“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

George-Lazenby

 

“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

At least ten years or more must have passed since I last saw the 1969 Bond movie, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS)”. EON Production’s sixth entry in the Bond franchise has the distinction of being the only movie that starred Australian male model-turned-actor, George Lazenby. It was the first EON movie that did not star Sean Connery – already fixed in the public’s mind as the only actor who can portray James Bond. And it was the only movie that was directed by former film editor, Peter Hunt. 

I first became aware of “OHMSS” back in the mid-1980s. I had seen it on television once, when I was a child. But ABC Television’s botched editing had turned me off from the movie. I eventually became a fan during repeated viewings of the movie during the mid and late 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, “OHMSS” had been fixed as my favorite Bond movie. For years, it remained in this position, despite repeating viewings of other Bond movies, the release of the Brosnan films and my own mysterious reluctance to watch “OHMSS”. It seemed as if I was afraid to watch it again, fearful that my earlier adulation of the film might prove to be misguided. And then EON Productions released “CASINO ROYALE” in the theaters back in 2006. “CASINO ROYALE” had impressed me so much that my doubts about “OHMSS”increased even further. After seeing “CASINO ROYALE” for the third time and 2008’s “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I finally decided to watch “OHMSS” for the first time in years.

In the end, my fears seemed groundless. My latest viewing of “OHMSS” proved that I had every right to view it as one of my all time favorite Bond movies. After 41 years, the movie still holds up as one of the finest Bond movies in the entire franchise, if not the finest. And it also one of the few Bond films to closely follow its source, namely the 1963 novel penned by Ian Fleming. What makes the latter remarkable is that the previous Bond entry, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” barely resembled its literary source, aside from a few characters and the setting.

“OHMSS” picks up with Bond searching for Blofeld, now wanted by various governments for his past forays into international terrorism and extortion. His search leads to meeting the most important woman in his life other than Vesper Lynd – Teresa (Tracy) Draco di Vicenzo. Not only will his meeting with Tracy lead to a serious change in his private life, it will also affect his professional life, thanks to Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange Draco when he provides Bond with information leading to Blofeld. Of course, Draco was only willing to provide this information, if Bond courts his daughter. In the end, Bond not only tracks down Blofeld, but destroy the latter’s latest attempt to extort the United Nations. But as many know, Bond’s latest professional conflict will result in tragedy for his private life.

I only have a few problems with “OHMSS”. One of them was the director Peter Hunt’s decision to have actor George Baker (portraying the real Sir Hilary Bray), dub Lazenby’s voice, while Bond is impersonating Sir Hilary at Piz Gloria. Why they had decided to do this confounds me. It seemed very unnecessary, unless the director was aiming for Sir Hilary to sound like a cliché of a British scholar. Another problem I had were some of the jokes that came out of Bond’s mouth. I consider this problem minor, since “OHMSS” – like many other Bond movies had its share of good and bad jokes. One particularly good joke was the St. Bernard who came to Bond’s “rescue” after the latter had survived his bobsled fight against Blofeld. And last, but not least, there were a few moments when the editing seemed a bit . . . questionable. A good example would be the scene that featured Bond’s first meeting with Draco. There is a moment when it seemed that Bond had asked Draco for Blofeld’s whereabouts. It seemed as if Lazenby had spoken too soon, cutting off actor Gabriele Ferzetti’s lines too soon. Another viewing seemed to reveal that poor editing might have been at fault and not Lazenby’s acting. And another review seemed to agree with my findings.

Aside from the previously mentioned quibbles, I had no problems with “OHMSS”. In fact there is so much to enjoy about this movie – including the main star, George Lazenby. Many critics and fans either tend to dismiss his performance as wooden or give him minor credit for his valiant attempt at a decent performance. Frankly, I think that he was a lot better than many give him credit for. I must admit that he has a rather odd voice (which I suspect has been influenced by his Australian accent), but so did most of the other Bonds – including Connery’s tendency to indulge in pre-adolescent diction, Moore’s drawl, Dalton’s Welsh accent and Brosnan’s . . . well, I cannot really describe Brosnan’s voice. I just find it odd. But despite Lazenby’s odd voice, his acting comes off very natural and he seems to project Bond’s emotions with an ease that should not have come easy to him. But he does. And instead of portraying Bond as some kind of action/sexual icon, he portrays the character as very human. This is very obvious in the following scenes:

-Bond’s growing impatience with Tracy’s antics
-Bond’s surprise that M had given him leave instead of accepting his resignation
-Bond’s breakthrough with Tracy
-the Piz Gloria dinner sequence
-Bond’s fear of capture during his escape from Piz Gloria
-Bond’s proposal of marriage to Tracy
-Bond’s quarrel with M over Tracy and Blofeld
-Tracy’s death

Personally, I thought that Lazenby really shined in the marriage proposal scene, those scenes that featured Bond’s quarrels with M and the Piz Gloria dinner sequence. Despite having his voice dubbed by George Baker in the latter, Lazenby managed to express Bond’s emotions during that scene effortlessly without having to say a word.

The movie also benefited from the presence of Diana Rigg, who had recently left “THE AVENGERS” to begin a movie career. What can one say about the great Diana? Not only did she effortlessly combine all the complex personality traits of Tracy di Vicenzo – witty, emotional, sad, brave, determined, etc. Is it any wonder that Tracy is viewed by many actresses as the ultimate Bond woman? Even better, both Rigg and Lazenby managed to create great chemistry together as the romantically doomed pair.

Not only did “OHMSS” benefited from both Lazenby and Rigg’s performances, the pair was ably supported by a fine cast that included the warm and charismatic Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, the talented Ilse Steppat who portrayed the intimidating Irma Bunt shortly before her death (she never lived to experience the movie’s release), the always dependable Bernard Lee as M – giving one of his better performances, and the charming and fun Angela Scoular as Blofeld’s English patient, Ruby. Of course one cannot forget the legendary Telly Savalas, who became the second actor to portray Ernst Blofeld on-screen. And as far as I’m concerned, he was the best. He was not impeded by Donald Pleasance’s ridiculous scar and questionable accent or Charles Gray’s foppish portrayal. Instead, he radiated intelligence and menace, making him the only Blofeld (in my opinion) worthy of being Bond’s nemesis.

I also have to commend Peter Hunt’s direction. “OHMSS” was his first time at bat as a director. Any other inexperienced director could have turned one of Ian Fleming’s best novels into a hash job. Fortunately, Hunt proved to be a talented director and did justice to the novel – although I did have a problem with the editing of a few of his scenes. Hunt was not only ably supported by a fine cast, but by screenwriter Richard Maibaum, editor and future director John Glen, and John Barry’s marvelous score and Hal David’s haunting lyrics to the song, “We Have All the Time In the World”. Cinematographer Michael Reed superbly recaptured the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the exotic elegance of Portugal with his photography. And one cannot forget skier Willy Bogner Jr. and Alex Barbey for creating the first and probably best ski chase in the Bond franchise.

I could probably go on about how much I love “OHMSS”, but I do not want to sound repetitive. What can I say? After 48 years, I consider to still be one of the best Bond movies in the franchise . . . and definitely one of my favorites. And I am happy to see that “OHMSS” is finally being recognized by many as the fine film it is. If you have not seen this film, I suggest that you rent or buy it as soon as possible. Or else you will be missing something special.

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“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

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“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

For years, I thought that director Robert Zemeckis had lost his way. I thought the Academy Award he had won for the 1994 movie, “FOREST GUMP” had transformed a talented and slightly eccentric filmmaker into a pretentious and boring one. 

I realize this is a cruel thing to say. Robert Zemeckis had been one of my favorite directors ever since I first saw his 1978 comedy, “I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND” on television. But after he won a Best Director Oscar for “GUMP”, he seemed to have lost his touch. I am not saying that movies like “CONTACT”“WHAT LIES BENEATH” and “CASTAWAY”were terrible. For me, they seemed to lack that Zemeckis touch that had made his previous movies magical for me. But after seeing the director’s latest endeavor, “FLIGHT”, I believe there is a good chance that he may have regained his mojo.

“FLIGHT” tells the story of an airline pilot, who manages to prevent a flight between Orlando and Atlanta from perishing in a fatal crash. Only six people – four passengers and two stewardesses – die in the crash. An investigation of the crash reveals not only malfunctions within the plane, but also evidence of alcohol use by the crew, especially by the pilot, one Whip Whitaker. Whip had used cocaine before the flight to keep himself alert and imbibed alcohol during the flight. The airline pilots’ union hires Hugh Lang to defend Whip and prevent the latter from serving time in prison for drug and manslaughter charges. Lang claims he can get the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)‘s toxicology report declared inadmissible in court and focus the investigation on the plane’s malfunctions. But both he and Whip’s friend and union representative, Charlie Anderson, gradually become aware that Whip is a hardcore alcoholic and drug abuser. And his addictions might stand in the way of any successful defense on Lang’s part.

I am not stating that “FLIGHT” is perfect. It had one or two aspects I found questionable. One, I thought a movie that is basically a character study of an alcoholic airline pilot possibly facing the consequences of his substance abuse should not have a running time of 139 minutes. Yes, I believe it was at least fifteen to twenty minutes too long. And one of the scenes I would have trimmed featured a cameo appearance by the very talented James Badge Dale. Do not get me wrong. I thought that Badge Dale gave a superb performance as a cancer patient that Whip Whitaker and future girlfriend/fellow addict Nicole Maggen met in a hospital hallway. Unless Badge Dale had said something that related to the story (and if he did, someone please enlighten me), I saw no reason to include his character into the story. My other problem has a good deal to do with a repentant Whip recounting his alcoholism and drug use to a counseling group. Honestly, it felt as if Bob Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins injected a segment from an episode of the “ABC AFTERSCHOOL” television series . . . and that Whip was talking to a group of high school students.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that “FLIGHT” really impressed me. The last time I saw a movie or television series about an alcoholic was CBS’s “KNOT’S LANDING” in which the Gary Ewing character (portrayed by actor Ted Shackleford) experienced his last bout of alcoholism and recovery. It was ugly to watch. Since then, I have made a point of deliberately avoiding movies about alcoholics and drug abusers. At least two family members have died from the consequences of drug abuse and one dead relative was a former alcoholic. When I sat down in a movie theater to watch “FLIGHT”, I never thought that Denzel Washington would be portraying such a hardcore substance abuser. But you know what? I am glad that I saw the movie.

There are many aspects about “FLIGHT” that I truly enjoyed. Thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ direction, Don Burgess’ cinematography and award worthy editing by Jeremiah O’Driscoll, the movie featured a kick ass plane crash sequence that left me breathless and wired at the same time. It was a beautiful thing to watch and worthy of a series of Academy Awards technical nominations. But more importantly, Gatnis created a superb portrayal of the alcoholic airline pilot that gave plenty of meat for both Zemeckis and actor Denzel Washington. Some of the movie’s best moments aside from the actual crash included Whip’s future girlfriend, Nicole Maggen, nearly dying from a heroin overdose; Lang and Whip’s meeting with the president of the airlines; Whip and Nicole’s conflict over his constant drinking; Whip’s confrontation with his ex-wife and son; Lang’s chewing out Whip about the latter’s legal situation; and Whip’s failed attempt to resist consuming booze he found in a mini bar in a hotel room. My two favorite scenes featured the attempts of Whip’s colorful friend/drug dealer Harling Mays to help him recover from another alcoholic binge before he can testify before a NTSB hearing . . . and the actual hearing itself, which ended with a surprising twist.

The performances for “FLIGHT” were superb. I could not find a bad or mediocre performance from any member of the cast. Not one. I have already pointed out James Badge Dale’s excellent performance as a cancer patient that Whip and Nicole briefly met. I was also impressed by Tamara Tunie’s stalwart, yet emotional performance as senior flight attendant Margaret Thomason; Brian Geraghty as Whip’s religious co-pilot Ken Evans, who lost the use of his legs; Peter Gerety’s colorful portrayal of airline owner Avington Carr; and Nadine Velazquez’s solid performance as Katerina Marquez, the recently deceased flight attendant who had been Whip’s lover.

But the performances that really caught my eye came from Melissa Leo, who gave a brief, yet subtle performance as lead NTSB investigator Ellen Block; John Goodman, who was deliciously larger than life as Whip’s friend and drug dealer, Harling Mays; and Bruce Greenwood’s quiet, yet emotional portrayal of Whip’s much put upon friend, Charlie Anderson. Don Cheadle (who last worked with Washington in the 1995 movie, “DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS”) gave a superb performance, while acting as more or less the backbone of the movie as Whip’s uber talented attorney, Hugh Lang. Kelly Reilly finally caught the eyes of critics in her excellent portrayal of recovering drug addict, Nicole Maggen, who ends up falling for Whip.

But the man of the hour was Denzel Washington. Ever since winning his second Academy Award, ten or eleven years ago, he has given a series of solid or excellent performances in movies that were either successful or not. But it was plain to me that his performance as alcoholic Whip Whitaker was one of his very best in years. Washington was always at his best when portraying characters that were complex – with both likeable and dislikeable traits. Only a true performer, in my opinion, is not afraid to tackle such a character. As the last twenty to thirty years of superb performances have shown, Washington has never been afraid to tackle such characters like Whip.

“FLIGHT” may have suffered from a running time that I found too long and an ending that struck me as a little too adolescent for my tastes. But I must admit that it has become for me one of the best movies I have seen this year. As a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis has returned in top form. And his endeavors were assisted by excellent photography and editing, a top-notch screenplay by John Gatins and first-rate performances from a talented cast led by the always superb Denzel Washington.

 

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

The third movie and sixth episode of George Lucas’ original STAR WARS saga, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, has become something of a conundrum for me. It was the first STAR WARS movie that immediately became a favorite of mine. But in the years that followed, my opinion of the film had changed. 

Directed by Richard Marquand, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” picked up a year after “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” left off. The movie begins with the arrival of the Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Vader to the Empire’s new Darth Star, which had been in construction above the moon of Endor. Luke Skywalker, Jedi-in-training and Rebel Alliance pilot, finally construct a plan to rescue his friend, Han Solo, from the Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt. His plan nearly fails, despite help from Princess Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and his droids C3-P0 and R2-D2. Despite the odds against them, the group of friends finally succeed in rescuing Han and killing Jabba.

Following the Tatooine rescue, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his Jedi training with Jedi Master Yoda. However, Luke discovers Yoda on the verge of death from old age. When the old Jedi Master finally dies, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost appears and verifies what Luke had learned on Bespin in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” – that Darth Vader is his father, Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan insists that Luke has to kill his father in order to destroy the Sith Order, but the latter is reluctant to commit patricide. Eventually, Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance rendezvous point, and volunteers to assist his friends in their mission to destroy the the Death Star.

I was not kidding when I stated that “RETURN OF THE JEDI” was the first STAR WARS movie to become a personal favorite of mine. I disliked “A NEW HOPE” when I first saw it. It took me nearly a decade to get over my dislike and embrace it. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” creeped me out a bit, due to its dark plot, the revelation of Darth Vader’s true identity and Han’s unhappy fate. The movie has become one of my two favorites in the franchise. But I loved “RETURN OF THE JEDI” from the beginning. By then, I finally learned to embrace Lucas’ saga. And the positive ending with no potential of a sequel made me equally happy. And yet . . . my feelings toward the movie gradually changed. Although I still maintained positive feelings toward the movie, I ceased to regard it as my personal favorite from the STAR WARS franchise.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” did have its problems. One, the movie featured both a second Death Star and Luke’s return to Tatooine. For me, this signalled an attempt by George Lucas to recapture some of the essence from the first movie, “A NEW HOPE”. In other words, I believe Lucas used the Death Star and Tatooine to relive the glory of the first movie for those fans who had been disappointed with “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. And there is nothing that will quickly turn me off is an artist who is willing to repeat the past for the sake of success.

Tatooine proved to be an even bigger disappointment, especially since I have never been fond of the sequence at Jabba’s palace. I never understood why it took Luke and his friends an entire year to find Han. Boba Fett had made his intentions to turn Han over to Jabba very clearly in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. So, why did it take them so long to launch a rescue? Exactly what was Luke’s rescue plan regarding Han in the first place? Not long after she arrived with Chewbacca, Leia made her own attempt to free Han from the carbonite block and failed. Had Luke intended for this to happen? Had he intended to be tossed into a pit with a Rancor? Were all of these minor incidents merely parts of Luke’s plan to finally deal with Jabba on the latter’s sail barge? If so, it was a piss-poor and convoluted plan created by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured the development of Luke’s skills with the Force. Since the movie made it clear that he had not seen Yoda since he departed Dagobah in order to rescue Han, Leia and Chewbacca from Bespin; I could not help but wonder how Luke managed to develop his Force skills without the help of a tutor. I eventually learned that Luke honed his Force skills by reading a manual he had found inside Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Tatooine hut. Frankly, I find this scenario ludicrous. Luke’s conversation with Obi-Wan’s ghost on Dagobah featured one major inconsistency. Obi-Wan claimed that Owen Lars was his brother, in whose care he left Luke. Considering Obi-Wan’s unemotional response to Owen’s death in “A NEW HOPE”, I found this hard to believe and could not help but view Obi-Wan’s words as a major blooper. Especially since Obi-Wan had reacted with more emotion over Luke’s reluctance to become a Jedi and kill Darth Vader.

Many fans have complained about the cheesy acting and wooden dialogue found the Prequel Trilogy movies. These same fans have failed to notice similar flaws in the Original Trilogy movies, including “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Especially “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Mind you, the movie did feature some first-rate performances. But none of it came from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. I really enjoyed Ford and Fisher’s performances in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. But I feel they really dropped the ball in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. They seemed to be phoning in their performances and the Leia/Han ended up rather wooden and unsatisfying to me. This was especially apparent in the scene in which Leia, after learning the truth about Vader’s identity, seemed too upset to answer Han’s demanding questions about her conversation with the departed Luke. Both Fisher and Ford really came off as wooden in that scene. When I had first saw “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, I despised the Ewoks. My feelings for them have somewhat tempered over the years. But I still find them rather infantile, even for a STAR WARS movie. Although I no longer dislike the Ewoks, I still find that village scene in which C3-P0 revealed the past adventures of Luke and his friends very cheesy and wince-inducing. Unlike the past two films, the camaraderie between the group seemed forced . . . and very artificial. The Ewok village scene also revealed a perplexing mystery – namely the dress worn by Leia in this image:

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For years, I have wondered why Leia would carry such a dress with her, during the mission to Endor. I eventually learned that the Ewoks created the dress for her, after she became their guest. And I could not help but wonder why they had bothered in the first place. Luke and Han did not acquire new outfits from the Ewoks after they became the latter’s guests. And how did the Ewoks create the dress so fast? Within a matter of hours?

Thankfully, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” had plenty of virtues. One of those virtues turned out to be Mark Hamill, who gave the best and probably the most skillful performance in the movie as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the previous two movies, Luke has become a more self-assured man and Force practitioner, who undergoes his greatest emotional journey in his determination to learn the complete story regarding his family’s past and help his father overcome any remaining connections to the Sith. He was ably supported by James Earl Jones (through voice) and David Prowse (through body movement), who skillfully conveyed Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker’s growing dissatisfaction with the Sith and himself. “RETURN OF THE JEDI” also marked the real debut of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of politician and Sith Lord Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. Although the actor achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Palpatine in the Prequel Trilogy movies, I must say that I was impressed by his performance in this film. McDiarmid was in his late 30s at the time, but I he did a first-rate job in portraying Palpatine as a powerful and intelligent Sith Lord and galactic leader, whose skills as a manipulator has eroded from years of complacency and arrogance. Billy Dee Williams returned as ex-smuggler Lando Calrissian, who has joined the Rebel Alliance cause. Although his portrayal of Lando did not strike me as memorable as I did in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I believe he did a very solid job – especially in the Battle of Endor sequence. I finally have to comment on the Jabba the Hutt character, who proved to be very memorable thanks to Larry Ward’s voiceovers and the puppeteer team supervised by David Barclay.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured some first-rate action scenes. The best, in my opinion, was the speeder bike sequence in which Luke and Leia chased a squad of Imperial stormtroopers on patrol through the Endor forest. This sequence was actually shot in the Redwood National Forest in California. The combined talents of Lucas, Marquand’s direction, Alan Hume’s photography, the ILM special effects, Ben Burtt’s sound effects (which received an Oscar nomination) and especially the editing team of Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham made this sequence one of the most exciting, nail biting and memorable ones in the entire saga. But there were other scenes and sequences that impressed me. Despite my dislike of the entire sequence featuring the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, I cannot deny that the scene aboard Jabba’s sail barge proved to be entertaining. Even the ground battle between the Imperial forces and the Rebel forces (assisted by the Ewoks) proved to be not only entertaining, but also interesting. The idea of the Ewoks utilizing the natural elements of Endor to battle and defeat Imperial technology provided an interesting message on the superiority of nature. And if I must be honest, I found the destruction of this second Death Star to be more exciting than the first featured in “A NEW HOPE”.

Despite the barrage of action scenes, there were a few dramatic scenes that I found impressive. The best one proved to be the confrontation between Luke, Vader and Palpatine aboard the second Death Star. Luke and Papatine’s battle of wills over Vader’s soul not only provided some interesting performances from Hamill, Earl Jones/Prowse and McDiarmid; it also resulted in one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie. Another excellent dramatic scene featured Luke’s discussion with Obi-Wan’s ghost regarding Vader’s true identity. Both Hamill and Alec Guinness gave excellent performances in the scene. It also, rather surprisingly, revealed the flawed aspect of the Jedi’s righteous nature for the very first time.

After the release of the six STAR WARS movies produced by George Lucas, I realized that I no longer regarded “RETURN OF THE JEDI” as the best in the saga. Unfortunately, I now rate it as the least most satisfying film in the saga, so far. Certain plot holes and some weak performances made it impossible for me to view it with such high esteem. Yet, I cannot say that I dislike the film. In fact, I still enjoyed it very much, thanks to a first-rate performance by Mark Hamill, who really held the movie together; some excellent action sequences and a surprising, yet satisfying twist that ended the tale of one Anakin Skywalker. Despite its flaws, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” still managed to be a very satisfying movie.

“DUE DATE” (2010) Review

 

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“DUE DATE” Review

I have always been a fan of road trip movies. This come from a love of long-distance traveling that I managed to acquire over the years. Some of my favorite movies have featured road trips – ”IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT””SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT””MIDNIGHT RUN” and even ”PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES”. Because of this, I looked forward to seeing ”DUE DATE”, Todd Phillips’ 2010 movie that starred Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. 

Also written by Phillips, along with Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, and Adam Sztykiel; ”DUE DATE” told the story of an architect named Peter Highman trying to get home from Atlanta to Los Angeles to be present at the birth of his first child, a scheduled C-section, with his wife, Sarah. At the Atlanta airport, Peter has an encounter with an aspiring actor named Ethan Tremblay. After inadvertently using the words terrorist and bomb during a quarrel with Ethan, Peter is shot by an air marshal with a rubber bullet. Both are forced off the plane before take-off. And after being questioned by airport security, Peter discovers that he has been placed on the No Fly List and will have to find another way to get to California. After realizing that he had left his wallet on the plane, Peter reluctantly agrees to travel with Ethan all the way to Los Angeles.

At first, it occurred to me that ”DUE DATE” was not as . . . hilarious as two of his other well-known films, 2003’s ”STARSKY AND HUTCH” and last year’s ”THE HANGOVER”. By the time the movie ended, I realized why. ”DUE DATE” strongly reminded me of the 1987 comedy, ”PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES”. In fact, it could easily be considered a remake of the John Hughes film. Both movies are basically comedic road trips about two different men – an uptight professional desperately trying to get home for a certain reason who is forced to travel with a flaky and accident-prone, yet desperately lonely man for financial reasons. There were differences. In the 1987 film, Steve Martin and John Candy traveled from New York to Chicago, spending most of their journey throughout the Midwest. In this film, Downey Jr. and Galifianakis traveled through the Deep South, from Atlanta to Los Angeles. This movie focused a lot of their journey in Texas – especially in the second half. But if I must be honest, the differences are minor in compare to the similarities. Let us just say that ”DUE DATE” is definitely a remake of Hughes’ film.

Todd Phillips did an excellent job with his cast. The supporting characters turned out to be interesting. Juliette Lewis, who had worked with Phillips in ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”, portrayed a flaky marijuana dealer in Birmingham, Alabama, from whom Ethan (Galifianakis) wanted to purchase some weed. This sequence provided the funniest moment in the movie – an encounter between a very annoyed Peter (Downey Jr.) and the dealer’s bratty kids, which ended up with a surprising punch to the gut. Another interesting supporting performance came from Danny McBride (who worked with Downey Jr. in ”TROPIC THUNDER”), who portrayed an intimidating and physically disabled Western Union employee they had encountered. The movie also featured a wild and funny encounter with two Mexican border patrol cops who arrest Peter for possession of marijuana (thanks to a fleeing Ethan). But the funniest supporting performance came from Jamie Foxx (Downey Jr.’s co-star from 2009’s ”THE SOLOIST”), who rediscovered his comic roots by portraying Peter’s oldest friend from college, now living in Dallas. What made Foxx’s performance rather funny was that his character seemed like a very together man . . . who harbored a slight obsession toward Peter’s wife (Michelle Monaghan), whom he had dated in college. But the real stars of the movie were Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. Phillips was very lucky that the pair managed to generate such a strong screen chemistry. They did an awesome job in portraying two rather emotionally disturbed, yet different men who found themselves forming a strong bond during the 2,200 miles journey. Downey Jr.’s sharp-tongue, yet uptight character balanced very well with Galifianakis’ emotionally immature dweeb.

Did I have any problems with ”DUE DATE”? Well . . . yes. Like ”PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTO”, it was a strong comedy with some equally strong angst moments. And like the 1987 movie, those angst moments felt very forced. I believe that was due to Galifianakis’ performance. Mind you, there was nothing wrong with his acting, but it felt rather forced. And another scene I had trouble with was the encounter between the two travelers and the Western Union employee. That particular scene started out funny. But when McBride revealed his character to be a disabled Iraqi War veteran, the laughs dried up. The situation grew worse when McBride’s character began beating upon Downey Jr.’s sarcastic character. I did not know whether or not to take this scene seriously. Instead, I winced through it all.

It is possible that many moviegoers might not take this movie seriously, due to its strong resemblance to ”PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES”. Roger Ebert went as far as to compare it unfavorably to the 1987 film. Personally, I have decided to regard ”DUE DATE” as a remake. Is it a good remake? Yes. In fact, not only does the 2010 film not only share similar strengths with Hughes’ film, but also similar flaws. But it is still a first-rate movie, even if I would never regard it as a personal favorite of mine.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

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“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter. 

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

 

“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.01-1.02) “The Pilot”

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“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.01-1.02) “The Pilot”

The pilot episode of some of my favorite television series have rarely impressed me . . . if not at all. There are a few exceptions to the rule. And one of those exceptions happened to the be pilot episode for ABC-TV’s “LOST”

Created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Leiber and Damon Lindelof, “LOST” aired on television for six seasons, between 2004 and 2010. As many fans know, “LOST” told about the survivors of a commercial passenger plane crash on a mysterious South Pacific island, while flying between Sydney and Los Angeles. While television viewers got to know these survivors during their time on the island, but also through flashbacks revealing their past. The series’ first episode aired in two parts on September 22, 2004.

(1.01) “Pilot (Part 1)” introduced the series’ leading character, a spinal surgeon named Dr. Jack Shephard, who wakes up in the middle of the jungle following the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. He stumbles onto the beach and finds the chaos left behind from Oceanic 815’s crash. As everyone knows, the plane broke into three pieces before crashing on the island. Jack and most of the survivors ended upon with the fuselage. The cockpit and the plane’s first-class section ended deep into the jungle with no survivors, save the pilot. And the tail section fell into the ocean on the other side of the island. Jack and some of the survivors like John Locke and Hugo “Hurley” Reyes help other passengers with injuries or dodging burning pieces. After helping some of the passengers, Jack goes to another part of the beach to tend to his own injury, when he meets Kate Austen. She sews up his injury, while the two bond. Many other things occur during the episode. Survivors either form friendships or get on each others’ nerves. During their first night on the beach, everyone becomes unnerved by sounds of a monster deep in the jungle. The following day, Jack heads toward the cockpit to retrieve the plane’s transceiver and is accompanied by Kate and musician Charlie Pace. They retrieve the transceiver and encounter the badly injured pilot, who informs them that the plane had lost radio contact six hours into the flight and veered off course. Before he can share any further information, he is seized by a strange being and killed. Jack, Kate and Charlie make a run for it.

(1.02) “Pilot (Part 2)” continue Jack, Kate and Charlie’s flight from the monster that killed the pilot. During their absence, the dog of 10 year-old survivor Walt Lloyd finds a pair of handcuffs. A Middle Eastern survivor name Sayid Jarrah comes under suspicion from a Southern-born passenger named “Sawyer”. Jack and his two companions make it back to the beach with the transceiver. Sayid, Kate, “Sawyer”, Charlie and a step-brother-sister team named Boone Carlyle and Shannon Rutherford trek to the high ground to use the transceiver. Instead of contacting help, they manage to interpret a message sent earlier by a French woman on the island. One of the badly wounded survivors on the beach turn out to be a U.S. marshal demanding the whereabouts of his prisoner, a woman. Flashbacks reveal that the prisoner is Kate.

I will not deny that “LOST” is one of my favorite television series. It is not on my list of the top ten favorite shows. But it is on my list of top twenty favorites. Despite my favoritism toward “LOST”, I cannot deny that it also possessed some seriously flawed writing. But it was not on display in the two-part pilot. Well . . . somewhat. A few of the occurrences in this episode ended up contradicting the series’ future narrative.

It is ironic that the first villainous character to make his/her appearance in the series turned out to be the main villain – the Smoke Monster aka the Man in Black. The survivors heard its “roar” during their first night on the island. And he killed the Oceanic 815’s pilot while the latter discussed the plane’s location with Jack and Kate. In fact, the Smoke Monster killed another survivor in an early Season Three episode – Mr. Eko. While many fans are still debating the reason behind the MIB’s murder of Mr. Eko, no one has figured out why the pilot was killed. Especially after Season Six revealed the list of candidates for the island’s new caretaker. I suspect that the MIB was simply being portrayed as a supernatural monster before the writers had decided to portray him as a villain with a purpose.

I have two more complaints about the episode. Some of the characterizations struck me as one-dimensional. This was especially the case for Shannon Rutherford, who was portrayed as some bitchy Valley Girl; Jin Kwon, who was written as a cliché of the oppressive Asian husband; Sun Kwon, who was portrayed as the typically oppressed Asian wife; and James “Sawyer” Ford, who was not only unlikable, but also the one-dimensional Southern white male. In Sawyer’s case, not only was his character portrayed in the worst clichéd manner possible, poor Josh Holloway was stuck with some pretty bad dialogue – especially in Part 2. He fared a lot better as the series progressed. Speaking of dialogue – yeech! Yes, I thought it was pretty bad. It was more than bad. I found it somewhat infantile and unmemorable.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Despite some of the one-dimensional characterization and bad dialogue, there were some pretty good performances. For me, one of the best performances came from Matthew Fox, who dove right into the role as the series’ lead character, Dr. Jack Shephard. Fox gave early hints of the complicated and deeply flawed character later revealed in future episodes. Fox’s early revelation of Jack’s flaws must have been subtle, for the later revelation of his flaws seemed to have taken many by surprise. Dominic Monaghan gave a funny and charming performance as the drug-addicted musician, Charlie Pace. And yet, his performance was skillfully shaded with hints of his character’s drug addiction. Thanks to Naveen Andrews’ subtle, yet intense performance and good writing, the character of Sayid Jarrah rose above the usual clichés featuring Middle Eastern characters. Emilie de Ravin was a delight as the pregnant Australian survivor, Claire Littleton. As for Evangeline Lilly, she did a pretty good job as Kate Austen, the survivor trying to hide her status as a Federal prisoner. However, I had some difficulty accepting her as the take charge type, as the script tried to portray her in Part 2. Terry O’Quinn was perfectly mysterious as John Locke, but viewers had to wait for another two episodes before he began to shine in the role. And Harold Perrineau gave a skillful performance as Michael Dawson, the inexperienced father of 10 year-old survivor, Walt Lloyd.

I felt that the narrative for “The Pilot”, which was written by Abrams and Lindelof, proved to be a well-written adventure. The story covered all of the elements for a story about survivors on a tropical island. The addition of the Smoke Monster injected a little horror and a great deal of mystery that would become the series’ hallmark. One of the aspects of “The Pilot” that I found particularly interesting was that it started with a close-up of Jack Shephard’s eye – post crash. In other words, this story did not start with the crash. Audiences were not treated to scenes aboard Oceanic Flight 815 and the actual crash, except during flashbacks. Very unusual. There were other scenes that I still find fascinating after nine years. My God! Has it been nine years?Those scenes include Jack, Kate and Charlie’s escape from the cockpit, following the pilot’s death; the discovery of Danielle Rousseau’s message in Part 2; the encounter with the polar bear; and the survivors’ first awareness of the Smoke Monster’s existence. But the one scene that many consider outstanding – including myself – is that opening shot of the fuselage wreckage on the beach and the chaos that surrounded it. I must admit that not only did J.J. Abrams really outdid himself in this particular scene, it is probably one of his best directed sequences in his entire career.

Despite a few hiccups regarding dialogue and some one-dimensional characterizations, “LOST” provided one of the best series openings I have ever viewed on television, thanks to some superb direction by J.J. Abrams, a damn fine cast and a well written teleplay. It is a pity that the series has never been able to maintain such excellent consistency during the rest of its six seasons on the air.