Friday, January 30, 2015
"GONE WITH THE WIND" (1939) Review
Several years ago, I had come across an article that provided a list of old classics that the author felt might be overrated. One of those movies turned out to be the 1939 Oscar winning film, "GONE WITH THE WIND". Not only did the author accuse the movie of being both racist and sexist, he also claimed that the movie had not aged very well over the past seven decades.
Did I agree with the author? Well, let me put it this way. I would say that "GONE WITH THE WIND" has managed to withstand the tests of time . . . to a certain extent. As the author had pointed out, the sexism and racism are obvious and rather off-putting. First of all, the slaves came across as too servile for my taste. Although there were moments when it seemed the slave Prissy did not particularly care for the movie's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara. And although Prissy was not the only dimwitted character in the story (think of Melanie and Charles Hamilton's Aunt Pittypatt, the Tarleton brothers, and yes, even Charles Hamilton himself), she had the bad luck to spout that unfortunate line that must have been the bane of actress Butterfly McQueen’s life - "Miz Scarlett, I know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.". The movie's portrayal of the newly freed slaves struck me as schizophrenic. They either remained loyal to their former masters - like Mammy, Prissy and Pork (the O'Hara house servants); or they were shiftless, lazy blacks who easily "bought the Yankees' lies" and preyed upon their former masters and mistresses - especially white women. This last sentence reminded me of the Shantytown sequence. And I just remembered that both a white man and a black man nearly attacked Scarlett before she was rescued by Big Sam. In other words, this film was just as insulting to working-class whites (think former overseer Jonas Wilkerson and Emmy Slattery), as it was to the black characters. I forgot that despite its occasional celebration of the working-class (especially during the Depression Era), many Hollywood films tend to reek of class bigotry.
And the sexism was no better. I found the story's male romantic lead Rhett Butler’s determination to view Scarlett as his own personal child bride rather distasteful – along with his act of marital rape. The first half of the movie allowed Rhett to express some kind of respect toward Scarlett's pragmatism and ruthlessness. But once she became his wife, he seemed to long for some kind of child bride as well. But if I must be honest, I have seen movies that are just as bad or even worse. I realize that the Melanie Hamilton character is highly regarded by many as the ideal woman, I personally found the character hard to accept. I nearly rolled my eyes in one scene that featured her sacrificing her wedding ring for "the Cause" (namely the Confederacy). That woman put the Madeline Fabray character from John Jakes' North and South" trilogy to shame. Ideal characters - especially ideal women - have always been a turn off for me. They tend to smack of illusions of the worst kind.
I had once seen "GONE WITH THE WIND" at one of my local movie theaters when it had been re-released to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1989. The first half of the film struck me as being well-paced and filmed. The dialogue sparkled and Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, and the rest of the cast could not have been better. I could not say the same for the film’s second half. The real problem with "GONE WITH THE WIND" manifested in Part Two. Once Scarlett had married Rhett . . . the movie slowly began to fizzle. Oh sure, it had its iconic moments – Scarlett appearing at Ashley’s birthday party in the infamous red dress, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death and Mammy's grief-stricken reaction. Unfortunately, it did not take me very long to fall asleep . . . even before poor Bonnie Blue’s death. I managed to wake up in time to witness Hattie McDaniel's brilliant monologue on the decline of Butlers' marriage and Bonnie Blue's death. I do not think one can really blame the movie's credited screenwriter, Sidney Howard and the screenwriters who worked on the project. Margaret Mitchell's novel had this same problem as the movie. Namely, it started brilliantly and ended with me crying in despair for the story to end. I suspect that Selznick had decided not to risk earning the fans' ire by refraining from changing the novel's structure too much after the other changes he had made.
And the main reason why "GONE WITH THE WIND" threatened to fizzle out in the end? Quite frankly, the story seemed unable to maintain the same pace throughout the film. Even worse, this seemed to have turned "GONE WITH THE WIND" into a movie with conflicting genres. I do not know whether to list it as a historical drama or a costumed melodrama. Most of the movie seemed like a historical drama – especially the first half that ends with Scarlett’s return to Tara. But once Scarlett’s second husband - Frank Kennedy – was killed during the Shantytown attack sequence, the movie purely became a costumed melodrama. This change in genre not only made the movie seemed slightly schizophrenic, it nearly grounded the film's pacing to a halt.
There were other minor aspects of "GONE WITH THE WIND" that I found rather questionable. Why was Melanie Wilkes living in Atlanta, following her marriage to Ashley Wilkes? Why did she not live with her in-laws at the Wilkes' plantation, Twelve Oaks? And why was Scarlett still living at Tara, following her marriage to Charles Hamilton? She should have moved into the home of his aunt, Pittypat Hamilton, in Atlanta. One featured a brief scene in which Eddie Anderson's Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the Wilkes' backyard proclaiming it to be "the last chicken in Atlanta". Really? In December 1863, when the Union Army had yet to set foot in the state of Georgia, except at Fort Polaski, off the coast of Savannah? And could someone explain why social leaders like Mrs. Mayweather, Mrs. Meade and Aunt Pittypat needed Melanie's approval for an auction regarding the city's young female elite at the local charity bazaar and ball? Melanie was only a year or two older than Scarlett and probably eighteen to nineteen years old at the time. I found the entire moment implausible. And who exactly created the infamous green dress that Scarlett wore to pay Rhett a visitor, when he was a prisoner of the Union Army? Scarlett? Her sisters? Mammy, who was a housekeeper and not a seamstress? Prissy? Why was Rhett a prisoner of the Union Army . . . after the war ended? And why did Big Sam have that ludicrous argument with the other O'Hara slave over who would order the other field slaves to stop working? He was the foreman. It was his job. The other man should have known that.
Speaking of Big Sam, he was also featured in a scene in which Scarlett spotted him and other former Tara field slaves marching through Atlanta and on their way to dig ditches for the Confederate Army defending the city. What made me shake my head in disbelief was not only Sam's cheerful attitude toward this task, but the fact that his fellow slaves were singing "Go Down Moses", a song associated with American slaves' desire to flee bondage and the Underground Railroad. Either David O. Selznick or his production team had no knowledge of the historical significance of this song, or . . . this scene was some kind of ironic joke. Last, but not least, one scene in the movie's second half found Scarlett and Ashley arguing over their use of convicts as labor for her lumber mill. The problem is that the convicts were all white, and most convicts - then and now - were African-Americans. Is it possible that Selznick may have been guilty of whitewashing? Apparently so.
"GONE WITH THE WIND" does have its virtues. Most of the performances were first-rate. It especially benefited from Vivian Leigh as the movie's lead, Scarlett O'Hara; Clark Gable as the roguish Rhett Butler; Hattie McDaniel as Mammy; Olivia De Havilland as the sweetly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O'Hara; Barbara O'Neil as Ellen O'Neil; Butterfly McQueen as Prissy Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, and even Leslie Howard, who had the thankless job of portraying the aristocratic loser, Ashley Wilkes. In fact, one has to give Leigh credit for basically carrying a nearly four-hour movie on her own. But there were other performances that I found memorable - including Oscar Polk, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Everett Brown, Carroll Nye and Rand Brooks. Leigh, Gable, De Havilland and McDaniels all received Academy Award nominations. Both Leigh and McDaniels won in their respective categories.
The movie also benefited from a strong first half, which covered the war years. From the movie's opening on Tara's porch to that last moment when a besieged Scarlett vowed to "never go hungry again" in the middle of one of Tara's fields, the movie steamed ahead with drive, without rushing along too fast. In fact, I would say that the film's strongest sequence began with the Union Army's siege of Atlanta and ended with Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy's arrival at Tara. That sequence alone did an excellent job of expressing the horrors of war not only from the military point of view, but also from the viewpoints of civilians like Scarlett. Marceella Rabwin, producer David O. Selznick's former executive assistant, had credited Victor Fleming not only for his direction of this sequence, but also the film's strong drive and pacing. And since he ended up as the movie's main director, I guess I will also give him credit. It still amazes me that a Civil War movie with no battle scenes whatsoever, could have such a strong and well-paced narrative - at least in its first half. The movie also benefited from the hiring of the Oscar winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, who used storyboards (a first in Hollywood for a live-action film) to provide the movie's look and style. He was able assisted by another Oscar winner, Lyle R. Wheeler, who created the movie's art designs. Many have complimented Walter Plunkett for his costume designs for the film. Granted, he had created some beautiful costumes. But my two favorite costumes worn by Vivian Leigh in the images below, are not particularly well-known:
However, I do have a problem with some of Plunkett's designs. He had a bad habit of injecting modern fashion styles into some of his 19th century designs. Another virtue of the movie came from the score written and orchestrated by Max Steiner. Although he had received a nomination for his work, Steiner was defeated by Herbert Stothart's work for "THE WIZARD OF OZ". Menzies' storyboards must have been a godsend not only for Wheeler's Oscar winning art direction and Plunkett's costume designs, but also Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes' photography. I found the latter so beautiful and colorful that only the following images can only do further justice to the film's striking visuals:
What else can I say about "GONE WITH THE WIND"? Unlike many other film critics and fans, it is not my favorite Best Picture winner. It is not even my favorite 1939 film. Between the overt political incorrectness and a weak second half, I would have never voted it as the 1939 Best Picture Oscar. But . . . despite its political incorrectness and the dull last hour of the film, "GONE WITH THE WIND" still managed to hold up pretty well after 75 years, thanks to its talented cast and crew and the drive of producer David O. Selznick.
Monday, January 26, 2015
STAR WARS: "EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK"
Notes and Observations
The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”. I hope that you enjoy them:
*Exactly who was in command of the Rebel Alliance base on Hoth – Leia or General Rieekan?
*What was Leia doing on Hoth with the Rebel Alliance military personnel? Why wasn’t she with the other political Rebel leaders?
*Ah yes! The ”I’ just as soon kiss a Wookie!” dialogue between Leia and Han. Charming, although slightly . . . childish.
*How . . . or should I say when did Han and Leia reach the point in which they became attracted to one another?
*It was interesting to see how Obi-Wan’s ghost faded with the emergence of Han on a tauntaun.
*”Why, you stuck up,... half-witted... scruffy-looking ...nerf-herder!” - Another charming, yet childish exchange between Leia and Han.
*Jealousy and ambition seem quite obvious within the Imperial command structure, if General Ozzel’s glare at Piett is anything to go by.
*I find it interesting that the exchange between Luke and Han before the commencement of the Battle of Hoth would be the last between them for at least a year.
*Vader’s ability to strangle Ozzel with the Force from such a large distance seemed very impressive for someone whose strength with the Force has been weakened.
*The pilots’ point of view of the Battle of Hoth seemed like another cliché of a World War II dogfight . . . like the Battle of Yavin.
*Luke was made commander of the Rebel pilots because he had destroyed the Death Star . . . with Han’s help? What about Wedge, who was also a competent pilot and more experienced?
*The Imperial AT-AT Walkers remind me of the Oliphaunts from the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.
*Wasn’t Leia taking her duty just a bit too seriously by delaying her departure from Hoth?
*I noticed that Han never seemed to follow the ladies first rule. When he, Leia and Chewie and Threepio had escaped both from Hoth and the exogorth in the asteroid field, he made sure that he boarded the Millennium Falcon first. Not exactly a man of the Old Republic.
*Han really revealed how much of a hot shot pilot he was in this movie.
*”Into the belly of the beast” - This metaphor seemed to fit the Falcon’s entry into exogorth even more than Luke, Han and Leia’s brief adventures inside the Death Star’s trash compactor.
*The audience got a brief glimpse of the price Anakin paid for his past mistakes – namely his scalded head.
*”Feel like what?” - Yoda’s first words in any ”STAR WARS” movie.
*”Great warrior? Hmmm . . . wars do not make one great.” - Ironic words from the very being who led the first attack, during the first battle of the Clone Wars. His words also revealed the true Yoda behind the comic façade. I think Luke may have been too impatient or full of himself to notice.
*”You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.” - One can only assume that Leia’s age – 22 years – and limited experience with men would explain why she bought that bilge pouring from Han’s mouth.
*”He’s just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.” - Surely these words must have hinted to Palpatine that Vader had been aware of Luke for some time?
*I see that Clive Revill has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor Palpatine in this DVD version of the movie. Which makes sense, considering that McDiarmid is more identified with the role.
*”This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away . . . to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.” - I believe that Yoda had just described himself and many other Jedi Masters and Knights of the Old Republic, nearly a quarter of a century ago. If he and Obi-Wan could learn to overcome this distraction from the future, why not Luke? Why was Yoda so reluctant to teach Luke? Is it Luke he doubts? Or himself as a teacher?
*”If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.” - I hope that Yoda was trying to say that a person will always be affected by his or her earlier decision to take a dark path or commit dark acts. Because if he was trying to say that a person will always remain evil, after taking the dark path, I must say that I disagree.
*Han used a neat trick to evade the sensors of Captain Needa’s starship, after the Falcon left the asteroid field.
*”Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” - A favorite line of mine.
*It was very clever of Han to attach the Falcon to an Imperial starship before disguising it as garbage to be disposed with the other. Unfortunately for him, Boba Fett had witnessed a similar trick pulled by Obi-Wan near Geonosis, some 25 years ago. Even worse, it is a shame that Han was so busy congratulating himself over his trick that he failed to realize that Fett was tracking him.
*”Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future... the past. Old friends long gone.” - I wonder if Yoda was thinking of Mace Windu.
*According to LucasFilm, it took the Falcon three months to reach Bespin without a hyperdrive. If only Lucas and the others had made this clear in the movie.
*The Falcon was practically escorted to one of the landing platforms on Cloud City. I wonder why.
*Great entrance for Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.
*Was CP-30 really that dense in that he would be so easily distracted from the group by the sound of an R2 unit?
*”Stopped they must be. On this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor”. - Did that mean Yoda had never intended for Luke to help Anakin find redemption?
*Apparently, the original deal between Vader and Lando did not include Han being turned over to Boba Fett. And later, Vader broke his word and insisted that Leia and Chewie accompany him. Interesting. It is a miracle that the Sith Lord did not renege on the deal even further by destroying Bespin and its population.
*And why did Han and Leia fail to understand the situation that Vader had placed Lando? Were they too blinded by anger?
*I find it interesting that not once did Vader set eyes upon C3-P0, his own creation. Why? Because Chewbacca had the droid strapped to his back.
*How stupid were Leia and Chewbacca? It was obvious that Lando had released them from Vader’s stormtroopers. Yet, all they could do was lose their tempers. Chewbacca immediately began to strangle Lando and Leia encouraged the Wookie. Because their temper tantrums, they prevented Lando from rescuing Han from Boba Fett.
*I must admit that I found the dialogue during the Bespin duel rather irritating. The most important thing about the duel seemed to be Vader’s revelation as Anakin Skywalker . . . after the fighting stopped.
*Vader’s reaction to Luke and Leia’s escape from Bespin was an excellent moment of silent acting on David Prowse’s part. With his use of body language, he managed to express Vader’s regret over losing Luke . . . and the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s resurgence.
Friday, January 23, 2015
Below are images from "NORTH AND SOUTH", the 1975 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel. Directed by Rodney Bennett, the four-part miniseries starred Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart:
"NORTH AND SOUTH" (1975) Photo Gallery
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
”TAKEN” (2009) Review
Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen wrote this tight thriller about a retired CIA agent who tracks down his daughter after she was kidnapped by Albanian criminals engaged in the sex slave traffic, while traveling in Europe. Directed by Pierre Morel, the movie stars Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen and Olivier Rabourdin.
Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a divorced, former paramilitary officer from the CIA's famed Special Activities Division. His 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) lives with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new wealthy husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley). After Kim accompanies her close friend, Amanda (Katie Cassidy) to Europe, they are kidnapped by sex trade traffickers from the apartment they share in Paris. Since Mills was talking to Kim at the time the kidnapping took place, he is able to get some information on who may have snatched her and Amanda before heading to Paris to track them down.
I am going to put my cards on the table. I enjoyed ”TAKEN” . . . a lot. It was a fast paced thriller filled with the usual stuff one can find in a top-notch action film – exciting car chases, tension, well choreographed fight scenes and sharp acting. I would not view it as an exceptional film. If I have to be honest, there is nothing new in this film that I have not seen in previous action thrillers. It also had its share of clichés that usually pop up in other action films. But I still enjoyed it. If there is one thing I must commend upon the movie is the level of global involvement in the sex slave traffic. Morel and screenwriters Besson and Kamen not only involved Kim’s Albanian kidnappers into the trade, but also French government officials and customers from all over the globe.
The cast did a pretty good job. But I was particularly impressed by four actors in particular. Olivier Rabourdin was surprisingly interesting as Jean-Claude - an old friend of Mills’ who also happens to be a former operative and now deputy director of the French intelligence agency. At first, I had assumed that Rabourdin would act as an ally who would help Mills in his search for his daughter. But thanks to Rabourdin’s performance, his role turned out to be surprisingly more ambiguous. I was also impressed by Famke Janssen’s performance as Mills’ ex-wife, Leonore. This was a different Janssen, who portrayed an uptight woman still harboring some residual of bitterness toward Mills and the way their marriage had ended. And I have to give kudos to Maggie Grace for effectively portraying a character that was at least seven to eight years her junior. Although I am certain that many actresses in their mid-twenties have portrayed a teenager, I have rarely come across many that were as convincing as Grace. She was excellent.
Liam Neeson must have been at least fifty-five years old when he filmed ”TAKEN”. Mind you, there have been other actors around his age or older who have managed to convincingly portray action characters. But his performance as Bryan Mills could give Jason Bourne or James Bond some stiff competition. Granted, his interactions with the various thugs and bodyguards almost made him seem unnaturally superhuman. But if one might as well accuse Matt Damon’s Bourne or Daniel Craig’s Bond of the same thing. Thankfully, Neeson’s Mills was more than just an above-average action hero. The Irish-born actor also infused his character with all of the emotional angst, paranoia and anger any father would face at the prospect of one’s child being snatched by strangers and placed into danger.
I do have one major complaint about ”TAKEN” - namely the photography and editing featured in the movie. Like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY”, ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” and ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” before it, ”TAKEN” is filled with that ”shaky camera” technique that I loathe so much. I realize that this technique was used to give a film an ad-hoc, news, or documentary feel. Frankly, I have never seen the need for to give action movies such as ”TAKEN” this type of style for action films, with the exception of movies based upon real life dramas or war movies. Thanks to director Morel, cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, and editor Frédéric Thoraval; the shaky camera technique only made me feel dizzy and frustrated. I am thankful that the fight scenes – especially in the film’s last twenty minutes – did not seem affected by this technique. However . . . Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two ”BOURNE” films, has a lot to answer for making this filming technique popular for action films.
In a nutshell, ”TAKEN” is not exactly what I would call an original film. It utilized many of the typical clichés used in action films. And the subject – the sex slave traffic – has been told with greater detail in such productions like 2005’s”HUMAN TRAFFICKING”. And the shaky camera technique used by Morel, Abramowicz and Thoraval made it difficult for me to enjoy some of the actions scenes, especially those featuring car chases. But thanks to a first-rate cast led by Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, solid direction by Morel and a straightforward script written by Besson and Kamen,”TAKEN” is a tense, yet entertaining film that I found very satisfying. I enjoyed it so much that I might be inclined to go see it again.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
Below is Part I of a list of my favorite episodes featuring "LOST" characters:
"LOST" (2004-2010): FAVORITE CHARACTER CENTRIC EPISODES - Part I
1. (2.09) "What Kate Did" - While Kate tends to a wounded Sawyer, flashbacks reveal her original crime, the murder of her father.
2. (1.22) "Born to Run" - Kate seeks a spot on Michael's raft, threatening to take Sawyer's place. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the circumstances behind the death of her childhood love, Tom.
3. "(5.04) "The Little Prince" - Kate and Jack discovers that Aaron's grandmother, Carole Littleton is in Los Angeles. A flashback reveals the truth behind Kate's decision to claim him as her son; while the remaining island survivors jump to the day when Aaron was born.
1. (3.16) "One of Us" - Juliet arrives at the castaways' camp, accompanied by Jack, Kate and Sayid. While the survivors question Jack's motives, a strange illness strikes down Claire. Flashbacks reveal Juliet's first three years on the island.
2. (3.07) "Not in Portland" - Flashbacks reveal the events behind the Others' recruitment of Juliet. Meanwhile, she assists Kate and Sawyer in their escape from one of the Others' camps.
1. (2.07) "The Other 48 Days" - The first 48 days following the crash of Oceanic 815 are shown from the Tail Section survivors' point of view, along with Ana-Lucia's leadership.
2. (2.08) "Collision" - Shannon's death causes a clash between Ana-Lucia and Sayid, near the Fuselage survivors' camp. Flashbacks reveal a tragic shooting in Ana-Lucia's past and her subsequent desire for revenge.
1. (4.08) "Meet Kevin Johnson" - Flashbacks reveal Michael's experiences in New York and the deal he made with the Others to spy upon the crew and passengers of Widmore's freighter.
2. (2.22) "Three Minutes" - Michael convinces Jack, Kate, Hurley and Sawyer to help him lead an attempt to rescue Walt, following Ana-Lucia and Libby's deaths. Flashbacks reveal the time he spent as a captive of the Others.
3. (1.14) "Special" - Michael clashes with Locke over his parenting of Walt. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the breakup between Michael and Walt's mother, Susan.
1. (2.10) "The 23rd Psalms" - While Charlie leads Mr. Eko to a drug smuggler's plane that contains the latter's brother, flashbacks reveal the path that led to his life as a warlord in Nigeria.
2. (2.21) "?" - While dealing with the deaths of Ana-Lucia and Libby, Mr. Eko accompanies Locke when they find another Dharma station. Flashbacks reveal his experiences in Australia before boarding Oceanic Flight 815.
Part II will feature the next five characters..