Tuesday, April 29, 2014
"NORTH BY NORTHWEST" (1959) Review
When producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman first set about creating the James Bond movie franchise, author Ian Fleming - who had written the novels - suggested they hire Hollywood legend, Cary Grant, for the role of the famed British agent. I do not know whether Broccoli and Saltzman seriously considered Fleming's suggestion, but I cannot help but wonder if had seen the actor in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller, "NORTH BY NORTHWEST".
"NORTH BY NORTHWEST" originated with a deal Hitchcock had with MGM Studios to do a film version of Hammond Innes' novel, "The Wreck of the Mary Deare". Hitchcock recruited a friend of his, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, to write the script. But after several weeks, Lehman found himself unable to write an adaptation. Longing to work with Lehman, Hitchcock suggested that he write something else - namely the ultimate "Hitchcock film". The results turned out to be a chase film featuring an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit.
The movie's story begins with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill being mistaken for a U.S. government agent named George Kaplan, when he summons a hotel bellhop, who is paging Kaplan at the same time. Two enemy agents named Valerian and Licht kidnap Thornhill and take him to their superior, a major foreign spy named Phillip Vandamm, who is using the Long Island home of a man named Lester Townsend for this meeting. When Thornhill continues to insist that he is not George Kaplan, Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard, along with Valerian and Licht to stage a drunk driving death for ad executive. The attempt fails and Thornhill escapes. And when Thornhill fails to convince the law that he had been kidnapped, he sets out to clear his name. He tracks the real Lester Townsend to the United Nations, but the latter is killed by one of Vandamm's henchman. Thornhill is accused of the crime and he flees. When he learns that Kaplan had checked into a hotel in Chicago, he boards the 20th Century Limited, where he meets an attractive woman named Eve Kendall. She helps him evade the police upon their arrival in Chicago. But unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard.
Author and journalist Nick Clooney once described "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" as Alfred Hitchcock's "most stylish thriller, if not his best". And I have to agree. "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" proved to be an exciting chase film and travelogue that started in Manhattan and Long Island, and ended up on the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thanks to Lehman's screenplay,"NORTH BY NORTHWEST" brimmed with sharp dialogue and even sharper characterization. The movie's opening, which featured Cary Grant's Thornhill and his secretary engaged in a last minute meeting over his schedule on the streets of Manhattan, gave audience a pretty clear idea of the ad executive's personality - charming, intelligent, arrogant and impatient. Thornhill is a character that cries for emotional development.
If I must be honest, the characters proved to be the movie's biggest assets. As much as I like Lehman's chase story of an innocent man trying to clear his name of murder, I feel that it has some questionable writing. In fact, some of its inconsistencies reminded me of such one would find in a James Bond movie. If Vandamm wanted Thornhill dead that badly, why arrange for the latter's death at an isolated bus stop in the middle of the Indiana countryside . . . in broad daylight, using a crop duster? Why not have one of his minions quietly put a knife between his ribs on the streets of Chicago? Even arranging Thornhill's death as a drunk driving incident seemed a bit over-the-top to me. Why not kill Thornhill first, pour alcohol on his body, set the car on fire before sending it over a ledge? I am not claiming to know how Lehman and Hitchcock should have handled these scenarios. But the methods they used for Vandamm's attempts on Thornhill's life struck me as similiar to the idiotic methods that many Bond villains used to kill the British agent.
I have to admit that Vandamm's attempts on Thornhill's life provided some of the movie's more memorable moments. The attempt to pass off Thornhill's death as a drunk driving incident had me on the edge of my seat and at the same, laughing rather hard. A "drunken" Cary Grant really did have me in stitches. I could also say the same about the sequence at the Chicago auction, following the dust cropper incident, in which Thornhill confronted Vandamm and Eve before being hauled away by cops for his hilarious disruption of the auction. The finale sequence at Mount Rushmore brimmed with Hitchcock's usual style of suspense. But it was the crop duster sequence that truly impressed me. From a narrative point-of-view, the sequence seemed filled with questionable writing. But as a suspenseful and action sequence, I consider it a masterpiece. The most interesting aspect of the crop duster sequence seemed to be its beginning - that fascinating moment in which Thornhill stands at that isolated bus stop for several minutes, staring at another man who has appeared on the scene before the crop duster's attack. I noticed that director Terence Young did not hesitate to copy it for one action sequence in the 1963 movie,"FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE".
The crop duster sequence and many other scenes benefited from Robert Burks' excellent photography. I was also impressed by George Tomasini's editing, which struck me as especially effective in the Long Island, crop duster and Mount Rushmore sequences. Composer Bernard Herrmann, who once made an interesting comment on Richard Rodney Bennett's score for"MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS", collaborated on many Hitchcock's films during a nine-year period between 1955 and 1964. One of those scores was the memorable one he wrote for "NORTH BY NORTHWEST". His score blended well with the opening titled sequence created by Saul Bass.
But as I had stated earlier, the movie's biggest strength turned out to be the cast. Both Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein made quite a sinister pair as Vadamm's two henchmen, Valerian and Licht. Jessie Royce Landis, who was only seven years older than Cary Grant, gave quite a humorous and stylish performance as his witty mother, Mrs. Thornhill. Leo G. Carroll, who later became famous for the 1960s series "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.", was perfect as the intelligent and manipulative spymaster, "the Professor".
For me, there were four performances that stood out for me. Martin Landau gave his first stand-out performance as Vandamm's observant, yet malevolent henchman, Leonard. Unless my eyes were deceiving me, Landau seemed to have given Leonard a slight homosexual subtext that I found interesting. In many ways, James Mason's Vandamm seemed to be the perfect nemesis for Cary Grant's Thornhill . . . especially with his silky voice, suave manners and good looks. But Mason made sure that the menace was always there behind the debonair facade. I must admit that Eva Marie Saint would have never been my first choice as the movie's femme fatale, Eve Kendall. But I had forgotten that Saint was a first-rate actress and Oscar winner. I should not have been surprised by her ability to be chameleon and create a leading female character who seemed to be ahead of her time. However, the man of the hour proved to be Cary Grant. He has portrayed characters more complex than Roger Thornhill. But Lehman's script still managed to provide plenty of bite to a role that began as a child in a man's body and developed into a heroic and responsible man who managed to retain his wit. I think that Thornhill may prove to be one of my favorite Grant roles.
I do not feel that "NORTH BY NORTHWEST" was one of Alfred Hitchcock's best movies. But I cannot deny that I found it to be one of his most stylish and entertaining films. Not only did it feature memorable action sequences, humor and a superb cast led by Cary Grant; I feel that it could have easily served as a template for many James Bond movies throughout the years. I really look forward to watching the movie as many times possible in the future.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Below is a gallery featuring photos from the 2009 "X-MEN" movie, "X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE". Directed by Gavin Hood, this fourth installment in the X-MEN franchise stars Hugh Jackman:
"X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE" (2009) Photo Gallery
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Episode Two began with the aftermath of Bull Run. It also featured Brett Main Hazard and Semiramis' journey to South Carolina, Orry Main's wedding to his widowed neighbor Madeline LaMotte, and Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon's smuggling operations. I wish I could be objective about this particular episode, but I cannot. I dislike it too much. It is one of the main reasons why I have so much difficulty with "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" in the first place.
My main beef with this episode centered around the plot line that featured Brett and Semiramis' journey south to Mont Royal, following the Bull Run battle. First of all, I believe that this particular plot line was badly written. Brett and Semiramis should not have encountered any difficulties getting past Union lines, since nearly the entire Union Army had fled to Washington in disarray, following the battle. Second, once they had reached Richmond and delivered the message about Clarissa Main's injury, they could have accompanied Orry back to South Carolina. They would have arrived at Mont Royal in late July or early August 1861, instead of November 1861. And why did it take them so long to reach South Carolina in the first place? Surely, the two could have traveled by train. The Union Army had not began destroying Southern railroad tracks during the summer of 1861. And one last question – why on earth was a message sent to Brett in Washington D.C. in the first place? An accommodating neighbor of the Mains or a local doctor could have sent the message about Clarissa to Orry or their sister Ashton in Richmond. It would have been a lot easier. And quicker. Talk about bad writing!
I have a few other qualms about Episode Two. I find it odd that Justin La Motte never suffered any legal repercussions for his attack upon Mont Royal in Episode One. Nor did Orry Main encountered any repercussions for La Motte's death, when he rescued Madeline from her venal husband. And could someone please explain Orry's war duties to Jefferson Davies and the Confederacy? It is bad enough that he managed to procure such a high position within the Confederate Army, considering his previous military history. But what exactly was his duty? Was he the main quartermaster for the Confederate Army? Was he involved in investigating war profiteers? Or was he some unrealistic jack-of-all-trade? In fact, I have the same complaint about George Hazard's position with the Union Army. Like Orry, his previous military history was very limited. Yet, he managed to become a military aide to President Lincoln and serve other duties for the Army - duties that seemed to be very varied. I was especially shocked to find George attending one of Lincoln's Cabinet meetings. Really? Are they serious? This is incredibly sloppy writing. Both Charles Main and his fellow officer Lieutenant Ambrose Pell continue to unnecessarily cart around their swords, during their duties as scouts. And I still see no signs of enlisted men under their command. Episode Two also featured a moment when President Lincoln announced his "Emancipation Proclamation" to his cabinet . . . and George Hazard. I realize this should have been a profound moment, but the pretentious dialogue left me feeling cold.
However, there were some good moments in this episode. George and Orry had a bittersweet reunion inside a barn, while both were traveling to their respective capitals. Charles visited the widowed Augusta Barclay’s farm after being injured by Union cavalry. Stanley and Isobel Hazard scheme to profit from the war and make enough money to take over Hazard Iron. And in one brief scene, Congressman Greene had an embarrassed reaction to a wounded soldier that did David Odgen Stiers’ skills proud as an actor. Of all of these scenes, the one that really impressed me proved to be the one that featured Stanley and Isabel's scheming. For me, this was a step up from their narrative in John Jakes' 1984 novel. The reason I was so impressed by these scenes was due to the first-rate performances from the cast.
The scenes I had earlier mentioned certainly benefited from the cast's excellent acting. This was especially apparent by Jonathan Frakes and Mary Crosby's performances in the scenes that feature Stanley and Isobel, James Read and Patrick Swayze's performances in the scene that featured George and Orry's reunion, and also the performances by Lewis Smith, Kate McNeill and first-time actor John Nixon. Both Philip Casnoff and Terri Garber continued to create amazing heat in their portrayals of Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon. Kurtwood Smith gave an intense and fascinating portrayal of Billy Hazard's commander Hiram Burdan. And Whip Hubley, an actor I have never been that particularly impressed with, gave an interesting performance as Billy's regimental rival, Lieutenant Stephen Kent.
Kevin Connor continued to handle his actors with skill. And the miniseries' photography by Jacques R. Marquette continued to strike me as colorful, but not particularly impressive. But there is one aspect of this production that continued to really impress me was Robert Fletcher's costume designs - especially for the women. Below are examples of his work in this episode:
But if I must be brutally frank, Episode Two featured some of the worst writing in this miniseries, and probably in the entire trilogy. No amount of excellent performances or dazzling costume designs could improve my opinion or save what proved to be an otherwise dull and very disappointing episode.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" (2002) Review
Thirty-four years ago saw the release of "The Bourne Identity", Robert Ludlum's first novel about the amnesiac government agent called Jason Bourne. The novel became a best-seller and spawned two sequels written by Ludlum. Then in 1988, ABC aired a two-part miniseries adaptation of Ludlum's novel, which starred Richard Chamberlain and Jacyln Smith. The miniseries turned out to be a big ratings hit. But it did not stop there. Over fourteen years later, Universal Pictures released its own adaptation of the novel, starring Matt Damon as the amnesiac Jason Bourne.
Directed by Doug Liman, the beginning of "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" more or less followed Ludlum's novel. Italian fisherman (instead of French) rescue an unconscious man floating adrift with two gunshot wounds in his back. The boat's medic finds a display of a safe deposit number surgically implanted under the unknown man's skin. The man wakes up and discovers he is suffering from extreme memory loss. Over the next few days, the man finds he is fluent in several languages and has unusual skills. But he cannot remember anything about himself or why he was in the sea. When the ship docks, the doctor sends him off to Zurich with some money to investigate the mystery of the safe deposit box. In Zurich, the man discovers money, a pistol and passports with his photograph. One of the photographs identify him as an American named Jason Bourne with an address in Paris.
Here, "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" begins to veer from both Ludlum's novel and the 1988 miniseries. Instead of alerting the forces of terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Bourne's trip to the bank alerted the CIA black ops program Treadstone to his whereabouts. And instead of coercing French-Canadian Marie St. Jacques to drive him to safety and using her as a hostage, Damon's Bourne offered money to a German-born Marie Kreutz to drive him to Paris. Before they can part, a Treadstone assassin attack Bourne at his Paris apartment. Due to the attack, Bourne is forced to kill the assassin and keep Marie by his side for her protection. And with her help, he sets out to discover his true identity and the truth that led to his wounded state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, Treadstone - led by the cankerous Alexander Conklin and the anxious Deputy Director Ward Abbott - continues sending assassins to kill Bourne and prevent him from revealing the organization's desire to kill a volatile exiled African dictator named Nykwana Wombosi.
I might as well put my cards on the table. "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" is a terrific movie. Director Doug Liman, along with screenwriters Tony Gilory and William Blake Herron, did a first-rate job of transferring . . . well, their vision of Ludlum's novel. Although the movie is not as faithful to the novel as the miniseries, I believe it is just as good. Liman, Gilroy and Herron decided to reject a good deal of Ludlum's novel in order to reflect the current political climate and to conform to Liman's opinions regarding American foreign policy. In the movie, Bourne is a CIA assassin who works for a black ops group called Treadstone that carries out unofficial hits on those they consider threats to the American government. He lost his memory after a failed attempt on the exiled Nykwana Wombosi. The movie is more of a criticism or indictment (depending on how one would view it) on U.S. foreign policy than Ludlum's novel . But the director and the two screenwriters made sure that they retained the novel's central theme - a CIA agent who loses his memory on the heels of a failed mission. Does this mean I believe Liman, Gilroy and Herron's changes are superior to Ludlum's original story? Not really. Ludlum's tale and the 1988 adaptation were reflections of the times they hit both the bookstores and television screens. By the time "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" was in production, the political scene had change. The real Carlos the Jackal had been in prison for about seven to eight years by the time the movie went into production. And in my opinion, Liman and the two screenwriters wisely reflected this change.
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" also reflected some first rate action sequences, thanks to Liman's direction, Oliver Wood's photography and especially Saar Klein's editing. My favorite sequences include Bourne's escape from the U.S. Embassy in Zurich, a car chase sequence through the streets of Paris, Bourne's final encounter with Conklin and two of the latter's flunkies inside Treadstone's Parisian safe house and especially the fight sequence between Bourne and another Treadstone assassin named Castel. I also enjoyed John Powell's atmospheric score for the film, which I believe more or less served as the basis for his work on the second and third BOURNE movies. And speaking of music, one could hardly discuss any BOURNE film withou mentioning Moby's 2002 hit song, "Extreme Ways". The lyrics to Moby's song, supported by a very entertaining score, literally captured the nuance of the franchise's main characters . . . especially Bourne. Is it any wonder that it has become the franchise's theme song? Also, I have to commend Liman's insistence upon filming "THE BOURNE IDENTITY" in Paris, especially since executives at Universal Studios wanted him to use Montreal or Prague as substitutes for the City of Lights. Mind you, both Montreal and Prague are beautiful cities. But even I would have guessed they were not really Paris in the film.
I read somewhere that Liman had considered a wide range of actors like Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone for the role of David Webb aka Jason Bourne. Mind you, I think Crowe could have pulled it off. But I am not so sure about Stallone. Then again, he could have done so a decade earlier. However, Liman eventually settled for Matt Damon and the rest, as they say, is history. Damon not only gave a superb performance as the introverted and haunted Bourne, he also handled some of the action scenes very well, considering this was his first time in such a physically demanding role. He also had superb chemistry with his leading lady, Franka Potente. The latter was excellent as the free-spirited Marie Kreutz, who finds herself drawn to the mysterious Bourne . . . almost against her will. Other first-rate performances include Chris Cooper as the intense and hot-tempered Alexander Conklin; Brian Cox, who performance as the cautious Ward Abbott almost strikes me as insidious; and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, whose performance as the arrogant and verbose Nykwana Wombosi pretty much lit up the screen. The movie also featured first-rate performances from two cast members who said very little. Julia Stiles did an excellent job in conveying both the professionalism and wariness of Treadstone logistics technician Nicky Parsons with very little dialogue. Clive Owen had even less to say as Treadstone assassin "The Professor" and yet, he perfectly projected an intense and intimidating presence as a government killer.
"THE BOURNE IDENTITY" is probably my second favorite movie in the franchise. Yet, it is not perfect. One of the problems I had featured the death of Treadstone assassin Castel, who jumped out of the window and killed himself, following his fight with Bourne inside the latter's Parisian apartment. Marie asked Bourne why he did it. And honestly, I wondered why he did it myself. But Gilroy and Herron's screenplay failed to explain Castel's suicide. And to this day, I am still wondering why the guy jumped. Ward Abbott made the decision to shut down Treadstone, following its failure to kill Bourne. But instead of having everyone connected to Treadstone killed - something that Edward Norton's character in "THE BOURNE LEGACY" attempted to do - Abbott only had one person bumped off. And I could not help but wondering if his efforts were half-assed. I also had a problem with the CIA's reaction to Nykwana Wombosi's death. Following Bourne's failed attempt to kill him, the CIA Director had a fit over the unauthorized attempted hit on the former dictator. But when "The Professor" finally killed Wombossi, no one made a fuss or worried over the possibility that the dictator's death might attract more attention from the media. I thought this was rather sloppy on Gilroy and Herron's part. Finally, the movie's second half was in danger of losing my attention, due to Liman's slow pacing. If it were not for the sequence featuring Bourne and Marie's visit to her friend (or step brother) Eaumon's French farmhouse, I would have fallen asleep and missed Bourne's final confrontation with Conklin.
What else is there to say about "THE BOURNE IDENTITY"? Like I said, it is my second favorite of the four movies in the BOURNE franchise. In its own way, it is just as good (but not better) than the 1988 miniseries that starred Richard Chamberlain. Not only did the movie featured a first-rate, if flawed screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron; it also featured fine direction by Doug Liman, along with a superb cast led by Matt Damon who proved to be an excellent Jason Bourne.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Below are images from Season One of ABC's "ONCE UPON A TIME". The series stars Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle:
"ONCE UPON A TIME" Season One (2011-2012) Photo Gallery