Friday, February 28, 2014

"SHERLOCK HOLMES" (2009) Review

”SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009) Review

I have never been a major fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other writers. Once, I tried to get interested in them by reading one or two novels. But they had simply failed to spark my interest. 

I have shown a little more enthusiasm toward the various movies and television adaptations of Doyle’s novels and characters. Mind you, I never became a faithful viewer of the television series that starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes. But I have do have my private list of Sherlock Holmes movies that I consider as personal favorites. Including Guy Ritchie's 2009 film, "SHERLOCK HOLMES".

The movie opened with Holmes; his good friend, Dr. John Watson; and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade rescuing a young woman from becoming the latest victim of an occult worshipper named Lord Henry Blackwood. Actually, Holmes and Watson rescued the young woman. Lestrade and his entourage of uniformed officers arrived in time to arrest the culprit. In the aftermath of the case, Holmes becomes bored and indulges in a series of bizarre experiments and bare knuckle fighting to relive his boredom. He is also upset over Watson’s recent engagement to a young governess named Mary Morstan. Before Lord Blackwood is executed, he informs Holmes that he will rise from the dead more powerful than ever, leaving Holmes and the police unable to stop him.

The story continues when a former ”nemesis” of Holmes named Irene Adler engages the detective to find a missing man named Reardon. Holmes discovers that Irene has been hired by a mysterious man to recruit him, but fails to follow up on his suspicions. When Reardon turns out to be linked to Lord Blackwood, who has ”risen from the grave” as promised, Holmes and Watson find themselves involved in another case.

One can see that ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is not an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s novels or stories; or any other Holmes work of fiction. The movie’s screenplay; written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; is an original story. Yet, the three writers managed to incorporate certain small aspects from Conan Doyle’s original works into the script that have rarely been seen in previous Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

Before my first viewing of the movie, an acquaintance had warned me that some critics found the plot to be convoluted. After seeing ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” twice, I can honestly say that aside from the opening sequence, I found nothing confusing about the plot. Johnson, Peckham and Kinberg created a complex and clever tale about Holmes’ investigation into the murderous, yet alleged supernatural activities of one Lord Henry Blackwood. The story’s mystery was never a ”whodunit”, but a ”how did he do it”. How did Lord Blackwood rise from the grave? How did he kill three men by supernatural means? And what was his goal? In Holmes’ final confrontation with Blackwood, the screenwriters did a first-rate job in allowing the detective to reveal Blackwood’s methods and goals.

”SHERLOCK HOLMES” also captured the feel and nuance of late Victorian London beautifully, thanks to Ritchie and his crew. One can thank the combination work of Philippe Rousselot’s photography, and the visual effects team supervised by Jonathan Fawkner. I also have to commend designer Jenny Beavan for the costumes she had designed for most of the cast, and Jane Law for the colorful costumes she designed for the two leading female roles. They seemed straight out of the late Victorian period. I could not write this review without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. Quite frankly, I adored it. I found it to be very original and unique. I also loved how he used the Dubliners’ song, ”The Rocky Road to Dublin” for two scenes and the movie’s final credits.

Ritchie also had the good luck to work with a top notch cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. As far as I know, Downey Jr. is the fourth American actor to portray Sherlock Holmes. Most of them have been pretty good – with the exception of Matt Frewer – but I must say that Downey Jr.’s performance not only rose above them, but also a good number of British and Commonwealth actors, as well. Aside from two or three moments, the actor’s English accent seemed spot on to me. Even better, Downey Jr. did a brilliant job in capturing the nuances and complexities of Holmes’ character – both virtues and flaws. And he managed to do all of this without turning the character into a cliché or portraying a second-rate version of the performances of other actors who have portrayed Holmes. Most importantly, Downey Jr. managed to create a sizzling chemistry with the man who became his Dr. Watson – namely Jude Law.

It has been a while since I have seen Jude Law on the movie screen. At first glance, one would be hard pressed to imagine him in the role of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ colleague. Then I saw a drawing and read a description of the literary Watson and realized that his casting in this particular role may not be a complete disaster. When I saw his performance on the screen, I immediately knew that he was the right man for the role. Law perfectly captured Watson’s firm and dependable nature that kept Holmes on solid ground. He also did an excellent job of portraying Watson’s intelligence and bravery as a man of action. I am also thankful that Law did not follow Nigel Bruce’s example of portraying Watson as Holmes’ bumbling, yet well meaning sidekick. Thank goodness for little miracles.

While reading some articles about the movie, I have come across many negative comments about Rachel McAdams’ performance as the mysterious adventuress, Irene Adler. Even worse, many have expressed disbelief that McAdams’ Irene was a woman who had bested Holmes twice, claiming that she had been fooled by her employer. I found this last complaint rather irrelevant, considering that Holmes ended up being fooled, as well. Personally, these are two assessments of McAdams’ performance that I found difficult to believe or accept. In fact, I ended up enjoying her portrayal of Irene very much. I thought she gave an excellent and subtle performance as the intelligent and sly Irene, who enjoyed matching wits with Holmes. Some fans also complained about McAdams’ accent. Why, I do not know. It seemed clear to me via the actress’ accent that she was portraying an intelligent and educated 19th century woman from the American Northeast. Her Canadian accent helped her on that score. When I had first laid eyes upon Mark Strong in 2007’s ”STARDUST”, I had no idea that I would become such a major fan of his. Three movies later, I definitely have. Strong was exceptional as always as the mysterious Lord Henry Blackwood, a nefarious aristocrat with a thirst for power who claims to have great supernatural abilities. Although I would not consider Blackwood to be Strong’s most interesting role, I must admit that the actor’s interpretation of the character as one of the better screen villains I have seen in the past ten years.

The movie also featured first-rate performances from supporting actors Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly. Marsan portrayed the long-suffering Scotland Yard police officer, Inspector Lestrade. I first noticed Marsan in 2006’s ”MIAMI VICE” and genuinely thought he was American born. When I saw him in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” portraying a Central European, I began to wonder about his real nationality. It took me a while to realize that he was English. If Lon Chaney was ”the Man of a Thousand Faces”, then Marsan must be ”the Man of a Thousand Accents”. In ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”, he used his own accent. However, he also gave a first-rate performance as the intelligent, but long-suffering Lestrade, who constantly endures Holmes’ mild ridicule in order to get a case solved. I have to be frank. When I first saw Kelly Reilly in 2005’s ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I had not been impressed by her portrayal of Caroline Bingley. I am still not impressed. But after seeing her as Watson’s fiancée, Mary Morstan, my opinion of her as an actress has risen. Either Reilly’s skills as an actress had improved over the past four years, or she simply found herself a better role. I liked that Reilly’s Mary was not some missish Victorian woman prone to hysterics over her fiance’s relationship with Holmes. Instead Reilly portrayed Mary as a woman who understood the two men’s relationship and Holmes’ dependence upon Watson’s presence. Even if she was not that enamored of the detective.

I do have some problems with ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”. One, there were times when I could barely understand some of the dialogue. Especially when it came out of Robert Downey Jr.’s mouth. When it came to using a British accent, he had a tendency to mumble rather heavily. Honestly? I could have used some close captions for some of his scenes. Although I found the movie’s panoramic views of London and visual effects impressive, I was not particularly fond of the gray-blue tint of Rousselot’s photography. According to the movie’s official site, ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is supposed to be set during 1891. Yet, Jane Law’s costumes for McAdams and Reilly seemed straight out of the late 1880s. Their bustles seemed too big for the early 1890s. My biggest gripe centered around the movie’s opening sequence. The screenplay never really explained why Blackwood had murdered four women and tried to kill a fifth. If it had, would someone please enlighten me?

What can I say about ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”? Sure, I have a few quibbles about the film. But I still love it. Guy Ritchie not only did a superb job of recapturing late Victorian London, but also the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary hero, Sherlock Holmes. And he did so with a superb cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, a first-rate script written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; and a group of craftsmen that managed to bring the world of Victorian London and Sherlock Holmes back to life.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Twelve "The Scream of Eagles" Commentary

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Twelve "The Scream of Eagles" Commentary

In my article about the penultimate episode of "CENTENNIAL", I briefly commented on my displeasure at the idea of watching the miniseries finale, "The Scream of Eagles". And after watching this episode, it is clear to me that it could have been an interesting and entertaining ninety minutes or so. But producer and screenwriter John Wilder made it impossible. 

"The Scream of Eagles" picked up over forty (40) years after "The Winds of Death" in the late 1970s. A history professor named Lew Vernor has been hired by a magazine to examine the studies and work of a historian named Carol Endermann, whom they had earlier hired to research Centennial's history for an article. During his visit to Centennial, Vernor is given a tour of the region by Paul Garrett, the current owner of the Venneford Ranch. Not only does he become aware of the area's history, Vernor also becomes interested in a growing political showdown between Garrett and local landowner Morgan Wendell for the position of Colorado's new Commissioner of Resources, a position designed to balance the state's economic growth with environmental and historical preservation.

I realize that my memories of "The Scream of Eagles" was not as bad as I had remembered. The episode had the potential to be an interesting look at Northern Colorado during the late 20th century. More importantly, the political showdown between Garrett and Wendell, two men who have known each other since childhood, proved to be a lot more interesting than I remembered. Even an incident regarding the shooting of an American eagle by a character named Floyd Calendar - an act that Garrett opposed - played a part in the Garrett/Wendell election. There was no political rivalry between the literary Garrett and Wendell. The latter had already been elected for the position and Garrett had agreed to be his principal deputy. I can only assume that Wilder added the political rivalry to add some heat to the miniseries' final chapter. And it would have worked if it were not for one major problem . . . flashbacks.

Flashbacks first began making its annoying presence in the eighth episode, "The Storm". More flashbacks appeared in the ninth and tenth episodes. But flashbacks came back with a vengeance in this episode. Thanks to Wilder's script,"The Scream of Eagles" featured flashbacks from nearly every major incident or story arc featured in the saga - especially Levi Zendt's trek west and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive. I could not help but wonder if they were added to flesh out this last episode. After all, "CENTENNIAL" began with a two-and-a-half hour episode - "Only the Rocks Live Forever". Wilder probably felt it should end with an episode of the same length. "The Scream of Eagles" would have aired with a running time of at least 97 minutes without those flashbacks. And honestly, I feel the episode would have been a lot better without them.

"The Scream of Eagles" was also marred by its portrayal of Paul Garrett and Nate Pearson's family backgrounds. Wilder's script revealed that Garrett was the great-grandson of Jim and Charlotte Lloyd. This completely contradicted the fact that "The Winds of Death" skipped a generation in the Garrett-Lloyd family line, by naming Jim and Charlotte as Garrett's grandparents. Very confusing. But this was nothing in compare to the ancestry of local barber, Nate Pearson. Audiences are told in this episode that Nate was the grandson of Skimmerhorn Trail veteran and former slave, Nate Pearson from "The Longhorns" and "The Shepherds". Frankly, I found this impossible. The first Nate Pearson was at least 30 years old, with children between the ages of at least five and ten in 1868. Nate Pearson II was at least in his early 40s in this last episode set around 1977-78. I find it very hard to believe that one of Nate Pearson I's sons had conceived a child in the mid-to-late 1930s. That son would have been in his mid-to-late 70s at the time of Nate II's conception. This is truly sloppy writing.

The episode featured some solid acting from the likes of Andy Griffith and Sharon Gless, who portrayed Lew Vernor and Carol Endermann - the two outsiders researching Centennial's past. It also featured a very entertaining performance from James Best (who was less than a year away from CBS's "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD") as a helicopter pilot serving as a witness at Floyd Calendar's eagle poaching trial. Robert DoQui (known from "ROBOCOP") gave an emotional, yet slightly theatrical performance as local barber, Nate Pearson. Merle Haggard displayed his talent as a singer, while portraying another singer Cisco Calendar. Unfortunately, he was never given a chance to display any talent as an actor. 

David Janssen, who had served as the miniseries' narrator in the previous eleven episodes, finally had his chance to shine as the episode's main character, Paul Garrett. However, I had a problem with the Garrett character. Janssen was not to blame. Wilder was. I found the Garrett character to be a little too ideal for my tastes. And I am no longer a major fan of ideal fictional characters. I felt that the best performance came from Robert Vaughan, who portrayed Garrett's rival, Morgan Wendell. Ever since the 1968 movie, "BULLITT", Vaughan has become increasingly known for his villainous or unpleasant roles. One could say that Morgan Wendell (son of Philip Wendell) was another one of his unlikable roles. The curious thing is that Vaughan portrayed Wendell as a charming and manipulative personality - a real politician. Morgan Wendell proved to be one of the most subtle and seductive villains he has ever portrayed. After watching the Paul Garrett/Morgan Wendell political debate, I realized that I found Wendell's arguments a lot more persuasive. Interesting.

In the end, "The Scream of Eagles" proved to be a lot more interesting than I remembered, thanks to the story arc featuring the political rivalry between Paul Garrett and Morgan Wendell. But it still could have been a lot better if Wilder had been a little more consistent and accurate with two of the characters' family bloodlines. And it could have been a lot less bloated without those damn flashbacks.

R.I.P. Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

Monday, February 17, 2014

"LAURA" (1944) Review

"LAURA" (1944) Review

When I had first saw the 1944 murder mystery, "LAURA", I felt inclined to read the 1943 Vera Caspary novel it was based upon. Needless to say, Caspary's novel seemed adequate. But I found myself preferring Otto Preminger's film adaptation a lot more. 

Surprisingly, Preminger had not been the first choice as the movie's director. Producer William Goetz, acting as 20th Century Fox's studio head in Darryl Zanuck’s absence, allowed Preminger to act as the film’s unit producer. When Zanuck returned to the studio, he expressed a lukewarm attitude toward the project. And he DID NOT want Preminger to act as the film’s director. Instead, Rouben Mamoulian was hired as the director. The latter proved to be a bust. Mamoulian wanted Laird Cregar, instead of Clifton Webb in the role of columnist Waldo Lyedecker. Nor did he seem to be utilizing the cast very well. In the end, Preminger convinced Zanuck and Goetz to allow him to direct the film. And the rest, as one would say, is history.

"LAURA" centered on the brutal murder of a Manhattan advertising executive named Laura Hunt. Assigned to the case, police detective Mark McPherson interviewed those close to her. They included Laura's mentor and newspaper columnist Waldo Lyedecker; her Kentucky-born fiancé, Shelby Carpenter; Laura’s socialite aunt Ann Tredwell; and her maid, Bessie Clary. Via flashbacks and McPherson’s interviews, moviegoers learned that Laura was a warm and kind-hearted woman that also happened to be a talented advertising executive. Moviegoers also learned through her relationships with men like Waldo, Shelby and an artist named Jacoby, Laura had lousy tastes in men. Everything changed when Laura appeared at her Manhattan apartment following a prolonged weekend in the country . . . very much alive. The murdered woman proved to be a model that bored a strong resemblance to Laura named Diane Redfern. And since the latter was having an affair with Shelby Carpenter, Laura became a murder suspect.

Most people would be inclined to believe that the literary source is superior to any film adaptation. I have read Caspary’s novel only once. And quite frankly, it failed to blow my mind, let alone impress me. Yet, the movie has managed to blow my mind or move me every time I see it. Thanks to Preminger’s direction and the screenplay written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt; "LAURA" turned out to be a well-written mystery filled with sharp wit and a memorable plot twist. The movie could also boast some fascinating characters that were shadowed by their personal demons. Even the nearly perfect Laura seemed hampered by a particular flaw – namely bad taste in male companionship. I also have to give kudos to Preminger for injecting a rich atmosphere in a movie dominated by interior shots. "LAURA" could have easily spiraled into a filmed play without Preminger’s direction and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's photography. No one cannot even think about the movie without considering David Raskin’s score. Which is deservedly considered to be one of the best in Hollywood's history. I have nothing against Duke Ellington and his famous piece, "Sophisticated Lady". But I must admit that I am glad that Raskin convinced Preminger to allow him to write his own score, instead of using Ellington's music for the movie. "LAURA" must also be one of those rare crime movies – even for those from the 1930s and 40s – that lacked any real action, save for the movie's last explosive scene that I find haunting, even to this day.

One would be inclined to assume that I view this movie as perfect. Well, that person would be wrong. Although I consider "LAURA" to be well paced, it did threaten to drag in the minutes leading toward Laura’s so-called resurrection. Only a conversation between Lyedecker and McPherson over the latter's "obsession with a corpse" prevented me from falling asleep. As I had stated earlier, the Laura Hunt character did seem a bit too perfect at times. Which brings me to the character of Bessie Clary, Laura's maid. I have no problems with a movie servant being competent or profession . . . or even somewhat loyal to his or her servant. It is another matter when a servant lavishly worship the ground his or her employer walked upon. And Bessie seemed to belong to the latter category. Her worship over Laura came off so strongly that I found myself wondering if there had been a deleted scene that featured her on all fours, shining Laura’s shoes with her tongue. I mean . . . honestly! Her slavish loyalty toward Laura made me cringe so much that I almost considered becoming a Communist at one point. Many film critics and historians have commented upon Hollywood's racism and sexism over the years. Yet, I wonder if anyone had ever considered that class bigotry reared its ugly head in many of these old movies.

Speaking of Bessie Clary, I must admit that actress Dorothy Adams did a solid job in her portrayal of Laura’s faithful maid. I especially enjoyed how she conveyed Bessie’s defiant attitude toward McPherson and other cops. It seemed a pity that screenwriters Dratler, Hoffenstein and Reinhardt seemed bent upon portraying her as an excessively loyal servant. Following her role as the sinister Mrs. Danvers in 1940’s "REBECCA", Judith Anderson gave a more subtle performance as Laura’s socialite aunt, AnnTredwell. What I enjoyed about Anderson's performance was that she portrayed Ann as a cool and calculating woman who was brutally honest about her love for Shelby Carpenter without being over-the-top about it. Vincent Prince became a rising star, thanks to his portrayal of Shelby Carpenter, Laura's impoverished Kentucky-born fiancé. Waldo Lyedecker had contemptuously described Shelby as a "male beauty". Shelby was also a "male beauty" with a nasty talent for sponging money and favors from women more fortunate than himself. And Price beautifully portrayed that unpleasant aspect of Shelby's character with warmth, subtlety and gutless charm. He also had the fortunate luck to be given the best line in the entire movie. 

Clifton Webb earned a well deserved Academy Award nomination (which he should have won) for his portrayal of the waspish and acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lyedecker. Despite his contempt for nearly everyone around him, Waldo harbored an obsessive love for Laura and Webb conveyed this beautifully. Many believe that Webb had managed to steal the picture from his fellow cast members. I would now go that far. But I do believe that he gave the movie's best performance. But Webb was surrounded by a strong cast in which three others also became stars. And this is why I cannot give him credit for stealing the movie. 

Although he had been around for a few years, Dana Andrews received his big break as Mark McPherson, the cynical police detective assigned to investigate the murdered body found in Laura’s apartment. Superficially, Andrews’ portrayed McPherson as a typical movie detective – tough, sarcastic and intelligent. But he also managed to convey McPherson’s growing obsession toward "dead" Laura without engaging in any theatrics. I doubt that very few would agree, but I have always considered Andrews to be one of the better screen actors I have ever seen – past or present. He had a gift for expressing an array of emotions with his eyes, with great ease. Even with body language, Andrews managed to convey his interest in Laura by the way his character diligently listened to the suspects' recollections of the "victim" and the manner in which he examined Laura's apartment. Frankly, I feel that Andrews has been somewhat under-appreciated as an actor.

Gene Tierney gave a warm portrayal of the title character, Laura Hunt. As I had stated earlier, her character came off as superficially perfect. I am more inclined to blame Vera Caspary and the movie's screenwriters than the actress. Fortunately, Tierney had the talent to prevent Laura from becoming such an unbearable character. More importantly, she injected a good deal of spirit in her character . . . especially in the scenes she shared with Dana Andrews. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which she made it clear to McPherson that she was not in the habit of blindly obeying others, and when she finally expressed Laura's annoyance at Lyedecker's obsessive meddling.

For a murder mystery that featured very little action and a great deal of dialogue, "LAURA" still managed to be an engrossing and atmospheric story. And producer-director Otto Preminger made this possible by bringing together a superb cast with an unforgettable score written by David Raskin, Joseph LaShelle's photography and one of the wittiest screenplays in Hollywood history. In fact, I would go as far to say that "LAURA" is probably one of the finest mystery films ever made.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"SUNSET" (1988) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the 1988 movie, "SUNSET". Directed by Blake Edwards and based on Rod Amateau's novel, the movie starred James Garner and Bruce Willis:

"SUNSET" (1988) Photo Gallery



Sunday, February 9, 2014

TIME MACHINE: The New York City Draft Riots



The week of July 13-16, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the infamous New York City Draft Riots. The series of violent disturbances, which occurred during the third year of the U.S. Civil War, not only formed the largest civil insurrection, but also the largest race riot in United States history. 

New York City's economy had been tied to the Southern states for decades. In fact, nearly half of its exports were cotton shipments by the 1820s and the State of New York possessed many textiles mills that process cotton. New York City not only possessed many Southern sympathizers, but was also a main destination for immigrants, especially Ireland and Germany. The Democratic Party, which controlled New York's Tammany Hall political organization made great strides in enrolling immigrants as U.S. citizens - especially the Irish. During the country's antebellum period, these same politicians and many of the city's journalists claimed that working-class blacks - especially those who came from the slave-holding states - posed a threat to employment for the white working-class, regardless of whether they were American-born or immigrants. these journalists also published sensational accounts directed at the working class - especially white immigrants - on the "evils of interracial socializing and marriages" and wrote derogatory portrayals of African-Americans. By the beginning of the Civil War, free black men and immigrants competed for low-wage jobs in the city.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th U.S. President in November 1861 featured the rise of the political power of the new Republican party nationally. It also brought about the secession of Southern states from the Union and the formation of the Confederacy. Due to New York City's economic ties to the South, then Mayor Fernando Wood proposed to the Board of Aldermen in January 1861 that the city should secede from both the State of New York and the United States. Despite the city's strong Southern sympathies, Wood's plans never came to fruition, due to the outbreak of the Civil War, following the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861. The first two years of the war proved to be difficult for the Union. In order to produce more troops for the Army, Congress passed a law to establish a draft for the first time. The Confederate government had already established a draft for their army, the previous year. The country's male immigrant citizenry discovered they were expected to register for the draft. However, black men were excluded, because they were not considered citizens. And wealthier white men could pay for substitutes. In New York City and other locations, the new citizens learned that they were expected to register for the draft to fight for their new country. Black men were excluded from the draft as they were not considered citizens, and wealthier white men could pay for substitutes.

The first drawings for the draft occurred on July 11, 1863 with peaceful results. The second drawing was held on July 13, 1863, ten days after the Union victory at Gettysburg. This time, an enraged crowd led by the Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street; where the drawings for the draft were taking place. Many of the rioters were Irish laborers who feared having to compete with emancipated slaves for jobs. Although the outbreak of violence was originally an expression of anger at the draft, the protests turned into an ugly race riot, with the white rioters, mainly Irish immigrants, attacking or killing blacks of all classes, wherever they could be found. However, they were not the only victims. Mobs also attacked wealthy whites and looted their homes, because they were financially able to avoid the draft; white abolitionists and any other whites who had formed some kind of connection with the city's black population. But the main victims proved to be African-Americans. At least 100 black people were estimated to have been killed. One of the most notorious incidents occurred on July 13. A mob burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. Fortunately, the orphanage's occupants managed to escape the fire, thanks to the efforts of the New York City Police. 

On July 15, the draft was suspended. On the last day of the riot, conditions in the city had became so grave that U.S. Army Major General John E. Wool, commander of the Department of the East, stated that "Martial law ought to be proclaimed, but I have not a sufficient force to enforce it.". At least 800 Union Army troops reached New York City by the beginning of the riot's second day. General Wool also gathered cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. By July 16, there were several thousand Federal troops in the city. A final confrontation between troops and the rioters occurred on July 16, near Gramercy Park. It is believed that at least twelve people died on the last day of the riots in skirmishes between rioters and the police and army. They included one African-American male, two soldiers, a bystander and two women. 

As a result of the violence against blacks, hundreds of them left the city, moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which was still a separate city) and New Jersey. The city's white elite organized to provide relief to black riot victims, helping them find new work and homes. The Union League Club and the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People provided nearly $40,000 to 2500 victims of the riots. By 1865, New York's total black population had dropped to under 10,000, the lowest it had been since 1820. The white working class riots had changed the demographics of the city and exerted their control in the workplace; they became "unequivocally divided" from blacks. The U.S. government re-instated the draft on August 19, 1863. It was completed within 10 days without any violence. New York City's support for theNew York banks eventually financed the Civil War, and the state's industries were more productive than the entire Confederacy.

For more detailed information on the New York City Draft Riots, check out the following book:

*"The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War" by Iver Bernstein

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"THE AVIATOR" (2004) Review


"THE AVIATOR" (2004) Review

There have been many films, television episodes and documentaries that either featured or were about aviation pioneer and movie producer Howard Hughes. But Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic, "THE AVIATOR", was the first that featured a large-scale production about his life. 

Set twenty years between 1927 and 1947, "THE AVIATOR" centered on Hughes' life from the late 1920s to 1947 during the time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate, while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie opened with the Houston-born millionaire living in California and producing his World War I opus, "HELL'S ANGELS". He hires Noah Dietrich to run his Texas operation, the Hughes Tool Company, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with finishing the movie. 

"THE AVIATOR" not only covered Hughes' production of "HELL'S ANGELS" in the 1920s; it also covered his life during the next fifteen to twenty years. The 1930s featured his romance with actress Katherine Hepburn and his aviation achievements in the 1930s, including his purchase of Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). However, the second half of the movie covers the years 1941-47, which featured his relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his obsession with construction his military flying ship the Hercules (Spruce Goose), his near-fatal crash in the XF-11 reconnaissance plane, his legal and financial problems that led to conflicts with both Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and most importantly his increasingly inability to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have never maintained a strong interest in Howard Hughes before I saw "THE AVIATOR". One, his politics have always repelled me. And two, most productions tend to portray Hughes from an extreme point-of-view, with the exception of Jason Robards' portrayal of him in the 1980 movie, "MELVIN AND HOWARD", and Terry O'Quinn's more rational portrayal in 1991's "THE ROCKETEER""THE AVIATOR" seemed to be another exception to the rule. With Hughes as the main character, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan managed to delve into the millionaire to create a portrait of a admittedly fascinating and complex man. Foreknowledge of Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder allowed Scorcese, Logan and DiCaprio to approach the subject, instead of dismissing it as a sign of the millionaire's growing insanity. Both Scorsese and Logan seemed willing to explore nearly all aspects of Hughes' personality - both good and bad - with the exception of one area. I noticed that both director and screenwriter had failed to touch upon the man's racism. With the exception of one brief scene in which Hughes briefly pondered on any alleged sins of a fictional columnist named Roland Sweet, the movie never really hinted, let alone explored this darker aspect of Hughes' personality. I have to applaud both Scorsese and Logan for the manner in which they ended the film. "THE AVIATOR" could have easily ended on a triumphant note, following Hughes' defeat of both Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster. Instead, the movie ended with Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder slipping out of control, hinting the descent that he would experience over the next three decades.

Many recent biopics tend to portray the lives and experiences of its subjects via flashbacks. Why? I do not know. This method is no longer revolutionary or even original. Yet, many filmmakers still utilize flashbacks in biopics as if it is something new. Thankfully, Scorsese and Logan tossed the use of flashbacks in the wind and decided to tell Hughes' story in a linear narrative. And I say, thank God, because flashbacks are becoming a bore. However, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the help of Legend Films, did something unique for the film's look. Since "THE AVIATOR" was set during Hughes' first twenty years in Hollywood, the pair decided to utilize the Multicolor process (in which a film appeared in shades of red and cyan blue) for the film's first 50 minutes, set between 1927 and 1935. This color process was available during this period. Hollywood began using Three-strip Technicolor after 1935. And to emulate this, Scorsese, Richardson and Legend Films tried to re-create this look for the scenes set after 1935. And I must say that I really enjoyed what they did. Apparently, so did the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richardson won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work.

"THE AVIATOR" earned ten (10) more Academy Award nominations; including including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Alda, Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett, Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, Best Costume Design for Sandy Powell, and Best Art Direction for Robert Guerra, Claude Paré and Luca Tranchino. Along with Richardson, Blanchett, Schoonmaker, Guerra, Paré and Luca all won. I would have been even more happy if Scorsese, DiCaprio and Logan had also won. But we cannot always get what we want. I realize that "THE AVIATOR" is not the most original biopic ever made. But there is so much about the film's style, content and the acting that I enjoyed that it has become one of my favorite biopics, anyway. I was especially impressed by Schoonmaker's editing in the sequence featuring Hughes' crash of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, Sandy Powell's beautiful costumes that covered three decades in Hughes' life and the rich and gorgeous art designs from the team of Guerra, Paré and Tranchino; who did a superb job of re-creating Southern California between 1927 and 1947.

But no matter how beautiful a movie looked, it is nothing without a first-rate script and an excellent cast. I have already commented on Josh Logan's screenplay. I might as well do the same about the cast of "THE AVIATOR". The movie featured solid performances from the likes of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes' right-hand man; Ian Holm as Hughes' minion Professor Fitz; Matt Ross as another one of Hughes' right-hand men, Glen "Odie" Odekirk; and Kelli Garner as future RKO starlet Faith Domergue. Danny Huston was stalwart, but not particularly memorable as TWA executive, Jack Frye. Jude Law gave an entertaining, yet slightly over-the-top cameo as Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Adam Scott also tickled my funny bone, thanks to his amusing performance as Hughes' publicist Johnny Meyer. And Gwen Stefani gave a surprisingly good performance as another film legend, Jean Harlow.

As I had stated before, Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hollywood icon, Katherine Hepburn. At first, I had feared that Blanchett's performance would turn out to be nothing more than mimicry of Hepburn's well-known traits. But Blanchett did a superb job of portraying Hepburn as a full-blooded character and stopped short of portraying the other actress as a cliche. I could also say the same for Kate Beckinsale, who gave a more subtle performance as another Hollywood legend, Ava Gardner. At first, Beckinsale's portrayal of Gardner's sexuality threatened to seem like a cliche. But the actress managed to portray Gardner as a human being . . . especially in two scenes that featured the latter's anger at Hughes' possessive behavior and her successful attempt at drawing the aviator out of his shell, following Congress' harassment. Alan Alda was superb as the manipulative Maine senator, Owen Brewster, who harassed and prosecuted Hughes on behalf of Pan Am and Juan Trippe. He truly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most subtle villains I have ever seen on film. And Alec Baldwin gave a wonderfully sly and subtle performance as the Pan Am founder and Hughes' business rival.

But the man of the hour who carried a 169 minutes film on his back turned out to be the movie's leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor, who was twenty-nine to thirty years old at the time, did a superb job of re-capturing nearly every aspect of Howard Hughes' personality. More importantly, his acting skills enabled him to convey Hughes' age over a period of twenty years - from 22 to 42. What I really admired about DiCaprio was his ability to maintain control of a performance about a man who was gradual losing control, thanks to his medical condition. I suspect that portraying a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, over a period of two decades must have been quite a task for DiCaprio. But he stepped up to the batter's plate and in the end, gave one of the best performances of his career.

For me, it seemed a pity that "THE AVIATOR" had failed to cap the Best Picture prize for 2004. Mind you, it is not one of the most original biographical dramas I have ever seen. Then again, I cannot recall a biographical movie that struck me as unusual. Or it could be that the Academy has associated Martin Scorsese with crime dramas about the Mob. In the end, it does not matter. Even after nearly eight years, "THE AVIATOR", still continues to dazzle me. Martin Scorsese did a superb job in creating one of the best biographical films I have seen in the past two to three decades.