“THOR” (2011) Review

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for “THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish incompare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and “STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero. “THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.

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“EMMA” (1972) Review

 

 

“EMMA” (1972) Review

I am aware of at least four adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”. But I have noticed that the one adaptation that rarely attracts the attention of the novelist’s fans is the 1972 BBC miniseries, “EMMA”

Directed by John Glenister and adapted by Denis Constanduros, “EMMA” told the story of the precocious younger daughter of a wealthy landowner that resides near
the village of Highbury. Emma Woodhouse imagines herself to be naturally gifted matchmaker, following her self-declared success in arranging a love match between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower. Following their marriage, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, a young woman named Harriet Smith. However, Emma’s efforts to match Harriet with Highbury’s vicar, Mr. Elton, end in disaster. Also the return of two former Highbury residents, Jane Fairfax and Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, and her continuing efforts to find a husband for Harriet leads Emma to question her talents as a matchmaker and her feelings for long time neighbor and friend, George Knightley.

Aired in six episodes, this “EMMA” was given the opportunity to be a lot more faithful to Austen’s novel. Many critics and fans would view this as an example of the miniseries’ ability to delve deeper into the story’s plots and characterizations. I do not know if I would agree. The 1815 novel seems such a strong piece of work that even a 90 to 120 minute film could do justice to the story by adhering to the main aspects of the plot. Mind you, I have complained about Andrew Davies’ adaptation of the novel in the 1996-97 television movie. But even I cannot consider that a failure.

I do have a few complaints about “EMMA”. The majority of my complaints have to do with the casting. But there were some aspects of the production that I found less than satisfying. Director John Glenister’s direction of major scenes such as the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball failed to impress. The sequence featuring the Westons’ Christmas party lacked the holiday atmosphere that I found in the other versions. And I failed to noticed any sense of a change in the weather that led the Woodhouses and the Knightleys to depart from Randalls (the Westons’ estate) earlier than they had intended. As for the Crown Inn ball, it struck me as somewhat rushed. Dialogue seemed to dominate the entire sequence . . . to the point where only one dance was featured to the tune of the miniseries’ theme song. Both Glenister and screenwriter Denis Constanduros made such a big effort in building up the ball in the previous episode or two. But when it came to the actual execution, it simply fell flat and rushed for me. Even worse, they failed to provide the audience with the Emma/Knightley dance, which could have provided the first real hint of romantic feelings between the pair. And what happened to Jane Fairfax and Mr. Elton at the Box Hill picnic? Where were they? Frank Churchill’s flirting with Emma during the picnic had led to Jane’s eventual breakdown and observations of the Eltons’ quick marriage. The Box Hill sequence played an important part in Jane and Frank’s relationship. But without Jane in the scene, the importance of their storyline was somewhat robbed.

And there were performances, or should I say . . . casting that seemed rather off to me. Fiona Walker made an interesting Mrs. Augusta Elton. In fact, she was downright memorable. However, her Mrs. Elton came off as rather heavy-handed . . . to the point that she seemed more like an over-the-top 1970s divorcee, instead of a vicar’s pushy and ambitious wife of Regency England. She seemed to lack both Juliet Stevenson and Christina Cole’s talent for sly and subtle humor. Belinda Tighe gave a solid performance as Emma’s older sister, Isabella Knightley. But she seemed at least a decade-and-a-half older than Doran Godwin’s Emma. Donald Eccles would have made a perfect Mr. Woodhouse, if he had not come off as slightly cold in a few scenes. I find it odd that many Austen fans had complained of Godwin’s occasionally chilly performance. But Eccles seemed even more chilly at times, which is how I never would describe Mr. Woodhouse. At least Godwin’s Emma became warmer and slightly funny in the miniseries’ second half. It seemed as if the arrival of Augusta Elton allowed Godwin to inject more warmth and humor into the role. I also had a problem with Ania Marson as the reserved Jane Fairfax. I understand that Jane went through a great deal of stress and fear, while awaiting for a chance to finally marry Frank. But Marson’s performance struck me as . . . odd. The intense look in her eyes and frozen expression made her resemble a budding serial killer.

I really enjoyed Robert East’s portrayal of the mercurial Frank Churchill. Although I felt that East did not seem effective in his portrayal of Frank’s penchant for cruel humor and at times, his handling of the character’s many traits seemed a bit off balanced, I still believe that his performance was overall, first-rate. Timothy Peters was excellent as Mr. Elton. In fact, he was spot on. Of all the characters featured in Austen’s novel, Mr. Elton seemed to be the only that has been perfectly cast in all four productions I have seen. I really enjoyed Debbie Bowen’s performance as the slightly naive Harriet Smith. In fact, I believe she was the perfect embodiment of Harriet. One of the funniest scenes in the entire miniseries featured Harriet’s efforts to make up her mind on which color ribbons she wanted to purchase. And Constance Chapman made an excellent Miss Bates. She perfectly conveyed all of the character’s likeability and verbosity that made her irritable to Emma. And the scene that featured Emma’s attempt to apologize for the insult during the Box Hill picnic was beautifully acted by Chapman.

But I was impressed by John Carson’s performance as George Knightley. Perhaps he seemed a bit old for the role, at age 45. But he perfectly conveyed all of Mr. Knightley’s warmth, dry humor and love for Emma. And surprisingly, he and Doran Godwin had a strong screen chemistry. I also have to give credit to Doran Godwin for a first-rate portrayal of Emma Woodhouse. Mind you, there were times in the first three episodes when she seemed a bit too chilly for the gregarious Emma. But Godwin did an excellent job in developing the character into a more mature young woman, who became mindful of her flaws. And as I had stated earlier, her Emma also became warmer and slightly funnier upon the introduction of Augusta Elton.

There were also aspects of the miniseries’ production that I enjoyed. Aside from the Weston Christmas party, I was very impressed by Tim Harvey’s production designs. The miniseries’ photography seemed crisp and colorful, even after 39 years. I found this impressive, considering that most BBC television miniseries between 1971 and 1986 seemed to fade over the years. I also liked Joan Ellacott’s costume designs – especially for Emma and Jane. However, I noticed that the high lace featured in some of Emma’s dresses seemed a bit theatrical and cheap . . . as if they came off outfits found in some minor costume warehouse.

Yes, I do have some quibbles regarding the production and casting for “EMMA”. After all, there is no such thing as perfect. But the good definitely outweighed the bad. And for a miniseries with six episodes, I can happily say that it failed to bore me. Personally, I think it is the best Jane Austen adaptation from the 1970s and 1980s I have ever seen.

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Six) Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the sixth episode of “THE PACIFIC”

 

”THE PACIFIC” (Episode Six) Commentary

Before the first episode of ”THE PACIFIC” first aired, the producers had pointed out that the miniseries’ centerpiece would focus upon the Battle of Peleliu. Fought between September and November 1944, the battle is considered controversial amongst war historians. Many U.S. Marines had been decimated in a campaign that historians now view as unnecessary, because of the island’s questionable strategic value and the very high death toll. In fact, Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific Theater.

Since many Marine veterans have considered Peleliu as an important battle in their personal history, the miniseries’ producers decided to devote three episodes on the infamous battle. Last week, Episode Five featured the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and Eugene Sledge’s (Joseph Mazzello) baptism of fire. By the time the episode ended; Sledge, Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and their fellow Marines were ready to storm and capture the airfield on South Peleliu.

The efforts of the First Marines Division to capture the airfield turned out to be a brutal and bloody affair. Before storming the airfield, the Marines had to deal with a lack of water, thanks to the top brass’ poor preparations for the invasion. But the episode’s pièce de résistance focused upon the battle that raged on the airfield. And so much happened. Both Robert Leckie and his remaining close friend, Bud “Runner” Conley (Keith Nobbs), were badly wounded during the assault. Eugene Sledge and his fellow Marines in the 5th regiment made it to the other side of the airfield . . . with a notable casualty in his company – PFC Robert Oswalt (Andrew Lees). He was the Marine who had described to Sledge a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon near the end of the previous episode. While Leckie and Runner found themselves conveyed to a nearby hospital ship, Sledge’s company continued its foray into the hills of Peleliu.

Many fans of the miniseries have waxed lyrical over this particular episode. And I can see why. Director Tony To did a marvelous job in conveying the chaos, insanity and brutality that the First Marines and the Japanese soldiers suffered during the battle for the airfield to the television screen. I have not seen such a brutal combat sequence since . . . well, since the landing in last week’s episode and the Guadalcanal action in which John Basilone (Jon Seda) earned his Medal of Honor inEpisode Two. Viewers also got a chance to see other interesting scenes that included Sidney Phillips’ surprise visit to the Sledge family back in Mobile; the death of a Marine in Sledge’s company at the hands of his fellow combatants, due to his constant wailings that threatened to reveal their position in the Peleliu hills; another Marine in Sledge’s company who went off the deep end by counting the number of unseen Japanese soldiers to himself; Leckie’s attempt to find a corpsman (Navy medic) for a wounded Runner; the two friends’ reunion aboard the hospital ship; and the growing friendship between Sledge and the very eccentric SNAFU Shelton.

I have to hand it to both Joseph Mazzello and Rami Malek for doing such a superb job in portraying the two Marines’ growing friendship. And both actors made it so believable, considering they were portraying two characters that barely seemed to have anything in common. My favorite scene featured a moment in which Sledge supported Lieutenant “Hillibilly” Jones’ decision to have someone knock out that wailing Marine. And who was the first to immediately back up Sledge? SNAFU Shelton. This scene also seemed to hint that Sledge was learning to desensitize himself from the horrors of war. Consciously.

Ashton Phillips gave an understated, yet first-rate performance as the returning Sidney Phillips, who paid a visit to Sledge’s family in Mobile. His Phillips seemed bent upon reassuring Sledge’s anxious parents that their son would make it through the war safely. Yet, the oblique expression in his eyes and his slightly intense manner seemed to hint that he is trying to convince himself, as well.

Once more, James Badge Dale delivered a brilliant performance as Robert Leckie. In one scene, Leckie’s platoon leader ordered him to fetch both a corpsman for the wounded Runner and a radio amidst the raging battle in the middle of the airfield. The expression on JBD’s face told volumes about Leckie’s dread of putting himself back into the line of fire. But his performance aboard the hospital ship really impressed me. The actor beautifully conveyed Leckie’s despair at being permanently separated from his three friends. There was a moment that found him staring despondently at a bowl of peaches. And then out of the blue, someone calls his name. It turned out to be the very person who gave him the nickname of “Peaches” on Guadalcanal – a very much alive Runner. What followed was a poignant scene between JBD and Keith Nobbs (“Runner” Conley) in which the latter assured that he knew the former tried his best to find a corpsman.

Well . . . that is it for Episode Six. Next week, Sledge and company fight the Japanese in the hills of Peleliu.

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

In the eyes of many fans of the trilogy of miniseries based upon John Jakes’ saga, ”The NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy”, the only miniseries not worthy of the entire saga is the third one – ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. I wish I could agree with them. After all, the production values for ”Book III” had not been as impressive as the other two. And of the three miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had the best costume designs. But looking at the three miniseries from the prospective of a writer, I have finally come to the conclusion that it was ”Book II” (set during the Civil War), and not ”Book III” that ended up being a lot more disappointing to me.

None of the three miniseries were exact copies of the novels from which they had been adapted. Changes were made in all three. Despite some flaws, I had no problems with most of the changes in ”Book I” and ”Book III”. But I found some of the changes in ”Book II” to be very questionable. In fact, some of these changes really did nothing to serve the miniseries’ story, except pad it unnecessarily in order to ensure that it would last six episodes.

Below are some examples of the questionable plotlines I found in ”BOOK II”:

*Around the end of Episode I, Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) – a South Carolina belle who had recently married Pennsylvania-born army officer, Billy Hazard (Parker Stevenson) – and her maid, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel), had left Washington D.C. just before the Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). The former had received a written note about Madeline LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down)’s kidnapping by her estranged husband (David Carridine) and the injuries that Brett’s mother – Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) – had suffered following a barn fire at the Main’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal. Brett and Semiramis finally reached Mont Royal in November 1861. I have a lot of problems with this.

1) Why was the message about Clarissa and Madeline sent to Brett in
Washington D.C. and not to Brett’s older brother, General Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) in Richmond? It would have been easier to reach him, since Richmond was inside Confederate territory.

2) Would it have been easier for Brett and Semiramis remain in Richmond and wait for Orry to depart for South Carolina? What was the point of them leaving him a message and continuing their journey south? They would have reached Mont Royal a lot sooner.

3) Why did it take them three to four months to reach South Carolina? It took them at least less than a week to travel from Washington D.C. to Richmond, Virginia – despite being delayed by Union troops. They were on horseback. So why did it take them an additional three-and-a-half months to reach Mont Royal in South Carolina?

*Episode I revealed that both George Hazard and Orry Main served as military aides for their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Between Episode I and early Episode III, George provided information to Lincoln on battle results and on the President’s behalf, interviewed General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, to see if the latter was the right man to take over the Army of the Potomoc in Virginia. George became a field commander right before the Battle of Gettysburg. Orry not only provided battle results and other information to Davis, he also served as some kind of quartermaster and investigator of corruption within the Confederacy. He became a field commander right before the Battle of Sayler’s Creek in Episode VI. I had a lot of problems with this.

1) Although both George and Orry had graduated from West Point’s Class of 1846 and served in the Mexican-American War, they only served for a duration of at least eighteen months. Both men, due to personal reasons, had left the Army by the late winter/early spring of 1848. How on earth did both managed to acquire such high positions – militarily and politically – at the start of the Civil War, thirteen years later? Even the younger members in their families – Billy Hazard and Charles Main – had more military experience before the war – nearly five years apiece.

2) Neither George or Orry had acquired any further military experiences or participated in any political movements or organizations in their respective home states of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, during those thirteen years between 1848 and 1861.

3) Although George primarily served as an adviser for Lincoln before becoming a field commander, Orry served in a confusing mixture of duties that included military adviser, quartermaster, and investigator. What the hell? It almost seemed as if the screenwriters could not make up their minds on what capacity Orry had served in the Confederate Army, before becoming a field commander during the war’s final month.

4) In the early summer of 1863, George became an artillery commander in the Army of the Potomoc. I am aware that he had graduated from West Point near the top of class, ranking sixth. But in 1846, George decided to choose the Infantry in which to serve. His only previous military experience before the Battle of Gettysburg was fifteen months as a junior infantry officer. How on earth did he end up in artillery, with no previous experience in that particular field?

George and Orry’s military experiences during the war smacked of a great deal of bad continuity, lack of logic and confusion.

*In Episode III, despondent over being unable to see Brett for two years, Billy decides to go AWOL, following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and head south to South Carolina to see Brett. Upon his arrival at Mont Royal, he stays there less than 24 hours and leaves to return to the Army. He returned to duty in Hiram Burdam (Kurtwood Smith)’s Sharpshooter regiment in late April/early May 1864, in time to participate in the Battle of the Wilderness. And I had problems with this.

1) It took Billy less than a month to travel from Southern Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) to Mont Royal in South Carolina. Yet, it took him at least eight to nine months to rejoin his regiment, who were back in Virginia by the time of his arrival. Why did it take him longer to travel from South Carolina to Virginia, than it did for him to travel from Southern Pennsylvania to South Carolina? He was on horseback.

2) Billy had been AWOL from the Army for at least nine to ten months (July 1863 – late April/early May 1864). Why did Colonel Burdan fail to punish him for abandoning his post without permission . . . for so long? In the spring of 1864, the Union Army was not exactly desperate for an increase in manpower, unlike the Confederate Army. In fact, Billy never even faced a court martial or trial of any kind for his actions. His only punishments were a stern lecture from Burdan and being passed over for a promotion to the rank of captain. This is illogical . . . even for a fictional story.

*Charles Main (Lewis Smith) and Augusta Barclay (Kate McNeil) first met each other while the former was on a scouting mission for the Confederacy and the latter was smuggling medicine in July 1861. They met again, the following year, when Charles appeared at her farm, wounded. In the spring of 1864, following the Battle of the Wilderness, they began a love affair that lasted until they said good-bye for the last time in February 1865. Two months later, following the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, Charles returned to Barclay Farm and learned that Augusta had died while giving birth to his son. Charles learned that Augusta’s South Carolina relatives had taken custody of Charles Augustus Main and returned to Charleston. There, Charles took custody of his son for the first time. I have a problem.

1) Charles and Augusta saw each other for the last time in February 1865. When Charles returned to her farm, two months later, her former servant – Washington (John Nixon) – informed him that she had recently died from giving birth to Charles’ son. Yet, Augusta certainly did not look pregnant, during Charles’ last visit two months ago – when the unborn baby should have been at least six to seven months old. And she was wearing a corset.

2) Following his discovery that he was a father, it did not take Charles very long to return to South Carolina and claim his child. Yet, the recently Charles Augustus Main looked at least between one to two years old. If that had been the child’s real age, Charles and Augusta’s son would have been born a year earlier – before they had consummated their relationship in May 1864.

*After being driven from Mont Royal by the discovery of a family secret by Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber), Madeline Main (Lesley Anne-Down) settles in Charleston around July-September 1863. The following spring in May 1864, she meets a former slave/refugee named Jim (Bumper Robinson) and his sick mother. Because of this meeting, Madeline decides to offer aid to many of Charleston’s war refugees – whether they are ex-slaves or poor whites. She also learns about Jim and his mother’s personal history. Apparently, they were Tennessee slaves who were freed upon the arrival of Union troops at their former master’s plantation, who decided to make their way to Charleston.

1) WHAT IN THE HELL IS THIS? Why on earth would recently emancipated slaves make their way deep into Confederate territory? Did the writers of the miniseries honestly believe that slaves were that stupid? Jim and his mother were from Tennessee. They could have made their way to any of the following cities:

*Nashville, Tennessee – which fell to Union troops in February 1862
*Memphis, Tennessee – captured by the Union in June 1862
*New Orleans, Louisiana – fell to Union troops in April 1862
*Louisville, Kentucky – which remained in the Union throughout the war

Any of the above cities were closer to the plantation owned by Michael’s master and could have provided safe refuge for him and his mother. Certainly not Charleston, South Carolina, which was too far and still Confederate territory by the spring of 1864.

2) The writers could have written Michael and his mother as South Carolina slaves. And yet . . . they would have been wiser to head for Hilton Head, the only safe refuge for runaway slaves in South Carolina, until February 1865.

TIME MACHINE: First Battle of Bull Run

TIME MACHINE: FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN

About a month or two following the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the public throughout the Union began clamoring for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; which they believed would bring an early end to the war. Yielding to this political pressure, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to plan an advance across Bull Run Creek to face the equally unseasoned Confederate Army near Manassas Junction, under the command of Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard.

McDowell finally buckled under presidential and public pressure and formed an ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack against the Confederate left. Unfortunately, the inexperienced officers and troops failed to conduct a successful flank attack. However, due to the lack of experience of the Confederate troops, they initially found themselves at a disadvantage. The tide of the battle turned when Confederate reinforcements under the command of Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad.

A brigade of Virginians under a relatively unknown colonel from the Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.), Thomas J. Jackson, stood their ground and Jackson received his famous nickname, “Stonewall Jackson”, accompanied by Colonel Wade Hampton and his Hampton’s Legion from South Carolina; and Colonel J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. The Confederate forces were able to assemble 13 guns for the defensive line, posted on the crest of Henry House Hill. And McDowell ordered the Union batteries of Captain James B. Ricketts and Captain Charles Griffin to move from Dogan’s Ridge to the hill for close infantry support. Their 11 guns engaged in an artillery duel against the Confederate’s 13. Unlike many other engagements in the Civil War, the Confederate artillery had an advantage in this battle. One of the casualties of the artillery duel was Judith Carter Henry, an 85-year-old widow and invalid, who was unable to leave her bedroom in the Henry House. When Ricketts began receiving rifle fire, he concluded that it was coming from the Henry House and turned his guns on the building. A shell that crashed through the bedroom wall tore off one of the widow’s feet and inflicted multiple injuries, from which she died later that day.

At approximately 3 p.m., the guns from Captain Griffin’s battery were overrun by the 33rd Virginia, whose men were outfitted in blue uniforms similar to those worn by Union troops. This caused Griffin’s commander, Major William F. Barry, to mistake them for Union troops and to order Griffin not to fire upon them. Close range volleys from the 33rd Virginia and Stuart’s cavalry attack against the flank of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the late Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves), which was supporting the battery, killed many of the gunners and scattered the infantry. Capitalizing on this success, Jackson ordered two regiments to charge Ricketts’s guns and they were captured as well. As additional Union infantry engaged, the guns changed hands several times.

The capture of Rickett’s Battery turned the tide of battle. At about 4 p.m., the last Union troops were pushed off Henry House Hill by a charge of two regiments from Colonel Philip St. George Cocke’s brigade. To the west, two Confederate brigades from the Shenandoah Valley crushed Colonel Oliver O. Howard’s brigade, which had been occupying Chinn Ridge. General Beauregard ordered his entire line forward. McDowell’s force crumbled and began to retreat. The retreat was relatively orderly up to the Bull Run creek crossings, but it was poorly managed by the Union officers. Artillery fire overturned a Union wagon on a bridge spanning Cub Run Creek and incited panic in McDowell’s force. As the soldiers streamed uncontrollably toward Centreville, discarding their arms and equipment; McDowell ordered Colonel Dixon S. Miles’s division to act as a rear guard, but it was impossible to rally the army short of Washington. In the disorder that followed, hundreds of Union troops were taken prisoner. The wealthy and political elite of nearby Washington D.C. had come to picnic and watch the battle, expecting an easy Union victory. When the Union army retreated in disorder, panicking civilians blocked the roads back to Washington, attempting to flee in their carriages. Since the Confederate forces were also highly disorganized, Beauregard and Johnston did not fully press their advantage, despite urging from recent arrival Confederate President Jefferson Davis. An attempt by Johnston to intercept the Union troops from his right flank was a failure. Both Beauregard and Johnston squabbled with each other. Davis eventually called off the pursuit.

The First Bull Run was the largest and bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Union forces and civilians alike feared that Confederate forces would advance on Washington, D.C., with very little standing in their way. On July 24, Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe ascended in the balloon Enterprise to observe the Confederates moving in and about Manassas Junction and Fairfax. He saw no evidence of massing Rebel forces, but was forced to land in Confederate territory. Northerners were shocked by the defeat of their army when an easy victory had been widely anticipated. On July 22, President Lincoln signed a bill that provided for the enlistment of another 500,000 men for up to three years of service. He also replaced Irwin McDowell with George McDowell, as the head of the Army of the Potomoc. There was little public celebration throughout the Confederacy, as Southerners realized that the war would be longer and more brutal than they had assumed. Northerners came to same conclusion.

The name of the battle has caused controversy since 1861. The Union Army frequently named battles after significant rivers and creeks that played a role in the fighting; and the Confederates generally used the names of nearby towns or farms. The U.S. National Park Service uses the Confederate name for its national battlefield park, but the Union name (Bull Run) also has widespread currency in popular literature. Below are links to more detail information on the battle:

Manassas – National Park Service

Civil War Home

“HARPER’S FERRY WEEKLY – August 3, 1861

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides” (2011) Review

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

When the Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had first released news of their intention to make sequels to their 2003 hit movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Curse of the Black Pearl”, I reacted to the news with a great dealof wariness. In fact, I was against the idea. But after seeing 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” and 2007’s “At World’s End”, my opinion had changed. I ended up enjoying the two movies just as much as I had enjoyed “Curse of the Black Pearl”. . . especially the second film. 

About two years after “At World’s End” hit the theaters, the Disney people and Bruckheimer had released news of their intention to make a fourth film. Again, I expressed wariness at the idea. I thought the three movies released between 2003 and 2007 made a neat little trilogy. There was no need for a fourth movie. But Disney and Bruckheimer went ahead with their plans and a fourth movie was recently released. But unlike “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, I found it difficult to enjoy PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides”.

I cannot say that I disliked the film. There were aspects of it that I genuinely enjoyed. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were in top form as Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa. But I noticed something odd about their characters in this movie. For once, Jack did not have a particular goal to attain in this film. In “Curse of the Black Pearl”, he was after the Black Pearl. He was after the chest that contained Davy Jones’ heart in “Dead Man’s Chest” to be used to avoid a debt that he owned. And in “At World’s End”, he was still after Jones’ heart in order to gain the opportunity to become master of the Flying Dutchman and immortality. In this fourth movie, Jack seemed to have become swept up in Blackbeard and the British Crown’s agendas. And Barbossa seemed out of place as a privateer for His Majesty King George II and the Royal Navy. There was a scene that featured him eating slices of fruit arranged on a plate. He seemed to be doing his best to project the image of an officer and a gentleman . . . only he looked rather odd. However, both actors gave top notch performances and I could find nothing to complain about.

I could also say the same about the performances of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Stephen Graham as Angelica, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and a sailor named Scrum, respectively. All three were perfectly cast in their respective roles. Cruz did an excellent job in portraying the complex Angelica, who happened to be the daughter of Blackbeard. Although it is obvious that she is attracted to Jack – a former lover, she seemed to have this . . . need for her father’s love that made her into some kind of twisted Daddy’s girl wannabe. Unfortunately, McShane’s Blackbeard seemed like poor father material. There were times when he conveyed the image of a concerned and loving father. And yet, he proved to be nothing more than an emotional vampire who would easily kill his daughter if she got in the way of his goal – the Fountain of Youth. And I must admit that not only did McShane made a witty and terrifying Blackbeard, he handled his character’s twisted relationship with Angelica beautifully. Graham’s Scrum almost struck me as a younger version of Jack’s old friend, Joshamee Gibbs. And considering that the latter’s appearance in this film seemed somewhat limited, it seemed just as well that Graham received more screen time.

There were other aspects of “On Stranger Tides” that I enjoyed. Or should I say, scenes? The mermaids’ attacks upon Blackbeard’s men and upon the H.M.S. Providence were among the most terrifying scenes I have seen in the franchise since the Kracken’s attacks in “Dead Man’s Chest”. I also enjoyed the scene that featured Jack’s mutinous meeting with members of Blackbeard’s crew. Personally, I found it very funny and it brought back memories of former characters such as Pintel, Ragetti, Marty and Cotton. Jack’s meeting with King George II proved to be somewhat entertaining. And it led to an equally entertaining chase sequence through the streets of mid-18th century London. But my favorite scene featured Jack marooning Angelica on a deserted island, following the death of Blackbeard. The humor not only permeated strongly in their verbal exchange, but also in director Rob Marshall’s visual style. And I must admit that I also enjoyed the photography featured in the London scenes and the “island” where the Fountain of Youth was located. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did justice to the lush Hawaii jungle that served as one of the movie’s settings.

So, if I had so much to enjoy about “On Stranger Tides”, why did it fail to resonate within me in the end? What went wrong? At least for me? My main problem with the movie is that I felt it tried to repeat many aspects of the first film,“Curse of the Black Pearl”. This is odd, considering that “On Stranger Tides” was allegedly inspired by Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, “On Stranger Tides”. The fourth film did not come off as a remake or anything of such. But there were too many aspects of the first film that seemed to be repeated in “On Stranger Tides”. One, Jack’s reunion with Angelica in a London tavern almost seemed like a remake of his first meeting with Will Turner in “Curse of the Black Pearl”. Scrum almost seemed like a remake of Joshamee Gibbs. This is not surprising, since he had more scenes with Jack that Gibbs and the latter (along with actor Kevin McNally) seemed wasted in the movie. Two of Blackbeard’s crew turned out to be zombies (if you can call them that). And they seemed like remakes (physical and otherwise) of Barbossa’s first mate from the first film, Bo’sun. More importantly, the romance between missionary Philip Swift and the mermaid Syrena almost seemed like a remake of the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann romance . . . but without the character developments. If I must be honest, Philip and Syrena’s romance nearly put me to sleep on several occasions. I feel sorry for actors Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. They seemed like two decent actors forced to work with a pair of boring and undeveloped characters.

There were other problems I had with “On Stranger Tides”. The movie saw the return of Royal Navy officers Theodore Groves (from the first and third film) and Gillette (from the first film). What on earth did Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot did to their roles? Both characters almost seemed lobotomized. Well, Gillette did. Groves seemed to have lost his sense of humor. I recalled that he was a big fan boy of Jack in the first and third films. Yet, when he finally met Jack . . . nothing happened. He was too busy being a rather boring and stiff character. What happened to Jack and Barbossa’s own quests for the Fountain of Youth, which was first introduced in “At World’s End”? After a few years of failure, the audience is led to believe that Jack simply lost interest. And Barbossa’s earlier encounter with Blackbeard and the latter’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, led to the loss of one leg and the Black Pearl. And how did Barbossa managed to survive the loss of his leg. Apparently, Barbossa had to cut off his leg to free from Blackbeard’s enchanted ship lines. So, how did he manage to keep himself from bleeding to death in the ocean? How did he manage to swim to safety with one leg?

And then we come to the mermaids. How did the mermaids manage to destroy Barbossa’s ship, the H.M.S. Providence? It was one thing to lure men from small boats or smash said boats. It was another to do the same to a large frigate. I have never heard of such a thing in the mermaid mythology. One last major problem I had with the movie dealt with the presence of the Spanish. Like the British, they were after the Fountain of Youth. Only their leader, known as the Spaniard (portrayed by Óscar Jaenada), called himself destroying the Fountain in the name of his king and the Catholic Church, as some kind of stance against paganism. Worse, he possessed the very chalices that needed to be used to drink the Fountain’s water. Yet, he did not bother to smash them, until he was at the Fountain’s location. Why? And what in the hell were Elliot and Rossio thinking? Why include such a storyline that proved to be irrelevant, epsecially since Jack was able to use the Fountain’s water after its so-called destruction?

I hear that Disney Studios and Bruckheimer are planning a fifth movie. I can understand this decision, considering that“On Stranger Tides” raked up a great deal of profit at the box office. Frankly, I wish they would change their minds. I honestly do not care how much money the movie had made. After watching it, I realized that a fourth movie should not have been made . . . at least from an artistic point of view. It featured too much sloppy writing and characterizations for me to truly enjoy. “On Stranger Tides” might prove to be the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie that I cannot consider as a favorite.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of Shiloh

TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF SHILOH

This month marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh. It was fought between April 6-7, 1862; around Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. It was one of the first major battles in the Western Theater of the U.S. Civil War. 

In southwestern Tennessee, the Union Army under Major-General Ulysses S. Grant had found his command camped at Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the Tennessee River. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston wanted to launch surprise attack on Grant‘s forces and destroy it. Johnston’s second-in-command, Pierre G. T. Beauregardadvised against such an attack, fearing that the sounds of Confederate soldiers marching and test-firing their rifles after two days of rain had cost them the element of surprise. Johnston refused to accept Beauregard’s advice and told him that he would “attack them if they were a million”. Despite General Beauregard’s well-founded concern, the Union forces did not hear the sounds of the marching army in its approach and remained blissfully unaware of the enemy camped three miles away.

In the early morning of April 6, 1862; Johnston’s Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on Grant’s forces at Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates achieved considerable success on the first day, due to the Union Army’s state of unpreparedness for an attack. The assault was very fierce and some of the numerous inexperienced Union soldiers of Grant’s army fled for safety to the Tennessee River. Others fought well but were forced to withdraw under strong pressure and attempted to form new defensive lines. Many regiments disintegrated. The companies and sections that remained on the field attached themselves to other commands.  General William T. Sherman, who had been so negligent in preparation for the battle, became an important rallying figure for Union troops. He appeared everywhere along his lines, inspiring his raw recruits to resist the initial assaults, despite staggering losses on both side. His division bore the brunt of the initial attack, and despite heavy fire on their position and their right flank crumbling, they fought on stubbornly. The Union troops slowly lost ground and fell back to a position behind Shiloh Church.

Although the Confederates seemed to be emerging as victors of the battle, a minor mishap and Grant’s stubborn refusal to crumble under in defeat, led to an eventual victory for the Union. Around 2:30 p.m., General Johnston was leading a charge against a Union camp near a peach orchard, when he took a bullet behind his right knee. Johnston did not believe the wound was serious at the time and instead, sent his personal physician to tend some captured wounded Union soldiers. Although he did not feel anything, the bullet (possibly fired by friendly fire) had in fact clipped a part of his popliteal artery. Within minutes, his boot filled up with blood and Johnston’s staff saw that he was on the verge of fainting. It did not take long before he finally died and command of the Confederate forces fell upon General Beauregard.

General Grant was about ten miles down river at Savannah, Tennessee, that morning. On April 4, he had been injured when his horse fell and pinned him underneath. He was convalescing and unable to move without crutches. Grant heard the sound of artillery fire and raced to the battlefield by boat, arriving about 8:30 a.m. He worked frantically to bring up reinforcements that seemed near enough to arrive swiftly, which included Lew Wallace‘s division from Crump’s Landing. However, he would wait almost all day before the reinforcements arrived. Wallace’s slow movement to the battlefield became particularly controversial. Several factors saved the Union forces on April 6. One, their forces under General Benjamin Prentiss managed to hold back a Confederate frontal assault for seven hours at a place called the Hornet’s Nest. Two, Grant kept his cool and did not cave in to the possibility that his army might be destroyed. But more importantly Beauregard failed to take advantage of the Union’s exposed flanks as they pulled back toward Pittsburg Landing, and continued focusing his troops at the Hornet’s Nest.

Worse luck for the Confederate Army appeared at Pittsburg Landing on the evening of April 6. Reinforcements underGeneral Don Carlos Buell arrived. Beauregard had been forewarned at the possibility of Buell’s arrival, but he decided to accept the report that the Union commander was on his way to Decatur, Alabama. By the morning of April 7, Beauregard had no idea that his forces were outnumbered by both Grant and Buell’s forces. As he prepared to finish Grant by the banks of the Tennessee River, Beauregard and his men found themselves surprised by a strong counterattack by the Union Army.

Beauregard launched a series of counterattacks from the Shiloh Church area by the early afternoon, hoping to ensure control of the Corinth Road. Although the Union Army’s right was temporarily driven back by these assaults, Union troops seized the road junction of the Hamburg-Purdy and East Corinth Roads, driving the Confederates into Prentiss’s old camps. Beauregard’s final counterattack was flanked and repulsed when Grant moved Colonel James C. Veatch’s brigade forward. Realizing that he had lost the initiative and that he was low on ammunition and food and with over 10,000 of his men no longer in action, Beauregard knew he he was in serious trouble. He withdrew the Confederate forces in an orderly fashion back to Corinth, Mississippi. The exhausted Union soldiers did not pursue much past the original Sherman and Prentiss encampments.

By the late afternoon of April 7, the battle had ended. Long afterwards, Grant and Buell quarreled over Grant’s decision not to mount an immediate pursuit with another hour of daylight remaining. Grant cited the exhaustion of his troops, although the Confederates were certainly just as exhausted. Part of Grant’s reluctance to act could have been the unusual command relationship he had with Buell. Although Grant was the senior officer and technically was in command of the overall Union forces in that part of the Western theater, Buell made it quite clear throughout the two days that he had been acting independently.

Newspapers vilified Grant for allowing his army to be caught offguard on the morning of April 6. Journalists began spreading the false rumor that he had been drunk during the battle. Many credited Buell for taking command of the Union forces on April 7. Sherman was hailed as a hero. Grant’s career suffered a temporary setback when head of all Union forces in the Western theater, General Henry W. Halleck combined and reorganized his armies and demoted Grant to the powerless position of second-in-command. Halleck remained in charge, until he was promoted as general-in-chief of all Union forces and called back to Washington D.C. Beauregard was relieved of command of the Confederates’ Army of Mississippi around late May/early June 1862. Braxton Bragg assumed his old position.

For more details on the Battle of Shiloh, I recommend the following books:

*“Shiloh 1862: The Death of Innocence” by James Arnold

*“Shiloh, 1862” by Winston Groom

*“Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War” by Larry J. Daniel