“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS AND INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that I hope his reputation has extended to film. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex andentertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

 

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

 

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

 

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

 

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

 

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

 

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

 

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

 

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

 

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

 

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11″ (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“The Problems of a Savior Complex”

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“THE PROBLEMS OF A SAVIOR COMPLEX”

The Season Three finale of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” ended on a curious note. The finale consisted of two episodes – (3.21) “Snow Drift” and (3.22) “There’s No Place Like Home” – in which two of the series’ protagonists, Emma Swan and Killian Jones aka Captain Hook, found themselves transported back in time and to the Enchanted Forest due to circumstances beyond their control.

Let me make this brief. The main villain of Season Three’s second half turned out to be Regina Mills’ older half-sister Zelena, who was also known as the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz”. Due to Zelena’s jealousy of her younger half-sister’s privileged life, which included being raised by their mother Cora Mills aka the Queen of Hearts, she wanted to go back in time and erase Regina from existence. Although Zelena managed to set up a portal to convey her back in time, Regina managed to defeat her. Unfortunately . . . an angry Rumpelstiltskin ended up murdering an incarcerated Zelena for the death of his son, Neal Cassidy aka Baefire. Zelena’s spirit ended up re-opening the time travel portal. And both Emma and Hook got sucked into the portal and into the past.

During the pair’s adventures in the Enchanted Forest of the past, Emma nearly ruined the first meeting between her parents – Snow White and David, Prince Charming. She and Hook, with Rumpelstiltskin’s help, set out to repair the timeline and ensure that her parents will not only meet, but fall in love. Their efforts to do so led to Emma’s capture during the wedding party of Charming and Princess Abigail by Regina, also known as the Evil Queen. Inside the Queen’s jail cell, Emma met a woman who had been incarcerated for helping Snow White flee Regina’s wrath. With her and the woman set to be executed the following morning, Emma managed to break out of the cell. Hook, who had earlier warned Emma about changing the timeline, reacted with slight dismay when he discovered that she helped the woman escape. And yet . . . when Emma wanted to bring the woman with her and Hook to Storybrooke, Hook agreed to help her, arguing that the woman’s family thought she was dead and they need to continue to believe it. The woman refused to go with Emma and Hook to Storybrooke, so the former knocked her unconscious and with Hook’s help, brought her with them. As it turned out, the woman proved to be Maid Marian, Robin Hood’s wife. And Marian’s presence in Storybrooke brought an end to Robin’s newly found romance with Regina Mills.

Judging from Regina’s angry reaction to Emma and Hook’s actions, many fans reacted in different ways to this new twist in the story arc between the two women. Many fans continue to assume that Regina will fall back on her old evil ways and seek revenge against Emma for ruining her romance with Robin. Some believe she will be tempted, but continue her redemption arc and eventually forgive Emma. What is interesting about all of this is that most of the fans seemed to be interested in how Regina will react to the loss of Robin in the upcoming fourth season. Only a few fans have even bothered to criticize Emma and Hook for their actions. Yet, despite these criticisms, other fans came to Emma’s defense by stating that she was right to save Marian from being executed by Regina. I am tempted to discuss this situation from Regina and Robin’s point of view. But right now, I am more interested in what led Emma to change the timeline in the first place.

I can image the response to the last sentence in the previous paragraph. What led Emma to change the timeline? To save Marion’s life, that’s why! Emma Swan is supposed to be “the Savior”. As fan as the series and many of the fans are concerned, this is what she is supposed to do. I wish I could agree with that sentiment. I really do. But considering her actions in “There’s No Place Like Home”, I wish it were not so. Emma became labeled as “the Savior” back in Season One, when it was revealed that she was the person destined to break the curse that found many of the Enchanted Forest’s inhabitants in “the Land Without Magic” – namely Storybrooke, Maine – thanks to Rumpelstiltskin’s creation of it and Regina’s willingness to cast it. After spending nearly a season refusing to believe in the curse, let alone the idea that the town’s inhabitants came from a fairy tale world, Emma finally broke the curse with a “true love” kiss to her son Henry, who was trapped in a sleeping curse. And the only reason Emma found herself in this role as everyone’s “savior” was because Rumpelstiltskin manipulated events so they would lead to this moment. And why? Because he wanted to find his son Baefire, whom he discovered had ended up in our world. Now, if the only reason Emma had been set up as “the savior” who break that first curse . . . why did everyone else continued to regard her as “the savior” after she broke it? Why did she, for that matter?

One would think I am accusing Emma Swan of developing a bad ego trip. And you know what? They would be right. I am well aware of the fact that Emma reacted with a great reluctance and wariness to the idea of her being “the savior”. I am also aware of the fact that she was willing to flee Storybrooke (with Henry) in the Season One episodes, (1.20) “The Stranger” and (1.21) “An Apple Red as Blood” because she could not face the responsibility of being responsible for the lives of Storybrooke’s citizens. But once she broke the curse in (1.22) “A Land Without Magic”, Emma ended up embracing her “savior” role with a vengeance . . . despite her continued wariness. This was especially apparent in three episodes from Season Two and Three. After she, Snow White, Mulan and Aurora ended up captured by Cora and Hook in Season Two’s (2.09) “The Queen of Hearts” in the present day Enchanted Forest, the following exchange occurred between the four women:

(Emma is futilely banging the door of the cell with her sword, while the rest of them watch.)

Snow White: We aren’t going to break it down, Emma. It was enchanted to hold Rumpelstiltskin. We don’t have a chance.

Aurora: This is my fault.

Mulan: No, it’s mine. Cora stole your heart because I failed to protect you.

Emma: That’s very sweet, but I believe it’s my fault. I’m the saviour, and I’m not doing much saving, am I?

When I first saw this episode during the fall of 2012, I thought nothing of Emma’s words. But when I recently viewed the episode from my copy of the series’ Season Two DVD box set, her comment stunned me. I could not believe what I had just heard. For the second time, Emma expressed her deep-seated view to her mother Snow White that she would always be destined to be “the savior” in the Season Three episode, (3.11) “Going Home”. In this episode, Rumpelstiltskin had defeated his father Malcolm aka Peter Pan and Regina had to permanently destroy the curse by ripping the scroll that contain the words to it. Because Henry was born in “the Land Without Magic” and Emma managed to avoid the first curse, they were able to avoid being sent back to the Enchanted Forest. Before Regina destroy the scroll, both Regina and Snow White hinted that since Emma was “the savior”, she was supposed to remain behind and take Henry away. Emma responded to Snow White with the following words:

“I’m the savior, right? I’m supposed to bring back all the happy endings.”

Dear God. Emma’s belief in her role as “the savior” truly reached egotistical heights in her conversation with Hook in “Snow Drift” in which both discussed Emma’s plans to return to New York with Henry:

Hook: Don’t listen to me, listen to your son. (He takes the storybook from his satchel and hands it to Emma.) He thought this might remind you of what you’re leaving behind–your family.

Emma: Henry is my family and I am taking him where he is safe.

Hook: No, Swan. The safety-first nonsense is just that. You defeated the bloody Wicked Witch. You defeated Pan. You broke the curse. And you keep running. What are you looking for?

What I found amazing about Hook’s words is that he had credited the defeats of Peter Pan and Zelena to Emma. Apparently, he had forgotten that Regina was the one who saved Henry’s heart from Pan back in Neverland. Hook had forgotten that Rumpelstiltskin was the one who ultimately defeated Pan . . . and that Regina was the one who defeated Zelena. The only thing Hook got right was the fact that Emma had broken the curse. Some fans claim that Hook was merely trying to bolster Emma’s self esteem. Emma’s self esteem was not on Hook’s mind. Emma’s reluctance to live in Storybrooke with her parents WAS the topic between them. Hook merely slipped in Pan and Zelena’s defeats into the conversation. And what I found even more amazing . . . and scary is that Emma never bothered to correct him. By this time, Emma had incorporated the idea of her being “the savior” so much that she ended up wallowing in illusions over who had really defeated the Big Bads of Season Three.

As for the situation with Maid Marian . . . I can only shake my head in disbelief. I realize that many fans believe that Emma should have chosen saving a woman’s life over maintaining the timeline. I do not. Throughout most of “Snow Drift”, Hook had warned Emma about changing the timeline . . . for any reason. This reminds me of an episode from the 1998-2006 supernatural series, “CHARMED”. In the latter’s Season One episode called (1.17) “That ’70s Episode”, the Halliwell sisters traveled back in time to 1975 in order to prevent their late mother from being coerced into making a pact with a warlock – a pact that might have deadly circumstances for them. The youngest sister (at the time) Phoebe Halliwell gave into temptation and left a warning to her mother on how the latter would die nearly three years later. Realizing that she would end up changing the timeline, Phoebe tore up the letter before she and her sisters returned to 1999. As much as Phoebe wanted to save her mother, she realized that maintaining the timeline was the right thing to do . . . even if it meant her mother’s early death.

Despite the constant warnings from Hook about changing the timeline, Emma ignored him and saved Maid Marian from the cell. While I might admire her willingness to save someone, I wish she had realized that one cannot save everyone all of the time. And sometimes, it is not a good idea. But in her arrogance and misplaced belief that she had to save everyone, Emma decided to change the timeline. To make matters worse, she forced Marian to accompany her and Hook back to Storybrooke, despite the fact that Marian wanted to remain in the Enchanted Forest and find her family. And Hook’s argument that Robin and the others probably thought she was dead did not sit well with me. Emma had already screwed up the timeline by saving Marian. I did not see how dragging the latter back to Storybrooke was going to help the matter. As it turned out, it did not.

After what I saw in “There’s No Place Like Home”, I have come to the conclusion that Emma has absorbed the idea that she is “the savior” to such a degree that she has become slightly illusional in her belief. Emma’s role as Now that I think about it, I believe that the series’ creators, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, have become illusional in this belief that Emma is always supposed to be “the savior”. Unless they were planning for Emma to develop some kind of complex over her role as “the savior” in later seasons, I suspect that Horowitz and Kitsis will never allow Emma to face the consequences of her action in There’s No Place Like Home”, aside from a few angry rants from Regina. And I suspect that Regina’s anger will not last very long. I have complained about this in an earlier article that when it comes to Emma and her family, Horowitz and Kitsis have a bad habit of not allowing them to consider or face the consequences of their actions . . . with the exception of Snow White, who had committed murder. And the consequences she faced proved to be mild and rather brief.

I must admit that I am getting weary of Emma constantly being labeled as “the savior”. This is a label that should have dropped after she had broken the original curse in “A Land Without Magic”. The only reason she was fixed with “the savior” role in the first place was because Rumpelstiltskin had arranged for her to be the one to break that curse. The longer this series continues to label Emma as “the savior”, the more I will become convinced that she has developed serious complex issues over this role.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) Review

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“INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) Review

I suspect that many would be astounded to read the following – I did not want to see “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” when it first hit the theaters back in 1981. I simply did not. And there were a few reasons why I felt this way.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was not a particular fan of George Lucas. Aside from 1973’s “AMERICAN GRAFFITI” (which I saw on television), I was not in love with his movies. I heartily disliked “STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE”, when it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 1977. “MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI” did not impress me in 1979 (and it still does not). And I had felt torn about 1980’s “STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me felt impressed by the movie. Another part of me was distressed by its darker tone and cliffhanger ending. My feelings about Steven Spielberg were equally muted. I was not a big fan of 1977’s “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” or any other movie he did during the 1970s. And “E.T.” was a year away. When “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” first arrived during the summer of 1981, I read a negative review that completely turned me off from wanting to see it. However, movie attendance was (and still is) a family affair. So, I found myself forced to watch the movie. I fell in love with it and wondered how I could have ever harbored doubts about it in the first place.

The plot for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” focused on the adventures of an archaeologist/university professor named Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. The movie began with Dr. Jones trekking through a South American jungle in 1936, with two local guides, in search of a golden fertility idol. After securing the artifact with great difficulty, Indy lost it, thanks to a conniving competitor and fellow archaeologist named Dr. René Belloq. But he also managed to escape with his life from a group of Hovitos tribesmen set upon him by Belloq. Indy made it back to the States and resumed his job as a professor at Marshall College. Not long after his return, two U.S. Army Intelligence agents questioned him and fellow colleague Dr. Marcus Brody about a Nazi communique that mentioned the name of Indy’s former mentor, Professor Abner Ravenwood. When Indy and Brody explained that Ravenwood was an expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis and possessed the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, they came to the conclusion that the Nazis were after the Ark of the Covenant. The agents tasked Indy with finding the Ark before the Nazis, on behalf of the American government. Indiana’s search for Ravenwood and the Ark took him on a globe trotting adventure to Nepal, Egypt and finally to a small island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Along the way he reunited with his former lover and Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion Ravenwood, formed a new friendship with a professional excavator from Cairo named Sallah el-Kahir and clashed with his old rival Belloq . . . and the latter’s Nazi allies.

For the past three decades, critics and filmgoers have acknowledged “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” as one of the greatest adventure films of all time. They also regard it as the best film in the INDIANA JONES franchise. Not only do I agree with the first assessment, I believe the same could be said for the other three INDIANA JONES movies. As for“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” being the best film in the franchise . . . well, it is all subjective, is it not? I must admit that the movie holds up very well, after so long. Aside from some narrative flaws and a major historical blooper, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wrote a tight adventure filled with memorable characters, exciting ation sequences, snappy dialogue, a complex love story and most importantly, well constructed character development.

One cannot discuss the 1981 movie without recalling the memorable action sequences that many still talk about. Who can forget Indy’s escape from Belloq and the Hovitos in South America? Or the shoot-out inside Marion Ravenwood’s Nepal tavern? Or even Indy’s attempt to save the kidnapped Marion from thugs hired by the Nazis in Cairo? But it was Indy’s epic-like attempt to recover the Ark of the Covenant from Belloq and the Nazis that proved to be the most memorable action sequence . . . at least for me. Not only did it turned out to be the film’s longest action sequence, but also the most exciting. More importantly, Lucas, Spielberg and stunt coordinator Glenn Randall, Jr. utilized an old stunt from John Ford’s 1939 Western, “STAGECOACH” with equal success.

However, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” was not all memorable action sequences, thanks to Kasdan’s tight writing. He did an excellent job in establishing the relationship between the protagonist and the main villain even before he established the main plot. Kasdan’s screenplay created the main narrative with a somewhat witty discussion about the Ark of the Covenant between Indy, Brody and the two Army Intelligence agents. There were other dramatic or comedic scenes that made this movie a joy to watch. One of my favorites include a visit by Indy and Sallah to an old friend of the latter’s named Imam, who managed to translate the Staff of Ra’s headpiece for them; Indy and Belloq’s conversation about Marion’s “death” and their rivalry; Belloq’s attempt to seduce a captive Marion; Indy and Brody’s last conversation before the former’s depature . . . and especially Indy and Marion’s rather funny romantic scene aboard the Bantu Wind.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Lucas and Spielberg were wise to hire Douglas Slocombe as the movie’s cinematographer. Thanks to Slocombe’s work, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” featured some beautiful scenes rich in color and style, as shown in the images below:

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I also have to commend the special effects team for some of the most iconic moments in film history, including Indy’s escape from the rolling boulder and the sequence that featured the opening of the Ark. Norman Reynolds’ production designs, along with Michael Ford’s set decorations and Leslie Dilley’s art direction beautifully re-created the mid-1930s in the U.S. and Egypt. And I cannot mention “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” without bringing up John Williams’ memorable score. Unfortunately, Williams failed to win an Oscar for his exceptional work and lost to Vangelis’ score for “CHARIOTS OF FIRE’. Pity. I thought Williams truly deserved that statuette.

As much as I love “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, I cannot deny that it has flaws. I was in my mid teens when I first saw the movie. And I believe that my enthusiastic reaction to the film’s virtues may have blinded me from its flaws. Despite a strong narrative, “RAIDERS” suffered from a weak ending. I could probably say the same for two other films in the franchise. The finale for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” struck me as anti-climatic. In other words, Indy played no part in the villains’ defeat. The wrath of God did. I understand that Lucas and Spielberg wanted to show the consequences of the villains’ lack of respect toward the Ark’s power. But I still wish Indy had played some kind of role in their downfall. And once the power of God destroyed Belloq and the Nazis on that Aegean Sea island, how did Indy and Marion get off that island? I doubt the two of them could operate the U-boat that delivered them to the island on their own.

Another problem I had with “RAIDERS” proved to be certain costumes worn by actress Karen Allen, who portrayed Marion Ravenwood. I was not particularly impressed by two costumes designed by Deborah Nadoolman. The first was the red-and-white outfit worn by Marion in the Cairo street scene, which struck me as some bizarre take on mid-1930s fashion. If “RAIDERS” had been set during the year of the movie’s release (1981), I would have no trouble with the outfit. But for a movie set in 1936? To make matters worse, Allen wore wedge-heeled shoes with it. And the white dress that Marion received from Belloq blended well with the 1936 setting. Unfortunately, Marion was in her mid-to-late twenties in the film. And the dress seemed more appropriate for a 17 year-old debutante. Either the dress was some expression of how Belloq truly regarded Marion . . . or an example of what Deborah Nadoolman regarded as the height of fash”ion for a woman in 1936. And in both cases, I find this unfortunate.

The main problem I found in “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” turned out to be a case of a major historical blunder. Although the movie’s main villain is the French-born René Belloq, the latter’s allies are a Gestapo agent and more importantly, two senior German Army officers . . . with a complete regiment at their command. And entire German Army regiment roaming freely throughout Egypt in 1936? What were Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan thinking? Egypt was a British Imperial protectorate between 1882 and 1936. In the latter year, both Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which led to the withdrawal of British troops from the country . . . with the exception of 10,000 personnel stationed around the Suez Canal. I doubt that the commander of those 10,000 British troops would sit on his heels and allow a regiment of German troops to roam nilly willy all over Egypt. I doubt that the Egyptian government would have allow this, as well.

Harrison Ford had already made a name for himself in the first two “STAR WARS” films. But he was a supporting character in the movies, not the leading man. And Lucas’ first choice as Indiana Jones was Tom Selleck. But the latter lost the role, due to obligations to CBS’s “MAGNUM P.I.”. And the rest is Hollywood history . . . for both Ford and Selleck. I suspect that Selleck would have been superb in the role. But you know what? So was Ford. He did an excellent job in portraying all aspects of Henry Jones Jr.’s personality quirks – both the good and the bad. He also created a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Karen Allen. Not only was she magnificent as Indy’s former flame Marion Ravenwood, she did a great job in balancing her pseudo machismo and feminine allure. I was originally surprised to learn that Paul Freeman, who portrayed Indy’s rival René Belloq, was actually English. And he did a great job in portraying a Continental European without the cliches and portraying an intelligent, suave and villainous character.

“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” proved to be the first time I had laid eyes upon John Rhys-Davies on screen. His portrayal of Egyptian-born excavator Sallah el-Kahir seemed a touch theatrical. Surprisingly, it worked. I believe Rhys-Davies is one of those actors who can do theatrics with perfection. And he also injected a great deal of intelligence and pragmatism into the role. Wolf Kahler gave a performance just as subtle as Freeman, in his portrayal of Colonel Herman Dietrich, commander of the German regiment. I was relieved to see that his performance avoided the old “Ve haf vays of making you tahk” crap from old Hollywood World War II films. Anthony Higgins managed to avoid the same cliche in portrayal of Dietrich’s second-in-command, Major Gobler. However, I was amused to discover a certain degree of cockiness in his performance. Ronald Lacey’s portrayal of Gestapo agent Arnold Taht seemed less subtle. In fact, his performance seemed to be a strange mixture of subtle dialogue and gestures, blended with theatrical moments. I found Lacey’s performance to be the most interesting in the movie. Denholm Elliot’s role as Indy’s mentor, Dr. Marcus Brody, struck me as charming and witty. But he was not in the movie long enough for me to really enjoy his performance. George Harris gave a commanding performance as the captain of the Bantu Wind, Captain Simon Katanga. He was especially effective in his character’s encounter with the arrogant Colonel Dietrich.

What else can I say about “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created an imaginative and exciting movie that kick-started a first-rate movie franchise that has withstood the test of time. The movie also featured some memorable action sequences and dramatic moments, thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s well-written screenplay and Spielberg’s superb direction. And although “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” has some obvious flaws, it still remains one of my favorite adventure films of all time . . . period.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of Cold Harbor

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TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF COLD HARBOR

May 31 to June 12, 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War conflict known as the Battle of Cold Harbor. This conflict, which lasted over a period of 13 days, proved to be one of the last battles of the Virginia Overland Campaign, which occurred between May and June of 1864.

The Battle of Cold Harbor is known as one of the bloodiest and most lopsided battles fought during the Civil War. On May 31, 1864; the Army of the Potomoc, under the command of Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant and Major-GeneralGeorge G. Meade, swung around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee.

The Union cavalry seized the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, situated 10 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital. The cavalry managed to hold that spot against Confederate attacks, until the arrival of the Union infantry. Following reinforcements for both armies, they clashed again on the evening of June 1. During that evening, the Union’s VI Corps under Major-General Horatio G. Wright and the XVIII Corps under Major-General William Farrar Smith assaulted the Confederate Army to the west of the crossroads with some success. The following day, the remaining troops of both armies built a series of fortifications seven miles long. Then on June 3, three Union corps attacked the Confederate works on the line’s southern end at dawn. They were easily repulsed with heavy casualties.

Further Union attempts to assault the northern end of the line and resume assaults on the southern end between June 4 and June 12 were also futile. Grant sent a telegram to the Defense Department in Washington, warning that he had not“gained no decisive advantage” after four days. He and Lee communicated with each other between June 5 and 7 via notes without coming to an agreement. When Grant formally requested a two-hour cessation of hostilities, it proved to be too late for most of the wounded, who had become bloated corpses. When Grant realized his army was in a stalemate with the Army of Virginia and that frontal assaults were not the answer, he tried the following:

*He sent Major-General David Hunter to cause a commotion with Lee’s supplies in the Shenandoah Valley so that the latter would be forced to dispatch reinforcements in that area.

*He dispatched two divisions from the Union cavalry under “Philip Sheridan to to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad near Charlottesville.

*And he planned a stealthy operation to withdraw from Lee’s front and move across the James River.

As Grant had hoped, Lee reacted by pulling John C. Breckinridge‘s division from Cold Harbor and sent to Lynchburg to deal with Major-General David Hunter. And by June 12, he assigned Jubal Early permanent command of the Confederates’ Second Corp and send the latter to the Shenandoah Valley. Lee also sent two of his three cavalry divisions in pursuit of Sheridan. This pursuit led to the Battle of Trevilian Station. Despite anticipating the Union Army’s shift across the James River, Lee was taken by surprise when it actually happened. And On June 12, the Army of the Potomac finally disengaged to march southeast to cross the James and threaten Petersburg, a crucial rail junction south of Richmond.

The Battle of Cold Harbor proved to be one of the final victories won by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The Army of the Potomoc under Ulysses Grant lost 10,000 to 13,000 in attempting the futile assaults over a period of twelve days. Between early May and early-to-mid June 1864, the Union had a total of 52,000 casualties. Lee’s army had a casualty rate of at least 33,000. Unfortunately, the casualty rate affected the Army of Northern Virginia a lot more. The beginning of the Siege of Petersburg more or less signified the beginning of the end for Lee’s army.

If you want to read more detailed information about the Battle of Cold Harbor, please read the following:

*“Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26 – June 5, 1864″ (2014) by Daniel Davis

*“Not War But Murder” (2001) by Ernest B. Furgurson

*“The Greatest Civil War Battles: The Battle of Cold Harbor (2013) by Charles River

“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

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“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

Back in 1998, DC Comics published a graphic novel about a Depression-era criminal enforcer who is betrayed by his employers and forced to hit the roads of the American Midwest with his young son on a quest for revenge. Written by Max Allan Collins, the novel caught the attention of producers Richard and Dean Zanuck and was adapted into film directed by Sam Mendes.

“ROAD TO PERDITION” began during the late winter of 1931, in Rock Island, Illinois. Michael Sullivan serves as an enforcer for Irish mob boss, John Rooney, who seemed to regard him a lot higher than the latter’s unstable son, Connor Rooney. Sullivan is also a happily married man with two sons – Michael Jr. and Peter. However, his relationship with Michael is forced, due to Sullivan’s fear that his older son might turn out to be like him. The Sullivan family attends the wake for one Danny McGovern, a local associate who does bootlegging business with Sullivan family. During the wake, the Rooneys and Sullivan become wary of Finn McGovern, who has expressed suspicions about his younger brother’s death. Connor and Sullivan are ordered by Rooney to talk to Finn.

Connor argues with Finn over the latter’s suspicions about his brother’s death, before killing the latter. Sullivan is forced to gun down McGovern’s men. And this is all witnessed by Michael, who had hidden in his father’s car out of curiosity. Despite Sullivan swearing his son to secrecy and Rooney pressuring Connor to apologize for the reckless action, Connor murders Sullivan’s wife Annie and younger son Peter, mistaking the latter for Michael. He also tries to set up a hit on Sullivan at a speakeasy. But the enforcer manages to kill his would-be murderer first. Sullivan escapes to Chicago with Michael in order to seek employment from Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti and discover the location of the now hidden Connor. However, Nitti rejects Sullivan’s proposal and informs Rooney of the meeting. The Irish-born mobster reluctantly allows Nitti to recruit assassin Harlen Maguire, who is also a crime scene photographer, to kill Sullivan.

I might as well be frank. The only reason that drew my attention to “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the movie’s Depression-era setting. I have always been fascinated by the 1930s decade, despite Hollywood’s inconsistent portrayal of it in the past 50 to 60 years. The fact that Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law were among the stars in the cast helped maintain my interest until the movie’s release date. However, I still harbor doubts that I would truly enjoy a story about a father and son on the road in early 1930s Midwest or that it would draw any high regard on my part. Thankfully, the movie proved me wrong. Not only did “ROAD TO PERDITION” proved to be both an entertaining character study of various father-and-son relationships, but also a fascinating road trip and crime drama. I once came upon Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel at a bookstore not long after the movie’s initial release. I could not remember exactly what I had read, but I do recall realizing that the movie’s screenwriter, David Self, took a good deal of liberties with Collins’ plot . . . and that he was wise to do so. Enjoyable as the graphic novel was, I could also see that it was not possible to do a complete faithful adaptation of it.

Despite being a combination of a crime drama, a revenge tale and a road trip; the main theme that seemed to permeated “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the relationships between father and son. There is one line in the film uttered by Paul Newman’s John Rooney that pretty much summed up the film:

“Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

This certainly seemed to be the case in the relationship between Sullivan and Michael Jr. at the beginning of the film. Sullivan fears that Michael might follow his footsteps into crime, because they share personality traits. Unfortunately, he solves this problem by maintaining an emotional distance from his older son. John Rooney’s relationship with his son Connor is hampered by his lack of respect for the latter, his closer relationship with Sullivan, and Connor’s insecurities. Only Sullivan and Rooney seemed to have a close and easy-going father/son relationship at the beginning of the film, despite a lack of blood connection. And yet, that close relationship ended up being easily shattered thanks to Connor’s act of murder and the determination of both men to protect their own sons. Other gangster films have portrayed the impact of crime on families . . . but not with such complexity.

I believe that “ROAD TO PERDITION” is probably the first motion picture on both sides of the Atlantic that perfectly re-captured the 1930s . . . especially the first half of the decade. One cannot bring up the movie without mentioning the late Conrad Hall, whose brilliant Oscar winning photography re-captured the bleak landscape of Depression-era Midwest. This was especially apparent in the following scenes:

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Richard L. Johnson’s Academy Award nominated art direction and Albert Wolsky’s costume designs also added to the movie’s setting. I especially have to compliment Wolsky for conveying how fashion was in the midst of transforming during that period from the shorter skirts of the 1920s to the longer ones of the 1930s. This was especially reflected in the conservative costumes worn by Jennifer Jason Leigh and other actresses in the movie. Usually I am not in the habit of noticing the sound in any film. But I must admit that I noticed how sound was effectively used in this film, especially in one scene in the second half that featured some brutal murders committed by a Thompson sub-machine gun. Not surprisingly, Scott Millan, Bob Beemer and John Pritchett all received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.

There were aspects of “ROAD TO PERDITION” that I found unappealing or puzzling. The movie is more or less a well paced movie. But there is a period in the film – following Sullivan’s failed attempt to acquire employment with the Capone organization – that it nearly dragged to a halt. Director Sam Mendes seemed so enamored of Conrad Hall’s photography of the Illinois landscape during the Sullivans’ journey from Chicago that he seemed to have lost his hold of the pacing. Also, I found myself wondering what happened to Sullivan’s sister-in-law – the one who had offered them refuge at her lakeside home in Perdition. By the time the enforcer and his son arrived, her house had been abandoned. What happened to her and the house? The movie never explained.

The Zanucks, Sam Mendes and the movie’s casting director collected a group of exceptional performers for the cast.“ROAD TO PERDITION” featured solid performances from Ciarán Hinds as the grieving and later murdered Finn McGovern, Liam Aiken as Sullivan’s younger son Peter, and a very entertaining Dylan Baker as the Rooneys’ accountant, Alexander Rance. Both Doug Spinuzza and Kevin Chamberlin were entertaining and memorable as brothel keeper Tony Calvino and his hired bouncer Frank. Stanley Tucci gave a restrained and intelligent performance as Al Capone’s right-hand man, Frank Nitti. Despite portraying the only major female role in the film – namely Annie Sullivan – Jennifer Jason-Leigh let her presence be known as Sullivan’s warm and loving wife, who also happened to know the truth about his real profession.

I realize that many might find this hard to believe, but I first became aware of Daniel Craig, thanks to his very interesting portrayal of Connor Rooney. Someone once complained that Connor never developed as a character. Well, of course not. Any man who would recruit a hophead pimp to kill a very competent hit man like Michael Sullivan Sr. must be a loser. And Craig did a superb job in conveying the character’s insecurities. Jude Law was deliciously creepy as Capone hit man Harlan Maguire, who was not only a very competent killer, but who also seemed to harbor a fetish for photographing dead bodies. Law also had a very good grasp of American dialogue from the 1930s. I was happy to learn that Tyler Hoechlin was still acting. A talent like his should never go to waste. And I must admit that not only he was superb as Michael Sullivan, Jr., he also did a great job in conveying young Michael’s emotional journey throughout the film.

Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the aging Irish gangster, John Rooney. It is a pity that he lost the award, because he was superb as the charming and intelligent Rooney. Newman was also very effective in conveying Rooney’s more intimidating aspects of his character. Although Rooney was not his very last role, it was among his last . . . and probably one of his best. Tom Hanks did not receive any acting nominations for his performance as enforcer Michael Sullivan Sr. Not only am I puzzled, but very disappointed. As far as I am concerned, Sullivan was one of the better roles of his career. He gave a superb performance as the tight-jawed and no-nonsense family man, who also happened to be a first-rate hit man. What I found so amazing about Hanks’ performance is the manner in which he balanced Sullivan’s no-nonsense family man persona and the ruthlessness that made the character such a successful criminal.

If I had to select my favorite Sam Mendes film, it would have to be “ROAD TO PERDITION”. I have never seen“AMERICAN BEAUTY”. And I do not exactly consider his other films better. Yes, the movie has its flaws, including a pacing that nearly dragged to a halt midway. But its virtues – superb direction by Mendes, an excellent cast led by Tom Hanks, and a rich atmosphere that beautifully re-captured the American Midwest during the early years of the Great Depression – made “ROAD TO PERDITION” a personal favorite of mine.

Toad-in-the-Hole

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Below is an article about a traditional English that may (or may not) have been created in the mid 18th century calledToad-in-the-Hole.

 

TOAD-IN-THE-HOLE

Created as a cheap comfort dish, Toad-in-the-Hole originated Alnmouth in Northumberland, England. Toad-in-the-Hole is basically a dish that consists of sausages in Yorkshire Pudding batter. Ironically, the first recipe for the dish consisted of pigeon, not sausages. And that recipe was found in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook called “The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy”. She called the dish “Pigeon-in-the-Hole”.

How did the dish acquired his name? Well . . . here is an idea. Alnmouth has a golf course which can at certain times of the year be overrun with Natterjack toads. It was at just such a time, that a golf tournament was being played and the leader made his putt, only to have the ball ejected by a toad that had been quietly asleep in the bottom of the cup. Who created the dish? Well . . . on hearing of the players misfortune, achef at the town’s hotel where the players were staying devised the dish, thinking it would resemble a toad rising from the eighteenth, and served it that night. Is this really the truth?

The dish with sausages may have first appeared in 1769. Toad-in-the-Hole became very popular with members of the Royal Philosophers. They enjoyed the dish at least once or twice a year at the Mitre Tavern, the dining club’s chosen dining venue. Toad-in-the-Hole was served alongside such delicacies as venison, fresh salmon, turbot and asparagus.

Below is a recipe for “Toad-in-the-Hole” from the Simplyrecipies.com website:

Toad-in-the-Hole

Ingredients

1 1/2 cup of all purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon Kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb of bangers (an English sausage made with pork and breadcrumbs), or good quality pork or beef sausage links (in casings)

Preparation

Whisk together the flour with the salt and a pinch of pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour. Pour in the eggs, milk, and melted butter into the well and whisk into the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand 30 minutes.

Coat the bottom and sides of an 8×12 or 9×9 casserole dish with vegetable oil (we use high smoke point grapeseed or canola oil). Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Put the empty dish on the rack. Preheat the oven with the dish in it to 425°F.

While the oven is coming to temperature, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet on medium high. Add the sausages and brown them on at least a couple sides.

When the sausages have browned, and the dish in the oven hot, pull the oven rack out a bit, put the sausages in the casserole dish, and pour the batter over the sausages. Cook for about 20-30 minutes or until the batter is risen and golden.

Serve at once.

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