“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise.

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!”Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

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But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for“THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after sixteen years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

 

 

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Mary S. Peake (1823-1862)

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MARY S. PEAKE (1823-1862)

Mary S. Peake was an American educator and humanitarian who, along with her husband, was a member of the African-American elite of Hampton, Virginia before the Civil War.

Mrs. Peake was known for starting a school for the children of former slaves between the fall of 1861 and February 1862, first in Union-held Hampton, Virginia; and later inside Fort Monroeafter Hampton was torched by Confederate forces in August 1861.  Mrs. Peake became the first teacher hired by the American Missionary Association.  And she was associated with the Association’s later founding of Hampton University in 1868.

Sometime before the outbreak of war, Mrs. Peake had contacted tuberculosis and eventually died on February 22, 1862.

 

“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” (2013) Review

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“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” (2013) Review

When “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” first hit the movie screens in 2001, I never imagined that it would be such a major hit . . . or spawn five sequels. The franchise seemed in danger of ending with a whimper with 2006’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT”, due to its lack of critical success. Three years later saw the rejuvenation of the franchise with the success of 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS”. This movie spawned a mini trilogy of its own, culminating in the latest film, “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”

The franchise’s fifth installment, “FAST FIVE” ended with Dominic Toretto and his accomplices reaping the rewards of a successful heist from a Rio drug lord. In the film’s Easter egg segment, U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs learns from U.S. Customs agent Monica Fuentes (from 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”) that Dom’s former girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, is alive and well, and working with one Owen Shaw, a British criminal (and former Special Forces soldier) who had recently pulled a heist on a Russian military convoy. Hobbs and his new partner, Riley Hicks, recruit Dom, Brian O’Conner and other members of the gang who helped pull off the Rio heist; to help them take down Shaw. Hobbes convinces Dom to help him, revealing Letty’s existence and offering full amnesty for past crimes. With the exception of Mia Torretto and former Rio police officer Elena Neves (who remain behind to care for Mia and Brian’s new baby), along with Leo Tego and Rico Santos (who remain on the French Riviera gambling); Dom, Brian and the rest of the gang arrive in London to help Hobbes and Hicks to track down Shaw. Upon their arrival, they discover that Letty has amnesia and that capturing Shaw might prove to be more difficult than they had originally imagined.

After watching “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, I came to the conclusion that it was my second favorite movie in the franchise after “FAST FIVE”. However, I am not so sure anymore. There are certain aspects of this latest film that makes me reluctant to view as the franchise’s second best. One, the movie’s premise is not that original – even for a FAST AND FURIOUS movie. In fact, the story premise for “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” bears a strong resemblance to the premise for the 2003 movie, “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”. In that movie, Brian O’Conner and Roman Pearce helped the Feds bring down a Miami-based drug lord in exchange for pardons and clean records. Brian, Roman, Dom and others help Fed Luke Hobbes take down international criminal Owen Shaw for . . . what else? Pardons and clean records. I also had a problem with the Roman Pearce character. I had no problem with Tyrese Gibson’s portrayal of the character. But I found it odd that Roman would immediately drop his airborne love fest with a group of models due to a summons from Dom Toretto, of all people.“FAST FIVE” did not exactly end with Roman and Dom as the best of friends. If the movie had established that Roman had received the summons from Brian, who was his childhood friend, I could accept his immediate decision to join the team. One last problem I had with “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” proved to be a flashback from 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS” regarding the origin of Letty Ortiz’s amnesia. The 2009 movie hinted that Letty had been killed by Arturo Braga’s henchman, Fenix Calderon. But a flashback in “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” revealed that Calderon missed Letty completely and shot the car to which she was standing near. The car exploded, injuring Letty. Why Calderon failed to confirm her death after the explosion remains a mystery to me. The entire scene struck me as clumsily handled. I also noticed that Dom’s ridiculous “Daddy issues” and desire to be “Papa Toretto” to anyone close to him still remains. When he made a comment at the end of the movie about Brian and Mia’s son, Jack O’Conner, being solely a Toretto, I merely laughed. When he repeated the “joke” again, I began to wonder if he was making a demented attempt to claim the toddler as his own offspring. Right now, I feel that Brian and Mia should leave the Toretto home and purchase their own house to raise their kid.

But despite these problems, “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” turned out to be a pretty damn good movie. The franchise’s street-racing theme played a major part in the efforts of Dom’s team to stop Shaw’s team from carrying out their crimes. This theme was definitely apparent in four scenes. One of them was a car chase through the streets of nighttime London that ended with the team’s failure to capture Shaw, as he was fleeing his hideout. Another scene featured Dom and an amnesiac Letty in a street race that ended in a sexy moment in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. There was also the film’s final action sequence at a NATO air strip in which Dom and his team finally prevented Shaw from escaping by plane. I found that particular sequence a little hard to bear, considering that at times, it seemed to go on forever and it was shot at night. The only daytime sequence that featured vehicles on a highway not far from that NATO base in Spain. What made this sequence memorable for was the spectacular car chase that featured an outstanding stunt performed by Tyrese Gibson . . . or his double. There is a spectacular fight scene between Letty and Hobbes’ partner, Riley Hicks, in the London Underground. I heard that Michelle Rodriguez felt a bit wary in doing a fight scene with Gina Carano . . . and I do not blame her, considering the latter is a mixed martial arts champ. There was also a pretty decent Dom and Hobbes vs. Shaw and his men aboard the cargo plane in Spain.

Action sequences were not the only staple that made “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” entertaining for me. The movie also featured some pretty damn good dramatic moments and rather funny scenes. I have already pointed out that sexy moment between Dom and Letty in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. I also enjoyed the sequence in which Brian allowed himself to be “arrested” (courtesy of Luke Hobbes’ Federal connections) by the FBI, in order to question former adversary Arturo Braga about Letty’s connections to Shaw. Not only did it featured a humorous reunion between Brian and his former FBI colleague, Special Agent Stasiak; but also a very dramatic one between Brian and Braga. “FAST FIVE” featured the beginning of a romance between Han and Gisele. But their relationship took on a more poignant note in this movie, which I found very satisfying. I especially enjoyed how Roman quickly figured out Han’s true feelings for Gisele. Speaking of Roman and Han, the movie featured a very funny moment in which both of them secretly agreed not to inform the others of their defeat against one of Shaw’s men in the London Underground. In fact, Roman proved to have the best lines in the movie. My ultimate favorite? Read the following scene between him and Tej Parker:

[Roman asks Tej for change to use the vending machine]
TEJ: You’re a millionaire and still asking for money?
ROMAN: That’s how you stay a millionaire.

“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” featured some pretty decent performances. But there were those that stood out for me. I especially enjoyed Tyrese Gibson, who not only proved to be even funnier as Roman Pearce, but shared a nice dramatic moment with Sung Kang, while the two discussed Han’s feelings for Gisele. Michelle Rodriguez gave one of her better performances as an intense and amnesiac Letty Ortiz, who is torn between her confusion over her identity and her growing wariness toward Shaw. Dwayne Johnson continued his energetic portrayal of DSS Agent Luke Hobbes with great style. Luke Evans made a particularly formidable foe as former Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw, who proves to be a very difficult to take down. Then again, the franchise has always featured some first-rate villains. Not only did Vin Diesel provided an unexpectedly sexy performance in one particular scene with Rodriguez, he and Elsa Pataky provided a nice poignant moment between Dom and former Brazil cop Elena Neves, who end their relationship due to Letty’s re-emergence in Dom’s life. However, Paul Walker really surprised me in this film. He has always struck me as mediocre or solid actor in the past. But his acting skills seemed to have grown considerably between “FAST FIVE” and “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”. This was apparent in his scenes with John Ortiz, which featured a hostile reunion between Brian and Braga in a California prison.

I feel that “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” had its share of flaws. But thanks to Justin Lin’s direction, a charasmatic cast and a solid script written by Chris Morgan, I feel that it not only proved to be one of the better films for the summer of 2013, but also one of the better films in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise.

 

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

TIME MACHINE: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

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TIME MACHINE: THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE

For once I decided to write about a historical event that is not celebrating any particular anniversary.  Two months from now, September 2018, would mark as the 160th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.  Why I did not wait until September to post this article?  I have no idea.  Impatience, perhaps? 

Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Antebellum or Civil War history would know about this even.  The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a key event in the history of the American abolitionist movement before the Civil War. It centered around the arrest of an escaped slave named John Price in Oberlin, Ohio by Kentucky slave catchers and a U.S. marshal, two-and-a-half years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This story began over two years before the incident. Back in January 1856, Price and two other slaves escaped from a farm near Maysville, Kentucky. The three slaves made their way across the Ohio River, and with the help of Underground Railroad agents, they made it as far north as Oberlin, Ohio. The latter proved to be a racially integrated, liberal-minded community that served as the location of Oberlin College, a liberal arts college known for accepting both non-white and female students. Despite the presence of some conservative citizens, Oberlin was known for its strong support of the abolitionist movement. While his two companions continued north to Canada, Price decided to remain in the Ohio town, due to his poor health.

The fugitive slave spent the next two-and-a-half years struggling to make a living in Oberlin. But due to his limited skills as a farmhand, he found it difficult to make ends meet. On September 13, 1858, Price was hired by affluent farmer Lewis Boynton to work on the latter’s farm, just north of Oberlin. Boynton’s adolescent son, Shakespeare, picked up Price drove him out of town, with the intent to deliver the latter to his father’s farm by noon. Unbeknownst to Price, young Shakespeare had made a deal to deliver the fugitive to a pair of Kentucky slave catchers and a deputy U.S. marshal – Samuel Davis, Richard Mitchell and Jacob Lowe. The buggy conveying the three white men and the black fugitive swung south and headed for nearby Wellington, Ohio; where they would be able to catch a train further south to Columbus. Unfortunately for the two Kentuckians and Deputy Marshal Lowe, two Oberlin College students named Ansel Lyman and Seth Bartholomew passed them on the road. Once the two students reached Oberlin, they alerted the town’s citizens to Price’s kidnapping. Meanwhile, the slave catchers, Lowe and Price checked into a room at the Wadsworth Hotel to await for the southbound train.

Many Oberlin citizens formed a group and rushed toward Wellington to rescue Price. Among those part of the rescuers were Charles Henry Langston, Simeon E. Bushnell, and Oberlin student William E. Lincoln. Once they reached the other town around two o’clock in the afternoon, they were joined by some of Wellington’s citizens, who also harbored anti-slavery sentiments. The group formed into a mob and tried to coerce the slave catchers and the deputy marshal to release Price through intimidation and threats of violence. Davis, Mitchell and Lowe took Price to the hotel’s attic for safety. Langston and three others tried to free Price, via legal actions – the arrest of the slave catchers for kidnapping and a habeus corpus. Those efforts failed as well. Eventually, Lincoln, along with John Copeland, Jr. and Jerry Fox rushed the attic using force and firearms, grabbed Price and spirited him back to Oberlin, where they hid him inside the home of James Harris Fairchild, a future president of Oberlin College. Soon, Price’s rescuers escorted him to Canada.

A Federal grand jury indicted 37 members of the rescue party, including Langston, Lincoln, Bushnell and Copeland for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Bushnell and Langston were the only ones tried in court. Both were found guilty and convicted by a jury that consisted solely of pro-slavery Democrats. Bushnell was sentenced to sixty (60) days in prison and Langston, twenty (20) days. Their fellow prisoners continued to languish in the Cuyahoga County Jail. The two Kentucky slave catchers – Richard Mitchell and Samuel Davis – were arrested for Price’s kidnapping. In return for the charges against them being dropped, the Federal government chose to drop the charges against the rest of the rescuers. The entire event had attracted more notice than the James Buchanan Administration wanted. Even worse, the Federal attorneys realized that a trial for all of the Rescuers would cost the government at least $5 million dollars. After serving eighty-five (85) days in jail, the Rescuers (with the exception of Bushnell, who continued to serve out his 60-day sentence) were released on July 7, 1859. Bushnell was finally released on July 11, 1859.

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is considered by historians as an important contribution to the outbreak of the Civil War . . . along with John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and the Presidential Election of 1860. Two participants in the Oberlin–Wellington Rescue, Lewis Sheridan Leary and John A. Copeland participated in the Harper Ferry’s Raid. Leary was killed and Copeland was captured and later, executed. The Rescue attracted a great deal of attention in the National press. And after a decade that featured the passing of the Fugitive Slaw Law of 1850, the passing of Senator Stephen A. Douglas‘s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case; the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue proved to be the first breath of fresh air for the abolitionist cause.

For more information on the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, read the following book:

*“The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt

*“1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” [one chapter] by Bruce Chadwick

“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

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“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

I might as well be frank. After my recent viewing of “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, I have come to the conclusion that it just might truly be the worst Bond movie ever released by EON Productions. I certainly view it as an unworthy follow-up to the superb “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Yet, despite my low opinion of the movie, I also found it to be very funny. 

The movie’s pre-credits started the movie out with a montage featuring Bond’s search for Ernst Stravos Blofeld, head of SPECTRE and the man responsible for the brutal murder of the agent’s wife of a few hours, Teresa Bond. And yet . . . the movie had never clearly stated that Bond wanted revenge for his wife’s death. Rather curious. I suppose that Broccoli and Saltzman wanted the audience to forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” . . . and at the same time, remember that Bond had a reason to seek revenge against Blofeld. The movie eventually unfolded a tale featuring a diamond smuggling operation from South Africa to Amsterdam and finally to Las Vegas. Apparently, the operation seemed to becoming to an end, since two assassins – the very funny Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith – seemed to be killing every courier/link that formed the smuggling ring. Her Majesty’s government, worried that the stability of the diamond market might be threatened if all the hoarded diamonds are released at the same time, ordered MI-6 to investigate. M assigned Bond to investigate the matter. At first, the British agent (along with diamond smuggler Tiffany Case, Felix Leiter and the CIA) discovered that a reclusive American millionaire named Willard Whyte might be behind the smuggling operation and the murders. But this proves to be a red herring and Bond finally realized that Blofeld (whom he thought he had killed in the pre-credit sequence) had taken control of Whyte’s business operation to use the diamonds to create a satellite with a powerful laser on board in order to blackmail the world. And of course, Bond destroyed Blofeld’s operation before the villain could blow up Washington D.C.

What is it about “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” that made it such a terrible Bond movie? One of the main culprits had to be Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay. Their first mistake came in the form of Bond’s search for Ernst Stravo Blofeld in the movie’s pre-credit sequence. It all seemed so vague . . . almost pointless. In fact, it seemed as if the screenwriters and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had been torn between a desire to make fans forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”’s tragic ending and a fear that those same fans might not forget. Which would explain why the movie’s opening found Bond traveling from one location to another in search of Blofeld. He even managed to nearly strangle one contact with her bikini top, titillating certain fans of the franchise. Yet, not once did Bond ever mention his late bride or her murder – obviously the main reason behind his search for SPECTRE’s leader. I could not help but conclude that the entire sequence was nothing but a cop-out.

And the story had failed to improve following the opening credits. I never could understand why Her Majesty’s government had deemed it necessary for MI-6 to investigate a diamond smuggling operation. Why not seek the assistance of an agency like Interpol or something? And why would the CIA be interested in such a case? Both MI-6 and CIA’s interest all came about before the revelation of Blofeld using the diamonds to create a weapon to extort the major superpowers. And I never could understand this.

Bond’s investigation took him to Amsterdam, impersonating one of the links in the smuggling operation – Peter Franks. From this point forward, a serious of implausible moments appeared in the story. After a fight with the real Peter Franks, who had appeared at Tiffany Case’s Amsterdam apartment, Bond planted his own wallet in the dead smuggler’s jacket. Tiffany discovered the wallet and expressed dismay at the idea of someone killing ‘James Bond’. Could someone please explain how a diamond smuggler would know about a MI-6 government agent, yet have no knowledge of Blofeld or the fact that he had been her actual boss? And there are more implausible moments to follow:

-After Mr. Slumber prevented Bond from being incinerated, Bond accused him and Shady Tree of giving him bad money (they saved him, because he had switched the real diamonds for fakes). Yet, he pocketed the ’bad money’and used it at one of the Vegas hotel/casinos.

-Bond and Tiffany found dead prostitute Plenty O’Toole in the latter’s Vegas swimming pool. Apparently, there had been a scene in which Plenty (who had been dumped out of Bond’s hotel room and into a swimming pool by gangsters working for Tiffany) had returned to Bond’s room and found Tiffany’s purse. If this is true, I can see why this scene had been cut, because it lacked sense. But why had EON Productions failed to cut the scene featuring the discovery of Plenty’s body, as well?

-The stunt featuring Bond’s two-wheeler driving of Tiffany’s Red Mustang through a narrow alley seemed . . . questionable.

-Why on earth did Bond bother to wear a tuxedo in order to break into Willard Whyte’s penthouse?

-Since Blofeld had left instructions to Bond (impersonating as SPECTRE minion, Burt Saxby’s voice) over the telephone to kill Willard Whyte, how did Saxby learn of the assignment in order to appear at Whyte’s house to do the job?

-Why would Tiffany be suspicious of a Blofeld in drag and tail him, when she never knew how he looked in the first place? And I doubt that she knew about the cat.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s script had ended in a rather disappointing showdown on a SPECTRE-controlled oil rig off Baja California. Come to think of it, Blofeld’s “death” and Bond’s showdown with Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd seemed equally lame.

The movie had also marked Sean Connery’s last appearance as the agent in an EON Productions’ Bond film. He returned following George Lazenby’s decision not to continue with the Bond role. Granted, Connery’s performance had its moments. He seemed to be at his funniest in this movie, displaying a true flair for comedy. And his elevator fight with Joe Robinson (portraying Peter Franks0 made it apparent that he had not lost his touch with action films, following a four-year hiatus from the Bond franchise. And yet . . . I could not help but wish that Lazenby had continued his tenure as James Bond, following “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Perhaps the Australian’s presence could have guaranteed a more serious follow-up to Tracy Bond’s death. Then again . . . perhaps not. And despite Connery’s comedic touch, he seemed to have lost some of the fire that had made his earlier performances as Bond so memorable. In fact, he seemed to have sailed through the entire movie without any true depth.

There seemed to be a split opinion amongst fans regarding Jill St. John’s performance as smuggler Tiffany Case. Some viewed the red-haired Tiffany as a funny, smart and sassy woman. Others regarded her as nothing more than a bubble-headed bimbo. Personally, I agree with both views. I liked St. John’s sharp portrayal of Tiffany in the movie’s first hour or so. She portrayed the smuggler as a sharp-tongued woman who was shrewd enough to keep Bond’s paws off of her, until she needed him for her advantage. And she helped Bond infiltrate Willard Whyte’s desert laboratory. But once Blofeld was revealed to be alive, Tiffany became this idiot bimbo who allowed herself to get caught by Blofeld; and who helped Bond on the oil rig and later against Wint and Kidd with great ineptitude. Her character seemed to have lost its steam by the movie’s last half-hour.

Charles Gray, who had been last seen as a murdered MI-6 agent in “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE”, became the third actor to portray SPECTRE leader Ernst Blofeld on screen. I have to give points to the British actor for being the wittiest villain in the franchise’s history. Although he had spent most of his on-screen time in the movie’s second half, more witticism streamed out of Gray’s mouth than any other actor or actress. And as funny as he was, this abundance of witticism had also lessened his impact as a villain, I am sorry to say. This seemed rather odd for an actor like Gray, who has proven to be more intimidating in other roles.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s supporting cast had seemed at best, a mixed blessing. Not many Bond fans have been impressed by Norman Burton’s gruff performance as CIA agent Felix Leiter. Frankly, I found his gruffness rather amusing and witty . . . in a deliciously acidic way. Speaking of gruffness, Bernard Lee seemed downright acerbic and hostile during his brief appearance as M. Neither Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn as Moneypenny and Q, respectively, came off as memorable in this movie.

Marc Lawrence and Sig Haig had portrayed two of the gangsters who popped up during Bond’s first day in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, they came off as movie gangsters from a 30s crime melodrama, instead of modern day thugs. Donna Garratt and Trina Parks portrayed Willard Whyte’s bodyguards, Bambi and Thumper. I must admit that they were memorable, although Ms. Parks had struck me as a bit of a drama queen. Lana Wood (Natalie Wood’s younger sister) portrayed the unfortunate Plenty O’Toole. And honestly? I now feel that Ms. Wood was one of THE WORST actresses to appear in a Bond movie. Okay, make that the second worst. I consider Marguerite Le Wars, the actress who played the photographer in “DR. NO” to be the worst.

Speaking of bad acting, who on earth had the bright idea to cast Country-Western singer, Jimmy Dean, as Willard Whyte? No wonder he had never pursued a movie career. Dean must have been the biggest ham in the movie, considering his tendency to bellow nearly every word that came out of his mouth. Hollywood star Bruce Cabot (“KING KONG” [1933]) seemed like a waste of time in his role as Blofeld minion, Burt Saxby. What a shame, especially since “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” was his last film. The movie’s bright spot came in the forms of Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as Blofeld’s assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. Glover and Smith portrayed these two hitmen (and possible lovers?) with wit, style and a delicious touch of menace. It seemed a shame that they were killed off in one of the lamest action sequences of any Bond film.

I am trying to think of a Bond movie directed by Guy Hamilton that has really impressed me. So far, I cannot think of one.“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” is certainly not that movie. Granted, it has its bright points – the witty humor, a sassy Tiffany Case in the film’s first half, a great fight scene between Connery and Robinson; along with Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. I would also like to add that I also enjoyed the film’s musical score by John Barry and the theme song, performed by Shirley Bassey. Granted, the song lacked the excitement and brashness of “GOLDFINGER” and the lyrical beauty of “MOONRAKER”, but I still managed to enjoy it. But considering some of the second-rate performances found in this movie, along with poor editing and piss poor writing by Maibaum and Mankiewicz, “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” strikes me as being the complete nadir of the Bond franchise. And that is saying something about a movie that I still enjoy watching . . . much to my continuing surprise.