Saturday, August 27, 2016
"FROM PARIS WITH LOVE" (2010) Review
On the heels of the 2009 action hit, ”TAKEN”, producer/writer Pierre Morel released another action packer called ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”. This movie centered around a pair of CIA operatives portrayed by John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers hunting for Islamic terrorists in Paris.
Rhys-Meyers portrayed James Reece, an aide to the U.S. ambassador to France who also happened to be a low-level CIA operative with duties that include changing cars license plates for field operatives. His constant requests for a promotion to field agent finally led to a senior-level assignment as an escort for a visiting CIA agent named Charlie Wax sent to stop a possible terrorist attack. What started as a simply task of getting Charlie cleared by French Customs agents, eventually led to a series of dangerous and sometimes humorous adventures in the French underworld in search of Islamic extremists.
Unlike ”TAKEN”, producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel presented a tale that relied more on comedy and less upon family angst. I must admit that Besson and co-writer Adi Hasak’s screenplay for ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” did not seem all that original. The movie seemed like your typical action flick filled with one-liners, hair-raising stunts and explosions. However, like ”TAKEN”, the movie did provide plenty of interesting views featuring the steamier side of Paris and some very hilarious moments between Travolta and Rhys-Meyers. I am also grateful that cinematographer Michel Abramowicz’s photography lacked the shaky camera work that has occasionally marred some action films over the past 11 to 12 years.
I do have one major problem with this film. Aside from one character, all of its villains – minor or otherwise – came from France’s immigrant population. Wax and Reece encountered criminals of Asian, African and Arabic descent. And although the movie featured one French villain, the character happened to be a recent convert to Islam. At least ”TAKEN” featured a corrupt French cop and an equally corrupt American diplomat. Not even ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” can claim this brand of diversity.
Another aspect of ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” proved to be the screen teaming of John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Quite simply, they sizzled - much to my surprise. Travolta’s Charlie Wax bore a strong resemblance to some of his other over-the-top characters that he has portrayed over the years – including his performance in 2009's ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3”. However in ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, Travolta portrayed a protagonist. One of the good guys. Instead of being slightly overbearing, Travolta turned out to be funny as hell. But he was not the only one who provided humor in the movie. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers proved that he could match Travolta in the humor department, as his character James Reece reacted to Wax’s lunacy. And there were several scenes in which he also proved that he could be just as over-the-top as Travolta. Of course, this should not be a surprise. Rhys-Meyers has been portraying the extroverted King Henry VIII on Showtime’s ”THE TUDORS” for the past four seasons. My only quibble with his performance was that his American accent seemed ridiculously flat at times.
Did I purchase a copy of ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE” when it was finally released on DVD? Sure. Why not? Granted, I found its portrayal of Paris’ immigrant population rather one-dimensional. And its plot seemed to lack any originality, whatsoever. But Besson and Hasak wrote a solid story with plenty of action, tension and humor. And Morel’s direction did justice to their screenplay. So, yes . . . I did purchase the DVD version of the movie. After all, it is still damn entertaining.
Monday, August 22, 2016
THE COMPARISONS BETWEEN "MAYTIME" (1937) and "TITANIC" (1997)
While watching the 1937 operetta that starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy - "MAYTIME", I noticed that the story and main characters bore a strong resemblance in story structure to a movie that was released sixty years later . . . namely the 1997 Oscar winning movie, "TITANIC", which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Note the following:
Down Memory Lane
*"MAYTIME" starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as an opera singer in Paris of the 1860s to a young couple.
*"TITANIC" starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as a bride-to-be aboard the S.S. Titanic to her granddaughter and a group of treasure seekers.
*"MAYTIME" was the box office champ of 1937.
*"TITANIC" was the box office champ of 1997/1998.
*The flashback for "MAYTIME" begins with the heroine – American opera singer Marcia Mornay (Jeanette MacDonald) – in Paris, being accompanied by a possessive mentor Nicolai (John Barrymore).
*The flashback for "TITANIC" begins with the heroine – American aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) – about to board the S.S. Titanic with her possessive fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and manipulative mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher).
Meeting the Hero
*In "MAYTIME", after escaping her mentor’s company, Marcia meets a penniless American singer named Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) on the streets of Paris. He had been living in Paris for a few years.
*In "TITANIC", after escaping her fiancé and mother’s company, Rose tries to commit suicide and eventually meets a penniless American artist named Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) on one of Titanic’s decks. He had been living in Paris and London for a few years.
The Pleasure of Each Other’s Company
*Marcia and Paul spend an evening singing and dancing at a Paris café with lower-class citizens in "MAYTIME".
*Rose and Jack enjoy a night drinking and dancing with the steerage passengers, following a formal dinner in "TITANIC".
*Marcia’s mentor, Nicolai, grows increasingly jealous toward Paul in ”MAYTIME”.
*Rose’s finace, Cal, grows increasingly angry and jealous of Rose’s time with Jack in "TITANIC"
*Marcia and Paul share an intimate bond, while performing together on the opera stage, under the jealous eye of Nicolai in"MAYTIME"
*Rose and Jack share an intimate bond together, while he draws a nude sketch of her. They later make love. A jealous Cal later finds the drawing in "TITANIC".
Death of Hero
*Insane with jealousy, Nicolai later shoots and kills Paul in "MAYTIME"
*A jealous Cal goes berserk and tries to kill both Rose and Jack. The latter eventually freezes to death in the cold North Atlantic Ocean, after the ship’s sinking in "TITANIC".
Death of Heroine
*After the elderly Marcia finishes her story, she dies in "MAYTIME". The ghost of her younger self meets with Paul’s ghost and they sing together in the afterlife.
*After the elderly Rose finishes her story, she dies in "TITANIC". The ghost of her younger self meets with Jack’s ghost, and the ghosts of Titanic’s dead passengers in the afterlife.
Mind you, the plots of both "MAYTIME" and "TITANIC" are not exactly alike. But there are some really strong similarities in both characterizations and in story structures for the two movies that makes me wonder if James Cameron had watched the 1937 musical one too many times.
Friday, August 12, 2016
Below are images from the new miniseries, "THE KENNEDYS". Directed by Stephen Kronish, the eight-part miniseries stars Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Diana Hardcastle and Tom Wilkinson:
"THE KENNEDYS" (2011) Photo Gallery
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
"AMAZING GRACE" (2006-07) Review
Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, "12 YEARS A SLAVE", there seemed to be this idea - especially with the British media - that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.
When I first read McQueen's criticism of Hollywood's failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three - and one of them is "AMAZING GRACE", the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce's efforts to end Britain's participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Looking back upon "AMAZING GRACE", I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg's 2012 movie, "LINCOLN". Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain's Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States' efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. "AMAZING GRACE" focused upon the end of Britain's official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. "LINCOLN", on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country's participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.
"AMAZING GRACE" begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.
The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God's work by fighting for the issue of Britain's slave trade. Wilberforce's convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song,"Amazing Grace". Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce's efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.
I am going to be brutally frank. "AMAZING GRACE" did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as "LINCOLN". I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of "AMAZING GRACE" that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of "LINCOLN". I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce's original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like "LINCOLN" and "DJANGO UNCHAINED" more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character - what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain's abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.
I have one last problem with "AMAZING GRACE". The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative's past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie's historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence's erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.
Despite its flaws, I must admit that "AMAZING GRACE" is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain's abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although "AMAZING GRACE" mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery - Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano's tour of a slave ship and Newton's verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, "AMAZING GRACE" also touches upon Wilberforce's personal life - especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai's credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.
"AMAZING GRACE" is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie's overall visual style. In the case of "AMAZING GRACE", the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury's set decorations. And since "AMAZING GRACE" is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie's time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.
All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for "AMAZING GRACE", it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country's youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt's idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician's wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character's own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce's love interest.
Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce's mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton's pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain's slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell's very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N'Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983's "MANSFIELD PARK"together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces' close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.
Without a doubt, I regard "AMAZING GRACE" as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain's abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie's visual style, intelligent script, excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd, and solid direction from Michael Apted made this film worthwhile for me.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
Below is a brief look at and recipe for the famous New England dessert called the "Boston Creme Pie":
BOSTON CREME PIE
Judging by the name of this famous dessert, one would assume that the Boston Creme Pie was created in Boston, Massachusetts. And one would be right. However, there is a slight confusion over the dessert's origins. According to John F. Mariani's 1999 book, "Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink", the Boston Creme Pie originated during the Early American period and was known as either the "Pudding-Cake Pie"; or when made with a raspberry jelly filling, "Mrs. Washington's Pie".
But the current dessert that features the chocolate topping is known as the Boston Creme Pie. And according to many cookbooks, Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian created the dessert at Boston's famous Parker House Hotel in 1855 or 1856. Like the Pudding-Cake Pie and Mrs. Washington's Pie, the Boston Creme Pie is actually a pudding and cake combination that comprises at least two or three layers of sponge cake filled with vanilla flavored custard or crème pâtissière. In the case of the Boston Creme Pie, the cake is topped with a chocolate glaze called Ganache. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts declared the Boston Creme Pie as its official dessert in 1996.
The following is a recipe for the dish from thehungrymouse.com website:
Boston Creme Pie
1/2 cup butter (that’s 1 stick), softened on the counter for 20 minutes or so
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
6 Tbls. flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 Tbls. butter
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Spray 2 8-inch round cake pans with oil, then line with circles of parchment paper. Set them aside. Combine the sugar and butter in the bowl of your mixer. Beat them together until well combined. Add in the egg yolks. Beat again until well combined and kind of fluffy. Scrape down the sides of your bowl with a spatula. Add the milk. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Stir them together with a whisk to combine well. Toss the dry mixture into the butter/sugar in the mixing bowl. Mix on medim-high for maybe 20 or 30 seconds to combine, just until the batter comes together.
The batter will be relatively thick and stiff. Give the batter a stir or two with a spatula to be sure that it’s mixed well and no dry ingredients remain in the very bottom of the bowl. Divide the batter evenly between your two prepared cake pans. Smooth it down with a spatula so it fills the whole pan and is relatively even. Bake cake the 2 cakes for 20-23 minutes at 375 degrees.
They are done when they are golden brown on top and feel firm (not jiggly) in the middle when pressed with a finger. When inserted in the center, a toothpick should come out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for about 10 minutes. Then, gently run a knife around the whole edge to loosen it, and remove each cake from the pan. (Because you lined each pan with parchment paper, this should be easy). Set the cakes on a rack to cool completely. If your cakes wound up a little crusty on the edges, like this, don’t worry. You’re going to trim those crisp edges right off when you assemble your Boston Cream Pie.
Fill a medium-sized pot with a few inches of water. Set it on the stove over high heat to bring it up to a boil. Then put the sugar and egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl. Whisk together until well combined. Add the flour. Whisk to combine. Pour in the milk. And the vanilla. Whisk to combine. When your pot of water is boiling, drop the heat to low. Set the bowl on top of the pot of water. Whisk it constantly for 5-7 minutes until it starts thicken. Keep whisking until the custard gets very thick. It’s done when it coats the back of a spoon. Give it a taste. It should have a nice custard-y taste, without any hint of raw flour. When it is done, take it off the heat. Cool it on the counter to room temperature, then pop it in the fridge to chill it completely.
Fill a medium-sized pot with a few inches of water. Set it on the stove over high heat to bring it up to a boil. If you are making the frosting right after the custard, just use the same pot of simmering water. Chop up the chocolate. Put it into a large heatproof bowl. Pour in the cream. When your pot of water is boiling, drop the heat to low. Set the bowl on top of the pot of water. Toss in the butter. The chocolate should start to melt almost immediately. Whisk to combine. Keep whisking until all the chocolate is melted and you have a uniform mixture. Set the chocolate frosting aside to cool. As it cools, it will thicken up. If you put it in the fridge, keep a close eye on it. It can go from nice and thick to solid fudge in no time flat.
Assemble the Dessert
Do not do this until all of your components are completely cool. If you try to put it together when any piece is warm, you will wind up with a slippery, drippy mess.
Start by trimming your cakes. Carefully set them one on top of the other. With a serrated bread knife, cut the edges off. Go slowly and press down on the top of the cake with one hand to keep it from ripping. Should you have an accident with one of the cakes, like this, do not fret. Just use that cake as the bottom layer. The custard filling will help glue the whole thing together once it gets cold in the fridge.
Set one cake on your serving platter, bottom side facing up. Do this so that your custard goes on a flat—not slightly domed—surface. Grab the custard filling from the fridge. It should be nice and thick. Spoon it out onto the cake. Reserve a few spoonfuls of custard for later, to help stick the almonds to the side of the cake. Spread the custard to the edges with a rubber spatula. Put the second cake right on top. Grab your chocolate frosting. Spoon it out onto the top of the cake. Spread it around until the top of the cake is covered. Pop two toothpicks into the cake to hold the layers together for now, until it’s completely chilled. With your finger, brush the leftover custard onto the edges of the cake, so it’s covered in a thin layer.
According to this recipe, the Boston Cream Pie is best served on the day that it is put together. The dessert has three parts - the cake, the custard filling and the chocolate frosting. Following the preparation of all three parts, they need to be completely cooled before the dessert is assembled.