“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

“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

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“LIFE WITH FATHER” (1947) Review

Warner Brothers is the last studio I would associate with a heartwarming family comedy set in the 19th century. At least the Warner Brothers of the 1940s. And yet, the studio did exactly that when it adapted Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s 1939 play, “Life With Father”, which happened to be an adaptation of Clarence Day’s 1935 novel.

If I must be frank, I am a little confused on how to describe the plot for “LIFE WITH FATHER”. But I will give it my best shot. The movie is basically a cinematic account in the life of one Clarence Day, a stockbroker in 1880s Manhattan, who wants to be master of his house and run his household, just as he runs his Wall Street office. However, standing in his way is his wife, Vinnie, and their four sons, who are more inclined to be more obedient of their mother than their father. You see, Vinnie is the real head of the Day household. And along with their children, she continues to demand that Mr. Day overcome his stubbornness and make changes in his life.

Thanks to Donald Odgen Stewart’s screenplay, “LIFE WITH FATHER” focused on Mr. Day’s attempt to find a new maid; a romance between his oldest son Clarence Junior and pretty out-of-towner named Mary Skinner, who is the ward of his cousin-in-law Cora Cartwright; a plan by Clarence Jr. and second son John to make easy money selling patent medicines; Mrs. Day’s health scare; Mr. Day’s general contempt toward the trappings of organized religion; and Mrs. Day’s agenda to get him baptized. Some of these story lines seem somewhat disconnected. But after watching the movie, I noticed that the story lines regarding Clarence Junior and John’s patent medicine scheme were connected to Clarence Junior’s romance with Mary and Mrs. Day’s health scare. Which played a major role in Mrs. Day’s attempt to get her husband baptized. Even the baptism story line originated from Cousin Cora and Mary’s visit.

Many would be surprised to learn that Michael Curtiz was the director of “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Curtiz was not usually associated with light comedies like “LIFE WITH FATHER”. Instead, he has been known for some of Errol Flynn’s best swashbucklers, noir melodramas like “MILDRED PIERCE”, the occasional crime drama and melodramas like the Oscar winning film, “CASABLANCA”. However, Curtiz had also directed musicals, “YANKEE DOODLE DANDY” and “FOUR DAUGHTERS”; so perhaps “LIFE WITH FATHER” was not a stretch for him, after all. I certainly had no problem with this direction for this film. I found it well paced and sharp. And for a movie that heavily relied upon interior shots – especially inside the Days’ home, I find it miraculous that the movie lacked the feel of a filmed play. It also helped that “LIFE WITH FATHER” featured some top notch performers.

William Powell earned his third and last Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Clarence Day Senior, the family’s stubborn and temperamental patriarch. Although the Nick Charles character will always be my personal favorite, I believe that Clarence Day is Powell’s best. He really did an excellent job in immersing himself in the role . . . to the point that there were times that I forgot he was an actor. Powell also clicked very well with Irene Dunne, who portrayed the family’s charming, yet manipulative matriarch, Vinnie Day. It is a testament to Dunne’s skill as an actress that she managed to convey to the audience that despite Clarence Senior’s bombastic manner, she was the real head of the Day household. Unlike Powell, Dunne did not receive an Academy Award nomination. Frankly, I think this is a shame, because she was just as good as her co-star . . . as far as I am concerned.

“LIFE WITH FATHER” also featured excellent performances from the supporting cast. Jimmy Lydon did a wonderful job portraying the Days’ oldest offspring, Clarence Junior. Although Lydon was excellent portraying a character similar in personality to Vinnie Day, I found him especially funny when his Clarence Junior unintentionally project Mr. Day’s personality quirks when his romance with Mary Skinner threatened to go off the rails. Speaking of Mary Skinner, Elizabeth Taylor gave a very funny and superb performance as the young lady who shakes up the Day household with a burgeoning romance with Clarence Junior and an innocent remark that leads Mrs. Day to learn that her husband was not baptized. Edmund Gwenn gave a skillful and subtle performance as Mrs. Day’s minister, who is constantly irritated by Mr. Day’s hostile stance against organized religion. The movie also featured excellent performances from Martin Milner, ZaSu Pitts, Emma Dunn, Derek Scott and Heather Wilde.

Another aspect of “LIFE WITH FATHER” that I found admirable was its production values. When it comes to period films, many of the Old Hollywood films tend to be on shaky ground, sometimes. For the likes of me, I tried to find something wrong with the production for “LIFE WITH FATHER”, but I could not. J. Peverell Marley and William V. Skall’s photography, along with Robert M. Haas’ art direction, and George James Hopkins’ set decorations all combined to the household of an upper middle-class family in 1885 Manhattan. But the one aspect of the film’s production that really impressed me was Marjorie Best’s costume designs. Quite frankly, I thought they were beautiful. Not only did they seem indicative of the movie’s setting and the characters’ class, they . . . well, I thought they were beautiful. Especially the costumes that Irene Dunne wore.

As much as I had enjoyed “LIFE WITH FATHER”, I could not help but notice that it seemed to possess one major flaw. Either this movie lacked a main narrative, or it possessed a very weak one. What is this movie about? Is it about Clarence Junior’s efforts to get a new suit to impress Mary Skinner? Is it about Mrs. Day’s health scare? Or is it about her efforts to get Mr. Day baptized? I suspect that the main plot is the latter . . . and if so, I feel that is pretty weak. If this was the main plot in the 1939 Broadway play, then screenwriter Donald Odgen Stewart should have changed the main narrative. But my gut feeling tells me that he was instructed to be as faithful to the stage play as possible. Too bad.

I see now that the only way to really enjoy “LIFE WITH FATHER” is to regard it as a character study. Between the strong characterizations, and superb performances from a cast led by Oscar nominee William Powell and Irene Dunne, this is easy for me to do. It also helped that despite the weak narrative, the movie could boast some excellent production values and first-rate direction from Michael Curtiz. You know what? Regardless of the weak narrative, “LIFE WITH FATHER” is a movie I could watch over and over again. I enjoyed it that much.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production.

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you, “MIDDLEMARCH”is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching“MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. Davies’ screenplay did an excellent job in balancing Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon and the early period of Lydgate and Rosamond’s relationship in the first three episodes. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I did found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. And Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order without allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.