“THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR” (2008) Review

 

“THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR” (2008) Review

Universal Pictures recently released its third film in ”THE MUMMY” franchise, starring Brendan Fraser as adventurer Rick O’Connell. This third outing centered around Rick and his family’s attempts to stop the resurrection of a ruthless Chinese emperor in post-World War II China. 

The film began with a narration about the rise to power of Emperor Han (Jet Li), the Dragon Emperor and detailed the relationship between him and Xi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), who knows the secrets of immortality. Han declared to his first in command General Ming (Russell Wong) that no one is to touch Xi Yuan, however ever since General Ming was charged with finding Xi Yuan and bringing her to Han, he ended up falling for her. After Xi Yuan supposedly cast the immortality spell on Han, he ushered Xi Yuan to the balcony where they look down to see General Ming tied at the arms and legs about to be pulled apart by horses. Han found out about their relationship and killed Ming while Xi Yuan watches. He then stabbed her, but she escaped. Knowing that the Emperor would destroy the world if he were to become immortal, Xi Yuan placed a curse on him and his army to be turned to stone.

The movie shifted to late 1946/early 1947, at a time when explorer Rick O’Connell (Fraser), his archeologist/novelist wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) and brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) are now retired. Both Rick and Evelyn seemed to be bored with their retirement. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) has dropped out of school and has become what the older O’Connells still long to be, explorers and adventurers. Alex, along with the financial backing of a colleague of his parents, Roger Wilson (David Calder), found and excavated the Dragon Emperor’s tomb and is attacked by a mysterious woman (Isabella Leong). They avoid being harmed and successfully bring the Emperor back to Shanghai, where Jonathan owns a night club called Imhotep. In the meantime, the British government entrusted the elder O’Connells to take the Eye of Shangri-La back to China as a good faith gesture from the British to the Chinese. All the O’Connells end up at Alex’s exhibit in Shanghai. Roger, General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his second in command Choi (Jessey Meng) intervened, taking the Eye of Shangri-La and forcing Evelyn to read the script to open the Eye and release the Emperor. Alex found the mysterious woman from the excavation site at the exhibit and after a quick dialogue, both helped in freeing Alex’s parents. With the resurrected Han escaping with General Yang, the O’Connells chased them through the streets of Shanghai until the Dragon Emperor and Yang escaped. The mysterious woman turned out to be an immortal named Lin a protector of the Dragon Emperors tomb. She also happened to be Xi Yuan and General Ming’s daughter. Lin informed the O’Connells that Han will try to become immortal by going to Shangri-La using the Eye as its guide.

When I learned that Stephen Sommers, who had directed the first two ”MUMMY” films, would not be returning at the helm to direct this third movie, I had a small suspicion that the latter would not possess the same production values as the first two films. And when Universal Pictures released the news that the film would be released in the second half of the summer, instead of May, my suspicions were confirmed. And I was right. The production values of ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” did not seem as impressive as its two predecessors. Aside from the impressive set that served as mid-1940s Shanghai, Simon Duggan’s photography failed to capture the epic grandeur of the first two films.

The cinematography was not the only thing about this film that disappointed me. I must admit that I was not that impressed by the film’s final battle near the Great Wall of China. Everything seemed rushed, as if either the two screenwriters – Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (creators of ”SMALLVILLE”) or the film’s director, Rob Cohen (”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” and ”XXX”), were in a rush to end the film. What disappointed me more than anything were the two hand-to-hand fight scenes in the finale. After the spectacular fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan in ”THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM”, I had expected something just as or nearly as spectacular in the fight scene between Li and Michelle Yeoh. After all, both are martial arts icons who have worked in previous movies together. But it did not last very long. Hell, it barely last two minutes on the screen. And although Li’s fight scene with Fraser did last a longer, it failed to recapture the more interesting fight scene between Fraser and Arnold Vosloo in ”THE MUMMY RETURNS”.

Thankfully, ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” possessed virtues, as well as flaws. The story of the O’Connell family being manipulated into raising a Chinese mummy turned out to be a solid adventure that took the family from the streets of Shanghai, to the Himalayas, the edge of the fabled Shangri-La and finally China’s famous Great Wall. Even better, the story told the twofold story of Rick and Evelyn learning and failing to deal with professional retirement and their joy in being led into a new adventure. The movie also featured a family drama centered around the O’Connells’ efforts to re-connect with their only son, Alex.

Even though I had expressed disappointment at the screenwriters and Rob Cohen’s handling of the finale, I must admit that the film featured four sequences that I truly enjoyed. The first featured Alex and Wilson’s discovery of Emperor Han’s tomb and their hostile encounter with Lin. The second sequence occurred in the snowy Himalayas, where the O’Connells, Jonathan and Lin attempt to prevent the resurrected Han from reaching the tower that will reveal the path to Shangri-La when the Eye, a precious blue diamond is placed on top of it, and fight off General Yang and some of his men. There is a short moment in the first half of the movie in which a bored Evelyn tries to inject a little excitement in hers and Rick’s lives by seducing him in a slinky nightgown. Instead of being successful, the desperate Evelyn found Rick sitting in an armchair – fast asleep and snoring. This was one of the most hysterical examples of a mid-life crisis I have ever seen on film and probably the funniest moment in the entire franchise. But the sequence that I truly enjoyed featured the O’Connells’ adventures in Shanghai – from the moment when Rick and Evelyn are reconciled with Alex and Jonathan, to the riotous chase sequence through the streets of Shanghai. I thought it was wonderfully detailed and well staged. The sequence also featured a mean hand-to-hand fight scene between Evelyn and Yang’s second-in-command, Choi. Frankly, I consider their fight the best one in the entire movie.

Both Brendan Fraser and John Hannah returned to reprise their roles of Rick O’Connell and Jonathan Carnahan for the third time. And as they had done in the first two movies, did excellent jobs. Come on. This Brendan and John we are talking about. They can do no wrong in my eyes. I honestly have to say the same about Maria Bello as Evelyn Carnahan O’Connell. I must admit that I had been disappointed when I first learned that Rachel Weisz had decided not to reprise the role of Evelyn. Do not get me wrong. I loved Rachel as Evelyn. But I must admit that Maria Bello actually made me forget about her. I enjoyed Maria’s performance as Evelyn that much. Her Evelyn is, of course, older and a little more assured. And like her husband, is bored with life. And I was surprised to discover that she had great chemistry with Fraser. I must admit that I felt a little unsure about Luke Ford’s performance as Alex. There were times I found him rather interesting. There were other times when I found his performance a little over-the-top. I also found his accent rather confusing, until I realized that it was neither American nor British. I discovered that Ford was an Australian actor. But his natural accent did not seem effectively hidden. Isabella Leong did a solid job as the young woman who helps the O’Connells stop Han. But I must admit that I found nothing remarkable or extraordinary about her performance. As for Jet Li . . . well, he was perfect. He is one of the few action stars who could portray both heroic and villainous characters effortlessly. And Michelle Yeoh was wonderfully poignant as the Chinese witch, Xi Yuan, whose curse against the treacherous Han set the entire story in motion.

If I must be frank, ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” lacked the more prestigious production of the first two films. And its finale was one that I found slightly disappointing. However, it did lack the over-the-top . . . almost screeching quality of the second film – ”THE MUMMY RETURNS”. And thanks to the cast, director Rob Cohen, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, this third ”MUMMY” film turned out to be an entertaining film that one would experience a lot of fun watching. My opinion? Go see it.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

This third episode, ”Carentan” picked up one day after where ”Day of Days” left off – Easy Company in Northern France for the Normandy invasion. ”Carentan” mainly centered around the experiences of Private Albert Blithe, portrayed by actor Marc Warren during Easy Company’s attempt take the town of Carentan. 

Easy Company’s nighttime jump into Normandy seemed to have left Private Blithe in semi-shock. He barely acknowledged the comments of his fellow paratroopers. During the company’s assault upon Carentan, he suffered from temporary blindness. Conversations with officers like Easy’s Harry Welch and Dog Company’s Ronald Spiers failed to help Blithe ease his anxiety regarding the horrors of combat. Winters is finally able to spur Blithe into action, during a German counterattack, a day or two later. But Blithe’s triumph is short-lived when he is wounded by an enemy sniper after volunteering to lead a scout patrol. Also during this episode, the legend of Ronald Spiers continues when Donald Malarkey and his friends – Warren “Skip” Muck, Alex Pankala and Alton More – discuss Spiers’ alleged connection to the deaths of a group of German prisoners-of-war and a sergeant in Dog Company. Winters endured a mild wound and Sergeant Carwood Lipton endures a more serious one during the battle for Carentan.

”Carentan” became the second episode in ”BAND OF BROTHERS” with a running time longer than one hour.”Currahee” was the first. But I must admit that I enjoyed ”Carentan” a lot more. The longer running time and broadening effects from the horrors of war gave the series’ portrayal of the Normandy campaign more of an epic feel than ”Day of Days’. It featured two harrowing combat sequences – Easy Company’s attack upon Carentan and the Germans’ counterattack that nearly left the company in a vulnerable state. And it is the first episode that featured an aspect of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I truly enjoy – namely casual conversation between the men of Easy between combat situations. Conversations such as the one about Spiers between Marlarkey, More, Muck and Penkala turned out to be bright spots that prevented the miniseries from sinking into the cliché of a typical World War II combat drama.

The main storyline for ”Carentan” happened to be about Albert Blithe’s anxieties in dealing with combat for the first time. Writer E. Max Frye did a solid job regarding the Blithe character and his troubles with hysterical blindness. But I do have a few problems with his work. One, his take on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” did not strike me as original. Watching Blithe’s travails on the screen left me with a feeling that I have seen numerous war dramas with similar storylines. And two, Frye got a good deal of his information wrong about Blithe. The end of the episode revealed that Blithe never recovered from his wound in the neck and died four years later in 1948. As it turned out, Blithe did recover from the wound . . . eventually. He remained in the Army, served in the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War and died in 1967. Either Fyre made this mistake intentionally . . . or had made a major blooper. There was another mistake regarding Blithe, but I will reveal it later.

One last complaint I had was the episode’s last fifteen or twenty minutes, which featured Easy Company’s return to England. Aside from the ham-fisted scene in which Malarkey found himself picking up the laundry of some of those who had been killed or wounded in Normandy, most of those scenes should have been featured in the beginning of the following episode. And they should have deleted the scene in which Lipton announced that they would be returning to France. One, he had not been announced as Easy Company’s new First Sergeant and two, they never did return to France.

The performances in ”Carentan” were solid, but a few did stand out for me. Matthew Settle continued his excellent introduction of Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in a very memorable and slightly tense scene in which he tries to give Blithe some advice on how to mentally deal with combat. Another first-rate performance came from Rick Warden, who portrayed one of Easy Company’s platoon leader and close friend of Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon – Harry Welch. I rather enjoyed Warden’s charming take on the easy-going and sardonic Welch. And finally, there was Marc Warren, whose portrayal of Blithe pretty much carried this episode. He did a very good job of conveying Blithe’s journey from a shell-shocked trooper to the more confident warrior, whose experience with Easy Company ended with a wound in the neck. My only complaint with Warren’s performance is that he portrayed Blithe with a generic Southern accent. And the real Blithe was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Why Spielberg, Hanks and director Mikael Salomon had him used a Southern accent for the character is beyond me.

”Carentan” is not my favorite episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. I found the on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” storyline for the Albert Blithe character to be slightly unoriginal. The character also spoke with the wrong regional accent and the information about his post-Easy Company years was historically inaccurate. And I could have done without the scenes with Easy Company back in England near the end of the episode. On the other hand, I do consider ”Carentan” to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. Easy Company’s experiences in taking Carentan and enduring a German counterattack gave the episode more of an epic feel than the events featured in the last episode,”Day of Days”. And despite portraying Blithe with the wrong accent, Marc Warren did give an exceptionally good performance.

“THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938) Review

 

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“THE ADVENTUERS OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938) Review

Seventy-three years ago this coming April, the 1938 film, ”THE ADVENTUERS OF ROBIN HOOD”, was released in theaters for the first time. For many fans and film critics, the swashbuckler is considered the definitive Errol Flynn movie. They also view his character, Sir Robin of Locksley, as the pinnacle of the Australian actor’s career. 

There have been previous versions of the Robin Hood tale before and after. The other most famous versions are the 1922 silent film that starred Douglas Fairbanks and the 1950s TV series that starred Richard Greene. Like the other versions, the movie told the story of the young Saxon nobleman (Flynn) who created a band of outlaws to protest against the reign of Prince John (Claude Rains) in England during the early 1190s. With King Richard the Lionhearted (Ian Hunter) a hostage of Austria’s king, John usurps the royal power to oppress the English poor – especially the Saxons – with the help of Sir Guy Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Robin and his right hand man, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), recruits the likes of Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.), Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), Much the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin) and a band of outlaws. Soon, Prince John and his Norman cronies find their cruelties opposed and themselves harassed beyond all bearing. Robin also finds the time to fall in love with the Norman noblewoman and royal ward, Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland).

To be frank, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” is a glorious triumph not only for the Warner Bros. studio, but for Flynn as well. It has everything that the moviegoer could possibly want in a swashbuckler – great action, rich color, a superb score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and a leading man who more than embodied what the main character stood for. Warner Bros. executives Jack Warner and Hal Wallis had originally cast James Cagney in the lead. But the actor became embroiled in one of his many feuds with the studio and two years later, Flynn won the role. I cannot say how Cagney would have portrayed Robin of Locksley. But Warner and Wallis certainly struck it rich with Flynn in the lead. Not only did he look the part, he handled the role’s physical aspects with great aplomb. Flynn also injected a heady mixture of roguish humor and genuine compassion into the role.

The rest of the cast were also superb. Olivia de Havilland was never more lovelier. Even better, her Maid Marian became more than just the love interest and damsel-in-distress. Once Robin had swayed her to his cause, she turned out to be a valuable recruit. Not only did she managed to come up with a plan to save Robin from execution, she was the one who discovered a plot by Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff to assassinate the returning King Richard.

Claude Rains, with his soft voice, made a deliciously sly Prince John. Basil Rathbone was tough enough to serve as a physical adversary for Robin. Their duel in the final scene at Nottingham Castle is considered a classic, thanks to the fencing choreography staged by Fred Cavens. And Melville Cooper was his usual funny self as the buffoonish Sheriff of Nottingham. Although I find it odd that he was the only one who was able to come up with a successful plan to capture Sir Robin. And where would ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” be without its supporting cast that portrayed Robin’s Merry Men? The handsome Patric Knowles made a sly and witty Will Scarlett. Alan Dale Sr. returned as Little John, a role he had first made famous in the 1922 film. Eugene Pallette made great use of his frog voice and gruff demeanor as Friar Tuck. And Herbert Mundin, as Much the Miller’s Son, seemed to be the best of the bunch. Not only did he proved to be as brave as Robin, he also won the hand of Marian’s nurse, Bess, portrayed by the always memorable Una O’Connor.

Surprisingly, ”THE ADVENTUES OF ROBIN HOOD” had two directors. Hal Wallis first assigned the film to William Keighley, who had directed Flynn in ”THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER” (1937).  But Hal Wallis felt slightly dissatisfied with Keighley’s slow handling of the action sequences and replaced him with Warner Bros’ reliable warhorse, Michael Curtiz. Flynn, who detested the Hungarian-born director, must have screamed in frustration. But Curtiz’s direction gave the film a tighter pace and better action sequences for which the movie is famous. ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”was one of the first films of the studio to use the old three-strip Technicolor process. And it paid off, giving the movie a rich color and vibrancy. And what would this version of Robin Hood be without Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Academy Award winning score. I am still surprised that Korngold had originally turned down the assignment because he felt that his score could not live up to the movie’s action. Thankfully, he proved himself wrong.

”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” seemed to have everything going for it – great cast, great photography, great action and great music. And it all seemed to blend seamlessly. Yet . . . it is not my favorite Errol Flynn movie. I had come across a review of the film in which a critic stated that one of the reasons this was his favorite Flynn movie was its light-hearted tone and simplistic characterizations that allowed the audience to escape from the more complex, modern world. And I could see those traits in the movie. But as much as I had enjoyed it, there were times when the movie came off as a little too light or simple for me. Sir Robin of Locksley may be considered Flynn’s best role, but I must admit that I found his portrayal of Geoffrey Vickers in ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE” (1936) and Geoffrey Thorpe in ”THE SEA HAWK” (1940) more complex and interesting. In fact, I consider the two movies to be my favorites that Flynn ever made. However, I do love ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and consider it one of the most entertaining films I have ever seen.

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR” and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.

“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

 

“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

When I first learned that “DREAMGIRLS”’ eight Academy Award nominations did not include one for Best Picture and a Best Director nod for Bill Condon, it had seemed pretty odd to me. The movie, based upon the 1981 Broadway musical, had already won plenty of accolades – including a Best Musical/Comedy Picture and two other Golden Globe awards. Was it possible that “DREAMGIRLS” had failed to live up to its hype? 

During the mid-winter of 2007, several movie critics, including one for “The New York Times” had claimed that this might be the case. This critic and others went on to say that although “DREAMGIRLS” was a pretty good movie, it lacked the qualities to be considered as a nominee for Best Picture. Since I had yet to see “DREAMGIRLS” at the time, I wondered if my sister – who had highly recommended the movie – had exaggerated its good qualities.

Eventually, I finally saw “DREAMGIRLS”. And just last weekend, I I watched my DVD copy of the movie for the third time. Needless to say, I now feel that my sister had not exaggerated. The movie not only possessed a rich, in-depth look at the music industry for African-Americans in the 1960s and 70s, it can also boast fine performances and a very unusual direction.

The cast, which included Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson. Foxx, Knowles and Glover all did competent jobs in their respective roles. I was especially surprised to see Foxx (usually seen in comedy roles and an Oscar winner for his portrayal of Ray Charles) portray villainous record producer Curtis Taylor Jr. in such a subtle, yet intimidating manner. Knowles proved that she can be a competent actress – especially in two scenes that feature her character’s (lead singer Deena Jones) growing resentment toward Taylor’s control over her career and life. It was good to see Glover in a substantial role again, after so many years. He was his usual competent self as the more conservative manager of Eddie Murphy’s character, James “Thunder” Early. Another character connected to the Early role was Lorrell Robinson, portrayed by Anika Noni Rose. I must admit that Rose’s portrayal of the young, star-struck Lorrell seemed a little hammy and unconvincing at first. Fortunately, her performance improved, as her character matured.

Two of the best things about “DREAMGIRLS” turned out to be the show-stopping performances of Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson as R&B singer, James “Thunder” Early and the Dreams’ real talent Effie White. Not only did both performers win Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. Then Murphy went on to receive an Oscar nomination and Hudson won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Murphy bypassed his usual comedic performances to portray James Early, a R&B singer doomed to have his raw talent being slowly squeezed to death by Curtis Taylor’s ambition for acceptance by the white audience in 1960s/70s America. Not only did Murphy give a brilliant performance as the doomed Early, he also proved that he could be a knock-out musical talent. “DREAMGIRLS” must have seemed like sweet revenge for Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson. After being dismissed by “American Idol” judges halfway into competition, Hudson managed to win the role of Effie White, a talented and mercurial singer forced to deal with rejection by Taylor because of her “soulful” voice and physical appearance. Hudson’s show-stopping performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” combined the best of her acting ability and magnificent voice, and may have possibly rivaled Jennifer Holliday’s performance of the same song in the Broadway version.

Not only did “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” beautifully showcased Jennifer Hudson’s talent, it also proved a theory of mine. I had once told a friend that singing in front of a live audience took more than simply holding a microphone and singing. To get the song across to the audience, the performer needed to act out the meaning behind the song through facial expressions and body language. Such expressions through song has been shown before on both the screen and stage, but Hudson took it to a level that left me breathless . . . and almost crying. Not only did the song’s lyrics expressed Effie White’s desperation to maintain Curtis Taylor’s love, but her facial expression and body language effectively did so, as well. I also have to commend Knowles, Foxx, Rose, Keith Robinson (who played Effie’s songwriter brother C.C.) and Sharon Leal (who played Effie’s replacement, Michelle Morris) for their performances in a scene in which they all express their frustration and resentment toward Effie’s volatile behavior. For a moment, I thought I was watching an operetta.

In fact, one felt the sense of watching an operetta, instead of the usual musical. Since the Astaire/Rogers series of the 1930s, movie musicals have perfected the art of movie dialogue seamlessly segueing in a song. In “DREAMGIRLS”, not only does the dialogue segue into song, but sometimes segue back into dialogue in the middle of a song. Or . . . two characters would end either do the following: 1) interrupt the dialogue with a few lines of song; or 2) switch back and forth between song and dialogue. This made “DREAMGIRLS” feel like no other movie musical I have ever seen and I have to commend director Bill Condon for creating this unusual style for any musical.

Now, I find myself back to thinking about the 2006 Academy Award nominations. Do I agree that those critics had believed that the Academy was right to withhold Best Picture and Best Director nominations for “DREAMGIRLS”? In the end, those critics are entitled to their own opinions. I had learned from another source that “DREAMGIRLS” had enough votes from the Academy members to receive a Best Picture nomination. But from my personal view, all I can say is . . .”What the hell had the Academy been thinking?”

Observations of “MAD MEN”: (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three”

I did not write articles about an entire episode of ”MAD MEN” before the Season Three episode (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three” aired.   Why, I do not know. But after watching that particular episode, I found myself compelled to post several observations about it. 

Observations of ”MAD MEN”: (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three”

In ”Seven Twenty-Three”, famous hotelier Conrad Hilton, whom Don Draper had first met in ”(3.03) “My Old Kentucky Home”, paid a visit to Don’s office and revealed his intent to hire Sterling Cooper to handle the promotion of his New York hotels. This piece of good news turned sour when Lane Pryce, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper revealed that Hilton’s attorneys refused to go ahead with the deal unless Don sign an official contract with his employers. Naturally, Don was reluctant to sign a contract. He had been living under an assumed name for the past thirteen years, when he switched identities with his Army commanding officer (the real Don Draper). Nor did he want to be bound or obliged to anyone without having the power and opportunity to walk away whenever the opportunity might arise. After Don had a confrontation with Betty over his refusal to sign a contract, he left the house to go joyriding in the countryside. There, he picked up a young couple, who claimed they were on their way to get married at Niagara Falls. As it turned out, they were a pair of scam artists who fed Don some pills, took him to a cheap motel, knocked him out and stole his money.

The episode also featured a subplot for Betty Draper. After joining the Tarrytown chapter of Junior League, she received a request to find someone with political ties to prevent the construction of a giant water tank that they feared would ruin the scenic view. Betty contacted Henry Francis, one of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s aides, whom she had first met in ”My Old Kentucky Home”. The two met at a local bakery in Ossing for drinks and pastries. And although Francis hinted that he might not be able to help the Junior League prevent the water tank’s construction, he made it obvious that he was just as attracted to Betty, as she was to him. Francis had also pointed out a chaise lounge that Betty later purchased for her living room. A chaise lounge that her decorator obviously disliked. By the way, the scene featuring Betty’s telephone call with Henry Francis nearly had me rolling in the aisles. Although I have no children, I have experienced a similar situation in which someone had hung up the telephone before I could pick up the extension. Very frustrating.

Peggy Olson’s storyline in this episode began in (3.05) “The Fog”, in which she was contacted by former Sterling Cooper employee, Duck Phillips. In that episode, he had tried to recruit both Peggy and Pete to the agency he now works for – Gray. Peggy had contemplated his offer, but refused. When Peggy asked Don for a raise in the same episode, the latter refused her request. In Seven Twenty-Three”, Duck continued his wooing of Peggy and Pete with gifts. When Pete pointed out that Duck’s wooing might be an attempt for the older man to get back at Don for snowballing him in the Season Two finale, (2.13) “Mediations in an Emergency”, Peggy became determined to return the gift. Which she did after leaving work. However, her visit to Duck’s hotel suite also led to an evening of some very enjoyable sex for them both.

*Betty Draper

Betty’s story arc did not provide any jaw dropping moments for me. But I did notice a few things. One, she must be seriously attracted to Henry Francis. I found it interesting that not only did she remember him from Roger’s Kentucky Derby garden party, she also seemed to be in a slight state of heat around him. This especially seemed obvious when Henry shielded her eyes from the sun during an eclipse. But more importantly, she went ahead and purchased the Victorian chaise lounge that Henry had earlier pointed out to her when they passed an antique store. Many saw the chaise lounge as an example of Betty’s desire to be some “helpless damsel in distress” that occasionally fainted. I found that image hard to accept. Despite the ladylike persona that Betty tends to project, she never struck me as that kind of woman. However, I had noticed how she caressed her body in a suggestive manner – especially in the very spot where Henry had touched her, when she was still pregnant with Eugene. I also noticed that Betty has become more assertive in her attitude toward Don. After all, audiences had first received a whiff of this trait back in (2.04) “Three Sundays”, when she ordered Don to take Sally to work with him during Bobby’s small medical emergency. Yet, Betty’s assertiveness has become increasingly obvious this past season. This was certainly apparent in her refusal to cave in to Don’s disapproval over their new son’s name in (3.06) “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”; and in their confrontation over Don’s refusal to sign a contract with Sterling Cooper. I had always suspected that underneath the girlish and shallow exterior lurked a formidable woman. I wonder how Betty would react if she ever discovered the truth about his fake identity.

*Peggy Olson

Peggy may think that she knows a lot about Don Draper. But I rather doubt it. The worst she knows is that he is an adulterer, thanks to her rescue of both him and Bobbie Barrett in Season Two’s (2.05) “The New Girl”. In ”Seven Twenty-Three”, she discovered that he can be incredibly cruel. Season Three has not been particularly kind to Peggy. Following her revelation about their child, Pete Campbell has become hostile toward her. And despite being the first copywriter to acquire a private office following Freddie Rumsen’s departure, Peggy has not been receiving the respect she believes that she deserves. Don had ignored her misgivings about the Patio commercial in (3.02) “Love Among the Ruins”. In (3.05) “The Fog”, Peggy asked for a raise after discovering that she was the firm’s least paid copywriter and Don rejected her request. And when she asked to work on the Hilton account, Don (who was already in a foul mood after learning that Sterling Cooper wants him to sign a contract) rejected her request in the cruelest means possible. He accused Peggy of using his coattails to rise up in Sterling Cooper’s Creative ranks. His accusation and manner left Peggy shocked and speechless.

When Peggy appeared at Duck’s hotel room to return his gift, I doubt that she had any intention of having sex with him. Did Duck plan to sexually seduce Peggy? I do not know. And since I have no idea of Duck’s intention, I am not going to pretend that I do or speculate. I do have to wonder if the prevalent negative attitude toward Duck has led many fans to believe that he had intended to seduce her. I do recall Peggy complimenting Duck’s turtleneck sweater when they first met in ”The Fog”. I also noticed something else. Once Peggy and Duck were in bed together, they seemed turned on by each other.

A good number of viewers have expressed disgust at Peggy’s sexual tryst with Duck. These viewers have claimed their age difference. But Joan Harris and Roger Sterling were (and still are) nearly twenty years apart in age during their affair. Even back then, Joan was slightly older and more experienced during her affair with Roger. But Peggy is not some blushing virgin. She was already sexually experienced and had given birth to Pete’s son in (1.13) “The Wheel”. She even managed to seduce some college kid in ”Love Among the Ruins” as a test of her sexuality. Yet, not only are many fans expressing disgust at her tryst with Duck; they are labeling her as some sexually naïve woman who found herself seduced and manipulated by an older man. I must be honest. I found that perception of Peggy a little insulting. Peggy may be young and probably upset over Don’s outburst; but as I had stated earlier, she was not that naïve. I suspect that Peggy had simply used Duck’s offer of great sex to derive some kind of pleasure following her disastrous meeting with Don. Many fans have also been predicting disastrous consequences from Peggy and Duck’s tryst. Perhaps she might experience a fallout from the affair. Perhaps not. But a nagging part of me fear that Peggy might end up paying the consequences for failing to accept Duck’s offer of a position at Gray’s.

*Don Draper

I never understood this need to divide the series’ main character into two personas. There is only one Dick Whitman, after all. He is both the rural-born offspring of a dead prostitute and a crude farmer . . . and the brilliant creative advertising executive. The reason why Dick (or should I say Don) can emotionally connect with some people and barely at all with others might be due to the fact that he had assumed another man’s name by fraudulent means. It is not surprising that he has only been willing to reveal some of his true nature to those he believe he may never see again . . . or in the case of Rachel Mencken, someone with whom he thought he could connect. It is also natural that Don had never bothered to sign an official contract with Sterling Cooper. No contract had allowed him to be a free agent even though he has decided to remain at Sterling Cooper. It also meant that Don would be able to bolt without any legal redress, if needed. Well, Don’s years as a free agent at Sterling Cooper ended in ”Seven Twenty-Three”.

The odd thing is that Don’s encounter with another self-made man who had risen from poverty had led him to being finally bound to a contract. It led to a final breach (so far) with Roger Sterling. It damaged his close relationship with Peggy. It made him realize (for the second or third time) that his wife might be a lot more formidable than he had probably imagined. Don’s argument with Betty led him to commit one of his more destructive maneuvers when things got rough . . . he took off. Unlike his trip to California last season, Don did not go very far. Instead, he picked up a hitchhiking couple claiming to be on their way to Niagara Falls in order to elope. But instead of eloping, they fed Don some pills and later clocked and robbed him inside a cheap motel. As his dad, Archie Whitman, had indicated in his hallucination, Don has become slightly soft. This seemed even more apparent when Bert Cooper blackmailed him into finally signing a contract. When Cooper had dismissed Pete Campbell’s exposure of Don as a fraud in Season One’s (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, I bet Don never thought the old man would eventually use those allegations against him. And yet . . . while signing that contract, Don demanded that Roger Sterling stay away from him. How interesting. Roger tried to use Betty to coerce him into signing the contract. Cooper sunk even lower and used Don’s secrets to blackmail him and succeed. Perhaps Don realized that Roger (given his questionable standing in the firm with the British owners) made an easier target for his wrath than two powerful men like Conrad Hilton and Bert Cooper. If so, it does not say very much about Don.

Some believe that Don’s new contract is a sign of his eventual downfall. I cannot say that I agree with this. In fact, I have no idea what this contract will symbolize for Don. Every time he has faced a personal crisis in the past – Pete Campbell and Bert Cooper’s discovery of his secret in Season One, and his estrangement from Betty and Duck’s takeover plans – Don has managed to survive or come on top. And considering that this latest crisis occurred in mid season, I have doubts that he will face anything worse before the season is over. Then again, Matthew Weiner could still surprise us.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS” (2008) Review

 

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”INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” (2008)  Review

As much as I enjoyed this latest installment of the INDIANA JONES saga – ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL”, I had found myself perplexed by it. There was something about the movie’s tone that failed to strike a chord similar to the past three movies. It took a second viewing of the movie for me to understand that it had a lot to do with its setting. 

”INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” is set in 1957, in which Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) leads a convoy of Soviet troops, dressed as American soldiers on a mission to infiltrate a military base in the Nevada desert called “Hangar 51”. Spalko and her men force Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to lead them to a crate holding the remains of an extraterrestrial creature that crashed ten years before in Roswell, New Mexico. When Jones attempts to escape, he is foiled by his old partner, George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone), who reveals that he is working with the Soviets. Jones then escapes on a rocket sled into the desert, where he stumbles upon a nuclear test town and survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. While being debriefed, Jones discovers he is under FBI investigation because his friend Mac is a Soviet agent. Jones returns to Marshall College, where he is offered a leave of absence to avoid being fired because of the investigation. As he is leaving, Jones is stopped by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) and told that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), disappeared after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.

Like 2007’s ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”, I had harbored some serious doubts on whether George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could relive the old magic of their previous three Indiana Jones adventures of the 1980s. Needless to say, my fears proved to be groundless. Like the Bruce Willis “DIE HARD” movie, this fourth installment ended up being very entertaining. And although it had some of the old magic of ”RAIDERS”,”TEMPLE OF DOOM” and ”LAST CRUSADE”, it had a tone that made it different from the other three. It took a movie review by someone named Lazypadawan and a second viewing of the movie to not only notice the difference, but to eventually appreciate it.

The main problem I originally had with ”CRYSTAL SKULL” was the presence of a spaceship at the end of the story. The City of Gold that Indy, Spalko, Oxley and others wanted to find, ended up with something to do with . . . an inter-dimensional being. One might as well call it an alien, judging by its look. This is something that has never been seen in an Indiana Jones film before. And of course it has not. The other three movies had been set in the 1930s. It would be only natural that they had a feel of a 30s B-serial adventure. But I made the mistake of expecting a 1930s serial adventure in a story set in the late 1950s. What I should have realized – and what Lazypadawan had pointed out in her review – was that ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” was not supposed to be a 30s serial adventure set in the 1950s. It was supposed to be a send up of the 1950s “B” movies. And what are the elements of a “B” movie from the 1950s? Here are just a few:

*atomic power
*the presence of Soviet troops or spies
*science fiction
*horror
*hybrid of science fiction and horror
*conflicts between biker hoods and high school/college jocks
*the “Red” scare
*Soviet (and American) interests in psychic paranormal activities and UFOs

”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” had most, if not all elements in the film. I had just read a review in which someone had complained that the movie seemed like a “rip-off” of a cheesy B-movie. I had made that same mistake when I saw the spaceship sequence near the end of the movie. But now I know better. Lucas and Spielberg had every intention of the movie being a “rip-off” of 1950s B-movies. Like I had said before, it would only make sense.

Someone else had mentioned that Harrison Ford had not seemed this animated in years. I am not surprised. Indiana Jones had always been amongst his favorite characters. And it really showed in his performance. It is also nice to see that after 27 years, his chemistry with Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood) seemed as strong as ever. By the way, she was great. And I was very impressed by Shia LaBeouf as Marion and Indy’s love child – Mutt Williams aka Henry Jones III. As much as I liked his performance in ”TRANSFORMERS”, I have always thought it seemed a bit too frantic for my tastes. I much preferred his role as Henry III (I’m sorry, but I can barely bring myself to say – let alone write – “Mutt”). LaBeouf managed to convey a strong screen presence that matched Ford, without resorting to the frantic acting he had utilized in “TRANSFORMERS”. Like Ford, I could tell that Cate Blanchett really enjoyed her role as the villainous Soviet Colonel-Doctor Spalko. She was as obsessive and ruthless as the past Indy villains. But Blanchett’s performance had a verve and theatricality I have not seen since Amrish Puri’s portrayal of Mola Ram in ”THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”. And John Hurt filled Denholm Elliot’s role as friend/mentor of the Jones family quite beautifully. But unlike Marcus Brody, Harold Oxley had a good reason for his loopy behavior. I also enjoyed Ray Winstone’s performance as Indy’s treacherous old friend and colleague, McHale. In a way, he reminded me of the Elsa Schneider character in “LAST CRUSADE”. But as much as I like Alison Doody, I must say that Winstone’s take on a very morally ambiguous character had been handled with more skill.

Is there anything about ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” that I disliked? Well, I was not impressed by John Williams’ score. There was nothing original or memorable about it, aside from moments of the old Indy theme being rehashed. Rather disappointing. Nor was I fond of the movie’s heavy-handed style of action and special effects. However, I could honestly complain about the same about the other three films. But the one thing that really irritated me was the sequence featuring the villain’s defeat/destruction. In the end, it was not Indy who had defeated the villain or set her destruction in motion. It was the inter-dimensional being. In other words, Indy became nothing more than a passive bystander of the villain’s defeat. This is the one major fault I have noticed in two other Indiana Jones films. And it gave those films – at least in my eyes – an anticlimatic feeling that I found disappointing. In ”RAIDERS”, the opening of the Ark of the Covenant set in motion Belloq and the Nazis’ deaths. Both Indy and Marion were tied to a pole, unable to do anything except keep their eyes closed. In ”THE LAST CRUSADE”, Elsa Schneider turned out to be responsible for the main villain’s death and the destruction of his men through her handling of the Grail Cup. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg were trying to convey some message about humans being too arrogant to take heed of things/beings that are more powerful or more evolved than mankind. But that same message had also been conveyed in ”TEMPLE OF DOOM”. Only in that particular movie, it was Indy’s actions – invoking the power of Shiva with the Sanakara stone – that led to Mola Ram’s destruction. Perhaps this is why I have always found the 1984 movie’s finale a lot more impressive than those of the other three movies.

But despite my initial confusion on what Lucas and Spielberg were doing with the movie’s 1950s theme, along with my disappointment of the score and the handling of the villain’s defeat, I found ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” to be very enjoyable. It was great to see Indiana Jones back in action, again. And even more satisfying was his marriage to his lady love, Marion Ravenwood, in the end. After 30 odd years, those two finally got it right.