“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

The year 2008 saw the publication of a best-selling novel for young adults called “The Hunger Games”.  Written by Suzanne Collins, the novel’s success led to the publication of two sequels and a Hollywood adaptation of the first film some three or four years later.

Directed by Gary Ross and adapted by him, Collins and Billy Ray; “THE HUNGER GAMES” is about a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in  a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, which consists of a wealthy city called the Capitol that  is surrounded by 12 less affluent districts. As punishment for a past rebellion against the government, the Capitol created the Hunger Games – a televised annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts are selected in a lottery as “tributes”.  They are required to fight to the death in a wilderness arena until there is one remaining victor. When the name of Katniss’ sister, Primrose, is called as the female tribute for their district, the 16 year-old volunteers to take Primrose’s place in order to save the latter from participating in the 74th Hunger Games.  Katniss is joined by her district’s male tribute, the son of a baker named Peeta Mellark.  They travel to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games, under the guidance of former victor Haymitch Abernathy.

When the media blitz for “THE HUNGER GAMES” had first began, I dismissed it.  Especially since all I  heard were comparisons to the HARRY POTTER franchise.  The comparisons merely led me to roll my eyes in contempt.  Not even the publicity blitz surrounding Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy could generate my interest.  However, by the time “THE HUNGER GAMES” was a week or two away from its theater release, I suddenly became interested.  My interest was ignited by the fact that over a month had passed since I last saw a decent new movie during the early spring of 2012.  I went to see the movie at my local movie theater and left feeling more than satisfied.

I might as well admit it.  I was very impressed by “THE HUNGER GAMES”.  I was more than impressed.  Director Gary Ross did a superb job in bringing Suzanne Collins’ novel to life on the movie screen.  More importantly, the movie’s dark portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future not only impressed me, but frightened me a little.  Considering the present economic state of the world, it was pretty easy to image such a future for this country.  “THE HUNGER GAMES” was not the first science-fiction movie with a setting featuring a wide disparity between the haves and have-nots.  Last fall saw the release of a movie called  “IN TIME”.  Whereas that movie suffered from a plot that went nowhere in its last act, “THE HUNGER GAME” ended on a more satisfying note – aside from the last minute or two.  There were two main aspects of “THE HUNGER GAME” that made this movie so terrifying to me.  One, the participants of this deadly game were children between the ages of 12 and 18, not adults.  And more importantly, the actual games, which unfolded through two-thirds of the movie, came damn close to be a young adult remake of the chilling 1972 movie, “DELIVERANCE”.  Watching a group of adolescents and pre-adolescents being forced to ruthlessly kill each other pretty much made my skin crawl.  Kudos to Suzanne Collins for creating a very effective tale and the same to Ross for translating it so well to the screen.

I was not surprised to learn that the exteriors for “THE HUNGER GAMES” were filmed in North Carolina.  The movie’s opening sequence, along with the setting for the actual games did look as they had been filmed somewhere in that state.  However, I was surprised to learn that the entire movie was filmed there.  Apparently, Lionsgate took advantage of an $8 million tax break from North Carolina in order for the movie’s principal photography to take place there.  Most of the outdoor scenes – the arena and the District 12 outskirts – were filmed at the DuPont State Forest.  And cinematographer Tom Stern did an excellent job in doing justice to the location’s natural beauty.  But he, along with Ross, did an even better job in transforming the cities of Shelby and Charlotte.  They were aided by production designer Phil Messina, whose designs for the Capitol were inspired by 1939 New York’s World Fair, along with Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow.  Messina’s designs gave the Capitol an extravagant and decadent feel, in sharp contrast to the rural poverty of District 12.  I was also impressed by Judianna Makovsky’s colorful costume designs, along with the outrageous hairstyles and make up – especially for the characters in the Capitol.

But the movie’s plot, production designs, cinematography and other aspects of “THE HUNGER GAMES” would not have worked without Gary Ross’ direction and the outstanding cast led by Jennifer Lawrence.  I have only seen Lawrence in one previous movie – last year’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” – and I was impressed by her performance.  But she was even more impressive as this movie’s leading character, Katniss Everdeen.  Many have not only gushed over Lawrence’s portrayal of the 16 year-old Katniss, but they have also labeled her as a new breed of female action heroes and a feminist icon that has not been seen  on television or in the movies for years.  I do not know if I agree with the latter assessment, but I cannot deny that Lawrence did a superb job in portraying an adolescent girl who is not only strong-willed and intelligent, but also very complex.  Another performance that took me by surprise came from  Josh Hutcherson, who portrayed Katniss’ fellow combatant from District 12, Peeta Mellark.  Hutcherson’s Peeta has such a mild-mannered persona, I had assumed that the character would not last very long in the competition . . . or would at least proved to be a weak character that would eventually turn on Katniss.  Color me surprised.  But Hutcherson’s performance seemed so subtle and skillful that I was surprised to discover that his character had really grown on me by the end of the movie.

“THE HUNGER GAMES” was also lucky to possess solid performances from the supporting cast.  Liam Hemsworth – brother of Chris – gave a nice performance as Katniss’ childhood friend, Gale Hawthorne.  Fortunately for Hemsworth, he will be given the opportunity to strut his stuff, when his role becomes bigger in the upcoming sequels.  Woody Harrelson already managed to show what a first-rate actor he could be in his superb performance as the complex and alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 winner of the Hunger Games, who is assigned to act as mentor for Katniss and Peeta.  There was a good deal of controversy surrounding the casting of Amandla Stenberg as the Games’ youngest participant, Rue.  Certain fans took issue with her racial background.  Pity.  Because I was very impressed by her subtle, yet charming peformance as Katniss’ competitor and ultimate friend.  Elizabeth Banks gave a rather funny performance as Katniss and Peeta’s uptight chaparone, Effie Trinket.  Singer Lenny Kravitz (and father of Lawrence’s “X-MEN” co-star and friend, Zoë Kravitz) was surprisingly first-rate as Katniss and Peeta’s stylist, Cinna.  It has been a while since I have seen Wes Bentley in a movie.  And it was heartening to see that he had not lost his touch in his ability to portray very complex characters.  He certainly gave a superb and complex performance as the 74th Hunger Games’ Head Gamekeeper, Seneca Crane.  Donald Sutherland was also superb as President Coriolanus Snow, the introverted, yet ruthless leader of the Capitol and all of Panem.  The movie also boasted fine performances from Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Dayo Okeniyi, Isabelle Fuhrman and Alexander Ludwig.

What else can I say about “THE HUNGER GAMES”?  It is one of the top-grossing movies in recent years or perhaps even of all time.  Whether it deserves this honor or not, I cannot deny that it turned out to be a surprisingly well made movie, thanks to Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, the movie’s production team and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.  I had felt some anxiety when I first heard that Ross has not signed up to do the movie’s sequel, “CATCHING FIRE”.  Pity.  Fortunately, his successor ended up being an equally good director.

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

Recently, I became aware of the BBC series called “THE MUSKETEERS” and became an instant fan. Due to my renewed interest in Alexandre Dumas père’s work, I decided to focus my attention on 2011’s “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, the most recent adaptation of the author’s 1845 novel. 

Produced and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this cinematic version of Dumas père’s novel, proved to be a different kettle of fish. Yes, screenwriters Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak managed to adhere to some aspects of the 1845 novel. The movie closely followed d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his future three friends – Athos, Aramis and Porthos – along with Captain Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter. The rivalry between the Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s guard – led by Rochefort – remains intact. “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” also included a conspiracy created by Richelieu that centered around Queen Anne, Britain’s Duke of Buckingham and the former’s diamond necklace given to her by King Louis XIII.

But Davies and Litvak created changes to Dumas’ story. One, Milady de Winter begins the story working with the three musketeers to steal airship blueprints created by Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario, Milady and Athos are long time lovers and not a married couple. Their antipathy begins when Milady betray her compatriots and gives the plans to Britain’s Duke of Buckingham. Her betrayal leads to the disbandment of the Musketeers. So, when d’Artagnan arrives in Paris to join the military unit, he is a year too late. Also, the Duke of Buckingham is portrayed more as a villain, since he is not The Constance Bonacieux is not only single in this story, but also one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting; instead of married and a royal seamstress. Also, there is no real affair between Queen Anne and Buckingham. But Cardinal Richelieu decides to create false rumors using the Queen’s diamond necklace and false love letters in order to discredit her. This would lead to Anne’s execution, a war against Britain and a demand by the people that a more experienced leader – namely Richelieu himself – would rule France. Alas, thanks to Constance, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers step up to save the Queen’s reputation and ruin Richelieu’s plans.

It would be difficult for me to deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is a beautiful looking film. Germany served as 17th century France and Great Britain in this film and Glen MacPherson really did justice to the shooting locations, thanks to his beautifully sharp and colorful photography. MacPherson’s photography also did justice to Paul D. Austerberry’s production designs, whose re-creations of 17th century France and England struck me as spot on. Both MacPherson and Austerberry’s work benefited from Philippe Turlure’s set decorations and the art direction team of Nigel Churcher, Hucky Hornberger and David Scheunemann. But what really dazzled me about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” were Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s s costume designs. Personally, I found them worthy of an Oscar nomination. Below are three images just to prove my point:

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There are aspects of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” that did not exactly impress me. First of all, the chemistry between the four leads seemed a bit off. One might blame Logan Lerman, who was the only American in the team. But I had no problems with his chemistry with both Matthew MacFadyen and Ray Stevenson. And Luke Evans had a nice chemistry with both MacFadyen and Stevenson, despite his subdued take on his role. And I cannot blame MacFadyen, who seemed to be the odd man out as a screen swashbuckler. I am not saying that all four men – Lerman, MacFadyen, Evans and Stevenson – had no chemistry whatsoever. There was some inclination of a screen chemistry. But . . . their chemistry as the four musketeers never struck me as dynamic than in other versions I have seen.

Another major problem I had with the movie proved to be Davies and Litvak’s re-writing of the Milady de Winter character. I had no problem with Milady starting the movie as colleague of Athos, Aramis and Porthos. I had no problem with her being Athos’ lover, instead of his estranged spouse. I did have a problem with Milady being written as some kind of action woman. Many of her scenes featured actress Milla Jovovich engaged in some acrobatic stunt at a great height. I understand why. Both Jovovich and Anderson (who are married, by the way) are known for the “RESIDENT EVIL”movies, in which the actress had starred as the main protagonist. For some reason, the couple and the two screenwriters seemed to believe it was necessary to transform Milady into a female action figure. In doing so, all four robbed the Milady of the subtle villainy that made her such a memorable character in the novel and in other adaptations. I almost got the impression that Anderson and the screenwriters did not believe Jovovich lacked the ability to portray a seductive and manipulative villainess. Yet, one scene between Jovovich and actor Christoph Waltz (who portrayed Cardinal Richelieu) made it clear to me that the actress could have been a very effective Milady de Winter without resorting to countless number of stunts and other action scenes. Hmmm . . . pity.

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I enjoyed “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”. Much to my utter surprise. When I first saw the film, I was ready to reject it after the Venice sequence. The idea of Milady working with Athos, Aramis and Porthos on a mission in Venice was not how I recall previous adaptations of Dumas’ novel. But I gave it a chance and decided to finish the film. And I enjoyed it. Actually, there were aspects of the movie that made it enjoyable for me. Aside from the movie’s visual style and costumes, I enjoyed how Davies and and Litvak put a different spin on Dumas’ story arc about Queen Anne’s diamond necklace. I was also both surprised and impressed at how they utilized the heist movie trope in two major sequences – the opening scene in Venice and the Musketeers’ attempt to get their hands on the diamonds, which were stolen by Milady and planted inside London’s Tower of London.

Davies and Litvak’s screenplay displayed a nice sense of humor. This was apparent in the personalities of three major characters – Porthos (who has been the comic relief of nearly all versions of Dumas’ tale), King Louis XIII and surprisingly, the Duke of Buckingham, along with d’Artagnan’s first meetings with his future three friends. The movie also featured some excellent action sequences. My favorite include the Musketeers and d’Artagnan’s fight against Rochefort and the Cardinal’s guards, the four friends’ heist of the diamond necklace from the Tower of London, and their final showdown against Rochefort and his men upon their return to Paris. This last sequence featured an outstanding duel between d’Artagnan and Rochefort that in my opinion, rivaled the duel between the two characters in 1974’s “THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”.

I still stand by my belief that the chemistry between the four actors who portrayed the Musketeers and d’Artagnan was not as strong as it had been in other productions. But the movie did featured some solid performances from the four actors. Ray Stevenson displayed his usual talent for comedy in his performance as Porthos. Honestly, I think his comic skills are highly underrated. Luke Evans gave a decent performance as Aramis. However, I do wish he could have displayed a little more élan in his portrayal of the usually dashing womanizer. Matthew Macfadyen did a skillful job in portraying Athos’ brooding nature and role as the group’s leader. But I got the feeling that he was not the type of actor I would cast in a swashbuckling film. Of the four actors, he never struck me as the swashbuckling type. It is odd that I would say this about Macfadyen and not Logan Lerman, who portrayed d’Artagnan. But the thing about Lerman is that his looks strike me as mediocre and he seems to be the shortest of the four leads.  And yet, once he opens his mouth and move, he becomes a bundle of energy with a good deal of style and panache. Curious.

Despite my complaints by Anderson and the screenwriters’ attempt to turn Milady de Winter into an action queen, I must say that I still managed to enjoy Milla Jovovich’s performance. She is the only actress I know who conveyed the spy’s seduction skills with a good deal of sly humor. Christoph Waltz did a solid job as the villainous Cardinal Richilieu. But I must admit, I did not find his performance particularly memorable or energetic. I can also say the same about Gabriella Wilde, who portrayed Constance Bonacieux. I hate to say this, but I found her performance somewhat wooden. On the other hand, Juno Temple gave a very charming performance as Queen Anne (formerly of Austria). Not only did she give a charming performance, she also conveyed a good deal of the Queen’s strength of character.

I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Captain Rochefort. The Danish actor did an excellent job of conveying Rochefort’s subtle menace and talent for intimidation. Orlando Bloom proved to be quite a surprise as the villainous Duke of Buckingham. He was very funny in a sly, yet theatrical way. James Corden also gave a funny performance as Planchet, the Musketeers’ long suffering manservant. But the funniest performance came from Freddie Fox, who portrayed the rather young King Louis XIII. What can I say? He was hilarious in his portrayal of the King’s insecure nature and lack of experience as a leader. In fact, I believe he gave the best performance in the movie.

What else can I say about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”? It is not particularly faithful to Alexandre Dumas père’s novel. But to be honest, I do not really care. In my opinion, the movie’s lack of adherence to the novel was not a weak point. The worst I can say about the movie is that the chemistry between the four actors portraying the Musketeers was not particularly strong. I did not care for the use of 17th century airships in this story. And I was not that impressed by the movie’s tendency to portray Milady de Winter as an action figure. On the other hand, I still managed to enjoy the screenplay written by Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak, along with Paul W.S. Anderson’s direction. And the movie also featured some strong performances – especially from Logan Lerman, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom and Freddie Fox. In the end, I still enjoyed the film, despite my initial reservations.

“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

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“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

One would think after the release of last year’s “THE AVENGERS”, Marvel Studios would call it quits on its saga about the team of superheroes who foiled an alien invasion in said movie. But the “THE AVENGERS” opened the possibility of a new threat to Earth, paving the way for a new slew of stories for the costumed Avengers. 

The beginning of this new group of films resulted in the release of “IRON MAN 3”, the third movie about the sole adventures of billionaire Tony Stark aka Iron Man. The alien invasion from “THE AVENGERS” had left its mark on Tony. He has become even more popular than ever with the public. The U.S. government (including S.H.I.E.L.D.) seemed to be leaving him alone for the moment. And his relationship with Pepper Potts seemed to be going strong. However, Tony also seemed to be in the process of ironing out the kinks for his new method of accessing his Iron Man armor – a method that turned out to be a technological copy of Thor’s habit of summoning the Mjölnir hammer. His chauffeur Happy Hogan has been promoted to Head of Security for Stark Industries. But Happy’s caustic “Super Friends” indicated the latter’s resentment toward Tony’s newly forged connections to the other Avengers. Worst of all, Tony has been experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the Avengers’ battle against the invading Chitauri aliens. 

But these problems are nothing in compare to the re-emergence of an old acquaintance whom Tony first met at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Thirteen years earlier, a drunken Tony and his date Dr. Maya Hansen encountered the disabled scientist Aldrich Killian, who offered them positions in his new company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. However, Tony rejects the offer, humiliating Killian in the process. Sometime after this encounter, Killian met Dr. Hansen and used her Extremis virus – an experimental regenerative treatment intended to allow recovery from crippling injuries – to heal his own disabilities. However, Extremis also gives the individual superhuman strength and allows him or her to generate heat. As it turns out, Killian is working for the latest threat to strike into the heart of American intelligence, a terrorist known as Mandarin. The latter has been responsible for a string of bombings that have left the intelligence agencies bewildered by any lack of forensic evidence. But Happy’s encounter with Killian’s major henchman, a former Army officer named Eric Savrin, in front of the Hollywood Chinese Theater leads him badly injured. And a very angry Tony issues a televised threat to capture the Mandarin. Former paramour Dr. Hansen appears at Stark’s Malibu home to warn him about Killian and the Mandarin, but the latter orders Savrin to lead an attack on the house. Tony, Pepper and Dr. Hansen all survive. But the house is destroyed and Tony is forced to disappear to somewhere in Tennessee and discover a way to defeat the Mandarin.

I was surprised to learn that Jon Favreau did not return as director for this third IRON MAN movie. Although “IRON MAN 2” proved to be a box office hit, many critics and moviegoers claimed that it was not as good as the first movie, “IRON MAN”. It was not an opinion that I shared, but . . . it was an opinion that led Marvel Studios to ask Favreau to step down as director of “IRON MAN 3”. Star Robert Downey Jr. suggested that the studio hire Shane Black to direct this third film. Downey Jr. and Black had first worked with each other in the 2005 comedy, “KISS KISS BANG BANG”. Did changing directors help the IRON MAN franchise? I do not think so. I am not saying that “IRON MAN 3” was a bad movie. I thought it was far from bad. But a change in directors did not improve the franchise. It was a change that I believe was unnecessary in the first place. However . . . I still enjoyed this third film very much.

One of the best things I could say about “”IRON MAN 3” is that it presented Tony with a very formidable opponent. The Mandarin proved to be not only scary, but very intelligent. The attack on Tony’s Malibu home was mind boggling. But the manner in which the Mandarin managed to track Tony down to a small Tennessee town and steal the War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot) armor by tricking American intelligence and the military regarding his location, and luring James Rhodes (aka War Machine) into a trap struck me as pretty flawless. And in using the Hansen/Killian Extremis virus on disabled military veterans, the Mandarin managed to create a formidable private army. There were other aspects of Black and Drew Pearce’s screenplay that I found very appealing. Although I had no problems with the Pepper Potts character in the previous two movies, I enjoyed the fact that Black and Pearce really put her through the wringer in this one – dealing with Tony’s panic attacks, surviving the Malibu house attack, and becoming a prisoner. Pepper’s ordeals finally paid off when she played a major role in defeating the Mandarin. Although Rhodey had a small presence in the movie’s first half, his presence increased tenfold in the second half. And like Pepper, he played a major role in the Mandarin’s defeat that I personally found very satisfying.

The movie also featured some top-notch action sequences. For me, the second best of them all was the Mandarin’s attack on Tony’s Malibu house. But there were other sequences that I found impressive; including Happy’s encounter with Eric Savrin and another benefactor of the Extremis virus in Hollywood, Tony’s encounter with Savrin and Extremis muscle Ellen Brandt in Tennessee, and the final battle on an oil rig. Mind you, the latter was not perfect, but Pepper and Rhodey’s actions in this sequence made it memorable for me. If the Malibu house attack was my second favorite action sequence, my favorite turned out to be Iron Man’s encounter with Savrin aboard Air Force One and his rescue of the President’s personnel following the plane’s destruction. The use of free fall in Iron Man’s rescue of the Presidential passengers really blew my mind. 

There were some complaints that Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be going through the motions in his portrayal of Tony Stark in this film. I cannot say that I agree with this opinion. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony seemed more sober or stressed out, due to the character’s inability to deal with the aftermath of the events in “THE AVENGERS”. Perhaps this is not a Tony Stark that fans and critics wanted to see. But I congratulate both Downey Jr., Black and Pearce for allowing audiences to see how Tony dealt with the aftermath of encountering invading aliens. My only complaint is that his PTSD seemed to have resolved by the end of the film without any explanation.  I had been impressed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of a stressed out Pepper Potts in “IRON MAN 2”. Considering what she had endured in this movie, Paltrow pulled out the stops as she conveyed Pepper’s array of emotions from wariness to fear and finally to anger. Frankly, I feel this movie featured her best performance as Pepper. I noticed that Don Cheadle seemed a lot more relaxed in the role of Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes aka War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot). As I had earlier stated, his presence in the movie’s first half seemed rather minimal. But once the movie shifted toward Tony and the American government going after the Mandarin in Miami, his role became more prominent. Not only did Cheadle displayed his talent for comedy, but his James Rhodes proved to be just as much of a bad ass without his War Machine armor, as he was with it. Denied the director’s chair for this movie, the screenwriters gave Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan was allowed a bigger role in the story, when the injuries he suffered at Eric Savrin’s hands snapped Tony out of his lethargy to deal with the Mandarin. And Favreau gave a performance that I found both funny and poignant.

In one article I had read, Guy Pearce described his role in “IRON MAN 3” as merely a cameo. Frankly, I think he may have exaggerated a bit. Like Don Cheadle, Pearce’s presence in the movie’s first half seemed minimal. In fact, his presence as Aldrich Killian did not seem to fully develop until the movie’s last forty-five minutes or so. And his character slightly reminded me of the Dr. Curt Conners (the Lizard) character from last year’s “THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN”. But I must admit that Pearce did a great job of conveying the character’s development from a pathetic and desperate man eager to use science to heal his disabilities to a charming former acquaintance of Pepper’s and finally a truly scary and difficult-to-beat villain. I have never seen James Badge Dale portray a villain. But I have heard that he once portrayed a serial killer on two carryover episodes from “CSI: MIAMI” and “CSI: NEW YORK”. I need to see those episodes, but I found Badge Dale’s portrayal of henchman Eric Sevrin rather frightening and intimidating. Rebecca Hall portrayed Dr. Maya Hensen, the true creator of the Extremis virus, who found herself regretting her decision to work with Dr. Killian. Hall gave a sharp and witty performance, but I think her presence seemed pretty much wasted. William Sadler gave a solid performance as the President of the United States. Considering his talent, I do wish the script had allowed him to do more. I can say the same about Miguel Ferrer’s ambiguous portrayal of the Vice-President. I finally come to Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Many fans were upset over the changes that Black and Pearce made to the Mandarin character. I was not. I found their portrayal of the super villain amazing and mind boggling. And one has to thank Kingsley for giving what I feel was the most entertaining performance in the movie. In fact, I feel that the scene in which Tony meets the Mandarin for the first time is one of my favorite “hero-meets-villain” scenes of all time from any Marvel film. It is a scene I will always cherish.

I do have a few complaints about “IRON MAN 3”. I had already pointed out my slight disappointment at the limited manner in which the Maya Hensen character was utilized. And I had a complaint about the quick resolution of Tony’s PTSD.  Also, Tony’s trip to Tennessee seemed a bit offbeat to em. I did not need to watch his developing friendship with the kid Harley, which struck me as trite. And I also wish that the script had been a little clear on how the Mandarin and Killian tracked Tony down to Tennessee. Although I found some satisfaction in the oil rig sequence – especially in regard to Pepper and Rhodey’s action – I must admit that overall, it struck me as somewhat convoluted. It did not help that the entire sequence was shot at night. Between the night setting, Jeffrey Ford and Peter S. Elliot’s shaky editing and the numerous Iron Man droids, I almost found the sequence very disappointing. Well, let me put it another way . . . I have seen better.

Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures are promoting this film as the best IRON MAN film ever. I cannot say that I agree. I feel it has a more complex story than the somewhat simplistic narrative  for “IRON MAN”. But it has a set of flaws that makes it difficult for me to declare it as “the best”. I guess “IRON MAN 2” is still my favorite. But I do believe that “IRON MAN 3”proved to be a very entertaining and exciting film. In the end, Shane Black did a top-notch job with the help of a decent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Robert Downey Jr.

 

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“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

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“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

When I first learned about the theater release of the 2014 disaster movie, “INTO THE STORM”, my first instinct was to go see it. The summer of 2014 proved to be a very hot and dry one for Southern California. And I had longed to see rain of any kind – even on the movie screen. But in the end, I never did. 

Caution eventually overrode my desire to see “INTO THE STORM” and I had decided to skip it. After all, movie tickets these days are not as cheap as they used to be. I was enduring a period of financial straits at the time. And “INTO THE STORM” had been released in August . . . a graveyard period for summer movies. So, I decided to watch the movie after it was released on DVD. And you know what? The movie turned out to be everything I had imagined.

“INTO THE STORM” is basically as disaster movie about how a team of storm chasers and citizens of a small Oklahoma town deal with a series of major tornadoes and rain storms. The movie begins with the deaths of a group of teenagers killed by a major tornado in some nameless small town. Unfortunately, the storm chasers led by a wealthy man named Peter Moore, failed to be in the storm’s vicinity, thanks to the team’s meteorologist, Dr. Allison Stone. The latter eventually discovers another storm/tornado heading in the direction of Sillerton, Oklahoma. Among the Sillerton citizens unaware of the incoming storms are Gary Fuller, vice-principal of the local high school and his two sons, Donnie and Trey; and Donnie’s fellow classmate, Kaitlyn Johnston. Since his wife’s death, Gary has been somewhat withdrawn and brusque toward his sons. Donnie seems to resent his father’s cold behavior, despite his willingness to video record the upcoming graduation ceremony for the town’s time capsule. In fact, Donnie has no trouble handing over the video recording task to younger brother Trey, when the latter suggests he do the job. Instead, Donnie helps Kaitlyn video record a school project at an abandoned paper mill as a means to get emotionally close to her. In the end, the lives of the Fuller family, other Sillerton citizens, Allison, Pete and the rest of the storm chasing team are endangered by on coming hail storms and tornadoes.

I would never classify “INTO THE STORM” as a major disaster movie on the scale of “EARTHQUAKE” or “2012”. It felt more like a small scale production limited to a small town or farm community setting. To be honest, it reminded me of movies like “DANTE’S PEAK” or “TWISTER”. Especially the latter. And like the last two mentioned films, “INTO THE STORM” almost seemed to have a B-movie veneer. Only the film’s special effects, which impressed me very much, made it difficult for me to view it as a B-movie. In the end, I am not surprised that “INTO THE STORM” was released in August.

Brining up “TWISTER” reminded me that this movie has more in common with the 1995 movie than any other. Both featured the following – heavy rain, hail, tornadoes, storm chasers and a Midwest setting. “TWISTER” was publicized as more of an “A” quality film and featured well-known actors in the lead. And yet . . . I came away feeling more impressed with “INTO THE STORM”. How odd. Mind you, “INTO THE STORM” was not perfect. As I had earlier pointed out, it seemed to have a B-movie veneer about it, despite the production values and special effects. But the movie also possessed two aspects that failed to impress me. One, I could have done without the two yahoos who had decided to face the storms for the sake of thrills. I found their characters so idiotic and not worthy of remembering their names. And two, I was not that impressed with the movie’s dénouement in which the storms’ survivors express their relief over being alive and what their experiences meant to them. I found the sequence a bit wince inducing, pretentious and a bore. I honestly could have dealt without the “meaning of life” speeches.

Despite these annoyances, “INTO THE STORM” proved to be an entertaining movie for me. Director Steven Quale and John Swetnam’s screenplay kept the narrative taut, well-paced and to the point. Some might say that the screenplay could have delved more into the characters’ background before placing them in the midst of the storm. I am not sure if such a ploy would have been necessary. The few scenes that focused on the private lives of the Fuller family and the storm chasers pretty much told me all I needed to know about them. Swetnam was pretty blunt about the characters’ personalities and their situations in their lives before the storms hit Sillerton. I also have to comment on the movie’s production values. I was very impressed by Brian Pearson’s photography. Surprisingly, the movie was shot in Michigan, instead of Oklahoma. Michigan or Oklahoma, I cannot deny that I found Pearson’s photography sharp, colorful and rather beautiful. Pearson’s photography also enhanced the work of the movie’s special effects team. Speaking of speacial effects . . . I thought the movie makers did an outstanding job in creating both the storms and tornadoes featured in the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s last tornado and one particular scene in which one of the characters ended up in the center of the storm – namely the eye.

I was also surprised that “INTO THE STORM” avoided the usual cliché of a romance between the two leading characters. There was a great deal of potential for romance between the Gary Fuller and Allison Stone characters. Both were portrayed by very attractive performers. Gary Fuller was a widower with two sons and Allison Stone was a single mother with a five year-old daughter. Whether she was divorced or single, I have no idea. The chemistry between the two seemed pretty obvious when they first met. And yet Swetnam’s screenplay merely allowed them to become friendly acquaintances and co-survivors . . . and nothing else. I would have been disappointed, if I had not found their lack of a romance surprisingly refreshing.

Considering that “INTO THE STORM” was not exactly a major Hollywood production, I felt rather relieved that the cast managed to give decent performances. Aside from the two actors who played the two thrill seeking yahoos, I was very satisfied with the rest of the cast. Both Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies clicked on screen as Gary Fuller and Dr. Allison Stone, despite the fact that they were not portraying a romantic pair. And Armitage’s American accent struck me as a bit of an improvement over his accent in 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. Max Deacon and Nathan Kress gave solid support as Fuller’s two sons – Donnie and Trey. I could also say the same about Alycia Debnam Carey, who portrayed Kaitlyn Johnston, and the actors who portrayed other members of Pete Moore’s storm chasing team. Speaking of the Pete Moore character, he struck me as quite a pip. I could not decide whether to like or dislike him. And I have to give kudos to Matt Walsh for making him such an effectively ambiguous character. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie.

In a nutshell, “INTO THE STORM” did not strike me as a particularly mind blowing or memorable film. I am not saying that it was terrible or even mediocre. I would say that it was a pretty solid and entertaining film, despite its flaws or 89 minute running time. I thought director Steven Quale did a good job in creating a decent film, backed by superb special effects and competent acting by a solid cast led by Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies.

1700-1749 Costumes in Movies and Television

Samuel Richardson, the Novelist (1684-1761), Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740-41 1708-1776 by Francis Hayman 1708-1776

Below are images of 1700-1749 fashion found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

1700-1749 COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

Tom Jones 1963

“Tom Jones” (1963)

 

 

The First Churchills 1969

“The First Churchills” (1969)

 

 

 

Young Catherine 1991

“Young Catherine” (1991)

 

 

 

Rob Roy 1995

“Rob Roy” (1995)

 

 

 

Catherine the Great 1996

“Catherine the Great” (1996)

 

 

 

The History of Tom Jones 1997

“The History of Tom Jones” (1997)

 

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean - Curse of the Black Pearl 2003

“Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

 

 

 

Perfume - The Story of a Murderer 2005

“Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer” (2005)

 

 

 

Black Sails 2014-2017

“Black Sails” (2014-2017)

 

 

 

Outlander 2015-Present

“Outlander” (2015-Present)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

Thanks to Episode Three, “HEAVEN AND HELL:  NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” ended on a solid note, thanks to John Jakes and Suzanne Clauser’s screenplay. A good number of NORTH AND SOUTH” fans have complained that the 1994 miniseries could have stretched into one or two more episodes. I have to disagree with that assessment. The 1987 novel was not as long as 1982’s “North and South” or 1984’s “Love and War”.

Episode Three began Charles Main’s confrontation with Scar and his discovery that the Cheyenne warrior was in no condition for any kind of duel. After mending Scar, Charles began to drink heavily in order to escape the failure of both his quest and his efforts to save the Cheyenne village from Captain Harry Venable and his troopers.  George Hazard and Madeline Main’s story blossomed into a romance that proved to be a lot more satisfying than what was depicted in Jakes’ 1987 novel. After becoming sober, Charles learned about Gus’ kidnapping from George and his friend, cavalry trooper Magic Magee. The trio set out into the Indian Territory to hunt for Bent and the kidnapped Gus. With George gone, Madeline was forced to contend with a double threat – a recently wealthy Ashton Main Fenway determined to take Mont Royal from her; and the local KKK and brother-in-law Cooper Main, determined to kill her and destroy her school for former slaves.

More so than the previous two episodes, Episode Three seemed to be pack with action. It featured Charles’ ill-fated duel with Scar, the hunt for the Hazard and Main familes’ nemesis, Elkhannah Bent and Charles’ kidnapped son Gus, and the Klan’s attack upon Mont Royal. And I thought that Larry Peerce handled these scenes rather well. Not only was I impressed by Peerce’s direction of the Klan’s attack, but also by Don E. FauntLeRoy’s night time photography of the swamp where George chased a captured Madeline, Cooper and Klansman Gettys LaMotte. This episode also featured some effective dramatic scenes – especially George and Madeline’s romance, Cooper’s hostile confrontation with his wife Judith, and Charles’ reconciliation with actress Willa Parker. But my favorite dramatic moment was Magic Magee’s attempt to distract Bent at a whiskey ranch, while Charles and George tried to rescue Gus. That particular scene seemed like an excellent mixture of drama, humor and tension.

The only bad performance that turned me off in this episode came from Terri Garber’s return to an exaggerated portrayal of a Southern belle. I found this ironic, considering that Lesley Anne Down managed to avoid this travesty, for once. However, Garber more than made up her acting faux pas in a scene in which she very convincingly portrayed Ashton’s devastation upon her discovery of Mont Royal’s wartime fate.  James Read and Lesley-Anne Down were very effective in conveying George and Madeline’s romance.  Both Philip Casnoff and Steve Harris gave first-rate performances in the battle of wits between Bent and Magee. I could say the same about Robert Wagner and Cathy Lee Crosby in the scene featuring Cooper and Judith’s quarrel.  Kyle Chandler really shone in this episode, as he portrayed the gamut of Charles’ emotional experiences from the drunken failed man to a determined father and finally, a man at peace with the woman he loved and with himself.  Everyone else – including Rya Kihlstedt, Tom Noonan, Sharon Washington, Cliff DeYoung, Gary Grubbs, Gregory Zaragoza, Jonathan Frakes, Deborah Rush and Julius Tennon did some pretty solid work.

“HEAVEN AND HELL” is not perfect. Its production values were not as top notch as the first two miniseries from the 1980s. The miniseries included literary characters like Cooper Main without explaining their lack of appearances in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. And it featured moments of hammy acting – especially by Lesley Anne Down, Terri Garber and Keith Szarabajka. On the other hand, this miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ third novel than “BOOK II” was to the second novel. Not only did “HEAVEN AND HELL” managed to feature excellent performances and outstanding action sequences, it featured what I consider are the two best scenes in the entire trilogy. And I still believe it was a lot better than most of the saga’s fans viewed it.

 

 

“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

 

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“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

Between 1948 and 1950, director John Ford made three Westerns that many regard as his “cavalry trilogy”. All three films centered on the U.S. Army Cavalry in the post-Civil War West. More importantly, all three movies were based upon short stories written by American Western author, James Warner Bellah. 

The first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” was “FORT APACHE” released in 1948. Starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the movie was inspired by Bellah’s 1947 Saturday Evening Post short story called “Massacre”. Bellah used the Little Bighorn and Fetterman Fight battles as historical backdrop.

The movie began with the arrival of three characters to the U.S. Army post, Fort Apache, in the post-Civil War Arizona Territory – a rigid and egocentric Army officer named Lieutenant Owen Thursday; his daughter Philadelphia Thursday; and a recent West Point graduate named Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke, who also happened to be the son of the regiment’s first sergeant. The regiment’s first officer, Captain Kirby York, and everyone else struggle to adjust to the martinet style of Thursday. Worse, young Lieutenant O’Rourke and Philadelphia become romantically interested each other. But since O’Rourke is the son of a sergeant, the snobbish Thursday does not regard him as a “gentleman” and is against a romance between the pair. But Thursday’s command style, the budding romance and other minor events at Fort Apache take a back seat when the regiment is faced with a potential unrest from the local Apaches, due to their conflict with a corrupt Indian agent named Silas Meacham. Thursday’s command and his willingness to adapt to military command on the frontier is tested when he finds himself caught between the Meacham’s penchant for corruption and the Apaches’ anger and desire for justice.

“FORT APACHE” proved to be one of the first Hollywood films to portray a sympathetic view of Native Americans. This is surprising, considering that Bellah’s view of the Native Americans in his story is not sympathetic and rather racist. For reasons I do not know, Ford decided to change the story’s negative portrayal of the Apaches, via screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s script. Although Ford and Nugent did not focus upon how most of the other characters regarded the Apaches, they did spotlight on at least three of them – Captain Kirby York, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday, and Captain Sam Collingwood. Both Thursday and Collingwood seemed to share the same negative views of the Apaches, although the latter does not underestimate their combat skills. York seemed a lot more open-minded and sympathetic toward the Apaches’ desire to maintain their lives in peace without the U.S. government breathing down their backs. In the case of “FORT APACHE”, York’s views seemed to have won out . . . for the moment.

As much as I enjoyed “FORT APACHE”, I must admit that I was frustrated that it took so long for it to begin exploring its main narrative regarding the Apaches and Meachum. The movie’s first half spent most of its time on three subplots. One of them featured the clash between Thursday and the men under his command. The second featured the budding romance between Philadelphia Thursday and Second Lieutenant O’Rourke. Do not get me wrong. And the third featured scenes of the day-to-day activities of the fort’s enlisted men and non-commission officers. I must admit that I found the last subplot somewhat uninteresting and felt they dragged the movie’s narrative. I had no problems with the Philadelphia-Michael romance, since it added a bit of romance to the movie’s plot and played a major role in Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday’s characterization. And naturally the York-Thursday conflict played an important role in the film’s plot.

The ironic thing about “FORT APACHE” is that the plot line regarding the Apaches does not come to the fore until halfway into the film. Due to this plot structure, I found myself wondering about the film’s main narrative. What exactly is “FORT APACHE” about? Worse, the fact that the Apache story arc does not really come to fore until the second half, almost making the film seem schizophrenic. There were plenty of moments in the first half that led me to wonder if director John Ford had become too caught up in exploring mid-to-late 19th century military life on the frontier.

Many have claimed that “FORT APACHE” is not specifically about life at a 19th century Army post in the Old West or the U.S. government’s relations with the Apaches. It is about the conflict between the two main characters – Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. In other words, one of the movie’s subplots might actually be its main plot. Both York and Thursday were Civil War veterans who seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to command a U.S. Army post in the 19th century West and deal with the conflict between the American white settlers and the Apaches, trying to defend their homeland. Captain York had expected to become Fort Apache’s new commander, following the departure of the previous one. Instead, the post’s command was given to Colonel Thursday, an arrogant and priggish officer with no experience with the West or Native Americans. What makes the situation even more ironic is that while York had wanted command of Fort Apache, Thursday is both disappointed and embittered that the Army had posted him to this new assignment.

The problem I have with this theory is that movie did not spend enough time on the York-Thursday conflict for me to accept it. Thursday seemed to come into conflict with a good number of other characters – especially the O’Rourke men and his old friend Captain Sam Collingwood. York and Thursday eventually clashed over the Apaches’ conflict with Silas Meacham. And considering that a great deal of the movie’s first half focused on the day-to-day life on a frontier Army post and the Philadelphia-Michael romance, I can only conclude that I found “FORT APACHE” a slightly schizophrenic film.

Despite this, I rather enjoyed “FORT APACHE”. Well . . . I enjoyed parts of the first half and definitely the second half. While I found some of Ford’s exploration of life at a 19th century Army post rather charming, I found the movie’s portrayal of the entire Apaches-Meachum conflict intriguing, surprising and very well made. Instead of the usual Hollywood “white men v. Indians” schtick, Ford explored the damaging effects of U.S. policies against Native Americans. This was especially apparent in the situation regarding Silas Meacham. Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent made it clear that both Captain York and Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday regarded Meachum as a dishonorable and corrupt man, whose greed had led to great unrest among the Apaches.

And yet . . . whereas York was willing to treat the Apaches with honor and consider getting rid of Meachum, Thursday’s rigid interpretation of Army regulations and arrogant prejudice led him to dismiss the Apaches’s protests and support Meachum’s activities because the latter was a U.S. government agent . . . and white. Worse, Thursday decided to ignore York’s warnings and use this situation as an excuse for military glory and order his regiment into battle on Cochise’s terms – a direct (and suicidal) charge into the hills. U.S. policy in the Old West at its worst. God only knows how many times a similar action had occurred throughout history. I might be wrong, but I suspect that “FORT APACHE” was the Hollywood film that opened the gates to film criticism of American imperialism in the West, especially the treatment of Native Americans.

Another aspect of “FORT APACHE” that I truly enjoyed was Archie Stout’s cinematography. What can I say? His black-and-white photography of Monument Valley, Utah and Simi Hills, California were outstanding, as shown below:

 

Thanks to Ford’s direction and Jack Murray’s editing, “FORT APACHE” maintained a lively pace that did not threatened to drag the movie. More importantly, the combination of their work produced a superb sequence that featured the regiment’s doomed assault on Cochise’s warriors. Richard Hageman’s score served the movie rather well. Yet, I must admit that I do not have any real memories of it. As for film’s costumes . . . I do not believe a particular designer was responsible for them. In fact, they looked as if they had come straight from a studio costume warehouse. I found this disappointing, especially for the movie’s female characters.

“FORT APACHE” featured some performances that I found solid and competent. Veteran actors like Dick Foran, Victor McLaglen and Jack Pennick gave amusing performances as the regiment’s aging NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Guy Kibbee was equally amusing as the post’s surgeon Captain Wilkens. Pedro Armendáriz was equally competent as the more professional Sergeant Beaufort, who was a former Confederate. Grant Withers was appropriately slimy as the corrupt Silas Meachum. Miguel Inclán gave a dignified performance as the outraged Apache chieftain Cochise. The movie also featured solid performances from Anna Lee and Irene Rich.

John Agar’s portrayal of the young Michael O’Rourke did not exactly rock my boat. But I thought he was pretty competent. I read somewhere that Ford was not that impressed by Shirley Temple as an actress. Perhaps he had never seen her in the 1947 comedy, “THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER”. Her character in that film was more worthy of her acting skills than the charming, yet bland Philadelphia Thursday. John Wayne also gave a solid performance as Captain Kirby York. But I did not find his character particularly interesting, until the movie’s last half hour.

I only found three performances interesting. One came from George O’Brien, who portrayed Thursday’s old friend, Captain Sam Collingwood. I thought O’Brien did a great job in portraying a man who found himself taken aback by an old friend’s chilly demeanor and arrogance. Ward Bond was equally impressive as Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, the senior NCO on the post who has to struggle to contain his resentment of Thursday’s class prejudices against his son. But for me, the real star of this movie was Henry Fonda as the narrow-minded and arrogant Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. I thought he gave a very brilliant and fascinating portrayal of a very complicated man. Thursday was not the one-note arrogant prig that he seemed on paper. He had his virtues. However, Fonda did an excellent job in conveying how Thursday’s flaws tend to overwhelm his flaws at the worst possible moment. I am amazed that Fonda never received an Oscar nomination for this superb performance.

How can I say this? I do believe that “FORT APACHE” had some problems. I found the movie slightly slightly schizophrenic due to its heavy emphasis on daily life on a frontier Army post in the first half. In fact, the movie’s first half is a little problematic to me. But once the movie shifted toward the conflict regarding the Apaches and a corrupt Indian agent, Ford’s direction and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay breathed life into it. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by John Wayne and Henry Fonda. I must admit that I feel “FORT APACHE” might be a little overrated. But I cannot deny that it is a damn good movie.