“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

 

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“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

I have heard a lot about the two movie biographies based upon Truman Capote’s experiences while working on his famous non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood” – “CAPOTE” and “INFAMOUS”. I have seen both of them . . . but I saw “INFAMOUS”, which was written and directed by Douglas McGrath, first. Since I have already posted my review of “CAPOTE”, I might as well move on to the one that features British actor Toby Jones, as the diminutive writer. 

To be honest, I did not know what to expect of “INFAMOUS”. Since it was the second Capote movie to be released, it failed to garner any prestigious critic awards or nominations – aside from a Independent Spirit Best Supporting Actor nod for Daniel Craig, who played one of the Clutters’ murderers, Perry Smith. After watching the movie, I found myself wondering why Toby Jones had failed to earn his own nomination.

Jones’ complex portrayal of Capote seemed all at once witty, sharp, manipulative, vulnerable and rather sad. In all, it was a brilliant performance. He seemed to revel in Capote’s legendary flamboyant wit and charm in all its glory. One of Jones’ funniest scenes involved Capote’s snappy repartees to prison inmates shouting lewd propositions at him, during his first visit to the prison. Yet at the same time, Jones also revealed the author’s talent for cold-blooded deception and manipulation, which he used to gain the trust of his New York friends, along with the citizens of Holcomb and the two killers, whose anecdotes he needed to complete his book. This talent for drawing out secrets . . . and disclosing them not only attracted the suspicion of Perry Smith, but also got Capote in hot water with his “swans” in the mid-1970s, thanks to an unpublished manuscript of his book, “Answered Prayers”. A few chapters managed to end up in the New York magazine, “Esquire”. But what is more interesting about Jones’ performance in the movie is that his experiences in Kansas ended up peeling away Capote’s flamboyant façade, forcing him to face the pain and sorrow created by an unhappy childhood.

Ironically, it was Capote’s encounters with convicted murderer, Perry Smith, which forced the author to face his personal demons. What can I say about Daniel Craig’s performance? Other than the British actor not only deserved his Independent Spirit Award nomination, but like Jones, he also deserved both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination. His Perry Smith was a brooding, quiet man who projected vulnerability, intelligence and brutal menace. It was easy to see how Capote and Smith had developed a close relationship. Both shared a taste for intellectual and artistic pursuits that allowed them to hide from unhappy childhoods that included suicidal mothers. Both actors created a dynamic screen chemistry through two contrasting personalities that seemed to share similar childhood experiences. Craig brilliantly projected Smith’s varying personalities in two scenes – one in which he expressed polite distaste at Capote’s gift of pornographic magazines; and in another, his terrifying anger at the “In Cold Blood” title, which led to a threat of rape against the author.

“INFAMOUS” could boast a first-class supporting cast led by Sandra Bullock, who portrayed Capote’s close friend and fellow author, Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). Many critics seemed surprised by Bullock’s excellent portrayal of the warm and wryly amused Alabama author. Apparently, they must have been deluded by some belief that Bullock was only capable of light comedy. The actress was given to showcase her dramatic chops in one “documentary” interview scene in which she expressed Lee’s bitter anger at the public’s demand for an endless supply of entertainment by talented artists. I also enjoyed Jeff Daniels’ wry and sardonic portrayal of the Kansas Bureau Investigations officer in charge of the Clutter case, whose family eventually befriended Capote. His performance was highlighted in a favorite scene of mine that featured the development of Capote and Dewey’s friendship over an arm wrestling match.

Lee Pace (of TV’s “PUSHING DAISIES”) portrayed Dick Hickock, Smith’s partner and the alleged brains behind the attempt to rob the Clutters. I found his performance rather humorous and gregarious, yet there were times it threatened to be a touch frantic. Since “INFAMOUS” gave the audience a wide glimpse into Capote’s New York lifestyle, the movie also included his circle of “swans”, with whom he developed a close relationship until his disclosure of their secrets in the mid-70s. Those “swans” included Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) – the wife of CBS baron Bill Paley; Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), the fashion magazine editor; Slim Keith (Hope Davis), the woman who was married to Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward; and Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini), Italian-American princess who became a furniture designer and tastemaker. Also included in that group were publisher Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), novelist and Capote’s rival Gore Vidal (Michael Panes). I was especially amused by Stevenson’s humorous portrayal of the vivacious Vreeland, who seemed proud of her own eccentric nature and appreciative of Capote’s attitude toward it.

Some reviews have criticized McGrath’s tendency to switch the movie’s setting between Capote’s glittering New York world and the somber atmosphere of Holcomb, Kansas. I understood why he did it. Both settings seemed like metaphors for the writer’s contrasting psyche during those six years he worked on “In Cold Blood”. It started out with a glittering night with Capote and Babe Paley at the El Morocco nightclub (with a sultry Gwenyth Paltrow singing “What Is This Thing Called Love”) and ended with Capote unable to keep the dark memories of Kansas out of his mind. In fact, once Capote had finally set eyes upon Smith, Holcomb’s bleak setting slowly threatened to puncture the frivolous façade he had created, whenever he was in New York. The emotional cost from the book and his relationship with Smith resulted in his inability to write his next book – “Answered Prayers”, as shown in the movie’s final scene.

The only problems I had with “INFAMOUS” were “documentary” interviews shown during the movie’s first half-hour. Frankly, I believe that the movie could have started out with these interviews, before segueing into the story. And aside from Capote’s tour of the Clutters’ home, I found the sequence featuring his interviews with some of Holcomb’s citizens a little dull and hard to watch. Fortunately, the arrival of Smith and Hickcock ended the dull sequence and from there, my interest in the movie remained constant until the end.

Whether you are a fan of the Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “CAPOTE”, I do recommend that you watch “INFAMOUS” . . . or at least give it a chance. Hopefully, you will discover that in its own way, it is just as fascinating as the 2005 Oscar-winning film.

9/10 stars

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“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

“PERSUASION” (1995) Review

Twenty-four years after the BBC aired its 1971 version of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, ”Persuasion”; and twelve years before ITV aired its adaptation; Columbia Pictures released its own version on British television and in movie theaters across the U.S. The movie went on to become highly acclaimed, the winner of a BAFTA TV award for Best Single Drama, and regarded as the definitive version of Austen’s novel. 

Directed by Roger Michell, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of an impoverished baronet in Regency England. Seven or eight years before the story began, she had been persuaded to reject the marriage proposal of a young and ambitious Royal Navy officer named Frederick Wentworth by her godmother and late mother’s friend, Lady Russell. After spending so many years in deep regret over her action, Anne found herself facing Wentworth again during a visit to her younger sister’s home. Now a captain and wealthy from the spoils of the recent Napoleonic Wars, Wentworth continued to harbor a good deal of residual anger and resentment toward Anne. And the latter continued to harbor remorse over her actions and a passionate love for the naval officer.

After watching the 2007 version of ”PERSUASION”, I found myself wondering how I would regard this particular version. Needless to say, I found it very satisfying. Michell did an excellent job in capturing the ambivalence of Austen’s novel. The center of that ambivalence rested on the underlying passion of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth’s romantic history. And this passion beautifully permeated the movie; thanks to Michell, screenwriter Nick Dear and the two leads – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. The movie relived all of the passion and emotions of their relationship – both positive and negative. Michell and Dear also did a top-notch job in revealing the initial dangers that the British aristocracy and landed gentry faced from their complacency, arrogance and unwillingness to match the ambitious endeavors of the rising middle-class; especially through characters like Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot.

As much as I had enjoyed ”PERSUASION”, I believe it had its flaws. One of those flaws turned out to be the scene featuring Anne and Wentworth’s final reconciliation on one of the streets of Bath. It could have been a wonderful and poignant moment . . . if it were not for the circus performers and pedestrians making a ruckus in the background. It nearly spoiled the romantic mood for me. And there were at least two performances that did not sit right with me. I will discuss them later. This version of ”PERSUASION” seemed to be the only adaptation that portrayed Mrs. Croft as the younger sister. Fiona Shaw, who is at least five years younger than Ciarán Hinds and looked it even with minimal makeup, portrayed his sister. Yet, both the 1971 and 2007 versions had cast an actress that was older than the actor portraying Wentworth. And I happened to know for a fact that at age 31, the Fredrick Wentworth character is at least seven (7) years younger than his sister. There is no way that the 42 year-old Hinds could have passed as a man eleven (11) younger, despite his handsome looks.

But my main problem with this adaptation turned out to be the same problem I had with the 2007 version – namely the character of William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir presumptive. Because the baronet had no male issue, his baronetcy and the Kellynch estate will pass to William, his cousin. But William, fearing that Sir Walter might marry Mrs. Clay, the companion of the oldest Elliot daughter; schemed to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Mrs. Clay from becoming Sir Walter’s second wife and protect his inheritance. As I had explained in my review of the 2007 version, this scenario failed to make any sense to me. Even if William had succeeded in preventing any marriage between Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay, there was no way he could consistently prevent the Elliot patriarch from considering another bride for matrimony. Even if he had married Anne. Quite frankly, it was a situation that had been beyond his control. Dear tried to give urgency to William’s situation by portraying him as financially broke after spending all of his late wife’s money. As far as I am concerned, Dear’s efforts to do this, by changing William’s financial situation failed. Sir Walter’s lawyer had made it clear around the beginning of the story that it would take years for Kellynch to recover from the Elliots’ debts. Nor did following Austen’s story by making William a romantic rival of Wentworth for Anne’s affections. She did not seem that impressed by William’s character, despite his charm and wit. If Dear had simply avoided Austen’s characterization of William Elliot and allowed him to retain his fortune; he could have been a formidable rival for Wentworth, just as Louisa Musgrove proved to be a strong rival for Anne in the story’s first half.

I cannot deny that ”PERSUASION” strongly benefited from the excellent performances of the two leads, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. Root was superb as a sad and remorseful woman who began to bloom again over the possibility of a renewed love. With very little dialogue, she was excellent in a montage that featured her character’s reaction to the Musgroves’ carping over Anne’s younger sister, Mary Musgrove. But my favorite scene happened to featured Anne and Wentworth’s first meeting after eight years at Charles and Mary Musgrove’s cottage. With her eyes and body language, Root conveyed Anne’s series of emotions from seeing the naval officer again after so many years with great skill. Despite being a decade older than his character, Ciarán Hinds was equally impressive as Captain Frederick Wentworth, the successful Royal Navy officer who tried to hide his continuing resentment toward Anne’s rejection of him with a hearty manner and friendly overtures toward the Musgrove sisters – Louisa and Henrietta. One particular scene that impressed me featured Wentworth’s recollection of the year 1806 (the year Anne had rejected his marriage proposal). Hinds skillfully conveyed the character’s lingering resentment . . . and love for Anne in what struck me as a subtle moment.

Other excellent performances came from Sophie Thompson, who did a top-notch job as Anne’s younger sister, the emotionally clinging Mary Elliot Musgrove; Simon Russell Beale as Charles Musgrove, Mary’s consistently exasperated husband; Fiona Shaw, who wonderfully conveyed Sophia Wentworth Croft’s strong mind, along with her love for her husband and her role as a naval officer’s wife in a charming scene; and Susan Fleetwood, who have a complex performance in her last role as Anne’s well-meaning, yet prejudiced godmother, Lady Russell. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Samuel West’s portrayal of the conniving William Elliot. He gave a deliciously smooth performance that radiated wit and charm. I found him so likeable that I almost felt sorry for him when Anne finally announced her engagement to Wentworth.

Unfortunately, not all of the performances impressed me. Despite my admiration for the late Corin Redgrave’s skills as an actor, I must admit that I found his portrayal of Anne’s narcissist and arrogant father, Sir Walter Elliot, a little off-putting. I realize that the character happened to be one of the outrageous characters in the novel. Unfortunately, Redgrave’s portrayal of Sir Walter’s narcissism seemed a little too mannered and broad. However, Redgrave’s Sir Walter seemed like a mild annoyance in compare to Phoebe Nicholls’ portrayal of the eldest Elliot sibling, Elizabeth. Nicholls portrayed the character as an over-the-top diva suffering from a damaged nervous system. I could not help but wonder if she had been on crack during the production. Or perhaps Michell was on crack for allowing such a performance to remain in the film.

Overall, ”PERSUASION” was an excellent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds’ performances, Nick Dear’s screenplay and Roger Michell’s direction infused the movie with a mature passion rarely touched upon in the adaptation of Austen’s other novels. Does this mean that I regard this movie as the best adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel? No. Like the 2007 version, it had a number of flaws that prevented it from becoming ”the” best. But I must admit that it is pretty damn good.

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, ”SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, ”SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for ”SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – ”SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.

“MAD MEN”: The Specter of Intolerance

 

“MAD MEN”:  The Specter of Intolerance

Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed television series, ”MAD MEN”, has addressed many issues that American society had faced in both the past and today. Issues such as class, sexism, religion and race have either reared its ugly heads or have been brushed upon by this series about an advertising agency in the 1960s. 

The center of ”MAD MEN” is mainly focused upon advertising executive named Don Draper. But the series also focuses upon his co-workers at the firm he works at – Sterling Cooper – and his family in the suburb of Ossing, New York. But this article is about two of Don’s co-workers – namely a junior copywriter named Paul Kinsey and the firm’s office manager, the red-haired Joan Holloway.

In the series premiere, (1.01) ”Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Joan was engaged in the task of introducing the newly hired secretary, Peggy Olsen, around to Sterling Cooper’s other employees. One of the employees happened to be Paul Kinsey, who briefly hinted that he and Joan had a romantic history in the past. This was confirmed several episodes later in (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, when Joan and Paul had a bittersweet conversation about their past romance during an election party (Election of 1960) held at the office. Apparently, Joan had ended the romance when Paul revealed too much about their relationship.

Joan and Paul’s relationship – or should I say friendship – took an ugly turn for the worst in Season Two’s (2.01) ”Flight 1”. Although this episode mainly focused upon another Sterling Cooper employee, Pete Campbell, facing his father’s death; it began with a party held by Paul at his apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. Paul’s guests not only included co-workers from Sterling Cooper, but also some of his African-American friends (or neighbors). One of those guests included Paul’s new girlfriend, a black woman named Sheila White. Paul introduced Sheila to Joan as his girlfriend. He also added that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at her local supermarket. Then he briefly dismissed himself to see to another guest. Once Paul left, Joan turned to Sheila and said the following:

””When Paul and I were together, the last thing I would have taken him for was open-minded.”

In one sentence, Joan managed to stake her claim on Paul as a former lover and make a racist comment. Sheila merely responded with a polite compliment about Joan’s purse. She must have eventually told Paul, because within a day or two, Paul angrily confronted Joan on the matter. She merely responded by accusing Paul of using Sheila to look bohemian and ”tolerant” to his friends and co-workers. She also managed to conveniently forget that Sheila worked as an assistant manager at the Food Fair and dismissed the latter as a mere check-out clerk. Too angry to respond, Paul stalked away. Later, he got his revenge by stealing Joan’s drivers’ license, making a copy of it and posting that copy on the office bulletin board. He did this to expose her age (which was 31 years).

Paul and Joan did not share any scenes together until the episode, (2.10) “The Inheritance”.  In this particular episode, Sheila paid a visit to the Sterling Cooper office to meet with Paul for lunch. She also wanted Paul to join her on a voters’ registration trip to Mississippi. Did Joan notice the brief kiss exchanged between Paul and Sheila? Yes. Nor did she look particularly happy about it. This episode exposed Paul’s blowhard attempts to make himself look good in the eyes of others . . . especially in the eyes of Sterling Cooper’s black elevator operator, Hollis and the other members of the entourage he and Sheila accompanied on their trip to Mississippi. But I feel that it also exposed Joan’s own feelings about Paul’s relationship with Sheila . . . again.

Don Draper gave Joan the opportunity to exact revenge upon Paul. In ”Inheritance”, Paul and accounts executive Pete Campbell were ordered to Southern California to recruit future clients in the region’s aerodynamics industry. At the last minute, Don decided he would replace Paul on the trip. He ordered his temporary secretary, namely Joan, to inform Paul in a memorandum that he would be taking the latter’s place on the trip. Instead of informing Paul by memo, she verbally told him in front of the other Sterling Cooper employees, during a baby shower for father-to-be Harry. And publically humiliated the copywriter, in the process. Joan got her revenge . . . for something she had set in motion, when she insulted Sheila in an earlier episode. Curious.

And yet . . . most of the fans of ”MAD MEN” seemed to sympathize with Joan and vilify Paul, in the process. Many of them seemed so intent upon pointing out Paul’s pretentious behavior or claiming that he does not really care for Sheila that they have ended up ignoring Joan’s racism. And there have been those who claim that Joan is not a racist. They insisted that she simply wanted to expose Paul’s poseur attitude. My question is . . . why? Why would Joan even bother? Both the series’ viewers and Joan received a firsthand glimpse of Paul’s pretentiousness back in the Season One episode, (1.12) ”Nixon vs. Kennedy”. In that episode, Paul had Salvatore Romano and Joan performed his one-act play that he had written, during the office party for the 1960 elections. The viewers also received an example of how dark Paul’s poseur streak can be when he expressed jealousy that Ken Cosgrove managed to get a short story published in ”The Atlantic Monthly” in (1.05) “5G”Why did Joan wait until she met Sheila to point out Paul’s pretentiousness? Why did she not do this earlier? I have asked this question on several occasions. Most fans either ignore my questions or insist that Joan is not a racist . . . while at the same time, continue to deride or make a big deal out of Paul’s pretentiousness.

In a ”Christina Hendricks Interview”, the red-haired actress had expressed dismay over the possibility of Joan being a racist, when she read the script for ”Flight 1”. Series creator Matthew Weiner told her that Joan was not a racist. He added that Joan was simply trying to expose Paul’s pretentiousness over his relationship with Sheila. Like many of the series’ fans, Ms. Hendricks accepted Weiner’s explanation. But after viewing ”Flight 1” and ”The Inheritance”, I can conclude that the writer/producer did a piss poor job of conveying Joan’s intention . . . or he had lied to Christina Hendricks. Right now, I am inclined to believe the latter.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

The Comparisons Between ”MAYTIME” (1937) and ”TITANIC” (1997)

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THE COMPARISONS BETWEEN “MAYTIME” and “TITANIC”

While watching the 1937 operetta that starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – “MAYTIME”, I noticed that the story and main characters bore a strong resemblance in story structure to a movie that was released sixty years later . . . namely ”TITANIC”, which starred Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. Note the following:

Down Memory Lane
*“MAYTIME” starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as an opera singer in Paris of the 1860s to a young couple.

*“TITANIC” starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as a bride-to-be aboard the S.S. Titanic to her granddaughter and a group of treasure seekers.

Box Office
*“MAYTIME” was the box office champ of 1937.

*“TITANIC” was the box office champ of 1997/1998.

The Villain
*The flashback for “MAYTIME” begins with the heroine – American opera singer Marcia Mornay (Jeanette MacDonald) – in Paris, being accompanied by a possessive mentor Nicolai (John Barrymore).

*The flashback for “TITANIC” begins with the heroine – American aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) – about to board the S.S. Titanic with her possessive fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and manipulative mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher).

Meeting the Hero
*In “MAYTIME”, after escaping her mentor’s company, Marcia meets a penniless American singer named Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) on the streets of Paris. He had been living in Paris for a few years.

*In “TITANIC”, after escaping her fiancé and mother’s company, Rose tries to commit suicide and eventually meets a penniless American artist named Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio) on one of Titanic’s decks. He had been living in Paris and London for a few years.

The Pleasure of Each Other’s Company
*Marcia and Paul spend an evening singing and dancing at a Paris café with lower-class citizens in “MAYTIME”.

*Rose and Jack enjoy a night drinking and dancing with the steerage passengers, following a formal dinner in “TITANIC”.

Jealousy
*Marcia’s mentor, Nicolai, grows increasingly jealous toward Paul in ”MAYTIME”.

*Rose’s finace, Cal, grows increasingly angry and jealous of Rose’s time with Jack in “TITANIC”

Intimate Bond
*Marcia and Paul share an intimate bond, while performing together on the opera stage, under the jealous eye of Nicolai in“MAYTIME”

*Rose and Jack share an intimate bond together, while he draws a nude sketch of her. They later make love. A jealous Cal later finds the drawing in “TITANIC”.

Death of Hero
*Insane with jealousy, Nicolai later shoots and kills Paul in “MAYTIME”

*A jealous Cal goes berserk and tries to kill both Rose and Jack. The latter eventually freezes to death in the cold North Atlantic Ocean, after the ship’s sinking in “TITANIC”.

Death of Heroine
*After the elderly Marcia finishes her story, she dies in “MAYTIME”. The ghost of her younger self meets with Paul’s ghost and they sing together in the afterlife.

*After the elderly Rose finishes her story, she dies in “TITANIC”. The ghost of her younger self meets with Jack’s ghost, and the ghosts of Titanic’s dead passengers in the afterlife.

Mind you, the plots of both “MAYTIME” and “TITANIC” are not exactly alike. But there are some strong similarities in both characterizations and in story structures for the two movies that makes me wonder if James Cameron had watched the 1937 musical one too many times.

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“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

In the fall of 1980, NBC Television had aired a three-part miniseries called, ”BEULAH LAND”. Starring Lesley-Ann Warren, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood and Paul Rudd, the miniseries told the story of an 19th century Savannah-born woman named Sarah Pennington and her impact upon the Kendrick family and their cotton plantation in Georgia during the years 1827 and 1872.

The miniseries was based upon two novels by Lonnie Coleman – ”Beulah Land”and ”Look Away, Beulah Land” It featured a cast that included television and movie stars Lesley-Ann Warren, Eddie Albert, Hope Lange, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood, Meredith Baxter, James Eachin, Paul Rudd, Don Johnson, Jonathan Frakes, Jenny Agutter, Franklyn Seales and Madeline Stowe.

Recently, I had just finished watching “Beulah Land”. To my surprise, I still found it enjoyable. Unlike other antebellum and Civil War sagas like ”NORTH AND SOUTH”and ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, the setting for Beulah Land seemed to be restricted to southeast Georgia, with brief forays to Charleston, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. It has its usual stock of family melodrama – sometimes portrayed in an over-the-top manner by some of the cast members. It also gave an interesting look at the ambiguous relationships between slaves and slave owners; whites and blacks – regardless of whether they were free or slave; and between wealthy and poor whites in the antebellum South. There had been accusations by some that ”BEULAH LAND”had skimmed the darker aspects of American slavery or indulged in a negative and clichéd portrayal of the African-American characters. All I can say is that whoever made these accusations had not seen the miniseries. Here are more observations I had made:

1. The period in which Lauretta Pennington (Meredith Baxter) and her son-in-law, Adam Davis (Jonathan Frakes) experienced The Siege of Atlanta, is erroneous. According to the miniseries, the actual siege took place during mid-November 1864. William Sherman’s siege of Atlanta occurred between late July and early September of the same year. Lauretta and Adam left Atlanta around the same time Sherman began his march through Georgia.

2. I have noticed that Lauretta and other citizens fleeing Atlanta hardly seemed to be expressing any signs of panic, while dodging Union shells. Very odd.

3. Jonathan Frakes is a first-class actor, but his Southern accent was not very good in this miniseries. It was a good thing that he had portrayed a Northerner in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

4. Unlike most of the actresses in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, the ones in ”BEULAH LAND” must have avoided wigs. Which would account for their loose and natural hairstyles.

5. The first fifteen minutes of ”BEULAH LAND” was set in 1827. Yet the female costumes had resembled fashions of the 1840s. As the miniseries progressed, the costumes became more accurate. But not completely.

6. For me, the following actors and actresses gave the best performances – Lesley Ann Warren (Sarah Pennington Kendrick), Dorian Harewood (Floyd), Eddie Albert (Felix Kendrick), Paul Rudd (Leon Kendrick), Paul Shenar (Roscoe Coltray), James McEachin (Ezra), Jean Foster (Pauline), Don Johnson (Bonnard Davis), Hope Lange (Deborah Kendrick),Franklyn Seales (Roman Kendrick), Allyn Ann McLerie (Edna Davis) and Jenny Agutter (Lizzie Coltray).

7. Meredith Baxter would have made the list, if it were not for her occasional bouts of hammy acting. However, I have noticed a good number of other performers like Illene Graff (Annabel Davis), Clarice Taylor (Lovey), Laurie Prange (Rachel Kendrick Davis), K.C. Martel (Young Benjamin Davis), and especially Bibi Osterwald (Nell Kendrick) really tend to chew the scenery. Along with a good number of performers in minor roles.

8. Below is a list of what I consider to be the best scenes:

*Selma (Madeleine Stowe) and Bonnard’s wedding night
*Slaves’ talk in the kitchen during Sarah and Leon’s wedding reception
*Sarah and Floyd become aware of their attraction toward one another
*Lauretta’s revelation of her affair with Leon
*Rachel and Edna Davis’s deaths
*Death of corrupt Union sergeant
*Floyd’s death

”BEULAH LAND” is not what I would call a work of art. And to be frank, I can say the same about the novels in which it is based upon. As for this belief that the African-American characters were portrayed in an embarrassing and clichéd manner as ”docile and happy” slaves – it is not true. The only times the slaves appeared ”happy and docile” over their situation, occurred when they were faking this attitude toward their white owners. Although ”BEULAH LAND” is not great television, I have to give it kudos for its accurate portrayal of the surprisingly complex and ambiguous society of the antebellum South. I say . . . give it a shot.