“THE WINDS OF WAR” (1983) Review

“THE WINDS OF WAR” (1983) Review

Nearly forty years ago, author Herman Wouk wrote ”The Winds of War”, a bestselling novel about the experiences of a middle-aged U.S. Navy officer and his family during the early years of World War II. A decade later, ABC Television and producer David Wolper brought his story to the television screen with a seven-part, fourteen-and-a-half hour miniseries that became a ratings hit and a major Emmy and Golden Globe nominee. 

Produced by Dan Curtis and Barbara Steele, and directed by Curtis; ”THE WINDS OF WAR” was a sprawling saga that told the story of Naval officer, Victor “Pug” Henry (Robert Mitchum), his wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen), and his three children – Naval aviator Warren (Ben Murphy), Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), who ended up as an assistant to a radio personality – and their experiences during the six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the first two years of the war, right up to the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Most of the miniseries focused upon Henry’s experiences as a Naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, his role as a confident to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his position at the War Department in Washington D.C. During this time, he experiences Germany’s reaction to the Poland invasion,the Battle of Britain and the early months of the Blitz, the Lend-Lease Program, and the Soviet defense against the German invasion of their country.

However, a good deal of the miniseries also focused upon Byron’s romance with one Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw), the niece of a Jewish author and scholar named Dr. Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) in Italy. Byron and Natalie also experience the German invasion of Poland, after attending a wedding held by her Jastrow cousins in Medzice. Their romance is later hampered by Natalie’s relationship with her former fiancé, a State Department diplomat named Leslie Slote (David Dukes) and her decision to remain in Europe in order to ensure that a very reluctant Aaron will safely get out of Europe.

Two other plotlines featured forbidden romances for both Pug and Rhoda. Pug becomes romantically involved with Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), the daughter of a British journalist and radio personality. However, their romance remains platonic. That did not seemed to be the case for Rhoda’s affair with a widowed government engineer named Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), who will become involved in the first phase of the Manhattan project. By the end of the miniseries, Rhoda will ask Pug for a divorce.

One has to possess a great deal of patience and love of early-to-mid 20th century history to really enjoy ”THE WINDS OF WAR”. This is not my way of saying that it is a terrible production. But it is rather long at fourteen-and-a-half hours. At least four of the episodes are two-and-a-half hours long. And if I must be frank, there are sequences in the miniseries that I found rather ponderous. Sequences that usually featured Pug Henry’s meetings with famous world leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin turned out to be exercises in sheer patience for me. And the sequences featuring the Lend-Lease Program, in which the U.S. government lent warships and planes to Great Britain also struck me as ponderous. I found some of the dialogue wince-inducing, silly, pretentious and long winded, thanks to Herman Wouk’s screenplay. Lesson – never allow an author to write the screen adaptation of his own work.

Many of the characters featured in the miniseries are portrayed by actors that struck me as too old for their roles. I can even say the same about the three leads – Mitchum, McGraw and Vincent. Well . . . almost. Somehow, these three managed to get away with it. The scenes that I found most unbearable featured Hitler’s conferences with his generals. Many of these scenes featured actor Günter Meisner as Hitler, engaging in a good deal of histrionic acting – at least in the miniseries’ first three episodes. Fortunately, he seemed to have found his stride by the fourth episode and portrayed the German chancellor without the usual clichés. Like I said, one needs a great deal of patience to face something like ”WINDS OF WAR”.

But in the end, the miniseries proved to be worth viewing. Despite its flaws, I believe it is one of the better miniseries that have appeared on television during the past forty odd years. The historic scope of the production is wide and magnificent. Director/producer Dan Curtis did a superb job in transporting viewers back to those early years of World War II – between 1939 and 1941, especially with a crew that included cinematographers Charles Correll and Stevan Larner, costume designer Heidi Wujek, matte cameraman Bruce A. Block, and production designer Jackson De Govia. I do have a quibble about Ali McGraw’s wardrobe and hairstyle. It almost seemed as if the actress seemed reluctant to utilize late 30s/early 40s costumes and hairstyles. And this made her look a little too modern for a series set during the early years of World War II.

Curtis and his crew did an excellent job in scouting locations for the miniseries. Being an epic set in the United States and Europe, he had to find locations that stood in for Berlin, Washington D.C., London, Siena and Rome, Moscow, Honolulu, Manila, along with Warsaw and Medzice. I also have to commend Marijan Karoglan for his supervision of the special effects featured in the miniseries – especially in battle sequences that focused upon the invasion of Poland, Pug’s ride aboard a British bomber over Germany, the battle outside Stalingrad, and the attacks upon Pearl Harbor and the Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines.

One of the best things about ”THE WINDS OF WAR” is that despite being somewhat ponderous and long, it did feature some well written and interesting sequences. The best – as far as I am concerned – centered on Byron Henry and Natalie Jastrow getting caught up in the Nazi invasion of Poland near the end of ”Episode 1 – The Winds Rise” and the first half of ”Episode 2 – The Storm Breaks”. What started out as a charming visit to Poland for a family wedding, ended up as a harrowing series of events in which the pair encountered hostile Polish soldiers, aerial bombings in Warsaw, a harrowing journey across the Polish-German battle line, and a tense encounter with a Gestapo officer demanding the names of all Jews in the American party. Another favorite sequence of mine featured Pug’s experiences in Britain, during the Battle of Britain and around the beginning of the Blitz. This segment featured the beginning of his platonic romance with Pamela Tudsbury and a scary ride aboard a British bomber on a mission over Germany. I also enjoyed the segment at the end of ”Episode 3 – Cataclysm” that featured the Henry family and Natalie Jastrow’s reunion for Warren Henry’s wedding to Janice Lacouture (Deborah Winters), the daughter of an isolationist senator in Pensacola. The sequences featuring Byron and Natalie’s wedding in Lisbon, near the end of ”Episode 5 – Of Love and War” and Pug’s reunion with Pamela in the Soviet Union in the last two episodes are also favorites.

Earlier I had commented that the miniseries’ three leads – Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent – seemed rather old for their roles. Mitchum, who was 65 years old at the time, portrayed a Pug Henry in his late 40s. McGraw was 44 years old, when she portrayed the 27-29 years old Natalie Jastrow. And Vincent was a 38 year-old actor portraying the 24-26 years old Byron Henry. But they were not the only ones. Ben Murphy, who portrayed the 27-29 years old Warren Henry, was at least 40 at the time of the miniseries’ production. Ralph Bellamy was at least 78 years old when he portrayed President Roosevelt, who had aged from 57 to 59 years during the story’s setting. There seemed to be a score of many old Hollywood character actors who struck me as too old for their roles. Many of them did not get away with portraying characters a lot younger than themselves. But Mitchum, McGraw, Vincent, Murphy and Bellamy did get away with it; due to their strong screen presence, good solid acting and looks.

Being the experienced Hollywood veteran, Mitchum did an excellent job of holding the series together in the lead role. He also did a first rate job in portraying a very reserved man who usually kept his emotions to himself, without turning the role into an automaton. McGraw seemed to have some difficulty in dealing with an exaggerated and at times, irritating character like Natalie Jastrow. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for creating such an overblown character and the bad dialogue that McGraw was forced to speak. However, I have to commend the actress for ably conveying Natalie’s moments of being intimidated in the presence of Nazis or in situations in which she felt like a fish out of water. Her character tend to be exaggerated and rather irritating at times. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for his creation of the character and the numerous bad lines that McGraw was forced to spew. However, the actress did a good job in conveying Natalie’s moments of feeling intimidated in the presence of Nazis and in situations that left her feeling like a fish out of water (think of Warren and Janice’s wedding). Both Ben Murphy and Lisa Eilbacher gave solid performances at the charismatic, yet likeable Warren Henry and the All-American Madeline Henry, who seemed to have a slight undercurrent of darkness in her personality. Jeremy Kemp gave a memorable performance as Brigadier General Armin von Roon, the stoic and very professional German Army staff officer that Pug befriended. Ralph Bellamy, who had originally portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the stage and film versions of ”SUNRISE AT CAMPBOBELLO” was in his element as the four-term president. I also enjoyed Topol’s warm portrayal of the Jastrow cousin from the Polish branch of the family, Berel Jastrow. John Houseman did a solid job in portraying Natalie’s scholarly uncle, Dr. Aaron Jastrow. However, there were times when his dialogue delivery seemed slow and slightly long-winded. As for Peter Graves, he must have been the only actor I can recall who can make an extramarital affair seem almost dignified.

But there were performances that stood out for me. One of them came from Jan-Michael Vincent, who portrayed the Henry family’sdark horse, Byron. Vincent did an excellent job in portraying Byron’s complex and sometimes difficult nature. He proved that Pug’s middle child could be just as reserved and intimidating as his father, and also very intense. Yet, at the same time, Vincent’s Byron seemed very relaxed and almost lackadaisical. Another first-rate performance came from Polly Bergen, who portrayed Pug’s flamboyant wife, Rhoda. In many ways, Bergen’s Rhoda could be just as complex as Byron. At times, she seemed like a cheerful and extroverted personality. At other times, she came off as flaky and sometimes rather unpleasant. And Bergen managed to convey Rhoda’s contradicting traits seamlessly. I am not surprised that she ended up earning an Emmy nomination for her performance. I was also impressed by Victoria Tennant’s performance as the young Englishwoman that ended up falling in love with Pug, Pamela Tudsbury. Tennant skillfully conveyed Pamela’s passionate nature and sardonic sense of humor beneath an exterior of English reserve. I have always been a fan of the late actor David Dukes, ever since I saw him in a miniseries called ”79 PARK AVENUE”. But I do believe that the role of Leslie Slote, Natalie’s former fiancé was probably one of his best. Dukes had the difficult job of developing his character from a sarcastic and slightly pompous man, reluctant to marry a Jewish woman to a loyal friend that ended up regretting that his fiancée had fallen in love with another man before he could marry her.

”THE WINDS OF WAR” has its shares of flaws – a ponderous dramatic style, too many scenes featuring the top statesmen of World War II, stilted dialogue and a questionable wardrobe for actress Ali McGraw. But its virtues – its in-depth look into the early years of World War II, its epic scope, interesting subplots and characters – make it all worth while. More importantly, I still believe it is one of the better miniseries from the last 40 years. In the end, I believe that newcomers to the saga will not regret it.

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Two) Commentary

I wrote this brief commentary on the second episode of “THE PACIFIC”:

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Two) Commentary

Episode Two of HBO’s “THE PACIFIC” continued the saga of the U.S. Marines during the Guadalcanal campaign.Episode One focused mainly on Robert Leckie’s combat experiences during the campaign. This latest episode centered on the combat experiences of Sergeant John Basilone and his fellow comrades from the 7th Marines regiment.

By the time I had finished watching Episode Two, I found myself battling a tension headache. And it was all due to action sequences featured in this episode. Granted, I also found the battle scenes in Episode One rather tense, the action in this second episode knocked it out of the ballpark for me. Around late October 1942, John Basilone and a handful of his fellow Marines were forced to fight off a frontal assault by the Japanese Army. Between the assault and Basilone’s encounters with Japanese troops, while fetching more ammunition literally had me squirming on my living room sofa. And I must say that Jon Seda did a great job of portraying Basilone’s heroics and making it look natural in the process. I also have to give kudos to actor Joshua Biton for his emotional portrayal of one of Basilone’s close friends, J.P. Morgan.

With the exception of an aerial bombing sequence, this particular episode did not feature Leckie and his friends in actual combat. Instead, the episode focused upon them dealing with various other problems during their stay on Guadalcanal – lack of supplies, inadequate arms and . . . um, health issues. Poor Runner dealt with an attack of the runs and Leckie found himself throwing up after consuming stolen canned peaches on a half-empty stomach. Leckie and a good number of other Marines stole supplies left on the beach for the arriving U.S. Army. In a hilarious scene, Leckie managed to pinch the peaches, along with cans of other food; and a pair of moccasins and a box of cigars that belonged to an Army officer. I never knew that actor James Badge Dale had a talent for comic timing . . . until now.

Episode Two also revealed a glimpse of Eugene Sledge back in Mobile. He and his father, Dr. Sledge, have discovered that Sledge’s heart murmur no longer exists. Upon this discovery, Sledge wasted no time in announcing his intention to join the Marines. And viewers will eventually see the results of that decision byEpisode Five.

By the end of the episode, the Marines were ordered to leave the island, much to the relief of many. Both Basilone and Morgan found themselves trying to rationalize the death of their friend, Manny Rodriguez, while other Marines loaded up in boats taking them off the island. A scene that featured good, solid acting by both Seda and Biton. The episode’s last scene featured Leckie and his friends learning from a Navy cook aboard ship that their actions on Guadalcanal had been reported in American newspapers and that they were now all regarded as heroes. Judging from the expressions on the Marines’ faces, they seemed conflicted on how to accept the news. This wonderfully performed scene by Badge Dale and the actors portraying Leckie’s friends – Josh Helman (Chuckler), Keith Nobbs (Runner) and Jacob Pitts (Hoosier)- was mentioned in Leckie’s memoirs.

Like Episode One, this was a well done that left me feeling tense and an array of other emotions. I only hope that the miniseries’ remaining episodes will match the quality of the first two.

“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

This adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel turned out to be the first of the old Jane Austen television adaptations that the BBC aired during the 1970s and 80s. Produced and directed by Howard Baker, and adapted by Julian Mitchell; this two-part miniseries starred Ann Firbanks and Bryan Marshall. 

As many fans of Austen’s novel would know, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet, who finds herself reunited with her former finance, a Naval officer of lesser birth named Frederick Wentworth. Eight years before the beginning of the story, Anne’s godmother, Lady Russell, had persuaded her to reject Wentworth’s marriage proposal, citing the Naval officer’s lack of family connections and fortune. She reunites with Wentworth, during a prolonged family visit to her younger sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Charles Musgrove. And the Naval officer has managed to acquire a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. Anne is forced to watch Wentworth woo Mary’s sister-in-law, Louisa Musgrove, while he ignores his earlier attraction to her.

Many diehard Austen fans have expressed the opinion that this adaptation of her last novel has a running time that allows for the characters to be expressed with more depth than they were in the 1995 and 2007 versions. I must admit that the miniseries’ running time of 210 minutes allowed a greater depth into Austen’s plot than the two later movies. Yet, despite the longer running time, ”PERSUASION” managed to be only a little more faithful than the other two versions. One of the plotlines that Mitchell failed to include featured the injury suffered by one of Charles Musgrove’s sons, following a fall from the tree. It was this injury that delayed Anne’s reunion with Wentworth near the beginning of the story. Fortunately, the changes or deletions that Mitchell made in his script did not bother me one whit. Especially since ”PERSUASION” turned out to be a pretty solid adaptation.

However, there were times when Mitchell was too faithful to Austen’s novel. I still have nightmares over the second scene between Anne and her old school friend, Mrs. Smith; in which the latter finally revealed the true nature of Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. That particular scene seemed to take forever. And I never understood Anne’s outrage over William’s comments about Sir Walter and Elizabeth in his old letters to Mrs. Smith‘s husband. He had only expressed what Anne also felt about her father and older sister. And once again, an adaptation of ”Persuasion” failed to correct the problem surrounding the William Elliot character – namely his attempt to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Sir Walter from marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, or any otherwomen . . . and guarantee his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy. As I had stated in my reviews of the two other ”PERSUASION”movies, William’s efforts struck me as irreverent, since there was no way he could have full control over Sir Walter’s love life. Why was it necessary to show William sneaking away with Mrs. Clay in order to elope with her? Both were grown adults who had been previously married. They were not married or engaged to anyone else. I found their clandestine behavior unnecessary. And why on earth did Mitchell include Sir Walter spouting the names and birthdates of himself and his offspring in the script’s opening scene? I do not think so. In fact, this scene merely dragged the miniseries from the outset.

The production values for ”PERSUASION” struck me as top-rate . . . to a certain extent. I have to commend Peter Phillips for his colorful production designs and Mark Hall for the miniseries’ art work. ”PERSUASION” permeated with rich colors that I found eye catching. However, I have some qualms about Esther Dean’s costumes designs. How can I put it? I found some of the costumes rather garish. And the photography for the exterior scenes struck me as . . . hmmm, unimpressive. Dull. Flat. And I had some problems with the hairstyle for the leading lady, Ann Firbank. Her hairdo seemed like a uneasy mixture of an attempt at a Regency hairstyle and an early 1970s beehive. Think I am kidding? Take a gander:

My opinion of the cast is pretty mixed. There were performances that I found impressive. Marian Spencer gave a complex, yet intelligent portrayal of Anne Elliot’s godmother and mentor, Lady Russell. I was also impressed by Valerie Gearon’s subtle performance as Anne’s vain older sister, Elizabeth Elliot. And both Richard Vernon and Rowland Davies gave colorful performances as Admiral Croft and Charles Musgrove, respectively. On the other hand, Basil Dignam got on my last nerve as the vain Sir Walter Elliot. There was nothing really wrong with his performance, but many of his scenes dragged the miniseries, due to the number of unnecessary dialogue over topics that had very little to do with the main storyline. Quite frankly, a great deal of Sir Walter’s dialogue bore me senseless.

And what about the story’s two leads? Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall gave very competent performances as the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. They competently expressed their characters’ intelligence and emotions. They also made the eventual reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth very believable. Unfortunately, Firbank and Marshall lacked the strong chemistry that Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds possessed in the 1995 adaptation; or the strong chemistry that Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones had in the 2007 film. I never got the feeling that Firbank’s Anne and Marshall’s Wentworth were struggling to contain their emotions toward each other in the first half of the miniseries. Every now and then, Firbank utilized sad and pensive expressions, reminding me of Evangeline Lilly’s early performances on ABC’s ”LOST”. And Marshall’s Wentworth seemed too friendly with the Musgrove sisters and polite toward Anne to hint any sense of remaining passion toward her. It was not until their encounter with William Elliot at Lyme Regis that I could detect any hint – at least on Wentworth’s part – of emotion toward Anne. And it was only from this point onward, in which Firbank and Marshall finally conveyed a strong screen chemistry.

In the end, I have to admit that this adaptation of ”PERSUASION” struck me as entertaining. I cannot deny it. Despite being the most faithful of the three known adaptations, I feel that it was probably more flawed than the later two versions. Screenwriter Julian Mitchell and director Howard Baker’s close adherence to Austen’s novel did not really help it in the long run. In doing so, the miniseries adapted some of the faults that could be found in the novel. And the miniseries’ close adaptation also dragged its pacing needlessly. But the solid performances by the cast, led by Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall; along with the colorful production designs and the story’s intelligence allowed me to enjoy it in the end.

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Below is my review of Nora Ephron’s 2009 comedy-drama, “JULIE AND JULIA”, about the life of celebrity chef, Julia Child and the New York blogger who was inspired by her, Julie Powell: 

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Written and directed by Nora Ephron, “JULIE AND JULIA” depicts events in the life of chef Julia Child during the early years in her culinary career; contrasting with the life of a woman named Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year. Ephron had based her screenplay on two books – “My Life in France”, Child’s autobiography, written with Alex Prud’homme; and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by Powell. Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep portrayed Julia Child and two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams portrayed Julie Powell.

The plot is simple. A New Yorker named Julie Powell, who works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to help victims of the 9/11 bombings, has become disatisfied with her life when she realizes that her friends (or should I say acquaintances?) have more exciting professional lives. To help her deal with her apathy and knowing that she is an excellent cook, husband Eric (Chris Messina) suggests that she create a blog to record her experiences in cooking a recipe (each day) from Julia Child’s famous cookbook, ” Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Woven in to Powell’s story is Child’s experiences as the wife of an American diplomat in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The movie also reveals Child’s entry into the world of French cuisine and her attempts to write and publish a cookbook on French cooking for Americans.

“JULIE AND JULIA” was not a movie that exactly shook my world. It was a warm and engaging look into the lives of two women whose interest in French cuisine attracted the attention of the public. In the case of Julia Child, her decade long attempt to write a cookbook on French cuisine led to her becoming a television celebrity and icon. Julie Powell’s attempt to recount her experiences in preparing the recipes from Child’s cookbook led to her blog, media attention and this movie. I have read a few reviews of the movie and most critics and filmgoers seemed more interested in Child’s early years as a chef in France than they were by Powell’s experiences with her blog. Granted, the Child sequences were a lot of fun, due to Streep’s performance of the charming, enthusiastic and fun-loving chef. But I must admit to being surprised by how much I had enjoyed Powell’s experiences with her blog. I realize that I am going to be bashed for this, but Powell’s experiences seemed to have more emotional substance to them.

I am not saying that the Powell sequences were better written or more entertaining. But due to Ephron’s portrayal of the Texan-turned-New Yorker, the Powell sequences seemed more complex and emotionally satisfying. In other words, Amy Adams – who portrayed Powell – had the meatier role. Most critics and fans of the film would disagree with me. After all, it seemed very obvious that Streep was having a ball portraying the enthusiastic and fun loving Julia Child. Her ability to easily befriend many of the French and her deepening love for French cuisine made it quite easy to see how she quickly became a celebrity. But Ephron never really delved into the darker aspects of Child’s character or marriage – except touch upon the chef’s disappointment at being childless. She certainly did with Powell. And Amy Adams did a superb job in re-creating a very complex and occasionally insecure personality. But I suspect that when the awards season rolls around the corner, it will be Streep who will earn most of the nominations . . . or perhaps all of them.

The rest of the cast of “JULIE AND JULIA” were just as excellent as Streep and Adams. Stanley Tucci portrayed Child’s diplomat husband, Paul Child. He gave a warm, yet more restrained performance as a man happily caught up in his wife’s growing interest in becoming a chef; yet at the same time, conveyed his character’s unhappiness with his failing diplomatic career due to a change in the country’s political winds. Like Adams, Chris Messina had a more difficult role as Powell’s husband, Eric Powell. Unlike Child, he has to deal with his frustration in his wife’s growing obssession with her blog . . . along with her occasional bouts with arrogance, insecurity and self-absorption. And at one point in the film, he loses his temper in spectacular fashion. I also enjoyed Linda Emond’s performance as French cook Simone Beck, who co-authored Child’s cookbook; and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Powell’s acerbic friend, Amy. One other performance that really caught my eye belonged to Jane Lynch as Julia Child’s equally extroverted sister, Dorothy McWilliams. Watching Lynch and Streep portray the McWilliams sisters take Paris by storm was a joy to behold.

Although I had enjoyed “JULIA AND JULIA”, I had a few problems with it. One, it was too long. The movie’s pacing started out fine. Unfortunately, I was ready for it to end at least twenty minutes before it actually did. By 100 minutes into the film, the pacing began to drag. And although I had no problems with the movie’s alternating storylines, I felt that it failed to seque smoothly between Child and Powell’s stories. The jump from Powell’s story to Child’s and back seemed ragged and uneven to me. And as I had pointed out before, the story surrounding Child’s story seemed less emotionally complex and more frothy in compare to Powell’s story, giving me another reason to view the movie as uneven.

Despite its flaws, “JULIE AND JULIA” is an entertaining film that many who are into cooking or food would enjoy. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams gave first-rate performances. And the movie also gave filmgoers a peek into life for Americans in post-World War II Paris. In the end, I found the movie enjoyable, but not earth-shattering. I would recommend it.

“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

“TRUE GRIT” (2010) Review

I have never read Charles Portis’ 1968 novel called ”TRUE GRIT”. And my only glimpse of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film adaptation was of John Wayne charging horseback toward a band of outlaws, while armed with a weapon in both hands. So it was with great curiosity that I went to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent film adaptation of the novel. 

”TRUE GRIT” told the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross’s efforts to seek justice and retribution for the murder of her father in post-Civil War western Arkansas. Due to the local law’s failure to arrest her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, Mattie travels to Fort Smith and recruits a U.S. Marshal named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to hunt down and arrest Chaney in the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Unbeknownst to Mattie, Cogburn teams up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for the murder of a state senator and his dog. The two men depart Fort Smith and cross into Indian Territory without Mattie. However, she refuses to be left behind and quickly catches up with the two men.

I must admit that I had no idea how I would accept ”TRUE GRIT”. First of all, it was a remake of a successful that led to an Academy Award for its star. Many remakes tend to be inferior to the original movie. However, there have been remakes that are just as good as the original – like James Mangold’s ”3:10 TO YUMA”. There have also been remakes that turned out to be superior to the original – like 1941’s ”THE MALTESE FALCON” and 1988’s”DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS”. Since I have never seen the 1969 version of ”TRUE GRIT” in its entirety, I do not see how I could compare it to this new version. I will admit that it turned out to be a very entertaining and intelligent adaptation of Portis’ novel.

In short, I enjoyed ”TRUE GRIT” very much. Thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen’s writing and direction, the movie struck me as a well-balanced combination of a character study, action film and coming-of-age tale. The movie’s first half, which featured Mattie Ross’s attempts to settle her father’s affairs and recruit Cogburn or anyone else willing to hunt down Chaney. A good deal of the movie’s midway point featured interactions between the three protagonists – Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf – during their journey through the Indian Territory. But once Mattie and Cogburn come across outlaws associated with a fugitive gang leader named “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the movie’s action kicks into high gear. More importantly, the movie’s shift into action did not impede its strong characterizations and drama one bit. Another aspect of ”TRUE GRIT” that I had enjoyed was the dark humor – a trademark of the Coens’ work – that permeated the movie. It certainly befitted the movie’s dark coming-of-age tale and its characters.

I also have to give kudos to the movie’s production designer, Jess Goncher. He did a superb job in re-creating Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory during the late 1860s. One of the best things he ever did was choose or suggest the production film the movie in New Mexico and Texas – states that bordered Oklahoma (formerly the Indian Territory). In doing so, he allowed the movie’s setting to adhere closer to Portis’ setting in the novel. Goncher was ably assisted by costume designer Mary Zophres, whose costumes perfectly captured the movie’s setting and character; and cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose photography strongly reminded me of the old daguerreotype images of the mid-to-late 19th century.

Matt Damon found himself following in the footsteps of singer Glen Campbell, in his portrayal of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. I have seen some of the 1969 film and I must admit that Campbell gave a pretty solid performance. But Damon’s portrayal of the character struck me as more detailed and skillful. In fact, the actor did an excellent job in portraying the competent, yet egotistical lawman. Not only did Damon made me forget that he had very little experience with Westerns, he is one of two actors I have ever seen convey the correct method (breathing included) in long distance shooting. Josh Brolin had more experience with Westerns – including a co-starring role in the ABC series, ”THE YOUNG RIDERS” and the Coens’ award-winning film, ”NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. He portrayed the heroes’ main target, hired hand/outlaw Tom Chaney. The actor did not appear in many scenes of ”TRUE GRIT”, but his character permeated the movie’s first half like a malevolent spirit. Once he made his appearance, Brolin’s Chaney seemed insignificant and dimwitted. Yet, as the movie continued on, Brolin revealed more of Chaney’s cunning and stealth with great skill and subtlety. The movie also benefitted from a solid performance by supporting actor Barry Pepper, who portrayed “Lucky” Ned Pepper, an outlaw leader who is sought by Cogburn. The actor’s Ned Pepper struck me as a curious mixture of ruthlessness, pragmatism and honor. He seemed to have no qualms in killing the 14 year-old Mattie over her evasions regarding Cogburn’s whereabouts. And yet, after she honestly answered his questions, his character seemed very willing to keep his word about sparing her life. I have always been an admirer of Pepper’s talents. This role certainly confirmed my opinion.

When I had discovered that Jeff Bridges would end up reprising the role that led to an Academy Award for John Wayne, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I eventually realized that my sympathy would be wasted on him. Bridges was talented and charismatic enough to put his own stamp on the role of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Sure enough, Bridges did exactly just that. His portrayal as Cogburn seemed so thorough that I found it difficult to see the actor within the character. His darker portrayal of the character also made me forget about Wayne’s friendlier spin on the role. The main character of ”TRUE GRIT”, in my opinion, turned out to be one Mattie Ross, the 14 year-old daughter of the murdered man. Her desire and determination to seek retribution for her father’s death turned out to be story’s catalyst. Hailee Steinfeld beautifully captured every aspect of Mattie’s complex nature. In fact, there were times I had felt as if I was watching a strong-willed and ruthless woman inside an adolescent’s body. However, Steinfeld’s performance also reminded me that behind the strong will and ruthlessness lurked an innocent and inexperienced young girl. Steinfeld’s chemistry with her co-stars seemed so strong that I found myself wondering how Cogburn, LeBouef or both would regard Mattie if she had been an adult. I have heard speculations of a possible Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Steinfeld. In my opinion, she deserved a nomination for Best Actress. After all, she was not only the leading female character, but the story’smain character.

Although ”TRUE GRIT” failed to earn any Golden Globe nominations – major or minor, last year, it did earned a well deserved ten Academy Award nominations.  Not only did I enjoy it very much, I consider it to be one of the best movies I have seen in 2010.  It is a rare occurrence to find a remake that is just as good or perhaps even slightly better than the original.  And thanks to Ethan and Joel Coen, ”TRUE GRIT turned out to be one of those rare gems.

Analyzing Love in the “STAR WARS” Prequel Trilogy

Analyzing Love in the “STAR WARS” Prequel Trilogy

I am curious as to why people think they can analyze love, whether between fictional characters or in real life. And why do many assume that love and morality is one and the same?

If Anakin Skywalker, in the STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy, had been the model Jedi who could do no wrong, people would have never questioned why Padme had fallen in love with him, or why she married him. But since Anakin is presented as being a flawed person, people come up with all kinds of theories and reasons (which usually has nothing to do with love) as to why she fell in love with him in the first place.

The problem is that people harbor the mistaken belief that love is about perfection or near perfection. Or that no one would fall in love with someone with the potential for evil. They also believe that one can only fall in love with someone after a certain period of time. Unfortunately, love does not work like that. Love is dangerous, unpredictable and very confusing for all. You cannot pinpoint on why someone will fall in love with a certain person.

One thing I have always admired about Padme was her willingness to love Anakin for himself. Yes, some people like to theorize that she became his wife, because she mistakenly believed that she could “reform” him. I cannot help but laugh at such a theory. Has it ever occurred to anyone that the true reason Padme fell in love with Anakin was because he brought up feelings within her that no one else has ever been able to?

When you love someone, you have to be willing to accept that person is and always will be flawed – and will always have the potential for both good and evil within. Not only was this true of Anakin, but of Padme as well. She has not always been perfect. In “The Phantom Menace”, Padme had allowed her anger and frustration with the Galactic Senate to be coerced by Palpatine into declaring a vote of “no confidence” against Chancellor Valorum. This act led to Palpatine’s first step into a position of real power. And it also proved that Padme was just as capable of making disastrous choice on the spur of an emotional moment. Anakin, himself, discovered how arrogant and pushy she can be upon their arrival in Naboo, in “Attack of the Clone”. During their time on Padme’s home planet, he realized that she was not the symbol of angelic perfection that he had perceived. Yet, he fell in love with her, more than ever.

In the end, I think we must realize that we cannot really judge why Padme fell in love with Anakin. She knew that he was capable of great darkness. But she also knew that he could be a good man. But I think that in the end, what really mattered was that he made her feel something that no one else could. And when you find someone like that – why ignore it? Even if the relationship might end in disaster or tragedy?

“THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” (2010) Review

”THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” (2010) Review

Since the last cinematic installment of the ”NARNIA” franchise failed to make as much money as the first film, the Walt Disney Studios decided to end its association with C.S. Lewis’s saga and not continue with a third movie. Twentieth Century Fox came to the rescue and agreed to release the third film, ”THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”

Directed by Michael Apted, ”THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” centered around the adventures of the two younger Pevensie siblings – Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) – and their return to Narnia some three years after their adventures in ”PRINCE CASPIAN”. During the last year of World War II, Edmund and Lucy are living with relatives in Cambridge. One of those relations is their obnoxious cousin, Eustace Stubbs (Will Poulter), who accompanies them back to Narnia, when they are pulled into a painting inside his bedroom. The painting turns out to be a portrait of the Dawn Treader, a royal vessel belonging to the now King Caspian X (Ben Barnes). Caspian has been on a three-year voyage in search of the seven Lords of Narnia, whom his uncle Miraz (the villain of ”PRINCE CASPIAN”) had banished when he usurped the Narnian throne. Along the way they encounter slave traders, dragons, dwarves, merfolk, a band of lost warriors and a mysterious mist that represents the spirit of Evil, before reaching the edge of the world.

”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” proved to be something of a departure from the previous two stories. One, the protagonists spend most of their time aboard a ship, traveling from one location to another. Secondly, only two of the Pevensie siblings are major characters in this tale, Edmund and Lucy. Apparently Peter (William Peter Moseley) and Susan (Popplewell) are traveling in the United States with their parents. However, both appear in a spell sequence in which Lucy images herself with Susan’s looks. Most importantly, the story’s main protagonist is not a certain individual. Instead, Edmund, Lucy, Caspian, Eustace and the crew of the Dawn Treader have to face a mysterious mist that acts more or less as a malignant spirit that influences the darker aspects of their personalities, fears and desires.

I might as well be frank. I am not a major fan of C.S. Lewis’ ”THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” novels. I never have been a major fan and I doubt that I will ever become one. But I must admit that the last two movies made me appreciate them a lot more than if I had never seen them. I must admit that Walden Media had produced some very entertaining movies. As for ”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”, screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni found themselves with a dilemma. Lewis’ third NARNIA story turned out to be a bit disjointed and episodic. The BBC solved this problem by combining both”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” and the fourth novel, ”THE SILVER CHAIR” into one production. Director Michael Apted and the three screenwriters were not that drastic. Instead, they assimilated some elements of the fourth novel (like the Narnians being held hostage by the mist and rescued) into the third movie’s script. Did it work? Perhaps it did not work for some, but it certainly worked for me. As I had earlier pointed out, the story’s main antagonist turned out to be a mysterious green mist that served as a euphemism for the characters’ inner fears, desires and darkness. In this regard, the mist reminded me of the First Evil character from Season Seven of ”BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”. Many movie and television fans may not be that enamored of this type of “villain”, but it did not bother me. I have discovered that the older I get, the more I enjoyed such storylines that provide ambiguous catalysts for the characters’ inner conflicts.

I enjoyed ”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” very much. More than I had expected to. I had not expected to enjoy it that much, considering this was the first movie not to feature all four of the Pevensie siblings. If I must be honest, I did not miss Peter and Susan Pevensie. Edmund and Lucy managed to create a tight relationship with King Caspian and later, their cousin Eustace. And one has to give thanks to the solid screen chemistry between Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Will Poulter and Ben Barnes. Simon Pegg’s vocal performance as the swashbuckling mouse, Reepicheep added nicely to the mix.

One of the best aspects of ”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” was that the movie explored a good deal of the main characters’ personalities – especially their insecurities, fears and desires – due to the effect of the green mist. This gave Skandar Keynes a chance to explore another dark aspect of Edmund Pevensie’s personality – namely his resentment over Caspian’s position as Narnia’s most recent king and his own desire for power. And Keynes proved he had the acting chops to convey this aspect of Edmund’s personality and at the same time, maintain the character’s growing maturity. Georgie Henley proved to be something of a revelation in her portrayal of Lucy Pevensie. She had come a long way from the innocent and friendly young girl in 2005’s”THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE”. Thanks to the green mist story arc, she made great use of her chance to stretch her acting skills by effectively portraying Lucy’s insecurities regarding her looks and living in the shadow of older sister Susan. Ben Barnes’ portrayal of the now King Caspian X struck me as more mature and solid. Yet, Barnes is also talented enough to convey hints of Caspian’s own insecurities of living up to his father’s name . . . and the reputations of the Pevensies in Narnia. Liam Neeson was as impressive and commanding as ever, while providing the voice for Aslan the Lion. And Simon Pegg was charming and effervescent as the heroic mouse, Reepicheep. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Reepicheep tries to give fencing lessons to a very reluctant Eustace. Speaking of Eustace Scrubb, actor Will Coulter literally stole the movie as Edmund and Lucy’s arrogant and obnoxious cousin. In fact, Coulter’s performance was so impressive that at times, he seemed like a pugnacious adult in a child’s body. The speaking voice he utilized for Eustace struck me as very strange, yet comic. I was not surprised to learn that Coulter managed to earn a nomination as Young Performer of the Year for the 2010 London Film Critics Circle Awards.

If there is one thing about ”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” that did not appeal to me was that it had been shot in 3D. I have made it clear in my reviews of ”AVATAR” and ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” that I am not a fan of 3D photography – at least for motion pictures. And if I must be frank, I did not find the 3D effects for this movie particularly impressive. Instead of a headache, I ended up suffering from sinus congestion from wearing eyeglasses and 3D glasses. And as much as I had enjoyed ”VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”, I really saw no need for it to be shot in 3D. But thanks to cinematographer Dante Spinotti and visual effects supervisors, Angus Bickerton and Jim Rygiel; I must admit that I enjoyed the movie’s beautiful photography and visual effects.

In the end, I enjoyed ”THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER” very much. Despite being shot in 3D, I still managed to enjoy the beautiful photography and visual effects. Screenwriters Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and Michael Petroni managed to take a novel with an episodic storyline and transform it into something more solid. The storyline regarding the green mist (a metaphor for the spirit of Evil) allowed the cast to delve into their characters’ darker impules and desires with great skill. And director Michael Apted managed to put it all together in an entertaining film.