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

George-Lazenby

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

The third movie and sixth episode of George Lucas’ original STAR WARS saga, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, has become something of a conundrum for me. It was the first STAR WARS movie that immediately became a favorite of mine. But in the years that followed, my opinion of the film had changed. 

Directed by Richard Marquand, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” picked up a year after “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” left off. The movie begins with the arrival of the Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Vader to the Empire’s new Darth Star, which had been in construction above the moon of Endor. Luke Skywalker, Jedi-in-training and Rebel Alliance pilot, finally construct a plan to rescue his friend, Han Solo, from the Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt. His plan nearly fails, despite help from Princess Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and his droids C3-P0 and R2-D2. Despite the odds against them, the group of friends finally succeed in rescuing Han and killing Jabba.

Following the Tatooine rescue, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his Jedi training with Jedi Master Yoda. However, Luke discovers Yoda on the verge of death from old age. When the old Jedi Master finally dies, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost appears and verifies what Luke had learned on Bespin in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” – that Darth Vader is his father, Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan insists that Luke has to kill his father in order to destroy the Sith Order, but the latter is reluctant to commit patricide. Eventually, Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance rendezvous point, and volunteers to assist his friends in their mission to destroy the the Death Star.

I was not kidding when I stated that “RETURN OF THE JEDI” was the first STAR WARS movie to become a personal favorite of mine. I disliked “A NEW HOPE” when I first saw it. It took me nearly a decade to get over my dislike and embrace it. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” creeped me out a bit, due to its dark plot, the revelation of Darth Vader’s true identity and Han’s unhappy fate. The movie has become one of my two favorites in the franchise. But I loved “RETURN OF THE JEDI” from the beginning. By then, I finally learned to embrace Lucas’ saga. And the positive ending with no potential of a sequel made me equally happy. And yet . . . my feelings toward the movie gradually changed. Although I still maintained positive feelings toward the movie, I ceased to regard it as my personal favorite from the STAR WARS franchise.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” did have its problems. One, the movie featured both a second Death Star and Luke’s return to Tatooine. For me, this signalled an attempt by George Lucas to recapture some of the essence from the first movie, “A NEW HOPE”. In other words, I believe Lucas used the Death Star and Tatooine to relive the glory of the first movie for those fans who had been disappointed with “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. And there is nothing that will quickly turn me off is an artist who is willing to repeat the past for the sake of success.

Tatooine proved to be an even bigger disappointment, especially since I have never been fond of the sequence at Jabba’s palace. I never understood why it took Luke and his friends an entire year to find Han. Boba Fett had made his intentions to turn Han over to Jabba very clearly in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. So, why did it take them so long to launch a rescue? Exactly what was Luke’s rescue plan regarding Han in the first place? Not long after she arrived with Chewbacca, Leia made her own attempt to free Han from the carbonite block and failed. Had Luke intended for this to happen? Had he intended to be tossed into a pit with a Rancor? Were all of these minor incidents merely parts of Luke’s plan to finally deal with Jabba on the latter’s sail barge? If so, it was a piss-poor and convoluted plan created by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured the development of Luke’s skills with the Force. Since the movie made it clear that he had not seen Yoda since he departed Dagobah in order to rescue Han, Leia and Chewbacca from Bespin; I could not help but wonder how Luke managed to develop his Force skills without the help of a tutor. I eventually learned that Luke honed his Force skills by reading a manual he had found inside Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Tatooine hut. Frankly, I find this scenario ludicrous. Luke’s conversation with Obi-Wan’s ghost on Dagobah featured one major inconsistency. Obi-Wan claimed that Owen Lars was his brother, in whose care he left Luke. Considering Obi-Wan’s unemotional response to Owen’s death in “A NEW HOPE”, I found this hard to believe and could not help but view Obi-Wan’s words as a major blooper. Especially since Obi-Wan had reacted with more emotion over Luke’s reluctance to become a Jedi and kill Darth Vader.

Many fans have complained about the cheesy acting and wooden dialogue found the Prequel Trilogy movies. These same fans have failed to notice similar flaws in the Original Trilogy movies, including “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Especially “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Mind you, the movie did feature some first-rate performances. But none of it came from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. I really enjoyed Ford and Fisher’s performances in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. But I feel they really dropped the ball in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. They seemed to be phoning in their performances and the Leia/Han ended up rather wooden and unsatisfying to me. This was especially apparent in the scene in which Leia, after learning the truth about Vader’s identity, seemed too upset to answer Han’s demanding questions about her conversation with the departed Luke. Both Fisher and Ford really came off as wooden in that scene. When I had first saw “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, I despised the Ewoks. My feelings for them have somewhat tempered over the years. But I still find them rather infantile, even for a STAR WARS movie. Although I no longer dislike the Ewoks, I still find that village scene in which C3-P0 revealed the past adventures of Luke and his friends very cheesy and wince-inducing. Unlike the past two films, the camaraderie between the group seemed forced . . . and very artificial. The Ewok village scene also revealed a perplexing mystery – namely the dress worn by Leia in this image:

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For years, I have wondered why Leia would carry such a dress with her, during the mission to Endor. I eventually learned that the Ewoks created the dress for her, after she became their guest. And I could not help but wonder why they had bothered in the first place. Luke and Han did not acquire new outfits from the Ewoks after they became the latter’s guests. And how did the Ewoks create the dress so fast? Within a matter of hours?

Thankfully, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” had plenty of virtues. One of those virtues turned out to be Mark Hamill, who gave the best and probably the most skillful performance in the movie as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the previous two movies, Luke has become a more self-assured man and Force practitioner, who undergoes his greatest emotional journey in his determination to learn the complete story regarding his family’s past and help his father overcome any remaining connections to the Sith. He was ably supported by James Earl Jones (through voice) and David Prowse (through body movement), who skillfully conveyed Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker’s growing dissatisfaction with the Sith and himself. “RETURN OF THE JEDI” also marked the real debut of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of politician and Sith Lord Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. Although the actor achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Palpatine in the Prequel Trilogy movies, I must say that I was impressed by his performance in this film. McDiarmid was in his late 30s at the time, but I he did a first-rate job in portraying Palpatine as a powerful and intelligent Sith Lord and galactic leader, whose skills as a manipulator has eroded from years of complacency and arrogance. Billy Dee Williams returned as ex-smuggler Lando Calrissian, who has joined the Rebel Alliance cause. Although his portrayal of Lando did not strike me as memorable as I did in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I believe he did a very solid job – especially in the Battle of Endor sequence. I finally have to comment on the Jabba the Hutt character, who proved to be very memorable thanks to Larry Ward’s voiceovers and the puppeteer team supervised by David Barclay.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured some first-rate action scenes. The best, in my opinion, was the speeder bike sequence in which Luke and Leia chased a squad of Imperial stormtroopers on patrol through the Endor forest. This sequence was actually shot in the Redwood National Forest in California. The combined talents of Lucas, Marquand’s direction, Alan Hume’s photography, the ILM special effects, Ben Burtt’s sound effects (which received an Oscar nomination) and especially the editing team of Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham made this sequence one of the most exciting, nail biting and memorable ones in the entire saga. But there were other scenes and sequences that impressed me. Despite my dislike of the entire sequence featuring the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, I cannot deny that the scene aboard Jabba’s sail barge proved to be entertaining. Even the ground battle between the Imperial forces and the Rebel forces (assisted by the Ewoks) proved to be not only entertaining, but also interesting. The idea of the Ewoks utilizing the natural elements of Endor to battle and defeat Imperial technology provided an interesting message on the superiority of nature. And if I must be honest, I found the destruction of this second Death Star to be more exciting than the first featured in “A NEW HOPE”.

Despite the barrage of action scenes, there were a few dramatic scenes that I found impressive. The best one proved to be the confrontation between Luke, Vader and Palpatine aboard the second Death Star. Luke and Papatine’s battle of wills over Vader’s soul not only provided some interesting performances from Hamill, Earl Jones/Prowse and McDiarmid; it also resulted in one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie. Another excellent dramatic scene featured Luke’s discussion with Obi-Wan’s ghost regarding Vader’s true identity. Both Hamill and Alec Guinness gave excellent performances in the scene. It also, rather surprisingly, revealed the flawed aspect of the Jedi’s righteous nature for the very first time.

After the release of the six STAR WARS movies produced by George Lucas, I realized that I no longer regarded “RETURN OF THE JEDI” as the best in the saga. Unfortunately, I now rate it as the least most satisfying film in the saga, so far. Certain plot holes and some weak performances made it impossible for me to view it with such high esteem. Yet, I cannot say that I dislike the film. In fact, I still enjoyed it very much, thanks to a first-rate performance by Mark Hamill, who really held the movie together; some excellent action sequences and a surprising, yet satisfying twist that ended the tale of one Anakin Skywalker. Despite its flaws, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” still managed to be a very satisfying movie.

“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes One to Four

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

In the years between 2010 and 2015, I have not been able to stumble across a new British period drama that really impressed me. Five years. That is a hell of a long time for a nation with a sterling reputation for period dramas in both movies and television. Fortunately, the five-year dry spell finally came to an end (at least for me) with the arrival of “POLDARK”, the BBC’s new adaptation of Winston Graham’s literary series. 

I am certain that some people would point out that during this five-year period, the ITV network aired Julian Fellowes’ family drama, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I must admit that I enjoyed the series’ first season. But Seasons Two to Six merely sunk to a level of mediocrity and questionable writing. I had never warmed to “RIPPER STREET” or “THE HOUR”. And I have yet to see either “PEAKY BLINDERS” or “INDIAN SUMMERS”.

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. Then I tried the first two episodes of the 2015 series and found it equally enjoyable. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the first series of the new version. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 2015 series.

Series One of “POLDARK” . . . well the 2015 version . . . is based upon Winston Graham’s first two novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and 1946’s “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the 1945 novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark serving with the British Army in 1781 Virginia, during the American Revolution. During an attack by American troops, Ross is struck unconscious in the head by a rifle butt. The episode jumps two years later with Ross returning home to Cornwall by traveling coach. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his Uncle Charles Poldark at the latter’s Trenwith estate that his father had died broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, became engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left is his father’s estate, the smaller estate Nampara, which is now in ruins, two copper 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, a family named Warleggan, who had risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, were gaining financial control over the neighborhood. Not long after his decision to remain in Cornwall, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

There have been a few complaints that this first season for the new “POLDARK” series had moved a bit too fast, in compared to the first one in 1975. After all, the latter spanned sixteen episodes in compare to the eight ones for this new first season. However, what many failed to consider is that the first series from 1975 had adapted four novels ranging from “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” to Graham’s fourth novel, 1953’s “Warleggan”. Granted, the Demelza Carne character was first introduced in this version’s first episode, whereas she was introduced in the second episode of the 1975 series. This did not bother me at all . . . in compare to some other viewers.

There were other changes that did not bother me. Many have commented on the warmer nature of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, Ross’ former love and cousin-in-law. Frankly, I am glad that showrunner Debbie Horsfield had decided to go this route with Elizabeth. Unlike many, I have never considered Elizabeth’s character to be cold. Considering that Elizabeth was never a cold parent, I found it difficult to conceive her as a cold woman. I have always suspected that she was simply a very internalized character who kept her emotions close to her chest. Although actress Heida Reed portrayed Elizabeth as a reserved personality, the screenplay allowed more of her emotions to be revealed to the audience in compare to Winston Graham’s first four novels. Elizabeth’s erroneous decision to marry Francis and her personality flaws – namely her penchant for clinging to society’s rules – remained intact. But she was not portrayed as some walking icicle in a skirt, even though a good number of fans had a problem with this. I did not. I never saw the need to demand for this icy portrayal of Elizabeth in order to justify Ross’ love for Demelza. Apparently, neither did Horsfield. Some viewers have complained about Elizabeth’s husband, Francis Poldark, as well. He seemed too weak and hostile in compare to Graham’s portrayal of Francis in his novels. First of all, Francis never really struck me as a strong character to begin with. And thanks to the screenplay and Kyle Soller’s performance, Francis began the series as a rather nice young man who seemed genuinely relieved that Elizabeth had decided to continue with their wedding plans, despite Ross’ return from America. But it was easy to see how his character began its downward spiral, starting with the villainous George Warleggan’s poisonous insinuations that Ross and Elizabeth still had feelings for one another. And when you combine that with Charles Poldark’s equally negative comments regarding his nature, it was not difficult to see how Francis allowed his insecurities to eventually get the best of him.

Horsfield certainly stayed true to the story arc regarding the romance between Francis’ sister Verity Poldark and a hot-tempered sea captain named Captain Blamey. I must be honest . . . I have slightly mixed feelings about the whole matter. A part of me recognized Verity’s loneliness and the fact that her family seemed willing to use her spinster state as an excuse to nearly regulate her to the status of a housekeeper. My problem with this story arc is Captain Blamey. Why oh why did Graham made a character who had killed his wife in a fit of alcoholic rage during a domestic quarrel? When I first learned about his background, I could easily see why Charles and Francis Poldark were so against the idea of Verity becoming romantically involved in this guy. Yes, I realize that people need a second chance in life. Yes, I realized that Blamey was honest about his alcoholism and the details surrounding his wife’s death. But he became the first sympathetically portrayed male character who ends up committing an act of violence against a woman. The first of . . . how many? Two? Three? Frankly, I find this rather disturbing coming from a politically liberal writer like Graham, let alone any other writer.

But if there is one aspect of Graham’s saga that I wish Horsfield had not so faithfully adapted, it was the series of circumstances that led to Ross’ wedding to his kitchen maid, Demelza. By the beginning of Episode Three, audiences became aware of Demelza’s unrequited love for Ross. Audiences also became aware of Ross’ growing dependence of her presence in his household. I find this understandable, considering that both Jud and Prudie proved to be questionable servants. However, two things happened. First of all, one of Ross’ field hands, Jim Carter, got arrested for poaching on the property belonging to another landowner named Sir Hugh Bodrugan. Ross tried to prevent Jim from being sent to prison. Unfortunately, his temper got the best of him at Jim’s trial and he ended up in a heated debate with the narrow-minded judge, Reverend Halse. Meanwhile, Demelza received word from her abusive and newly religious father that he wanted her back in his home after hearing rumors that she and Ross were having an affair. So what happened? Demelza decided to spend her last day appreciating the finer household goods at Nampara . . . while wearing a gown that once belonged to Ross’ late mother. A drunken Ross returns home, finds her in his mother’s gown, chastises her before she seduces him into having sex. A day or so later, Ross decides to marry her in a private wedding ceremony with only Jud and Prudie as witnesses.

What on earth was Winston Graham thinking? What was he thinking? I have never come across anything so unrealistic in my life. What led Ross to marry Demelza in the first place? Many fans have tried to put a romantic sheen over the incident, claiming that subconsciously, Ross had already fallen in love with Demelza. Yeah . . . right. I knew better. I knew that Ross did not fall in love with her, until sometime after the wedding. So, why did he marry her? Someone named Tim Vicaryposted a theory that Ross, drunk and still angry over Jim Carter being imprisoned, had married Demelza as a way of thumbing his nose at the upper-classes, whom he blamed for Jim’s fate. To me, this sounds like Ross had entered matrimony, while having a suppressed temper tantrum. Hmmm . . . this sounds like him. But despite Mr. Vicary’s theory, I still have a problem with the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s nuptials. Why? Let me put it this way . . . if I had returned home and found my servant roaming around the house wearing the clothes of my dead parent, I would fire that person. Pronto. The only way this sequence could have worked for me was if Ross had fallen in love with Demelza by Episode Three. Ross may have been fond of his kitchen maid and grown used to her presence. But he was not in love with her . . . not at this stage.

I really do not have many other complaints about these first four episodes. Well . . . I have two other complaints. Minor complaints . . . really. There was a scene in Episode Two in which Ross and a prostitute named Margaret discussed Elizabeth’s marriage to Francis. Margaret cheerfully consoled Ross with the prediction that he would find someone who will make him forget Elizabeth. The next scene shifted to Demelza strolling across Nampara with her dog Garrick closely at her heels. Talk about heavy-handed foreshadowing. And if there is nothing I dislike more it is ham-fisted storytelling . . . especially when it promises to be misleading. My other complaint centered around the Ruth Teague character and her mother. I could understand why Ruth would be interested in marrying Ross. He is young, extremely attractive, a member of the upper-class and the owner of his own estate – no matter how dilapidated. But why on earth would Mrs. Teague support her daughter’s desire to become Mrs. Ross Poldark? Despite Ross’ status as a member of the landed gentry and a landowner, he has no fortune. Thanks to his late father, he found himself financially ruined upon his return to Cornwall. Why would Mrs. Teague want someone impoverished as her future son-in-law? Especially when she seemed to be just as ambitious for her daughter as Mrs. Chynoweth was for Elizabeth?

Despite the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding and that ham-fisted moment in Episode Two, I enjoyed those first four episodes of “POLDARK”. Enormously. Watching them made me realize that Winston Graham had created a rich and entertaining saga about complex characters in a historical setting. I have to confess. My knowledge of Great Britain during the last two decades of the 18th century barely exists. So, watching “POLDARK” has allowed me to become a little more knowledgeable about this particular era in Britain’s history. One, I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had an economic impact upon the country . . . a negative one, as a matter of fact. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I had no idea that Britain had struggled, as well. More importantly for Cornwall, the price of tin and copper had fallen during the 1770s and 1780s, thanks to this economic depression. 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 read somewhere that this period also marked the increased rise of Methodism throughout the country. Although this phenomenon will play a bigger role later in the series, Episode Three revealed the first hint through Demelza’s ne’er do well father, who ended up becoming a fanatic Methodist after remarrying a widow with children.

But the heart and soul of this series is the drama that surrounds Ross Poldark and the other major characters in the saga. When I say all of the major characters, I meant it. I realize that many would regard both Ross and his kitchenmaid-turned-bride Demelza as the heart and soul of this saga. Well . . . yes, they are. But so are the other characters – including Francis, his father Charles, Verity, Jud, Prudie Cary Warleggan, Jim and Jinny Carter, Captain Blamey, Ruth Teague and especially George Warleggan and Elizabeth. I found them all fascinating. I especially enjoyed how their stories enriched Ross’ own personal arc.

More importantly, these first four episodes provided some very interesting moments and scenes that left a strong impression . . even now. I am certain that only a few would forget that moment when Ross experienced both joy and disbelief when he reunited with his family after three years. And at the same time, discovered that his lady love had moved past the reports of his death and became engaged to his cousin Francis. Wow, what a homecoming. Other memorable moments featured the first meeting between Ross and Demelza at the local street market and the first meeting between Verity and Captain Blamey at an assembly dance. Despite my feelings regarding the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding, I must admit that I found her seduction of him rather sexy. The scene featuring Demelza and Verity’s growing friendship in early Season Four struck me as very charming and entertaining. I also enjoyed the Episode Threemontage that conveyed how Ross had grown accustomed to Demelza’s presence in his household and her ability to sense any of his particular needs. Another montage that I managed to enjoy, featured the community’s reaction to the couple’s wedding in early Episode Four, the poignant death of Charles Poldark in the same episode and the numerous conversations between Ross and George Warleggan that featured their growing enmity. But there were certain scenes – especially those that featured social gatherings – that stood out for me. They include:

*The assembly ball in Episode Two in which Verity met Captain Blamey for the first time. This scene also featured that very interesting and rather sexy dance between Ross and Elizabeth, which made it clear that the former lovers still harbored feelings for each . . . especially Ross. And this scene also marked the first time in which Francis became suspicious of those feelings, thanks to George’s poisonous insinuations.

*Charles and Francis’ confrontation with Ross regarding the latter’s support of Verity and Blamey’s courtship at Nampara. I found this scene to be very emotionally charged, due to the violent confrontation between Francis and Blamey that resulted in an ill-fated duel. It was capped by Elizabeth’s appearance at Nampara and her revelation that she was pregnant with Francis’ child.

*Ross tries to help his farm hand Jim Carter to avoid a prison sentence for poaching. This scene not only revealed Ross’ inability to control his temper and self-righteousness, but also featured a delicious confrontation between him and the judge, the Reverend Dr. Halse. And here is a lovely tidbit, the latter was portrayed by none other than Robin Ellis, who had portrayed Ross Poldark in the 1975-77.

*Episode Four also featured that marvelous Christmas at Trenwith sequence in which Ross and Demelza visit Francis and Elizabeth for the holidays. The entire cast involved in this sequence did a great job in infusing the tensions between the characters. I especially enjoyed the scene that featured the actual Christmas dinner.

Speaking of the cast, I have no complaints whatsoever. Everyone else have their favorites. But for me, the entire cast seemed to be giving it their all. Caroline Blakiston proved to be very witty as the elderly Aunt Agatha Poldark, who seemed bent upon making the other members of her family uncomfortable with her blunt comments. Warren Clarke gave a very memorable performance as Ross’ Uncle Charles. Unfortunately, he had passed away after filming his last scene in Episode Four. At least he went out with a first-rate role. Richard Harington made a very intense Captain Blamey and Harriet Ballard made an effectively bitchy Ruth Teague. “POLDARK” marked the first time I have ever really paid attention to Pip Torrens, who portrayed Cary Warleggan, George’s uncle. Which is not surprising, since he did a first-rate job in his portrayal of the greedy and venal banker, who seemed to be dismissive of both the upper and working classes. There were times when I could not decide whether to find Jud and Prudie Paynter funny or beneath contempt. This was due to the complex performances given by Phil Davis and Edney. I have already mentioned Robin Ellis, who was wonderfully intimidating and self-righteous as the bigoted Reverend Dr. Halse. Even after nine years away from the camera, he obviously has not lost his touch.

I first saw Ruby Bentall in the 2008 miniseries, “LOST IN AUSTEN”. But if I must be honest, I had barely noticed her. I certainly noticed her poignant and emotional performance as Verity Poldark, Ross’ “Plain Jane” cousin, who seemed doomed to spending the rest of her life serving her father’s and later, her brother’s household. Physically, Jack Farthing looks nothing like the literary George Warleggan from Graham’s novels. And I do not recall his character being featured so prominently in the first two novels. Personally, I do not care. I am really enjoying Farthing’s complex performance as the social climbing George, who seemed to resent the Poldarks’ upper-class status and especially Ross personally. Despite being as much of a greedy bastard as his uncle, Farthing did a great job in conveying George’s more humane nature. Fans have been so busy complaining that Kyle Soller’s portrayal of Ross’ cousin, Francis Polark, is nothing like the literary character, I feel they have been ignoring his superb performance. Personally, I suspect that Soller has been giving the best performance in the series. I have been really impressed by how he transformed Francis from a likable, yet mild young man to an embittered one filled with resentment and insecurities. I found myself wondering why Soller’s performance seemed familiar to me. Then it finally hit me . . . his portrayal of Francis reminded me of Robert Stack’s performance in the 1956 melodrama, “WRITTEN IN THE WIND”. Only Soller will be given the chance to take Francis’ character on another path before the series’ end.

The character of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark seemed to produce a curious reaction from fans of Graham’s literary series. From my exploration of the Internet, I have noticed that many fans either tend to ignore the two actresses who have portrayed her – Heida Reed and Jill Townsend in the 1970s series – or criticize their performances. For this particular series, I feel that Reed has been knocking it out of the ballpark in her portrayal of the introverted Elizabeth. Yes, Debbie Horsfield’s production has allowed Reed to express Elizabeth’s inner feelings a bit more prominent to the television audiences. Yet at the same time, the actress managed to perfectly capture the internalized and complex nature of Elizabeth’s character. On the other hand, fans and critics have expressed sheer rapture over Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal of Demelza Carne Poldark, the kitchen maid who became Ross’ bride. Well, I certainly believe that Tomlinson is doing a hell of a job portraying the earthy Demelza. What makes me appreciate her performance even more is how she manages to combine Demelza’s feisty personality and the insecurities that lurk underneath.

Before “POLDARK” first aired in Great Britain, many of the country’s media outlets had speculated on whether actor Aidan Turner would be able to live up to Robin Ellis’ portrayal of Ross Poldark from the 1970s. I knew it the moment I had heard he had been cast in the lead of this new series, based upon his previous work in “DESPERATE ROMANTICS” and “THE HOBBIT” film series. And Turner prove me right. He turned out to be the right man for the right role. Turner seems obviously capable of carrying the series on his shoulders. He has a very strong presence and seems quite capable of conveying Ross’ strong will. But more importantly, he is doing a top-notch of portraying not only Ross’ virtues – the will to rebuild his life and especially his compassion for other – but also his personal flaws – namely his temper, his arrogance and self-righteousness (which were on full display during Jim Carter’s trial and his assumption that Demelza would immediately know how to become an upper-class wife), and especially his obsessive nature, which has been directed at Elizabeth ever since his return to Cornwall.

Considering that this article is mainly about the first four episodes of “POLDARK”, I am surprised that I have written such a great deal. To be honest, this series has really impressed me. I have not been this enthused about a story since John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” series and its television adaptation. I suspect that it is not as highly regarded by critics, due to it being labeled a bodice ripper or a turgid melodrama. But for me . . . personally . . . “POLDARK” is more than that. Yes, it is a costumed melodrama. But it is also a good history lesson of life in Britain in the late 18th century. And more importantly, the melodrama and the historical drama serve as effective backdrops to a first-rate story filled with interesting and very complex characters – especially one Ross Poldark. I cannot wait to see how Debbie Horsfield handles the second half of this first season.

 

“STATE OF PLAY” (2003) Review

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“STATE OF PLAY” (2003) Review

Over eight years ago, a political thriller starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck was released in the movie theaters. The movie turned out to be based upon a six-part BBC miniseries of the same name – “STATE OF PLAY”

Created by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates, “STATE OF PLAY told the story of a London newspaper’s investigation into the death of a young woman named Sonia Baker, who worked as a researcher for a Member of Parliament named Stephen Collins. The miniseries also focused on the relationship between Collins and the newspaper’s leading journalist, Cal McCaffrey, who used to be his former campaign manager.

“STATE OF PLAY” was so well received that it garnered a Best Actor BAFTA award for Bill Nighy, for his role as McCaffrey’s editor, Cameron Foster. The miniseries also earned BAFTAs for Best Sound and Best Editing (Fiction/Entertainment); and it won awards major awards from the Royal Television Society, Banff Television Festival, Broadcasting Press Guild, Cologne Conference, Directors Guild of Great Britain, Edgar Awards, and the Monte Carlo TV Festival. When the 2009 movie was released, critics generally gave it positive reviews, but claimed that it failed to surpass or be as equally good as the miniseries. After seeing the latter . . . well, I will eventually get to that.

The miniseries began with the murder of a young man named Kelvin Stagg in what seemed to be a drug-related killing, along with the coincidental death of Collins’ researcher, Sonia Baker. When Cal McCaffrey and his colleagues at The Herald – Foster, his son Dan, Della Smith and others, they discover that the deaths were connected via Collins’ parliamentary investigation of links between an American oil company and corrupt high-ranking British ministers. Cal and his fellow journalists also have to deal with finding a publicist associate of Sonia’s named Dominic Foy, who may have a great deal of information on how she became Collins’ researcher in the first place. And another subplot dealt with Cal renewing his interest in Collins’ recently estranged wife, Anne.

I cannot deny that “STATE OF PLAY” is a first-rate miniseries. Paul Abbott created an excellent thriller filled with murder, romance, infidelity, witty dialogue and political intrigue. One of the best aspects of Abbott’s screenplay was how the varied subplots managed to connect with the main narrative. Even Cal’s romance with Anne Collins proved to have strong connections to his search for the truth regarding Sonia’s death – especially in Episode Three. The romance provided Another aspect of “STATE OF PLAY” that I admired was the pacing established by director David Yates. Another interesting relationship that materialized from the investigation was the friendship between The Herald reporter Della Smith and Scotland Yard’s DCI William Bell. Regardless of the number of episodes in the production, Yates and Abbott’s screenplay made certain that the viewer remained fixated to the screen. Like the 2009, the miniseries did an excellent job of delving into the British journalism and political scene. More importantly, it featured first-rate action sequences. For me, the best one proved to be Scotland Yard’s attempt to capture Kelvin Scaggs and Sonia Baker’s killer in the third episode.

As much as I enjoyed “STATE OF PLAY”, I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. Which is why I cannot accept the prevailing view that it was superior to its 2009 remake. Despite Yates’ pacing of the story, I feel that “STATE OF PLAY” could have been shown in at least four episodes. There were some subplots that could have used some trimming. One of them, at least for me, turned out to be the search for Dominic Foy. Actually, it took Cal, Della, Dan and the others very little time to find Dominic. But every time they found him, they lost him. This happened at least three or four times. By the time they managed to get Foy inside a hotel room for a little confession, I sighed with relief. The subplot threatened to become . . . annoying. Another subplot that threatened to become irrelevant was Cal’s dealings with Kelvin Skaggs’ older brother and mother, Sonny and Mrs. Skaggs. Johann Myers gave an intense performance as the volatile Sonny Skaggs. But the constant temper tantrums over how the press portrayed Kelvin eventually became boring. There were other sequences and subplots I could have done without – especially a road encounter between one of the reporters’ informants and oil company thugs in the last episode. And why have Stephen Collins investigate an American oil company, when it could have been easier to use a British or British-based oil company? After all, there are several oil companies operating in the United Kingdom, including the infamous BP. Although I admire Yates’ direction of the sequence featuring the capture of Sonia’s killer, Robert Bingham, I wish it had happened in the last episode. Otherwise, his death occurred too soon in my opinion.

John Simm did an excellent job in leading a first-rate cast for “STATE OF PLAY”. Despite working with the likes of Bill Nighy, David Morrissey, Polly Walker; he not only held his own. He carried the miniseries. Period. However, he was ably supported by superb performances from his co-stars. Morrissey was also commanding, yet complex as MP Stephen Collins. Although there were a few moments when his performance seemed a bit too . . . theatrical for my tastes. Nighy’s award-winning performance as Cal’s editor also seemed a little theatrical. However, he got away with it, because I feel he is a lot better with injecting a little theatricality into his acting.

Although Kelly MacDonald had made a name for herself before portraying Della Smith, she gave an excellent, yet emotional performance that resonated just right. Kelly MacDonald also managed to create a surprisingly balanced chemistry with Philip Glenister, who did an excellent job in portraying the intimidating Scotland Yard inspector. Unlike MacDonald, James McAvoy was not quite well-known when he portrayed freelance journalist, Dan Foster. But he certainly displayed the very qualities that would eventually make him a star in his sly and cheeky performance. Polly Walker did an excellent job in portraying the woman who nearly came between Cal and Stephen, the latter’s estranged wife, Anne Collins. However, Marc Warren gave one of the best performances in the miniseries as Dominic Foy, the sleazy and paranoid publicist with ties to Sonia Baker. Watching him veer between paranoia, cowardice and opportunism was really a joy to watch. “STATE OF PLAY” also benefited from fine supporting performances from the likes of Geraldine James, Benedict Wong, Deborah Findlay, Tom Burke, Johann Myers, James Laurenson and Amelia Bullmore.

I cannot deny that “STATE OF PLAY” is a first-rate miniseries filled with intrigue, thanks to Paul Abbott’s screenplay and energy, due to David Yates’ direction. It also benefited from superb acting, thanks to a cast led by John Simm and David Morrissey. But it also possessed flaws that perhaps made its acclaim just a bit overrated. I read somewhere that Abbott planned to write a sequel of some kind, featuring Simms. I hope so. Despite its flaws, “STATE OF PLAY” certainly deserved a follow-up of some kind.

 

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

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“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”

Like “MUNICH”“BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Ten “Home” Commentary

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I wrote this commentary on the tenth and final episode of “THE PACIFIC”

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE TEN “Home” Commentary

Well. After two months or so, I finally finished ”THE PACIFIC”.  Finally.  I could discuss the entire miniseries, but this is about Episode Ten. The full review will have to wait for another article.

Episode Ten focused upon our three main characters – Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone – returning home after the war in the Pacific Theater. Or perhaps I should say two characters, considering that Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima in Episode Eight. This allowed his story to be shown from the viewpoint of his widow, Sergeant Lena Riggi Basilone. It is through her eyes that viewers got to peek at the Basilone family for the third and final time. The episode also focused upon Sledge’s attempts to put the horrors of the war behind him, and Leckie’s reunions with his family and Vera Keller.

Lena Basilone’s visit to her in-laws in New Jersey turned out to be a strange and uncomfortable affair. Perhaps this sense of discomfort came from the family’s reaction to her presence. Mr. Basilone Senior commented politely on Lena’s good looks. Brother-in-law was just as polite, but slightly warmer. Mrs. Basilone, on the other hand, seemed to regard Lena with a wary eye. This wariness finally broke down when Lena handed over John’s medal to her. Considering that Lena’s ties with the Basilones eventually dissipated into the wind, one might as view this moment in the Basilone family history as very rare moment.

Following the Japanese surrender to the Allied forces in August 1945, Eugene Sledge and fellow combatants such as ‘Snafu’ Shelton and R.V. Burgin remained in Asia – specifically China – for several months, before finally returning home in 1946. The eastbound train journey included a humorous moment in which ‘Snafu’ tried to pick up a young woman and earned a slap for his troubles. The three Marines surmised that they would have been luckier with women if they had returned home back in 1945. In two poignant moments, Sledge and Shelton bid Burgin good-bye, after the train arrived at the Texan’s hometown. Upon the train’s arrival in New Orleans, Shelton decided to leave the train without saying good-bye to the sleeping Sledge. And the Alabama native eventually returned home and was warmly greeted by his old friend, Sid Phillips and his parents. But despite this warm and emotional homecoming, adjusting to civilian proved to be difficult for Sledge. Nightmares of the war plagued his sleep. He seemed more inclined to stay at home at hang around, instead of continuing his education or getting a job. It all came to a head during a hunting trip with his father, in which he burst into tears over his bad memories.

Robert Leckie learned of the Japanese surrender, while staying a Navy hospital. Considering that he had been wounded at Peleliu in late September 1944, I was surprised to learn that he was still being hospitalized some ten to eleven months later. He was eventually discharged from the hospital and the Marines and returned home to New Jersey by the fall of 1945. It did not take him long to regain his old job as a sportswriter for the local paper. Courting Vera Keller proved to be another matter. It seemed she had never received any of the letters he had written to her for nearly three years and a recent West Point graduate-turned Army officer was courting her. But with a great deal of chutzpah and charm, he finally managed to win her over. Leckie’s greatest challenge centered on his reunion with his family. When he had revealed his pre-war life to his former Australian girlfriend Stella in Episode Three, I had no idea that the relationship between him and the rest of his family was that chilly. Now I know.

I never expected Episode Ten to be any great shakes, in compare to the other episodes. I still recall how the last episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” seemed rather . . . mellow. Mind you, this last episode did not feature any accidental deaths. But it did provide a glimpse of how returning war veterans dealt with civilian life. Sledge’s difficulty in adjusting to civilian life did not strike me as surprising. I have been aware of his difficulties for quite a while. Although I must admit that I found his emotional breakdown during a hunting trip with his father rather poignant and sad. Joseph Mazzello did an excellent job of conveying Sledge’s unexpected emotional outburst. And actress Annie Paarisse also gave a first-rate performance portraying the now saddened Lena Basilone, who seemed slightly intimidated by her in-laws’ coolness. James Badge Dale seemed to be enjoying himself in the scenes featuring Leckie’s return to his sportswriters job and his courtship of Vera Keller. But if there is one scene that really took me by surprise was the chilly reception that the former Marine received from his family. I was very impressed by the subtle hostility that both Badge Dale and actress Betty Buckley (who portrayed Marion Leckie) conveyed between the two characters. I also have to say a word for Rami Malek, who did an excellent job in portraying ‘Snafu’ Shelton’s regret and determination not to bid Sledge good-bye upon the train’s arrival in New Orleans. It was a subtle cap to a very flamboyant performance.

I did have a few problems with Episode Ten. I wish it could have revealed how Lena Basilone became estranged from her in-laws. But I suppose that Bruce C. McKenna and Robert Schenkkan were unable to collect any material on the matter, considering that she had passed away in 1999 and the Basilone family might be reluctant to discuss their relationship with her. And I also could have enjoyed a post-war reunion between Leckie and his three friends – ‘Chuckler’, ‘Hoosier’, and ‘Runner’. Perhaps he did not reunite with them until after 1946. Pity. It would have a great emotional cap to a very charismatic friendship.

Despite the above-mentioned problems, Episode Ten was not a bad episode. I never expected it to be. And the only way it could have knocked my socks off was if it became part of a sequel in which Spielberg, Hanks and Goetzman explored the post-war lives of Leckie, Sledge and Lena Basilone. Their own version of ”THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. But it still proved to be a nice little epilogue to an outstanding miniseries.