“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair. 

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed“VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that“VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

Turk’s Head Pie

Below is a small article about an old dish from the medieval era called Turk’s Head. I first learned of this dish, while watching the“SUPERSIZERS EAT . . .” series. Following the article is a recipe

TURK’S HEAD PIE

I believe many would be surprised to learn that Turk’s Head Pie is a basic meat dish made from leftover game meat. The origin of the dish’s name is pleasant and a lot more complicated. Turk’s Head Pie originated probably during the Crusades. European armies that fought during those wars – probably Norman – fed its soldiers by baking leftover game in pastry shells or crusts. These armies named the dish after their enemy – the Muslim soldiers that were known as “Turks”. Judging by the simple recipe, the Europeans did not mean to be complimentary.

The oldest version of the Turk’s Head pastry recipe can be found in an Anglonorman (Norman or French) manuscript from the 14th century. There is an even older recipe called “Teste de Turk” from an older Anglonorman manuscript dated 1290. However, this recipe is not a pasty. Instead, it calls for a pig’s stomach stuffed with pork, chicken, saffron, eggs, bread and almonds before it is boiled.

The original recipe, which can be found in “Two Anglo-Norman culinary collections edited from British Library manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii”: Speculum 61 (1986):

Turk’s Head

A sheet of dough, well filled(?): much in it, rabbits and birds, peeled dates steeped in honey, a lot of new cheese in it, cloves, cubebs, and sugar on top. Then a very generous layer of ground pistachio nuts, colour of the layer red, yellow and green. The head shall be black, dressed with hairs in the manner of a woman on a black dish, the face of a man on it.

Here is a more updated version of the recipe:

Turk’s Head Pie

Ingredients

300 gram (2/3 pound) minced meat (pork or veal) (optional)
4 hindquarters of a wild rabbit (or one rabbit)
4 quails, or 2 partridges or pheasants
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cubeb (or black pepper with a little piment)
200 gram (1 1/4 cup) dates
200 gram (3/4 cup) young, fresh cheese (sheep, goat, cow)
200 gram (1 1/2 cup) pistachio’s without shells
60 gram (2 Tbsp. or 1 fl.oz) honey
lard, suet or butter
salt
dough for pasties
1 egg (optional)

Preparation in Advance

Fry the minced meat in lard, suet or butter.

Sprinkle rabbit and fowl with peper and salt. Heat lard, suet or butter in a large skillet, brown the meat quickly, then cover and simmer until it is done (about forty minutes). You can also roast the meat in the oven, baste regularly with the fat (suet, lard, butter). When it is done, let the meat cooluntil you can easily debone it. Cut into large chunks.

Steep the stoned dates five to ten minutes in honey that is heated with two tablespoons of water. Drain the dates, but keep the honeywater. Cut the dates in quarters.
Crumbe the cheese, or chop it.
Put everything in a bowl – minced meat, rabbit and fowl, spices, chees, dates, sugar and honeywater, mix well.

The crust – make a pasty dough, or use some ready-made if you really think you must. But making your own is more fun, and you get a special dough.

Preparation

Heat the oven to 200 degrees (400 degrees Fahrenheit).

Take a springform or a pie dish that is large enough to contain the stuffing (that depends on how large your rabbit and fowl were, whether or not you added minced meat, or how much leftovers you had). Grease the form with butter and roll out your dough. Place the dough in the piedish. If you use a springform, it is best to assemble the pasty: first cut out the bottom out of a rolled sheet of dough and place that in the springform. Then cut a long strip of dough, a little broader than the springform is high, and cover the sides. Be sure to seal the side to the bottom sheet of dough by gently pressing the edges togehter. If you want to be sure, roll a thin strip of dough between your palms and press that against the edges. Let the dough that hangs over the top of the form be, you’ll use that to seal the cover.

Scoop the stuffing into the dough, cover with pistachio nuts. Close the pasty or pie with another sheet of dough. Press the edges of the cover and the sides together and cut out a small hole or two to let the steam escape. You can incorporate these holes into your decoration (eyes, mouth).

Now the name of the pasty becomes clear – use leftover dough to decorate the cover with a ‘Turk’s head’ or something else. Colouring and gilding is done after baking, but you can baste the dough with eggwhite (for a light glaze) or egg yolk (for a darker glaze).

Put the pasty or pie in the middle of the oven, bake for about forty minutes. Let cool five minutes after taking it from the oven befor demoulding.
To finish the decoration apply food colouring paste with a small brush, and gold leaf or silver leaf.

To Serve

A pasty like this one can be served hot as well as cooled to room temperature. Cut the cover loose and lift it, and scoop out the stuffing. When eating the medieval way, you use your fingers to pick what you want, and eat it above your bread trencher.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

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“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

If someone had told me about three to four years ago about a fictional story featuring a historical leader and his encounters with the supernatural . . . I would have laughed in that person’s face. Hell, I would have done that about a year later. Then Seth Grahame-Smith wrote a novel about Abraham Lincoln battling vampires. And you know what? I did not laugh. But I sure as hell did not take it seriously. 

Last spring, I saw the trailer for the movie adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s novel and found myself surprisingly intrigued by it. Well . . . I was intrigued by the movie’s visual style. And the fact that movie featured actors that I have become a fan of did not hurt. But the idea of Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter remained a block in my mind. In fact, I struggled over whether or not to see “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, until the day before the movie’s wide release. And to my surprise, I am glad that I finally saw it.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE SLAYER” begins on April 14, 1865 . . . with President Abraham Lincoln recounting his experiences with vampires in a journal. The movie flashbacks to the year 1818 in Southern Indiana, where the young Abraham and his parents – Thomas and Nancy – work out the family’s debt to a local landowner and slave owner named Jack Barts. Abraham befriends an African-American young slave named William Johnson. When the latter is attacked by one of Barts’ employees with a whip, Abraham intervenes before his father comes to his rescue. Barts demands that the Lincoln family compensate for the interaction over William in cash. Thomas cannot afford to pay back the landowner and refuses to work out his debt even further. Barts later attacks Nancy at the Lincolns’ cabin and poisons her. She later dies the following morning.

Nine years later in 1827, an eighteen year-old Abraham seeks revenge against Barts by attacking him. But the latter, who proves to be a vampire, overpowers Abraham. Abraham is rescued by a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess, who informs the young man of Barts’ true state. Henry offers to teach Abraham to be a vampire hunter. During training, Sturgess informs Abraham that Jack Barts and other vampires in America are descended from a vampire named Adam, who owns and lives on a plantation outside of New Orleans, with his sister Vadoma. Sturgess also tells Abraham of the vampires’ weakness – namely silver – and presents the latter with a silver pocket watch. After several years of training, Abraham travels to Springfield, Illinois. There, he makes plans to read for the law, befriends a shopkeeper named Joshua Speed, renews his friendship with William; and falls in love with Mary Todd, a socialite from a wealthy Kentucky family. Abraham also begins his activities as a vampire hunter.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not perfect. It is a flawed movie. There were one or two aspects of the plot that I found questionable. After Abraham’s reunion with William, the pair was arrested for fighting off slave catchers that were after the latter. Following their arrest, there was a scene that featured the incarcerated pair being visited by Mary Todd. The next scene featured a freed William being kidnapped by Adam’s thugs off the streets of Springfield, in order to lure Abraham into a trap set in Louisiana. How on earth did William avoid being sent back down South as a fugitive slave? When he first reunited with Abraham inside Joshua’s store, he told the latter that he was an escaped slave. So, how did William end up freely walking the streets of Springfield . . . without being sent back South as a fugitive slave?

My second problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” deals with a brief scene during the Civil War. This scene features Confederate president Jefferson Davis convincing Adam to deploy his vampires on the front lines. Look . . . I am the last person who could be accused of being a neo-Confederate. Trust me . . . I am. But I found this scene between Davis and Adam to be very unbelievable, even for fiction. I simply cannot see Jefferson Davis allying himself with a vampire in order to win the Civil War. One, like Abraham, Davis would have been leery of the idea of associating with a vampire. And two, chances are he probably would have become aware of Adam’s plan of transforming the United States in a land of the undead . . . and automatically oppose it. The only way this scene would have worked is if Davis had been unaware of Adam’s state as a vampire.

My last problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” turned out to be a costume worn by actor Benjamin Walker, who portrayed Abraham Lincoln. I am, of course, referring to the outfit he wore in the Abraham/Mary wedding scene. Take a look:

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Dear God! What were Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli thinking? Abe’s wedding outfit looks like a nineteenth-century version of a high school prom suit, circa 1975. In other words, two periods in time clash in the creation of this God awful suit. It is a good thing that I found their other costumes very impressive.

Despite the above flaws, I still managed to enjoy “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much. After watching the movie, I now regret my reluctance over its premise. The idea of historical figure being utilized as an action character in a supernatural story turned out to be very . . . very original. More conservative minds would probably find such an idea sacrilegious. I recall a co-worker expressing disgust at the idea of someone using Abraham Lincoln as an action figure in a movie. But think about it. In some ways, he was a good choice on Seth Grahame-Smith’s part. Lincoln was a physically impressive man, being tall and strong as a bull. He knew how to wield an ax with the same level as a Musketeer with a sword. More importantly, he was an intelligent man who could be ruthless when the occasion called for it.

I found Grahame-Smith’s use of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death and the issue of slavery to create his story of Lincoln and vampires very effective. The screenwriter used the death of Lincoln’s mother to jump start the future president’s alternate profession as a vampire hunter. And I was very impressed by his use of the slavery issue to intensify Lincoln’s interest in the destruction of vampires. In “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, the institution of slavery and especially the slave trade is used to provide vampires with easily available humans (namely slaves) to feed upon. The Jack Barts character apparently gathered slaves around the Ohio River (which bordered the upper South) and shipped them to the vampire-owned plantations in the Deep South. This strikes me as a fictional reflection of the large-scale shipments of many upper South slaves to the cotton plantations of the Deep South during the first half of the 19th century in real life. According to Abraham’s mentor, Henry Sturgess, the U.S. slave trade not only gave vampires easy access to “food”, but kept their penchant of seeking victims all over the country under control. This use of slaves as easy victims for vampires led to their support of the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

The transportation of slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South proved to be one of the movie’s historically accurate contributions to the plot. I have to be frank. “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not exactly historically accurate. In reality, William Johnson was a free-born African-American who became Lincoln’s personal valet. The movie overlooked the fact that Lincoln had a much beloved stepmother, and four sons – not one. Also, Harriet Tubman never operated in the Deep South, let alone in Louisiana. And African slave traders did not sell “their own kind” to Europeans, as the vampire Adam claimed in the movie. They sold people they considered to be strangers and especially, foreigners. But . . . this is a movie about a former U.S. president that became a vampire hunter. Would anyone really expect a tale of this sort to be historically accurate? I certainly would not.

But one of the major highlights of “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” proved to be the mind-boggling visuals created by the special effects team led by Matt Kutcher. These visuals were especially effective in exciting actions sequences that featured Abraham’s final confrontation with Jack Barts on the Illinois prairie, the rescue of William Johnson in Louisiana, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and especially the fiery confrontation aboard the train heading for Gettysburg. William Hoy’s editing, Caleb Deschanel’s photography and especially Timur Bekmambetov’s direction really made it happened. Aside from the stomach churning wedding suit, I must admit that I really enjoyed Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli’s costume designs – especially for the costumes worn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Their costumes, along with François Audouy’s production designs, Beat Frutiger’s art direction and Cheryl Carasik’s set decorations really contributed to the film’s overall look of early to mid-19th century America.

And what about the cast? Benjamin Walker, in my opinion, was a find. A genuine find. I do not know how to put this. The man was perfectly cast as Abraham Lincoln. He possessed the height, the looks (thanks to the make-up department). He had great screen chemistry with his co-stars – especially Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Walker did not simply walk or stand around, looking like Lincoln. Thanks to a superb performance, he made Lincoln a human being, instead of a walking historical figure. Dominic Cooper added another fascinating performance to his résumé as the enigmatic Henry Sturgess, the individual that taught Abraham Lincoln to be a first-rate vampire hunter. His performance reeked with mystery, wit and wisdom. Cooper’s Sturgess was also a curious mixture ambiguity and moral fortitude that I found very fascinating.

From what I can gathered, the William Johnson character was not featured in Grahame-Smith’s novel. I could be wrong. I never read the book. But I am glad that the author included the character in the movie, giving me a chance to see Anthony Mackie on the screen again. But this is the first time I truly saw him as a character in an action figure and he was superb. I could also say the same for Jimmi Simpson, whom I have grown used to seeing in comedies. He was great as Abraham’s Springfield crony, Joshua Speed, whose interest in Abraham and William’s old friendship led him to become involved in their vampire hunting activities. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was given the opportunity to portray a different Mary Todd Lincoln from the usual portrayals marred by either insanity or cold-blooded ambition. And in the end, she gave a great performance that conveyed the famous First Lady’s intelligence, vivacity and wit. And Rufus Sewell was first-rate as the movie’s main villain, a long-living vampire named Adam, who harbored plans to make the United States a country fit to be dominated by vampires. Sewell also used a Southern accent that I found surprisingly impressive.

As I had stated earlier, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” was not a perfect movie. It had a plot hole or two that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to address. The movie’s story also featured an implausible scene featuring a historical figure. But the movie boasted some excellent performances from a cast led by Benjamin Walker and some superb visuals that not only transported moviegoers back to the world of early and mid 19th century America, but also to the supernatural world of vampires. And thanks to Grahame-Smith’s story and Timur Bekmambetov’s stylish direction, the movie began with what many would consider an implausible plot – a historical icon battling supernatural beings – and transformed it into a fascinating tale filled with both fantasy and history. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much.

“LOST” RETROSPECT: (5.09) “Namaste”

 

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Below is an article I had written about the Season Five episode of “LOST” (2004-2010) called (5.09) “Namaste”

 

“LOST” RETROSPECT: (5.09) Namaste”

“Namaste” is a term used commonly on the Indian subcontinent that is used as a greeting and a parting valediction between individuals. I suppose that this word might be the proper title for this ninth episode from Season Five from ABC’s “LOST”(5.09) “Namaste” served as a crossroad for the series’ fifth season. It served as a closure for some of the season’s story arcs and a beginning for others.

The episode opened where the sixth episode, (5.06) “316” ended, with former castaways Dr. Jack Shephard, Kate Austen and Hugo “Hurley” Reyes disappearing from Ajira Flight 316 (destination – Guam) and reappearing on the Island. Following their harrowing reappearance, they are spotted by one their former castaways, who had remained on the island, Jin-Soo Kwon. The season’s eighth episode, (5.08) “La Fleur”, revealed that Jin; along with James “Sawyer” Ford (“Jim La Fleur”), Dr. Juliet Burke, Miles Straume, and Daniel Faraday; had ceased their time skipping and landed in the year 1974. They spent the next three years as members of the Dharma Initiative. When Jin informed Sawyer of Jack, Kate and Hurley’s arrival in 1977, Saywer races from the Dharma compound to greet his former castaways.

Sawyer explains to the three newcomers that they had ended up in the 1970s. And in order to remain at the Dharma compound, he lied to the organization’s leaders that he was captain of a research vessel, whose crew was searching the wrecked slave ship, the Black Rock. He then arranges for the trio to join the Dharma Initiative as new recruits. Jack becomes a janitor, Kate joins the motor pool, where Juliet works. And Hurley becomes a cook. Sawyer manages to achieve this after Juliet forges their necessary documentation.

Back in the 21st century, pilot Frank Lapidus manages to land the Ajira 316 airliner on the runway constructed by members of the Others, Kate and Sawyer (who were prisoners) back on Season Three, on the Hydra Station island. Along with Frank, Sun-Kwa Kwon and Benjamin Linus (former Others leader), other survivors include a man named Caesar, who assumes leadership of the surviving Ajira passengers and a bounty hunter named Ilana Verdansky, who had been escorting former Oceanic castaway Sayid Jarrah into custody. Ben sets out for the main island to reunite with the Others. Sun decides to join him in order to find Jin. And Frank accompanies them in order to protect Sun from Ben. However, she knocks Ben out, leaving him behind on the Hydra island. Sun and Frank encounter a figure in Christian Shephard’s image, who informs them that Jack, Kate and Hurley have time traveled back to 1977. He also informs Sun that Jin is with them.

I found nothing particularly unique about “Namaste”. But I must admit that I still found it interesting and solid entertainment. I found the present day sequences featuring Sun, Ben and Frank less interesting. Ben’s intention to leave the Hydra island in order to reunite with Richard Alpert and the rest of the Others did not seem very interesting to me. Even Ben’s attitude regarding his intention seemed like the logical conclusion. Which is why I found Sun’s reaction to him rather over-the-top. One, she did not have insist upon joining him. If she really wanted to leave Hydra island for the main one, she could have made the trip on her own. Instead, she insisted upon joining Ben, before whacking him over the head with a paddle. Many“LOST” fans cheered. I simply rolled my eyes at the ridiculousness of it all and a confirmation of her vindictive nature. When she and Frank later discovered that Jack, Kate, Hurley and Jin were all in 1977, I found the scene . . . well, uninteresting. The only interesting aspect of this story line was that it explained the finale of (3.07) “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham”– with the Man in Black (in John Locke’s form) looking down at his unconscious form.

The scenes set in 1977 managed to rouse my interest. The interactions between the main characters seemed filled with a great deal of emotions – overt or otherwise. Much of that emotion was centered around James “Sawyer” Ford. Ever since the Season Four episode, (4.09) “The Shape of Things to Come”, many “LOST” fans have been pushing him as the series’ hero. Sawyer’s “hero” status was solidified – as far as many were concerned – in “La Fleur”, when he found a way to ensure that he and his fellow castaways would become part of the Dharma Initiative and became romantically involved with Juliet Burke. Within three years, Sawyer became the Dharma Initiative’s Head of Security. In a way, I can see why many fans had put Sawyer on a pedestal by mid-Season Five. Yet, I found some of his interactions with the other characters and his own decisions rather questionable. I am not accusing screenwriters Paul Zbyszewski and Brian K. Vaughan of bad writing. On the contrary, I thought they handled Sawyer’s role in this episode very well. But I suspect that so many fans were viewing Sawyer through rose-colored glasses that they failed to see the warts behind the heroic image. Not even Jack Shephard during the series’ first season was regarded in such a high light.

Many fans anticipated the reunion between Sawyer and his former bed partner, Kate Austen; believing that the latter was over Jack. Mind you, not all fans believed this, but a good number did. The episode’s last five to ten minutes featured a moment in which the two exchanged subtle looks. That look would prove to be the beginning of the end of Sawyer’s romance with Juliet . . . but in a way he did not anticipate or liked. Even worse, Kate’s little moment of flirtation was a return to an old habit of hers – using Sawyer to erase her romantic problems with Jack. Fans marveled at how he and Juliet had arranged for Jack, Kate and Hurley’s initiation into the Dharma Initiative. And many cheered at his criticism, near the end of the episode, of Jack’s earlier leadership of the Oceanic 815 castaways. I felt impressed by the former and unimpressed by the latter. My recent viewing of this episode led me to realize a few things. One, three years as the “Sheriff of Dharmaland” had allowed Sawyer to develop an ego the size of a basketball. Note some of his criticism directed at Jack:

SAWYER: [Chuckles] I heard once Winston Churchill read a book every night, even during the Blitz. He said it made him think better. It’s how I like to run things. I think. I’m sure that doesn’t mean that much to you, ’cause back when you were calling the shots, you pretty much just reacted. See, you didn’t think, Jack, and as I recall, a lot of people ended up dead.

JACK: I got us off the Island.

SAWYER: But here you are… [sighs] right back where you started. So I’m gonna go back to reading my book, and I’m gonna think, ’cause that’s how I saved your ass today. And that’s how I’m gonna save Sayid’s tomorrow. All you gotta do is go home, get a good night’s rest. Let me do what I do.

One, Sawyer had forgotten that not all of Jack’s decisions were bad . . . and not all of his decisions were good. He also seemed unaware that his decision to include himself, Miles, Juliet, Jin and Daniel into the Dharma Initiative was a bad idea. And he should have never given Jack, Kate and Hurley the opportunity to become part of the Dharma Initiative.  Sawyer did not save Jack, Kate and Hurley’s lives. He merely dragged them into his own deception.  And his decisions will prove to be bad ones by the end of Season Five.  His belief in his own leadership skills proved to be nothing more than a reflection of his skills as a con artist. Like the Oceanic Six, he and his four companions had been living a lie for the past three years . . . a lie that would eventually catch up to them.  I also suspect that Sawyer (and Juliet) were responsible for the newcomers’ new positions. Sawyer’s rant and his arrangement of Jack’s new position as a janitor only convinced me that despite his words, his insecurities regarding the spinal surgeon have not abated in three years.

However, Sawyer was not the only one who made bad decisions. Hurley decided that he wanted the comforts of the Dharma Initiative, instead of the discomforts of the jungle. It was a bad decision on his part. And both Jack and Kate made the mistake of agreeing with Hurley’s decision. I could not help but wonder if Juliet had regretted assisting Amy Goodspeed through a difficult birth. The Goodspeeds’ new child turned out to be Ethan Rom, a future follower of Ben Linus in 2004. I feel that Juliet had made the right choice. But . . . I have great difficulty in believing that Ethan was 27 years old in 2004 (the first season), especially since the actor who had portrayed him, William Mapother, was 39 to 40 years old during the series’ first season . . . and looked it.

The episode ended with the revelation of Sayid Jarrah’s whereabouts. He did not appear on the island with Jack, Hurley and Kate. And he was not seen among the Ajira survivors in 2007. Instead, he also ended up in 1977, discovered by Jin Kwon seconds before they encountered the Dharma Initiative’s borderline psychotic head researcher, Stuart Radzinsky. Jin had no choice but to place Sayid under arrest for being a possible Hostile (the Others), the enemies of the Dharma Initiative and longtime island residents. At the end of the episode, Sayid met the 14 year-old version of Benjamin Linus, the man who manipulated him into becoming a hired gun in the latter’s war against rival Charles Widmore. This meeting will prove to have grave consequences for the Losties. So much for Sawyer saving Sayid’s ass. “Ain’t life a bitch?”

Thanks to screenwriters Paul Zbyszewski and Brian K. Vaughan, “Namaste” is a pretty good episode that brought a great deal of closure to the first half of Season Five and initiated the story arcs for the rest of that season and the sixth and final season. The emotional complexities – especially in regard to James “Sawyer” Ford – proved to be very interesting in the 1977 sequences. But I was not that particularly impressed by the 2007 scenes. Despite my disappointment in the latter, I managed to enjoy the episode in the end.

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

When it comes to adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I tend to stick with a trio of titles – ”Pride and Prejudice”,”Emma” and ”Sense and Sensibility”. Before this year, I have never seen a screen adaptation of any remaining Austen novels. Until I saw the 2007 adaptation of her last completed novel published in 1818, ”Persuasion”

Directed by Adrian Shergold, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the sensible middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet named Sir Walter Elliot. At the age of 19, Anne had fallen in love with a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth. But due to his lack of fortune and family connections, Sir Walter and Anne’s friends expressed displeasure at the idea of her becoming Mrs. Wentworth. But it was a family friend named Lady Russell who persuaded Anne into breaking off her engagement to Frederick. Eight years later, the Elliot family found themselves in financial straits due to the careless spending of Sir Walter and his oldest daughter, Elizabeth. They ended up leasing their house and estate – Kellylynch Hall in Somersetshire – to an Admiral Croft and his wife. The latter turned out to be the older sister of the now Captain Wentworth.

While Elizabeth and Sir Walter set off for their new residence in Bath, Anne remained behind to take care of further business in Somersetshire; including taking care of her hypochondriac sister Mary Musgrove, who is married to Charles Musgrove and living in a nearby estate. During one of his visits to his sister, Frederick re-entered Anne’s life. He had risen to the rank of Captain and has become rich from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. Frederick also became viewed as a catch by every eligible young woman – including her brother-in-law’s two sisters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove. But Anne suspected that Frederick had not forgiven her for rejecting his offer of marriage so many years ago. And both end up learning how to overcome their personal demons in order to let go of the past and find a new future together.

Hands down, ”PERSUASION” has to be the most emotional Jane Austen tale I have ever come across. In fact, I would go as far to say that this tale literally had me squirming on my living room sofa in sheer discomfort during many scenes that featured Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. Or . . . I found myself heaving with frustration – especially during the movie’s last ten to fifteen minutes, as Frederick made an effort to emotionally reconnect with Anne, while the latter’s family continued to put obstacles in her way. However, it eventually struck me that the main barrier between Anne and Frederick’s reconciliation came from the two lovers. I would probably go as far to say that the couple’s personal demons over the past broken engagement perpetrated the entire story. And I truly enjoyed this – in a slightly perverse way.

Thanks to screenwriter Simon Burke’s writing and Sally Hawkins’ performance, I came away with a feeling that Anne had existed in a fog of resignation ever since her rejection of Frederick’s proposal, eight years ago. Aside from struggling to keep her family out of financial straits – despite Sir Walter and Elizabeth’s spending – I wondered if she had spent all of those years flagellating herself for allowing Lady Russell to persuade her into giving up Frederick. Her self-flagellation seemed to have continued during moments when Frederick either snubbed her or when their past connections came up in conversation. Frederick’s attitude did not help matters, considering that he spent most of the movie coldly rebuffing Anne or wallowing in resentment. This especially seemed to be the case after he learned that Anne had rejected another suitor after Lady Russell (again) persuaded her that he would be an unsuitable match for her. Frederick’s anger and resentment assumed a righteous tone following that revelation. His attitude ended up blinding him from the fact that his friendliness toward the Musgrove sisters – especially Louisa – had led many to assume he was seriously interested in her. At that moment, Frederick realized two things – his inability to forgive Anne had nearly led him to a marriage he did not desire; and that he still loved her. In other words, ”PERSUASION” had the type of romance that really appealed to me. I found it complex, difficult and slightly perverse.

In the movie’s third act, Anne joined Sir Walter and Elizabeth in Bath. She became acquainted with an old friend named Mrs. Smith. She also acquired a new suitor – her cousin, the widowed and now wealthy Mr. William Elliot. Unfortunately, the William Elliot character proved to be the story’s weakest link. Many fans of Austen’s novel have complained that Simon Burke’s screenplay failed to adhere closely to the author’s portrayal of the character. I have read a few reviews of the 1995 adaptation and came across similar complaints. In the Austen novel, William Elliot happened to be heir to Sir Walter’s baronetcy and the Kellylynch estate upon the older man’s death due to a lack of sons. Fearing that Sir Walter might marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, and produce a son; William set out to ensure his inheritance by re-establishing ties with Sir Walter and marry one of the latter’s remaining single daughters . . . namely Anne.

I can see why many have criticized the movie’s portrayal of William Elliot. But I find it interesting that many have not considered the possibility that the fault originated with Austen’s novel. Think about it. Why did William went through so much trouble to court Anne? Could he not tell that she had little interest in him? Why not court the daughter who did express interest – namely Elizabeth? And why did William believe that a marriage to Anne or any of Sir Walter’s daughters would secure his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy and Kellylynch? How would such a marriage prevent Sir Walter from marrying a younger woman capable of giving him a son? After all, the man remained a vital and attractive man at the age of 54. And even if William had prevented Mrs. Clay from marrying Sir Walter, there would be other eligible young women (preferably wealthy) that would not mind marrying Sir Walter in order to become Lady Elliot and mistress of Kellylynch. Personally, I feel that the William Elliot storyline in the novel was a contrived and flawed attempt to provide a romantic complication for Anne and Frederick. And instead of re-writing Austen’s portrayal of William or getting rid of him altogether, Burke and director Adrian Shergold decided to vaguely adhere to the literary version.

Another problem I had with ”PERSUASION” turned out to be the supporting cast. Well . . . some of the supporting cast. Poor Tobias Menzies could barely do anything but project a bit of smugness and false warmth with the poorly written William Elliot character. And if I must be frank, I could not remember the faces of characters like Mary Elliot Musgroves’ husband and sisters-in-law, the Crofts, and Mrs. Smith. Mind you, it was nice to see television and movie veteran Nicholas Farrell in the role of the older Mr. Musgrove. Fortunately, I cannot say the same about those who portrayed Anne’s immediate family, Captain Harville and Lady Russell. The always competent Anthony Stewart Head gave a spot-on performance as the vain and arrogant Sir Walter Elliot. One can only assume that Anne had inherited her personality from her mother. Both Julia Davis and Amanda Hale were memorably amusing as Anne’s sisters – the equally vain and arrogant Elizabeth Elliot and the self-involved hypochondriac Mary Elliot Musgrove. Mary Stockley gave a subtle performance as Elizabeth’s obsequious companion, Mrs. Penelope Clay. I also enjoyed Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Captain Harville, one of Wentworth’s closest friend. I found his performance quiet and subtle in a very satisfying way. And Alice Kriege’s portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Lady Russell struck me as very complex and very subtle. Her performance made Lady Russell seem like a kind woman with a surprising lack of tolerance that ended up wrecking havoc on Anne’s life for eight years.

For my money, ”PERSUASION” truly belonged to Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. I believe that both did beautiful jobs in breathing life into the two lead characters. Someone had once complained in another article that in ”PERSUASION”, the two leads exchanged very little dialogue with each other and other characters. This person also added that it almost felt like watching a silent movie. This only confirmed my belief that both Hawkins and Penry-Jones are more than competent screen actors. Through their expressions and very little dialogue, they managed to convey their characters’ emotions, demons and development.

Not only did Hawkins express Anne Elliot’s resignation to a life as Sir Walter’s unmarried and overlooked daughter; she also revealed Anne’s despair and discomfort over dealing with Frederick Wentworth’s silent anger and contempt. And in the movie’s last half hour, the actress made it a joy to watch Anne bloom again under the attentions of her morally questionable Cousin William Elliot and Frederick’s renewed interest. One would think that Penry-Jones’ had an easier job in his portrayal of Captain Wentworth. Well . . . he had less screen time. Though his character did strike me to be just as complex as Anne’s. Penry-Jones took Frederick’s character through an emotional journey during the entire film; via anger, contempt, indifference, mild cheerfulness, longing, jealousy, desperation and joy. Some of his best moments featured Frederick’s struggles to keep his emotions in check. More importantly, both Hawkins and Penry-Jones had such a strong screen chemistry that most of their scenes that featured them staring longingly at each other had me muttering ”get a room” under my breath.

I just realized that I have not mentioned a word about Anne Elliot’s infamous run through the streets of Bath. Many fans have complained that no decent young English lady of the early 19th century would ever do such a thing. Others have viewed it as simply a ludicrous scene that made Anne look ridiculous. I must admit that a part of me found the sequence rather ridiculous-looking. But I have managed to consider some positive aspects to this scene. One, it represented Anne’s desperate attempt to connect with Frederick before it was too late. And two, the scene provided colorful views of the very distinctive-looking Bath.

Many fans have complained about the movie’s 93-minute running time. They claimed that ”PERSUASION” should have been a lot longer. Perhaps they had a point. After all, the 1971 adaptation had a running time of 210 minutes. And the 1960-61 version aired as a series of four episodes. On the other hand, some fans of the movie claimed that Austen’s novel was not as long as some of her previous ones. Also, the much admired 1995 version had a running time of only 107 minutes.

The 93 minute running time for ”PERSUASION” did not bother me one bit. I really enjoyed this latest version of Austen’s novel very much. Granted, it had its flaws – namely the handling of the William Elliot character. But I believe that this flaw can be traced to Austen’s novel. Flaws or not, I enjoyed ”PERSUASION” so much that I immediately purchased a DVD copy of it after seeing the movie on television. In my opinion, director Adrian Shergold’s BAFTA nomination was very well-deserved.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Four “For as Long as the River Flows” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Four “For as Long as the Water Flows” Commentary

The fourth episode of “CENTENNIAL”“For as Long as the Water Flows”, strikes as an enigma in the episode. Well . . . not exactly an enigma. But I found it rather strange. As far as I know, it is the only episode in the 1978-79 miniseries that is based upon two chapters in James Michner’s novel. 

“For as Long as the Water Flows” picked up some seven months following the end of the last episode. The story found Levi Zendt still mourning over the death of his bride, Elly, while isolating himself at the very cabin that Alexander McKeag was snowbound back in the second episode. Both McKeag and his wife, Clay Basket, have also become alarmed over their daughter Lucinda’s growing friendship with various mountain men and trappers at Fort Laramie. Clay Basket instructs McKeag to send Lucinda to Levi, in order to help the Lancaster man overcome his grief. In the end, Clay Basket’s plans come to fruition, when Levi and Lucinda fall in love. However, Levi suggests that Lucinda spends at least a half a year in St. Louis in order to become educated and learn Christianity before he marries. This suggestion nearly costs Levi his new love, when Lucinda falls for a young U.S. Army officer named John McIntosh. However, Lucinda remains in love with Levi and decides it would be best to be the wife of a pioneer and future storekeeper, than an Army officer’s wife.

The second half of the episode, which is based upon another episode, jumps another four years later to 1851. Major Maxwell Mercy has been instructed by the U.S. Army to facilitate a treaty between many of the Plains tribes and the U.S. government, regarding territorial claims between the tribes and guarantees of safe passage for westbound emigrants to Oregon or California. Although men like Jacques Pasquinel expresses doubt, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) is signed and ratified. The event also featured a family reunion between three of Pasquinel’s children – Jacques, Marcel and their older sister, Lisette Pasquinel Mercy. The story jumps another nine years to 1860, when Northern Colorado is experiencing the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush (1858-1861). One of the potential gold seekers turns out to be the saga’s next major character, Hans Brumbaugh, a Russian-born farmer of German descent. He meets three other gold seekers, including an overeagerly man named Spade Larkin, who had somehow learned about the gold nugget discovered by Lame Beaver in ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”, thanks to an article written about Lucinda during her stay in St. Louis. But most of the second half of the episode focused upon the Laramie treaty and its eventual breakdown, as the number of westbound emigrants increased due to the gold rushes in California and Colorado.

I am going to be honest. ”For as Long as the River Flows” is not one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. In fact, I consider it to be inferior, in compare to the other episodes in the first half of ”CENTENNIAL”. But I must admit that it featured a good number of powerful scenes and moments:

*Lucinda’s success in helping Levi recover from Elly’s death

*Clay Basket and Lise Pasquinel meet for the first time, thanks to Alexander McKeag

*Levi and Lucinda’s wedding/McKeag’s death

*Levi and Michel Pasquinel’s discussion about the American claim over tribal lands

*Jacques Pasquinel’s prophecy over the American government’s inability to maintain their promises to the tribes and the latter’s future

*Hans Brumbaugh’s angry reaction to the murder of two braves by Spade Larkin’s companions

*Lucinda’s brief reunion with her former flame, John McIntosh, at Zendt’s fort

*Lucinda and Martin Zendt’s brief, yet violent encounter with Spade Larkin

*General Asher’s revelation that the Fort Laramie Treaty has been considered null and void by the American government, reducing the tribes’ claims on the land

Of the scenes featured above, at least three of them stood out for me. One of them featured Levi Zendt and Lucinda McKeag’s wedding, which ended with Alexander McKeag’s death. Watching Clay Basket mourn her second husband not only brought tears to my eyes, it made me realize how much she truly loved him. I do not recall Clay Basket mourning Pasquinel with such deep-seated grief. I was also impressed by Jacques Pasquinel’s arguments against the tribes signing a treaty with the United States. Jacques has always been an ambiguous character. He has a bad temper that can be murderous at times. And he nurses resentments like no other fictional character I have seen (his relationship with McKeag is a prime example). But after watching this episode recently, I must admit that he was a very intelligent man, who pretty much saw the dark future for the Plains tribes. Other leaders such as Lost Eagle and Broken Thumb were willing to make peace with the Americans. Lost Eagle was willing, due to Maxwell Mercy’s participation in the talks; and Broken Thumb saw no other way for his people – the Cheyenne – to survive. But Jacques knew that any peace with the Americans was bound to fail and that the latter would stab them in the back to gain their land. And when one consider how the American government managed to decimate or push away tribes that had resided in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys some fifteen to twenty earlier, how could Lost Eagle, Broken Thumb and Maxwell Mercy even bother facilitating a treaty that was doomed to fail? And the treaty did fail by the end of the episode, in a powerful scene in which the tribal leaders were informed that they would have to be pushed onto land that would not sustain them. Watching that scene, I found myself feeling disturbed, frustrated and filled with contempt toward characters such as General Asher and the government he represented.

Despite those powerful scenes that I had mentioned, I still found myself feeling less than impressed by ”For as Long as the River Flows”. Quite frankly, it struck me as contradictory. At times, I thought I was watching two completely different storylines that had no business being part of the same episode. I realize that producer John Wilder wanted to begin and end the miniseries with an episode that was at least 150 minutes long. However, I wish that Wilder had allowed both ”The Wagon and the Elephant” (Levi Zendt’s introduction to the West) and the next episode, ”The Massacre” (the final decline of the Native Americans in the Northern Colorado region) to have a longer running time. After all, both episodes were based upon two consecutive chapters in Michner’s novel. And considering the importance of each storyline, both episodes would have deserved it. Instead, Wilder and his screenwriter Jerry Ziegman took the last third of Levi’s story and the first third of the storyline about the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans . . . and meshed both together in a single episode. And in my opinion, it did not work. This reshuffling made”For as Long as the River Flows” look and feel schizophrenic.

I must admit that ”For as Long as the River Flows” featured some first-rate performances. I was especially impressed by Stephen McHattie’s portrayal of the intelligent, yet belligerent Jacques Pasquinel. He conveyed an interesting mixture of intensity, anger and intelligence into his performance that allowed his character to become one of the best in the miniseries. Another outstanding performance came from Chad Everett as the idealistic Army officer, Maxwell Mercy. Everett did an excellent job in generating admiration of his character’s tolerance and idealism . . . and at the same time, allow audiences to ponder over his lack of realism. I cannot count the number of times in which Everett’s Maxwell Mercy expressed some delusional belief that one man can generate piece between the encroaching Americans and the Native tribes.

This episode featured Richard Chamberlain’s last major appearance in the miniseries as Alexander McKeag. And as usual, he was superb and poignant as the aging mountain man, who found peace with himself, before his untimely death. Barbara Carrera gave one of her better performances in this episode, as the older and wiser Clay Basket who set in motion emotional salvation for both Levi and Lucinda; and whose grief over her second husband’s death provided the miniseries with one of its most poignant moments. I also enjoyed her only scene with Sally Kellerman, in which Pasquinel’s two wives got to meet for the first and only time. Both women gave intelligent and poignant performances that allowed their scene to be one of the better ones in the episode. I have never harbored a high opinion of Christina Raines as an actress, but I must admit that this episode featured one of her best performances. I was referring to the above mentioned scene in which she finally helped Levi deal with his grief over Elly’s death. And she managed to create a strong chemistry with both Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (her future co-star in the short-lived ”FLAMINGO ROAD”).

Pernell Roberts (Harrison’s future co-star in ”TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.”) was superb as the arrogant, yet ignorant General Asher, who seemed determined to ignore the tribes’ plight at being driven from their lands. Kario Salem gave a poignant performance in a scene in which his character, Michel Pasquinel, discusses the meaning of land and its theft by the Americans with future brother-in-law, Levi. And I also have to mention veteran character actor James Sloyan whose portrayal of the obsessive gold seeker Spade Larkin struck me as both mesmerizing and rather frightening.

There is a lot to admire about ”For as Long as the River Flows”. It is filled with some powerful moments. And it can boast some first-rate performances from the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Carrera and especially Stephen McHattie and Chad Everett. Unfortunately, the episode also featured two major storylines that made it seem conflicting . . . almost schizophrenic. Pity.

“The Wrong Class”

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“THE WRONG CLASS”

After two seasons of viewing Britain’s ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made. 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham’s new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.

Introduced at the end of the series’ first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham’s new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham’s invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew’s worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel’s residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew’s first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew’s social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series’ fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.

These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain – especially for the upper classes – depends upon the size of an individual’s bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, an individual’s social status was determined by “bloodline”, not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.

Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain’s upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley’s social status – something that he passed to his son, Matthew.

If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain’s landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson’s new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons’ new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys’ social circle.

Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if “DOWNTON ABBEY” was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.

To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series’ storylines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

The past ten months has been a busy period for the Brothers Grimm. During that period, there have been two television shows and two movies that featured their work. At least one television series and the two movies retold the literary pair’s story about Snow White, including the recent film, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”

Directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is a twist on the Snow White tale in which the Huntsman not only becomes the princess’ savior, but also her protector and mentor. In this tale, Snow White is a princess of Tabor and the daughter of King Magnus and Queen Eleanor. After the Queen’s death, King Magnus marries a beautiful woman named Ravenna after rescuing her from an invading force of glass soldiers. As it turns out, Ravenna is a powerful sorceress that controls the glass soldiers. She kills Magnus on their wedding night and seizes control of Tabor. Duke Hammond and his son William (Snow White’s childhood friend) manages to escape the castle. But Snow White is captured by Ravenna’s brother Finn and imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers.

As a decade passes, Ravenna drains the youth from the kingdom’s young women in order to maintain her youth and beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that the former is destined to destroy her, unless she consumes the young woman’s heart. When Finn is ordered to bring Snow White before Ravenna, the princess manages to escape into the Dark Forest. Eric the Huntsman is a widower who has survived the Dark Forest, and is brought before Ravenna. She orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White, in exchange for her promise to revive his dead wife. But when Eric learns from Finn that Ravenna will not be able to resurrect his wife, he helps Snow White escape through the Forest. Snow White later promises him gold if he would escort her to Duke Hammond’s Castle. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son William manages to infiltrate Finn’s band in order to find Snow White on his own.

What can I say about “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”? It is not perfect. Well . . . I had at least two minor and one major problems with the movie. The two minor problems centered around the performances of Chris Hemsworth (Eric the Huntsman) and Charlize Theron (Ravenna). Basically, both gave first-rate performances. I cannot deny that. But . . . there were moments during the movie’s first half hour in which I found it difficult to comprehend Hemsworth’s accent? Was he trying to use a working-class Scots or English accent? Or was he using his own Australian accent? I could not tell. As for Theron . . . she had a few moments of some truly hammy acting. But only a few moments. But the major problem centered around the character of Snow White.

The movie’s final showpiece featured a battle between Snow White and Ravenna’s forces at Tabor’s Castle. The battle also featured the princess fighting along with both Eric and William. When on earth did Snow White learn combat fighting? When? She spent most of the movie’s first thirty minutes either as a young girl or imprisoned in the Castle. I figured that Eric, William or both would teach her how to fight in combat before their forces marched back to Tabor. The movie featured a scene in which Eric taught Snow White on how to stab someone up close . . . but nothing else.

The only reasons I wanted to see “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” were the visual effects and the fact that I was a fan of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME”. That is it. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to pay a ticket to see this film. But I am glad that I did. Because I enjoyed it very much, despite its flaws. Thanks to Daugherty, Hancock and Amini’s script, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is part epic, part road movie, part fantasy horror tale and part romance. For me, all of these aspects made this tale about Snow White fascinating to me. And Snow White has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. Director Rupert Sanders not only meshed these attributes into an exciting movie. More importantly, his direction gave the movie a steady pace. I find it amazing that “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is Sanders’ first feature film.

The most interesting aspect about the film was its love triangle between Snow White, Eric and William. Although Eric was originally supposed to be nothing more than a savior and mentor for Snow White, someone made the decision to add a little spice to their relationship. I suspect that this had something to do with Hemsworth’s age and his chemistry with star Kristin Stewart. The movie did not end with Snow White romantically clenched with one man or the other. Although some people were either disturbed or annoyed at this deliberately vague ending, I was not. I suspect that if Snow White had chosen either Eric or William, she would not have found her choice an easy one – either politically or romantically.

There are other aspects of “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” that I found admirable. One, I was impressed by Dominic Watkins’ production designs, which ranged from horror to light fantasy. I was afraid that the movie would visually turn out to be another fantasy production with another second-rate “LORD OF THE RINGS” look about it. Watkins’ designs were ably enhanced by the special effects team led by Vince Abbott and Greig Fraser’s beautiful photography. And I loved Colleen Atwood’s costume designs. She did a great job for most of the cast. But her designs for Charlize Theron’s evil queen were outstanding. Take a look:

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The performances featured in “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” struck me as pretty damn good. The revelations of the actors portraying the Seven Dwarfs took me by surprised. Toby Jones was the first to catch my eye. Then I realized that a who’s who of well known British character actors were portraying the dwarves – Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, and Eddie Marsan. They were all entertaining, especially Hoskins, McShane and Marsan. More importantly, I was very impressed by their roles in the movie’s final battle. Sam Spruell’s performance as Ravenna’s sleazy brother Finn sruck me as almost as frightening as Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. But only almost. Despite her moments of hammy acting, Theron nearly scared the pants off me, making her Evil Queen just as frightening as the one featured in the 1937 Disney animated film.

I must admit that I was not that impressed by Sam Claflin’s performance as the missionary in last year’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”. But I suspect that was due to the role he was stuck with. “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” provided him with a much better role as the aristocratic William, who felt guilty over his and his father’s failure to prevent Snow White’s imprisonment following the King’s death. Not only was Claflin was able to strut his stuff in a more interesting role and prove that he could be a first-rate action hero; he also had surprisingly great chemistry with both Stewart andHemsworth. As for the Australian actor, he was superb as the grieving huntsman, Eric. Okay, I had a few problems with his questionable accent during the movie’s first half hour. However, he overcame that flaw and gave a great and emotionally satisfying performance as a man whose destructive grieving was overcome by his relationship with Snow White. And he also proved that he was more than an action star in a scene in which he gave a beautiful soliloquy regarding Eric’s feelings for the princess. The belle of the ball – at least for me – was actress Kristen Stewart. I must be honest. I am not a fan of the “TWILIGHT”movies or Stewart’s role of Bella Swann. But I certainly enjoyed her performance as Snow White in this film. For the first time, Stewart seemed to be portraying a character that seemed animated, interesting and pro-active. She has great chemistry with both Hemsworth and Claflin. And she did surprisingly well in the action sequences . . . especially in Snow White’s confrontation with Ravenna. I hope to see Stewart in more roles like this.

I heard rumors that due to the movie’s surprising success, Universal Pictures hopes to release a sequel to “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”. I do not know if this is a good idea. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie very much, despite its flaws. The script proved to be an interesting mixture of fantasy, horror, comedy, romance and a road trip. And the cast, led by Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, was first-rate. But considering how the movie ended, I simply do not see the need or possibility for a sequel. Besides, I felt more than satisfied with this particular film.

“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

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“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

After 2002’s “MEN IN BLACK II”, I never thought I would ever see another movie from the franchise based upon Lowell Cunningham’s The Men in Black comic book series. Never. After all, it was not exactly a critical success and was barely a commercial hit. And yet . . . the team from the first two movies went ahead and created a third one for the franchise. 

“MEN IN BLACK 3” picks up ten years after the last movie. Boris the Animal, the last surviving member of the Boglodite species, escapes from the LunarMax prison on Earth’s moon with the intention of seeking revenge against the MIB agent responsible for his arrest and loss of arm – Agent K. The latter discovers during a skirmish he and Agent J experience at a local Chinese restaurant that Boris has escaped. Unfortunately for Agent K, Boris arrives in Manhattan and seeks Jeffrey Price, the son of a fellow prisoner who had possession of a few time-jump mechanisms. Not much time passes before Agent K disappears from existence and Agent J is the only one who remembers his partner.

Agent O, who is MIB’s new Chief following Zed’s passing, deduces from Agent J’s statements that a fracture has occurred in the space-time continuum. The two realize Boris must have time-jumped to 1969 and killed K. And now an imminent Boglodite invasion threatens Earth, due to the absence of the protective ArcNet that K had installed in 1969. J acquires a similar time-jump mechanism from Price, jumps off the Chrysler Building in order to reach time-travel velocity, and arrives in July 1969, a day before Boris kills K.

When I learned that Steven Spielberg, director Barry Sonnenfeld, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones planned to do a thirdMEN IN BLACK movie; I could only shake my head in disbelief. Mind you, I did not dislike the second film. But it seemed a disappointment in compare to the quality of 1997 original movie. But in the end, I could not say no to a MEN IN BLACKmovie. And thank God I did go see it.

Now, “MEN IN BLACK 3” was not perfect. There were a few aspects about Etan Cohen’s screenplay that left me scratching my head. If Boris the Animal (oops! I mean Boris) had been imprisoned in the LunarMax prison for over 40 years, how on earth did Boris’ girlfriend Lily, who helped him escape, learn about his existence in the first place? I am also a little confused about Agent J and Agent K’s ages. According to 1997’s “MEN IN BLACK”, Agent k was a teenager in New Jersey when he experienced his first alien encounter before becoming a member of the Men in Black agency in 1961 or 1962. Yet, according to Cohen’s script, Agent K was a Texas native born in 1940. As for Agent J, he was at least four years old in July 1969. Which makes him at least 46 or 47 years old in this story. I could have sworn he was at least three or four years younger. Oh well.

However, by the time I became deeply engrossed in the story, I managed to forget these questionable aspects of “MEN IN BLACK 3”. I believe that “MEN IN BLACK” is the funnier movie. I cannot deny this. However, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” had the best plot of the three films. Time travel tends to be a hit-or-miss topic when it comes to the science-fiction genre. Aside from the questionable aspects of Agents K and J’s ages, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story. One, Agent J proved to be the right character chosen for a time travel mission. Being over twenty years younger than his partner, he was the right person to see New York City and Cape Canaveral in 1969. Boris’ reasons for time travel proved to be a heady mixture of personal vengeance and the successful completion of his original mission to kill a refugee alien named Griffin, who possessed the ArcNet, a satellite device that would prevent Boris’ species, the Boglodites, from invading Earth and destroying mankind. Agent J’s time travel adventures gave audiences two peaks into what it must have been like for an African-American in the 1960s New York – something that the TV series “MAD MEN”more or less failed to do after five seasons. Kudos to director Barry Sonnenfeld for keeping this fascinating tale hilarious, poignant and on track.

Not only did “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story, it also possessed some memorable scenes that I will never forget. My favorite scenes include the brief, yet bizarre memorial service for the recently dead Agent Zed; Agents K and J’s skirmish with some truly bizarre agents at a Chinese restaurant that I would not recommend to humans; Agent J’s initial time jump to 1969; J’s hilarious elevator encounter with a bigot fearful of being in close proximity with a black man; Agent J and young Agent K’s very funny and surprising meeting with “Andy Warhol” at the latter’s factory; the two agents’ meeting with Griffin at Shea Stadium; the meeting between old and young Boris in 1969; and Agent J’s discovery at Cape Canaveral of the true reason behind K’s strange behavior at the beginning of the story. But my favorite moment featured Agent J’s discovery that Agent K’s habit of ordering pie was even frustrating in the past.

The production for “MEN IN BLACK 3” was also first-rate. Danny Elfman continued his outstanding work in providing a score similar to the franchise’s signature theme. I found Bill Pope’s photography to be rather sharp and colorful – especially the 1969 segments. Don Zimmerman did outstanding work as the film’s editor. I was especially impressed by his work in the time jump sequence and the showdown between the MIB agents and Boris at Cape Canaveral. And both Mary E. Vogt’s costume designs and Bo Welch’s production designs perfectly recaptured the end of the 1960s.

As for the performances . . . what can I say? The cast gave some truly outstanding performances in this film. Will Smith was absolutely marvelous as the time traveling Agent J. I thought he gave one of his best performances in a role that required him to be funny and poignant at the same time. I suspect that he more or less carried the movie on his shoulders. But he had fine support from a wonderful Tommy Lee Jones, who allowed audiences another peek into a personality who hid his emotions behind a stoic mask. I just never thought his emotions would be directed at Smith’s Agent J. And I never thought Spielberg and Sonnenfeld would find someone who not only could perfectly portray a younger Agent K, but create a similar screen dynamic with Smith. And Josh Brolin proved to be the man who did the job. He was fantastic.

Emma Thompson portrayed Agent O, the new leader of the Men in Black agency. And I adored her performance, especially the scene that required her to give a eulogy for Zed at his memorial . . . in an alien language. Alice Eve was charming as the younger Agent O. She and Brolin had a nice chemistry going as two MIB agents attracted to one another. What can I say about Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as the precognitive alien, Griffin? Oh God, he was so wonderful. He portrayed Griffin with a delicious mixture of wisdom and naivety. I wanted to gather him in my arms and squeeze him like a teddy bear. Someone once commented (or complained) that New Zealand comic Jemaine Clement as the movie’s main villain, Boris the Animal. Frankly, Clement was a lot more scary than funny. But he did have one scene that left me rolling in the aisles with laughter – namely Boris’ encounter with his younger self in 1969. Even more important, Clement portrayed Boris once scary and resourceful villain.

What else can I say about “MEN IN BLACK 3”? Sure, it had a few glitches regarding the plot and the two main characters’ ages. But thanks to Etan Cohen’s script that featured an outstanding time travel story, outstanding performances from a cast led by Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin; the movie turned out to be a first-rate addition to the franchise and one of my favorite movies of the summer of 2012. Thank you Barry Sonnenfeld! You have not lost your touch.

 

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