“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008)  Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2003 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – ”COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick.

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony.

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. I understand that the movie has received at least five (5) Golden Globe nominations and is a shoe-in for Academy Award nominations as well. I cannot honestly say whether it deserves these accolades or not. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I have seen in 2008.

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

When I had first learned that ”VALKYRIE”, a movie about the final assassination attempt upon Adolf Hitler, would be released on Christmas Day . . . I was surprised. Honestly. And my response had nothing to do any opinion I have about the film. Let me explain. 

One has to understand that ”VALKYRIE” had gone through a great deal of turmoil to get made. Whatever problems the movie’s production had encountered, its biggest obstacle turned out to be the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role of Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the architect of this last assassination attempt that occurred on July 20, 1944. Many German politicians had protested against the idea of a practicing Scientologist like Cruise portraying someone who has become regarded as a hero for his opposition against Hitler. Even members of von Stauffenberg’s family had joined in the protest. The filmmakers of ”VALKYRIE” initially had difficulty setting up filming locations in Germany due to the controversy, but they were later given leeway to film in locations pertaining to the film’s story, such as Berlin’s historicBendlerblock. Also, Cruise’s popularity with the American public has sunk over the past three years. Considering that many of the negative comments about the actor seemed to have stemmed from his Scientology beliefs, it seemed to me that religious bigotry had played a large role in the hard feelings against him.

Early in 2008, MGM/United Artists released trailers of ”VALKYRIE”. Personally, I found them impressive and I was happy to learn that the movie was scheduled June 2008 theater release. But due to the poor response to the trailers and MGM/United Artists’s initial marketing campaign, the studio executives moved the movie’s release date from June 2008 to February 2009. I was surprised to learn that ”VALKYRIE” had another black mark against it – namely director Bryan Singer. He had built a reputation as a first-rate director with movies such as ”THE USUAL SUSPECTS” and the first two films from the ”X-MEN” franchise. Unfortunately, his reputation hit a snag when the release of the over-budgeted”SUPERMAN RETURNS” failed to impress the critics and make a profit for the studio that released it. I figured that MGM/United Artists was simply going to allow ”VALKYRIE” languish in the theaters during the off season following Christmas, never to be heard of until its DVD release. Thankfully, MGM/United Artists proved me wrong. A few months ago, the studio executives announced that ”VALKYRIE” would be released on Christmas Day for the movies holiday season. When the film was finally released, I rushed out to see it as soon as I possibly could.

As I had earlier stated, ”VALKYRIE” told the story of the July 20, 1944 plot by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Ever since the years before World War II, there had been a growing number of dissidents that viewed Hitler as the wrong man to be Germany’s leader. This opposition; which included German officers like Ludwig Beck, Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg; led to a series of assassination attempts on Hitler – including one plotted by von Tresckow in March 1943. By September 1943, one of the dissidents, General Friedrich Olbricht, recruited Lieutenant-Colonel von Stauffenberg into their ranks. It was his plan – code name ”Valkyrie” – that led to the last attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg. The cast also includes Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Parker, Eddie Izzard, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Kevin McNally, Thomas Kretschmann and Tom Wilkinson. Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander wrote the screenplay.

I might as well get around to it and reveal my opinion of ”VALKYRIE”. In a nutshell . . . I loved it. Which surprised me a great deal. I had expected to like ”VALKYRIE”, considering the cast, the director and the subject matter. Or at least find it interesting. I had no idea that I would end up experiencing a gauntlet of emotions while watching it. Mere curiosity was the only emotion I had felt while the movie introduced the main characters and revealed the incidents that led to von Stauffenberg’s decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. By the time the movie focused upon the assassination attempt and the coup against the S.S., I felt myself growing tense with anxiety and anticipation. By the time the conspirators’ plot began to unravel, the tension I felt had been replaced by dread. And when von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were being captured and executed, I watched the scenes unfold with tears in my eyes. Curious.

The excellent performances by the cast happened to be one of the reasons why ”VALKYRIE” struck such an emotional chord within me. This is one of the reasons why I like Bryan Singer as a director. He knows how to utilize his cast – whether each performer has a major role or not. And Singer made the best of what proved to be a first-rate cast. I could go into details about every actor or actress in the cast, but I must admit that a handful managed to catch my attention. One member of the cast turned out to be Thomas Kretschmann, who portrayed Major Otto Ernst Remer, head of a Reserve Army battalion. The actor’s sardonic portrayal of Remer amused me to no end. Tom Wilkinson gave a top-notch performance as General Friedrich Fromm, head of Germany’s Reserve Army in Berlin. Wilkinson did an excellent job of portraying the treacherous general with a slight touch of sympathy. Another actor that caught my attention was Jamie Parker. He portrayed Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, an adjutant to von Stauffenberg who helped the latter carry out the plot. Parker did a great job in portraying von Haeften’s intense loyalty to von Stauffenberg. In fact, he and Cruise managed to create a strong screen chemistry together. Terence Stamp was excellent as the reserved, yet strong-willed Ludwig Beck, a former Army general whose opposition against Hitler began in the late 1930s and served as the conspirators’ figurehead. Bill Nighy portrayed General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office (Wehrersatzamt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the original architect of the plan, Operation Valkyrie. It was Olbricht who had recruited von Stauffenberg into the conspiracy. For the past five to six years, I have always regarded Nighy as some kind of chameleon. And with his performance, he did an excellent job of revealing at both the vacillating and stalwart sides of Olbricht’s nature.

But the true focus of ”VALKYRIE” was Claus von Stauffenberg and it was Tom Cruise’s job to make this man believable to the audience. Some critics have complained that Cruise had failed to capture the essence of von Stauffenberg’s character as an aristocrat. Many of them blamed this on the actor’s American accent. Personally, I find this criticism to be a load of crap. After all, the 1988 version of ”DANGEROUS LIAISONS” featured American actors portraying French aristocrats . . . with American accents. And I do not recall any complaints about their performances. I especially find the criticisms against Cruise ludicrous, considering that most of the cast featured British actors – using accents from all over the British Isles. What was my view of Cruise’s performance as Claus von Stauffenberg? I thought he was excellent. His portrayal of the German Army officer was that of a hero – and a very stalwart one at that. On the other hand, Cruise also did a first-rate job of capturing von Stauffenberg’s arrogance – a trait that was probably a by-product of his aristocratic background. This trait also managed to get the officer into a great deal of trouble even before his participation in the assassination attempt. But . . . most of the critics were too busy being distracted by Cruise’s American accent, while paying scant attention to the British accents of many of the other accents. Go figure.

Anyone familiar with Claus von Stauffenberg or the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler would have known the outcome of the movie’s story. I certainly did. But despite my knowledge of the outcome, I found myself being caught up in the suspense of the story, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. I had assumed that most of the story would center on the conspirators’ plotting and set up of the assassination attempt. I had no idea there was more to the story surrounding the incident – namely the coup perpetrated by von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators against Hitler and the S.S. Nor did I have any idea that knowing how the story would end, I would find myself rooting . . . hoping that the conspirators would succeed in their plans. Or escape Hitler’s wrath. The only hiccup in the movie – at least for me – was the introduction of Major General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) into the story. I found it confusing. Was he already part of the conspiracy when von Stauffenberg first approached? Or what? For me, it was only misstep in an otherwise superb script.

With a first-rate cast led by Tom Cruise, along with Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s script, Bryan Singer directed an exciting and suspenseful tale that managed to tap into a great deal of emotions for me. From my personal view, I believe that ”VALKYRIE” is one of the better movies of 2008.

Misunderstanding Willie Scott

“MISUNDERSTANDING WILLIE SCOTT”

One of the special feature clips from my “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” DVD featured a take on the characters featured in the Indiana Jones franchise – love interests, villains and side kicks. When “Indy’s Friends and Enemies” focused on Indy’s love interests, the subject eventually came upon the leading lady of “TEMPLE OF DOOM” – Willie Scott. 

Now, I am aware that poor Willie has never been popular with the majority of Indiana Jones fans. She is probably the least popular of Indy’s three love interests in the films. I just want to make it clear that I do not share this opinion of Willie. I have liked her since I first saw “TEMPLE OF DOOM” twenty-four years ago. But while watching this special feature about the franchise’s characters, it occurred to me that not only was Willie universally disliked, there was a possibility that she was misunderstood as well.

In “Indy’s Friends and Enemies”, the franchise’s director, Steven Spielberg, made a monumentally stupid and misguided comment about Willie Scott. He had described Willie as a showgirl who also happened to come from a rich and privileged background. In other words, Willie was a showgirl who was originally a rich and spoiled woman who was not used to the great outdoors. Either Spielberg was suffering from senility when he did this interview, or he had never really paid much attention to the character’s background.

During their journey to Pankot Palace, Willie revealed to Indy and Short Round that he grandfather had been a magician who died a poor man. Near the end of the film, she made it clear that she came from Missouri:

“I’m going home to Missouri, where they never ever feed you snake before ripping your heart out and lowering you into hot pits. This is not my idea of a swell time!”

And according to the novelization for ”THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”, Willie Scott had been born on a farm in Missouri. She had ambitions to become a success in Hollywood. Unable to get a break in Depression-era Hollywood, she made her way to Shanghai, where she became a nightclub singer. Considering that she had been born on a farm, one would assume that she was used to the outdoors. However, it seemed apparent to me that a life on a dirt farm was not for her and she wanted the finer things in life – including a successful career as an entertainer of sorts.

I do not think that Willie was not used to being pampered. I suspect that she WANTED a life of privilege. She wanted to be pampered. And Willie was prepared to latch herself to anyone able to give her that life. Which would explain her becoming the mistress of the rich Shanghai gangster, Lao Che . . . or her interest in the Maharajah of Pankot before learning that he was a child.

Willie Scott was not what Steven Spielberg had described her – a spoiled, rich woman used to a life of privilege. She was a woman from a poor background who wanted a better life for herself . . . at almost any cost. Willie was a gold digger, plain and simple. How this managed to escape Spielberg is beyond me.

“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

 

“FROST/NIXON” (2008) Review

Beginning on March 23, 1977, British journalist David Frost conducted a series of twelve (12) interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, in which the former commander-in-chief gave his only public apology for the scandals of his administration. Some 29 years later, Peter Morgan’s play – based upon the interviews – reached the London stage and later, Broadway, with rave reviews. Recently, Ron Howard directed the film adaptation of the play, starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. 

I first became interested in Nixon and the Watergate scandals in my mid-teens, when I came across a series of books that featured columnist Art Buchwald’s humorous articles on the famous political scandal. As I grew older, I became acquainted with other scandals that had plagued the American scandal. But it was Watergate that managed to maintain my interest for so long. Ironically, I have never seen the famous Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in August 1977 – not even on video or DVD. But when I saw the trailer for ”FROST/NIXON”, I knew I had to see this movie. There was one aspect of the trailer that put me off – namely the sight of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. For some reason, the performance – of which I only saw a minor example – seemed rather off to me. However, my family went ahead and saw the film. And I must admit that I am glad that we did. Not only did”FROST/NIXON” seemed only better than I had expected. I ended up being very impressed by Langella’s performance. And Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Frost merely increased my positive view of the film.

Speaking of the cast, ”FROST/NIXON” had the good luck to be blessed with a cast that featured first rate actors. Matthew MacFadyen gave solid support as John Birt, David Frost’s friend and producer for the London Weekend Television. I felt the same about Oliver Platt’s slightly humorous portrayal of one of Frost’s researchers, Bob Zelnick. Rebecca Hall gave a charming, yet not exactly an exciting performance as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing. One of the two supporting performances that really impressed me was Kevin Bacon, who portrayed former Marine officer-turned Nixon aide, Jack Brennan. Bacon managed to convey Brennan’s conservatism and intense loyalty toward the former president without going over-the-top. Another intense performance came from Sam Rockwell, who portrayed another of Frost’s researcher, author James Reston Jr. Rockwell’s performance came as a surprise to me, considering I am more used to seeing him in comedic roles. And I must say that I was very impressed.

But the two characters that drove the movie were Richard M. Nixon and David Frost. Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen first portrayed these roles in the Broadway version of Peter Morgan’s play. If their stage performances were anything like their work on the silver screen, the theatergoers who had first-hand experience of their stage performances must have enjoyed quite a treat. As I had earlier stated, I originally harbored qualms about Frank Langella portraying Richard Nixon. What I did not know was that the man had already won a Tony award for his stage performance of the role. After watching ”FROST/NIXON”, I could see why. Richard Nixon had possessed a personality and set of mannerisms that were easily caricatured. I have never come across an actor who has captured Nixon’s true self with any real accuracy. But I can think of at least three actors who have left their own memorable stamps in their interpretations of the former president – the late Lane Smith, Sir Anthony Hopkins and now, Frank Langella. One of Langella’s most memorable moments featured a telephone call from Nixon to Frost, in which the former attempts to further psyche the journalist and ends up delivering an angry tirade against the wealthy establishment that he had resented, yet kowtowed toward most of his political career. Michael Sheen had the difficult task of portraying a more complicated character in David Frost and delivered in spades. Sheen’s Frost is an ambitious television personality who wants to be known for more than just frothy talk show host. This reputation makes it impossible for Frost to be taken seriously by Nixon, Zelnick and especially the judgmental Reston.

I also have to compliment Peter Morgan for what struck me as a first-rate adaptation of his stage play. Morgan managed to expand or open up a story that depended heavily upon dialogue. The movie could have easily turned into a filmed play. Thankfully, Morgan’s script managed to avoid this pitfall. And so did Ron Howard’s direction. I must admit that Howard did a great job in ensuring that what could have simply been a well-acted, would turn out to be a tightly paced psychological drama. Hell, the interactions between Frost and Nixon seemed more like a game of psychological warfare between two antagonists, instead of a series of interviews of historical value.

I am trying to think of what I did not like about ”FROST/NIXON”. So far, I am hard pressed to think of a flaw. Actually, I have thought of a flaw – namely the usually competent Toby Jones. Considering how impressed I had been of his performances in”INFAMOUS” and ”THE PAINTED VEIL”, it seemed a shame that his Swifty Lazar seemed more like a caricature than a flesh-and-blood individual. Perhaps it was a good thing that his appearance in the film had been short. Also, knowing that Frost had questioned Nixon in a series of twelve interviews, it seemed a shame that the movie only focused upon three of those interviews. Naturally, Howard and Morgan could not have included all twelve interviews for fear of dragging the movie’s running time. However, I still could not help but feel that three interviews were not enough and that the film could have benefited from at least one more interview – one that could have effectively bridged the gap between Frost’s second disastrous interview, until the third that led to his own triumph and Nixon’s rare admission.

”FROST/NIXON” could have easily become dialogue-laden film with no action and a slow pace. But thanks to Ron Howard’s direction, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his play and the superb performances of the two leads – Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, the movie struck me as a fascinating character piece about two very different men who had met during the spring of 1977 for a historical series of interviews that seemed to resemble more of a game of psychological warfare.

“THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” (1965) Review

“THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” (1965) Review

Many comedies featuring a long running time and a cast of celebrities were very prevalent in Hollywood and Europe during the 1960s. One of the more famous of these films happened to be the epic 1965 comedy titled ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. Directed and co-written by Ken Annakin, this two hour and eighteen minutes film depicted an comedic air race between London and Paris in 1910.

Director Annakin first came up with the idea of a pre-World War I air race while co-directing Darryl Zanuck’s World War II epic, ”THE LONGEST DAY” (1962). He pitched the idea to the producer and the latter agreed to bankroll the film. Zanuck also came up with the movie’s title, after Elmo Williams, managing director of 20th Century Fox in Europe, told the producer that his wife had written an opening lyric to the movie’s song:

Those magnificent men in their flying machines,
They go up diddley up-up, they go down diddley down-down!

Annakin complained would eventually “seal the fate of the movie”. However, after being put to music by composer Ron Goodwin, the ”Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” song would become the “irresistible” jingle-style theme music for the film and go on to have a “life of its own”, even released in singles and on the soundtrack record. I can relate. To this day, I still consider the tune one of the best theme songs in movie history.

Annakin, along with Jack Davies, wrote a story that opened with a brief, comic introductory segment on the history of flight, narrated by James Robertson Justice and featuring American comedian Red Skelton (in a cameo appearance) that depicted a recurring character whose aerial adventures span the centuries, in a series of silent blackout vignettes that incorporate actual stock footage of unsuccessful attempts at early aircraft. As the story unfolded, Lord Rawnsley (Robert Morley), a newspaper magnate whose favorite to win his race is his daughter’s fiancé, Richard Mays (James Fox). Lord Rawnsley summed up the expectation that a Britisher should win the competition: “The trouble with these international affairs is they attract foreigners.” An international cast plays the array of contestants, most of whom live up to their national stereotypes, including the fanatically by-the-book, monocle-wearing Prussian officer (Gert Fröbe), the impetuous Count Emilio Ponticelli (Alberto Sordi), an amorous Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Cassel) , and the rugged American cowboy Orville Newton (Stuart Whitman), who falls for Lord Rawnsley’s daughter, Patricia (Sarah Miles).

The main entertainment came from the amusing dialogue and characterizations and the daring aerial stunts, with a dash of heroism and gentlemanly conduct thrown in for good measure. Terry-Thomas portrayed the cheating Sir Percival Ware-Armitage, an aristocratic rogue who “never leaves anything to chance”. With the help of his bullied servant Courtney (Eric Sykes), he sabotaged other aircraft or drugs their pilots – only to get his comeuppance in the end. The film is also notable for its use of specially constructed reproductions of 1910-era aircraft, including a triplane, as well as monoplanes and biplanes. Air Commodore Wheeler insisted on using the authentic materials of the originals, but with modern engines and modifications (where necessary) to ensure safety.

In the end, ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” became one of the most successful ”epic comedies” to emerge from the 1960s. Not only did it score top notches at the box office, it was also nominated and received various movie awards in both the U.S. and Great Britain. The original screenplay written by Ken Annakin and Jack Davies was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing Directly for the Screen (1966). The film was also nominated in the category of Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written. At the 1966 Golden Globes, the film won Best Motion Picture Actor – Musical/Comedy for Alberto Sordi, as well as being nominated in Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer – Male for James Fox.

I can say with true honesty that ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” has become one of my favorite movies from the 1960s. Ken Annakin and his production crew had created a stylish and funny movie. The movie was filled with memorable characters like Terry-Thomas’ dastardly Sir Percival Ware-Armitage, Alberto Sordi’s eager aviator Count Emilio Ponticelli and Gert Fröbe’s by-the-book Prussian Colonel Manfred von Holstein. One very witty moment featured the arrival of the Japanese pilot, Yamamoto (Yujiro Ishihara), whose description of his journey from Japan to Great Britain turned out to be less exciting than a reporter had assumed.

Thomas N. Morahan’s production design and Osbert Lancaster’s costumes managed to evoke the bygone era of Europe and especially Great Britain during the last years before the outbreak of World War II. Christopher Challis’ photography and the Special Effects department led by Ron Ballinger did a great job in re-creating the actual air race shown during the last third of the film. Two of my favorite scenes featured the contestants leaving Dover to cross the English Channel and the race’s exciting finale in Paris. I also enjoyed the pre-race interlude at Dover in which the contestants and their families/companions spend a few hours frolicking in the sea and sipping champagne.

Not all seemed perfect with ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. One tiresome aspect of the film included the running joke featuring Pierre Dubois’ (Jean-Pierre Cassel) encounters with six women of different nationalities that all look alike and are portrayed by Irina Demick. I found it slightly amusing when Dubois encountered two of the women. By the time of Dubois’ encounter with the fifth Ms. Demick, I found myself screaming for the joke to end. Romance did not fare very well in the movie. Granted, James Fox’s Mays and Sarah Miles’ Patricia made a quaint couple. But Whitman’s arrival as Orville Newton, Mays’ rival in the race and for Patricia’s hand, did not improve matters. The problem was that Whitman and Miles made a poor screen team. According to Annakin, the two actors had a falling out after Whitman attempted to romantically pursue Miles and the two ended up disliking each other so much, they had trouble portraying a romance between Orville and Patricia. Mind you, Whitman and Miles had a few scenes that did generate chemistry. I suspect those scenes had been filmed before the fallout.

I must admit that ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” can boast some hilarious moments and dry wit. But most of the humor seemed focused upon the Keystone Cops antics of the aviators during the days leading up to the race and the race itself. Most of the film’s humor featured bizarre plane crashes, hackneyed stunts and cliché portrayals of the various nationalities featured in the film. I rather liked the comedian Benny Hill . . . but not in this movie. In ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN”, he portrayed a fire chief, whose job was to keep an eye out for aviation accidents. And whenever a crash occurred, it gave Hill and his cronies the opportunity to engage in an extreme form of slapstick humor that forced me to press the Fast Forward button of my DVD player . . . every damn time. But if there is one aspect of the movie I find frustrating, it is the fact that”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINE” is a two hour and eighteen minute film about an air race . . . that does not occur on screen until the last 45-47 minutes. The movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes focused upon the characters’ introduction. But most of the movie’s action does not focus upon the race. Instead, it focused upon the few days before the race in which one has to endure practice flights that include countless crashes and slapstick humor. And every time I watch this film, I find this aspect so . . . damn . . . FRUSTRATING.

Technically, ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” is a first-rate film. Although I found some of the dry humor to be rather sharp and entertaining, the slapstick humor that dominated the film became very hard for me to bear. I am also not thrilled that only one-third of the film had focused upon the actual race. But I have to give the movie points for the creation of interesting characters like Sir Percy Ware-Armitage and Count Emilio Ponticelli, along with a memorable and catchy theme song. And I must give Annakin and his production crew credit for re-creating a charming look at the elegance of pre-World War I Europe. Overall, ”THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES” has remained a fun and entertaining look at the early days of aviation that moviegoers today might still enjoy.

A Few Observations of “MAD MEN”: (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”

After viewing the latest episode of ”MAD MEN” called (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”, I came up with the following episodes: 

A Few Observations of “MAD MEN”: (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”

*I think that from the moment Lee Garner Jr. tried and failed to seduce Sal Romano, the latter was screwed no matter what. Even if Harry Crane had immediately informed Roger or Don about Garner’s demand; or if Sal had acted professionally and told not only Don, but Roger on what happened, he was screwed. The client came first. Especially clients like Lee Garner and Conrad Hilton, who were too powerful to ignore. As I recall that back in Season One, even Don had to apologize to Rachel Menken for his outburst, despite the fact that she had yet to become an official client.

*I have read a few posts on Betty’s aborted affair with Henry Francis. I find it interesting that so many are disappointed that she did not go ahead with the affair. In fact, they have harshly criticized her for not going through with the affair . . . which I found rather odd. Even more interesting is that some of the fans are demanding to know what she really wanted. Henry also seemed to be wondering. Judging from her disappointment with her marriage to Don and the realization that Henry simple wants an affair, I am beginning to suspect that what Betty really wants is a meaningful relationship with someone. She wants a meaningful relationship with someone. That would explain the letters she exchanged with Henry, her anger at Don for keeping her in the dark about his contract problems, and her tears following the dinner with the Barretts in “The Benefactor”. And when she visited Henry’s office, she realized that she was not going to receive one from him, anymore than she was ever going to receive one from Don.

*Despite Betty’s remark about civil rights, Carla is one lucky woman. She could have easily found herself in the same situation as Sal ended up by the episode’s end. All Betty had to do was fire her and lie to Don about her reasons for firing Carla. Unless she feared that Carla would retaliate by telling Don about Betty’s meeting with Henry Francis. That is the only reason I could find why Carla remained employed.

*I also find it interesting that criticisms are being lobbied at Betty for her remark about the Civil Rights Movement. I found it interesting and a little hypocritical. One, of course Betty would make such a remark. She is a white female from a privileged background. And she is also a conservative, although a moderate one. She had called Carla ”girl” when referring to the latter during a phone call with Henry. What did these fans expect? Yet, many fans made excuse after excuse for Joan’s unnecessary and racist remarks to Sheila White back in Season Two.

*Is it just me or did Peggy look slightly smug after Connie Hilton made it clear that he disapproved of Don’s presentation? Mind you, I was not that impressed by it, either. It seemed a bit too simple and infantile to me. And it failed to invoke the glamour of travel, while maintaining the message of American values. At least to me.

*How many times has Don assumed an aggressive stand when a client fails to be impressed by his work? Why does he do this? Is this Don’s way of intimidating a client into accepting his work? I can recall him pulling this stunt with Rachel Menken, which angered her in the process. He also pulled this stunt with the client from Belle Jolie and succeeded. Then he tried it with Conrad Hilton and failed. Again, the fans’ reaction to this latest incident seemed to be anger toward Hilton. I found myself feeling slightly sympathetic toward him. After all, he is the client. If he did not like Don’s presentation, he did not like it. Don’s slight temper tantrum seemed a bit uncalled for.

*Pete hacking up a storm after taking a puff on a Lucky Strikes cigarette struck me as hysterical. So did the scene in which Betty threw the money box at Henry.

*Is Roger still a force at Sterling Cooper? Judging from the scenes in this episode, he seemed to be. But considering how the British regard him, I wonder how long this will last.

*Don and Suzanne. I failed to see the chemistry. In fact, Miss Farrell seemed like a second-rate version of Rachel Mencken, but with a less stable personality. I realize that Don also wants a meaningful relationship in his life . . . but Suzanne Farrell? I think he could have done better than her. Especially someone who had recently been his daughter’s teacher. What makes Don’s affair with Suzanne even more troubling is that he is using her as some kind of drug. He had suffered rejection from a man he was beginning to view as a parent figure and he turned to Suzanne for comfort. Unfortunately, I suspect that Suzanne might view him as something more . . . and both will end up encountering an unpleasant surprise.

*This episode also spelled the end of Sal Romano on ”MAD MEN”.   So far.  Joan Harris née Holloway returned to Sterling Cooper. But will Sal ever return? Or is he never destined to return to the series, even as a recurring guest character like Duck Phillips?

“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

I might as well say it. I have never been a fan of director Baz Luhrmann’s films. ”STRICTLY BALLROOM” (1992) had failed to generate my interest. I could say the same about the 1996 version of ”ROMEO AND JULIET” As for ”MOULIN ROUGE” (2001), I loathe the highly acclaimed film. Considering my views on Luhrmann’s past films, I had no desire to see his latest endeavor – namely ”AUSTRALIA”, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. 

”AUSTRALIA” struck me as a character study of its three main characters – Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who inherits her late husband’s cattle station (Kidman); her Drover (Jackman); and Nullah (Brandon Walters), the mixed blood child of Lady Ashley’s Aborigine maid and a white man. Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Richard Flanagan and Ronald Harwood, this three-way character study focuses upon Lady Ashley’s attempts to maintain her fortune and cattle station, and keep her newly formed family together that includes Nullah and the Drover. Threatening Lady Ashley’s plans are a greedy cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), Australia’s ”Stolen Generation” policy regarding mixed blood children, World War II, the Drover’s emotional cowardice, the villainous machinations of a station manager named Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and her own possessive nature. All of this is set against the epic backdrop of Australia’s Northern Territory between 1939 and 1942. The story reaches its apex in the Japanese bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942.

If I must be frank, ”AUSTRALIA” is not the type of film I could see earning nominations for any major movie awards. Except for one possible category. It is not perfect film. Let me rephrase that. ”AUSTRALIA” struck me as the type of popcorn epic that would be more appreciated during the summer season. Personally, I would compare it to Michael Bay’s 2001 film, ”PEARL HARBOR”. Only the latter struck me as slightly superior. Thanks to Luhrmann’s direction and the screenplay he co-wrote with Beattie, Flanagan and Harwood, ”AUSTRALIA” had the bad luck to be marred by overblown melodrama that had seen its heyday in television soap operas like ”DYNASTY”. This seemed very apparent in the film’s last act that followed the Darwin bombing. Obstacle after contrived obstacle popped up endlessly to prevent Sarah Ashley, the Drover and Nullah from enjoying a tearful reunion.

Another aspect of the film that annoyed me was its first twenty minutes that introduced the main characters. Quite frankly, those early scenes baffled me. What exactly was Luhrmann trying to achieve? I found myself watching a badly acted spoof on costume epics or Australian culture with exaggerated performances by Kidman, Jackman and Jack Thompson, who portrayed Lady Ashley’s alcoholic accountant, Kipling Flynn. Speaking of Thompson, the poor man seemed truly wasted in this film. He only hung around long enough to give an over-the-top portrayal of a drunken man who ends up being killed by stampeding cattle. And all of this happened before the first hour.

Judging from the above, one would assume that I disliked ”AUSTRALIA”. Heartily. Guess what? I don’t. In fact, I found myself becoming a fan of the movie by the time the end credits rolled. How was that possible? Well, once Luhrmann’s tale rolled past that . . . bizarre first twenty minutes, it actually improved. To my utter surprise, I found myself getting caught up in Lady Ashley’s horror at the discovery of her husband’s murder, her growing affection for Nullah and the other hands on Faraway Downs, her new cattle station and her growing attraction toward the Drover. The movie’s first main action piece centered around Lady Ashley’s attempt to save her station with a cattle drive to Darwin. Not only does she develop a close relationship with Nullah, but falls in love with the Drover. And she also earns a strong enemy . . . not King Carney, the cattle baron who is determined to monopolize the cattle industry in the Northern Territory, but her husband’s former station manager who not only works for Carney, but longs to take possession of Faraway Downs for himself.

One of the amazing aspects about ”AUSTRALIA” is that the movie managed to provide an entertaining romance between two interesting, yet flawed people. Despite their hokey acting in the film’s opening sequences, Kidman and Jackman did a solid job in creating chemistry between Lady Ashley and the Drover – two people who seemingly had no business in becoming a couple. Kidman eventually portrayed Lady Ashley as a warm and passionate woman who was afraid to let go of those she loved. This Lady Ashley was a far cry from the ridiculously shrill woman that first arrived in Australia. And Jackman transformed the Drover from the blustery and macho Australian male archetype into a caring man who was also afraid to become emotional close to anyone. David Ngoombujarra gave solid support as the Drover’s close friend and colleague, Magarri. Well known actor-dancer David Gulpilil was very imposing and unforgettable as King George, a magic tribal leader suspected of killing Lady Ashley’s husband. And veteran actor Bryan Brown was very entertaining as the charismatic cattle baron, King Carney. Surprisingly, Brown’s character did not end up as the movie’s main antagonist. That task fell upon David Wenham, who portrayed Neil Fletcher, Lady Ashley’s station manager and later, business adversary. Recalling Richard Roxburgh’s over-the-top performance as the Duke of Monroth in ”MOULIN ROUGE!”, I had feared that Wenham would utilize the same approach. Thankfully, Wenham’s villainy turned out to be more nuanced and low key. He gave a perfect portrayal of an insecure man who not only harbored a deep resentment toward the more privileged types like Lady Ashley and King Carney, but was too racist to acknowledge his own half-white/half-Aborigine son, Nullah, who also happened to be tribal leader King George’s grandson. But the real star of ”AUSTRALIA” turned out to be the young Aborigine actor, Brandon Walters, who portrayed Nullah. All I can say is – where did Baz Luhrmann find this kid? He was phenomenal! This is the second movie in which Nicole Kidman found herself co-starring with an inexperienced, yet very talented child actor (the first being Dakota Blue Richards of ”THE GOLDEN COMPASS”). Walters, who turned out to be a very charismatic and talented young actor, literally stole the picture from his co-stars. And I suspect that must have been unusual thing to do in a movie that was nearly three hours long. Whether Walters prove to become a future star – only time will tell.

But ”AUSTRALIA” is not just about the characters. Luhrmann did a pretty good job of re-creating Northern Australia during the early years of World War II. And he received able support from people like Production Designer/Costume Designer Catherine Martin (Academy Award winner), Art Directors Ian Gracie and Karen Murphy, Cinematographer Mandy Walker, Special Effects Supervisors Aaron and Brian Cox, and Visual Effects Manager Katrin Arndt. I was especially impressed by Walker’s photography of Sydney, Bowen and Northern Australia locations such as Darwin and Kununurra. She did a beautiful job of capturing the rugged and dangerous cattle drive that dominated the movie’s first half. I also have to commend both her photography and Arndt’s special effects team for the sequence that featured the Japanese bombing of Darwin. My only quibble about the bombing sequence was that it did not last very long. Granted, ”AUSTRALIA” is not”PEARL HARBOR” and its plot did not revolved around the Darwin attack as the latter film revolved around the December 7, 1941 attack in Hawaii. But, I must admit that I had been looking forward to a sequence with a little more depth than was shown.

The Japanese attack upon Darwin was not the only historical topic that dominated ”AUSTRALIA”. The movie also focused upon Australia’s policy toward those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian and State government agencies and church missions between 1869 and 1969. One of the victims of this policy turned out to be Nullah, who is Aboriginal on his mother. The movie featured three chilling scenes that conveyed how this particular policy affected Nullah’s life. The most chilling centered around Nullah and his mother’s attempt to hide from the local police inside Faraway Down’s water tower – an act that leads to his mother’s death by drowning.

I am not surprised that ”AUSTRALIA” was never considered Best Picture material.  It certainly was not even by me. Luhrmann had indulged in a little too much melodrama – especially in the film’s last half hour – to suit me. And I found the movie’s first half hour very confusing. I did not know whether Luhrmann had expected the audience to take it seriously or realize that he was trying to spoof epic movies or Australia in general. Whatever he was trying to achieve, I feel that he had made a piss poor effort. But as I had pointed out earlier, once Kidman’s character arrived at her late husband’s cattle station, the movie found its groove and Luhrmann proceeded to unveil an engrossing, yet entertaining epic tale.