Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"THE EUROPEANS" (1979) Review


"THE EUROPEANS" (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter, 
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released"THE EUROPEANS", an adaptation of Henry James' 1878 short novel, "The Europeans: A Sketch"

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, "THE EUROPEANS" begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family - patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix's sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths. 

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins' lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia's marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins' Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie's distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand - including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. "THE EUROPEANS" is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film's period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when "THE EUROPEANS" struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie's production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of "THE EUROPEANS" that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James' story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region's beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story's period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft's costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft's successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:


Despite my complaints about the movie's staid adaptation of James' novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie's plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is "neither". But individuals won, especially three particular characters - Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in "THE EUROPEANS" proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider "THE EUROPEANS" as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company's bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie's flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James' tale.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER" (1999) Book Review


"FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER" (1999) Book Review

Out of all the books featured in George MacDonald Fraser's The Flashman Papers, only one featured more than one tale. This turned out to be "FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER", first published in 1999. Instead of one novel, the book contained three novellas featuring an aging Harry Flashman between the ages of 56 and 72. 

As I had stated earlier, "FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER" featured three novellas - "The Road to Charing Cross""The Subtleties of Baccarat", and "Flashman and the Tiger". The first story deals with Flashman involved in a plot to thwart the assassination of Austria's Emperor Franz Josef. The second involves the infamous Tranby Croft Scandal, which involved the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and someone close to Flashman. And the third story featured Flashman's encounters with the villainous Tiger Jack Moran during the Anglo-Zulu War, and later in London of the 1890s. Let us begin . . . shall we?

"The Road to Charing Cross"

The longest novella in the book, "The Road to Charing Cross" begins in 1878, when Flashman is invited by the famous journalist, Henri Blowitz, to help get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin. During his trip to Germany, Flashman will a beautiful member of the French Secret Service named Caprice. Five years later in 1883, Flashy is invited by Blowitz to journey on the inaugural trip of the Orient Express. Flashman accepts the invitation as an excuse to avoid being sent to the Sudan. During the train journey, he is introduced to Princess Kralta of Germany, who has expressed interest in him of the romantic nature. As it turns out, Kralta's interest in Flashman is nothing more than a ruse devised by his old nemesis from ,Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in order to get the British Army officer to help prevent Emperor Franz Josef from being assassinated and prevent a major European war. One of Flashman's colleagues in this plot turns out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Rudi von Starnberg, another former nemesis from the 1970 novel. In the end, it turns out that von Starnberg has other plans of his own.

For me, "The Road to Charing Cross" turned out to be the best of three novellas. Regardless of its length, I thought it was a well-written adventure set during the political upheavals of Central Europe. Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating the first rail journey of the Orient Express. He must have did his homework in researching this piece of history. And the sequence featuring Flashman's efforts to save the Austrian emperor and his own hide were truly outstanding. His characterizations of Princess Kralta, Henri Blowitz, and Emperor Franz Josef were first-rate. Fraser's pièce de résistanceturned out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Flashman's old nemesis, Rudi von Starnberg. Dear old Willy turned out to be a chip off the old block . . . and a lot more. He possessed Rudi's wit, joie de vivre and ruthlessness.

Did "The Road to Charing Cross" have any flaws? Well . . . it had one. And that flaw had a lot to do with the character of Willem von Starnberg. Although Willem was well written by Fraser, the latter described him as being half-German (Prussian) and half-Hungarian. Which meant that according to this story, Rudi von Starnberg was Austrian. Apparently, George MacDonald Fraser seemed incapable of determining Rudi's nationality. Fraser described him as an Austrian in"Royal Flash", as a Hungarian in the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel, and as a German in this story. Whatever. Despite this major flaw, "The Road to Charing Cross" is still an excellent story.

"The Subtleties of Baccarat"

This novella finds Sir Harry Flashman and his wife, Elspeth, Lady Flashman; visiting Tranby Croft, the estate of one Sir Arthur Wilson in early September 1890. Sir Arthur is hosting a house party in honor of his royal visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. During the house party, both Flashman and Elspeth witness a baccarat game, which was considered illegal in Britain. The legalities were brushed aside, due to the Prince of Wales' love of the game. During the days between September 8 and 9, several guests claimed that one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, cheating. Guests informed the Prince of Wales, who confronted Gordon-Cumming. To the very end, the latter claimed that he was innocent and even sued the Prince of Wales and a few others for defamation of character. Alas, the label of cheat stuck and Gordon-Cummings became a social pariah. But "The Subtleties of Baccarat" did not end with Gordon-Cumming's downfall. Instead, it ended with a surprising revelation that left Flashman in total shock.

"The Subtleties of Baccarat" was an interesting little tale. But I cannot say that I would ever love it. At least most of the story. The problem is that I am not a card player. And I found it difficult to follow the card games, while the scandal unfolded. It was not until Flashman learned the truth about the scandal from the surprising figure of Elspeth that the story truly became interesting to me. If I must be honest, Elspeth's revelations on what really happened during the baccarat games not only shocked me, but made me become an even bigger fan of Lady Flashman. The novella had a surprising, yet satisfying finale to an otherwise bearable story.

"Flashman and the Tiger"

The book derived its title from its third novella set in both 1879 and 1894. "Flashman and the Tiger" is mainly about Flashman's encounters with a character named Tiger Jack Moran, who had been originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his SHERLOCK HOLMES stories. Flashman first meets Moran during the Zulu War, when both experience the retreat from the Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorke's Drift. The pair does not meet again until fifteen years later, when Flashman discovers that Moran is blackmailing his granddaughter, Selina, in order to sleep with her. Moran turns out to be a cabin boy (who had propositioned Flashy) on Captain John Charity Spring's ship, the Balliol College, who had been traded to King Gezo as a white slave in the 1971 novel, "FLASH FOR FREEDOM!". Moran spent years seeking revenge against the surviving crewmen. He found his opportunity to seek revenge against Flashman, when he learned that the latter's engaged granddaughter was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. The story ended with Moran's arrest and Flashman's brief, yet humorous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This novella was a problem for me. One, I found the addition of Flashman's experiences during the Zulu War unnecessary. Fraser could have used the Zulu War as a major novel, instead of adding this useless scene that really had little to do with the main narrative. What made the use of this topic even more unnecessary was that Flashman's first encounter with Moran occurred in 1848, aboard Captain Charity Spring's ship. It was this encounter that a much bigger impact on the story. I have the deep suspicion that Fraser used this story as an excuse to indulge in a little Imperial flag waving. After all,"Flashman and the Tiger" did not focus on the Battle of Isandlwana, in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats at the hands of the Zulu. Instead, it focused on the following battle at Rorke's Drift, in which the British managed to repel several attacks by the enemy.

My second problem with this novella was the fact that Fraser used Tiger Jack Moran, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as supporting characters. I found that rather cheap. I found it bad enough that Fraser used Sir Anthony Hope's novel, "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" as a premise for his 1970 novel, "ROYAL FLASH" and a historical character as Flashman's love child in "FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS". But using literary characters created by another author as supporting characters in one's own story? Hmmm . . . cheap.

Finally, Fraser must have done a piss poor job in researching the love life of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The latter's mistresses were usually sexually experienced women who were either married society women, actresses or prostitutes. I do not recall the Prince of Wales ever taking the virginity of a 19 year-old debutante . . . especially one who was engaged. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Flashman's unmarried granddaughter was one of Bertie the Bounder's mistresses. The only redeeming trait of this story was Fraser's description of the Isandlwana retreat and the Defense of Rorke's Drift. Apparently, he saved all of his top-notch research for this particular sequence.

"FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER" was not a bad piece of literature from George MacDonald Fraser's pen. It possessed a first-rate novella, "The Road to Charing Cross", and a mildly entertaining story with a juicy, surprise ending in "The Subtleties of Baccarat". The book's only misstep . . . at least for me . . . proved to be the last story, "Flashman and Tiger".

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"AMAZING GRACE" (2006-07) Photo Gallery

Screen shot 2012-10-11 at 8.22.36 PM

Below are images from "AMAZING GRACE", the 2006-07 biopic about British statesman, William Wilberforce. Directed by Michael Apted, the movie starred Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai: 

"AMAZING GRACE" (2006-07) Photo Gallery


























Monday, March 14, 2016

"THE OTHER GUYS" (2010) Review

"THE OTHER GUYS" (2010) Review

One could not imagine two such diverse Hollywood talents such as Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg co-starring together in a summer action comedy. I certainly could not imagine such a scenario. And after watching the trailer for the new comedy, ”THE OTHER GUYS”, I had approached the film with a little bit of trepidation. 

Directed by Adam McKay, ”THE OTHER GUYS” told the story of two mismatched New York Police detectives – Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz – who become determined to rise from the police department’s running joke in order to become the city’s top police detective, following the deaths of the city’s top cops, Highsmith and Danson. Standing in their way are a few impediments – namely their previous inability to form a solid detective team, Hoitz’s bad temper, Gamble’s inexperience in the field and previous position as a forensic accountant, another pair of detectives named Martin and Fosse, and a massive lottery scam operated by a multi-billionaire named David Ershon, who owns money to an investor.

In the end, ”THE OTHER GUYS” proved to be a solid comedy written by Chris Henchy and Adam McKay, and directed by McKay. Narrated by Ice-T, the movie provided plenty of comedic moments that actually made me laugh and some surprisingly impressive action sequences. One of the best scenes featured a bombing of an accountant’s office that left both Gamble and Hoitz slightly wounded. It gave Farrell the opportunity to make sarcastic remarks about similar scenes in other Hollywood action films. Another funny scene featured the over-the-top action sequence featuring Highsmith and Danson, which opened the movie. However, my favorite scene featured Hoitz meeting Gamble’s beautiful wife, Dr. Sheila Ramos Gamble for the first time. Mark Wahlberg proved he could be extremely funny, while conveying Hoitz’s barely controlled infatuation with Sheila and disbelief that she would find someone like Gamble desirable. The movie also explored the personalities and background of both Gamble and Hoitz, allowing the audience to understand their personal demons and the situations that led to their partnership and inability to get along. During college, Gamble became a pimp for a group of female college students-turned-prostitutes. Which in turn allowed his personality to become increasingly aggressive, until he found himself arrested for violent behavior. And Hoitz found himself partnered with Gamble after he accidently shot New York Yankee Derek Jeter during the 2003 World Series. An incident that Hoitz has been trying to live down ever since.

Not everything about ”THE OTHER GUYS” ended up smelling roses. The movie was hampered by at least two sequences that threatened to stop the movie’s pacing in its tracks. One sequence featured multi-billionaire Ershon’s attempts to bribe Gamble and Hoitz with expensive tickets to shows and sporting events in order to stop them from investigating his lottery ticket scam. At first, I found the sequence rather funny. But it threatened to stretch for a longer period than necessary and I found myself longing for it to end. Another such sequence featured Gamble’s attempts to send slightly pornographic messages to his wife, Sheila, using her mother as a carrier. Both he and Hoitz found themselves hiding from their fellow cops and a group of mercenaries, while keeping Ershon in their custody in order to use him to prevent the scam from affecting the police retirement fund. At first I found the scene rather funny, with most of the comedy provided by Mama Ramos’ growing discomfort at the pornographic nature of Gamble and Sheila’s messages. But like the bribery sequence, it threatened to go a bridge too far and I found myself inwardly screaming for it to end. One last problem I had with the movie dealt with its last half hour. Quite frankly, I thought ”THE OTHER GUYS” dragged a bit during that half hour. McKay and Henchy could have wrapped up the story a little sooner. And I found the resolution to the case to be rather vague. Almost confusing.

Both Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg proved to be a first-rate comedy team, much to my surprise. I had feared that Wahlberg would find himself overwhelmed by the comedic aggressions of Ferrell, but the actor proved that he could more than hold his own and be just as funny. And Ferrell proved that he did not always have to resort to his usual manic comedy style in order to be funny. Michael Keaton’s talent for comedy seemed to have resurface this year in both the Disney animation movie, ”TOY STORY 3” and in his role as Gamble and Hoitz’s crusty supervisor, Captain Gene Mauch. In fact, I thought he was so funny that I found myself wondering where he had been for so long. Eva Mendes proved to be just as funny as Gamble’s beautiful, yet off-the-wall wife, Sheila. Steve Coogan, along with Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. provided comedic support in their roles as billionaire David Ershon and the two leads’ rivals, Martin and Fosse. And both Samuel L. Jackson and Dwight Johnson gave deliciously over-the-top performances as the city’s two original and not-so-bright top cops, Highsmith and Danson.

I had a few problems with Adam McKay and Chris Henchy’s script for ”THE OTHER GUYS” and all of them featured the pacing. Two of the comedy sequences stretched longer than necessary. And if I must be honest, I have to say the same about the movie’s last half hour. But the movie also featured some top-notch performances by a cast led by Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg. It also had a solid script ably directed by McKay. Overall, ”THE OTHER GUYS” proved to be a pretty damn good movie.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s


Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 


1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) - Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) - Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel's retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.


3. Rush (2013) - Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) - Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) - J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) - Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) - Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) - Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) - Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) - Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost's interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" (2012) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the reboot movie, "THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN".  Directed by Marc Webb, the movie stars Andrew Garfield as the new web slinger, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans:

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" (2012) Photo Gallery