“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Five “Crossroads” Commentary

The last episode, ”Replacements” saw Easy Company reeling from the Allies’ disastrous defeat during the Operation Market Garden campaign in Holland. Directed by Tom Hanks, this latest episode depicted Richard Winters’ last combat engagement as the company’s commander, Operation Pegasus, and the company’s departure for Belguim as they prepare to participate in the Bastogne campaign. 

At the beginning of the aptly named ”Crossroads”; Winters, now the executive officer of the 2nd Battalion of 506th regiment, recounts his last combat mission as commander of Easy Company in a report for regimental headquarters that took place at a crossroads, near a dike in Holland. In the aftermath of the battle, Winters is informed that he has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel Strayer’s executive officer, leaving Easy without a commander. However, a new man – Frederick Theodore “Moose” Heyliger – becomes Easy’s new commander and leads them in Operation Pegasus, a military mission to escort a large number of British paratroopers trapped behind enemy lines, following the failure of Market Garden. Unfortunately, about a week later, Lieutenant Heyliger is seriously wounded by an American sentry and Easy ends up with a new commander named Norman Dike. Unlike Winters and Heyliger, Easy Company has no respect for their new leader and nicknames him ”Foxhole Norman”.

Not long after Dike becomes Easy’s new commander, a reluctant Winters is ordered to spend a few days of furlough in Paris. During his furlough, Winters is haunted by a moment when he killed a teenaged German soldier during the crossroads battle. Not long after his return to the regiment, the 101st Airborne learns about the German counterattack near Bastogne and is sent to Belgium to repel it. The episode ends with Easy company marching into the Belgian forest in the middle of the night, with minimum supplies and inadequate clothing.

I have always liked ”Crossroads” . . . despite itself. I cannot put my finger on it. Perhaps my feelings about the episode have to do with how Hanks directed the battle fought at the crossroads. He injected a great deal of style into that very moment that featured Winters leading a charge against S.S. troops at the crossroads. I also enjoyed Damian Lewis’ performance during the Paris furlough scenes. And I enjoyed the sequence featuring the interaction of some of the company’s men, while watching a Marlene Dietrich film. However, my favorite sequence featured Easy Company’s brief journey to another crossroad – one near the town of Bastogne, Belgium. Screenwriter Erik Jendresen certainly did his best to ensure that the episode’s title adhere to its theme. A good deal seemed to be at a crossroads in this episode – including the location of a Dutch dike, where Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time; and the crossroads near Bastogne, where the company was sent to halt the German counterattack. Winters’ Army career was at a crossroads, as he went from company commander to battalion executive officer. And Easy Company endured a crisis of leadership following Winters’ promotion to battalion.

Yet, despite my positive feelings for ”Crossroads”, I cannot deny that it was one of the miniseries’ weaker episodes. For such a short episode, so much had occurred. Winters led Easy Company into combat for the last time. The company participated in Operations Pegasus. It lost “Moose” Heyliger as its commander after he was accidentally shot and gained Norman Dike as the new commander – a man for whom no one seemed to have much respect. This episode should have been longer than 50 minutes. More importantly, watching both ”Replacements” and ”Crossroads” made me realize that Spielberg and Hanks had limited the company’s experiences in Holland to two engagements. The miniseries could have explored a lot more, judging from what I have read in Stephen Ambrose’s book.

It seemed a pity that Spielberg and Hanks had failed to take the opportunity to explore more of Easy Company’s Holland experiences. Instead, the second half of this episode focused on Winters’ furlough in Paris and the company’s preparations for the Belgium campaign. And because of this ”Crossroads” seemed unfulfilled . . . and lacking. But it did provide an excellent performance from Damian Lewis as Richard Winters. And it featured a first-rate combat sequence and some personal interactions between the men that I found interesting. It was not a complete waste of time.

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“CHANGELING” (2008) Review

“CHANGELING” (2008) Review

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1920s, “CHANGELING” is based upon a true story about a single mother who realized that the boy returned to her after a kidnapping is not her son. After confronting the city authorities, they vilified her as delusional and an unfit mother. The movie’s events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, an infamous kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928.

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the Award winning science-fiction television series, ”BABYLON 5”, had been tipped off by a contact at the Los Angeles City Hall about the case of Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. He wrote a screenplay based upon the case and submitted it Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Howard was slated to direct the film. But due to a scheduling conflict, Howard was unable to accept the assignment and it was offered to Clint Eastwood. Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie was cast as the anguished mother, Christine Collins. The cast also included John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, and Geoff Pierson.

I might as well say it. I really enjoyed ”CHANGELING”. I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. When I first learned about the movie, I thought it would end up as some missing child story with a science-fiction twist. After all, the movie had been scripted by Straczynski. I eventually discovered that the movie was simply based upon a true life crime that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. And since the movie, which happened to be two hours and 41 minutes long, was directed by Clint Eastwood . . . well, I feared that it would turn into another one of his slow-paced films that would leave me struggling to stay conscious. Thankfully, it did not happen. As he had done in ”FLAGS OF OUR FATHER”, Eastwood managed to forego his usual snail-like pacing and do Straczynski’s superb script justice with what I believe is one of his best works.

”CHANGELING” is a very engrossing story about single mother Christine Collins’ (Jolie) efforts to find her missing son Walter and deal with the antipathy and lack of interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins’ interactions with the LAPD and especially Police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) were especially fascinating. The story took an even darker tone when a more competent police officer named Detective Ybarra (Kelly) made a connection to the disappearance of Collins’ son to a possible case involving a serial killer of young boys. Judging from what I have read about Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Eastwood and Straczynski did a superb job of recapturing both the era and the actual case. Mind you, the movie is not completely accurate. After all, Jolie must be at least 15 years younger than the real Christine Collins was in 1928. But I am speaking of a Hollywood film, not a documentary.

Judging by the excellent performances in the film, it was easy for me to see that the cast really benefitted from Eastwood’s direction and Straczynski’s script. But to be honest, not even the best director or script could ever guarantee a good performance. Which is why I feel that ”CHANGELING” was very lucky in its cast . . . especially with its leading lady. Despite winning two Golden Globe awards, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar, Angelina Jolie has never really developed a reputation as a first-rate actress. Sometimes I wonder if the media and the public are so blinded by her looks and image that they fail to realize how truly talented she is. I would certainly rate Christine Collins as one of Jolie’s best performances. She managed to completely submerge into her role of the ladylike Mrs. Collins who has to overcome her natural reticence to resist the L.A.P.D.’s lie that the boy returned to her some five months after her son’s disappearance is the latter. Although most moviegoers and critics tend to be impressed by emotional and showy performances, I tend to be impressed by more subtle acting. And there are two scenes that featured Jolie at her subtle best – one featured an interview Collins had with an analyst inside a city psychiatric ward and the other centered around Captain Jones’ last efforts to convince her that the boy found in Illinois and delivered to her was her son Walter. Thankfully, Hollywood rewarded Jolie with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It is only a pity that she did not win.

Jolie received strong support from four actors in particular – John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Malkovich gave a solid performance as a Los Angeles evangelist named Reverend Gustav Briegleb who has been outspoken against the Los Angeles Police Department’s incompetence and corruption. His soliloquy about the police department not only gave me chills, it also reminded me that not much in Los Angeles politics have not changed in eighty years. In his chilling performance as Police Captain J.J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan proved his versatility as an actor in a performance that bordered on subtle intimidation. Michael Kelly portrayed Detective Ybarra, the L.A. cop who discovered the link between Walter Collins and a serial killer . . . and he did so with a solid performance that matched Malkovich’s. The one actor who really impressed me was Jason Butler Harner, who gave a creepy performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott. The filmmakers had hired Harner due to the latter’s physical resemblance to the real Northcott. Physical resemblance aside, the actor’s performance could have easily become over-the-top. But Harner managed to inject a strong creepiness into the role without turning the character into a caricature.

I did have a few quibbles about “CHANGELING”. Earlier I had marveled at the movie’s pacing despite Eastwood’s role as director and the 141 minute running time. And I stand by every word. But I must admit there was one point in the film in which it threatened to drag . . . namely the last fifteen or twenty minutes. One could suggest that the movie’s finale could have easily been deleted. But considering what had been revealed in those final moments, I doubt that would have been wise. One last quibble I had was Oscar nominee Amy Ryan’s role as a prostitute and fellow inmate of Collins’ at a city psychiatric ward. The filmmakers might as well have credited her appearance as a cameo. Despite Ryan’s excellent performance, her appearance in the film struck me nothing more than a waste of time.

No movie is perfect and as I had pointed out, “CHANGELING” had a few imperfections. But in the end it turned out to be a fascinating look into a period in the history of Los Angeles. Thanks to Eastwood’s direction, Straczynski’s script, Angelina Jolie and a very talented supporting cast; “CHANGELING” turned out to be an engrossing tale of crime and corruption that has already made my list of favorite movies from 2008.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Granville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army office at the beginning of the story, and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man.  Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film.  He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him.  As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the ”POIROT” series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Samuel West, Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.

“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957; 1979) Book Review

“SHADOW OF THE MOON” (1957; 1979) Book Review
I first became aware of British author, M.M. Kaye back in the early 1980s, when I read her famous 1978 bestseller, ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS”. Intrigued by the author’s portrayal of the British and Indian societies in 19th century, I read another one of her novels – namely ”SHADOW OF THE MOON”First published in 1957, ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” was re-released 22 years later to cash in on the success of ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS”. Like the latter, the novel was set in 19th century India. ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” told the story of Winter de Ballesteros, the only daughter of an aristocratic Spaniard whose family lived in India and the beloved granddaughter of an English earl. Orphaned at the age of six, Winter is forced to leave India and live with her mother’s family in England for the next eleven years. Betrothed at an early age to the debauched Conway Barton, the nephew-in-law of her great-aunt and an official of the East India Company serving as Commissioner of the Lunjore District, Winter finally leaves England to return to India in order to marry him. Barton’s military aide, Captain Alex Randall of the British East India Company (aka John Company), is assigned to act as escort for Winter’s return journey to the East.Unfortunately for Winter, she encountered two misfortunes after her arrival in India – the discovery that her new husband is a debauched and overweight drunk who had married her for her fortune; and that she had fallen in love with Alex Randall. She is unaware that Alex has also fallen in love with her. While Winter struggled with her love for Alex and her unhappy marriage, events slowly came to a boil that lead to the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in which the Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army rose against the British between May 1857 and June 1858. The violent outbreak of sepoy troops against the rule of the British East India Company forced both Winter and Alex to experience the violence that explodes throughout most of India and acknowledge their feelings for one another. For a novel that is supposed to be about the famous Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58, most of it seemed to be set before the rebellion’s actual outbreak. The novel’s first six chapters focused upon Winter’s parents and her childhood in both India and England. The next thirty-four (34) chapters focused upon Winter and Alex’s journey to India, the introduction of Anglo society in India, Winter’s marriage to Conway Barton in Lunjore, the growing tensions between the British rulers and those who have much to resent them, Winter and Alex’s growing feelings for one another . . . well, you get the picture. By the time Winter, Alex and other British residents encounter the rebellion in Lunjore, Chapter 40 had arrived. Only Chapters 40 through 51 featured the actual rebellion. Ironically, this does not bother me. I suspect that ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” is basically a romantic drama with a historical backdrop. M.M. Kaye was born in India to a family that had served the British Raj for generations. She spent most of her childhood and early years of marriage in India, which made her a strong authority on the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies of the British Raj. ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” is filled with strong historical facts about Great Britain during the first five decades in the 19th century, the East India Company, the Anglo-Indian and Indian cultures in the 1850s, and the politically charged atmosphere leading up to the Sepoy Rebellion and facts about the rebellion itself. Reading the novel made it easy for me to see why M.M. Kaye had gained such fame as a historical novelist. Along with Susan Howatch, John Jakes, James Michener, I consider among the best historical novelists. Not only is ”SHADOW OF THE MOON”filled with interesting facts about the British Raj in the 1850s, it is a well-written romantic drama about two people who managed to find love despite the obstacles of a loveless marriage and political turmoil. The two main characters – Winter and Alex – are well written characters that managed to avoid the usually clichés found in many inferior romantic paperback novels. Well . . . Winter and Alex’s characterizations managed to avoid most of the clichés. There are a few clichés about them that seem very familiar: *Winter’s age spans between 17 and 19 in most of the novel. Most heroines of historical tend to be between the ages of 16 and 17. *The age span between Winter and Alex is 13 years – which is typical for the heroine and hero of most historical romances. *The heroine, Winter, spends most of the novel stuck in an unhappy marriage with a much older man. Despite these minor clichés, Winter and Alex turned out to be two very interesting and well-rounded characters. Surprisingly, I can say the same of the supporting characters, whether they be British or Indian. A few characters stood out for men – notably Alex’s cynical Indian orderly Niaz; a sharp tongued British socialite named Louisa “Lou” Cottar; an intelligent and intensely political Indian nobleman who becomes a dangerous enemy of the British Raj by the name of Kishan Prisad; Lord Carylon, an arrogant and temperamental English aristocrat with a strong desire for Winter; and the latter’s corrupt and narrow-minded husband, who lacks a talent for political administration. Aside from a few clichés that are a part of Winter and Alex’s characterizations, I have a few other quibbles regarding the novel . . . or Kaye’s writing style. First of all, she had a tendency to describe a historical event or character in a slightly grandiose manner. One example featured the death of a famous military figure named John Nicholson. Kaye also had a bad habit of announcing an important sequence before it unveiled . . . taking away any moment of surprise for the reader. This was apparent in the following passage: ”Two more days to go,” thought Alex that night, leaning against the wall and watching a quadrille danced at the Queen’s Birthday Ball. But there were no more days. Only hours. In the following chapter, Winter, Alex and a host of other characters experience firsthand, the horror of the rebellion in Lunjore. I would have preferred if the beginning of the Lunjore rebellion had taken me by surprise. Despite Kaye’s occasional forays into over-the-top prose, she created a sweeping and detailed novel filled with romance, adventure, historical accuracy and well-written characters. Although ”THE FAR PAVILLIONS” is considered her masterpiece, I must admit that ”SHADOW OF THE MOON” remains my favorite novel she has ever written.

“MAD MEN” Season Two Quibbles

Within a few months, I managed to become a big fan of the AMC series, ”MAD MEN”. I became a fan so fast this past summer that after watching two episodes of Season Two, I purchased a copy of the DVD set for Season One. And fell deeper in love. As for Season Two, I thought it was excellent. In fact, I consider it a slight improvement over Season One. But . . . I do have some quibbles about it: 

“MAD MEN” Season Two Quibbles

1. Duck Phillips – I had once complained on the “Basket of Kisses” site that by the end of Season 2, Duck Phillips (portrayed by the superb Mark Moses) seemed to resemble a minor villain that Don Draper had to defeat. Someone responded that Matt Weiner never intended to portray Duck Phillips as some kind of villain. After reading two interviews that Weiner had given, I now see that I had been right to accuse him of such a thing in the first place. How disappointing.

2. Don’s Approval For Pete – Why did Pete Campbell need Don Draper’s approval? What on earth for? Pete is a grown man in his late 20s. His existence at Sterling Cooper should have meant more to him than acquiring the approval of someone as flawed as Don. He did not need Don’s approval. He did not need anyone’s approval to exist. And the fact that he gave up a promotion to snitch on Duck – all for Don’s approval – makes me realize that Pete has not matured one bit.

3. Bobbie Barrett – Matt Weiner’s comments about Bobbie Barrett made me realize a few things about the show’s fans. Judging from the comments I have read about Bobbie over the past few months, I get this feeling that most fans viewed Bobbie’s sexual desires and aggressive personality in the same manner that Joan’s fiancé, Greg, had viewed Joan’s sexual history. And since these fans certainly could not drag Bobbie to the floor and rape her, they resorted to calling her every bad name in the book and then some.

After 49 years, our society has barely changed. It seems as if even in the early 21st century, we have maintained a whore/Madonna complex about women. Even Weiner labeled Bobbie as ”that woman” in his interviews about Season Two. He also claimed that it had been wrong for Don to sleep with Bobbie. I do not understand this comment. What was Weiner trying to say? That it was it wrong for Don to have sex with Bobbie and not wrong for him to cuckold Betty with women like Rachel Menken, Midge Daniels and Joy?

4. Paul Kinsey and Sheila White – What on earth happened to the storyline featuring Paul Kinsey’s romance with Sheila White? The season’s second episode – (2.02) “Flight 1” – reveals that Paul is involved in a romance with an African-American woman named Sheila White. This revelation causes a rupture in Paul’s friendship with Joan Holloway, when the latter makes racist comments about the romance. Two episodes later, the romance is hinted again when a visiting Sally Draper finds a photo of Sheila on Paul’s desk. In the episode (2.10) “The Inheritance”, Sheila makes another appearance on the show. She and Paul have a fight over his reluctance to join her in Mississippi for a voter’s registration campaign. He eventually joined her after being pushed out of a trip to California by Don Draper. When Paul returned to New York in (2.13) “Mediations in an Emergency”, Paul informed his co-workers that Sheila had dumped him after three days.

All I can say is this – WHAT IN THE HELL HAPPENED? What led Sheila to finally dump Paul? Unfortunately, Weiner never revealed her reason. He simply ended the romance on a vague note. What makes this move even more annoying to me is the fact that many fans did not question the vague manner in which the romance ended. Instead, they crowed that Sheila had dumped Paul because of his pretentiousness.

One aspect of good cinematic storytelling is that one should ”show” what happened and not tell. Weiner ”told” the viewers what happened to Paul and Sheila . . . and he failed to tell the entire story. This makes me wonder if Weiner had decided not to continue exploring Paul’s relationship with Sheila in order to please the fans. If most of them had defended or made excuses over Joan’s racist comments about the pair’s romance, it really is not that hard for me to come up with this possibility.

5. Peggy Olson’s Meteoric Rise – Could someone please explain how a young woman between the ages of 20-22 or 23, managed to rise from a secretarial school graduate/secretary to the senior copywriter for Sterling Cooper in less than two years? I realize that Peggy was a natural talent in the advertising business. Both Freddie Rumsen and Don Draper recognized this. And I had no problem with Don promoting her to junior copywriter in the Season One finale – (1.13) ”TheWheel”. But what on earth made him promote her to senior copywriter around the end of Season Two’s (2.09) “Six Months Leave”?

One, Don was rather peeved that Peggy had failed to inform him about Freddie Rumsen’s drunken “accident”. And two, there were other copywriters at Sterling Cooper who were capable of assuming Freddie’s position as the senior copywriter. Who? Well, there was Paul Kinsey. I realize that Paul’s pretentiousness and romance with Sheila White made him unpopular with many fans. But Season Two also proved in the episode, (2.06) “Maidenform” that he was just as talented as Peggy. He also has more experience than her, which would have made him the perfect candidate to replace Freddie. Personally, I believe that Don had allowed his mentoring of Peggy to get the best of him and promoted her at a time when she did not really deserve it.

* * * *

Aside from the above quibbles, I thought that Season Two of ”MAD MEN” was excellent. I would go as far to say that it was actually an improvement over Season One and remained better than Season Three.  Not surprisingly, it earned an Emmy nomination for Best Drama that season . . . and won.

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review
Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS.

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who foundd themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR” screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Four “Replacements” CommentaryIn the last episode, ”Carentan”, yet-to-be-announced First Sergeant Carwood Lipton announced to Normandy veterans Easy Company that they would be returning to France. Instead, a conversation between Sergeant Bill Guarnere and a group of replacements reveal that Easy Company never did. Eventually Easy Company did return to the Continent when they were deployed to the Netherlands to participate in the doomed Operation Market Garden campaign. ”Replacements” centered on Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman and his experiences during Operation Market Garden and with the replacements in his platoon. One of them included Edward “Babe” Heffron, who hailed from the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Guarnere (this was established at the end of Carentan”). The other three include Antonio Garcia, James Miller and Lester “Leo” Hashey. Through both his and their eyes, viewers get to experience Easy Company’s trouble-free jump into Holland, the Dutch citizens’ joyous reaction to their presence in Eindhoven and their disastrous encounter with battle-hardened S.S. troops – one of many encounters that led to the failure of Operation Market Garden. Following Easy Company’s retreat from Eindhoven, a wounded “Bull” Randleman finds himself trapped in the German-occupied town and is forced to find his way back to Easy Company and the American lines.

”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode, but it was one that did not knock my socks off. It featured a terrifying battle in which Easy Company was forced to retreat in defeat. And it also gave viewers an interesting view in the mindsets of replacement troops like Garcia, Miller and Hashey; who seemed to regard Randleman and the other Toccoa trained men with awe. In scenes that featured Easy Company’s brief liberation of Eindhoven, the episode revealed the cruel fates inflicted by the Dutch citizens upon local women who had collaborated (had sex) with some of the occupying German troops. And viewers got to enjoy more scenes featuring some of the men engaging in small talk that revealed more of their personalities. The episode also had interesting scenes that featured Lewis Nixon’s brief brush with death (a bullet in his helmet) and Winters’ reaction, Easy Company’s brief reunion with Herbert Sobel, who had become a supply officer; and David Webster, Don Hoobler and Robert Van Klinken’s humorous encounter with a Dutch farmer and his son. However, ”Replacements” belonged to one particular character, namely Denver “Bull” Randleman. Screenwriters Graham Yost and Bruce C. McKenna did a solid job in both his characterization and the Holland experiences of the Arkansas-born sergeant. One of the episode’s more harrowing scenes featured a violent encounter between a wounded Randleman and a German soldier inside a barn, while the owner – a Dutch farmer – and his daughter look on.

But Randleman’s experiences during Operation Market Garden would have never been that effective without Michael Cudlitz’s subtle performance as the quiet and imposing Randleman. With very little dialogue, Cudlitz conveyed the veteran’s battle experiences and emotions through body language, facial expressions and the use of his eyes. He made it easy for me to see why the troopers of First Platoon and even the company’s officers held with such high regard. Cutdliz was ably supported by the likes of Dexter Fletcher’s sardonic portrayal of First Platoon’s other NCO, John Martin; Frank John Hughes’ amusing performance as the verbose Bill Guarnere; and Peter McCabe, who turned out to be one of the few British actors who perfectly captured the accent and speech patterns of an American combatant in his portrayal of the aggressive Donald Hoobler. Also, it was nice to see David Schwimmer again as Easy Company’s much reviled former commander, Herbert Sobel in a more subtle performance. Portraying the inexperienced replacement troops were James McAvoy (James Miller), Douglas Spain (Antonio C. Garcia) and Mark Huberman (Lester “Leo” Hashey). And each actor did a solid job in portraying their characters’ inexperience, awe of the veteran Toccoa men and their determination to prove themselves in combat.

However, ”Replacements” had its problems. One, the opening scene at the English pub featured Walter Gordon revealing Carwood Lipton as the company’s new first sergeant. And this moment really seemed out of place, considering that Lipton was already acting like the new first sergeant at the end of ”Carentan”. Aside from the battle scene, I must admit that this was not an exciting episode. Like ”Day of Days”, it featured a major historical event – in this case, Operation Market Garden – that had exciting moments, but lacked an epic quality that would have suited such a topic. Allowing the episode a longer running time would have been a step in the right direction. And if I must be honest, I got the feeling that not much really happened in this episode, in compare to ”Day of Days”.

But, ”Replacements” turned out to be a decent episode. Although it lacked an epic quality for a story about Easy Company’s experiences during Operation Market Garden, it did feature an exciting battle that resulted in defeat for them. And Michael Cutdliz gave a subtle and first-class performance as the episode’s central character, “Bull” Randleman.