“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

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“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called ”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the best movies of 2010.  But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” one of 2010’s more “interesting” films.

“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957/1979) Book Review

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“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957/1979) Book Review

I first became aware of British author, M.M. Kaye back in the early 1980s, when I read her famous 1978 bestseller, “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Intrigued by the author’s portrayal of the British and Indian societies in 19th century, I read another one of her novels – namely “SHADOW OF THE MOON”.

First published in 1957, “SHADOW OF THE MOON” was re-released 22 years later to cash in on the success of “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. Like the latter, the novel was set in 19th century India. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” told the story of Winter de Ballesteros, the only daughter of an aristocratic Spaniard whose family lived in India and the beloved granddaughter of an English earl. Orphaned at the age of six, Winter is forced to leave India and live with her mother’s family in England for the next eleven years. Betrothed at an early age to Conway Barton, the nephew-in-law of her great-aunt and an official of the East India Company, serving as Commissioner of the Lunjore District, Winter finally leaves England to return to India in order to marry him. Barton’s military aide, Captain Alex Randall of the British East India Company (aka “John Company”), is assigned to act as escort for Winter’s return journey to the East.

Unfortunately for Winter, she encounters two misfortunes upon her arrival in India – the discovery that her new husband is a debauched and overweight drunk who had married her for her fortune; and that she has fallen in love with Alex Randall. She is unaware that Alex has also fallen in love with her. While Winter struggles with her love for Alex and her unhappy marriage, events slowly come to a boil that lead to the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in which Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army rise against the British between May 1857 and June 1858. The violent outbreak of sepoy troops against the rule of the British East India Company forces both Winter and Alex to experience the violence that explodes throughout most of India and acknowledge their feelings for one another.

For a novel that is supposed to be about the famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, most of it seemed to be set before the rebellion’s actual outbreak. The novel’s first six chapters focused upon Winter’s parents and her childhood in both India and England. The next thirty-four (34) chapters focused upon Winter and Alex’s journey to India, the introduction of Anglo society in India, Winter’s marriage to Conway Barton in Lunjore, the growing tensions between the British rulers and those who have much to resent them, Winter and Alex’s growing feelings for one another . . . well, you get the picture. By the time Winter, Alex and other British residents encounter the rebellion in Lunjore, Chapter 40 had arrived. Only Chapters 40 through 51 featured the actual rebellion.

Ironically, this does not bother me. I suspect that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is basically a romantic drama with a historical backdrop. M.M. Kaye was born in India to a family that had served the British Raj for generations. She spent most of her childhood and early years of marriage in India, which made her a strong authority on the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies of the British Raj. “SHADOW OF THE MOON” is filled with strong historical facts about Great Britain during the first five decades in the 19th century, the East India Company, the Anglo-Indian and Indian cultures in the 1850s, and the politically charged atmosphere leading up to the Sepoy Rebellion and facts about the rebellion itself.

Reading the novel made it easy for me to see why M.M. Kaye had gained such fame as a historical novelist. Along with Alexandre Dumas, Susan Howatch, John Jakes, George MacDonald Fraser, James Michener, Ken Follet and Cecelia Holland, I consider her to be among the best historical novelists. Not only is “SHADOW OF THE MOON” filled with interesting facts about the British Raj in the 1850s, it is a well-written romantic drama about two people who managed to find love despite the obstacles of a loveless marriage and political turmoil. The two main characters – Winter and Alex – are well written characters that managed to avoid the usually clichés found in many inferior romantic paperback novels. Well . . . Winter and Alex’s characterizations managed to avoid most of the clichés. There are a few clichés about them that seem very familiar:

*Winter’s age spans between 17 and 19 in most of the novel. Most heroines of historical tend to be between the ages of 16 and 21.

*The age difference between Winter and Alex is 13 years – which is typical for the heroine and hero of most historical romances.

*The heroine, Winter, spends most of the novel stuck in an unhappy marriage with a much older man.

Despite these minor clichés, Winter and Alex turned out to be two very interesting and well-rounded characters. Surprisingly, I can say the same of the supporting characters, whether they be British or Indian. A few characters stood out for men – notably Alex’s cynical Indian orderly Niaz; a sharp-tongued British socialite named Louisa “Lou” Cottar; an intelligent and intensely political Indian nobleman who becomes a dangerous enemy of the British Raj by the name of Kishan Prisad; Lord Carylon, an arrogant and temperamental English aristocrat with a strong desire for Winter; and Conway Barton, the latter’s corrupt and narrow-minded husband, who lacks a talent for political administration.

Aside from a few clichés that are a part of Winter and Alex’s characterizations, I have a few other quibbles regarding the novel . . . or Kaye’s writing style. First of all, she had a tendency to describe a historical event or character in a slightly grandiose manner. One example featured the death of a famous military figure named John Nicholson. Kaye also had a bad habit of announcing an important sequence before it unveils . . . taking away any moment of surprise for the reader. This was apparent in the following passage:

“‘Two more days to go’, thought Alex that night, leaning against the wall and watching a quadrille danced at the Queen’s Birthday Ball.

But there were no more days. Only hours.”

In the following chapter, Winter, Alex and a host of other characters experience firsthand, the horror of the rebellion in Lunjore. I would have preferred if the beginning of the Lunjore rebellion had taken me by surprise.

Despite Kaye’s occasional forays into over-the-top prose, she created a sweeping and detailed novel filled with romance, adventure, historical accuracy and well-written characters. Although “THE FAR PAVILIONS” is considered her masterpiece, I must admit that “SHADOW OF THE MOON” remains my most favorite novel she has ever written.

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“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

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“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

“VANTAGE POINT” is a tightly woven thriller about eight strangers with eight different points of view of an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, during an anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. Directed by Pete Travis and written by Barry Levy, the movie starred Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt.

When I had first saw the trailer for “VANTAGE POINT” four years ago, I had assumed it would be one of those remakes of the Japanese film, “RASHOMON” (1950). I figured there would be an assassination attempt on the President and the film would follow with various points of view on the incident. This is what actually happened in “VANTAGE POINT” . . . but not quite.“VANTAGE POINT” did reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view. In “RASHOMON” and other versions of the film, those views are shown as flashbacks. But in “VANTAGE POINT” each point of view is not a flashback. Instead, each POV merely gives a certain view of the story, while the story moves forward. For example, the movie started out with the point of view of a news producer (Sigourney Weaver), before ending at a particular point in the story. The next point of view belongs to Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), which ends a little further in the story than the news producer’s POV. And so on. The movie ends with an exciting action sequence told from the various viewpoints of the major characters – heroes and villains.

The more I think about “VANTAGE POINT”, the more I realize how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the tight setting of Salamanca, Spain (actually the film was shot in Mexico). I must add that one of the things I enjoyed about this movie was that Levy’s script had a way of putting a twist on any assumptions anyone might form about the plot. I loved how Travis handled the film’s action, making it well-paced. I enjoyed the performances of the major cast members. I was especially impressed by the performances of Dennis Quaid as the emotionally uncertain Barnes, who eventually pieced together the real plot. I also enjoyed the performances of Matthew Fox as his fellow Secret Service agent, Forest Whitaker as an American tourist and Edgar Ramirez (“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”) as a Spanish Special Forces soldier involved in the plot against the President. But more importantly, I loved Barry Levy’s script, which put a twist on any assumptions the moviegoer may have formed about the story’s plotlines and characters. My only quibble with “VANTAGE POINT” was the interaction between Whitaker’s character and a Spanish girl, which I found slightly contrived near the end of the movie.

“VANTAGE POINT” did pretty well at the box office. Unfortunately, most critics compared it unfavorably to “RASHOMON”. Personally, I do care about the critics’ opinion. “VANTAGE POINT” was the type of movie that forced the audience to think. And I suspect that many moviegoers and critics would have preferred a film that laid everything out in the open. And since I have a history of liking movies that are not popular with the public or film critics, all I can say is that I am personally glad that I had purchased the DVD for this movie. It ended up becoming one of my favorite 2008 movies.

 

Notes and Observations of STAR WARS: “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”

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Notes and Observations of “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*Exactly who was in command of the Rebel Alliance base on Hoth – Leia or General Rieekan?

*What was Leia doing on Hoth with the Rebel Alliance military personnel? Why wasn’t she with the other political Rebel leaders?

*Ah yes! The ”I’ just as soon kiss a Wookie!” dialogue between Leia and Han. Charming, although slightly . . . childish.

*How . . . or should I say when did Han and Leia reach the point in which they became attracted to one another?

*It was interesting to see how Obi-Wan’s ghost faded with the emergence of Han on a tauntaun.

*”Why, you stuck up,… half-witted… scruffy-looking …nerf-herder!” – Another charming, yet childish exchange between Leia and Han.

*Jealousy and ambition seem quite obvious within the Imperial command structure, if General Ozzel’s glare at Piett is anything to go by.

*I find it interesting that the exchange between Luke and Han before the commencement of the Battle of Hoth would be the last between them for at least a year.

*Vader’s ability to strangle Ozzel with the Force from such a large distance seemed very impressive for someone whose strength with the Force has been weakened.

*The pilots’ point of view of the Battle of Hoth seemed like another cliché of a World War II dogfight . . . like the Battle of Yavin.

*Luke was made commander of the Rebel pilots because he had destroyed the Death Star . . . with Han’s help? What about Wedge, who was also a competent pilot and more experienced?

*The Imperial AT-AT Walkers remind me of the Oliphaunts from the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

*Wasn’t Leia taking her duty just a bit too seriously by delaying her departure from Hoth?

*I noticed that Han never seemed to follow the ladies first rule. When he, Leia and Chewie and Threepio had escaped both from Hoth and the exogorth in the asteroid field, he made sure that he boarded the Millennium Falcon first. Not exactly a man of the Old Republic.

*Han really revealed how much of a hot shot pilot he was in this movie.

*”Into the belly of the beast” – This metaphor seemed to fit the Falcon’s entry into exogorth even more than Luke, Han and Leia’s brief adventures inside the Death Star’s trash compactor.

*The audience got a brief glimpse of the price Anakin paid for his past mistakes – namely his scalded head.

*”Feel like what?” – Yoda’s first words in any ”STAR WARS” movie.

*”Great warrior? Hmmm . . . wars do not make one great.” – Ironic words from the very being who led the first attack, during the first battle of the Clone Wars. His words also revealed the true Yoda behind the comic façade. I think Luke may have been too impatient or full of himself to notice.

*”You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” – One can only assume that Leia’s age – 22 years – and limited experience with men would explain why she bought that bilge pouring from Han’s mouth.

*”He’s just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.” – Surely these words must have hinted to Palpatine that Vader had been aware of Luke for some time?

*I see that Clive Revill has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor Palpatine in this version of the movie. Which makes sense, considering that McDiarmid is more identified with the role.

*”This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away . . . to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.” – I believe that Yoda had just described himself and many other Jedi Masters and Knights of the Old Republic, nearly a quarter of a century ago. If he and Obi-Wan could learn to overcome this distraction from the future, why not Luke? Why was Yoda so reluctant to teach Luke? Is it Luke he doubts? Or himself as a teacher?

*”If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” – I hope that Yoda was trying to say that a person will always be affected by his or her earlier decision to take a dark path or commit dark acts. Because if he was trying to say that a person will always remain evil, after taking the dark path, I must say that I disagree.

*Han used a neat trick to evade the sensors of Captain Needa’s starship, after the Falcon left the asteroid field.

*”Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” – A favorite line of mine.

*It was very clever of Han to attach the Falcon to an Imperial starship before disguising it as garbage to be disposed with the other. Unfortunately for him, Boba Fett had witnessed a similar trick pulled by Obi-Wan near Geonosis, some 25 years ago. Even worse, it is a shame that Han was so busy congratulating himself over his trick that he failed to realize that Fett was tracking him.

*”Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future… the past. Old friends long gone.” – I wonder if Yoda was thinking of Mace Windu.

*According to LucasFilm, it took the Falcon three months to reach Bespin without a hyperdrive. If only Lucas and the others had made this clear in the movie.

*The Falcon was practically escorted to one of the landing platforms on Cloud City. I wonder why.

*Great entrance for Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.

*Was CP-30 really that dense in that he would be so easily distracted from the group by the sound of an R2 unit?

*”Stopped they must be. On this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor”. – Did that mean Yoda had never intended for Luke to help Anakin find redemption?

*Apparently, the original deal between Vader and Lando did not include Han being turned over to Boba Fett. And later, Vader broke his word and insisted that Leia and Chewie accompany him. Interesting. It is a miracle that the Sith Lord did not renege on the deal even further by destroying Bespin and its population.

*And why did Han and Leia fail to understand the situation that Vader had placed Lando? Were they too blinded by anger?

*I find it interesting that not once did Vader set eyes upon C3-P0, his own creation. Why? Because Chewbacca had the droid strapped to his back.

*How stupid were Leia and Chewbacca? It was obvious that Lando had released them from Vader’s stormtroopers. Yet, all they could do was lose their tempers. Chewbacca immediately began to strangle Lando and Leia encouraged the Wookie. Because their temper tantrums, they prevented Lando from rescuing Han from Boba Fett.

*I must admit that I found the dialogue during the Bespin duel rather irritating. The most important thing about the duel seemed to be Vader’s revelation as Anakin Skywalker . . . after the fighting stopped.

*Vader’s reaction to Luke and Leia’s escape from Bespin was an excellent moment of silent acting on David Prowse’s part. With his use of body language, he managed to express Vader’s regret over losing Luke . . . and the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s resurgence.

“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS & INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS & INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS & INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS & INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS & INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that his reputation has extended to film, resulting in a Best Actor Oscar over a year ago. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex and entertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

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“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

Matt Damon made his second (or perhaps third) foray into the science-fiction/fantasy genre, when he starred in his 2011 film called “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. The movie turned out to be a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, “Adjustment Team”.

Adapted and directed by George Nolfi, “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is about an aspiring politician named David Norris, whose encounter with a talented modern dancer sparks a romance between the two. However, members of a mysterious force called the Adjustment Bureau keep interfering with their romance, explaining that Norris’ political career would be affected by his romance with Elise Sellas, the young dancer. They also explained that Elise’s future as a famous dancer would also be affected. At first, David agrees to stay away from Elise, when Richardson (one of the “angels” of the Adjustment Bureau) tells him that he will be “reset” or lobotomized, if he tells anyone about the Bureau. But three to four years later, David finds it difficult to forget Elise. And with the help from Harry Mitchell, the Bureau “angel” that has been overseeing his life, David sets out to fight the Bureau’s abilities to control his choices and form a permanent relationship with Elise.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” struck me as one of those pleasant and whimsical movies that I usually find mildly interesting. Both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave believable performances as the politician and dancer who find themselves attracted to one another. If I must be honest, the two had a very strong screen chemistry. The movie also gave moviegoers an interesting glimpse into the possibility of a supernatural force that determined the paths of all individuals. And the movie presented this premise in an interesting way that perfectly balanced reality with fantasy. An interesting aspect of the movie’s plot is that the Adjustment Bureau “angels” used doorways to instantly teleport from one location to another. And in order for them to accomplish this, each “angel” has to be wearing the Bureau’s signature fedora hat.

However, I had some problems with the movie. I never understood how both David and Elise managed to remember each other after three years. At the beginning of the movie, they had briefly met inside the men’s bathroom at a local hotel. The following morning, they met again aboard a public bus and spoke for a few minutes. Three years passed before they laid eyes upon each other again . . . and they clearly remembered one another. Why do I find that implausible? And the Bureau’s decision to finally let David and Elise alone, because; a) they somehow “discovered” that the two were always meant to be together struck me as a bit saccharine, and b) they fought so hard to stay together struck me as rather saccharine. Every time I think of that final scene, flashes of the movie, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” enters my mind. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” might be a slight remake of the 1945 movie. But at least “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” had more of a punch than “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. And that is my final complaint about the movie. It simply lacked punch. It failed to blow my mind. It was a nice movie that I would have enjoyed more, watching on my television screen.

The performances in the movie were pleasant, but did not strike me as particularly memorable. Well . . . I take that back. I was impressed by two performances. One came from Anthony Mackie, who portrayed David Norris’ personal Bureau “angel”, Harry Mitchell. With very few lines, Mackie did a first rate job in conveying Harry’s increasing disenchantment with the Bureau’s policy of controlling the choices of others with an intensity that struck me as perfectly balanced. I was also impressed by Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Thompson, one of the senior members of the Bureau, who is called to deal with David, when the latter proves to be troublesome. Stamp was commanding, intimidating, slightly ruthless and very convincing in his character’s arguments to keep David and Elise apart. As I had stated earlier, both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave charming performances as the two protagonists. During the scenes in which Damon’s David Norris flirted with Blunt’s Elise Sallas, I was struck by the similarities in Damon’s flirtations with Vera Farmiga in “THE DEPARTED” and Minnie Driver in “GOOD WILL HUNTING”. And I began to wonder if Damon had a standardized method for on-screen romances. I also enjoyed John Slattery’s performance as another one of the Bureau’s “angels”, Richardson. But if I must be honest, his character struck me as another variation on his Roger Sterling character from “MAD MEN”. It would be nice to see him in another kind of role.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is a charming and clever movie. It benefited from solid performances from a first-rate cast and a solid adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story by George Nolfi. But in the end, I found it slightly disappointing. It failed to pack a punch that this kind of story would have the potential to deliver.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

Long ago (thirty-nine years and six months, to be exact) and in a galaxy far, far away, producer-director-writer George Lucas made film history with the release of his movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Only, during the summer of 1977, it was simply known as “STAR WARS”. And this science-fiction/fantasy homage to Saturday morning serials and mythology was something that moviegoers had never seen before.

Now considered as the fourth film installment of Lucas’ STAR WARS saga, “A NEW HOPE” chronicled the adventures of a space-aged farmboy named Luke Skywalker, who finds himself swept up in a galactic conflict between a tyrannical empire and a band of rebel fighters determined to return freedom to the galaxy. Not only did the film introduced the concept of the summer blockbuster and created a movie/television/literary franchise that made billions for its creator, it also became the second highest grossing film in Hollywood history (as of 2012) and ushered in a new age for movie special effects. This movie has made such a major impact upon Hollywood that its effects are still being felt to this day.

“A NEW HOPE” began with an opening crawl describing a galaxy in a state of civil war. Spies for the Rebel Alliance have stolen the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new weapon – a heavily armed and armored space station capable of destroying an entire planet called the Death Star. One of the Rebel Alliance leaders, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, is in possession of the Death Star plans when her ship is attacked by Imperial forces under the leadership of the Sith Lord Darth Vader. Before she could be captured, Princess Leia hides the plans and a holographic recording into the memory of an astromech droid called R2-D2. The small droid and its companion, a protocol droid named C-3PO flee to the surface of the desert planet Tatooine. While Darth Vader sends a contingent of stormtroopers to look for the droids, R2 and 3PO find themselves captured by Jawa traders, who sell them to a moisture farmer and his nephew named Owen Lars and Luke Skywalker.

Luke, who is an orphan, yearns to leave his uncle’s farm and find adventure in the stars. He finds it when he releases Princess Leia’s holographic recording, while cleaning R2-D2. The recording is for a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Surmising that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ben Kenobi, who is a neighbor of his Uncle Owen, are one and the same; Luke delivers the droids and the message to the aging hermit. The young man also discovers that Kenobi is a former Jedi Master, who knew his father Anakin Skywalker, who used to be a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan suggests that Luke help him deliver the Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s father on Alderaan. At first, Luke rejects the offer. But when his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are found murdered by Imperial stormtroopers looking for the droids, Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on the latter’s new adventure. They recruit the services of two smugglers – Han Solo and Chewbacca – to convey them to Alderaan. The journey proves to be a new beginning not only for Luke, but also his new companions.

I have a confession to make. When I first saw “A NEW HOPE” during the summer of 1977, I did not like it at all. Looking back, I realize that my hostile feelings toward the movie stemmed from a sense of being overwhelmed by something I found mind blowing and completely new. The release of “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” eventually eased the impact of Lucas’ saga upon my psyche. But it took several years for me to first warm up and eventually embrace “A NEW HOPE”. Despite my eventual love for the movie, I have never viewed it as my favorite of the saga (so far) . . . or as one of my top favorites. But I can honestly say that after thirty-nine years, it still has quite a punch. In fact, I believe that it is probably the most entertaining and fun of the six STAR WARS films produced by George Lucas.

It is easy to see why “A NEW HOPE” is so beloved by many fans of the saga. The plot, written by Lucas, has the hallmarks of a first-rate adventure filled with space battles, escapes, daring-dos, a lightsaber duel, snarky dialogue, a roguish smuggler, a villain in black, a royal damsel-in-distress (who becomes a protagonist herself), a wise mentor and an innocent boy who answers the call to adventure. I suspect that another major reason why “A NEW HOPE” is so appealing to many of the saga’s fans is the “good-vs-evil” aspect of both its tale and its characters. It must have been very easy for moviegoers to identify with the movie’s protagonists and their fight against the tyranny of the “evil” Empire. For me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the entire sequence aboard the Empire’s Death Star. From the moment the heroes’ ship the Millennium Falcon found itself forced into the depths of the large battle station, to the moment when they escape some 20 to 30 minutes later, the entire Death Star sequence seemed to be one major fun fest that crackled with humor and action.

With the exceptions of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the cast of “A NEW HOPE” was filled with unknowns. I do not recall any well-known movie that Mark Hamill had appeared in before he became famous as Luke Skywalker. But Carrie Fisher, who portrayed the sharp-tongued Princess Leia, had already appeared in 1975’s “SHAMPOO”. And Harrison Ford, who would become a bigger star than either of his co-stars, had worked for Lucas before in the latter’s 1973 classic, “AMERICAN GRAFFITI”. But all three actors created an excellent screen team. Actors such as Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Han Solo’s first mate Chewbacca; along with Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, who appeared in all six movies as the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; added their magic to the mix. Many people have made a big deal over David Prowse’s physical and James Earl Jones’ vocal portrayals of Sith Lord Darth Vader. And they were quite right to do so. Both actors contributed a great deal to the character. But I have rarely come across any comments about Peter Cushing’s performance as the cold-blooded and arrogant military commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin. I find that a shame, because I thought he made a very effective villain . . . even more so than Vader. And of course, there is Alec Guinness, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the iconic Jedi Master. And I believe it was well earned. He did an excellent job as Luke’s wise and patient mentor, who was haunted not only by his past, but past deeds.

I was not kidding when I had stated that “A NEW HOPE” was not one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. I believe that it has its flaws. While I found the movie’s innocent air and joie de vivre approach to its story very appealing, I feel that the movie lacked a complexity that I believe gave an edge to the other five movies. I am not stating that the story and its characters lacked an emotional depth. There is some depth to both the story and the characters. But aside from the Han Solo character, the other characters seemed to be a bit one-dimensional in comparison. They were either good or evil. I can even say this about the Darth Vader character, who was given an opportunity for a bit of complexity in a scene in which he tried to explain the Force to the Death Star’s senior officers staff. While there are many who have no problems with a lack of moral ambiguity, I do. And I have to say that I was more than relieved when Lucas finally injected some moral ambiguity into his characters, in the franchise’s later films.

If there is one movie that initiated my dislike of Tatooine, it is “A NEW HOPE”. From the moment the camera focused upon 3PO and R2 trekking across the planet’s desert, I found myself struggling to maintain my interest on the movie. It is possible that Tatooine has a talent for putting me to sleep. Only something really exciting has to happen – like Luke and Obi-Wan’s first meeting with Han Solo and Chewbacca, along with their subsequent escape from the planet – could keep my interest sharply focused. I also have to admit that I am not a fan of the Battle of Yavin sequence that marked the destruction of the Death Star. It smacked too much of a World War II aerial dog fight, straight out of a 1940s movie. Speaking of that particular decade, I was not that impressed by Harrison Ford’s attempt to sound like a 40s tough guy, during Han’s argument with Leia following the escape from the Death Star in the following scene:

LEIA: That doesn’t sound too hard. Besides, they let us go. It’s the
only explanation for the ease of our escape.

HAN: Easy…you call that easy?

LEIA: Their tracking us!

HAN: Not this ship, sister.

Frustrated, Leia shakes her head.

LEIA: At least the information in Artoo is still intact.

HAN: What’s so important? What’s he carrying?

LEIA: The technical readouts of that battle station. I only hope that
when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet!

HAN: It is for me, sister! Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution,
and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in
it for the money!

I know, I know. It does not seem like much. But hearing Ford spew those lines still make me wince after so many years. I was also disappointed by how Lucas handled the Princess Leia character in this film. I can already see heads spinning over this complaint. Superficially, Leia seemed like the perfect embodiment of a fictional female character of the late 20th century. Her intelligence, courage and razor-sharp wit practically screamed “I am woman, hear me roar!” And yet . . . Lucas dropped the ball with her character in one very significant moment in the film. His screenplay never revealed Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s use of the Death Star to destroy her home planet, Alderaan. Not once. The moment Alderaan blew to smithereens, the movie cut back to the occupants of the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan’s reaction. Audiences saw Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s order to destroy the planet. But we never saw the aftermath. We never saw Leia mourn over the deaths of millions of Alderaaneans – including her parents. Instead, Lucas allowed audiences a look at Luke’s reaction and grief over Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death at the hands of Lord Vader. Even worse, Leia seemed so focused over comforting Luke that she seemed to have forgotten about Alderaan’s destruction.

The production values for “A NEW HOPE” still holds up today after so many years. However, I suspect that one can attribute this to Lucas’ decision to utilize CGI to make the special effects for the 1977 movie and the other two from the Original Trilogy more effective and less dated. I realize there are many veteran fans of the saga who claim that Lucas’ CGI retouches were unnecessary. They have also expressed their dislike of the revamped movies. All I can say is that they are entitled to their opinions. I simply do not share them. However, John Williams’ score remains as stirring and iconic as ever. John Mollo did an excellent job for his simple and elegant designs for the movie’s costumes. However, I am a little peeved that he managed to snag an Academy Award for his work on this film; whereas the Motion Picture Academy failed to give Trisha Biggar even a nomination for her outstanding work in the Prequel Trilogy.

In conclusion, I can happily state that STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” stands up very well after thirty-five years. The movie and the five other films of the STAR WARS franchise remain among the best adventure films ever made in Hollywood, as far as I am concerned. And I can only wonder if George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios ever released what it had unleashed upon the world when the movie was first released in theaters back in May 1977.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker 1934-2016