had infiltrated other government agencies . . . all over the world? And considering that Steve’s personality was not suited for espionage, I am still wondering why Marvel – both in the comics and in the movies – would have him join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And what happened to World Council Member Hawley in the movie’s climax? The movie never explained.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Once again, Chris Evans proved that he could be a first-rate dramatic actor in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. Although he injected a little more humor into his character – especially in the movie’s first half hour – he did an excellent job of expressing Steve’s continuing discomfort of being a man in the wrong time period, his penchant for making friends with people who are not Tony Stark, and his priggish nature. I should have known that since Evans, who can be a first-rate comedic actor, should also prove to be excellent in drama. He certainly proved it in his scene with Hayley Atwell, who reprise her role as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Peggy Carter. And she was marvelous as the aging Peggy, who wavered between joy at being with Steve again, sadness that they are now far apart age wise, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Evans’ leading lady in this film proved to be Scarlett Johansson, who reprised her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. And as usual, she was fantastic. I do not know whether she did all of her stunts, but she certain looked good. And . . . as usual, Johansson did a great job in conveying the agent’s ambiguous nature – especially in the film’s first half hour. I was especially impressed by her chemistry with Evans in this film. Mind you, they did a good job of projecting a newly developed friendship in“THE AVENGERS”. But in this film, there seemed to be an extra sexual charge between the two characters.

By 2014, Samuel L. Jackson had appeared in at least six Marvel films. Of the six, he had a somewhat sizeable role in“IRON MAN 2”, and major roles in both “THE AVENGERS”and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.  He did such a marvelous job as the manipulative Fury in “THE AVENGERS” that I did not think he could repeat himself in portraying that aspect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director’s character. I was wrong. He not only did a great job in portraying Fury as being manipulative as ever, but at the same time, conveyed Fury’s own anger at being a victim of his mentor’s betrayal. Speaking of which, a part of me still cannot imagine Robert Redford in a comic book movie. And I cannot help but wonder if he felt the same. I wonder who approached him – the people at Marvel or his agent? Nevertheless, I am glad he accepted the role of World Security Council Alexander Pierce. This is the first time I have seen Redford portray a genuine villain and he was great. His Pierce was intelligent, soft-spoken, friendly, manipulative as Fury, and cold-blooded. It is a pity that he did not portray similar roles in the past.

Anthony Mackie joined the cast as Steve’s new friend, Army veteran Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. And like the rest of the cast, he gave a great performance. Mackie injected a good of down-to-earth sensibility to the story, along with some much-needed humor – especially in scenes in which Sam expressed annoyance at the machismo of both Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow. I was especially impressed in one scene in which Mackie poignantly conveyed Sam’s memories of his time in Afghanistan and the death of a fellow Army comrade. Sebastian Stan reprised his role as James “Buchanan” Barnes, Steve’s old childhood friend. Only his Bucky Barnes in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is, like Steve, a man out of time. More importantly, he is a brainwashed amnesiac and super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. I have to give kudos to Stan for skillful portrayal this seemingly cold-blooded assassin, who seemed torn between his role as a HYDRA killer and a confused man haunted by memories of his friendship with Steve.

The movie also featured some solid supporting performances from Cobie Smulders, who portrayed Fury’s no-nonsense second-in-command Maria Hill; Emily Van Kamp, who portrayed the warm and uber-competent S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13; Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell; Frank Grillo, who portrayed the down-to-earth, but cocky Brock Rumlow; Gary Shandling as Senator Stern, and the members of the World Security Council – Alan Dale, Chin Han, Bernard White and Jenny Agutter. By the way, many fans will be amazed to see Jenny Agutter kick butt in one particular scene. And for fans of “LOST”, you might be able to spot Adetokumboh M’Cormack, who portrayed Mr. Eko’s brother in the series, as one of the mercenaries who took control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship early in the movie.

There may have been a few things that left me feeling a bit uneasy in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. But if I must be brutally honest, I think it is the best Marvel film and one of the best comic book films I have ever seen . . . period. And one has to thank Kevin Fiege’s excellent control of the Marvel films that centered on the Avengers Initiative, the marvelous screenplay scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, Anthony and Joseph Russo’s superb direction and an excellent cast led by Chris Evans. Not only is this a superb film, but it managed to shake up the Marvel Movie Universe considerably.

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