“WONDER WOMAN” (2017) Review

 

“WONDER WOMAN” (2017) Review

Since the release of “MAN OF STEEL” back in 2013, the D.C. Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise has been in a conundrum. Although the 2013 film and with the two movies that followed – “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”and “SUICIDE SQUAD” – were all box office hits, they had been heavily condemned by many film critics. Then along came “WONDER WOMAN”, the first superhero movie that featured a woman in the lead since 2005. 

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “WONDER WOMAN” is basically a flashback on the origins of Princess Diana of Thymerica aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman. Some time after the events of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, Diana received a package at her Antiquities Curator office at the Louvre Museum. It came from Bruce Wayne aka Batman and it contained the original photographic plate of her, Steve Trevor and their comrades during World War I:

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The photographic plate led Diana to recall her past, starting with her childhood on Thymerica Island. While being raised by her mother, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, Diana learns about Zeus’ creation of mankind and his son Ares’ jealousy of his father’s creation and the latter’s attempts to destroy humans. After the other Mount Olympus gods were killed by Ares, because of their attempts to stop him, Zeus created a weapon for the Amazonians, a “Godkiller”, in case Ares decides to return. Although Queen Hippolyta has no trouble telling Diana about Zeus, Ares and the other Mount Olympus gods; she forbids her sister and military leader of the Amazons, Antiope, to train Diana. Eventually she relents and demands that Antiope train Diana harder than the other Amazons.

During the last year of World War I, Diana rescues an American military pilot named Captain Steve Trevor, after his plane crashes off Themyscira’s coast. The island is soon invaded by German sailors from a cruiser, pursuing Trevor. The Amazons engage and kill all of the German sailors, but Antiope sacrifices herself to save Diana. Interrogated with the Lasso of Hestia, Trevor informs the Amazons about World War I, his position as an Allied spy and his mission to deliver a notebook he had stolen from the Spanish-born chief chemist for the German Army, Dr. Isabel Maru. The latter is attempting to engineer a deadlier form of mustard gas for General Erich Ludendorff at a weapons facility in the Ottoman Empire. Against her mother’s wishes, Diana decides to help Steve’s war efforts by leaving Themyscira and accompanying him to London. Recalling Hippolyta’s tales about Ares, she believes the latter is responsible for the war and hopes to kill him with the help of the Lasso of Hestia and the “Godkiller” sword that Zeus had left behind.

As I had earlier pointed out, “WONDER WOMAN” received a great deal of critical acclaim. In fact, it proved to be the first film in the DCEU franchise to do so, leading many to regard it as better than its three predecessors. Do I feel the same about the movie? Not quite. Do not get me wrong, “WONDER WOMAN” struck me as a first-rate movie that I found very entertaining. As a woman, I found it personally satisfying that it proved to the first successful comic book heroine film. More importantly, it was also the first comic but the first to be directed by a woman. In the end, “WONDER WOMAN” became one of my top favorite movies from the summer of 2017. Many people were surprised that most of the film – namely the flashback – was set during the last month of World War I, especially since Wonder Woman’s origin began during World War II. It could be that Warner Brothers wanted to avoid any comparisons with Marvel’s Captain America, whose origin began around the same time. I am glad that the movie was mainly set during World War. One, I feel that it would have been compared to Marvel’s 2011 film, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. But more importantly, the World War I setting meshed better with the film’s portrayal of one of the villains, Erich Ludendorff. And without the World War I setting, I would have never experienced one of the best action sequences I had seen this summer – Wonder Woman’s foray into “No Man’s Land”, as seen in the images below:

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Thinking about the No Man’s Land” sequence reminded me of other action scenes in the movie that I found satisfying. Those scenes include a montage of Diana’s training as a warrior, the Amazons’ defense of Thymerica against invading German sailors, Diana and Steve’s encounter with a group of German spies in a London alley. The “No Man’s Land” sequence eventually led to another fight in which Diana, Steve and their companions led a liberation of the Belgian town Veld, which had been occupied by the Germans. You know what? It is possible that I may have enjoyed this sequence even more than the charge across “No Man’s Land”. One, it lasted longer. And the sequence featured more of a team effort between Diana, Steve, their three companions and troops from the Allied Powers. In fact, one scene featured Steve remembering an Amazonian tactic from the Thymerica battle and utilizing it with Diana in Veld. I literally smiled at that moment.But “WONDER WOMAN” was not all about action scenes. Personally, I regard the movie as a character study of its lead character. Ever since Diana had informed Bruce Wayne that she had walked away from mankind for nearly a century in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, I have always wondered what led her to become that slightly cynical woman. For me, “WONDER WOMAN” told that story . . . to a certain extent, thanks to Allan Heinberg’s screenplay. The Princess Diana aka Diana Prince that we see in this film is an intelligent woman with a fierce sense of justice and duty. Whereas her mother and other fellow Amazons want to isolate themselves from humanity and the rest of the world at large, Diana views Steve’s arrival and his revelation about the war being raged to save humanity from what she believed was Ares’ destructive influence. Diana is also portrayed as a compassionate woman incapable of turning a blind eye to the devastating effects of war upon the Belgian civilian population and servicemen like Charlie, a Scottish sharpshooter and ally of Steve’s, who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD). She also possessed enough compassion to become aware of the discrimination that Steve’s other two friends faced – the Blackfoot warrior and smuggler Chief Napi and the French Moroccan secret agent, Sameer.

But Diana’s belief in Ares’ role in the Great War also revealed some negative aspects of her personality. One aspect of Diana’s personality in this film was her naivety. There were scenes in which her naivety about the “world of man” that I found humorous – namely her shopping trip with Steve’s assistant, Etta Camp; her introduction to ice cream; and her discussions with Steve about human sexuality. But there were plenty of times when I found her naivety very frustrating – especially in those scenes in which Steve tries to explain the true ambiguous nature of human beings and the war. A good example was Diana’s interruption of the Allied Powers’ high command and her attempt to instruct the generals on how to “run a war”. Many found this scene as an example of Diana’s feminine empowerment. I found it as an example of her naivety and a bit of arrogance on her part. In these scenes, Diana seemed to display a stubborn, almost hard-headed and blind reluctance to let go of her misguided beliefs. Because of this unwillingness to believe she might be wrong about matters, Diana killed one of the characters believing him to be Ares without any real proof. I found this moment rather frightening. This hard-headed trait revealed what I believe was one example of Diana’s penchant for extreme behavior. Diana’s angry and frightening reaction to Steve’s sacrifice was another example. And the hard lessons she had learned about humanity, along with personal tragedy, led to her almost century long foray into emotional isolation. In many ways, Diana’s journey is that if an idealist, whose positive assumptions had been ripped away in the most painful manner.

While watching “WONDER WOMAN”, it seemed obvious to me that Patty Jenkins is more than a competent director. She is obviously first-rate. Mind you, I do not believe that she possesses Zack Snyder’s razor-sharp eye for imagery. And yet, judging from the sequences of the Thymerica battle, Diana and Steve’s arrival in London; along with the outstanding “No Man’s Land” sequence, it seems obvious to me that Jenkins has a solid grasp of imagery and is capable of being a visually original director. It helped that cinematographer Matthew Jensen and film editor Martin Walsh contributed to Jenkins’ visual presentation of “WONDER WOMAN”. I would not consider the costume designs from “WONDER WOMAN” to be among the best of Lindy Hemming’s career and a costume designer. But I thought she did an excellent job in designing the Greco-style costumes for the Amazons – including Diana’s Wonder Woman costume. And I found her re-creation of the 1918 wartime costumes for the characters of both genders well done:

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Although I believe there is a great deal to admire about “WONDER WOMAN”, I do have a few complaints. One of them happened to be Jenkins’ use of slow-motion filming in many of the film’s action sequences. Yes, I realize that Jenkins was not the first director to use this form of filming action scenes. Her fellow DCEU director, Zack Snyder, was notorious for his use of this technique – especially in his pre-DCEU films. Unfortunately, I found myself getting tired of the slow-motion technique not long after ten to fifteen minutes into the film. I mean . . . good grief! Jenkins not only used it in the film’s every action sequence, but also in one scene that featuring one of the Amazons’ combat training sessions. I just got tired of it . . . really fast.My second problem with the film centered around the final action scene between Wonder Woman and Ares. I had no problems with Ares’ revelation about his identity. And I certainly had no problems with his revelations about the true nature of humanity and the war itself. And I found Wonder Woman’s reactions to his revelations and Steve Trevor’s sacrifice rather interesting. But why . . . why in God’s name did Jenkins and Heinberg find it necessary to have Diana say the following line to Ares before their final duel?

“It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

While the sentiment is lovely, it contradicted Diana’s cynical attitude and words to Bruce Wayne, following Clark Kent’s death in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”:

“A hundred years ago I walked away from mankind; from a century of horrors… Men made a world where standing together is impossible.”

Now, one could say that Diana had acquired this attitude during the 97 years between her showdown with Ares and the incident with Doomsday. But she made it clear to Bruce that she had walked away “a hundred years”, which is roughly between the end of World War I and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”, save a three years. Why did Jenkins and Heinberg allow her to spout that line about how love with save the world? Was this some emotional sop to those critics and moviegoers who wanted to pretend that Diana had managed to avoid wallowing in her grief over Steve and disappointment over Ares’ revelation? If so, that is bad writing . . . or bad timing. Jenkins and Heinberg could have saved the line for Diana’s narration at the end of the movie. After she had received the photographic plate and Steve’s watch from Bruce . . . and after she had finally lifted herself from her cynicism and detached air.

I certainly had no complaints about the movie’s performances. Mind you, there were two performances that failed to knock my socks off. One came from veteran actor Danny Huston, who found himself saddled with the clichéd riddled character of General Erich Ludendorff. Huston did not give a bad performance. Being a first-rate actor, he did the best that he could with the material given to him. But the screenwriter’s portrayal of the character reeked with the Hollywood cliché of an aggressive German military officer, straight from the “Ve haf vays of making you talk” school of screenwriting. And I believe this may have hampered Huston’s performance. I also had a slight problem with Eugene Brave Rock, who portrayed one of Steve Trevor’s allies, Chief Napi. Rock was not a bad actor and I found him very likeable. But it was easy for me to see that he was not exactly the most experienced actor. And I was not surprised to discover that he had spent most of his film career as a stuntman and stunt trainer. When Ewan Bremner first appeared in the film, I suspected that he had been cast to portray another one of the many comic roles he has portrayed in the past. However, his character Charlie proved to be another kettle of fish. Thanks to Bremner’s skillful performance, Charlie proved to be a tragic figure whose peace of mind had been ravaged by the violence of war. Elena Anaya, whom I have never heard of before this film, gave an intelligent and intense performance asIsabel Maru aka Doctor Poison, the Spanish-born chemist recruited to create chemical weapons for the German Army and specifically, for General Ludendorff. Unlike the latter, Dr. Maru is a villainess straight from the pages of the D.C. Comics titles for Wonder Woman. And yet, thanks to Anaya’s performance, she was not portrayed in a ham-fisted manner. But I must admit that I adored Saïd Taghmaoui’s portrayal of French Moroccan secret agent, Sameer. I found his performance charming, witty and very intelligent. And in my view, he had the best line in the movie (about Diana, of course):

“I am both frightened… and aroused.”

Connie Nielsen’s portrayal of Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta of Thymerica proved to be more interesting that I had assumed it would be. Frankly, I thought Queen Hippolyta would be a somewhat bland parent figure, who was simply protective of her only daughter. In the end, Hippolyta’s protectiveness toward her daughter proved to have a major impact upon the latter. This same protectiveness, along with her world-weary response to Diana’s decision to leave Thymerica revealed the true, ambiguous nature of the character and Nielsen did an excellent job in conveying it. Robin Wright had an easier time in her portrayal of Diana’s aunt, Antiope. The actress not only did a great job, I was especially impressed at how she embraced the more physical aspects of the role. After all, Antiope was the Amazonian army’s lead general. I was very surprised to learn that the actress who portrayed Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s assistant, was none other than Lucy Davis, who had a supporting role in the 1995 miniseries, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. Personally, I adored her portrayal of Etta. Like Taghmaoui, she was a walking embodiment of charm and wit. I especially enjoyed Davis’ performance in the scene that featured Diana and Etta’s shopping trip. David Thewlis gave a superficially pleasant performance as the dignified Sir Patrick Morgan, a diplomatic liaison with the Imperial War Cabinet. I found him intelligent, subtle and a little tricky.

I have a confession to make. I have always liked Gal Gadot as a screen presence. Honestly. She has a very strong presence. But I have never considered her as a top-notch actress . . . until recent years. But I must admit that her portrayal of Princess Diana of Thymerica aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman really knocked my socks off. I was impressed at how Gadot managed to portray Diana during two distinctive phases in her life – the naive, yet stubborn young woman who seemed convinced that she knows what is best for the world in this film; and the cynical and weary woman who is somewhat contemptuous of the world in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. And she did such a marvelous job in conveying this two phases in Diana’s life . . . in two different films. Ms. Gadot has come a long way. I think Steve Trevor might one of my favorite roles portrayed by Chris Pine. Aside from the fact that he has great chemistry with Gadot, Pine gave a very entertaining portrayal of the American intelligence officer who first befriends Diana and later, falls in love with her. I found it fascinating to watch Pine convey Steve’s intelligence, cunning and wry sense of humor. I also found it fascinating to watch how Pine conveyed Steve’s struggles with Diana’s naivety, stubborness and impulsive behavior. And he did so with a great deal of skill.

“WONDER WOMAN” is the fourth film released through the D.C. Comics Extended Universe (DCEU). And like the other three, I found myself not only enjoying it very much, but also impressed by it. Aside from a few flaws, I thought director Patty Jenkins did a first-rate job in telling movie audiences the story of how Princess Diana of Thymerica became Wonder Woman . . . and how she also became that world weary woman from 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. And she did so with a first-rate movie crew and a wonderful cast led by Gal Gadot.

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” (2017) Review

I have a confession to make. When the Disney Studios had released the fourth movie in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise, I wished they had never done it. I wished that a fourth film had never been made. I also believed that the franchise was fine after three movies. Then I learned that a fifth film was scheduled to be released this summer and . . . yeah, I was not pleased by the news. But considering that I can be such a whore for summer blockbusters, I knew that I would be watching it. 

Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” seemed to be a story about the search for the trident of the sea god Poseidon. Two years after the post-credit scene from 2007’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”, Henry Turner, the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann Turner boards the Flying Dutchman to inform his father of his discovery that the mythical Trident of Poseidon is able to break the Flying Dutchman’s curse and free him from his ship. Henry plans to seek Jack Sparrow’s help to find it. Will does not believe the Trident exists and orders Henry to leave his ship and stay away from Jack. Nine years later, Henry finds himself serving aboard a British Royal Navy warship as a seaman. He realizes the ship is sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. The captain dismisses his concerns and has Henry locked up for attempting a mutiny. Upon entering the Triangle, the ship’s crew discovers a shipwreck that belongs to a Spanish Navy officer named Captain Armando Salazar and his crew, who had become part of the undead after being lured into the Triangle. Salazar and his crew slaughter everyone on board the warship, except for Henry. Discovering that Henry is searching for Jack, Salazar instructs Henry to tell Jack that death is coming his way. Some twenty to thirty years earlier, Salazar was a notorious pirate hunter who had been lured into the Triangle and killed by Jack, who was the young captain of the Wicked Wench at the time. Due to the Triangle’s magic, Salazar and his crew became part of the undead.

Years later, a young woman named Carina Smyth is about to be executed for witchcraft on the British-held island of Saint Martin, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology. She is also interested in finding the Trident, for she sees it as a clue to her parentage. During a prison break, she gets caught up in an attempt by Jack and his small crew, which includes Joshamee Gibbs and Scrum (from the fourth film), to steal a bank vault on the island of Saint Martin. Jack is abandoned by his crew when the vault turns up empty. Desolate, he gives up his magical compass for a drink at a tavern and unexpectedly frees Salazar and his crew from the Triangle. He is also captured by the British Army. Carina meets Henry, who is awaiting execution for what happened aboard his ship. Both realize that for different reasons, they are searching for Poseidon’s Trident. Henry escapes, but Carina finds herself a prisoner again. Henry arranges both hers and Jack’s escape from execution. Jack also becomes interested in finding the Trident, for he hopes to use it free himself from Salazar’s wrath.

I once came upon an article that complained about the lack of consistency in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”franchise. When I first heard about this movie, I must admit that I was annoyed to learn that Will Turner would still be entrapped by the Flying Dutchman curse after the post-credit scene from “AT WORLD’S END”. I realize that the Disney suits had believed that Will was permanently trapped by the Flying Dutchman curse, but I thought that Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott’s claim – that Elizabeth’s ten year wait – had broken the curse. Apparently I was wrong . . . and annoyed at the same time. But Will’s situation was a mere annoyance for me. The situation regarding Jack’s compass – you know, the one that directs a person to one’s heart desire – really annoyed me. According to the 2006 movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST”, Jack had first acquired the compass from Vodou priestess Tia Dalma aka the goddess Calypso. Yet, according to a flashback in this movie, Jack was given the compass from his dying captain, during the Wicked Wench’s encounter with Captain Salazar. What else is there to say, but . . . blooper.

Another matter that annoyed me was the setting for the protagonists’ final battle against Captain Salazar and his crew. I wish I could explain it. I believe that the setting was located . . . underwater, thanks to the mysterious stone that Carina Smyth had inherited from her parents. I simply found it murky and unsatisfying. And I wish that final conflict had been set elsewhere. I have one last complaint. The movie’s post-credit scene featured a character’s dream of former antagonist Captain Davy Jones in shadow form. The character had awaken, but the scene’s last shot focused on puddles of water and a few bits of tentacles. Was this the franchise’s way of hinting the return of Davy Jones? I hope not. Captain Jones was a great villain, but two movies featuring his character were enough. The last thing I want to see in another film is the return of the Flying Dutchman curse or Jones.

Yes, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” has its flaws. But it also had plenty of virtues that made me enjoy the film. One of the aspects of the film that I enjoyed was the story written by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Old “ghosts” from the past have always played a role in the plots from the franchise’s past four films. But the past played a major, major role in this film for not only Jack Sparrow, but also four other characters – Henry Turner, Carina Smyth, Hector Barbossa and even Captain Armando Salazar. I found the story between Jack and Captain Salazar rather ironic, considering that the latter proved to be the franchise’s first villain to seek personal revenge against the former. For the other three, I found their stories rather poignant in the end. And because of this, I found “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” to be the most emotionally satisfying entry in the franchise. This proved to be the only PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film in which I broke into tears at least three times.

Poignant or not, the franchise’s trademark humor and action were on full display in this movie. In fact, I can think of at least three major scenes that I believe effectively displayed both traits. One of them involved Jack and the Dying Gull (appropriate name for Jack’s latest ship) crew’s attempt to rob the new bank on Saint Martin. Not only did it lead to Carina’s first escape from a hangman’s noose, but also a merry chase that involved the Dying Gull’s crew, the British Army, along with Jack and the banker’s wife inside of a stolen vault. The second scene that had me both laughing and on edge involved Henry and the Dying Gull’s successful rescue of Jack and Carina from being hanged. The third scene had me more on edge than laughing for it involved Jack, Henry and Carina’s attempt to survive Salazar’s attack upon their rowboat (ghost shark anyone?) as they headed for shore.

“DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” featured the fourth major location for the movie franchise – Australia. Although I found it a pity that the movie did not use any of the Caribbean islands for filming locations, I must admit that production designer Nigel Phelps made great use of the Australian locale, especially in his creation of the Saint Martin town and the Turners’ home. On the other hand, I found Paul Cameron’s photography rather beautiful, colorful and sharp. I thought Roger Barton and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s film editing was first-rate, especially in the action sequences that featured the bank vault chase, the rescue of Jack and Carina, and the shark attack. I wish I could say the same about the final action sequence, but I must admit that I was not that impressed.

I was impressed by the performances featured in “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”. The movie possessed a first-rate supporting cast that featured the return of Kevin R. McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, Stephen Graham as Scrum, Martin Klebba as Marty, Angus Barnett as Mullroy and Giles New as Murtogg. Scrum, who was last seen as part of Hector Barbossa’s Queen Anne’s Revenge crew, had decided to join Jack Sparrow’s crew aboard the Dying Gull. And the presence of Marty, Mullroy and Murtogg revealed that Barbossa was not the only who had escaped Blackbeard’s capture of the Black Pearl. The movie also revealed the return of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will Turner and Elizabeth. Their final reunion near the end of the film proved to be one of the most emotionally satisfying and poignant moments in the entire franchise.

There were other great supporting performances that caught my eye. One came from David Wenham, who was in fine, villainous form as Lieutenant John Scarfield, a very bigoted Royal Navy officer who was after Jack, Henry Turner and Carina Smyth. Golshifteh Farahani gave a rather interesting and strange performance as a witch named Shansa, whom many seafarers sought for advice. Adam Brown (from “THE HOBBIT” Trilogy) and Delroy Atkinson proved to be entertaining additions to Jack’s crew and the franchise. Juan Carlos Vellido gave a rather intense performance as Captain Salazar’s first officer, Lieutenant Lesaro. Since Keith Richards was unable to return as Jack’s father, Captain Edward Teague, producer Jerry Brockheimer managed to cast former Beatles Paul McCartney as the former’s brother and Jack’s uncle, Jack Teague. And I did not know that McCartney was not only a first-rate actor, but one with great comic timing.

I had been familiar with Brenton Thwaites’ previous work in movies like “MALEFICENT” and “GODS OF EGYPT”. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his portrayal of Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry Turner. Thwaites did an excellent job in combining the traits of Henry’s parents, while making the character a complete individual on his own. Kaya Scodelario was equally effective as science enthusiast, Carina Smyth. Thanks to Scodelario’s skillful performance, Carina was an intelligent and charismatic woman. The actress also had a strong screen chemistry with her co-star, Thwaites.

But the three performances that stood above the others came from Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem and of course, Johnny Depp. It is hard to believe that Rush first portrayed Hector Barbossa as a slightly crude, yet cunning, cold-blooded and ambitious pirate. Thanks to Rush’s superb portrayal, Barbossa still possessed those traits, but the latter had developed into a successful man, who also possessed a heartbreaking secret that he managed to keep close to his chest. I must admit that I did not particular care for Javier Bardem’s portrayal as a Bond villain in 2012’s “SKYFALL”. I found it too hammy. Thankfully, Bardem’s portrayal of the villainous Captain Armando Salazar seemed a great deal more skillful to me. Bardem’s Armando Salazar was no mere over-the-top villain, but a vengeful wraith willing to use any method and form of manipulation to capture his prey. Someone once complained that Depp’s Jack Sparrow seemed different or a ghost of his former self. I could not agree. Depp’s Sparrow was just as selfish, manipulative, horny and humorous as ever. Yet, this Jack Sparrow was at least nineteen years older than he was in “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END”. Despite having a miniaturized Black Pearl in his possession for several years, Jack has been forced to settle for a creaking tub called the Dying Gull and a small crew. Worse, he and his men have experienced a series of failures in their attempt to make that great score. If Jack seemed a bit different in this film, it is because he is older and not as successful as he would like to be. And Depp, being the superb actor that he is, did an excellent job in conveying Jack’s current failures in his performance.

Would I regard “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” as my favorite film in the Disney franchise? Hmmm . . . no. The movie possessed one or two bloopers in regard to the franchise’s main narrative. I was not that impressed by the watery setting for Jack and Salazar’s final confrontation. And I did not care for the hint of a past villain’s return in the film’s post-credit scene. But I really enjoyed the excellent performances by a cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp and the first-rate direction of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. And I especially story created by Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio. Not only did it feature the usual hallmarks of a first-rate PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, for me it made “DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES” the most poignant and emotionally satisfying movie in the entire franchise.

The Comparisons Between “MAYTIME” (1937) and “TITANIC” (1997)

 

THE COMPARISONS BETWEEN “MAYTIME” (1937) and “TITANIC” (1997)

While watching the 1937 operetta that starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – “MAYTIME”, I noticed that the story and main characters bore a strong resemblance in story structure to a movie that was released sixty years later . . . namely ”TITANIC”, which starred Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. Note the following: 

Down Memory Lane
*“MAYTIME” starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as an opera singer in Paris of the 1860s to a young couple.

*“TITANIC” starts with the elderly heroine recounting her experiences as a bride-to-be aboard the S.S. Titanic to her granddaughter and a group of treasure seekers.

Box Office
*“MAYTIME” was the box office champ of 1937.

*“TITANIC” was the box office champ of 1997/1998.

The Villain
*The flashback for “MAYTIME” begins with the heroine – American opera singer Marcia Mornay (Jeanette MacDonald) – in Paris, being accompanied by a possessive mentor Nicolai (John Barrymore).

*The flashback for “TITANIC” begins with the heroine – American aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) – about to board the S.S. Titanic with her possessive fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and manipulative mother Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Frances Fisher).

Meeting the Hero
*In “MAYTIME”, after escaping her mentor’s company, Marcia meets a penniless American singer named Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) on the streets of Paris. He had been living in Paris for a few years.

*In “TITANIC”, after escaping her fiancé and mother’s company, Rose tries to commit suicide and eventually meets a penniless American artist named Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio) on one of Titanic’s decks. He had been living in Paris and London for a few years.

The Pleasure of Each Other’s Company
*Marcia and Paul spend an evening singing and dancing at a Paris café with lower-class citizens in “MAYTIME”.

*Rose and Jack enjoy a night drinking and dancing with the steerage passengers, following a formal dinner in “TITANIC”.

Jealousy
*Marcia’s mentor, Nicolai, grows increasingly jealous toward Paul in ”MAYTIME”.

*Rose’s finace, Cal, grows increasingly angry and jealous of Rose’s time with Jack in “TITANIC”

Intimate Bond
*Marcia and Paul share an intimate bond, while performing together on the opera stage, under the jealous eye of Nicolai in “MAYTIME”

*Rose and Jack share an intimate bond together, while he draws a nude sketch of her. They later make love. A jealous Cal later finds the drawing in “TITANIC”.

Death of Hero
*Insane with jealousy, Nicolai later shoots and kills Paul in “MAYTIME”

*A jealous Cal goes berserk and tries to kill both Rose and Jack. The latter eventually freezes to death in the cold North Atlantic Ocean, after the ship’s sinking in “TITANIC”.

Death of Heroine
*After the elderly Marcia finishes her story, she dies in “MAYTIME”. The ghost of her younger self meets with Paul’s ghost and they sing together in the afterlife.

*After the elderly Rose finishes her story, she dies in “TITANIC”. The ghost of her younger self meets with Jack’s ghost, and the ghosts of Titanic’s dead passengers in the afterlife.

Mind you, the plots of both “MAYTIME” and “TITANIC” are not exactly alike. But there are some strong similarities in both characterizations and in story structures for the two movies that makes me wonder if James Cameron had watched the 1937 musical one too many times.

 

 

“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

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“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

I have been a fan of period dramas for a long time. A very long time. This is only natural, considering that I am also a history buff. One of the topics that I love to explore is the U.S. Civil War. When you combined that topic in a period drama, naturally I am bound to get excited over that particular movie or television production. 

I have seen a good number of television and movie productions about the United States’ Antebellum period and the Civil War. One of those productions is “BAND OF ANGEL”, an adaptation of Robert Warren Penn’s 1955 novel set during the last year of the Antebellum period and the first two years of the Civil War.

The story begins around 1850. The privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner named Amantha Starr overhears one house slave make insinuations about her background to another slave. Before Amantha (or “Manthy”) could learn more details, she discovers that Mr. Starr had the offending slave sold from the family plantation, Starwood. He also enrolls her in a school for privileged girls in Cinncinati. A decade later in 1860, Amantha’s father dies. When she returns to Starwood, Amantha discovers that Mr. Starr had been in debt. Worse, she discovers that her mother had been one of his slaves, making her a slave of mixed blood. Amantha and many other Starwood slaves are collected by a slave trader and conveyed by steamboat to New Orleans for the city’s slave mart.

Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Amantha comes dangerously close to be purchased by a coarse and lecherous buyer. However, she is rescued by a Northern-born planter and slave owner named Hamish Bond, and becomes part of his household as his personal mistress. She also becomes acquainted with Bond’s other house slaves – his right-hand-man named Rau-Ru, his housekeeper and former mistress Michele and Dollie, who serves as her personal maid. Although Amantha initially resents her role as a slave and Bond’s role as her owner, she eventually falls in love with him and he with her. But the outbreak of the Civil War and a long buried secret of Bond’s threaten their future.

Many critics and film fans have compared “BAND OF ANGELS” to the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Frankly, I never understood the comparison. Aside from the setting – late Antebellum period and the Civil War, along with Clark Gable as the leading man, the two films really have nothing in common. “GONE WITH THE WIND” is a near four-hour epic that romanticized a period in time. Although “BAND OF ANGELS” have its moments of romanticism, its portrayal of the Old South and the Civil War is a bit more complicated . . . ambiguous. Also, I would never compare Scarlett O’Hara with Amantha Starr. Both are daughters of Southern plantation owners. But one is obviously a member of the Southern privileged class, while the other is the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of a planter and his slave mistress. Also, Gable’s character in “BAND OF ANGELS” is a Northern-born sea captain, who became a planter; not a semi-disgraced scion of an old Southern family.

Considering the political ambiguity of “BAND OF ANGELS”, I suppose I should be more impressed with it. Thanks to Warren’s novel, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay and Raoul Walsh’s direction; the movie attempted to provide audiences with a darker view of American slavery and racism. For instance, Amantha’s journey from Kentucky to Louisiana as a slave proved to be a harrowing one, as she deals with a slave trader with plans to rape her, a traumatic experience at the New Orleans slave mart, Bond’s lustful neighbor Charles de Marigny and her attempts to keep her African-American ancestry a secret from a Northern beau later in the film. The film also touches on Rau-ru’s point of view in regard to slavery and racism. Despite being educated and treated well by Hamish Bond; Rau-ru, quite rightly, is resentful of being stuck in the role of what he views as a cosseted pet. Rau-ru also experiences the ugly racism of planters like de Marigny and slave catchers; and Northerners like some of the Union officers and troops that occupied New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the movie’s last half hour. I also noticed that the movie did not hesitate to expose the ugliness of the slave trade and the system itself, the racist reveal the fate of a great number of slaves who found themselves being forced by Union forces to continue toiling on the cotton and sugar plantations on behalf of the North.

There are other aspects of the movie that I found admirable. Not all of “BAND OF ANGELS” was shot at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A good of the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. I have to give credit to cinematographer Lucien Ballard for doing an exceptional job for the film’s sharp and vibrant color, even if the film lacked any real memorable or iconic shot. If I must be honest, I can say the same about Max Steiner’s score. However, I can admit that Steiner’s score blended well with the movie’s narrative. Marjorie Best, who had received Oscar nominations for her work in movies like “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”and “GIANT”, served as the movie’s costume designer. I was somewhat impressed by her designs, especially for the male characters, ironically enough. However, I had a problem with her costumes for Yvonne De Carlo. Nearly dress that the Amantha Starr character possessed a low cut neckline that emphasized her cleavage. Even her day dresses. Really?

After reading a few reviews about “BAND OF ANGELS”, I noticed that some movie fans and critics were not that impressed by the film’s performances. I have mixed feelings about them. Clark Gable seemed to be phoning it in most of the film. But there were a few scenes that made it easy to see why he not only became a star, but earned an Oscar well. This was apparent in two scene in which the Hamish Bond character recalled the enthusiasm and excitement of his past as a sea captain and in another, the “more shameful” aspects of his past. At age 34 or 35, I believe Yvonne De Carlo was too old for the role of Amantha Starr, who was barely into her twenties in the story. Some would say that the role could have benefited being portrayed by a biracial actress and not a white one. Perhaps. But despite the age disparity, I still thought De Carlo gave a very strong performance as the passionate and naive Amantha, who suddenly found her life turned upside down. Ironically, I thought her scenes with Sidney Poitier seemed to generate more chemistry than her ones with Gable. Speaking of Poitier . . . I might as well say it. He gave the best performance in the movie. His Rau-ru bridled with a varying degree of emotions when the scene called for it. And the same time, one could easily see that he was well on his way in becoming the Hollywood icon that Gable already was at the time.

There were other performances in “BAND OF ANGELS”, but very few seemed that memorable. The movie featured solid performances from Rex Reason, who portrayed Amantha’s Northern-born object of her earlier infatuation Seth Parson; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who not only portrayed Amantha’s later suitor Union officer Lieutenant Ethan Sears, but was already on the road as a television star; Carroll Drake, who portrayed Hamish Bond’s introverted and observant housekeeper Michele; Andrea King, who portrayed Amantha’s hypocritical former schoolmistress Miss Idell; William Schallert, who had a brief, but memorable role as a bigoted Union Army officer; and Torin Thatcher, who portrayed Bond’s fellow sea captain and friend Captain Canavan. Many critics had accused Patric Knowles of bad acting. Frankly, I found his performance as Bond’s neighbor and fellow planter Charles de Marigny effectively slimy . . . in a subtle way. Ray Teal was equally effective as the slimy and voracious slave trader Mr. Calloway, who conveyed Amantha to the slave marts of New Orleans. The only performance that hit a sour note from me came from Tommie Moore, who portrayed one of Bond’s house maids, the loud and verbose Dollie. Every time she opened her mouth I could not help but wince at her over-the-top and if I may say so, cliched performance as Dollie. I think I could have endured two hours in the company of Prissy and Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from “GONE WITH THE WIND” than five minutes in Dollie’s company. I guess I could have blamed the actress herself. But a part of me suspect that the real perputrators were screenwriter and Walsh.

I wish that was all I had to say about “BAND OF ANGELS”. I really do. But . . . despite the movie’s portrayal the ugliness of slavery and racism, it ended up undermining its attempt. Quite frankly, I found “BAND OF ANGELS” to be a very patronizing movie – especially in regard to race. And the figure of this patronization is centered around the character of Hamish Bond. Someone once complained that although the movie initially seemed to revolve around Amantha Starr, in the end it was all about Bond. I do not know if I could fully agree with this, but I found it disturbing that the character “growths” of both Amantha and Rau-ru revolved around Bond and their opinion of him.

One aspect of “BAND OF ANGELS” that I found particularly bizarre was Amantha’s opinion of Hamish Bond’s connection to slavery. At first, she simply resented him for being her owner. But she eventually fell in love with him and opened herself to being his mistress. Amantha certainly had no problems with that ridiculous scene that featured Bond’s field slaves lined up near the river side to welcome him back to his plantation with choral singing. Really? This was probably the most patronizing scene in the movie. Yet, when Amantha discovered that his past as a sea captain involved his participation in the Atlantic slave trade, she reacted with horror and left him. Let me see if I understand this correctly. Once she was in love with Bond, she had no problems with being his slave mistress or his role as a slave owner. Yet, she found his participation in the slave trade to be so awful that she . . . left him? Slave owner or slave trader, Hamish Bond exploited the bodies of black men and women. Why was being a slave trader worse than being a slave owner? Not only do I find this attitude hypocritical, I also noticed that it permeated in a good deal of other old Hollywood films set in the Antebellum era. Even more disturbing is that after becoming romantic with an Union officer named Ethan Sears, Amantha has a brief reunion with her former object of desire, Seth Parsons. He reveals knows about her mother’s ancestry and her role as Bond’s mistress, and tries to blackmail her into becoming his. In other words, Seth’s knowledge of her racial background and her history with Bond leads Amantha to run back into the arms of Bond. And quite frankly, this makes no sense to me. Why would Seth’s attempt to blackmail lead Amantha to forgive Bond for his past as a slave trader? The movie never really made this clear.

I found the interactions between Rau-ru and Hamish Bond even more ridiculous and patronizing. Rau-ru is introduced as Bond’s major-domo/private secretary, who also happens to be a slave. Despite receiving education from Bond and a high position within the latter’s household, Rau-ru not only resents Bond, but despises him. And you know what? I can understand why. I noticed that despite all of these advantages given to Rau-ru, Bond refuses to give him his freedom. Worse, Bond treats Rau-ru as a pet. Think I am joking? I still cannot think of the scene in which Bond’s friend, Captain Canavan, visited and demanded that Rau-ru entertain him with a song without any protest from Bond without wincing. This scene was really vomit inducing. What made the situation between Rau-ru and Bond even worse is that the former made an abrupt about face about his former master during the war . . . all because the latter had revealed how he saved Rau-ru’s life during a slave raid in Africa and – get this – some bigoted Union Army officer tried to cheat Rau-ru from a reward for capturing Bond. The former sea captain/planter ended up leaving his estate to Rau-ru in a will. How nice . . . but I suspect he did so after Amantha left him. If not, my mistake. And why did Bond failed to give Rau-ru his freedom before the outbreak of war? Instead, Rau-ru was forced to flee to freedom after saving Amantha from being raped by Charles de Marigny. In Robert Warren’s novel, Rau-ru eventually killed Bond. Pity this did not happen in the movie.

Overall, I see that my feelings for “BAND OF ANGELS” is mixed. There are some aspects of the movie that I found admirable. I might as well admit. The movie especially benefited from Lucien Ballard’s colorful photography, an interesting first act and an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier. Otherwise, I can honestly say that “BAND OF ANGELS” focused too much on the Hamish Bond character and was a bit too patronizing on the subject of race and slavery for me to truly enjoy it.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

 

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

Before I started on this review, I found myself wondering which “phase” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” found itself. Phase Two? Phase Three? In fact, I continued to ponder more about the franchise’s current phase than about the plot for this movie. Until I finally shook myself out of this stupor.

Back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” during the month of August, more or less a graveyard for summer films. I suspect that Kevin Fiege had low expectations of the film’s performance at the box office, due to its unfamiliarity with the general public. The movie proved them wrong and went on to become a major box office hit for that year. Due to its success back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released a sequel, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” in the more exulted release date in early May, three years later. James Gunn, who had directed the 2014 film, returned to direct this film. And although he had also served as co-writer of the first film with Nicole Perlman, he served as this film’s sole screenwriter.

Following the events of the 2014 film, Peter Quill aka Starlord and his friends have become renowned throughout the galaxy as the “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The movie begins with the Guardians delivering stolen and valuable batteries to a race called the Sovereign, after they had protected the items from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the Sovereign deliver Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, who had been caught earlier trying to steal the batteries. However, this peaceful transaction is disrupted when one of the Guardians, Rocket the Raccoon, steal some of the batteries for himself. The Guardians find themselves hunted by a fleet of ships controlled by the Sovereign and their leader, Ayesha. They eventually crash land on a planet inhabited by a mysterious figure, who destroys the Sovereign fleet for them. That figure turns out to be Ego, Peter Quill’s powerful father first mentioned in the 2014 film. Ego turns out to be a god-like Celestial that manipulated the matter around its consciousness to form his “home” planet. He explains to Peter that he had projected a humanoid guise to travel the universe and discover a purpose. He eventually fell in love with Peter’s mother Meredith Quill. Following her death, Ego hired Yondu to collect the young Quill, but the boy was never delivered and Ego has been searching for his son ever since. The latter invites Quill, Gamora, and Drax to his home planet. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula. Unbeknownst to all, Ayesha has hired Peter’s former mentor, Ravagers leader Yondu Udonta to hunt them down. But the Guardians eventually discover that Ego might prove to be a bigger problem than either Ayesha or Yondu’s crew.

I was surprised by the characterization featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It had been one of the strong points of the 2014 movie. But director-writer James Gunn took it to another level in this film, as Gunn’s screenplay further explored the main characters’ backgrounds and emotional concerns. More important, the characterizations featured in this film led to better performances by the cast.

One good example was the exploration of Peter Quill’s relationships with the two father figures in his life – his biological father Ego and his mentor, Yondu Udonta. Peter’s search for a permanent father figure proved to have an ironic twist, considering his longing to meet his real father, Ego’s charismatic personality and his occasionally hostile relationship with Yondu. Chris Pratt had to step up his game to develop Peter’s character even further. He did … and proved that he could be a excellent dramatic actor … for the second (or third) time in his career. Kurt Russell gave a first-rate and charismatic performance in his portrayal of Ego. And thanks to Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan’s excellent performances, the movie also explored Gamora’s relationships with her adoptive sister, Nebula and their adoptive father, the villainous Thanos. Although the latter did not appear in the movie, his presence was strongly felt – especially in the confrontation between the two women as they confronted the circumstances that led to their estrangement. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also featured the further development of Peter and Gamora’s relationship. The potential romance in this relationship not only manifested in a charming dance between the pair on Ego’s planet, but also a heated quarrel in which Peter expressed his frustration at being kept at a distance by Gamora. This scene featured great acting from both Pratt and Saldana.

Bradley Cooper had been highly praised for his voice performance as Rocket the Racoon in the 2014 film. The character’s past was not really explored in this film. Considering his origin as a lab experiment, I found this a pity. But Rocket’s problems with being part of a group and his emotional issues were touched upon – especially in a strong and emotional scene that featured a conversation between him and Yondu, while they were being held prisoner. Both Cooper and actor Michael Rooker nearly stole the movie with this scene between Rocket and Yondu. Also, Rocket found himself serving as the toddler Groot’s protector – a strange twist, considering that the latter had been his protector in the previous film. I understand that actor Vin Diesel continued to provide the voice for Groot – and yes, I do mean Baby Groot. I thought Marvel would hire someone other than the deep-voiced Diesel for the role. But they brought him back. And I am amazed that he was able to forgo his usual deep voice to portray the toddler Groot. And speaking of the Yondu, his past reared its ugly head following the revelation that the other Ravager leaders had exiled his group due to child trafficking on Ego’s behalf – including the kidnapping the young Peter Grill from Earth. This revelation also led to another in which audiences learn the true strength of Peter and Yondu’s relationship.

The very literal Drax the Destroyer forms a strange friendship with a young empath named Mantis, who has been forced to serve as Ego’s “pet” for a number of years. Although Drax’s needling personality and strange sense of humor made his regard for the naive and sheltered seem abusive, I was surprised at how the pair managed to grow close – to the point that Drax nearly sacrificed himself for her safety. In these scenes involving Drax, Dave Bautista proved once again that he was a better actor than many had assumed, due to his past as a professional wrestler. And he had a first-rate co-star in Pom Klementieff’s subtle and charming portrayal of the empathic Manits.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also saw the return of Yondu’s right-hand man, Kraglin, who was forced to overcome his sense of self-preservation in order to come to his captain’s aid when the crew turned on Yondu. Ayesha, the Golden High Priestess and leader of the Sovereign, proved to be another interesting role for actress Elizabeth Debicki’s filmography. Ayesha proved to be not only interesting, but also one of the most arrogant characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) … the type of character that eventually rubbed Rocket the wrong way. Audiences also got an expanded look into the world of the Ravagers. Thanks to Gunn’s script, I realized that most of them – including Yondu – was not as despicable as I had originally assumed. And I was shocked and pleasantly to see the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames and Michael Rosenbaum as among the older leaders of the Ravangers.

But despite the movie’s strong characterizations, I was not as impressed by “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” as I thought I would be. It lacked something that the 2014 movie possessed – a strong narrative. At first, I thought Ayesha would prove to be the heroes’ main protagonists, considering that she had hired the Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians in the first place. However, about midway into the movie, I realized that she was nothing more than a plot device (and a tiresome one at that) used by Gunn to drive the Guardians into the path of Ego, Peter’s father. And in the end, it was really about him … and his plan to remake the universe into his image, using the seedlings he had implanted on different planets, impregnating various females like Meredith Quill and using his offsprings like Peter.

I know … this sounds confusing. Let me put it this way. For years, Ego traveled to different parts of the universe, planting seedlings on different planets. Then he seduced and impregnated women like Meredith so that he can utilize the powers of his offsprings to activate the seedlings … and he can terraform those planets into his image. As it turned out, Peter was the only offspring who had the power to help him activate the seedlings. Personally, I found this story rather lame. It was more or less just another “meglomaniac” trying to conquer the universe. In a way, it reminded me of Thanos’ narrative within the MCU involving the Infinity Stones … only it involved “seedlings” and Ego’s offsprings. I found this narrative less original and with more shortcuts. The film’s minor plot lines involving the characters’ emotional arcs struck me as more interesting.

The movie also featured the usual first-rate visual effects. I was surprised that so many visual effects companies were involved in the film’s production. I think I managed to count at least nine of them. Wow. Nine companies involved in the visual effects? Hmmm … perhaps I should not have been surprised. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” seemed to lack a cohesive visual style, despite having a single production designer, Scott Chambliss. Some people were not impressed by the visuals for Ego’s planet, as shown below:

Personally, I was. Mind you, there was nothing mind-blowing about the visual effects for Ego’s planet. But I had enjoyed them, nonetheless. However, I was impressed by the special effects used to visually convey Rocket, Groot, Kraglin and Yondu’s journey across the galaxy – involving several jumps. I found it very effective and rather funny.

Peter Quill’s audio cassette tape played a major role in the score for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Near the end of that particular movie, he came across the package that his mother Meredith had given him just before her death. The package contained another cassette with more of her favorite songs of her youth. I hate to say this, but I was not that impressed by the collection of songs used for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”, aside from one or two. Even more surprising is that I found the songs featured in the movie’s end credits to be a lot more entertaining … and right for the movie. Pity.

Overall, I enjoyed “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It was not exactly a disappointment thanks to the strong characterizations featured in the film and the first-rate performances by a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But I must be honest, it was almost a ghost of the 2014 film. And this is due to what I believe was a weak narrative that included a villain with goals that struck me as unoriginal. It is a pity that Nicole Perlman did return to serve as director James Gunn’s co-writer in this second film. I had the odd feeling that needed a collaborator for a stronger narrative.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about a early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

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“HIDDEN FIGURES” (2016) Review

In all my years of reading about the men and women who worked at NASA, whether in the air or on the ground, I have only come across two people who people of color. And both were astronauts. Not once did those articles ever reveal the numerous African-Americans who worked at NASA – including those women who worked as mathematicians (Human Computers) for NASA during the Space Race between the 1950s and 1970s. 

Imagine my surprise when I first learned that 20th Century Fox Studios planned to distribute a movie based upon the 2016 non-fiction book, “Hidden Figures”. Written by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book focused on three NASA mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Even before the movie was finally released, a NBC series called “TIMELESS” aired an episode set during the Apollo 11 mission that featured one of the movie’s main characters – Katherine Johnson. In the midst of all of this, I found myself anticipating the movie.

As I had stated earlier, “HIDDEN FIGURES” began in early 1961 in which mathematicians Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, along with aspiring engineer Mary Jackson; are working at NASA’s West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia with minimum satisfaction. Dorothy, who works as an unofficial supervisor of the black women who served as Human Computers, requests to be officially promoted to supervisor. Her request is rejected by her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Space engineer Karl Zielinski encourages her to aggressively pursue a degree in engineering for a more substantial position at NASA. In order to attain a graduate degree in engineering, Mary would have to take the required courses in math and physics from a University of Virginia night program being taught at the all-white Hampton High School. After the Soviet Union manages to send a successful Russian satellite launch, pressure to send American astronauts into space increases. Vivian Mitchell assigns Katherine to assist Director Al Harrison’s Space Task Group, due to her skills in analytic geometry. Katherine becomes the first African-American woman to work with the team and in the building. But her new colleagues are initially dismissive of her presence on the team, especially Paul Stafford, the Group’s head engineer. The movie focuses on the three women’s efforts to overcome bigoted attitudes and institutional racism to achieve their goals at NASA.

“HIDDEN FIGURES”, like any other historical drama I have ever seen or read, is mixture of fact and fiction. Some of the movie’s characters are fictional. And Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi may have mixed up the dates on some of the film’s events. But as far as I am concerned, this did not harm the movie. More importantly, Schroeder and Melfi created a screenplay that maintained my interest in a way that some films with a similar topic have failed to do. In other words, “HIDDEN FIGURES” proved to be a subtle, yet captivating movie.

The movie’s subtle tone manifested in the racism encountered by the three women. Katherine Johnson dealt with the Space Task Group’s quiet refusal to take her seriously via minor pranks and dismissive attitudes. She also has to deal with Paul Stafford’s constant stream of complaints, skeptical comments and attempts to take credit for her work. Worst of all, Katherine is forced to walk (or run) several miles back to her old building in order to use the restroom, due to the Space Task Group’s restrooms being off-limits to non-whites. Dorothy Vaughn is determined to become the official supervisor for the segregated West Area human computers. But due to her race, her supervisor – Vivian Mitchell – refuses to consider giving Dorothy a genuine promotion. The most subtle example of racism found in the movie manifested in Mary Jackson’s desire to return to school and attain a graduate degree in engineering. The racism she faced seemed to be internal. Despite urgings from both her husband and Mr. Zielinski, Mary seemed reluctant to request permission from the Virginia courts to attend a segregated school in order to obtain a graduate Engineering degree. Subconsciously, she seemed to believe that her efforts would be wasted.

The fascinating thing about the racism that the three women faced is that violence of any kind was not involved. The racism that they faced was subtle, insidious and nearly soul-crushing. But no violence was involved. The closest they came to encountering violence occurred when a law officer stopped to question them, while Dorothy’s car was stranded at the side of the road in the movie’s opening scene. The cop eventually escorted them to the Langley Research Center after learning they worked for NASA. Yet, I could not help but feel that the entire scene seemed to crackle with both humor, intimidation and a little terror, thanks to Theodore Melfi’s direction.

Despite my admiration of Melfi’s direction of the above-mentioned scene, I have to admit that I would not regard it as one of the best things about “HIDDEN FIGURES”. I am not stating that I found his direction lousy or mediocre. If I must be honest, I thought it was pretty solid, aside from that opening scene, which I found exceptional. “HIDDEN FIGURES”was his third feature-length film as a director . . . and it showed. I suspect that the movie benefited more from its subject matter, screenplay and its cast.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Despite the movie being set in Northern Virginia, it was shot in Georgia. And Mandy Walker’s sharp and colorful photography certainly took advantage of the location. And thanks to Wynn Thomas’ production designs, Missy Parker’s set decorations, and Jeremy Woolsey’s art direction, I felt as if I had been transported back to Hampton, Virginia, circa 1961. I can also say the same about Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ costumes, which I felt had accurately reflected the characters’ personalities and social class, as shown in the images below:

Only one cast member from “HIDDEN FIGURES” had received any acting nominations. Octavia Spencer received both an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Personally, she deserved it. I thought Spencer gave a very subtle, yet commanding performance as the group’s aspiring supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn. I was also impressed by Janelle Monáe, who not only gave a very entertaining performance as the extroverted and witty Mary Jackson, but also did an impressive job in conveying her character’s self-doubts about pursuing an Engineering graduate’s degree. I am surprised that Taraji P. Henson did not received any major acting nominations for her performance as NASA mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson). Personally, I find that baffling. I was very impressed by her quiet and subtle performance as the widowed mathematician, who not only struggled to endure the dismissive attitude of her Space Group Task Force colleagues, but also found love again after spending a few years as a widow. Personally, I thought Henson’s performance deserved at least an award nomination or two.

“HIDDEN FIGURES” also featured top notch performances from the supporting cast. Kevin Costner gave a very colorful performances as the Space Group Task Force director Al Harrison. The movie’s other colorful performance came from Glen Powell, who portrayed astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glennn. Jim Parsons was just as subtle as Henson in his portrayal of the racist, yet insecure head engineer Paul Stafford. Mahershala Ali gave a nice and charming performance as Katherine’s second husband, Jim Johnson. But his performance did not strike as particularly memorable. Aldis Hodge, on the other hand, gave an intense and interesting performance as Mary’s politically-inclined husband, Levi Jackson; who urges his wife to overcome her reluctance to pursue a graduate degree in Engineering. This movie seemed to be filled with subtle performance for Kirsten Dunst also gave one as the slightly racist Vivian Mitchell, supervisor of all the Human Computers.

The movie turned out to be quite a surprise for me. Watching the trailer, I came away with the impression that it would be one of those nice, but mediocre live-action Disney films. And to be honest, there were moments when Theodore Melfi’s direction gave that impression. He does not strike me as a particularly memorable director. But that opening sequence featuring the three protagonists and a cop seemed to hint Melfi’s potential to become a first-rate director. In the end, the movie’s superb Oscar-nominated screenplay and the excellent performances of a cast led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe made “HIDDEN FIGURES” one of my favorite movies of 2016.