Monday, January 30, 2012

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: Top Five Favorite Season One (2010) Episodes

Last September, a new series based upon Nelson Johnson's book about the famous New Jersey coastal city during the Prohibition Era, "Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City", premiered on HBO. Created by Terence Winter and produced by him, Mark Walhberg, and Martin Scorcese; "BOARDWALK EMPIRE" starred Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt and Michael Shannon. Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from the series' first season:


1. (1.09) "Belle Femme" - This episode about Enoch "Nucky" Johnson's efforts to deal with the threat of a Democratic mayoral candidate screaming corruption and the D'Alessio gang; his mistress Margaret Schroeder promises to help a former employer; and Jimmy Darmody's return from Chicago proved to be my favorite episode this season.

2. (1.10) "The Emerald City" - Nucky asks for Margaret's assistance in backing his mayoral candidate with the passage of women's right to vote, leaving her conflicted about her role as his mistress. He, along with Chalky White and Jimmy confront Meyer Lansky and two of the D'Alessio brothers. Jimmy's common-law wife, Angela Darmody, witnesses his violent side against her photographer friend, and Federal agent Nelson Van Alden grapples with his emotions and has forceful encounters with both Margaret and Lucy.

3. (1.01) "Boardwalk Empire" - The ninety (90) minute series' premiere episode introduced Atlantic City treasurer, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson at the dawn of Prohibition in January, 1920; and his plans to make himself and his associates very rich from the bootlegging business.

4. (1.04) "Anastasia" - Michael Kenneth Williams has a field day in this episode in which his character, Chalky White extracts vengeance from a local Ku Klux Klan leader for lynching one of his men. And in Chicago, Jimmy and Al Capone expand their business operations by taking over territories from a local Irish gangster, resulting in vicious consequences for a prostitute that Jimmy was fond of.

5. (1.11) "Paris Green" - This episode featured many shake-ups in the relationships of Nucky and Margaret; Van Alden and his assistant, Agent Sebso; Jimmy and his relationships with his real father, the Commodore, Nucky, and Angela.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"RETURN TO CRANFORD" (2009) Review

"RETURN TO CRANFORD" (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, "CRANFORD", the BBC aired a two-part sequel called "RETURN TO CRANFORD" (also known as the "CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL"), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis.

"RETURN TO CRANFORD" was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story - "Cranford", "The Mooreland Cottage", and "The Cage at Cranford", were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from "My Lady Ludlow", "Mr. Harrison's Confessions", and "The Last Generation in England" were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, "CRANFORD", the screenplay for "RETURN TO CRANFORD" seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, "RETURN TO CRANFORD" avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred "CRANFORD". My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about "RETURN TO CRANFORD" was that most of the storylines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford - even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, "RETURN TO CRANFORD" had its problems. Another storyline featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for "RETURN TO CRANFORD" was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch "RETURN TO CRANFORD". Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as "CRANFORD". I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And "RETURN TO CRANFORD" does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Below are images from "SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS", the sequel to the 2009 hit, "SHERLOCK HOLMES". Directed by Guy Ritchie, the movie stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson:


Friday, January 20, 2012

"DOWNTON ABBEY" (2010) Series One Retrospective

"DOWNTON ABBEY" (2010) Series One Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, "DOWNTON ABBEY", had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie, "GOSFORD PARK". And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation.

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, "DOWNTON ABBEY" was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

"DOWNTON ABBEY" did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" and "GOSFORD PARK" (which had a murder mystery attached to it). "DOWNTON ABBEY" had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that "DOWNTON ABBEY" certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that "DOWNTON ABBEY" is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and "GOSFORD PARK" seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas' sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as a swot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in "GOSFORD PARK" - namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

"DOWNTON ABBEY" proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that "DOWNTON ABBEY" will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS"? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"IRON MAN" (2008) Review

"IRON MAN" (2008) Review

I had never heard of the Marvel comic hero, Iron Man, until I saw the trailer for the new movie, four years ago. Mind you, I had heard of Iron Man’s alter ego – Tony Stark. The latter’s name had been mentioned in several Internet articles written about Spider-Man. Which is why I could not summon any excitement when I first saw the trailer for the 2008 movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.

Until the release of 2000’s ”X-MEN”, I have never been that familiar with most of Marvel Comics’ costumed crime fighters – with the exception of Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. I had spent a great deal of my recreational time with DC Comics characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Just about anyone could imagine my reaction when I learned that Robert Downey Jr. had been signed to portray Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Not particularly thrilled. But I was impressed by the major cast of actors who had signed up for the film – Downey, Gwenyth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. All four performers have been favorites of mine over the years, along with director Jon Favreau. And since ”"RON MAN" was a Marvel Comics film, I decided to give it a chance.

I might as well say it right now. ”IRON MAN” quickly became one of my favorite movies of 2008. And if I must be honest, I think it is one of the BEST superhero movies I have ever seen, hands down. I would place ”IRON MAN” in the same golden circle as ”X-MEN: X-UNITED” (2003), ”SPIDER-MAN 2” (2004) and ”BATMAN BEGINS” (2005). Yes, it is that good.

What would be the point of focusing upon the movie’s many virtues, when my previous statements pretty much said it all? But . . . I am going to try, anyway. And I would like to start with the excellent screenplay written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Arthur Marcum and Matthew Hollaway. They managed to create a good, solid story focusing upon Iron Man’s origins. In an unusual move, the writers began the story with Tony Stark in Afghanistan in the company of an Army escort. Stark had just presented a demonstration of Stark Industries’ latest weapon – the Jericho missile. While Stark jokes around with his military escort, Afghan terrorist group called Ten Rings. At this point, the movie rewind back to thirty-six hours earlier before Stark’s departure from the States. This opening immediately conveyed to me that the movie might turn out to be ten times better than I had originally assumed. By the time Tony Stark uttered those last words - "I’m Iron Man" - it proved me right.

There are two aspects of ”IRON MAN” that truly made it a cinematic gem for me. One happened to be Jon Favreau’s direction. The other turned out to be the movie’s superb cast. And speaking of the cast, I might as well start with the man of the hour. What can I say about Robert Downey Jr.? He IS Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Downey now owns the role. I have never seen an actor take possession of a role so thoroughly since Daniel Day Lewis in ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD”, Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond in ”CASINO ROYALE” and Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” trilogy. Downey is also the first actor or actress I have seen portray a comic book hero as a wiseass. And he also managed to produce sparks with not only his supporting cast, but also with an android and a computer voice.

Supporting Downey was Terrence Howard as USAF Lieutenant Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Air Force liaison to Stark Industries and personal friend of Tony Stark. Howard portrayed Rhodes as a stalwart military man who found Stark’s cavalier life both exasperating and enduring. I have never seen Howard do comedy . . . until this movie. And I was surprised to discover that his flair for comic timing seemed to match Downey’s. Some people have pointed out his role had been reduced. I cannot say that I agree. One, he had yet to become War Machine, Tony’s future armored crime fighting partner. However, his line - ”Next time, baby” - as he glanced at the extra armor suit seemed to hint that he will play a bigger role in future movies. And two, Howard possessed such a strong on-screen presence that no one was bound to forget . . . no matter how many scenes he had.

When I first learned that Gwenyth Paltrow would be playing Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts, I found myself wondering if her career was in a decline. Playing the main hero’s Girl Friday seemed like a step down – even from her role in ”SKY CAPTAIN: WORLD OF TOMORROW”. Fortunately, the script and Paltrow’s witty and elegant performance gave her the opportunity rise above the usual cliché of the Girl Friday role. Mind you, “Pepper” Potts never struck me as interesting as the charming and conniving Polly Perkins from ”SKY CAPTAIN”. But instead of becoming the “damsel-in-distress”, Paltrow ended up helping Stark/Iron Man to defeat the main villain. Good show!

Speaking of villains, I must applaud Jeff Bridges for portraying one of the smoothest that I have seen on the silver screen – namely Tony Stark’s business partner and mentor Obadiah Stane. Not even Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine from ”STAR WARS” had possessed such subtlety when it came to evil. At first glance, Bridges did not seem the type who could effectively portray a villain. Then I recalled his performance in the 1985 thriller with Glenn Close, ”JAGGED EDGE”, in which he portrayed a similarly subtle villain. Being a skillful actor, Bridges managed to convey many aspects of Stane’s personality – a superficial warmth and intelligence that hid a murderous and manipulative streak.

Another memorable villain was portrayed by actor Faran Tahir, who portrayed Raza, leader of the terrorist group – the Ten Rings – hired to kidnap Stark while the latter was in Afghanistan. Like Bridges, Tahir did an admirable in projecting villainy with suave, sophistication and a strong presence. In regard to a strong presence, I could say the same about Shaun Tolb, who portrayed Dr. Ho Yinsen, an Afghan surgeon and captive of the Ten Rings that saved Stark’s life. I have seen Talb portray some interesting characters over the years. But I must admit that his warm, yet firm portrayal of Yinsen made me realize that he possessed quite a commanding presence.

As I had earlier pointed out, the movie’s four screenwriters managed to produce a script that featured a very solid story. Unlike many other comic book movies, ”IRON MAN” seemed to be laced with a great deal of witty dialogue and humor. There were times when I wondered whether I was watching a superhero action film. But there was plenty of action-filled scenes to remind me that this movie was basically an adventure film – like Iron Man’s two encounters with the Ten Rings group in Afghanistan, his encounter with two USAF fighter planes and his showdown with Stane in downtown Los Angeles. Director Jon Farveau, along with the four screenwriters and cast, managed to bring together all of the action, humor and drama with perfect balance.

Okay . . . let me rephrase my last sentence. Perhaps ”IRON MAN” was not completely ”perfect”. I do have two quibbles about the movie. One of them happened to be the first sequence in Afghanistan. I realize that the setting of Iron Man’s origins could not be in Vietnam. And it would make sense for the setting to be changed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The problem is that most of the sequence featuring Stark’s captivity by the Ten Rings was boring as hell. It almost seemed to drag forever. And matters did not help much that most of this sequence was set inside a series of caves. Another problem I had with the movie was its score. Quite frankly, I found it unmemorable. But I am not surprised. I can only think of three comic book hero movies that had a score or theme song I found memorable. Unfortunately, ”IRON MAN” is not one of them.  As much as I enjoyed the movie's story, I must admit that I did not find it particularly memorable.  It was basically a paint-by-the-number comic book hero origin story.  The movie's strong characterization - especially for Tony Stark - really allowed this movie to shine for me.

But despite the first Afghanistan sequence and the movie’s score, it is easy to see why "IRON MAN" proved to be the summer movie of 2008. With Jon Favreau in the director’s chair and Robert Downey Jr. as the leading man, the movie became – at least in my eyes – one of the best of its genre.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"JANE EYRE" (1983) Photo Gallery

Below are images from "JANE EYRE", the 1983 television adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel. The miniseries starred Zeulah Clarke and Timothy Dalton:

"JANE EYRE" (1983) Photo Gallery

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Notes and Observations on "STAR WARS: Episode II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES"

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode II: Attack of the Clones”. I hope that you enjoy them:

Notes on "STAR WARS: Episode II – Attack of the Clones"

*It is interesting that the story starts out with Coruscant – the seat of the Republic’s power – covered in a shroud of fog. Was this an allegory of the Republic’s impending doom? Or a sign of hidden secrets within the seats of power?

*Why did the Jedi believe they would have to protect the Republic in a military action, if the Separatists broke away? It seems as if the Republic and the Jedi were prepared to consider using military force to draw the Separatists back into the Republic, against their will.

*I noticed that both Mace and Ki-Adi had the same condescending attitude that the entire Council had in TPM, when explaining to Padme that Dooku could never be behind her assassination attempt.

*Why was it so important to Obi-Wan that he and Anakin follow the Council’s instructions regarding Padme, to the letter?

*I wonder if Jango would have killed Zam if she had succeeded in killing Padme.

*Are dreams usually dismissed by the Jedi in such a cavalier fashion?

*No wonder the Jedi and senators like Bail Organa had never formed a strong bond by ROTS, if Obi-Wan’s general attitude toward all politicians (which the Order shares, I suspect) is anything to go by.

*The more I look at Anakin and Obi-Wan’s interactions in AOTC, the more I realize how unsuited they were for a master/padawan relationship. Anakin would have been better off being trained by someone more suited to deal with his emotional and non-conformist personality. However, I see nothing wrong with Anakin and Obi-Wan forming a strong friendship, once Anakin becomes a Jedi Knight.

*I wonder if Anakin’s feelings about Palpatine would have remained the same if Obi-Wan had been less strident in his teaching.

*How interesting. Obi-Wan ended up following Anakin’s suggested mandate regarding Padme’s would-be assassin, after all.

*The Coruscant chase sequence is another major favorite with me. Note the slightly chubby woman with Ahmed Best and a silver-blond woman with too much eye make-up, both giving Anakin lust-filled glances in the nightclub scene. Come to think of it, I believe I had spotted two other women doing the same.

*”Until caught this killer is, our judgement she must respect.” – Why did Yoda believe that Padme MUST accept the Jedi’s decision that she return to Naboo? I realize that he is concerned for her safety. But why would he assume that she had no choice but to accept the Council’s decision on where she should be? At least Mace seemed to realize that Padme would obey if Palpatine, as the Supreme Chancellor, had given the order.

*When discussing his abilities with Palpatine, Anakin is polite and practically modest. Yet, whenever he is around Obi-Wan or discussing the latter, he becomes arrogant about his abilities and bitter at what he perceives as Obi-Wan’s inability to recognize them.

*”Anakin . . . don’t try to grow up too fast.” – It is ironic that Padme would say this to Anakin, considering that she has been trying to do this very thing for most of her life.

*Although Captain Typho’s assumption on the safety of Padme’s arrival on Coruscant proved to be false, his fear that she might do something foolish or rash proved to be very accurate.

*”If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” – ah, another prime example of the Jedi’s arrogant belief in themselves. Who would have thought it would come from the Archives’ librarian?

*Anakin might be pretty close to the truth in the definition of love he had given to Padme.

*Despite the sweet and charming overtones of the younglings scene, it still has a sinister sense of the foreboding.

*It is interesting how ALL of the Separatists are tainted with the same brush as the Trade Federation and the Banking Union, because they had sought the latter for help. Guilt by association.

*When Sio Biddle had asked Anakin a question about Padme’s safety, Padme rudely interrupts and brushes off Anakin. Now, why did she do that? And in such a rude manner?

*It’s interesting how the imagery and symbolism on Kamino seemed to be of the fertile kind.

*I just realized that if Palpatine had eventually accused the Jedi of creating the Clone Army, he would have been correct. Especially since Master Sifo-Dyas really did order the creation of the clones for the Republic.

*For someone with hardly any experience in romance, Anakin managed to do a good job in winning over Padme without resorting to smooth lines and a cocky manner.

*Of course . . . Padme seemed to be a bit of a flirt, herself. She certainly knows how to use her voice effectively.

*In an article on Anakin and Padme’s relationship, I read a segment from a poem or story written hundreds of years ago that was compared to Anakin’s fireside speech. What amazed me was how similar Anakin’s speech was to what is considered courtly love.

*I noticed that once Padme had rejected Anakin’s offer of love, he turned away from her. And she, in turn, began to pursue him in a very subtle manner.

*It is ironic that Anakin believes that he did not have a choice in leaving Naboo to help his mother. In reality, he did have a choice . . . and he exercised it. Like the other characters around him, Anakin has become adept at deluding himself.

*I see that Obi-Wan had made the first move in his fight with Jango Fett on Kamino. Not only did it result in him nearly falling over a ledge, it was the movie’s first sign of the “good guys” acting as the aggressors.

*”Those Tusken Raiders. They may walk like men, but they’re nothing more than vicious, mindless monsters.” – Judging from Cliegg Lars’ words, I cannot help but wonder if Anakin’s murder of the Tusken Raiders was something rare on Tatooine. Would Anakin’s actions have been condoned by Tatooine’s moisture farmers? Cliegg’s words seemed to have a xenophobic ring to them.

*When Padme told Anakin that it was okay to be angry, she was right. It was okay. It would have been a lot unhealthier for Anakin to pretend otherwise. But where Anakin went wrong was that he had allowed his anger to overwhelm him . . . which led to his murder of the Tuskens.

*Anakin’s claim that he would even learn to stop people from dying seemed to foreshadow his opera conversation with Palpatine in ROTS.

*If Jar-Jar had not proposed that Palpatine should be given emergency powers, I wonder who would have made the proposition? Bail Organa had been certain that the Senate would never grant such powers to the Chancellor or authorize a clone army. Boy, was he wrong!

*Did Obi-Wan’s own prejudices and beliefs in the Jedi’s infallibility led him to easily dismiss Dooku’s claim that a Sith Lord had control over the Senate?

*I think that Padme’s arrogant belief in her diplomatic skills were in overdrive, when she and Anakin learned about Obi-Wan’s predicament. I can see why Typho had been worried that she would do something rash.

*It seems interesting that Anakin was the only one who had managed to control the attacking him in the Geonosis area, without resorting to brute force. Was this a metaphor of his potential to control (but not suppress) the animus within himself? A potential that he had failed to attain until the end of his life?

*Obi-Wan, on the other hand, succeeded in dealing with his animal attacker with brute force . . . just as he had succeeded with Maul and Anakin. Was this a foreshadow of his advocacy of Luke using violence to deal with Vader/Anakin in the Original Trilogy?

*I suspect that Jango’s success in killing Jedi Master Coleman Trebor had gone to his head, when he had decided to attack Mace. Just as many of the Jedi have discovered in this movie and will discover in ROTS, Jango will learn that it does not pay to be the aggressor.

*I did not realize that the Republic and the Jedi had acquired both troops and weapons from the Kaminoans.

*It is interesting that Obi-Wan’s threat of expulsion from the Jedi Order did not faze Anakin one bit, in his concern for the fallen Padme. Either the Jedi Order was never that important enough to Anakin . . . or it was too important to Obi-Wan. Or perhaps it was both.

*Both Anakin and Obi-Wan made the mistake of aggressively moving against Dooku, first. And both had failed. Again, this seemed to be another example of the Jedi’s acceptance of using aggression in this movie.

*Anakin vs. Dooku – it’s ironic that this was the first duel between Palpatine’s present and future apprentices.

*Dooku, who had wisely allowed both Obi-Wan and Anakin to be the aggressors, became the aggressor, himself, in his duel against Yoda. He had barely managed to escape with his life.

*The failure of aggression committed by our heroes and by villains like Dooku and Jango seemed to be the theme for this movie . . . and perhaps the Prequel Trilogy overall. This theme seems especially true for the Jedi, who had agreed to use the clone troopers against the Separatists. The same clone troopers that will become the tools of their destruction. Irony at its most tragic.

*Looking back on AOTC, it strikes me as being a very nourish story, despite the some of the usual STAR WARS elements. Perhaps that is why so many people have difficulty in accepting it. Film noir can be highly regarded – or not. But people rarely understand it, or bother to watch it in the movie theaters.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" (2011) Review

Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS":

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie's stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful "IRON MAN" movies, helmed the director's chair. At least five of the screenwriters - Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby - have been associated with projects like "LOST" and the "STAR TREK". And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" remained one of the flops of this summer. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word "pity" as a response to the movie's failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy's father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde's gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake's former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

"COWBOYS AND ALIENS" is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film's dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique's photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie's visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of "SUPER 8", I had commented that it reminded me of an old "STAR TREK VOYAGER" episode. I cannot say the same for "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". But it did remind me of a "STAR TREK VOYAGER" fanfiction story called "Ashes to Ashes". At least Jake's experiences with the aliens before the movie began. And "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells' novel, "War of the Worlds" had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for "COWBOYS AND ALIENS", I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake's history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, "COWBOYS AND ALIENS" provided plenty of opportunities for character development - and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig's super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the "Man With No Name" character from Sergio Leone's DOLLAR TRILOGY". Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford's usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford's Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde's distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde's performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution's citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde's performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution's insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde's right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde's s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from "THE LAST AIRBENDER"), who portrayed the sheriff's grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about "COWBOYS AND ALIENS". I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films of the summer of 2011.

Friday, January 6, 2012