“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

Over twenty years ago, I came across a small period drama, while perusing my local video rental store. I never had any intention of watching this movie. In fact, I had never heard of it before . . . despite being a fan of the two leading stars.

I read somewhere that “THE PUBLIC EYE” was inspired by the career of New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. In fact, some of the photographs featured in the film had been taken by Fellig, himself. But the movie is not a biopic. Instead, “THE PUBLIC EYE” told the story of one Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein, a freelance crime and street photographer for the New York City tabloids, whose work is known for its realistic depiction of the city and all of its citizens. Due to his realistic photography and willingness to resort to any means to snap graphic shots of crime scenes, he is known as “the Great Berzini”.

Sometime during 1942, America’s first year into World War II, Bernzy is summoned by a widowed Manhattan nightclub owner named Kay Levitz. One of local New York mobs is trying to muscle in on her business. Kay asks Bernzy to investigate an individual she considers troublesome. Generally unsuccessful with women, Bernzy agrees to help Kay, as he slowly begins to fall in love with her. Bernzy talks to a few of his contacts, including journalist Arthur Nabler, and tracks down Kay’s troublesome man. Only the latter had been murdered. Bernzy’s activities attract the attention of the New York police, the F.B.I. and two rival mob leaders. Through a connection to a local gangster named Sal, Bernzy discovers that Kay’s husband had got involved with a mob turf war over illegal gas rationing and the Federal government.

“THE PUBLIC EYE” did not make much of an impact on the U.S. movie box office, when it hit the theaters during the fall of 1992. In fact, I do not believe that the studio that released it – Universal Studios – made any effort to publicize it. Worse, the movie eventually garnered mixed reviews. However, I had no idea of all of this until I saw the movie, years later. My first reaction to this lack of attention by Universal and the mixed reviews was surprised. My second reaction was . . . disappointment. Well, I was not that disappointed with the movie’s mixed reviews. After all, I believe in the old adage “to each his own”. But even to this day, I feel slightly disappointed that Universal Studios did very little to publicize this movie. Why? I thought “THE PUBLIC EYE” was a lot better than many assumed it to be – including the studio suits.

Was there anything about “THE PUBLIC EYE” that I disliked? Or found hard to swallow? To be honest . . . no. Let me correct myself – very little. After all, the movie was perfect. A part of me wishes it could have been a little longer than its 99 minute running time. And if I must be honest again, the mystery surrounding the death of Kay Levitz’s tormentor did not last very long. Not much time had passed before the story had revealed the gas rationing scandal behind the tormentor’s murder . . . or the identity of the movie’s main antagonist. Personally, I saw no reason why screenwriter-director Howard Franklin tried to present this plot as some kind of mystery.

And yet . . . I really enjoyed “THE PUBLIC EYE”. In fact, it is a personal favorite of mine. There seemed to be so much that I found enjoyable in this movie. Although Franklin’s plot did not prove to be much of a mystery, I must admit that I enjoyed how the corruption tale provided a strong link to civilian life during America’s early period in World War II. The plot also seemed to provide a strong historical background of life during this time in New York City’s history. I enjoyed how Franklin’s screenplay made such strong connections between the city’s major criminals, the Federal government and the goods rationing that dominated the lives of American citizens during the war. But what I really enjoyed about this movie is its final action sequence that featured a gangland mass murder inside a local Italian restaurant photographed by the main protagonist. Franklin did a superb job in capturing this sequence on film that it still gives me goosebumps whenever I watch it.

Some film critic – I forgot his name – once complained that the “noir” atmosphere for “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed superficial and not particularly engaging. Personally, I loved the movie’s atmosphere. Not because I believe that it permeated with a sense of a “noir” film. I loved it because I thought it permeated with a sense of what life was for the many citizens of New York City during those early years of the war. The movie portrayed how different social groups based on class and ethnic differences are forced to live together in one metropolis during a difficult time in American history. Bernzy’s own background as a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his profession were used against him on several occasions. This especially seemed to be the case with the elitist book publisher who seemed disturbed by the former’s name and the realistic images he took; and Danny, the Irish-born doorman and snob who not only worked at Kay’s nightclub, but also regarded Bernzy as beneath him. Even Kay’s own background as a showgirl led people to regard her as some gold digger who had achieved some social status via marriage to a nightclub owner. This explained how two such diverse people managed to click on an emotional level throughout most of the movie.

Visually, “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed like a treat. Watching it made me feel as if I had landed right in the middle of Manhattan, circa 1942, thanks to art directors Bo Johnson and Dina Lipton, set decorator Jan K. Bergstrom, and costume designer Jane Robinson, who had created some very interesting costumes for Barbara Hershey. I was especially impressed by the work of production designer, Marcia Hinds, who I believe more than anyone, contributed to the movie’s early 1940s setting and atmosphere.

I had checked Howard Franklin’s filmography and discovered that he had only directed three movies so far. Considering the first-rate performances featured in this film, it seemed a miracle that Franklin’s lack of real experience did not hamper them. I do not know which role I would consider to be my favorite performed by Joe Pesci. But I do know that Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein is one of my top three favorite characters he has ever portrayed. I thought Pesci did a superb job in portraying a character who is not only driven by his ambition for his profession, but also racked with loneliness, due to how others tend to perceive him. Barbara Hershey gave a very subtle and skillfully ambiguous performance as the widowed nightclub owner, Kay Levitz. Hershey’s Kay came off as a warm and compassionate woman who understood Bernzy, due to her own struggles over how others perceive her and at the same time, a reluctantly pragmatic woman who is forced, at times, to sacrifice her self-esteem for the sake of survival.

The movie also benefited from a collection of first-rate performance from major supporting cast members. One of those performances came from Jared Harris, who did an excellent job in conveying the snobbish aspect of his character, the Irish-born Danny, who worked at Kay’s nightclub as a doorman. Stanley Tucci gave a terrific and subtle performance as a low-level mobster named Sal, who provides the final link to Bernzy’s investigation into the gas ration scandal. Jerry Adler, whom I recall from the CBS series, “THE GOOD WIFE”, gave an emotional and complex performance as one of Bernzy’s few friends, a journalist named Arthur Nabler. Both Dominic Chianese and Richard Foronjy were excellent as the two mob warring bosses, Spoleto and Frank Farinelli. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Richard Riehle, Bob Gunton, Tim Gamble, Patricia Healy and Del Close.

I realize that many critics do not have a high opinion of “THE PUBLIC EYE”. Why? Well, I never did bother to learn the reason behind their attitude. Perhaps I never really bothered is because I enjoyed the movie so much. In fact, I fell in love with it when I first saw it. And my feelings for “THE PUBLIC EYE” has not changed over the years, thanks to Howard Franklin’s direction and script, along with a first-rate cast led by Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

 

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

When New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers first released the news that Peter Jackson would adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” into three films, I had not been pleased. I thought the novel could have easily been adapted into two films or even a single film. Now that Jackson’s third film, “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”, I realized that my feelings had not changed.

I still believe what I had originally stated . . . an adaptation of Tolkien’s novel could have easily been limited to a single film. I believe I would have enjoyed it, considering my feelings for Tolkien’s tale. But you know what? I do not regret that Jackson had spread the story into the three films. A single movie or a trilogy, I enjoyed Jackson’s take on the story about Bilbo Baggins and his involvement with a group of dwarves under the leadership of one Thorin Oakenshield. But when I learned that this third film would feature a long, detailed conflict known as “the Battle of the Five Armies”, I found myself not looking forward to the story’s conclusion for the first time, since the release of the first movie. The problem is that I still had memories of the battles featured in the last two movies of Jackson’s adaptation of “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy – “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. I did not enjoy watching them over a decade ago. And I felt certain that I would not enjoy watching the “Battle of the Five Armies”.

There were aspects of this third HOBBIT that made it less enjoyable for me than the first two films. First of all, Bilbo and his traveling companions reached their destination in the last act of the previous film, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. Which meant that the story ceased to be a road trip. With the exception of a few scenes that featured Gandalf the Gray at Dol Guldur and Smaug’s destruction of Laketown, the majority of the film was set at the dwarves’ kingdom of Erebor and the nearby town of Dale. A bit disappointing. I also found the movie’s limited focus on Thorin’s company of dwarves rather disappointing as well. With the exception of Thorin and one of his nephews, Kili, the screenplay focused less on the dwarves and more on the other characters – especially Bard the Bowman and King Thranduil. Another aspect of the plot that disturbed me, was that it made a big deal of Thorin’s greed in the form of “dragon sickness”. Yet, it barely focused on King Thranduil’s willingness to go to war against the dwarves for an elven necklace of white gems inside Erebor. Worse, the movie’s plot brushed aside Laketown resident Bard’s own greed. Yeah . . . I said it. I believe Bard had developed his own greed for some of the treasure inside Erebor. During the movie’s first half hour, he made it clear to Alfrid Lickspittle that he had no interested in the Erebor treasure (which he had regarded as cursed) and only wanted aid in the form of food, shelter and medicine from Thorin. Yet, within another half hour, he was demanding some of the treasure for himself and other Laketown survivors. What led to this turnabout in Bard’s demands? Why did the screenplay fail to explain it?

Remember when I had predicted that I would not like the battle sequence featured in this movie? Well . . . I was right. I did not like it. Let me correct myself. I did not like most of it. I found the majority of the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” ridiculously long and overblown . . . just like the other battle sequences in “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. Now that I think of it, the movie’s battle sequence also reminded me of “the Battle at Hogwarts” featured in the 2011 movie, “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”, with the constant number of interruptions that allowed the battle to last longer than necessary. It is only by the grace of God that I was able to tolerate the “Battle of the Five Armies” a bit more than the Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields, Black Gate and Hogwarts battles. And I will tell you why.

What made the Battle of the Five Armies a little more tolerable for me? One, it had began under unusual circumstances. Instead of a battle in which the Erebor Dwarves fought side-by-side with Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm Elves against the Moria Orcs, Goblins and Wargs; the battle nearly became a conflict between the dwarves and an alliance between the Dale men and the elves over the treasure inside the Erebor mines. But the appearance of an army of orcs, goblins and wargs led by Orc chieftain Azog quickly led to a shifting of alliances. I found that rather interesting. The Battle of the Five Armies may have began with rather odd circumstances, it ended with a good deal of poignancy and tragedy that left me in tears. And I cannot say the same for the battles featured in “THE TWO TOWERS”, “RETURN OF THE KING” and “DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”.

I have never read “The Hobbit”, so I have no idea if J.R.R. Tolkien had any plans to write “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy around the time when he wrote the 1937 novel. But I have to admire the way Peter Jackson and the movie’s other screenwriters – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – set up the events featured in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, both in this movie and the previous two films. This was especially apparent in moments that featured Bilbo’s use of Sauron’s One Ring; his eventual reluctance to inform Gandalf about it; Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman’s encounter with Sauron, during their attempt to rescue Gandalf from Dol Guldur; Saruman’s doom-filled decision to deal with the fleeing and formless Sauron; and Thranduil’s post-battle suggestion that Legolas meet with a young Dunedain ranger named “Strider”. The movie even ended where “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began – on Bilbo’s 111st birthday, setting in motion, the events of 2001-2003 movie trilogy. I have to say . . . good job.

However, what really impressed me about “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” was how the screenwriters handled the political chaos that seemed to mark the story. I am not criticizing the story in any way. I just found it rather amazing at how Gandalf’s concerns over Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield’s past history with Azog and his bout of “dragon sickness” brought about so much political chaos in this story. And I must say that Jackson and the other three screenwriters handled it so well. The continuing romance between Thorin’s younger nephew Kili and the Silvan elf guard Tauriel is also handled well in the movie. Their time together seemed less than it was in “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. But thanks to Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly’s performances, there were two scenes featuring the pair that really impressed me – Kili’s plea to Tauriel that she follow him to Erebor and their efforts to save each other from the Orc called Bolg. Aside from Kili and Tauriel, one of the most interesting relationships in the movie was that between Bilbo and Thorin. In fact, their relationship has been interesting since the moment Bilbo first rejected Gandalf’s suggestion that he join Thorin’s companay as a burglar in “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. Thorin’s bout with “dragon sickness” came close to seriously undermining the pair’s friendship that had thrived since the company’s escape from Moria in the first film. Which is why I found their reconciliation and final scene together so poignant, thanks to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage’s performances. But the one scene that really left me in tears featured Bilbo’s final good-bye to the dwarves that were part of Thorin’s quest. I felt surprised by how much I truly grew to like these guys. Even more so than the members of the Ring Fellowship from “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” only earned one Academy Award – namely a Best Sound Editing for Brent Burge and Jason Canovas. One technical nomination? One? That was it? No nominations for special effects, costume designs, or editing. There was not even a nomination for Andrew Lesnie’s outstanding cinematography, as shown in the following image:

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I discovered that “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING” received eleven Academy Award nominations . . . and won all of its categories. And I am appalled. Why? Despite its flaws, I still hold “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” in a higher regard. Now I realize that I am not the last word on the quality of any movie. But I am entitled to my own opinions. I am sorry, but I simply have a higher opinion of “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” than either the second and third films in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And I cannot take the Oscars seriously if the only nomination they could give this film was for Best Sound Editing.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Although I was slightly disappointed by the decreased presence of most of the dwarves in Thorin’s company, they still managed to give first-rate performances . . . especially Graham McTavish as Dwalin, Dean O’Gorman as Fíli, and Ken Stott as Balin. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprised their roles as Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White and gave solid, but not particularly earth-shattering performances. I could also say the same about Ian Holm, who returned as Old Bilbo in the movie’s final scene and Sylvester McCoy, who briefly appeared as Gandalf’s fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown. Two performances in the movie struck me as particularly funny – Ryan Gage as the greedy and imaginative Laketown official Alfrid, and Billy Connolly as Thorin’s loud and sardonic cousin Dáin. Lee Pace gave a colorful and fascinating performance as the complicated and not always likable Elvenking of Mirkwood, Thranduil. And Benedict Cumberbatch continued to send chills down my spine, thanks to his exceptional performance as the voice for the malignant dragon, Smaug.

Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly continued to generate sparks as the two star-crossed lovers, Kili and Tauriel. I found them especially effective in two scenes I had earlier mentioned. Both Orlando Bloom and Luke Evans gave excellent performances as Elven prince Legolas and Laketown archer Bard the Bowman. For the first time, I also noticed that the pair could have easily portrayed cousins. Honestly. Ian McKellen was excellent as usual portraying Gandalf the Grey – especially in his scenes with Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman. I like to think that the latter made his mark as the reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman did an excellent job of developing his character from the prissy homebody to the clever and brave Hobbit. But my vote for the best performance in the movie would go to Richard Armitage for his complicated and fascinating portrayal of the Erebor Dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield. Actually, I feel that Armitage had been knocking it out of the ballpark since the first film. But in my opinion, two scenes in “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” featured his best performances as the ambiguous Thorin – namely the latter’s final struggle with “dragon fever” that I found absolutely brilliant and the poignant farewell between his character and Bilbo.

I cannot deny that “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” is my least favorite of the three films based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy it very much, thanks to Peter Jackson’s energetic direction, excellent production values and some superb performances from a cast led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

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“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Appointment With Death” has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale.

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie’s plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton’s stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother’s death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband’s second will.

Following the characters’ arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton’s domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton’s stepsons – Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother’s grip. Sarah’s frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband’s inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady’s stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton’s poisonous influence over the latter’s only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region’s British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov’s previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. Adding to the film’s second-hand look was Pino Donaggio’s very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie’s production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film’s producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie’s 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie’s production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard’s work in “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir’s set designs and David Gurfinkel’s photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield’s costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner’s pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie’s novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot – including the deletion of one or two characters – but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud’s lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul’s sly performance as the Boyntons’ slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky’s earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall’s hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme’s impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” turned out to be Piper Laurie’s performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie’s performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1938 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie’s production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov’s performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.

 

 

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Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) R.I.P.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1967) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

To my knowledge, there have been five adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. One of them is even a modern day adaptation. I have not seen this modern version of Hardy’s novel. But I have seen at least three adaptations, including the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” – at least the 1967 version – has been highly regarded by critics, moviegoers and fans of Hardy’s novel for nearly five decades. It is the adaptation that other ones have been measured against . . . much to their detriment.“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was a different direction for Schlesinger. It would prove to be the first of five period productions directed by him. Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael stuck as closely to Hardy’s novel as they possibly could. The movie was not a hundred percent adaptation of Hardy’s novel, but it was pretty close.

Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel know the tale. It begins with a young 19th century Englishwoman named Bathsheba Everdene, living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Although she likes Gabriel, Bathsheba values her independence too much and rejects his marriage proposal. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding and an angry and humiliated Frank called off the wedding. Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, while Gabriel can only watch helplessly as the situation develops into tragedy.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is a beautiful movie to behold . . . visually. One can credit the movie’s sweeping and colorful look to its iconic cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Thanks to the latter, the English counties of Wiltshire and Dorset never looked lovelier. Not surprisingly, Roeg earned a BAFTA nomination for his work. The movie also benefited from Richard Macdonald’s production designs, which did an excellent job in recreating rural England in the mid 19th century. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured Gabriel’s arrival at Shottwood, and his attempts to get hired as a bailiff or a shepherd at a hiring fair; the harvest meal at the Everdene farm; Bathsheba’s meeting with Frank in Bath; the rural fair attended by Bathsheba and Mr. Boldwood; and the Christmas party held by Mr. Boldwood. I will not pretend that I found Richard Rodney Bennett’s score particularly memorable. But I must admit that it blended well with the movie’s plot and Schlesinger’s direction. I also noticed that Bennett added traditional English folk songs in various scenes throughout the movie.

I have seen at least two movie versions and one television adaptation of Hardy’s novel. And it occurred to me that the main reason why I ended up enjoying all three adaptations so much is that I really liked Hardy’s tale. I really do. More importantly, all three adaptations, including this 1967 movie, did an excellent job in capturing the novel’s spirit. With a running time of 169 minutes, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” took its time in conveying Hardy’s story . . . with a few little shortcuts. And thanks to Schlesinger’s direction and Raphael’s screenplay, the movie not only recaptured both the idyllic nature of 19th century rural England, but also its harsh realities. More importantly, the movie brought alive to the screen, Hardy’s complex characters and romances. Hollywood once made a movie about a woman torn between three men in 1941’s “TOM, DICK, AND HARRY” with Ginger Rogers. But the complexity between the one woman and the three men was nothing in compare to this tale. Especially, when the leading lady is such a complex and ambiguous character like Bathsheba Everdene. Another aspect of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that I enjoyed were the interactions between the movie’s leads and the supporting cast who portrayed Bathsheba’s employees. Like her relationships with Gabriel, Frank and Mr. Boldwood; the leading lady’s relationships with her employees – especially the women who worked inside her home – proved to be very interesting.

There was a good deal of controversy when Julie Christie was announced as the actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Apparently, the media did not consider her capable of portraying the tumultuous mid-Victorian maiden . . . or any other period character. Well, she proved them wrong. Christie gave a very skillful and nuanced performance as the ambiguous Bathsheba, capturing the character’s passion, vanity and at times, insecurity. Terence Stamp was another actor more associated with the Swinging Sixties scene in London, but unlike Christie, his casting did not generate any controversy. I might as well place my cards on the table. I think Stamp proved to be the best Frank Troy I have seen on screen, despite the first-rate performances of the other two actors I have seen in role. He really did an excellent job in re-creating Frank’s charm, roguishness and unstable nature. Thanks to Stamp’s performance, I can see why Schlesinger became so fascinated with the character.

Despite Christie and Stamp’s popularity with moviegoers, the two actors who walked away with nominations and an award were Peter Finch and Alan Bates. No matter how interesting all of the other characters were, I personally found the William Boldwood character to be the most fascinating one in Hardy’s tale. And Peter Finch, who won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor did a superb job in bringing the character to life. Finch beautifully re-captured the nuances of a character that I not only found sympathetic, but also a bit frightening at times. Alan Bates earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel Oak, which I believe he fully deserved. I think portraying such a minimalist character like Gabriel must be quite difficult for any actor. He is a character that required real skill and subtlety. Bates certainly did the job. The actor managed to convey the passion that Gabriel harbored for Bathsheba without any theatrical acting and at the same time, convey the character’s introverted and sensible nature. The movie also benefited from some skillful and solid work from its supporting cast that included Golden Globe nominee Prunella Ransome, who portrayed the tragic Fanny Robin; Fiona Walker (from 1972’s “EMMA”); Alison Leggatt; John Barrett; and iconic character actor, Freddie Jones.

As much as I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, there were some aspects of the production that I found troublesome. Earlier, I had pointed out that Schlesinger had seemed so fascinated by the Frank Troy character. And while this contributed to Terence Stamp’s presence in the movie, Schlesinger’s handling of the character threatened to overshadow the entire movie. Quite frankly, he seemed a bit too obsessed with Frank for my tastes. This heavy emphasis on Frank – especially in two-thirds of the movie – also seemed to overshadow Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak. At one point, I found myself wondering what happened to the character. Worse, the chemistry between Julie Christie and Alan Bates had somewhat dissipated by the movie’s last act to the point that it barely seemed to exist by the end of the movie. And Schlesinger allowed the “ghost” of Frank Troy to hover over Bathsheba and Gabriel’s future relationship by ending the movie with a shot of a toy soldier inside the Everdeen-Oak household. No wonder Stamp was credited as the male lead in this film.

There were other aspects of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that either troubled me or failed to impress me. I am at a loss on how Prunella Ransome earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Robin. Mind you, she gave a very good performance. But she was on the screen for such a small amount of time that there seemed to be no opportunity for the narrative to delve into her character. Ransome’s Fanny came off as a plot device and a part of me cannot help but blame Hardy’s original novel for this failure. Although I cannot deny that Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography was visually beautiful to me; I also found myself annoyed by his and Schlesinger’s overuse of far shots. It reminded me of how director William Wyler and cinematographer Franz F. Planer nearly went overboard in their use of far shots in the 1958 western, “THE BIG COUNTRY”. I read somewhere that Alan Barrett had earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Costume Designs for this film. I do not mean to be cruel, but how in the hell did that happened? I have to be frank. I was not impressed with the costumes featured in this film. Although I managed to spot a few costumes that struck me as a well-done re-creation of fashion in the mid-to-late 1860s, most of the other costumes looked as if they had been rented from a warehouse in Hollywood or London. Not impressed at all.

Aside from my complaints, I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” very much. A good deal of delight in the film originated with Thomas Hardy’s original tale. But if I must be honest, a good deal of filmmakers have screwed up a potential adaptation with either bad writing, bad direction or both. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about “FAR FROM MADDING CROWD”. Thanks to the first-rate artistry of the film’s crew, a well-written screenplay by Frederic Raphael, a very talented cast led by Julie Christie; director John Schlesinger did an excellent in bringing Hardy’s tale to the screen.

“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review

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“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review
The 2016 summer movie season proved to be not as impressive as I had originally thought it would be. I cannot recall a remake of television or previous movie with an original twist. Worst, many of the movies seemed to be nothing more than sequels. And if I must be brutally frank, not very good ones. But I have only come across two movies that struck me as completely original. One of them is the period action comedy, “THE NICE GUYS”.

Co-written and directed by Shane Black, “THE NICE GUYS” told the story of a down-on-his-luck private investigator and an enforcer investigating two cases that might have a connection with each other – the death of a fading porn star and a missing young woman, who happens to be the daughter of a U.S. Justice Department official. Set in Los Angeles circa 1977, “THE NICE GUYS” began with a young boy witnessing the death of fading porn star Misty Mountains in a car crash in the Hollywood Hills. Later, Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glen, hires private eye Holland March to find her, claiming that she is still alive. Despite feeling skeptical of Mrs. Glen’s claim, Holland takes the case and discovers that a young woman named Amelia Kutner is connected to Misty. Unbeknownst to him, an enforcer named Jackson Healy has been hired by Amanda, who does not want to be found, to intimidate March into staying away from her. But when two thugs try to coerce Jackson into revealing Amelia’s whereabouts, he teams up with Holland and the latter’s young daughter Holly to find Amelia before the thugs do. The duo’s investigation lead them into the world of Los Angeles’ pornography industry and a scandal surrounding the automobile industry.

“THE NICE GUYS” was not a major box office hit. It barely made a profit, if I must be brutally honest. This is a pity, because I believe Shane Black not only directed, but co-wrote – with Anthony Bagarozzi – a first-rate action comedy. There were a few aspects of “THE NICE GUYS” that I found unappealing. One, I was a little taken aback that the main villains behind the murders committed in the movie and involved in the automobile scandal did not face any justice. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, considering that the main villains were a cabal of businessmen in the Detroit automobile industry. I mean, honestly, Black and Bagarozzi could have provided the movie with a more distinct main villain and saved an ending like this for a drama like 1974’s “CHINATOWN”, instead of an action comedy. And two, for a movie set in the late 1970s, one aspect struck me as anachronistic – namely the Judith Kutner character portrayed by Kim Basinger. What else can I say? Basinger looked like an early 21st century woman who had time traveled back to 1977, thanks to her anachronistic hairstyle. Visually, the actress stuck out like a sore thumb.

Thankfully, there was a lot more to admire about “THE NICE GUYS”. Shane Black and Anthony Bagorozzi really did themselves proud. Who else could write a comedic story about a group of people in the porn industry, using the power of film – a “porn” flick called “How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?” to expose the shady dealings of a cabal of Detroit automobile makers; toss in an alcoholic private investigator, a burly and somewhat violent enforcer, the former’s 12 year-old daughter; and set all of this in 1977 Los Angeles? By all of the laws of nature (and writing), this should not have worked. But it did . . . beautifully. This movie featured some interesting and off-the-wall scenes that included Jackson and Holland’s first violent meeting, their search for the missing Amelia at a wild party held by a pornography producer in the Hollywood Hills, and that crazy finale at the L.A. Auto Show.

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some first-rate action sequences. Among my favorites are the screen fights that featured Russell Crowe, Keith David and in the first one, Beau Knapp. I would include Ryan Gosling, but his character did not strike me as an effective brawler, just a person who falls from high places, while in a state of intoxication. The movie also featured a first-rate scene in which the Jackson Healey and Holland March characters have a deadly shoot-out in front of the March home with a psychotic hit man named John Boy (a name that requires a photograph of actor Matt Bomer and an article on its own). But once again, the auto show sequence tops it all with some first-rate action that include a major brawl and an intense shoot out.

Being a period piece, “THE NICE GUYS” is a colorful movie to look at, thanks to contributions from the crew. I love sharp color in my films, especially if they are period pieces. And I am happy to say that Philippe Rousselot’s photography not only satisfied me color wise, but also gave the movie a late 1970s sheen that I have not seen in a long time. I noticed that some of his exterior shots were filmed in close-ups. And I cannot help but wonder if he had done this, because the movie was partially shot in Atlanta, Georgia. Also contributing to the movie’s late 1970s look was Richard Bridgland’s production designs. Speaking as a person who remembered that era (and location) very well, I have to give Bridgland kudos for doing an excellent job in re-creating that era. I also have to say the same about David Utley’s art direction. I was also impressed by Kym Barrett’s costume designs. As shown in the images below, I found them very colorful and spot-on:

I cannot help but wonder if Russell Crowe’s character had become attached to that faux leather jacket. The actor wore it throughout the film. Although David Buckley and John Ottman provided a solid score for the movie, I really enjoyed the variety of songs from the mid-to-late 1970s that were included. This especially seemed to be the case during the porn producer’s party that featured a band playing Earth, Wind and Fire tunes. Be still my heart!

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some solid and outstanding performances. Murielle Telio, Beau Knapp, Ty Simpkins (who had worked with Black in “IRON MAN 3”), Lois Smith, Margaret Qualley, Jack Kilmer, and Gil Gerard (“BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY” anyone?) all gave some pretty solid performances. I can also say the same about Kim Basinger, who portrayed a very pragmatic, yet emotionally intense Federal prosecutor named Judith Kuttner.

But I was really impressed by the likes of Matt Bomer, who gave a really intense performance as the rather scary hit man, John Boy. It was nice to see Bomer portray a character so completely different from what he usually does. Yaya DaCosta was equally intense, yet very seductive as Tally, secretary to Kim Basinger’s Judith Kuttner. I thought she did a great job in conveying all of the interesting traits of Tally – friendly, sexy, intense and dangerous. Keith David had the unenviable task of being one of the few sane characters in this crazy film, while portraying a Detroit-born hit man nicknamed “Older Guy”. However, I nearly fell off my seat, while laughing at one scene in which he expressed dismay to Holland for allowing young Holly’s presence in the case. Speaking of Holly, the filmmakers cast young Australian actress Angourie Rice to portray Holland’s pragmatic and brainy daughter, who also served as the leads’ conscience. Not only did she give a first-rate performance, Rice managed to keep up with the likes of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling with ease.

Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healey more or less played straight man to Ryan Gosling’s zany Holland March; and I have to give him kudos for being up to the task. It is not an easy job playing straight man to the clown, considering that people are more inclined to pay attention to the latter. But Crowe not only did his job, he also beautifully brought alive a very interesting character in his own right, enforcer Jackson Healey, a dependable guy who has this little penchant for unnecessarily using excessive violence to solve certain situations. And he really clicked with Ryan Gosling, who had the good luck to portray the hapless and alcoholic private investigator Holland March. The interesting thing about Holland is that he is not dumb at all. In fact, he is actually a perceptive investigator who is good at his job, when he is not inebriated, not trying to cheat his clients, wallowing in his infatuation of the mysterious Tally or too intent on saving his own skin. I have to say that Holland March has become one of my favorite Ryan Gosling roles of all time. And one of the funniest I have ever viewed on the silver screen. What else is there to say?

What a shame that the public did not embrace “THE NICE GUYS”. But it does not matter in the end. At least for me. I can think of numerous films that I loved, but were not exactly box office hits. Right now, “THE NICE GUYS” has become one of those films. It is sooooo fun to watch, thanks to a great, but not perfect script; sharp direction by Shane Black; and a marvelous cast led by a very talented duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. This movie will go down as one of my favorites from 2016.

 

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“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

“GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939) Review

Several years ago, I had come across an article that provided a list of old classics that the author felt might be overrated. One of those movies turned out to be the 1939 Oscar winning film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Not only did the author accuse the movie of being both racist and sexist, he also claimed that the movie had not aged very well over the past seven decades.

Did I agree with the author? Well, let me put it this way. I would say that “GONE WITH THE WIND” has managed to withstand the tests of time . . . to a certain extent. As the author had pointed out, the sexism and racism are obvious and rather off-putting. First of all, the slaves came across as too servile for my taste. Although there were moments when it seemed the slave Prissy did not particularly care for the movie’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. And although Prissy was not the only dimwitted character in the story (think of Melanie and Charles Hamilton’s Aunt Pittypatt, the Tarleton brothers, and yes, even Charles Hamilton himself), she had the bad luck to spout that unfortunate line that must have been the bane of actress Butterfly McQueen’s life – “Miz Scarlett, I know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.”. The movie’s portrayal of the newly freed slaves struck me as schizophrenic. They either remained loyal to their former masters – like Mammy, Prissy and Pork (the O’Hara house servants); or they were shiftless, lazy blacks who easily “bought the Yankees’ lies” and preyed upon their former masters and mistresses – especially white women. This last sentence reminded me of the Shantytown sequence. And I just remembered that both a white man and a black man nearly attacked Scarlett before she was rescued by Big Sam. In other words, this film was just as insulting to working-class whites (think former overseer Jonas Wilkerson and Emmy Slattery), as it was to the black characters. I forgot that despite its occasional celebration of the working-class (especially during the Depression Era), many Hollywood films tend to reek of class bigotry.

And the sexism was no better. I found the story’s male romantic lead Rhett Butler’s determination to view Scarlett as his own personal child bride rather distasteful – along with his act of marital rape. The first half of the movie allowed Rhett to express some kind of respect toward Scarlett’s pragmatism and ruthlessness. But once she became his wife, he seemed to long for some kind of child bride as well. But if I must be honest, I have seen movies that are just as bad or even worse. I realize that the Melanie Hamilton character is highly regarded by many as the ideal woman, I personally found the character hard to accept. I nearly rolled my eyes in one scene that featured her sacrificing her wedding ring for “the Cause” (namely the Confederacy). That woman put the Madeline Fabray character from John Jakes’ North and South” trilogy to shame. Ideal characters – especially ideal women – have always been a turn off for me. They tend to smack of illusions of the worst kind.

I had once seen “GONE WITH THE WIND” at one of my local movie theaters when it had been re-released to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1989. The first half of the film struck me as being well-paced and filmed. The dialogue sparkled and Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable, and the rest of the cast could not have been better. I could not say the same for the film’s second half. The real problem with “GONE WITH THE WIND” manifested in Part Two. Once Scarlett had married Rhett . . . the movie slowly began to fizzle. Oh sure, it had its iconic moments – Scarlett appearing at Ashley’s birthday party in the infamous red dress, Bonnie Blue Butler’s death and Mammy’s grief-stricken reaction. Unfortunately, it did not take me very long to fall asleep . . . even before poor Bonnie Blue’s death. I managed to wake up in time to witness Hattie McDaniel’s brilliant monologue on the decline of Butlers’ marriage and Bonnie Blue’s death. I do not think one can really blame the movie’s credited screenwriter, Sidney Howard and the screenwriters who worked on the project. Margaret Mitchell’s novel had this same problem as the movie. Namely, it started brilliantly and ended with me crying in despair for the story to end. I suspect that Selznick had decided not to risk earning the fans’ ire by refraining from changing the novel’s structure too much after the other changes he had made.

And the main reason why “GONE WITH THE WIND” threatened to fizzle out in the end? Quite frankly, the story seemed unable to maintain the same pace throughout the film. Even worse, this seemed to have turned “GONE WITH THE WIND” into a movie with conflicting genres. I do not know whether to list it as a historical drama or a costumed melodrama. Most of the movie seemed like a historical drama – especially the first half that ends with Scarlett’s return to Tara. But once Scarlett’s second husband – Frank Kennedy – was killed during the Shantytown attack sequence, the movie purely became a costumed melodrama. This change in genre not only made the movie seemed slightly schizophrenic, it nearly grounded the film’s pacing to a halt.

There were other minor aspects of “GONE WITH THE WIND” that I found rather questionable. Why was Melanie Wilkes living in Atlanta, following her marriage to Ashley Wilkes? Why did she not live with her in-laws at the Wilkes’ plantation, Twelve Oaks? And why was Scarlett still living at Tara, following her marriage to Charles Hamilton? She should have moved into the home of his aunt, Pittypat Hamilton, in Atlanta. One featured a brief scene in which Eddie Anderson’s Uncle Peter chasing a chicken in the Wilkes’ backyard proclaiming it to be “the last chicken in Atlanta”. Really? In December 1863, when the Union Army had yet to set foot in the state of Georgia, except at Fort Polaski, off the coast of Savannah? And could someone explain why social leaders like Mrs. Mayweather, Mrs. Meade and Aunt Pittypat needed Melanie’s approval for an auction regarding the city’s young female elite at the local charity bazaar and ball? Melanie was only a year or two older than Scarlett and probably eighteen to nineteen years old at the time. I found the entire moment implausible. And who exactly created the infamous green dress that Scarlett wore to pay Rhett a visitor, when he was a prisoner of the Union Army? Scarlett? Her sisters? Mammy, who was a housekeeper and not a seamstress? Prissy? Why was Rhett a prisoner of the Union Army . . . after the war ended? And why did Big Sam have that ludicrous argument with the other O’Hara slave over who would order the other field slaves to stop working? He was the foreman. It was his job. The other man should have known that.

Speaking of Big Sam, he was also featured in a scene in which Scarlett spotted him and other former Tara field slaves marching through Atlanta and on their way to dig ditches for the Confederate Army defending the city. What made me shake my head in disbelief was not only Sam’s cheerful attitude toward this task, but the fact that his fellow slaves were singing “Go Down Moses”, a song associated with American slaves’ desire to flee bondage and the Underground Railroad. Either David O. Selznick or his production team had no knowledge of the historical significance of this song, or . . . this scene was some kind of ironic joke. Last, but not least, one scene in the movie’s second half found Scarlett and Ashley arguing over their use of convicts as labor for her lumber mill. The problem is that the convicts were all white, and most convicts – then and now – were African-Americans. Is it possible that Selznick may have been guilty of whitewashing? Apparently so.

“GONE WITH THE WIND” does have its virtues. Most of the performances were first-rate. It especially benefited from Vivian Leigh as the movie’s lead, Scarlett O’Hara; Clark Gable as the roguish Rhett Butler; Hattie McDaniel as Mammy; Olivia De Havilland as the sweetly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara; Barbara O’Neil as Ellen O’Neil; Butterfly McQueen as Prissy; Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, and even Leslie Howard, who had the thankless job of portraying the aristocratic loser, Ashley Wilkes. In fact, one has to give Leigh credit for basically carrying a nearly four-hour movie on her own. But there were other performances that I found memorable – including Oscar Polk, Victor Jory, Harry Davenport, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, Everett Brown, Carroll Nye and Rand Brooks. Leigh, Gable, De Havilland and McDaniels all received Academy Award nominations. Both Leigh and McDaniels won in their respective categories.

The movie also benefited from a strong first half, which covered the war years. From the movie’s opening on Tara’s porch to that last moment when a besieged Scarlett vowed to “never go hungry again” in the middle of one of Tara’s fields, the movie steamed ahead with drive, without rushing along too fast. In fact, I would say that the film’s strongest sequence began with the Union Army’s siege of Atlanta and ended with Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy’s arrival at Tara. That sequence alone did an excellent job of expressing the horrors of war not only from the military point of view, but also from the viewpoints of civilians like Scarlett. Marceella Rabwin, producer David O. Selznick’s former executive assistant, had credited Victor Fleming not only for his direction of this sequence, but also the film’s strong drive and pacing. And since he ended up as the movie’s main director, I guess I will also give him credit. It still amazes me that a Civil War movie with no battle scenes whatsoever, could have such a strong and well-paced narrative – at least in its first half. The movie also benefited from the hiring of the Oscar winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, who used storyboards (a first in Hollywood for a live-action film) to provide the movie’s look and style. He was able assisted by another Oscar winner, Lyle R. Wheeler, who created the movie’s art designs. Many have complimented Walter Plunkett for his costume designs for the film. Granted, he had created some beautiful costumes. But my two favorite costumes worn by Vivian Leigh in the images below, are not particularly well-known:

However, I do have a problem with some of Plunkett’s designs. He had a bad habit of injecting modern fashion styles into some of his 19th century designs. Another virtue of the movie came from the score written and orchestrated by Max Steiner. Although he had received a nomination for his work, Steiner was defeated by Herbert Stothart’s work for “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. Menzies’ storyboards must have been a godsend not only for Wheeler’s Oscar winning art direction and Plunkett’s costume designs, but also Ernest Haller and Lee Garmes’ photography. I found the latter so beautiful and colorful that only the following images can only do further justice to the film’s striking visuals:

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What else can I say about “GONE WITH THE WIND”? Unlike many other film critics and fans, it is not my favorite Best Picture winner. It is not even my favorite 1939 film. Between the overt political incorrectness and a weak second half, I would have never voted it as the 1939 Best Picture Oscar. But . . . despite its political incorrectness and the dull last hour of the film, “GONE WITH THE WIND” still managed to hold up pretty well after 77 years, thanks to its talented cast and crew and the drive of producer David O. Selznick.