“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

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“WESTWARD HO”: Introduction

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Below is the introduction to an article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in the United States – especially during the 1840s: 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Introduction 

I. History vs. Hollywood

Between 2001 and 2004, the A&E Channel used to air a series called “HISTORY vs. HOLLYWOOD”. Each episode featured experts that were interviewed about the historical accuracy of a film or television special that was based on a historical event. These experts or historians would examine a newly released film – usually a period drama – and comment on the historical accuracy featured in the story. Not surprisingly, most productions would receive a verdict of “both Hollywood fiction and historical fact”.

A rising demand for more historical accuracy seemed to have become very prevalent in recent years. I cannot explain this demand. And if I must be honest, I do not know if I would always agree. If such accuracy ever got in the way of a whopping good story, I believe it should be tossed in favor of the story. Many of William Shakespeare’s dramas have proven to be historically inaccurate. I can think of a good number of well-regarded productions that I would never consider to be completely accurate as far as history is concerned – “GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939)“GLORY” (1989)“ENIGMA” (2001) and “THE TUDORS” (2007-2010).

All of this brings me to this article’s main topic – namely the depiction of the 19th century western migration in various movies and television productions. I thought it would be interesting to examine five productions and see how they compare to historical accuracy. I will focus upon two movies and three television miniseries:

*“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

*“THE WAY WEST” (1967)

*“CENTENNIAL: The Wagon and the Elephant” [Episode 3] (1978-79)

*“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

*“INTO THE WEST: Manifest Destiny” [Episode 2] (2005)

II. The Essentials of Western Travel

Before I start making comparisons, I might as well focus on the correct essentials needed by westbound emigrants during their trek to either Oregon, California or other destinations. The essentials are the following:

1. Farm wagon/Prairie schooner vs. Conestoga wagon – The Conestoga wagon is well-known among those who study American history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a heavy, broad-wheeled covered wagon used extensively during that period in the United States east of the Mississippi River and Canada to transport goods up to 8 tons. It was designed to resemble a boat in order to help it cross rivers and streams. 

However, the Conestoga wagon was considered too large and bulky for the 2,000 miles journey between Western Missouri and the West Coast – especially for the teams of stock pulling the wagon. It was highly recommended for emigrants to use regular farm wagons. The farm wagon was primarily used to transport goods. However, small children, the elderly, and the sick/or injured rode in them. But since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they had horses to ride. The wagon – depending on luck – was sturdy enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 westbound trek. More importantly, the wagon would not wear down the team of animals pulling it.

2. Draft animals – The westbound emigrants depended upon draft animals to haul their wagons for the long trek. Horses were out of the questions. A single rider could travel to Oregon or California astride a horse. But horses were not sturdy enough for the 2,000 miles trek and would die before reaching the end of the journey. It was recommended that emigrants use oxen or mules to pull their wagons.

Both oxen and mules were considered sturdy enough for the long trek. However, most would recommend oxen to haul a wagon, for they were cheaper and could survive slightly better on the grazing found along the trails. Mules could do the same, but at a lesser rate. But they were more expensive than oxen. They had a tendency to be temperamental. And they were more inclined to attract the attention of Native Americans.

3. Supplies and Goods – It was very essential for emigrants to haul supplies and goods during their long, westward trek. Upon leaving Independence, Missouri; there were very little opportunities to purchase food and supplies. The only locations that offered such opportunities to purchase more goods were a small number of trading and military outposts along the western trails. However, many emigrants attempted to bring along furniture, family heirlooms and other valuable possessions. They realized it was wiser to rid said possessions in order to lighten their wagon loads. And this would explain why these discarded possessions practically littered the major emigrant trails during the second half of the 19th century.

4. Western Outposts – As I had stated earlier, westbound emigrants encountered very little opportunities to re-stock on supplies during their journey west. Only a series of trading or military outposts on the western plains offered emigrants opportunities for more supplies. Emigrants encountered Fort Laramie (present day eastern Wyoming), Fort Hall (present day Idaho) and Fort Laramie after 1848 (present day Nebraska) along the Oregon/California Trails. Along the Santa Fe Trail, they would eventually encounter Fort Leavenworth (present day northeastern Kansas). Fort Bent (present day southeastern Colorado) and eventually Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.

5. Native American Encounters – The portrayal of emigrants’ encounters with Native Americans during the western trek could either be chalked up to Hollywood exaggeration, American racism or a mixture of both. But many movie and television productions about the western migration tend to feature large scale attacks upon wagon trains by Native American warriors. One, such attacks never happened – at least as far as I know. The various nations and tribes possessed too much sense to attack a wagon train that was likely to be well-armed. And the number of Native Americans portrayed in these cinematic attacks tend to be ridiculously large. A small band of warriors might be inclined to steal some horses or stock in the middle of the night, or attack a lone wagon traveling on the plains for the same reason. However, westbound emigrants either socialized or traded with the Native Americans they encountered. Or perhaps some trigger-happy emigrant or more might be inclined to take pot shots at a lone rider or two. But large scale attacks by Native Americans ended up being figments of a filmmaker’s imagination.

In the following article, I will focus upon the history accuracy or lack thereof featured in 1962’s “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (1980) Review

From a certain point of view, I find it hard to believe that the 1980 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” has become the most critically acclaimed STAR WARS movie by the franchise’s fans. And I find it hard to believe, due to the film’s original box office performance. 

I was also surprised that “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was released in the first place. Despite the ambiguous nature of villain Darth Vader’s fate in the 1977 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, I had assumed that film’s happy ending meant the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends was over. But my assumption proved to be wrong three years later. Many other filmgoers and critics also expressed surprise at the release of a second STAR WARS movie. More importantly, a surprising revelation and an ending with a cliffhanger resulted in a smaller box office for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” than either “A NEW HOPE” or the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Yet, thirty-three years later, the movie is now viewed as the most critically acclaimed – not just among the first three movies, but also among those released between 1999 and 2005.

“THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” begins three years following the events of ” A NEW HOPE”. Despite the Rebel Alliance’s major victory above the planet of Yavin and the destruction of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star, the rebellion continues to rage on. Luke Skywalker, now a wing commander at the Rebels’ base on Hoth, patrols beyond the base’s perimenter with close friend and former smuggler Han Solo. After the latter returns to base, Luke is attacked by a wampa and dragged into the latter’s cave. Meanwhile, Han receives word from Princess Leia, one of the Rebel leaders and a friend of both men, that Luke has not returned. He leaves the base to find Luke, while the latter manages to escape from the wampa’s lair. Luke stumbles into a snowstorm and before losing consciousness, receives a message from the Force spirit of his late mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, to seek out another Jedi named Yoda on Dagobah for further training. Han eventually finds Luke before a Rebel patrol finds them both. 

While Luke recovers from his ordeal, Leia and General Rieekan learn from Han and his Wookie companion Chewbacca have discovered an Imperial probe. They surmise that Imperial forces know the location of their base and might be on their way. The Rebel Alliance forces prepare to evacuate Hoth. But an Imperial presence on the planet served as a bigger problem for the heroes. Unbeknownst to them, Darth Vader seeks out Luke, following his discovery of the young man’s connection to the Force three years ago. Although the three friends will separate for a period of time and experience adventures of their own, Lord Vader’s hunt for Luke will result in great danger and a surprising revelation in the end.

I once came across a post on the TheForce.net – Jedi Council Forums message board that complained of the lack of a main narrative for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me could understand why this person reached such an opinion. Despite the circumstances on Hoth and the finale on the Bespin mining colony, our heroes barely spent any time together. Following the Rebel Alliance’s defeat on Hoth, Luke and R2-D2 traveled to Dagobah, where the former continued his Jedi training under Master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Chewbacca helped Leia and C3-P0 evade Darth Vader and Imperial forces on Hoth and in space before seeking refuge on Bespin. I believe this person failed to realize that other than Luke’s Jedi training with Yoda, most of the movie’s narrative centered on Vader’s attempts to capture Luke – the Imperial invasion of Hoth, his pursuit of Han and Leia aboard the Millennium Falcon, and their subsequent capture on Bespin. Even Luke’s Jedi training was interrupted by visions of his friends in danger and journeyed into the trap set by Vader. And this is why I found it hard to accept this complaint about “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”.

Most fans tend to regard the movie as perfect or near perfect. Despite my feelings for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I cannot agree with this view. I believe that the movie has its flaws. One could find cheesy dialogue in the movie, especially from Darth Vader. He possessed an annoying penchant for constantly using the phrase “It is your destiny” in the movie’s last half hour. Some of Leia and Han’s “romantic dialogue” in the movie’s first half struck me as somewhat childish and pedantic. Speaking of those two – how did they end up attracted to each other in the first place? “A NEW HOPE” ended with Han making a brief pass at Leia during the medal ceremony. But she seemed to regard him as a mere annoyance and nothing else. Three years later, both are exchanging longing glances and engaging in verbal foreplay at least ten to fifteen minutes into the story. I would have allowed this to slide if a novel or comic story had explained this sudden shift toward romance between them. But no such publication exists, as far as I know. This little romance seemed to have developed out of the blue.

There were other problems. The movie never explained the reason behind Leia’s presence at the Rebels’ Hoth base. She was, after all, a political leader; not a military one. The base already possessed a more than competent military leader in the form of General Rieekan. Watching Leia give orders to the pilots during the base’s evacuation made me realize that she really had no business interfering in the Rebels’ military protocol. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” also failed to explain why Han was being hunted by Jabba the Hutt after three years. I thought the payment he had received for delivering Leia and the Death Star plans to Yavin was enough to settle his debt to the Tattooine gangster. Apparently not. And the movie failed to explain why. Perhaps there is a STAR WARS that offered an explanation. I hope so. For years, I never understood the symbolism behind Luke’s experiences inside the Dagobah cave during his Jedi training. And I am not sure if I still do. Finally, how long did Luke’s training on Dagobah last? And how long did it take the Millennium Falcon to reach Bespin with a broken hyperdrive? LucasFilm eventually revealed that both incidents took at least three months. If so, why did the movie failed to convey this particular time span?

Thankfully, “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” more than rose above its flaws. For me, it is still one of the best science-fiction adventure films I have ever seen. I am amazed that such a complex tale arose from two simple premises – Darth Vader’s hunt for Luke Skywalker and the continuation of the latter’s Jedi training. From these simple premises, audiences were exposed to a richly detailed and action-filled narrative, thanks to George Lucas’ story, Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (which was also credited to Leigh Brackett) and Irvin Kershner’s direction. The movie featured many exciting sequences and dramatic moments that simply enthralled me. Among my favorite action sequences were the Millennium Falcon’s escape from Hoth, Yoda’s introduction, Han’s seduction of Leia inside the giant asteroid worm, the Falcon’s escape from the worm. For me, the movie’s best sequence proved to be the last – namely those scenes on the mining colony of Bespin. I would compare this last act in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” to the Death Star sequence in “A NEW HOPE” or the Mos Espa podrace sequence in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. The Bespin sequence featured a few truly iconic moments. Well . . . if I must be honest, I would say that it featured two iconic moments – Han’s response to Leia’s declaration of love and Darth Vader’s revelation of his true identity.

Naturally, one cannot discuss a STAR WARS movie without mentioning its technical aspects. In my review of “A NEW HOPE”, I had failed to mention Ben Burtt’s outstanding sound effects. I will add that his work in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” proved to be equally outstanding. I could also say the same for the movie’s sound mixing, which earned Academy Awards for Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Greg Landaker, and Peter Sutton. Composer John Williams’ additions to his famous STAR WARS score were not only outstanding, but earned him an Academy Award nomination. Those additions included a love theme for the Leia/Han romance and the memorable “Imperial March”, which is also known as “Darth Vader’s Theme” As far as I am concerned, the tune might as well be known as the Sith Order’s theme song. The team of Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, and Bruce Nicholson did an outstanding job with the movie’s visual effects – especially for the Battle of Hoth sequence. I can also say the same for Peter Suschitzky’s photography. However, my favorite cinematic moment turned out to be Luke’s initial encounter with Darth Vader on Bespin. Even to this day, I experience a chill whenever I see that moment when they meet face-to-face for the first time. Although John Mollo’s costumes caught Hollywood’s attention after “A NEW HOPE” was first released (he won an Oscar for his effort), his costumes for “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” seemed like a continuation of the same. In fact, I found the costumes somewhat on the conservative side, even if they blended well with the story.

It is interesting that the performances of both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher garnered most of the attention when “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” first came out. The Leia/Han romance was very popular with fans. Mind you, both gave very good performances. But I believe that Mark Hamill acted circles around them. And not surprising, he won a Saturn Award for his performance as Luke Skywalker in this film. Billy Dee Williams also gave a first-rate performance as the roguish smuggler-turned-administrator, whose charming persona hid a desperation to do anything to save the inhabitants of Bespin from Imperial annihilation. James Earl Jones and David Prowse continued their outstanding portrayal of Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker, with one serving as the voice and the other, the physical embodiment of the Sith Lord. Julian Glover, who later appeared in “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” made a brief appearance as the commander of the Imperial walkers, General Veers. Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew continued their excellent work as C3-P0, R2-D2 and Chewbacca. But I was particularly impressed by Frank Oz’s voice work as the veteran Jedi Master Yoda, and Kenneth Colley as the Imperial Admiral Piett, whose cautious and competency led him to rise in the ranks and avoid Vader’s wrath for any incompetence.

Is “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” my favorite STAR WARS movie of all time? Almost. Not quite. For me, it is tied in first place with one other movie from the franchise. But after thirty-seven years and in spite of its flaws, I still love it. And I have give credit to not only the talented cast and crew, but also director Irwin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and especially the man behind all of this talent, George Lucas.

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

 

“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” (2008) Review

When I first heard that another movie based upon the Marvel Comics character – Bruce Banner/the Hulk – would hit the theaters soon, the word in both Hollywood and on the Internet was that it would be better than the 2003 film directed by Ang Lee, namely “THE HULK”. After watching “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” for the umpteenth time, I decided to write about whether the film had surpassed the 2003 movie. 

The first film that starred Eric Bana as Bruce Banner ended with the main character in South America, providing medical services to impoverished local citizens. This movie, in which Edward Norton takes up the role, picks up with Bruce in South America – namely Brazil. Only he is working as a day laborer at a soft drink factory in Rio de Janeiro, while at the same time seeking a cure to get rid of the Hulk within him with the help of an internet friend. At the same time, he is being pursued by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and a Russian-born, British Royal Marine on loan to the U.S. Army named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).

There are some changes in which director Louis Leterrier, screenwriters Zak Penn and an uncredited Edward Norton made changes. One, aside from Brazil and Mexico, the movie is mainly set on the East Coast – suburban Virginia and New York City; whereas the 2003 version was set in San Francisco, Berkeley and Nevada. The movie’s opening credits showed the origins of the Hulk, which had nothing to do with the 2003 story. In the 2008 version, Bruce and Betty were assisting General Ross in an experiment to create “the Perfect Soldier”. Only Bruce became exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment and injured and/or killed a number of people, including Betty. In the 2003 movie, Bruce unwittingly became the subject of his father’s DNA research not long after his birth. His altered DNA is exposed to Gamma radiation during a lab experiment as an adult, and the Hulk is born. And of course, there are different actors in the major roles.

Naturally, Edward Norton did a great job portraying Bruce Banner. He managed to capture all the pathos, desperation and anger of the fugitive scientist/comic book hero. He managed to put his personal stamp on the role just as Bana had done, five years before. At first I had a hard time accepting Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, Bruce’s love and former colleague. She did not seem as effective as Jennifer Connelly in projecting Betty’s emotional personality. And I found it slightly hard to believe that she was a scientist. But she eventually grew into the role. I must admit that I have to say the same about William Hurt as General Thaddeus Ross. There were times when it seemed that Hurt was trying too hard to portray Ross’ obsessive and hostile personality. To be perfectly frank, he lacked Sam Elliot’s natural intensity. But he eventually did a good job. Tim Roth had no such problems. I thought he was perfect as Emil Blonsky, the Royal Marine determined to take down Bruce/the Hulk in any way. It really came as no surprise when he was willing to become a subject of another one of Ross’ Perfect Soldiers. And finally there is Tim Blake Nelson, who portrayed Dr. Samuel Stern, an eccentric scientist and Internet ally of Bruce, who becomes infatuated with the potential power of Gamma radiation, after he witnesses Bruce’s transformation. Although a little over-the-top at times, Nelson does a good job in portraying Sterns’ eccentric nature.

Do I believe that this new version of the Hulk is better than the 2003 version? Honestly? NO. And my family feels the same. I had expected this version to be better and was slightly disappointed that it failed to live up to the hype. At least for me. I wish that Marvel Films and Universal Pictures had allowed this film to simply be a sequel to the 2003 film. Instead, they tried to reboot the saga by changing the story of the Hulk’s origins from what was joined in the previous film. I feel that the story involving Bruce’s father gave the Hulk a special angst factor that the 2008 film lacked. Now, some people have claimed that the 2003 film had too much angst. We are talking about the Incredible Hulk that is a major character from Marvel Comics. Angst is Marvel’s middle name. And most of its movies – especially those focusing upon Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – have angst up the yahoo. This movie is a little more action oriented than the 2003 movie. Actually, I feel that it is more action oriented than “IRON MAN”, another 2008 Marvel film. But I do not believe that the presence of more action made this movie better than the 2003 movie or “IRON MAN”.

I really had a problem with the story’s finale. Granted, I was not fond of Bruce’s showdown with his father in the 2003 film. It came off as too vague for me. Although the Hulk/Abomination showdown was less vague in this film, I was not that impressed by it. The fight came off as too crude for my tastes. But the really problem is that the movie ended on a vague note. Perhaps this was Leterrier, Penn and Norton’s way of saying that the saga will continue. I think it could have been written better. The movie made it clear that it only defeated and not killed Abomination, but what later happened to Blonsky? Did he end up as Ross’ prisoner? Did the Army general really believe he could control Abomination? And those familiar with the Hulk comic saga knows that Sterns, who was exposed to Bruce’s blood in a confrontation with Blonsky, eventually became another one of the Hulk’s comic nemesis, the Leader. Unfortunately, not everyone would know this and the movie’s script makes this hint rather vague. It is almost as if the writers and the directors were afraid to give the story a more solid ending – like “IRON MAN” or even “THE HULK”. Not even the last shot of Bruce with a Norman Bates-style grin on his face or Robert Downey Jr’s cameo appearance as Tony Stark could really stave off my disappointment over the ending.

Despite the ending, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK” is a damn good movie . . . one that Marvel Films could be proud of. But the vague ending and my initial problems with Tyler and Hurt make it impossible for me to accept the prevailing view that it is better than 2003’s “THE HULK”.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Six “Peleliu Airfield” Commentary

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“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Six “Peleliu II” Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the sixth episode of “THE PACIFIC”.

Before the first episode of “THE PACIFIC” first aired, the producers had pointed out that the miniseries’ centerpiece would focus upon the Battle of Peleliu. Fought between September and November 1944, the battle is considered controversial amongst war historians. Many U.S. Marines had been decimated in a campaign that historians now view as unnecessary, because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the very high death toll. In fact, Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific Theater.

Since many Marine veterans have considered Peleliu as an important battle in their personal history, the miniseries’ producers decided to devote three episodes on the infamous battle. Last week, Episode Five featured the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and Eugene Sledge’s (Joseph Mazzello) baptism of fire. By the time the episode ended; Sledge, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and their fellow Marines were ready to storm and capture the airfield on South Peleliu.

The efforts of the First Marines Division to capture the airfield turned out to be a brutal and bloody affair. Before storming the airfield, the Marines had to deal with a lack of water, thanks to the top brass’ poor preparations for the invasion. But the episode’s pièce de résistance focused upon the battle that raged on the airfield. And so much happened. Both Robert Leckie and his remaining close friend, Bud “Runner” Conley (Keith Nobbs), were badly wounded during the assault. Eugene Sledge and his fellow Marines in the 5th regiment made it to the other side of the airfield . . . with a notable casualty in his company – PFC Robert Oswalt (Andrew Lees). He was the Marine who had described to Sledge a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon near the end of the previous episode. While Leckie and Runner found themselves conveyed to a nearby hospital ship, Sledge’s company continued its foray into the hills of Peleliu.

Many fans of the miniseries have waxed lyrical over this particular episode. And I can see why. Director Tony To did a marvelous job in conveying the chaos, insanity and brutality that the First Marines and the Japanese soldiers suffered during the battle for the airfield to the television screen. I have not seen such a brutal combat sequence since . . . well, since the landing in last week’s episode and the Guadalcanal action in which John Basilone (Jon Seda) earned his Medal of Honor in Episode Two. Viewers also got a chance to see other interesting scenes that included Sidney Phillips’ surprise visit to the Sledge family back in Mobile; the death of a Marine in Sledge’s company at the hands of his fellow combatants, due to his constant wailings that threatened to reveal their position in the Peleliu hills; another Marine in Sledge’s company who went off the deep end by counting the number of unseen Japanese soldiers to himself; Leckie’s attempt to find a corpsman (Navy medic) for a wounded Runner; the two friends’ reunion aboard the hospital ship; and the growing friendship between Sledge and the very eccentric SNAFU Shelton.

I have to hand it to both Joseph Mazzello and Rami Malek for doing such a superb job in portraying the two Marines’ growing friendship. And both actors made it so believable, considering they were portraying two characters that barely seemed to have anything in common. My favorite scene featured a moment in which Sledge supported Lieutenant “Hillibilly” Jones’ decision to have someone knock out that wailing Marine. And who was the first to immediately back up Sledge? SNAFU Shelton. This scene also seemed to hint that Sledge was learning to desensitize himself from the horrors of war. Consciously. 

Ashton Holmes gave an understated, yet first-rate performance as the returning Sidney Phillips, who paid a visit to Sledge’s family in Mobile. His Phillips seemed bent upon reassuring Sledge’s anxious parents that their son would make it through the war safely. Yet, the oblique expression in his eyes and his slightly intense manner seemed to hint that he is trying to convince himself, as well.

Once more, James Badge Dale delivered a brilliant performance as Robert Leckie. In one scene, Leckie’s platoon leader ordered him to fetch both a corpsman for the wounded Runner and a radio amidst the raging battle in the middle of the airfield. The expression on JBD’s face told volumes about Leckie’s dread of putting himself back into the line of fire. But his performance aboard the hospital ship really impressed me. The actor beautifully conveyed Leckie’s despair at being permanently separated from his three friends. There was a moment that found him staring despondently at a bowl of peaches. And then out of the blue, someone calls his name. It turned out to be the very person who gave him the nickname of “Peaches” on Guadalcanal – a very much alive Runner. What followed was a poignant scene between JBD and Keith Nobbs (“Runner” Conley) in which the latter assured that he knew the former tried his best to find a corpsman.

Well . . . that is it for Episode Six. Next, Sledge and company fight the Japanese in the hills of Peleliu.

“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” (1967) Review

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“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” (1967) Review

In recent years, EON Production’s 1967 movie, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” has not been highly regarded by many Bond fans. In a way, I can understand why, judging by Sean Connery’s performance in his fifth consecutive turn as James Bond and the movie’s plot. 

The plot begins with the abduction of an American space capsule in space by a mysterious craft. The U.S. government blames the Soviet government, but the British government, who has tracked the mysterious craft to Japan, where James Bond is sent to investigate. With the help of Tiger Tanaka and Japan’s SIS agency, Bond eventually links the mysterious craft to SPECTRE, who is being paid by the People’s Republic of China to start a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As one can see, the movie’s plot, written by Roald Dahl, bears very little resemblance to the novel under the same name. Characters like Kissy Suzuki, Tiger Tanaka, Ernst Blofeld and Dikko Henderson are in both the movie and the novel. But the latter dealt with a Bond (depressed over the death of his wife, Tracy) given one last chance by MI6 to get direct access from the Japanese to Magic 44, the project revealing all Soviet radio transmissions. The mission, which eventually involves Blofeld and a place called “Castle of Death”, seems like a far cry from the movie’s plot.

Not only is the movie’s plot bears very little or no resemblance to the novel (a first in the Bond franchise), there are some moments in the story that seem to defy logic. I never understood why Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) failed to mention that she worked for Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and the Japanese SIS when she first met Bond. Why would Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) go through all of that trouble in allowing Bond to “convince her” to betray Osato (Teru Shimada) before finally attempting to kill him? If she did it for sex with the British agent, then she had deserved to be consumed by the piranha fish. I never could figure out on which side was the wheel placed on Aki’s white Toyota sports car – the left or the right. What exactly did Bond plan to do once he joined the escaped American astronauts impersonating SPECTRE astronauts? Especially since he had sent Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama) to summon Tiger and his Ninja warriors? And why in the hell did Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) shoot Osato and then force Bond to another spot before attempting to kill him? Why was it necessary for him to force Bond to move to a different spot, in the first place?

Most of the performances in the movie were satisfying. especially Akiko Wakabayashi, who memorably played the charming and very competent Aki. In fact, I would say that she practically gave one of two gem performances in the movie. It seemed a shame that she had failed to survive the movie. The other gem turned out to be the performance of Tetsuro Tambo, who played the charismatic head of Japan’s SIS, Tiger Tanaka. Teru Shimada was properly menacing as SPECTRE middleman, Mr. Osato. Charles Gray made a nice appearance as MI6 agent, Dikko Henderson, four years before his stint as Ernst Blofeld. 

Speaking of Blofeld, Pleasance was not bad, but his Middle European accent seemed a little unconvincing and the scar on his cheek seemed a little over-the-top. Karin Dor seemed like an obvious attempt on EON Production’s part to cash in on Luciana Paluzzi’s popular performance in “THUNDERBALL” . . . and it failed. Her appearance seemed like a waste of time. Mie Hama, although charming and beautiful, turned out to be one of the most boring Bond leading ladies of all time. I could not detect anything interesting about her character, Japanese SIS agent and diving girl, Kissy Suzuki. Many have commented on Sean Connery’s less than spectacular performance in this movie. And I must agree with their opinion. Granted, he had some good moments with Wakabayashi and Tambo, but overall, he seemed to be walking through the performance. And this is not surprising, since it had been reported that Connery was pretty much weary of the Bond role, by this time. But at least he did not seemed to be spoofing his role, as he did in “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”.

“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” did have high water marks, other than Wakabayashi and Tambo’s performances. The movie can boast beautiful shots of Japan, thanks to cinematographer, Freddie Young; and a lovely John Barry score, topped by a beautiful and lilting theme song, performed by Nancy Sinatra. “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” might not be considered the best of Bond films or those made during the Connery era, but it still turned out to be very entertaining. 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

I had been a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, ever since I first saw the 2004 television adaptation a few years ago. Mind you, I had never read the novel. And I still have yet to read it. Despite this, I became a fan of the story. And when I learned that the BBC planned to release an older adaptation of Gaskell’s novel, which first aired in 1975, I looked forward to seeing it. 

As one would assume from reading this review, I eventually purchased a copy of the 1975 adaptation on DVD. And if I must be honest, I do not regret it. “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty damn good adaptation. Like the 2004 version, it consisted of four (4) fifty-minute episodes. Gaskell’s novel told the story of one Margret Hale, who returns home after ten years to her cleric father’s rector in Helstone, after attending the wedding of her cousin, Edith Shaw. Margaret’s homecoming is short-lived when she and her mother learn that her father Richard Hale has left the Church of England as a matter of conscience, after he has become a dissenter. His old Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that the Hales move to the industrial town of Milton, in Northern England; where the latter was born and own property. 

Not long after the Hales’ arrival in Milton, both Margaret and mother Maria Hale find Milton harsh and strange. Due to financial circumstances, Mr. Hale works as a tutor. One of his more enthusiastic students turn out to be a wealthy cotton manufacturer named John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. Appalled by the conditions of the poverty-stricken mill workers, Margaret befriends the family of one Nicholas Higgins, a union representative. She also develops a dislike of Thornton, finding him gauche and seemingly unconcerned about his workers’ condition. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Thornton has grown attracted to her. The volatile relationship between Margaret and Thornton eventually plays out amidst the growing conflict between mill owners and angry workers.

As I had stated earlier, “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty good adaptation. I have a tendency to regard BBC miniseries produced in the 1970s with a jaundice eye, considering their tendency end up as televised stage plays. Thanks to the conflicts, social commentaries and romance featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the miniseries was never boring. Many viewers who have seen this version of Gaskell’s novel claim that it was a more faithful adaptation than the 2004 miniseries. I cannot agree or disagree, considering that I have yet to read the novel. But I have never been too concern with the faithfulness of any movie or television adaptation, as long as the screenwriter(s) manage to come up with decent script that adheres to the main narrative of the literary source. Fortunately, David Turner did just that. His screenplay, along with Rodney Bennett’s direction, explored all of the aspects of Gaskell’s 1855 novel – the reason behind the Hales’ move to the North, the labor conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, Margaret Hale’s conflict/romance with John Thornton, the latter’s relationship with his mother, Nicholas Higgins’ conflict with fellow mill worker Boucher, and the fragmentation of the Hale family. Also, Bennett directed the entire miniseries with a steady pace that kept me alert.

It is a good thing that Bennett’s pacing kept me alert . . . most of the time. Like many BBC productions in the 1970s, “NORTH AND SOUTH” did come off as a filmed play in many scenes. Aside from Margaret’s arrival in Helstone in Episode One, the labor violence that erupts within the grounds of Marlborough Mills in Episode Two and the delivery of Boucher’s body in his neighborhood; just about every other scene was probably shot inside a sound stage. And looked it. This even includes the Milton train station where Margaret says good-bye to her fugitive brother, Frederick. Now many would state that this has been the case for nearly all BBC miniseries productions from that era. Yet, I can recall a handful of productions from the same decade – 1971’s “PERSUASION”, 1972’s “EMMA” and even “JENNIE, LADY RANDOLPH CHURCHILL” from 1974 – featured a good deal of exterior shots. And there were moments when some scenes continued longer than necessary, especially in Episode One. Margaret’s conversation with her cousin Edith and Mr. Hale’s announcement of his separation from the Church of England seemed to take forever. And due to this problem, there were moments went the miniseries threatened to bog down.

But as much as I liked Turner’s adaptation of the novel, it seemed far from perfect. One aspect of the script that really irritated me was that Turner had a habit of telling the audiences what happened, instead of showing what happened. In Episode One, following their arrival in Milton, Margaret tells her parents that she met the Higgins family. The miniseries never revealed how she met Nicholas or Betsy Higgins in the first place. The series never revealed the details behind Boucher’s death in Episode Four. Instead, a neighbor told Margaret, before his body appeared on the screen. We never see any scenes of Fanny Thornton’s wedding to mill owner Mr. Slickson. Instead, John tells Mr. Bell about the wedding in a quick scene between the two men on a train. Also, I found Margaret’s initial hostility toward John rather weak. A conversation between the two about the mill workers took part after audiences met the Higgins family. It is easy to see that John’s arrogant assumption regarding his control of his workers might seemed a bit off putting to Margaret. But it just did not seem enough for her hostility to last so long. And while the script probably followed Gaskell’s novel and allowed John’s regard for Margaret to be apparent before the end of Episode One, I never felt any growing attraction that Margaret may have felt toward John. Not even through most of Episode Four. In fact, Margaret’s open declaration of her love for John in the episode’s last few minutes seemed sudden . . . as if it came out of the blue.

The above mentioned problem may have been one reason why I found Margaret and John’s romance unconvincing. Another problem was that I found the on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart, rather flat. In short, they did not seemed to have any real chemistry. The two leads gave first-rate, if somewhat flawed performances in their roles. Aside from a few moments in which I found Shanks’ Margaret Hale a bit too passive, I thought she gave an excellent, yet intelligent performance. Stewart seemed as energetic as ever, even if there were moments when his John Thornton seemed to change moods faster than lightning. But they did not click as an on-screen couple. Also, Turner’s screenplay failed to any signs of Margaret’s growing attraction toward John. It simply appeared out of the blue, during the series’ last few minutes. 

I certainly had no problems with the other performances in the miniseries, save for a few performances. Robin Bailey did an excellent job in portraying Margaret’s well-meaning, yet mild-mannered father, Richard Hale. Bailey seemed to make it obvious that Mr. Hale was a man out of his depth and time. Kathleen Byron perfectly conveyed both the delicate sensibility and strong will of Margaret’s mother, Maria Hale. I was very impressed by Rosalie Crutchley’s portrayal of the tough, passionate and very complex Mrs. Hannah Thornton. I could also say the same about Norman Jones, who gave a very fine performance as union representative Nicolas Jones . . . even if there were times when I could barely understand him. Christopher Burgess’ portrayal of Boucher struck me as very strong . . . perhaps a little on the aggressive side. And Pamela Moiseiwitsch gave a very funny portrayal of John’s younger sister, Fanny; even if her performance came off as a bit too broad at times. It was a blast to see Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of Margaret’s fugitive brother, Frederick Hale. I say it was a blast, due to the fact that Pigott-Smith portrayed Richard Hale in the 2004 miniseries, 19 years later. As much as I enjoyed seeing him, there were times when his performance came off as a bit hammy.

Overall, “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a pretty solid adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Aside from a few changes, it more or less adhered to the original narrative, thanks to David Turner’s screenplay and Rodney Bennett’s direction. And although it featured some fine performances, the miniseries did suffer from some narrative flaws and a lack of chemistry between the two leads – Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart. However, “NORTH AND SOUTH” still managed to rise above its flaws . . . in the end.