“X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

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“X-MEN: WOLVERINE” (2009) Review

I must admit that when I had first learned of Marvel’s plans to release a fourth movie in the ”X-MEN” franchise nearly six years ago, I did not warm to the idea. And when I learned that this fourth movie would focus upon the origins of James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine, my wariness deepened. 

Fortunately, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” eased most of my doubts. It turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining movie. Directed by Gavin Hood, it told the story of how a Canadian mutant named James Howlett (or Logan) became the amnesiac Wolverine first introduced in the 2000 film, ”X-MEN”. The movie not only provided a brief glimpse of his tragic childhood in mid-19th century Canada, which included the deaths of his stepfather; and real father and his relationship with his half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth, along with an extraordinary title sequence that highlighted the two brothers’ experiences as Canadian mercenaries for the U.S. Army during the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. But the gist of the film centered around their work as mercenaries for the U.S. Army’s “Team X”, led by military scientist Major William Stryker; and James’ (Logan’s) later conflicts with Victor and Stryker after he left the team.

”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” had received some bad word of mouth before its release at the beginning of May. A rumor circulated that either Marvel or 20th Century-Fox had meddled with director Hood’s finished work. Since I do not know whether this is true or not, all I can do is comment upon what I had seen on the movie screen. And to be honest, I am not a big fan of the Wolverine character . . . despite Hugh Jackman’s portrayal. Yes, he can be very entertaining. But uber-macho types like Logan have never been my forte. But I went ahead saw the movie, anyway.

First, I have to say that ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” was not perfect. One, I never understood why James and Victor had served as mercenaries for the U.S. Army during both World War I and II, since Canada had participated in both wars and at least seven decades had passed between the deaths of John Howlett and Thomas Logan (James’ step-father and father) in 1845 and their participation in World War I in 1917-1918. And two, how did Stryker know that Victor had less chance of surviving the adamantium process than James? Was it ever explained in the movie? I also had problems with two of the characters in the movie, along with Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing. But I will discuss those later.

Despite some of the flaws mentioned in the previous paragraph, ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” turned out to be better than I had expected. The movie took viewers on James Howlett’s emotional journey that started with him as a young boy in 1845 Canadian Northwest Territories, who stumbled upon an unpleasant truth about his parentage in the worst possible way. By the time the movie ended, James (or Logan) had fought in several wars, participated in Team X’s black operations, estranged himself from Victor, fallen in love, experienced loss, acquired his adamantium claws and lost his memories. Several fans had complained that Logan’s character did not seem like the complex loner from ”X-MEN” throughout most of the movie. Instead, he seemed more like the slightly benign team player that had emerged at the end of ”X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND”. I must admit that these fans have a point. Only . . . I am not complaining. This only tells me that screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods had properly done their jobs. If Logan’s character had remained the cynical loner throughout the entire film, I would have been disappointed. One key to good writing is character development. In all of the previous three ”X-MEN”, Logan’s character had developed slowly from the loner to the team player shown at the end of ”THE LAST STAND”. But ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”is only one movie. And in that single film, the screenwriters, along with Hood and actor Hugh Jackman had to show the audience how James Howlett became that amnesiac loner. The last thing I wanted to see was a one-dimensional portrayal of his character. And I am thankful that I have no reason to complain about Logan’s character arc.

Not only was I impressed by Logan’s character development (which was the gist of the story), I was also impressed by how Hood, Benioff, Woods and Jackman handled Logan’s relationships with Victor and Stryker. I enjoyed how the screenwriters created the con job that both Stryker and Victor had committed against Logan. They had manipulated Logan into volunteering for the adamantium process, so that he could seek revenge against Victor for his girlfriend’s death. What Logan did not know was that he had been nothing more than an experiment – a test run – to see if the process would work for Stryker’s new weapon – a mutant called Weapon XI or Deadpool that had been injected with the abilities of other mutants, including Logan’s healing factor. I feel that Benioff and Woods’ creation of the con job was an imaginative twist to the story . . . and very essential to Logan’s character development.

Speaking of Logan, I must say that Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of conveying Logan’s emotional journey in the film. Thanks to his first-class performance, he took Logan from the loyal, yet wary half-brother of the increasingly violent Victor Creed to the amnesiac mutant who ended up rejecting Remy LaBeau’s help amidst the ashes of Three Mile Island. Mind you, Jackman’s portrayal of Logan has always been first-rate. But since this movie featured a more in-depth look into the character’s development, I feel that it may have featured Jackman’s best performance as aggressive and self-regenerative mutant.

Liev Schreiber seemed equally impressive in his portrayal of Logan’s half-brother, Victor Creed aka Sabertooth. Like Logan, Victor possessed a regenerative healing factor, an aggressive nature and superhuman senses. But Schreiber’s Victor seemed not to have embarked on an emotional journey. Instead, his character seemed to be in some kind of quandary. Not only did Schreiber portray Victor as a more aggressive and violent man than Logan, but he did so with a touch of style that seemed to be lacking in Tyler Mane’s portrayal in the 2000 movie. Schreiber also did a magnificent job in revealing Victor’s conflicted feelings toward the character’s younger half-brother. He loves James, yet at the same time, harbors several resentments toward the younger man – including one toward Logan’s abandonment of Team X and him.

Normally I would pity the actor forced to fill Brian Cox’s shoes in the role of U.S. Army scientist William Stryker. The Scottish actor had given a superb performance in ”X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED”. Fortunately, Marvel hired Danny Huston for the role. Not only did he successfully fill Cox’s shoes in my opinion, he managed to put his own stamp on the role. Like Cox, Huston did a great portrayal of Stryker as the soft-spoken, yet ruthless and manipulative military scientist who would do anything to achieve his goals regarding the existence of mutants. But whereas the older Stryker simply wanted to destroy mutants, Huston’s Stryker seemed to desire control over them . . . for his own personal experiments. And Huston . . . was superb.

I felt more than satisfied with most of the movie’s supporting cast. Ryan Reynolds was memorable in his brief role of a wisecracking mercenary with lethal swordsmanship named Wade Wilson. He was both hilarious and chilling as the mutant who eventually became Stryker’s premiere experiment – Weapon XI aka Deadpool. Taylor Kitsch made a charming, yet intense Remy LaBeau, the New Orleans hustler and mutant who had escaped from Stryker’s laboratory on Three Mile Island. Rapper will.i.am made a solid screen debut as the soft spoken teleporter, John Wraith. Dominic Monaghan gave a quiet and poignant performance as Bradley, another member of Stryker’s Team X that happened to be a technopath. Kevin Durand as funny as the super strong Fred Dukes aka Blob, who developed an eating disorder after leaving Team X. Daniel Henney was intense and unforgettable as Team X’s ruthless tracker and marksman, Agent Zero. I enjoyed Tahyna Tozzi’s portrayal of the strong-willed Emma “Frost” so much that I found myself wishing she had been the movie’s leading lady.

Which brings me to Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox. I am sure that Ms. Collins is a competent actress. But her performance as Kayla, Logan’s telepathic girlfriend struck me as a bit uninspiring. Oddly enough, she physically reminded me of Evangeline Lilly of ”LOST”. In fact, her portrayal of Kayla damn near came off as flat so much that her acting skills almost seemed as mediocre as Ms. Lilly’s. Considering Ms. Collins’ reputation as an actress, I suspect that screenwriters Benioff and Woods are to blame for the flat portrayal of Kayla, instead of Ms. Collins’ acting skills. Tim Peacock gave a competent, yet unmemorable performance as the younger Scott Summers aka Cyclops – another mutant who became one of Stryker’s prisoners on Three Mile Island and a part of the Weapon XI experiment. If this Cyclops is supposed to be twenty years younger than the one featured in the first three ”X-MEN” films, then I believe that a younger actor should have been cast in this film. Why? I never got the impression that James Marsden’s Cyclops had been somewhere between 34 and 38 in the three previous films.

As I had stated earlier, I was not impressed by Nicholas De Toth and Megan Gill’s editing of the film. At times, it struck me as slightly choppy and amateurish. Only the editing featured in the opening title sequence struck me as impressive. And imaginative. However, Donald McAlpine’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Dean Franklin, Craig Veytia and Mike Rotella struck me as very impressive – especially in the title sequence and the scene featuring Logan and Victor’s fight against Deadpool on Three Mile Island.

In conclusion, I found ”X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” to be surprisingly enjoyable. It turned out better than I had expected, despite some flaws. It would probably rank third for me in the ”X-MEN” franchise – somewhere between ”X-MEN 3” and ”X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I find this astonishing, considering I did not have any real hopes for this film when it first hit the theaters nearly nine years ago. I realize that many fans of the franchise have low opinions of the film. But you know what? I guess I really do not care.

 

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“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” (1982) Review

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“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” (1982) Review

Back in 1982, the BBC turned to 19th century author Anthony Trollope for a seven-part miniseries called ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. The miniseries was based upon the author’s first two Barchester novels about the Church of England. 

Directed by David Giles and written by Alan Plater, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” is an adaptation of ”The Warden” (1855)and ”Barchester Towers” (1857). The novels focused upon the the dealings and social maneuverings of the clergy and gentry literature concern the dealings of the clergy and the gentry that go on between the citizens and members of the Church of England in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester. Episodes One and Two, which are adaptations of ”The Warden”, center on the impact upon the Reverend Septimus Harding and his circle when a zealous young reformer named John Bold launches a campaign to expose the disparity in the apportionment of Hiram House, an almshouse for bedesmen, and its income between the latter and its officer, Reverend Harding. Mr. Bold embarks on this campaign out of a spirit of public duty, despite his previously cordial relationship with Mr. Harding and his romantic involvement with the latter’s younger daughter, Eleanor. Mr. Bold attempts to enlist the support and interest of Tom Towers, the editor of The Jupiter, who writs editorials supporting reform of the charity, and a portrait of Mr. Harding as being selfish and derelict in his conduct of his office. Despite the efforts of his bombastic, but well-meaning son-in-law, the Archdeacon Grantly, to ignore Mr. Bold’s reform campaign, and continue his position as warden of Hiram House. But Reverend Harding concludes that he cannot in good conscience continue to accept such a generous salary and resigns the position. John Bold, who had tried in vain to reverse the injury done to Mr. Harding, returns to Barchester and marries Eleanor.

In the remaining five episodes, based upon ”Barchester Towers”, the beloved Bishop of Barchester dies and many assume that his son, Archdeacon Grantly, will gain the position in his place. However thanks to a new Prime Minister, a newcomer, the Reverend Proudie, becomes the new bishop. His overbearing wife, Mrs Proudie, exercises an undue influence over the new bishop and becomes unpopular with right-thinking members of the clergy and their families. Her interference in the reappointment of the universally popular Mr Septimus Harding as warden of Hiram House is not well received, even though she gives the position to a needy clergyman with a large family to support. Even less popular than Mrs Proudie is the bishop’s newly appointed chaplain, the hypocritical Mr. Obadiah Slope, who takes a fancy to Harding’s wealthy widowed daughter, Eleanor Bold. He hopes to win her hand in marriage by interfering in the controversy over the wardenship of Hiram House. Due to Mrs. Proudie’s influence, the Bishop and Mr. Slope order the return of Dr. Vesey Stanhope from Italy. Dr Stanhope has been there, recovering from a sore throat for 12 years and has spent his time catching butterflies. His wife and three children accompany him back to Barchester. Dr. Stanhope’s only son also has eyes on Eleanor and her fortune. And the younger of his two daughters, the serial flirt Signora Madelina Vesey Neroni, causes consternation and hostility within Mrs. Proudie and threatens the plans of Mr. Slope.

Over the years, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” has become a highly acclaimed television production amongst costume drama fans and the critics. It also received several BAFTA nominations and won an award for Best Design (Chris Pemsel). Many fans and critics have also viewed it as the production responsible for one of Donald Pleasence’s best roles and the start of Alan Rickman’s fame as a skilled actor. When the miniseries first aired in the United States nearly two years later in October 1984, I tried very hard to enjoy it. I really did. Looking back, I realized that I was too young to really appreciate it and ended up getting bored. I never had any intention of ever watching again. But when I purchased a DVD set featuring ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” and two other miniseries productions based upon Anthony Trollope’s works, I figured that I might as well give it another shot. And I am glad that I did.

“THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” turned out to be a sharp and funny look at the Church of England during the 1850s. The miniseries was filled with characters that have become so memorable to me that I find it difficult to erase them from my mind. In fact, I can honestly say that the characters really made the miniseries for me – especially characters such as Mrs. Proudie, the Reverend Obadiah Slope, Signora Neroni and the wonderfully charming and sweet, Reverend Harding. But the characters alone did not impress me. I was also impressed by screenwriter Alan Plater’s adaptation of the two novels. In my review of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, I had complained that it seemed disjointed to me and was more suited as an episodic television series, due to the fact that it was based upon three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novellas. Although ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” was based upon the first two of Trollope’s Barchester novels, it did not seem disjointed to me. Perhaps I felt this way, because the subject of the first two episode – namely Reverend Harding’s position as warden of Hiram House – also had a major impact on the plotlines of the last five episodes. I must admit that my knowledge of the hierarchy of the Church of England barely existed before I saw ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” for the second time. After viewing the miniseries, it is still rather vague. But the controversy over Hiram House and the backstabbing, the romances and the manipulations that occurred between the characters really made watching the miniseries rather fun. There were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. And I could have done without a full sermon from Reverend Slope in Episode Three. But these flaws did not hamper the miniseries in the end.

I found most of the performances in ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” top-notch. Mind you, there were some excursions into hammy acting – notably from Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly, Peter Blythe as the feckless Nigel Stanhope and yes, from Geraldine McEwan as Mrs. Proudie. Even Alan Rickman had a moment of hammy acting in his very last scene. But, the cast was generally first-rate. Despite their moments of hamminess, I must admit that I was very impressed by Hawthorne, McEwan and Rickman. Especially the latter, who gave a star turn as the slippery and obsequious Obadiah Slope. And Clive Swift gave a deliciously subtle performance as the weak-willed Bishop Proudie, who allowed himself to be bullied by his wife and manipulated by Mr. Slope. I was also impressed by Susan Hampshire’s performance as the manipulative and sexy Signora Neroni. The series did not go much into her character’s problems with her Italian husband, despite her negative comments on marriage. But watching her manipulate Rickman’s Reverend Slope really impressed and entertained me. And I also enjoyed Angela Pleasence’s portrayal of Archdeacon Grantly’s wife, Susan Harding Grantly. In many ways, she seemed like a more respectable version of the Signora Neroni – feminine, soft-spoken, a little manipulative and strong-willed. But the one performance that shone above the others for me was Donald Pleasence’s portrayal of the Reverend Septimus Harding. Characters like Reverend Harding usually tend to bore me. But Pleasence’s Reverend Harding was not only interesting, but also entertaining. I enjoyed how he managed to maintain his mild-mannered personality, while displaying a great deal of backbone against the aggressive maneuverings of Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Proudie, and his hostility over the slippery manipulations of Reverend Slope. My only quibble about Pleasence’s performance is that his scenes with Janet Maw, who portrayed Eleanor Harding Bold, left me feeling a bit uneasy. I realize that Reverend Harding and Eleanor had a close relationship, but there were moments – thanks to Pleasence and Maw’s performances – when their interactions seemed to hint a touch of incest. Very creepy.

Does ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” still hold up after twenty-eight years? Perhaps. The miniseries was obviously filmed on video tape. And the pictures are not as sharp as they could be. But I must admit that the photography was rich with color. And I just adored Juanita Waterson’s costume designs, which were shown with great effect in scenes that featured the Proudies’ soirée at the Bishop’s residence and the Thornes’ garden party. She effectively captured the styles of mid-Victorian England. Perhaps some of the performances were a little hammy at times. And there were moments when the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag. But overall, ”THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES” was a first-rate production that featured a well-written script by Alan Plater, an excellent cast led by Donald Pleasence and solid direction by David Giles. After thirty-five years, it remains a sharp and entertaining miniseries for me.

Plum Pudding

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Below is a brief look at the traditional Christmas dish known as Plum Pudding:

PLUM PUDDING

Many people tend to associate the dish known as Plum Pudding (aka Christmas Pudding or Plum Duff) with the Christmas holiday, Victorian Britain, and especially Charles Dickens. I know I certainly did for a good number of years. But I was surprised to discover that Plum Pudding’s association with the Christmas holiday in Britain went back as far as the medieval period. During that particular period, it was the custom for pudding to be prepared on the 25th Sunday after Trinity. It was also customary for the pudding to be prepared with thirteen ingredients to represent Christ and the twelve apostles. Also, every family member was required to stir the pudding in turn from east to west in honor of the Magi and their alleged journey in that direction.

The origin of the current Plum Pudding made popular during the Victorian Age could be traced back to the 1420s. The dish emerged not as a confection or a dessert, but as a means of preserving meat at the end of the harvest season. Because of shortages of fodder, all surplus livestock were slaughtered in the autumn. The meat was then kept in a pastry case along with dried fruits acting as a preservative, developing into large “mince pies”. These pies could then be used to feed hosts of people, particularly at the festive season. The chief ancestor of the modern pudding was a thick soup or stew made from vegetables, dried fruit, sugar, grain, spices and some form of meat (if available) called “pottage”; which originated in Roman times. , however, was the pottage, a meat and vegetable concoction originating in Roman times.

Then in 1714, King George I began to request that this particular kind of pottage, which became known as “Plum Pudding” be served as part of his royal feast every Christmas. But it was not until the 1830s in which the current Plum Pudding assumed its form – a round tower of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices, all topped with holly – and was served during the Christmas holiday. Below is a recipe for the tradition Plum (or Christmas) Pudding from the About.com website:

Plum Pudding

Ingredients

1lb /450g dried mixed fruit (use golden raisins/sultanas* , raisins, currants)
1 oz /25 g mixed candied peel, finely chopped
1 small cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped Grated zest and juice
½ large orange and
½ lemon
4 tbsp brandy, plus a little extra for soaking at the end
2 oz /55 g self-raising flour, sifted
1 level tsp ground mixed spice
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 oz /110 g shredded suet, beef or vegetarian
4oz /110g soft, dark brown sugar
4 oz /110 g white fresh bread crumbs
1 oz /25 g whole shelled almonds, roughly chopped
2 large, fresh eggs

Preparation

Lightly butter a 2½ pint/1.4 litre pudding basin.

Place the dried fruits, candied peel, apple, orange and lemon juice into a large mixing bowl. Add the brandy and stir well. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave to marinate for a couple of hours, preferably overnight.

Stir together the flour, mixed spice and cinnamon in a very large mixing bowl. Add the suet, sugar, lemon and orange zest, bread crumbs, nuts and stir again until all the ingredients are well mixed. Finally add the marinaded dried fruits and stir again.

Beat the eggs lightly in a small bowl then stir quickly into the dry ingredients. The mixture should have a fairly soft consistency.

Now is the time to gather the family for Christmas Pudding tradition of taking turns in stirring, making a wish and adding a few coins.

Spoon the mixture in to the greased pudding basin, gently pressing the mixture down with the back of a spoon. Cover with a double layer of greaseproof paper or baking parchment, then a layer of aluminum foil and tie securely with string.

Place the pudding in a steamer set over a saucepan of simmering water and steam the pudding for 7 hours.

Make sure you check the water level frequently so it never boils dry. The pudding should be a deep brown color when cooked. The pudding is not a light cake but instead is a dark, sticky and dense sponge.

Remove the pudding from the steamer, cool completely. Remove the paper, prick the pudding with a skewer and pour in a little extra brandy. Cover with fresh greaseproof paper and retie with string. Store in a cool dry place until Christmas day. Note: The pudding cannot be eaten immediately, it really does need to be stored and rested then reheated on Christmas Day. Eating the pudding immediately after cooking will cause it to collapse and the flavours will not have had time to mature.

On Christmas day reheat the pudding by steaming again for about an hour. Serve with Brandy or Rum Sauce, Brandy Butter or Custard.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

Based upon Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the story of a 19th century English gentleman named Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in eighty (80) days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Produced by Michael Todd, the Academy Award winning film starred David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton. 

Could someone please explain how ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” managed to win the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award? How on earth did this happen? Do not get me wrong. Ever since I first saw ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” on television years ago, I have been a fan of the movie. The idea of someone taking a long journey around the world – especially in an age before air travel – greatly appealed to me. It still does. I like the idea of travel, whether I am doing it myself or watching it on the big screen or on television. And even after all of these years, I still enjoy watching this movie. And yet . . . I simply cannot fathom the idea of it being considered the Best Picture of 1956. Even more surprising is the fact that John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe all won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps the reason behind the movie’s accolades centered around Hollywood’s amazement that first time movie producer, Mike Todd, had succeeded in not only completing the film, but also creating an entertaining one. Two men directed this film – Michael Anderson, an Englishman who had only directed seven movies before ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”; and John Farrow, a well-known Australian director who had co-written the film’s script. Farrow, by the way, did not receive any credit for his work as a director of this film. Which makes me wonder how many scenes he actually directed. Considering the movie’s running time of 183 minutes (3 hours and 3 minutes), I find it surprising that it took only seventy-five (75) days to shoot it. Along with the four leading actors, the movie featured over forty (40) stars, 140 locations, 100 sets and over 36,000 costumes. No wonder Hollywood seemed amazed that Todd managed to finish the film.

Set around 1872, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” told the story an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) who claims he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. He makes a £20,000 wager with several skeptical fellow members of his London gentlemen’s club (Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie included), the Reform Club, that he can arrive back within 80 days before exactly 8:45 pm. Together with his resourceful valet, Passepartout (Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”), Fogg sets out on his journey from Paris via a hot air balloon. Meanwhile, suspicion grows that Fogg has stolen his £20,000 from the Bank of England. Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) is sent out by Ralph the bank president (Robert Morley) to trail and arrest Fogg. Hopscotching around the globe, Fogg pauses in Spain, where Passepartout engages in a comic bullfight; and in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue young widow Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from being forced into a funeral pyre so that she may join her late husband. The threesome visit Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and the Wild West. Only hours short of winning his wager, Fogg is arrested upon returning to London by the diligent, yet misguided Inspector Fix.

The main differences between Jules Verne’s novel and the movie centered around Fogg and Passepartout’s efforts to leave Europe. Quite frankly, the novel never featured Fogg’s journey through Europe. In the novel, there were no stops in either France or Spain. Fogg had considered using a hot air balloon in Chapter 32, but quickly dismissed it. Also, Fogg never punched Detective Fix after being released from jail near the film’s finale. He simply insulted the detective’s skills as a whist player.

I might as well stop beating around the bush. What is my opinion of the movie? Like I had stated earlier, I still find it entertaining after all these years. I love travel movies. And I found the movie’s caricatures of the different nationalities that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Fix encounters on the journey rather amusing – including encounters with a boorish American politician portrayed by John Caradine, Charles Boyer’s Parisian travel agent/balloonist and Reginald Denny’s parody of an Anglo-Indian official. The movie’s funniest moment featured Fogg and Aouda’s encounter with a Chinese gentlemen portrayed by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who proved that his English was a lot better than Fogg’s Chinese-English pidgin. The locations in this movie are absolutely gorgeous, especially Fogg and Passepartout’s trip over France, and the rail journeys through India and the United States. And Lionel Lindon’s Oscar winning photography is accompanied by the memorable score written by another one of the film’s Oscar winners – Victor Young. In fact, the most memorable thing about ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is Young’s score. Even after 59 years, it is the first thing many fans mention about the film.

I was surprised to learn that Cantinflas had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his portrayal of Passepartout. Frankly, I found this as astonishing as the movie’s Best Picture Oscar. Mind you, his performance was a little more animated than David Niven’s portrayal of the stiff-upper lip Phineas Fogg. And his dance with a young dancer at a Spanish cantina was entertaining. But a Golden Globe award? I cannot think of one actor or actress in that movie who deserved any acting award. As for Niven, I think he may have gone a little too far in his portrayal of the reserved Fogg. There were times when he came off as a bit inhuman. I have to wonder about Todd’s decision to cast a young American actress from Virginia to portray the Indian Princess Aouda. Shirley MacLaine, ladies and gentlemen? She is the last person I would have chosen for that particular role. I must give her credit for not succumbing to some clichéd portrayal that would have left moviegoers wincing and instead, gave a restrained yet charming performance. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the persistent detective, Mr. Fix, was just as restrained. Which turned out to be a miracle, considering his reputation as a cinematic ham. Sadly, Newton passed away from a heart attack before the movie’s release.

One might ask why I had expressed astonishment at the thought of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1956. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the movie deserved such a major award. Sure, the movie is entertaining. And that is about the best thing I can say about the film. Granted, Victor Young’s score and Lionel Lindon’s photography deserved its Oscars. But I feel that the movie did not deserve to be acknowledged as 1956’s Best Picture. Not over other films like ”THE KING AND I””FRIENDLY PERSUASION””GIANT””THE SEARCHERS” or even ”THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. Nor do I feel that the three men who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay deserve their statuettes. Heck, the movie featured a major blooper carried over from the novel – namely Fix’s revelation to Passepartout in Hong Kong about the British authorities’ suspicions that Fogg may be responsible for robbing the Bank of England before his departure. Passepartout told Aouda about Fix’s suspicions . . . but neither of them ever told Fogg. Not even when they were about to reach the shores of Britain. Why?

Another scene that continues to baffle me centered around Passepartout’s bullfight in Spain. Impressed by the manservant’s cape work during a dance in a cantina, a Spanish-Arab sea captain named Achmed Abdullah (Gilbert Roland) promised to give Fogg and Passepartout passage to Marseilles if the manservant would take part in a bullfight. What started as a comic moment for Cantinflas turned into a bullfight that promised to never end. The damn thing lasted five minutes too long and I felt more than happy when Fogg and Passepartout finally arrived in Suez.

I have read Jules Verne’s novel. At best, it was entertaining fluff. I could say the same for the 1956 movie. Like the novel, it lacks any real substance. For me, both versions struck me as nothing more than a detailed travelogue disguised as a series of vaguely written adventures. Unfortunately, the movie’s entertaining fluff lasted slightly over three (3) hours. Three hours? I like the movie a lot, but an obviously dated three hour movie based upon a piece of fluff like Verne’s novel just does not seem worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Despite the movie’s undeserved Oscar, I still find it entertaining after all these years.

“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.

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

Jane Eyre (1996)

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation.

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completely BORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s “PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there were no more days. Only hours.”

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

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

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