“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

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Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE BRITISH EMPIRE NOVELS

1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser – Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in the Flashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. “Shadow of the Moon” (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye – This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

3 - The Bastard

3. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman’s experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

5 - Noble House

5. “Noble House” (1981) by James Clavell – Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family’s company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

6 - Zemindar

6. “Zemindar” (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald – This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter’s wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

7 - Tai-pan

7. “Tai-Pan” (1966) by James Clavell – Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain’s Hong Kong colony.

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. “Liberty Tavern” (1976) by Thomas Fleming – This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. “The Far Pavilion” (1978) by M.M. Kaye – This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

10 - Forget the Glory

10. “Forget the Glory” (1985) by Emma Drummond – This novel chronicled the experiences of an unhappily married British Army officer, who falls in love with wife’s maid during a long journey from India to the Ukraine during the Crimean War.

“THE MUMMY RETURNS” (2001) Review

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“THE MUMMY RETURNS” (2001) Review

“THE MUMMY”, the 1999 remake of the 1932 horror film proved to be a major success for filmmaker Stephen Sommers and Universal Studios. Two years later, both the director and the studio reunited its major stars for a sequel set a decade later. In doing so, Sommers and Universal created a four-movie franchise. 

Like the first film, “THE MUMMY RETURNS” began thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt. However, this flashback focused on an Egyptian mercenary named Mathayus, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the land. He and his army is exiled to the desert of Ahm Sher, where most of them die from heat exhaustion, except for Mathayus. The latter offers his soul to the god Anubis for the power to defeat his enemies. The latter creates an oasis called Ahm Shere to hide the newly dubbed Scorpion King’s pyramid and gives the latter a legion of humanoid jackal warriors to seek revenge. The Army of Anubis sweeps across Egypt, destroying everything in its path. But once their task is finished, Anubis claims the Scorpion King’s soul and his army.

The movie jumps to the year 1933, which finds the O’Connell family – Rick, Evelyn (“Evie”) and their son Alex – exploring the ruins of Thebes. Evie and Rick discover the bracelet of Anubis, unaware that Alex has stumbled across a trio of mercenaries attempting to take the bracelet for themselves. The family returns home to England, and unbeknownst to his parents, Alex tries on the bracelet and experiences a vision with directions to the Oasis of Ahm Shere. Unfortunately, a group of Egyptian cultists, who had hired the three thugs, invades the O’Connell estate and kidnaps Evie. The O’Connells’ old comrade, the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay, arrives to help, but is unable to prevent Evie’s kidnapping. The cultists take her to the British Museum, where they resurrect the body of Egyptian high priest and sorcerer Imhotep. They plan to use his power to defeat the Sorcerer King. Rick, his brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan, Alex and Ardeth arrive at the museum to rescue Evie. After the O’Connells, Jonathan and Ardeth manage to escape the army of mummified soldiers, Alex – who is still wearing the Anubis bracelet – is kidnapped by the cultists. The four adults track him to Egypt, where they recruit the help of Rick’s old World War I friend, Izzy Buttons, to rescue Alex from Imhotep and the cultists and prevent them from reviving the Army of Anubis.

I usually dislike horror films. But I noticed that the 1999 movie, “THE MUMMY” seemed more like an adventure film in the style of the INDIANA JONES movie franchise. I could say the same about ” THE MUMMY RETURNS”. And considering my dislike of horror films, I say “thank God”. However, the movie has enough elements to satisfy those who love this particular genre. This was especially apparent in the scenes that featured Imohtep’s murder of the three mercenaries, the O’Connells’ battle against the high priests mummified soldiers during the bus ride through London and during the finale sequence inside the Scorpion King’s pyramid at Ahm Shere. The sight of the Scorpion King as a transformed centaurid (or scorpion-monster) was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. But if I had to select the one sequence that truly captured aspects of the horror genre, it was the one that featured the O’Connells’ attack upon the cultists in the Ahm Shere jungle that I found particularly off putting. Not only did the movie’s heroes have to attack the cultists in order to save Alex, both sides of the conflict had to deal the pygmy mummies that attacked and killed anyone or any army that marched through the jungle. What can I say? Those pygmies really freaked me out.

“THE MUMMY RETURNS” did feature a good deal of action sequences that seemed more like an adventure than a horror story – thank goodness. The O’Connells’ escape from the flooding of the Thebes pyramid, their escape from Imohtep’s attempt to drown them with a tsunami wave, their escape from the destruction of the Ahm Shere pyramid and various hand-to-hand fight sequences thankfully reminded me that “THE MUMMY RETURNS” was more of an adventure story. Also, Stephen Sommers provided a great deal of rich characterization and humor in his screenwriter. Like the 1999 film,“THE MUMMY”“THE MUMMY RETURNS” featured some sophomoric humor. But if I must be honest, a good deal of the humor seemed sharper and wittier this particular film – especially in the hands of one particular character, Izzy Buttons. In fact, my favorite line in the film came him:

“Whatever it is, whatever you need, I don’t care. Forget it, O’Connell. Every time I hook up with you, I get shot. Last time, I got shot in the ass. I’m in mourning for my ass!

I never mentioned this in my review of “THE MUMMY”, but I was also impressed by Sommers’ handling of the sequence featuring Imohtep’s background and introduction at the beginning of the film. The opening sequence featuring the Scorpion King’s introduction struck me as mediocre. But I was very impressed by the flashback sequence about Evelyn’s past life in the form of the Princess Nefertiri and her witness of her father, Pharaoh Seti I. Sommers has a real talent for costumed melodrama and it would be nice to see him exploit it in the fullest in his career. This sequence also featured a first-rate fight scene between Rachel Weisz’s Nefertiri and Patricia Velásquez’s Anck-Su-Namun.

Of course, one cannot talk about “THE MUMMY RETURNS” without bringing up its visual effects. First of all, kudos to cinematographer Adrian Biddle for continuing the beautiful photography for which he was responsible in the first film. I especially enjoyed his work in the sequence that featured the parallel journeys across Egypt by both the O’Connell and Imohtep parties. Allan Cameron and his crew did an excellent job in re-creating not only England and Egypt of the early 1930s, but also ancient Egypt. The team of Ahmed Abounouom, Giles Masters and Tony Reading added a great deal to Cameron’s work with their beautiful and colorful art designs. I have always enjoyed Alan Silvestri’s music in past movies. But I must admit that I really appreciated his use of Middle Eastern or North African-style in the movie’s score. I do admire the special effects created by the movie’s visual effects team. I was especially impressed by their work in the Ahm Shere jungle sequence. However, there were times I found it a bit over-the-top. I noticed that Sommers hired his costume designer from the last film, John Bloomfield, to design the costumes for this film. And I wish to God he had hired someone else. I had no problem with Bloomfield’s costumes for the ancient Egypt sequences. His costume designs for the 1933 scenes – namely the costumes for the female characters – were another matter. Honestly, they sucked. I was far from impressed by Bloomfield’s re-creation of 1920s fashion for Evelyn’s character in the 1999 movie. His re-creation of early 1930s fashions for the female characters were just as bad – as shown in the images below:

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I can only shake my head in disbelief. The above were Bloomfield’s idea of 1932-33 women’s fashion? Really? They looked more like a modern-day take on the fashions of that particular era. The fact that both Weisz and Velásquez are sporting modern hairstyles does not help.

At least I cannot complain about the acting. An episode of “STAR TREK VOYAGER” featured the first project in which Dwayne Johnson portrayed a character other than himself. He had nothing to do but engage in a fight scene. “THE MUMMY RETURNS” featured his second role in which he portrayed another character. Again, he had no lines. At least Sommers managed to effectively direct him into expressing his character via body language. The other cast members, on the other hand, had speaking lines. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Bruce Byron, Joe Dixon and Tom Fisher as the three thugs hired by the cultists to assist them. Alun Armstrong gave a surprisingly effective performance as Mr. Hafez, the leader of the Egyptian cultists. Unlike most Western actors, Armstrong managed to portray a non-Western villain without resorting to theatrical acting. My favorite performance came from Shaun Parkes, who was both hysterically witty as O’Connell’s old friend, Izzy Buttons. I usually have mixed feelings about child actors. But I must admit that I enjoyed Freddie Boath’s engaging performance as Rick and Evelyn’s boisterous son, Alex. “THE MUMMY RETURNS” was the first movie or television production I had noticed Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And his performance as Mr. Hafez’s chief enforcer, Lock-Nah, was . . . well, magnificent. In fact, I could say the same about his screen presence.

Patricia Velásquez may not have been the world’s greatest actress. And there were times I found her verbal performance as femme fatale Meela Nais and ancient Egyptian courtesan Anck-Su-Namun a bit limited. She more than made up this flaw with a strong ability for silent acting and a very impressive screen presence. Again, she proved to have a great screen chemistry with Arnold Vasloo, who returned as the Egyptian high priest, Imohtep. What can I say about Vasloo’s performance? The man is Imohtep – both in presence and performance. He did a marvelous job in conveying both the frightening aspects of his character and the latter’s passionate love for Anck-Su-Namun. Happily, Oded Fehr reprised his role as Medjai warrior Ardeth Bey. And not only was he great, as always. For the first time, I became aware of Fehr’s talent for comedic acting. John Hannah was as funny as ever as Evelyn’s ne’er do well older brother, Jonathan Carnahan. I found him especially funny in his scenes with Boath and Parkes.

Rachel Weisz reprised her role as Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan O’Connell and I was surprised by the level of development in her character. Weisz did an excellent job in conveying the mature development of Evie and maintaining the character’s familiar quirks at the same. Weisz was also excellent as the Princess Nefertiri, who was not only fervently protective of her father, but also suspicious of Anck-Su-Namun. The character of Rick O’Connell also struck me as surprisingly different in this movie. Like Evelyn, marriage and parenthood had developed him into a more mature personality. And like Evelyn, he also maintained some of his personality quirks. And Brendan Fraser did an excellent job in conveying both the familiar and different aspects of Rick’s character.

“THE MUMMY RETURNS” effectively continued the exciting adventure and horror of the 1999 film, thanks to Stephen Sommers’ writing and direction. And I enjoyed it very much, along with the entertaining performances of the cast led by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. But as much as I continue to enjoy it, there is a part of me that wished Sommers had not been so over-the-top with some of his direction and the special effects featured in the movie. It seemed as if he was trying to outdo his work in the first film. And sometimes, that is not a good thing.

Top Five Favorite “MAD MEN” Season One (2007) Episodes

Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes of AMC’s “MAD MEN”

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “MAD MEN” SEASON ONE (2007) Episodes

1 - 1.12 Nixon vs. Kennedy

1. (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy” – In this superb episode, Sterling-Cooper’s employees have an all-night party to watch the results of the 1960 Presidential Election. Also, Pete Campbell discovers that Don Draper’s real name is Dick Whitman, who had been officially declared dead during the Korean War.

2 - 1.10 The Long Weekend

2. (1.10) “The Long Weekend” – During the Labor Day weekend, Roger Sterling decides to cheer up Don over the loss of a client by arranging a double date with twins. During the date, he suffers a heart attack. Meanwhile, Joan Holloway has a double date with her roommate and two out-of-town businessmen.

3 - 1.05 5G

3. (1.05) “5G” – In this poignant episode, Don receives an unwelcome visitor in the form of his half-brother, Adam Whitman, whom he had not seen since the Korean War. And when Ken Cosgrove gets his short story published in a magazine, a jealous Pete asks wife Trudy to convince an old boyfriend to publish his story.

4 - 1.01 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

4. (1.01) “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – The series’ pilot episode introduces Manhattan advertisement executive Don Draper and his co-workers at the Sterling-Cooper agency, as he struggles to maintain Lucky Strike as a client for the agency.

5 - 1.09 Shoot

5. (1.09) “Shoot” – A larger ad agency tries to lure Don from Sterling-Cooper by hiring wife Betty Draper for a modeling job. Meanwhile, Pete devises a strategy to help the Nixon campaign.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

I have heard of the 1977 adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’ 1902 adventure film. But I never thought I would see it. Recently, it occurred to me to rent the movie from Netflix, because I have yet to run across it at any store that sells DVDs. I did rent“THE FOUR FEATHERS”. Needless to say, it produced some rather interesting feelings within me. 

Anyone familiar with Mason’s tale knows that “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is the story about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Faversham, who harbor plans to resign from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment and live out the rest of his days with future wife Ethne Eustace. During a ball held at his family estate, telegrams for Harry and three of his friends – Jack Durrance, William Trench and Thomas Willoughby – ordering them to report for duty, due to their regiment being shipped out to the Sudan to participate in the Mahdist War. Being the first to receive the telegrams, Harry had them destroyed so that he would not have to report for duty a day before his resignation from the Army was due to be official. Realizing what Harry had done, his father ostracized him, his three friends gave him white feathers that labeled him as a coward, and Ethne breaks off their engagement and also hands him a white feather. Also, Harry’s best friend, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne. Haunted by his efforts to avoid combat, Harry travels to the Sudan to help his friends any way possible and return their feathers.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, after it aired on British and American television. The movie also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. And if I must be honest, I find that particularly surprising. I have seen this movie twice. Granted, it seemed pretty decent as far as television movies go. But . . . an Emmy nomination? “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? It just did not strike me as being that memorable. The Wikipedia site claimed that it was a very faithful to Mason’s 1902 novel. Actually, it was no more faithful than any other adaptation I have seen. But I do feel that the movie’s critical acclaim might be overrated.

The movie can boast its virtues. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” provided a small, but detailed peek into Harry Faversham’s childhood that gave audiences a good idea behind his aversion to continuing his military career. It also featured at least two excellent action sequences – the skirmish that led to the destruction of Durrance’s company and his blindness, and Harry and Trench’s escape from the prison-of-war camp at Omdurman. Dramatic scenes abound in the film, especially one that featured the breakup of Harry and Ethne’s engagement and the former’s final confrontation with his militant father, retired General Faversham. 

And I cannot deny that some very good performances were also featured in “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. David Robb, Harry Andrews and Robin Bailey all gave solid performances. I found Simon Ward’s portrayal of William Trench rather intense, but believable. Both Robert Powell and Jane Seymour were excellent as Jack Durrance and Ethne Eustace. Beau Bridges proved to be an enjoyable surprise in his portrayal of the lead character, Harry Faversham. I recall reading one review of this movie, in which the critic praised the rest of the cast, but put down Bridges’ performance. Apparently, he found the idea of an American portraying a Victorian British military officer unbelievable. I have seen Americans portray British characters before. And quite honestly, I thought Bridges did an excellent job by giving a subtle performance and avoiding histronics . . . unlike his performance in the 1976 film, “SWASHBUCKLER”.

And while I found the production’s quality solid, I did not find it particularly dazzling. I can only assume that as a television production, it would not be on the same quality as a theatrical release. The movie’s costume designs by Olga Lehmann seemed a little more impressive. I especially enjoyed her costumes for Jane Seymour, despite my confusion over whether the costumes reflected the 1870s or the 1880s. But if I must be honest, I have seen other television productions a lot more impressive. I was also disappointed to find that the story’s jingoistic portrayal of the British Empire somewhat off-putting, especially for a television movie that had aired in the 1970s. I would even add that the sympathetic portrayal of Harry’s anti-military attitude struck me as a bit hypocritical, considering that the movie’s conservative view of British imperialism. I must also admit that I found myself slightly repelled at the sight of white English actors portraying Sudanese soldiers. Did the producers really find it that difficult to find non-white actors to portray the Sudanese? Speaking of white actors portraying African ones:

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The above photo is an image of British actor Richard Johnson portraying a Sudanese Arab named Abou Fatma, who assists Harry in his efforts to save his friends. Johnson gave a nice, solid performance as Fatma, but . . . why? Why??? Why on earth did the producers cast Johnson in this role? He looked like a performer in a 19th century minstrel show . . . or a cast member from “THE BIRTH OF A NATION”. This kind of wince-inducing casting may have been common in the film industry during the first half of the 20th century. But “THE FOUR FEATHERS” aired on television around 1977/78. Nearly a year after the ABC miniseries, “ROOTS”. What in the hell were the producers and casting director Paul Lee Lander thinking?

Do not get me wrong. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a pretty solid adventure movie that can boast a first-rate cast led by Beau Bridges. But I do feel that the movie is critically overrated. I did not find it that impressive, dramatically or production wise. I found the casting of white actors portraying non-white characters rather repulsive. And the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of the character’s anti-military stance in comparison to its pro-conservative portrayal of British imperialism struck me as hypocritical. Still . . . it was not a bad movie.

“RUSH” (2013) Review

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“RUSH” (2013) Review

Before I began this review, it occurred to me that Ron Howard has directed a good number of movie biographies set in the distance past for the last eighteen years, starting with 1995’s “APOLLO 13”. Mind you, the film was not Howard’s first period picture. But in the following years, he has directed four more biopics, including his latest project, “RUSH”

Written by Peter Morgan, who also worked with Howard on 2008’s “FROST/NIXON”“RUSH” told the story about the rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. The two drivers are highly skilled and talented race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England. Hunt is a brash young Englishman with a tendency to vomit before every race and the Austrian Lauda is a cool, technical genius who relies on precision. While Lauda buys his way onto the BRM Formula One team, which includes legendary driver Clay Regazzoni, following a falling out with his father. Both Lauda and Regazzoni later join the Scuderia Ferrari team with Regazzoni, and Lauda wins his first championship in 1975. Hunt’s racing team, Hesketh Racing, closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor and the British driver manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this period, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller and Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus.

Eventually, the movie shifts to the 1976 Fomula One racing season. Lauda dominates the early races, while Hunt and the McLaren team struggle with a series of setbacks that include mechanical failures and a disqualified win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt also suffers a personal setback when his wife leaves him for Richard Burton. All seem to be going well for Lauda, including a private wedding to Marlene Knaus. But all come to a head for him at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, when he suffers a major car crash. While Hunt shoots ahead in points during his absence, Lauda struggles to recover the crash and return to finish the racing season.

Aside from the movies in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, the only auto racing movies that ever really caught my attention were two period comedies from the 1960s that featured Tony Curtis, the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy,TALLAGEDA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY”, and the 2008 film, “SPEED RACER”. That is it. Since I had never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, I was almost inclined to skip “RUSH”. Thank God I did not. I would have missed out on something special . . . at least for me. I love action films. One of the aspects of action films that I love are the car chases. But the car racing scenes were not the reasons why I finally decided to see “RUSH”. I had three reasons – Ron Howard, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. But the cincher for me was the trailer. What can I say? It impressed me.

“RUSH” is not the first time Ron Howard explored the 1970s. He directed two other movies set in the same decade –“APOLLO 13” and “FROST/NIXON”. I am beginning to wonder if this decade means a lot more to Howard than he would care to admit. In “RUSH”, the more glamorous aspect of the 1970s was explored, thanks to the artistry of production designer Mark Digby. His work was aptly supported by the art direction team led by Daniel Chour and Patrick Rolfe, and also the film’s set decorations. But if there is one aspect of “RUSH” that truly captured the 1970s – aside from the soundtrack – was Julian Day’s costumes. I adored them. Below are examples of Day’s work:

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“RUSH” did featured a good number of first-rate auto racing sequences. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with film editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill did an exceptional job in recapturing the excitement (well . . . from the driver’s point of view) of Formula One racing. This was certainly apparent in two sequences – the Italian Grand Prix, where a barely recovered Niki Lauda managed to finish fourth place; and the Japanese Grand Prix, where the last race of the 1976 season took place. I realize that this might sound gruesome and I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive to what happened to Lauda. But I cannot deny that Howard’s recreation of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and Lauda’s car crash was an example of masterful filmmaking, thanks to Howard’s direction, Mantle’s photography and the editing by Hanley and Hill. The movie really captured the spectacle and the horror of the crash.

But “RUSH” is foremost a movie about two racing drivers . . . two men. Mindful of this, Peter Morgan did an outstanding job in recapturing Hunt and Lauda’s personalities, along with the circumstances that fueled their rivalry on the race track. This was not only in scenes that featured their separate private lives, especially their relationships with their wives Suzy Miller and Marlene Knaus, but also the friendly, yet intense rivalry that existed between them. In regard to their personal lives, I was very impressed by the two scenes that featured the breakup of the Hunt-Miller marriage; Lauda’s first meeting with Knaus and one particular scene during their honeymoon in which Lauda expressed concerns about the effects of his marriage on his racing career. However, the confrontation scenes between the two drivers when they were off the race track really rocked, thanks to Hemsworth, Brühl and Morgan’s screenplay. But there are two scenes that I really enjoyed. One of them turned out to be the drivers’ conference before the German Grand Prix, in which Lauda tried to convince the Formula One committee to cancel that particular race, due to heavy rain on the already notoriously dangerous Nürburgring race course; and their last meeting (at least in the movie), not long after the championship Japanese Grand Prix.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? They were outstanding. I was surprised to see Natalie Dormer in such a small role as a hospital nurse that Hunt briefly dated. Considering her growing fame, I had expected to see her in a bigger role. I could say the same about Julian Rhind-Tutt, who had a small role as a member of Hunt’s racing team. Christian McKay gave a vibrant performance as the flamboyant Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, who financed Hunt’s first racing team. Pierfrancesco Favino portrayed Italian racing legend, Clay Regazzoni, who drove on the Scuderia Ferrari team with Lauda. I am aware that two drivers actually became good friends. Despite this friendship, Favino gave a sly and humorous performance, while recapturing Favino’s occasional frustration with Lauda’s eccentric personality. There were some grumbles on the Internet, when world of Olivia Wilde’s casting as Suzy Miller was first announced. She certainly proved them wrong by giving a first-rate performance, especially in one scene in which Miller’s breakup with Hunt became permanent. I was also impressed by her British accent, until I learned that one of her parents had been born in the U.K. Alexandra Maria Lara also gave a first-rate performance as Lauda’s first wife, Marlene Knaus Lauda. Not only did she project a great deal of warmth in her portrayal of the race driver’s wife, but also a touch of sardonic humor.

The men of the hour, aside from Ron Howard, are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, who portrayed the two rivals. They were outstanding. Superficially, Hemsworth seemed to have the less difficult role, portraying the outgoing playboy, Hunt. The Australian not only bore a strong resemblance to the British-born racer, but also seemed to relish in his scenes featuring Hunt’s penchant for partying hard and womanizing. But Hemsworth also excelled in those scenes that explored other aspects of Hunt’s personality – the insecurity that generally plagues every human being in existence, the emotional chaos of the racer’s breakup with Suzy Miller and his awareness of the tough competition he faced against his rival. Howard selected German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl to portray the Austrian-born Niki Lauda. Like Hemsworth, Brühl had to utilize a different accent. He almost lost the role, when he attempted an obvious fake Austrian accent during his screen test. Thankfully, he prevailed in the end. Some have claimed that Lauda was a difficult personality. If one is honest, most people are individually difficult. However, Brühl was superb in conveying the difficult aspects of Lauda’s blunt personality, while at the same time, making the racer a very likeable character. It takes an actor of great skill to achieve this goal . . . and the latter did a fanstastic job.

Judging from the manner in which I had just raved over “RUSH”, one would start to believe that I could not find any faults with it. First of all, there is an aspect of Mantle’s photography that did not sit well with me. I found it slightly metallic and wish that it could have been more colorful, especially in a film about the heady days of auto racing the 1970s. I missed that sharp color that was apparent in some of Howard’s past films. And I also could have done without the footage of the real James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the movie’s last reels. Such scenes belonged in a featurette about the movie, not in the movie itself. The footage brought back disappointing memories of how Steven Spielberg ended“SCHINDLER’S LIST” and Spike Lee ended “MALCOLM X”.

Aside from my few quibbles, I enjoyed “RUSH” very much. It was a first-class look at two auto racing rivals who not only lit up the racing scene in one memorable season in the mid-1970s with their driving skills, but also their colorful personalities. Thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Peter Morgan, a superb cast led by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, and some outstanding direction by Ron Howard; “RUSH” has become one of my favorite movies of 2013. And it has also become one of my favorite sports movies of all time.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.

2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.

3 - Rush

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.

4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.

7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.

8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.

9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.

10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.