“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals”in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel. 

Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.

“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”“GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.

There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.

So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.

First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.

There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.

In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.

Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.

 

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TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

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TIME MACHINE: JOHN BROWN’S RAID ON HARPER’S FERRY

Between October 16-20, 1859; abolitionist John Brown and a group of men raided the town of Harper’s Ferry in western Virginia. The event lasted over a period of three to four days and is now considered one of the catalysts of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865): 

After a period of recruiting followers and raising money, John Brown rented a farmhouse just four miles north of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He had planned to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting that many volunteers – white and black – would join him in a wild plan to free the slaves in the Southern states. Brown hope to gather ammunition from a local Army armory, make a rapid movement southward, sending out armed bands along the way. He planned to free more slaves, obtain food, horses and hostages, and destroy slave holding morale. Brown planned to follow the Appalachian mountains south into Tennessee and even Alabama, the heart of the South, making forays into the plains on either side

On the evening of October 16, 1859; he and his followers arrived in the small town of Harper’s Ferry. They captured several townspeople, including Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington. The band of abolitionists also cut the telegraph wire and seized a Baltimore & Ohio train passing through. An African-American baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd confronted the raiders and was subsequently shot and killed. Ironically, a freed slave became the first casualty of the raid. Then for unknown reasons, Brown let the train continue unimpeded. The train reached Washington the next day and the conductor alerted the authorities.

President James Buchannan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to march on Harpers Ferry, under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Army Cavalry on October 17. Lee was on leave from Texas and visiting his family in nearby Arlington. By the following day, on October 18, the Marines under Lee and the local militia managed to trap Brown and many of his followers inside the town’s engine house. Following a military attack, Brown’s surviving followers and the man himself were captured.

The Marines and the local militia spent the following day – October 19 – hunting down any remaining participants of the raid. Meanwhile, Lee a summary report of the events that took place at Harpers Ferry to Colonel Samuel Cooper, the U. S. Army Adjutant General. According to Lee’s notes Lee believed John Brown was insane, “…the plan [raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal] was the attempt of a fanatic or mad­man”. Lee also believed that the African-Americans used in the raid were forced to by John Brown himself. “The blacks, whom he [John Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance.” The future Civil War general, a slaveowner himself, failed to consider there were free blacks among Brown’s followers or that they would have no qualms about following Brown on their own free will. He seemed to regard them as nothing more than docile children.

The raid’s aftermath led to John Brown standing trial for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason and was hanged on December 2, 1859. His execution was witnessed by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Four other raiders were executed on December 15 and two more on March 16, 1860. Colonel Robert E. Lee and another officer who served under him during the raid, J.E.B. Stuart, became officers in the Confederate States Army during the following Civil War.

If you want to know more about John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry Raid, check out the following books:

“John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” (2006) by David S. Reynolds

“John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents” (2008) by Jonathan Earle

“STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2005) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH” (2005) Review

Released during the summer of 2005, “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH” marked the sixth and final time producer-director-writer George Lucas served as creator of a “STAR WARS” movie. By an ironic twist, the movie served as the third film in terms of the series timeline. 

Set three years after “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and the beginning of the Clone Wars, “REVENGE OF THE SITH” begin with Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker leading a mission to rescue Chancellor Palpatine from the clutches of Separatist leader and former Jedi Master Count Dooku aka Darth Tyrannus and his leading military commander, General Grievous. The rescue mission is besieged with difficulties. First, the two Jedi are forced to fight a difficult duel against Dooku and later, are briefly captured by General Grievous. But the pair prevail and return the kidnapped Palpatine to Coruscant via a crash landing skillfully executed by Anakin. The latter is reunited with his secret wife, Senator Padmé Amidala, who reveals she is pregnant. At first excited, Anakin begins to have premonitions of Padmé dying in childbirth.

Fearful of Padmé dying, Anakin seek advice from Jedi Master Yoda on how do deal with his anxieties. But Yoda’s advice leaves him unsatisfied. Even worse, Obi-Wan reveals that the Jedi Council are suspicious of Palpatine maintaining power of the Senate and asks Anakin to spy on the politician. Anakin is against the idea, due to his friendship with Palpatine and because he finds the mission dishonorable. His opinion of the Jedi Council sinks even further when Palpatine appoints Anakin as his representative on the Jedi Council . . . and the latter is denied the rank of Master. Between his anxieties over Padmé’s pregnancy and fate and loss of faith toward the Jedi Order, Anakin finds himself listening more and more to the insidious advice of Chancellor Palpatine.

Most fans of the “STAR WARS” view “REVENGE OF THE SITH” as the best film in the Prequel Trilogy. I could make assumptions on why the 2005 film is considered the best of the second trilogy, but it would be arrogant of me to do so. Unlike the Original Trilogy, it is the third and last film of this trilogy that proved to be the darkest. In fact, “REVENGE OF THE SITH” is probably the darkest film in the entire franchise . . . so far. And that is not surprising, considering that it marked the downfalls of Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic. Many fans have dumped the blame on Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine for being responsible for the downfall of a Jedi Knight, a religious order and a political body. I wish I could agree with them . . . but I cannot. I would say that Palpatine exploited their weaknesses, fears and bad choices in his bid for supreme power. But he would have never had the opportunity for that grasp for power without the mistakes of the Galactic Senate, the Republic and the Jedi Order. There are some who believed that he “used the Force” to cloud his real identity and actions from the Jedi Council. I find that ridiculous . . . even for a science-fiction/fantasy tale like “STAR WARS”.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that certain fans simply cannot accept the idea that the so-called “good guys” would make such erroneous mistakes that would help lead to their downfalls. Unless said “good guys” were Anakin Skywalker and Jedi Master Mace Windu. Due to the foreknowledge of Anakin’s fate as Sith apprentice Darth Vader, many were willing to accept him capable of making serious mistakes. And due to Mace Windu’s unpopularity with many fans – especially those who are incapable of accepting Samuel L. Jackson in the role of a major member of the Jedi Order – they were willing to accept him as flawed. Yet, many of these same fans seemed unwilling to accept the flawed nature of characters like Senator Padmé Amidala and especially Jedi Masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Padmé is regarded – to her great detriment – as some idealized female character. And both Obi-Wan and Yoda are highly regarded by the fans, due to their major roles in the older trilogy. In fact, I find this attitude so annoying that I am almost willing to break my earlier edit about making assumptions regarding the fans’ opinion of “REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Okay . . . I am willing to do so. I am willing to make an arrogant assumption. And here it is. I suspect that many STAR WARS fans are more acceptable of this third film, due to Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader. It is the event that many had been looking forward to since the Prequel Trilogy movies first hit the movie screens back in 1999.

For me, “REVENGE OF THE SITH” was not merely about Anakin’s love of Padmé and his fear of losing her finally led to his transformation into Sith Lord Darth Vader. For me, it was also watching the last chapter in which the major characters made their final decisions that helped Chancellor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious become leader of the Galactic Empire. Watching these major characters make mistake after mistake, along with crime and crime was fascinating to watch. Even some of the most minor decisions – like Padmé Amidala’s insistence that her marriage to Anakin remain a secret – struck me as a prime example of the mistakes the characters made, due to their attachments. Most fans tend to claim that the Jedi – especially Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi – harbored no attachments to anyone or anything. But I feel differently. I believe the movie made it clear that the Jedi – and all of them – were attached to the Order and were willing to do anything to maintain it, the Republic and the Order’s position within the Republic.

“REVENGE OF THE SITH” featured some very memorable scenes. I was especially impressed by the entire sequence featuring Obi-Wan and Anakin’s rescue of Palpatine from Count Dooku and General Grievous; which featured a hilarious moment with R2-D2 and was capped by a fantastic crash landing on Coruscant. Obi-Wan’s experiences on Utapau struck me as interesting . . . especially his duel with Grievous. Anakin and the clonetroopers’ attack on the Jedi Temple sent chills down my spine. So did that final confrontation between Palpatine, Mace Windu and Anakin inside the chancellor’s office. The twin duels of Anakin vs. Obi-Wan, and Yoda vs. Palpatine practically took my breath away. I was really impressed by Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen’s work in their fight scene. I have seen clips of the two actors practicing their duel . . . and yes, they are that good. However, I cannot help but wonder which scenes that the majority of the fans prefer – the two lightsaber duels or the bone-chilling Order 66 sequence that featured the destruction of many Jedi padawans, Knights and Masters. By the way, Lucas shot that sequence as a montage and I must say that his direction, along with Ben Burtt and Roger Barton’s editing, and John Williams’ score made this the most haunting sequence in the entire Saga.

The movie also featured some intimate scenes – both dramatic and comedic – that struck me as a positive addition to its story. Both Ian McDiarmid and Hayden Christensen gave outstanding performances in many of the scenes between Palpatine and Anakin . . . especially the opera scene in which the former revealed the circumstances behind the death of the former’s master, Darth Plagueis. Both Christensen and Natalie Portman did excellent jobs in conveying the love between their characters and the lack of communication that seemed to plague the Skywalker/Amidala marriage – including one scene in which Padmé expressed her sympathy toward the Separatists. Both McDiarmid and Samuel L. Jackson were excellent in the final confrontation scene between Palpatine and Master Windu. Christensen and McGregor were outstanding in two particular scenes between Anakin and Obi-Wan. I not only enjoyed their performances in one scene in which the pair argued over Obi-Wan’s request that Anakin spy on Palpatine, but also when the Jedi Master and his former padawan exchanged their last friendly conversation before Obi-Wan’s departure for Utapau. And I must admit that I found it nice to see not only the Wookie homeworld Kashyyyk, but also Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca.

As usual for any STAR WARS movie, “REVENGE OF THE SITH” featured some outstanding visual effects. If I could pinpoint the main person responsible for the movie’s visual and special effects, I would kowtow at that person’s feet. First of all, I was impressed not only by the effects used in the Battle of Coruscant opening and the crash landing that marked the sequence’s ending; but also the two duels that dominated the movie’s last half hour. The art direction team led by Peter Russell, along with cinematographer David Tattersall and the special effects team provided eye-catching scenes like those featured below that literally made me drool:

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Speaking of art that made me drool, I have to bring up Trisha Biggar’s costume designs. Naturally, I will not repeat myself about how much I admire her work. And I will not bring up the fact that I consider it a crime that she never received any Oscar nominations for her work. However, below are two examples of her work featured in “REVENGE OF THE SITH”:

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Was there anything about “REVENGE OF THE SITH” that I found troubling or questionable? Well . . . yes. As much as I admired the performances in the movie, there were the usual cheesy dialogue found in a STAR WARS movie. This was especially apparent in a few performances that struck me as particularly hammy. Christensen got pretty hammy in one scene in which Anakin angrily confronted Obi-Wan before their duel on Mustafar. And McGregor got a little hammy during that scene in which Obi-Wan ranted at a limbless and burning Anakin, after the duel. Even McDiarmid and Jackson engaged in a good deal of ham during the big Palpatine/Windu scene. I was a little disappointed that Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku only appeared in the movie’s first half hour. His replacement – General Grievous one-dimensional and not very interesting as a personality. I was also disappointed that Jar-Jar Binks, along with Owen and Beru Lars were all reduced to cameo appearances with no dialogue in the movie’s last montage. However, my biggest complaint featured Anakin’s early appearance on Mustafar. After killing Nute Gunray and the other Separatist leadership on Mustafar, Anakin remained on the planet; while Palpatine declared himself Emperor, Obi-Wan informed Padmé about Anakin’s new role as a Sith Lord, and both of them headed for Mustafar. Why on earth did Anakin remain on the planet for so long, after killing the Separatists? That did not make sense to me.

Despite these complaints, I cannot deny that “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH” was a more than worthy entry in the STAR WARS. I found it outstanding, despite its flaws. The movie featured a well written, yet dark tale about the downfall of its many characters; outstanding visuals; along with excellent action and dramatic scenes. But most importantly, I also found it ironic that the movie’s dark and operatic tone ended up being more or less copied by many other film franchises in the years to come.

 

“JERICHO” RETROSPECT: (1.02) “Fallout”

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“JERICHO” RETROSPECT: (1.02) “Fallout”

It just occurred to me that this second episode of the CBS television series, “JERICHO” was aptly named. In a way (1.02) “Fallout” perfectly described the situation from the series’ first episode, (1.01) “Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours”

The previous episode ended with the western Kansas community shaken by the sight of an atomic mushroom and news that two U.S. cities had been devastated by nuclear explosions . . . and their sheriff and one of the deputies murdered by two escaped convicts on their way to prison. “Fallout” picks up the following morning with Jericho schoolteacher Emily Sullivan trying to hitchhike her way back to Jericho, when her stalled SUV prevents her from reaching the airport to pick up her fiance. She finally receives a ride from a police cruiser being driven by two deputy sheriffs. With the car low on gas, Emily suggests they seek gasoline at the farm of Stanley and Bonnie Richmond. By the time they reach their destination, she realizes that her two saviors are not lawmen, but possibly dangerous criminals.

Back in Jericho, the town’s new resident, Robert Hawkins, hints of the possibility of radioactive fallout from the Denver bombing, in the incoming rainstorm threatening Jericho. He suggests that the citizens might have to either seek shelter in their homes or the town’s two fallout shelters. While the Greens, Hawkins and businessman Gray Anderson struggle to help the citizens seek shelter; Emily tries to alert the deaf Bonnie that the new visitors are criminals. She also manages to sneak outside the Richmond house in order to send a message to Jericho, via the cruiser’s radio.

After watching this episode, it occurred to me that the first three episodes of “JERICHO” might have been a three-part story depicting Jericho’s initial reactions to the Denver bombing and its aftermath. I came to this conclusion after noticing that “Fallout” ended the story arc about the escaped prisoners, but failed to do the same for the “radioactive rain” story arc. The episode ended with the prisoners dead, but the citizens of Jericho inside shelters, basements and in the case for many, a salt mine. Not only did the rain continue to fall, but one of the community’s citizens, Stanley Richardson, was no where to be found. Also, a new story arc regarding Mayor Johnston Green’s illness began in this episode. And this story arc will have far reaching impact on the series that will last into Season Two. I now have the deepest suspicion that the series’ creators must have planned their story with greater detail than I had originally imagined.

Another aspect of “Fallout” that I found particularly curious was that it seemed like a mixture of a television crime drama and a disaster movie. In fact, I was hard put to see the connection between the escaped convicts story arc and the plot regarding the nuclear fallout rain. The episode ended before the two story arcs could really mesh together. Not even Jake Green’s rush from the salt mine shelter to the Richmond farm, following Emily’s radio message, could really bridge the two stories. I think the reason is that none of the characters involved in the plot regarding the escaped convicts – especially Emily Sullivan and Bonnie Richmond – had no real knowledge of the approaching rain storm possibly containing a nuclear fallout. In fact, the two women will learn of the fallout in the next episode, thanks to Jake. Perhaps this is why it is best to view “Fallout” as a second chapter in the story arc about the initial response to the bombings, instead of a stand alone episode. However, despite my acceptance that “Fallout” might not be a stand alone episode, I do have one major complaint about it. In one scene, Emily found two Jericho deputy sheriffs – Jimmy Taylor and Bill Kohler – gagged, bound and in their underwear inside the police cruiser’s trunk. If these same two convicts were willing to murder the sheriff and one of the deputies, why did they refrain from killing Jimmy and Bill? I never understood this, especially after they forced the two deputies to hand over their uniforms.

Although I could not seriously consider “Fallout” as a stand alone episode, I must admit that I still found it fascinating to watch. I have to credit Stephen Chbosky for writing a very taut episode. Between the danger surrounding the two escaped convicts and Jericho’s citizens to seek shelter from a potentially dangerous rain storm, the episode was filled with tension, action and drama. I would not consider it particularly memorable or original if it had not been for that last scene. This episode marked the first episode that featured Robert Hawkins’ new home and family – wife Darcy and young son Samuel. His daughter Allison appeared in the following episode. More importantly, the episode also featured the first hint that he knew the real truth behind the bombings. One scene featured him inside the sheriff’s station, using a ham radio to receive information unknown to the audience. By the end of the episode, the audience learned what Robert knew – namely some of other U.S. locations that suffered a nuclear blast.

I certainly have no complaints about the performances in “Fallout”. Skeet Ulrich continued his exuberant performance as lead character Jake Green. And Lennie James proved to be just as unfathomable as the mysterious Robert Hawkins. The episode also featured excellent work from Bob Stephenson, Richard Speight Jr., Gerald McRaney, Beth Grant, Pamela Reed, Michael Gaston, Sprague Grayden, Shoshannah Stern, Clare Carey and the two actors that portrayed the convicts – Jonno Roberts and Aaron Hendry. The episode also featured the first appearances of April D. Parker as Darcy Hawkins and Darby Stanchfield as April Green, Jake’s sister-in-law. Like the others, they gave solid performances. But there were four performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from Erik Knudsen and Candace Bailey as teenage outcast Dale Turner and rich girl Skylar Stevens. The two actors did an excellent job in setting up the emotional and complex relationship between the superficially mismatched pair. Kenneth Mitchell, who portrayed Jake’s younger brother Eric Green, shined in one particular scene in which the mayor’s younger son resorted to scare tactics to convince a group of stubborn beer guzzlers at the local tavern to seek shelter from the radioactive rain. But the woman of the hour proved to be Ashley Scott, who did a marvelous job in conveying the ordeal that Emily Sullivan endured in this episode. I was impressed at how she managed to dominate the episode without resorting to any theatrical acting.

If I must be honest, I found this episode’s handling of the two deputy sheriffs’ fates rather illogical. And it is obvious that “Fallout” cannot really hold up as a stand alone episode. But thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s transcript, Jon Turteltaub’ taut direction and a standout performance by Ashley Scott, “Fallout” proved to be an interesting episode filled with tension, solid action and good drama.

 

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

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“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” (2013) Review

During the late winter/early spring of 2013, the American public found itself bombarded with constant media coverage of militaristic chest thumping from North Korea. By some strange coincidence, Hollywood released two movies featuring the North Koreans as the main villains between September 2012 and March 2013. One of those movies turned out to be the recent action thriller called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” told the story of a disgraced U.S. Secret Service agent forced to rescue the President of the United from North Korean terrorists that have infiltrated and taken over the White House. I might as well start from the beginning. The movie begins with former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is serving as lead agent for the Presidential Detail that guards President Benjamin Asher and the latter’s wife and son. During a drive from Camp David, the car conveying President Asher and First Lady Margaret Asher crashes against a bridge railing. Banning manages to save the President, but the vehicle falls into the river before he and the rest of the detail can save the First Lady and two other agents. Because the sight of Banning triggers President Asher’s memories of his wife’s death, Banning is taken off the Presidential Detail.

Eighteen months later, President Asher finds himself facing a state visit from South Korea’s Prime Minister Lee Tae-Woo. Korean-led guerilla forces launch a combined air and ground attack upon Washington D.C. and more specifically, the White House. The attack, led by an ex-North Korean terrorist named Kang Yeonsak, results in the murder of Prime Minister Lee and the capture of President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan. Kang wants the U.S. forces in South Korea to withdraw from the Korean Pennisula and the access codes to the Cerberus system: a fail-safe device that self-detonates any U.S. nuclear missiles during an abort. Meanwhile, Banning was on his way to the White House to ask the President to allow him back on the detail, when he gets caught up in the attack. Banning participates in the defense of the White House led by fellow Agent Roma, but nearly all of the defenders are killed. However Banning manages to get inside the White House and establish contact with Head of the Secret Service Lynne Jacobs, Speaker of the House Allan Trumball, and Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg. Then proceeds to find a way to save the President and other hostages.

The plot for “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” sounds very exciting. It also sounds very familiar. Some critic or blogger once compared it to some other movie I have never seen. But “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” reminded me of the 1997 Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman movie, “AIR FORCE ONE”. Let me be frank. I despised “AIR FORCE ONE” when I first saw it in the theaters. I still despise it. There is nothing more ludicrous than the President of the United States as an action hero.“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” has its own share of flaws. But I am so relieved that screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt did not transform President Asher into an action hero. But the two movies do share a good number of similarities:

*Both movies feature the U.S. President and personnel being held hostage.
*The hostage situation in both movies are in the presidential settings of either the White House or Air Force One.
*The Vice-President becomes head of state in the 1997 movie. The Speaker of the House becomes head of state in the 2013 film.
*Kazakhstan terrorists disguised as foreign press infiltrate Air Force One. North Korean terrorists disguised as South Korean diplomats infiltrate the White House.
*A Secret Service agent is a mole for the Kazakh terrorists in the 1997 film. A former Secret Service agent is a mole for the North Korean terrorists.

But despite these similarities, I still liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. Somewhat. For me, the movie’s major virtue proved to be its more plausible hero. Instead of using the President of the United States as the main hero, the leading man for“OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” turned out to be a former Army Ranger-turned-Secret Service agent. And the movie’s action struck me as very exciting and well directed by Antoine Fuqua. I was especially impressed by the long sequence that featured the North Korean terrorists’ attack upon and takeover of the White House. The movie also benefitted from the emotional connection between Banning and President Asher, thanks to Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart’s performances. The pair’s connection reminded me of the Jack Bauer/President David Palmer relationship from FOX-TV’s “24”. What made the Banning/Asher’s relationship more interesting is that it was nearly severed by the First Lady’s death in the film’s first twenty minutes. Rothenberger and Benedikt’s screenplay proved to be somewhat decent. But I do feel it may have been somewhat undermined by certain sequences and plotlines.

While watching the first half of “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, I assumed that the North Koreans’ takeover of the White House would prove to be a plot for something bigger – to generate a war between the U.S. and North Korea, resulting in the fall of Communism on the Korean Pennisula. The reason I had made such assumptions was due to my misguided belief that the Hollywood studios had learned to overcome such one-dimensional demonization of another country – especially one that did not harbor Western or non-Communist beliefs. I really should have known better, considering the release of the 2012 remake, “RED DAWN” and the media’s continuing penchant for villifying all Muslims – regardless of whether or not they are terrorists. As much as I had enjoyed the action and relationships in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, a part of me felt disappointed by the realization that Kang and his followers were behind the attack and the hostage situation all along. I also felt somewhat perplexed.

Think of it. Two (or three) of Kang’s people managed to steal a U.S. military plane for an aerial attack on the White House. The theft of the plane was never discovered or reported by the U.S. military. Nor was the plane detected, until it was flying over the capital’s airspace. And the U.S. sent only one fighter jet to force it down. And all of this happened in a story set in the post-9/11 world. Are you kidding me? It gets worse. During the movie’s last half hour, Kang’s surviving men post a stolen advanced anti-aircraft called Hydra 6 on the White House roof to kill approaching teams of U.S. Navy SEALs being conveyed to the presidential home by helicopters. Once again, the terrorists managed to steal advanced U.S. military weaponry in the country’s post-9/11 era. No wonder I had originally assumed that some kind of high-level American conspiracy was involved with the terrorists.

Some of the performances in “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” struck me as first-rate. Gerard Butler made an excellent and likable action hero in his portrayal of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning. And if I must be honest, I have not really enjoyed a performance of his in four years. Considering that Aaron Eckhart is ten years younger than Harrison Ford was when the latter portrayed a U.S. president in “AIR FORCE ONE”, I am surprised that the screenwriters and Fuqua did not allow him to indulge in some kind of heroic action. But I must admit that he conveyed his usual intensity and top-notch acting skills in portraying a head-of-state in a dangerous and vulnerable state. Angela Bassett proved to be equally intense and entertaining as Banning’s immediate supervisor and head of Secret Service Lynne Jacobs. Actually, I enjoyed her performance in this film a lot more than I did her take on a C.I.A. station chief in “THIS MEANS WAR”. Rick Yune gave a subtle, yet menacing performance as leader of the North Korean terrorists, Kang Yeonsak. It is a pity that he has been limited to portraying villains most of his career. With his looks and presence, he should be garnering “good guys” roles by now. Ashley Judd had a brief role as First Lady Margaret Asher and did a very nice job with it. Cole Hauser, whom I last saw in “A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD”, portrayed Banning’s Secret Service colleague, Agent Roma. Fortunately, he managed to last a bit longer on screen than he did in the former movie. And even more fortunate, his Agent Roma died at the hands of the terrorists with style and balls. I can only hope that his next screen appearance will last even longer.

And there were the performances that did not exactly impress me. Some of them came from actors and actresses for whom I usually have a high regard. I love Morgan Freeman, but his performance as Speaker of the House Allan Trumball struck me as somewhat . . . tired. He spent a good deal of the movie either looking tired or reacting to someone else’s dialogue with a stare of disbelief. I am also a fan of Melissa Leo, but her portrayal of Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan seemed a little hammy or frantic at times. I realize that her character was trying to be tough in the face of the terrorists, but . . . well . . . she struck me as a bit hammy. Speaking of hammy, Robert Forster’s performance as Chief of Staff General Edward Clegg was in danger of going far beyond over-the-top. Perhaps his performance seemed unusually aggressive in comparison to Freeman’s tiredness. Then again . . . who knows? Radha Mitchell gave a nice performance as Banning’s wife, Leah. But if I must be honest, she came off as a second-rate Cathy Ryan from the Tom Clancy movies – especially since her character was a nurse. Worst of all, she did not have enough screen time, as far as I am concerned. And finally, there was Dylan McDermott, who portrayed ex-Secret Service Agent Dave Forbes, who became a private bodyguard and mole within the South Korean detail. Hmmm . . . how can I say this? McDermott did not exactly put much effort in hiding his villainy from the audience in the movie’s first half. One glance at his shifty expressions led me to correctly guess that he would be working for the terrorists. And McDermott is usually more subtle than this.

I realize that in the end, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” came off as a somewhat strident message against North Korea, leading me to compare it to one of those old anti-Communist films from the 1950s or even the 1980s. So . . . why do I still like it? One, screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt wrote a decent story, despite some flaws. Two, Antoine Fuqua handled the movie’s action, pacing and a good number of performances with great skill. Three, there were some pretty good performances in the movie – especially from Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett and Rick Yune. But most importantly, “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN” did not follow the ludicrous example of “AIR FORCE ONE” by allowing its Presidential character engage in heroic actions. For that I am truly grateful to the screenwriters and Fuqua.

 

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over seventeen years ago, the BBC aired “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague.  However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.

 

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