Chicken Marengo

ChickenMarengoBelow is a small article about a dish that was created in the early 19th century called Chicken Marengo. The dish is associated with a battle fought during the Napoleonic Wars:

CHICKEN MARENGO

Chicken Marengo is a dish that is surrounded by a great deal of myth. The dish consisted of a chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, and garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. It is similar to Chicken à la Provençale, but with the addition of egg and crayfish. The latter ingredients are traditional to Chicken Marengo, but are now often omitted. The original dish was named to celebrate the Battle of Marengo, a Napoleonic victory that was fought on June 14, 1800.

According to popular myth, Chicken Marengo was first created after Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo, south of Turin, Italy. His personal chef Dunand foraged in the town of Marengo for ingredients, because the supply wagons were too distant. Dunand created the dish from what he could gather. According to this story, Napoleon enjoyed the dish so much he had it served to him after every battle. When Durand received better supplies, later on; he substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe. Napoleon refused to accept it, believing that a change would bring him bad luck.

This colorful story, however, has been proven to be a myth. Alan Davidson writes that there would be no access to tomatoes at that time, and the first published recipe for the dish omits them. Also, according to The Old Foodie blog, Dunand did not become Napoleon’s chef until after the event. And the dish was not mentioned in contemporary accounts or cookbooks until nearly two decades later.

Below is a recipe for “Chicken Marengo” from the Epicurious.com website:

Chicken Marengo

Ingredients

4 (6-ounce) skinless boneless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large portabella mushrooms, stems and gills discarded and caps thinly sliced
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 (14- to 15-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/2 cup beef or veal demi-glace*
1/2 cup water

Preparation

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Pat chicken dry, then combine flour, salt, and pepper in a large sealable plastic bag and add chicken. Seal bag and shake to coat, then remove chicken, knocking off excess flour. Arrange in one layer on a plate.

Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy ovenproof skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chicken, smooth sides down, until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn over and sauté one minute more. Scatter mushrooms around chicken and transfer skillet to oven, then bake, uncovered, until chicken is just cooked through, five to ten minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate, then add shallot, garlic, and thyme to skillet (handle will be hot) and sauté over moderately high heat, stirring, one minute. Add wine and boil, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, demi-glace, and water and simmer until mushrooms are tender and sauce is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Season with pepper.

Return chicken to skillet and simmer, turning, about one minute.

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise.

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!”Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

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But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for“THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after eleven years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

Top Five Favorite “HELL ON WHEELS” Season One (2011-2012) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes from the AMC series about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, “HELL ON WHEELS”. Created by Joe and Tony Gayton, the series stars Anson Mount, Colm Meany, Common and Dominique McElligott: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “HELL ON WHEELS” SEASON ONE (2011-2012) Episodes

1 - 1.07 Revelations

1. (1.07) “Revelations” – Financier Thomas C. Durant and widower Lily Bell leave the “Hell on Wheels” camp to travel to Chicago for different reasons. Thomas Moore and his Irish gang finds former slave Elam Ferguson in the tent of prostitute Eva.

2 - 1.02 Immoral Mathematics

2. (1.02) “Immoral Mathematics” – Vengeance seeking former Confederate Cullen Bohannon fights for his life, as he tries to evade camp security officer Thor “the Swede” Gundersen after killing one of the Union men who had murdered his wife during the Civil War. Joseph Black Moon track down the Cheyenne braves (including his brother) responsible for the attack on the surveyors’ camp.

3 - 1.10 God of Chaos - a

3. (1.10) “God of Chaos” – In the season finale, Cullen tracks down a former Union soldier named Harper, whom he believes was one of the men who killed his wife. Durant and Lily conspire to gain arriving investors’ interests. And Elam and Eva express different views on what their future should be.

4 - 1.09 Timshel

4. (1.09) “Timshel” – Cullen, Elam, Joseph Black Moon and a squad of soldiers find the Cheyenne responsible for the attack on the surveyor camp that led to the death of Lily’s husband and for the derailment of a train.

5 - 1.04 Jamais Je Ne T'oublierai

5. (1.04) “Jamais Je Ne T’oublierai” – Cullen initiates his search for Harper. Lily finally arrives at the “Hell on Wheels” camp, following the Cheyenne attack on the surveyor’s camp and the death of her husband. Elam becomes involved with a prostitute named Eva.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

 

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” (1980) Review

As far as I know, Guy Hamilton is the only director who has helmed two movie adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. The 1982 movie, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” was the second adaptation. The first was his 1980 adaptation of Christie’s 1962 novel, “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side”.

A big Hollywood production has arrived at St. Mary’s Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple, to film a costume movie aboutMary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England, starring two Hollywood stars – Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster. The two actresses are rivals who despise each other. Marina and her husband, director Jason Rudd, have taken residence at Gossington Hall, where Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly used to live. Due to Colonel Bantry’s death, Mrs. Bantry – who is one of Miss Marple’s closest friends – has moved to a smaller home.

Excitement runs high in the village as the locals have been invited to a reception held by the movie company in a manor house, Gossington Hall, to meet the celebrities. Lola and Marina come face to face at the reception and exchange some potent and comical insults, nasty one-liners, as they smile and pose for the cameras. The two square off in a series of clever cat-fights throughout the movie.

Marina, however, has been receiving anonymous death threats. After her initial exchange with Lola at the reception, she is cornered by a gushing, devoted fan, Heather Badcock (played by Maureen Bennett), who bores her with a long and detailed story about having actually met Marina in person during World War II. After recounting the meeting they had all those years ago, when she arose from her sickbed to go and meet the glamorous star, Babcock drinks a cocktail that was made for Marina and quickly dies from poisoning. It is up to Miss Marple and her nephew, Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock of Scotland Yard to discover the killer.

I surprised to learn that Guy Hamilton was the director of “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. This movie was the first of two times in which he directed an Agatha Christie adaptation that placed murder in the world of show business. Frankly? I am beginning to suspect that he was more suited for this particular genre that he was for the James Bond franchise. Like the 1982 film, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN”, I enjoyed it very much. I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1962 novel. I understand that the origin of its plot came from Hollywood history, which gives it a touch of pathos. Along with the quaint portrayal of English village life and the delicious bitch fest that surrounded the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster, I believe that Hamilton and screenwriters Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler in exploring that pathos in the end. There is one aspect of Christie’s story that the screenwriters left out – namely the connection between Marina and the photographer Margot Bence. Honestly, I do not mind. I never cared for it in the first place. I found this connection between Marina and Ms. Bence a little too coincidental for my tastes.

I did not mind the little touches of English village life featured in “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. Although I must admit that I found them occasionally boring. Only when the citizens of St. Mary’s Mead interacted with the Hollywood visitors did I find them interesting. On the other hand, the rivalry between Marina Gregg and Lola Brewster was a joy to watch. And I feel that Hamilton and the two screenwriters handled it a lot better than Christie’s novel or the 1992 television movie. And to be honest, I have to give Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak most of the credit for the venomous and hilarious manner in which their characters’ rivalry played out on screen.

The behind-the-scene productions for “THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly seemed top-notch. Christopher Challis’ photography struck me as colorful and beautiful. However, there were moments when he seemed to indulge in that old habit of hazy photography to indicate a period film. Only a few moments. Production designer Michael Stringer did a solid job of re-creating the English countryside circa early-to-mid 1950s. His work was ably supported by John Roberts’ art direction and Peter Howitt’s set decorations. Phyllis Dalton did a very good job of re-creating the fashions of the movie’s 1950s setting. I especially enjoyed the costumes she created for the fête sequence. The only aspect of the production that seemed less than impressive was John Cameron’s score. Personally, I found it wishy-washy. His score for the St. Mary’s Mead setting struck me as simple and uninspiring. Then he went to another extreme for the scenes featuring the Hollywood characters – especially Marina Gregg – with a score that seemed to be a bad imitation of some of Jerry Goldsmith’s work.

“THE MIRROR CRACK’D” certainly featured some first-rate performances. Angela Landsbury made a very effective Jane Marple. She not only seemed born to play such a role, there were times when her portrayal of the elderly sleuth seemed like a dress rehearsal for the Jessica Fletcher role she portrayed on television. Elizabeth Taylor gave an excellent performance as the temperamental Marina Gregg. She did a great job in portraying all aspects of what must have been a complex role. Rock Hudson was equally first-rate as Marina’s husband, the sardonic and world-weary director, Jason Rudd. He did a great job in conveying the character’s struggles to keep his temperamental wife happy and the impact these struggles had on him. Edward Fox was charming and very subtle as Miss Marple’s nephew, Scotland Yard Inspector Dermot Craddock. I especially enjoyed how his Craddock used a mild-mannered persona to get the suspects and others he interrogated to open up to him.

I was never impressed by Agatha Christie’s portrayal of the Lola Brewster character . . . or of two other actresses who portrayed the role. But Kim Novak was a knockout as the somewhat crude and highly sexual Hollywood starlet. Watching the comic timing and skill she injected into the role, made me suspect that Hollywood had underestimated not only her acting talent, but comedy skills. Tony Curtis certainly got a chance to display his comedic skills as the fast-talking and somewhat crude film producer, Martin Fenn. And I rather enjoyed Geraldine Chaplin’s sardonic portrayal on Ella Zielinsky, Jason Rudd’s caustic-tongued secretary, who seemed to be in love with him. The movie also featured solid performances from Charles Gray, Wendy Morgan, Margaret Courtenay and Maureen Bennett. And if you look carefully, you just might spot a young Pierce Brosnan portraying a cast member of Marina’s movie.

Overall, I enjoyed “THE MIRROR CRACK’D”. I thought Guy Hamilton did an excellent job in creating a enjoyable murder mystery that effectively combined the vibrancy of Hollywood life and the quaintness of an English village. He was assisted by a first-rate crew, a witty script by Jonathan Hales and Barry Sandler, and a very talented cast led by Angela Landsbury.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

Despite the tragic ending of the last episode, Episode Two of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” proved to be even darker. Bent continued his crime spree by assaulting an Illinois farm girl and kidnapping Charles’ son, Gus in St. Louis. Charles’ decision to become an Army scout in order to hunt down Scar led to his breakup with Willa Parker. Worse, he witnessed the massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village by U.S. troopers led by Captain Venable. Madeline’s conflict with Cooper, Gettys LaMotte and the local Ku Klux Klan resulted in tragedy for one of the Mont Royal workers.

Overall, Episode Two was pretty first-rate. I only had a few quibbles. Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) made a re-appearance in the saga without any explanation of how they avoided conviction for war profiteering. I guess anyone can assume that they were exonerated. Keith Szarabajka continued his over-the-top portrayal of Harry Venable. Even Gary Grubbs, usually a very dependable performer, indulged in some hammy acting during a scene that featured the KKK’s ambush of two Mont Royal workers. And aside from a few scenes of solid acting, Lesley Anne Down continued her exaggerated take on the Southern belle.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Ashton discovered that manipulating her second husband, Will Fenway, might proved to be difficult in a well-acted scene between Terri Garber and Tom Noonan. Genie Francis appeared like a breath of fresh air, when her character, Brett Main Hazard attended Constance’s funeral. This episode also featured an outstanding performance by Stan Shaw, in a scene about Isaac’s attendance of a political conference for freed slaves in Charleston. By the way, this particular conference actually happened and was hosted by activist Francis Cardoza, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Both Kyle Chandler and Rya Kihlstedt continued their strong screen chemistry, as they played out Charles and Willa’s stormy relationship. And James Read did an exceptional job in portraying George Hazard’s grief over the murdered Constance.

But the episode’s three showcases featured the KKK’s attack upon the two Mont Royal workers – Isaac and Titus, the U.S. Calvary’s massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village and a kidnapping. Thanks to Peerce’s direction, I found all three scenes very chilling. Grubbs’ hammy acting was unable to spoil the scene featuring the KKK attack. And I could say the same about Szarabajka in the cavalry massacre scene. One last chilling moment featured Bent’s latest attack upon the Hazards and the Mains – namely his kidnapping of young Gus. The entire sequence was swiftly shot, but Peerce’s direction and Casnoff’s performance left chills down my spine.

By the end of Episode Two, I found myself wondering about the fandom’s hostile attitude toward this third miniseries. Granted, the production values of “HEAVEN AND HELL” did not exactly matched the same level as the first two miniseries. But the miniseries’ writing seemed to match and sometimes improve the quality of the writing found in the 1986 series. So far, so good.

“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

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“REAP THE WILD WIND” (1942) Review

I really do not know what to say about Cecil B. DeMille. His movies have always produced mixed feelings within me. But there are a few that I would have no trouble watching over again. And one of them is his 1942 film, “REAP THE WILD WIND”.

Following the success of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, “Gone With the Wind” and its 1939 cinematic adaptation, Hollywood spent nearly two decades trying to repeat the success of the latter. This campaign began with Warner Brothers’ 1938 film,“JEZEBEL” and probably ended with MGM’s 1957 epic, “RAINTREE COUNTY”. Among the “moonlight-and-magnolias” films that hit the movie theaters during this period was “REAP THE WILD WIND”, which DeMille both produced and directed.

“REAP THE WILD WIND” was based upon Thelma Strabel’s 1940 novel, which was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post”magazine. The movie tells the story of an antebellum Florida belle named Loxi Claiborne, who runs a Key West salvage business founded by her late father. Following his death, she assumed control of the business to keep her family financially secure. Loxie’s mother deplores her participation in such rough business and would prefer her to follow the example of her Cuban-American cousin, Drusilla Alston, by behaving like a well-bred Southern belle. Loxie eventually finds romance when a hurricane forces a ship called The Jubilee to founder off the Key West coast, leading her crew to rescue its master, Captain Jack Stuart. Because Loxi and her crew did not arrive first to the scene, another salvage crew led by Lexi’s Yankee-born business rival, King Cutler, acquires the wrecked Jubilee’s cargo. It is also revealed that Cutler had hired Jack’s first officer to deliberately wreck the ship. And unbeknownst to Loxie and Cutler, her cousin Drusilla and his younger Dan have fallen in love. Loxi and Jack fall deeper into love, as she nurses him back to health. When they both realize that Jack might be fired by Charleston lawyer Steve Tolliver, who serves as manager of the Devereaux Lines, the shipping company that owns the Jubilee; Loxi schemes to win a plum captain’s position for Jack by seducing Steve and convincing him not to fire Jack. Instead, a surprising romantic triangle ensures, when Loxi finds herself becoming attracted to Steve. And this romantic triangle, leads to surprising tragedy for several of the movie’s characters.

The 1942 movie not only benefited from Hollywood’s fascination with the Old South, but also from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Americana” phrase that may have began with 1936’s “THE PLAINSMAN” and ended with either the 1947 movie,“UNCONQUERED” or the 1952 Best Picture, “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH”. Who knows? What I find interesting is that I ended up enjoying “REAP THE WILD WIND”, despite its shortcomings. And it certainly had plenty of those. One flaw that caught my interest was the ridiculous trial in which Jack Stuart faced prosecution for deliberately wrecking the pride of the Devereaux Shipping Lines – the Southern Cross. I found it ludicrous for a few reasons. One, Steve Tolliver was a Charleston maritime lawyer. How on earth was he able to serve as prosecutor for a criminal case that originated and was held in another city and state – namely Key West? And it seemed wrong for Steve to be prosecuting a man for a crime that personally involved him. The trial also featured the testimony of a free black sailor named Salt Meat. Were free blacks allowed to serve as a witness for the prosecution . . . against a white defendant? I rather doubt it.

But the real problem I had with “REAP THE WILD WIND” were the one-dimensional characterizations that permeated the story. At least four of the movie’s characters proved to be complex – Loxi Clairborne, Steve Tolliver and Dan Cutler and especially Captain Jack Stuart. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many of the other major characters. One of those one-dimensional characters proved to be the movie’s main villain, King Cutler. Many stories about the Antebellum South have featured villains that were usually the following – an expatriate Yankee, a slave ship captain or a plantation overseer. Sometimes, the villain would be a combination of two or all three. Cutler turned out to be a sea captain and Loxi’s rival . . . who shipped slaves on the side. He was also the personification of one-dimensional evil. The Drusilla Alston character proved to be your typical Southern belle of the Old South . . . a second-rate Melanie Wilkes, but with only the mild manners. And of course, “REAP THE WILD WIND” had to feature not only its share of African-American stereotypes, but also a virtual rip-off of the Mammy character from “GONE WITH THE WIND” in the form of the Clairbornes’ maid, Maum Maria. Loxi’s rival for Steve’s affections, Ivy Devereaux, proved to be another cliché – namely the bitchy and spoiled Southern belle. The movie also features another cliché, Captain Philpott, who was not only Loxi’s ship master, but also the personification of the “salty” sea captain. Even worse, he was forced to spout “I’m a good Yankee” in nearly every other scene he was in . . . as if being a New Englander was not only a crime to the other (and Southern-born) characters in the movie, but also to moviegoers from all over the country.

Thankfully, “REAP THE WILD WIND” still had plenty of virtues that managed to overcome its flaws. One, it is a beautiful looking film, thanks to cinematographers Victor Milner and William Skall’s outstanding work with Technicolor. Below are examples of their work:

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Milner and Skall were not the only ones that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier, along with George Sawley’s set decorations and Natalie Visart’s colorful costume designs certainly maintained the movie’s early 1840s setting. But I have to commend Edward Overstreet and Barney Wolff’s special effects; along with the visual effects team of Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, William L. Pereira, and Louis Mesenkop did a stupendous job with the movie’s two special effects scenes – the hurricane at the beginning of the film, the giant squid that both Steve and Jack encountered underwater. The Hollywood community must have took notice of the film’s visual style. Milner and Skall earned Oscar nominations for their photography. Anderson, Dreier and Sawley all earned nominations for Best Art Direction. And the visual team of Edouart, Jennings, Pereira and Mesenkop won Oscars for the movie’s visual effects. The nominations and wins were all well deserved, as far as I am concerned.

I must admit that despite the barrage of one-dimensional characters, “REAP THE WILD WIND” proved to be a first-rate story. It was nicely balanced with romance, drama and adventure. It featured a fascinating heroine who proved to be a complex character and not some one-note cliché. Even the love triangle proved to be interesting, especially since two parties of the triangle – Loxi and Jack – ended up underestimating Steve a great deal. I found that fascinating. And although I originally found the love story between Drusilla and Dan a bit sacchrine, it proved to have great consequences in the end. I read somewhere that the screenwriters – too numerous for me to list – made many alterations to Strabel’s novel. Since I have never read the novel, I see no point in comparing the two. I only hope that Strabel’s novel proved to be as exciting and well-paced as the 1942 movie.

Despite my complaints about the one-dimensional characterizations in the film, I must admit that the cast managed to give some pretty good performances. Raymond Massey injected a great deal of energy and style into his portrayal of the villainous King Cutler. Despite being saddled with a remake of the Mammy character, Louise Beavers was equally entertaining as Maum Maria. There was one scene in which her character complained of Loxi taking her for granted that had me on the floor laughing, thanks to Beavers’ sharp performance. Both Susan Hayward and Martha O’Driscoll were solid as the two one-dimensional Southern belles, but it seemed obvious to me that they were better than the material given to them. And also Lynne Overman proved to be entertaining as Loxi’s loyal Yankee Captain Philpott. DeMille managed to capture another aspect of “GONE WITH THE WIND” by casting Oscar Polk (who portrayed Pork in the 1939 film) in the role of the free black sailor, Salt Meat. And Polk made the best of it in a well-acted scene in which he described the sinking of the Southern Cross during Jack’s trial.

But four cast members had the opportunity to shine in roles that proved to be complex. Ray Milland did a great job in portraying the intelligent and somewhat sly Charleston lawyer, Steve Tolliver. I was impressed at how he skillfully balanced Steve’s strong-willed nature and gentlemanly nature – a balance that kept the other two major characters offguard. One of those characters is Captain Jack Stuart, who thanks to the script and John Wayne’s skillful performance, proved to be the most complex in the movie. Jack Stuart also proved to be Wayne’s first character with an obvious dark side and he made the best of it. Paulette Goddard, who was one of the four final actresses considered for the Scarlett O’Hara role, was cast as the movie’s main heroine, Loxi Clairborne. And she was excellent as the headstrong Loxi, whose heart seemed to be bigger than her sense. I was also impressed at how Goddard did an excellent job in conveying Loxi’s reluctance to admit the latter’s true feelings for Steve. More importantly, not only did she create a strong screen chemistry with Wayne; she and Milland proved to be a sizzling screen team. In fact, this was the second of their four screen pairings. Robert Preston, who has proven to be a favorite of mine, was excellent as King Cutler’s younger brother, Dan. Preston did a great job in conveying Dan’s torn feelings over his admiration for his more ruthless brother and his love for the ladylike Drusilla.

I am not going to pretend that “REAP THE WILD WIND” was the epitome of Cecil B. DeMille’s career. It suffered from some unrealistic plot moments and plenty of one-dimensional characterizations. But the movie did benefit from a gorgeous visual style, an exciting and well-paced plot and some pretty damn good performances from a cast led by Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard and John Wayne. More importantly, all of this was crafted together with style, verve and excitement by Hollywood icon, Cecil B. DeMille.

“THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD” (2000) Review

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“THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD” (2000) Review

As many fans of Agatha Christie are aware, one of her most highly acclaimed and controversial novels is “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. I had checked the Internet to see how many adaptations had been made from well-regarded tale. I was surprised to learn there were at least seven adaptations, considering its difficult plot twist. The third to the last adaptation proved to be the last adaptation was the 103-minute television movie that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” in 2000.

“THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD” seemed like your typical Christie novel. After retiring to the small village of King’s Abbott, Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot stumbles across a mystery in which an old friend of his, an industrialist named Roger Ackroyd has been murdered. Sometime earlier, another friend of Ackroyd, a widow named Mrs. Ferrars, had committed suicide when she is suspected of killing her husband. Another murder occurs before Poirot, with the help of Chief Inspector Japp and local physician Dr. James Sheppard, solves the murder.

Screenwriter Clive Exton made some changes to Christie’s novel. He deleted a few characters, changed Poirot’s relationship with Ackroyd from simply neighbor to old friend, and added Chief Inspector Japp to the cast of characters. This last change greatly affected the story’s narrative. Christie’s novel was narrated by the Dr. Sheppard character. By having Japp replace him as Poirot’s closest ally, Exton nearly made Dr. Sheppard irrelevant. Exton ended up doing the same to a character in 2001’s“MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA”, when he added Arthur Hastings to the story, allowing the story’s true narrator, Nurse Amy Leatheran to become irrelevant. However, the addition of Japp to “THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD” transformed Christie’s story from a unique tale, to something . . . well, rather typical. With the addition of Japp, the story became another typical Christie murder mystery set in a small village. Pity.

I also believe that Exton damaged Christie’s original narrative even further with other major changes. One, he revealed major hints of the killer’s identity before Poirot could expose the former. And once the killer was exposed, audiences were subjected to a theatrical and rather silly chase scene throughout Ackroyd’s factoy, involving the police. And if I must be honest, I found myself wondering why on earth Poirot had decided to retire as a detective and move to the country in the first place. How long had he been gone before his reunion with Chief Inspector Japp?

Was there anything I like about “THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD”? I thought it was a tasteful movie, thanks to Rob Harris’ production designs that beautifully recaptured rural England in the mid-1930s. His work was ably complimented by Katie Driscoll’s art direction, and Charlotte Holdich’s costume designs. In fact, I can honestly say that the latter did a first-rate job in not only creating costumes for that particular era, but specifically for each character. Although some of Exton’s narrative changes robbed the story of its famous plot twist and featured a badly-handled revelation of the murderer, I will give kudos to the screenwriter for creating a plausible murder mystery that made it somewhat difficult for any viewer not familiar with Christie’s novel, to guess the killer’s identity . . . to a certain point.

The movie also featured some solid performances. David Suchet gave his usual competent performance as Hercule Poirot. He had one rather amusing scene in which the Belgian detective struggled with the vegetable marrows in his garden. I could say the same about Philip Jackson’s performance as Inspector Japp. Both Oliver Ford-Davies and Selina Cadell were amusing as the much put upon Dr. James Sheppard and his very nosy sister, Caroline. I read somewhere that the Caroline Sheppard character may have been a forerunner of the Jane Marple character. Malcolm Terris gave a very emotional performance as the story’s victim, Roger Ackroyd. Both Daisy Beaumont and Flora Montgomery were also effectively emotional as Ursula Bourne and Flora Ackroyd (the victim’s niece) – the two women in the life of Ralph Paton, Ackroyd’s stepson and major suspect. Speaking of the later, Jamie Bamber gave a solid performance as Ralph. But honestly, he did not exactly rock my boat. However, I was impressed by Roger Frost’s portrayal of Ackroyd’s butler, Parker. I thought he did a very good job in portraying the different aspects of the competent, yet rather emotional manservant.

Looking back, I really wish that Clive Exton had maintained Christie’s narrative style for this television adaptation of her 1926 novel. I believe it could have been possible. By changing the narrative style and adding the Chief Inspector Japp character to the story, Exton transformed “THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD” from a unique story to a typical Christie murder mystery. Pity.

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