“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” (2019) Review

When I had first learned that producer-director Quentin Tarantino had plans to make a movie about “Old Hollywood”, I assumed that it would be set during the early 20th century – at least sometime between the 1920s and the 1940s. I had no idea that the movie would be set near the end of the 1960s.

The reason behind my initial assumption was that I have never considered the 1960s decade to be a part of . . . “Old Hollywood”. For me, that era in film history had ended by the late 1950s. I eventually learned that a good number of movie stars – Rock Hudson being one of them – had retained contracts with the industries movie studios even during the Sixties. Even those who had transferred from movie to television productions. Then . . . I heard that the movie would be about the LaBianca-Tate Murders from August 1969. Familiar with the level of violence featured in past Tarantino movies, I was pretty determined to avoid this movie. I am used to the violence featured in the director’s past movies. But I really could not see myself sitting in a movie theater and watching a re-creation of the murder of actress Sharon Tate, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring and a few other friends at the hands of Charles Manson’s Family. I had seen the 1976 movie, “HELTER SKELTER” when I was a kid. Once was enough and that was only a two-part television movie. But when I had eventually learned that “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” was a revisionist movie like his 2009 film, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, I decided to give it a chance.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” covered a six month period near the end of the 1960s – from February to August 1969. To be honest, the movie is divided into two time periods. Two-thirds of the movie is set during a 36-hour period in early Februrary 1969. The last third of the film is set during the afternoon and evening hours of August 8-9, 1969. The movie is about the experiences of two men – Hollywood television actor Rick Dalton and his friend/stunt man/chauffeur Cliff Booth. Following the cancellation of his television series, “Bounty Law”, Rick had been making guest appearances in various television shows as villains. Casting agent Marvin Schwarz warns Rick that the longer he continues appearing in television episodes as the villain, his career will eventually die and no one will remember him from “Bounty Law”. The agent suggests that Rick consider going to Europe to star in an Italian western or two. And Cliff find his career as a Hollywood stuntman over due to rumors that he may have killed his wife and an altercation with Bruce Lee on the set of “THE GREEN HORNET”. Only his job as Rick’s chauffeur/handyman has allowed Cliff to earn any cash, thanks to the actor’s alcoholism and collection of DUIs that led to the removal his driver’s license.

Rick has also acquired new neighbors – Polish-born director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate – both with Hollywood careers that seemed to be on the upswing. The couple had just began leasing the home of music producer Terry Melcher. Rick has dreams of befriending them as a means to revive his career. Meanwhile, he contemplates accepting Marvin’s suggestion, while he begins work on his current job – a guest appearance as another villain in the pilot episode of the TV western called “LANCER”. As for Cliff, he becomes acquainted with a beautiful hitchhiker named Pussycat. She turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, who are staying at Spahn Ranch, where he and Rick used to film “Bounty Law”. Cliff’s encounter with the ranch’s owner, the blind and aging George Spahn and members of the Manson Family foreshadows a later encounter on that infamous night, six months later.

While contemplating his career, I noticed all of the four movies made by Quentin Tarantino in the past ten years were period pieces. All of them . . . from “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” to this current film, “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. I would never consider the other three films as nostalgic, but a part of me cannot help but wonder if I could say the same about this latest one. The pacing for “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” struck me as a lot more detailed, relaxed and reflective than any of his previous movies. It almost seemed as if Tarantino was paying some kind of loving tribute to the end of the old Hollywood studio system. For me, this seemed like both a good thing and a bad one.

Tarantino always had a reputation for scenes that featured long stretches of dialogue or detailed action sequences. And yes, the pacing in his films – with the exception of scenes featuring action or revelations of previous mysteries – can be a tad slow upon first viewing. But “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” marked the first time I can recall such a small amount of violence or action. Tarantino seemed more evoking a sense of the past than in any other of his period films. For “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”, it was a good thing for the film managed to permeate the end of the 1960s in Los Angeles and the Hollywood Studio system thanks to Tarantino’s direction, Barbara Ling’s superb production designs, Arianne Phillips’ costume designs and the art direction led by Richard L. Johnson.

On the other hand, Tarantino’s in-depth peek into Los Angeles 1969 also had a negative impact . . . a minor one, if I must be honest. This slow exploration also included a look into actress Sharon Tate’s life . . . at least in the first two-thirds of the film. Basically, the movie reflected a peek into the daily life of the actress – attending a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, visiting a bookstore in the Westwood Village, and watching her latest film (“THE WRECKING CREW”) at the theater. I realize that Tarantino was trying to pay some kind of homage to Tate, but I found this . . . homage rather dragged the film’s pacing.

There were two other aspects of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” that I found troubling. One brief scene early in the film featured an appearance by Charles Manson at the Polanski-Tate home, searching for music producer Terry Melcher, who owned it. In real life, Manson had visited the house on several occasions, searching for the music producer. These visits had led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. But the movie only featured one visit by Manson and it happened early in the film . . . six months before the night of August 8-9. I believe this is where Tarantino’s narrative structure for the film had failed. I belief the film’s second act, which is set during that very night, should have began at least a few days or a week or two earlier, allowing one or two more visits by Manson to 10050 Cielo Drive and setting up his plan to send some of his followers to kill its inhabitants.

And there was Cliff’s infamous fight with Bruce Lee that outraged a good number of critics and moviegoers and led them to accuse Tarantino of disrespct toward the actor/martial artist and racism. Many took umbrage at Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee as a braggadocio who needed to be taken down by a white man in a fight – namely Cliff. If I must honest, I felt the same. I still do . . . somewhat. I recently discovered that one of the production companies backing the film is Bona Film Group, a Chinese organization controlled by Yu Dong and Jeffrey Chan. As producers and co-financiers of the film, why did Bona Film Group fail to protest against the Booth-Lee encounter? Did the company’s executives have a personal grudge against the late martial artist? Was this lack of protest due to some unpopularity of Lee in mainland China? Or did the production company simply not cared? One minor nitpick . . . actor Mike Moh’s hairstyle for Lee was a bit too long for that 1966 or 1967 flashback. Personally, I think Tarantino should have never added that scene in the first place. It was not that relevant to the film’s overall narrative. Or he could have easily allowed Cliff to have a fight with a fictional character, instead of Lee . . . anything to avoid the unnecessary controversy that followed.

Despite these flaws, I really enjoyed “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD”. As I had stated earlier, I really enjoyed the film’s atmospheric setting of the Hollywood community at the end of the 1960s. The movie also did an excellent job in conveying Tarantino’s talent for creating a narrative structure for his films. The director allowed moviegoers a peak into a Hollywood industry that was in the process of change from the old studio system to the industry’s American New Wave era between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. This transistion was conveyed in the film not only marked by Rick Dalton’s anxiety over his foundering career, but also capped by the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive. However, Rick was not the only one anxious about his future. Cliff Booth faced professional oblivion following Rick’s marriage to an Italian actress in the film’s second half. Despite their close relationship, Rick made it obvious that he could not afford to keep Cliff in his employ. The night of August 8-9 was supposed to be his last night in Rick’s employ. What is also interesting about this film is that like “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”, it ended on an ambiguous note. Was Rick’s career ever salvaged? Also, many have forgotten that on the following evening, Charles Manson himself led a second attack upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood. Did the revisionist ending of “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” prevent these murders? I wonder.

The movie also featured many sequences that I found very enjoyable to watch. They also help set up and maintain the film’s narrative. These scenes included Marvin Schwarz’s frank assessment of Rick’s career, Polanski and Tate’s appearance at a Playboy Mansion party, Rick’s delightful interactions with an eight year-old actress named Trudi Fraser on the “LANCER” set that helped him turn in a memorable performance, Rick’s breakdown in a trailer after flubbing his lines, and Cliff’s meeting with Pussycat. But there were two scenes that really stood out for me. One of those scenes were Cliff’s encounter with the Manson family at Spahn’s Ranch seemed like Tarantino’s take on what happened between “the family” and a stuntman named Donald Shea in late August 1969. I thought Tarantino did a superb job with this scene. It was well-paced, filled with a great deal of tension.

I can say the same about the movie’s last sequence that featured the Manson Family’s attack upon Cielo Drive during the night of August 8-9. This is where Tarantino’ use of historical revision came into play. The director-writer used Rick’s constant complaints about “hippies”, his celebrity as a former television star and Cliff’s previous encounter with the Manson Family to re-direct the latter’s attack from the Polanski-Tate household to the Dalton household. And what unfolded was chaotic, occasionally funny and yes, very scary. It truly was a well shot and well-acted sequence.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” featured a good deal of cameos – probably a lot more than any previous Tarantino film (I could be wrong, since I have not seen all of his films). Making solid cameos were Damian Lewis, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant (as actor James Stacy), Luke Perry (as actor Wayne Maunder), Damon Herriman (as Charles Manson), Ramón Franco, Lena Durnham, Rumer Willis, Martin Kove, Clu Galagher, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins, Jr., James Remar, and Toni Basil. The movie also featured some very memorable supporting performances – especially from the likes of Al Pacino, who delightfully portrayed casting agent Marvin Schwarz; an entertaining Kurt Russell who not only portrayed stunt gaffer Randy Miller, but also served as the film’s narrator; Zoë Bell, who was equally entertaining as Randy’s stunt gaffer wife Janet; Mike Moh, who gave a colorful performance as Bruce Lee; Lorenza Izzo, as Rick’s wife Francesca Capucci; a rather frightening Dakota Fanning as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Manson family member; Austin Butler as the very intimidating Manson family member “Tex”, Maya Hawke as “Flower Child”; Nicholas Hammond as actor-director Sam Wanamaker; Rafał Zawierucha as Roman Polanski; Julia Butters as the delightful child actor Trudi Fraser; a very charming Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring; the always entertaining Bruce Dern as George Spahn; Damian Lewis, who was surprisingly effective as a witty Steve McQueen; and Margaret Qualley, who was very memorable as Manson Family member “Pussycat”.

I will be the first admit that Tarantino made little use of Sharon Tate in this film. It was quite clear that her presence really served as a catalyst for Tarantino’s story and possibly a muse. But I cannot deny that Margot Robbie gave a very charming and ellubient performance as the late actress. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gave a very subtle yet memorable performance as former stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career had seen better days. This was due to the mysterious circumstances behind the death of Cliff’s wife. Many believe he may have killed her and got away with the crime. And Pitt managed to reflect this ambiguity in his performance and in his eyes. There were times when it seemed there was a bit of a “cool superhero” element in the character that at times, made it a bit difficult for me to relate to him. But thanks to Pitt’s natural screen persona and a very subtle performance, I was able to do so in the end.

If I had to choose the most complex character in the entire movie, it would have to be former television star Rick Dalton. And I cannot deny that Leonardo DiCaprio did an exceptional job of conveying this character to the movie screen. Thanks to DiCaprio’s performance and Tarantino, Rick is such a conumdrum. One could label him as one of those actors from the late 1950s and early 1960s, who became television stars and later tried to make the transition to film. I have read many comments that Rick has a conservative outlook on his tastes and acting skills that will forever limit him from becoming a star in Hollywood’s New Age in films. This is very apparent in Rick’s pompadour hairstyle in the film’s first half, his occasional rants against hippies and his reluctant to adapt to the new Hollywood. And yet . . . Rick eventually concedes to Schwarz’s suggestion that he try Italian westerns, he changes his hairstyle and wardrobe to reflect the fashions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he seeks to make social connections with Polanski and Tate to further his career. Rick is also an alcoholic and might be bipolar. DiCaprio did an excellent job in conveying Rick’s emotional state that reflect these traits.

“ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is not my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, it has became my favorite film of 2019. I do not think it has a chance of winning any of the big prizes during the awards season of 2019-2020. I have a deep suspicion that the media and the Hollywood community is not as enamoured of it as I am. Which is okay . . . to each his or her own. But damn it, the movie was superb. I have heard rumors that Tarantino plans to retire from filmmaking. Personally, I think this is a mistake on his part. Perhaps he wants to end his career on a high note. And “ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD” is certainly a reflection of it, thanks to Tarantino’s direction, his screenplay, the movie’s production values and especially the cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. But I hope that Tarantino continues to make movies.

 

Starfleet Uniforms in “STAR TREK: PICARD”

STARFLEET UNIFORMS IN “STAR TREK: PICARD”

Recently, I have come across a good number of articles on the Internet about the the upcoming CBS All Access series and recent addition to the STAR TREK franchise, “STAR TREK: PICARD”. I admit that my curiosity about the new series has led to some kind of anticipation for it during the past several months. There is one aspect of my curiosity that has been settled – namely the costume designs for the Starfleet uniforms to be featured in the new series.

According to the publicity surrounding “PICARD”, it is supposed to be set at least twenty years after the events of the 2002 film, “STAR TREK NEMESIS” . . . roughly around 2399. This period – namely the end of the 24th century and the early years of the 25th century – in Federation/Starfleet history has already been featured in television shows like “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” and “STAR TREK VOYAGER”. Because of my memories of the Starfleet uniform designs featured in those episodes, I realized that it did not jibe with the new uniform designs for “PICARD”, as shown in the image below:

It had occurred to me that this new uniform design for “PICARD” reminded me of the Starfleet uniforms worn between Seasons One and early Season Five on “DEEP SPACE NINE” and throughout “STAR TREK VOYAGER” (which was set in the Delta Quadrant), as shown in the images below:

 

 

I found this rather odd, considering that the time period for “DEEP SPACE NINE” and “VOYAGER” stretched from 2369 to 2377-78. Had the uniforms for Starfleet changed so little during the 20-30 years period? Not quite. Starting in 2373, Starfleet officers and crewmen wore new uniforms shown not only in Seasons Five to Seven of “DEEP SPACE NINE”, but also in various STAR TREK movies, beginning with the 1996 film, “STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT”:

 

So what happened? Did Christine Bieselin Clark, the costume designer for “PICARD” had decided to create a new twist on the uniforms featured in “VOYAGER” and the earlier seasons for “DEEP SPACE NINE”? Or had she forgotten those uniforms featured in at least two STAR TREK uniforms set in the future? What am I referring to?

There was an episode that aired in early Season Four of “DEEP SPACE NINE” called (4.03) “The Visitor” in which Captain Benjamin Sisko had disappeared due to an inversion of the Bajoran Wormhole. The episode featured how his son Jake Sisko’s life would have eventually unfolded over the years. The episode included a scene set 25 to 30 years later in which two of Captain Sisko’s officers – Julian Bashir and Jadzia Dax had visited Jake, wearing Starfleet uniforms:

 

One could dismiss this as a possible future uniform for Starfleet personnel. And yet; in the series finale for “VOYAGER” called (7.25-7.26) “Endgame”, which began in 2404 and featured an elderly Admiral Kathryn Janeway plotting a trip to the past to change the future for the crew of U.S.S. Voyager.; the same uniform design was featured:

 

Had Clark, along with creator Alex Kurtzman, and the other producers of “PICARD”, simply decided to forgo those future uniforms featured in both “DEEP SPACE NINE” and “VOYAGER”? Had Clark even seen those episodes? Or did she decided to create new Starfleet uniforms that were similar to the more familiar uniform featured in the STAR TREK television shows set during the 2370s for the sake of nostalgia? Regardless of the answer, I can only feel that this is a step down for the new series.

 

“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” (1948) Review

 

 

“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” (1948) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have been a fan of several movies starring Errol Flynn for years. Ever since I was in my early teens. However, my preference for Flynn movies tend to be for those that were released during the first five years of his Hollywood career – between 1935 and 1941. However, I recently took a chance on viewing one of his films made during the second decade of his Hollywood career – the 1948 adventure film, “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”.

The character of Don Juan had originated some time in the early 17th century – actually in the 1630 Spanish play by Tirso de Molina called “El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra” (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Only in de Molina’s play, the character of Don Juan was portrayed as an evil man who seduced women, thanks to his ability to manipulate language and disguise his appearance. Over the next century or two, Don Juan had transformed into a wealthy libertine, who devotes his life to seducing women in the belief that he had plenty of time to repent later for his sins.

In the 1948 movie directed by Vincent Sherman, Flynn’s character is a Spanish nobleman named Don Juan de Maraña, a charming libertine, whose penchant for seducing women has landed him in scandal after scandal for many years. The movie opened in the last few years of Elizabethan England, when Don Juan is caught in a diplomatic scandal after a dalliance with the British fiancée of a Spanish nobleman. An old family friend and Spain’s ambassador to England, Count de Polan, advises Don Juan to return to Spain as soon as possible. He also sends a letter to Queen Margaret of Spain and consort to King Philip III, recommending that Don Juan serves as the Spanish court’s fencing instructor to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation.

Upon his arrival in Spain, Don Juan discovers that the country is under the thumb of the king’s premier minister, Duke de Lorca, who also has the weak-willed Philip under this thumb. Don Juan also falls secretly in love with Margaret, but remains a staunchly loyal subject to both her and the king. Don Juan discovers a treacherous plan by de Lorca, who is holding the loyal Count de Polan as a secret prisoner. The Duke plans to depose the monarchs, usurp their power over Spain, and declare war on England. With the support of his friends at court, Don Juan heroically defends the Queen and the King against de Lorca and his henchmen.

If I did not know any better, I would have sworn that “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” reminded me of Flynn’s 1940 movie, “THE SEA HAWK”. Like the 1940 film, Flynn’s character is trying to save his country and monarch from a scheming prime minister, plotting to take control of the throne. But there are differences. One, he is in love with a married royal figure, instead of a single noblewoman. Also, the film’s narrative remains firmly land-locked, unlike the 1940 movie. And unlike “THE SEA HAWK”“ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” has a strong underlying streak of comedy in its narrative and in its portrayal of most of the main characters.

Do I have any complaints about “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”? Not really. The worst I can say about the film is that it seemed to lack an edge that a good number of Flynn’s earlier swashbucklers had possessed back in the mid-to-late 1930s. Despite the plot regarding the Duke de Lorca’s oppression of Spain and his plot to assume control of the throne, the screenplay written by Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz just seemed to lack some kind of real edge or darkness that could be found in “THE SEA HAWK” and a few of his other films between 1935 and 1941.

On the other hand, I cannot deny that “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” was a joy to watch. I found it to be a very entertaining film. It possessed a strong comedic streak. Some of Flynn’s other adventure films had their moments of comedy, but a part of me began to wonder if “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” was basically a comedy-adventure. It certainly seemed so. And you know what? The strong comedic element really worked. I believe the topic of Don Juan’s womanizing behavior provided a great deal of strong humor for this film.

Comedy or not, “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” provided some good dramatic moments – especially in scenes featuring the main character’s interactions with Queen Margaret and the Duke de Lorca. And since this is an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, I have to bring up the film’s action scenes. The movie did feature its share of action scenes, but I can only think of two that really impressed me. One featured Don Juan’s fencing students fighting de Lorca’s men around the beginning of the last action scene. The other happened to be Don Juan’s main duel against the Duke de Lorca. It is fortunate that both Flynn and Robert Douglas were experienced on screen/stage fencers. Mind you, I still regard Flynn’s duel against Henry Daniell’s double in “THE SEA HAWK” as my favorite sword fight to feature the Australian actor. But I cannot deny that both he and Douglas managed to provide a first-rate duel in the movie’s final action scene.

The performances in “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” were excellent. The movie provided either solid or first-rate supporting performances from Romney Brent, Robert Warwick, Helen Westcott, Fortunio Bonanova Jerry Austin, Mary Stuart and Douglas Kennedy. I was surprised to find Ann Rutherford, who was a MGM contract player in the late 1930s and early 1940s in this film. She gave a funny, yet sly performance as Dona Elena, the amorous older sister of one of Don Juan’s students. Una O’Connor, a veteran of Flynn’s two earlier films, provided a breath of comedic fresh air as the maid of one of Flynn’s conquests. I was also surprised to find future television star Raymond Burr as Captain Alverez, one of the Duke de Lorca’s villainous henchmen. I thought he gave a very solid performance. Robert Douglas, who must have made a career of portraying villains, was very effective as the traitorous and scheming Duke de Lorca. “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN” proved to be the last of 13 or 14 movies that Alan Hale co-starred with Flynn. Not only did Hale give a highly entertaining performance as Leporello, Don Juan’s personal servant; both he and Flynn managed to continue their great screen chemistry they had maintained for over a decade.

I have to be honest. I thought Viveca Lindfors gave a strong and excellent performance as the high-minded and no-nonsense Queen Margaret. But for some reason, she seemed out-of-place in this movie and as Flynn’s co-star. I think her presence in this film would have worked if there had been a lot less humor in the story. I could say that portraying Don Juan de Maraña seemed like a walk in the park for Errol Flynn. He seemed to portray the role so effortlessly. I suspect that certain film historians would be inclined to dismiss his performance . . . as they are inclined to dismiss his talent as an actor altogether. But I must admit that Don Juan has become one of my favorite Flynn roles. Mind you, I thought he handled his dramatic scenes with Viveca Lindfors and Robert Douglas with great skill. But I found Flynn’s comedic acting in this movie to be exquisite. This was especially apparent in scenes in which Don Juan had expressed annoyance by the unwanted attention of enamored women or mild resentment by his inability to put his seductive reputation behind him.

Overall, I really enjoyed “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”. I thought director Vincent Sherman did an excellent job of using Herbert Dalmas, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay to create an adventurous tale that also included romance, intrigue, action and a great deal of humor. And Sherman also worked well with a top-notched cast led by the talented and woefully underappreciated Errol Flynn.

“My Problem With Kylo Ren”

“MY PROBLEM WITH KYLO REN”

Kylo Ren has to be THE MOST overrated character I have ever seen in the Star Wars saga. I am amazed by how so many fans have gone out of their way to put this guy on a pedestal. My personal disgust for this worship has nothing to do with him being portrayed as a villain. There are plenty of other villains – within the saga or not – that I actually find interesting. My problem with Kylo Ren is that I do not find him either interesting or well written.

I will start this article with a question. What was the reason behind Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo embracing evil? What was it? Director J.J. Abrams had hinted in “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” that either the film’s main villain, Snoke, had influenced or mesmerized him; or his parents, Leia Organa and Han Solo, did not raise him properly. In “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, writer-director Rian Johnson had suggested that Ben’s uncle, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, had contemplated killing him out of fear that Snoke was influencing him. Has the franchise finally made up its mind regarding the background of Ben’s moral turn? It certainly does not seem like it to me.

However, it does seem as if Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy is trying to go out of its way to find a reason to blame others for Kylo Ren’s descent into evil, instead of blaming the man himself. The Sequel Trilogy’s leading lady, a gifted Force user and former scavenger named Rey, had questioned (a bare chested) Kylo Ren in “THE LAST JEDI” on why he had murdered his father in the previous film. Rian Johnson failed to provide the young villain with a convincing answer. Instead, Ren had responded that he had killed Han to cut out any of his remaining emotional attachment . . . and nothing else. I found this odd, considering that he did not bother to personally kill Leia in “THE LAST JEDI”, when presented with the opportunity. Kylo Ren’s response to Rey’s question had struck me as the biggest piece of bullshit from a Star Wars movie that had ever reached my ears. His response struck me as vague and frustrating. Worse, Johnson had allowed Rey to accept that answer and not bother to question Kylo Ren even further or demand that he clarify his comments. And after she had learned about Ren’s last encounter with his uncle Luke, Rey had never asked him about or mentioned his murders of Luke’s students. Not once. Talk about poor writing.

There are some who claim that Kylo Ren is a better developed character than his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker. Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion about any work of art or entertainment. But every time I read or hear this claim, I find myself rolling my eyes in disgust or laughing. Exactly why is Ben Solo better developed than Anakin? Because he adhered to the “delinquent” moniker more than Anakin ever did? I realize that both J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson tried to infuse some kind of ambiguity into the Kylo Ren character. But honestly . . . he simply struck me as some kind of emotional man child with the maturity of someone half of his age, who engages in a combination of violence and temper tantrums whenever he does not get his way. And Kylo Ren is supposed to be around 30 years old in this trilogy. I realize that Lucasfilm is trying to portray him as a . . . you know what? I have no idea what Lucasfilm is trying to achieve with this character. Not one damn idea.

Kylo Ren had been born in a stable family situation. He certainly was not a slave like Anakin. He was never an enslaved kidnap victim like Rey’s friend, the former stormtrooper Finn. He was never orphaned and forced to work for a tyrannical crime lord like Han Solo. He was never simply orphaned like Resistance figher, Rose Tico. And he was never abandoned and later orphaned like Rey.

Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo was the son of respected politician/military hero Leia Organa (Skywalker) and another military hero, former smuggler Han Solo. He had a privileged upbringing. The first two Sequel Trilogy movies had never made it clear than Leia and Han had ignored him during his upbringing. It was established that the pair had sent a younger Ben Solo to train in the ways of the Force under his uncle Luke when they began to harbor suspicions that he was being drawn under the influence of the First Order’s evil leader, Snoke. Just go with me here.
Apparently, in the eyes of Lucasfilm and Abrams, this was why Leia and Han were neglectful parents.

This is the reason why Abrams and Lucasfilm have labeled Han and Leia as bad parents? This is one of the reasons why Ben had become the evil Force user Kylo Ren? And exactly how did Snoke maanged to gain any influence over young Ben in the first place? What did the First Order leader do? Brainwash him with the Force? I also noticed that Luke’s near attempt to kill Kylo Ren led the latter to kill the former’s other Jedi students, leading him to a path of evil. At least according to Rian Johnson. So . . . Kylo Ren never considered ratting out Luke to his parents, which would have been a very effective way in tearing apart the trio? Between Abrams using Leia, Han and Snoke as Kylo Ren’s scapegoat for his moral fall and Johnson using Luke as the scapegoat . . . all I see are Lucasfilm’s conflicting reasons for the character’s downfall.

To me, Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren is basically a narrow-minded and arrogant man from an over privileged background. He has the mental capacity of a seventeen year-old and like the franchise itself, blames others for whatever misery he experiences and his moral downfall. What makes this even more ridiculous is that his character is roughly around thirty years old in this trilogy . . . at least a decade or two older than his grandfather was in the Prequel Trilogy. And characters like Kylo Ren (without the powers) are a dime a dozen in both the film/television industries and in literature.

And there is the problem of Kylo Ren’s relationship with the trilogy’s leading lady, Rey. This relationship with Rey has proven to be one of the most abhorrently written ones that I have seen on film . . . period. The idea that Rey would be remotely attracted to Kylo Ren JUST A FEW DAYS after being kidnapped, nearly mind raped and nearly killed by him is repellent to my very core. What I find equally repellent is that many fans and critics have viewed this aspect of the relationship as “sexy” or “romantic”. In fact, a critic for “TIME” magazine had regarded Kylo Ren’s attempted torture of Rey in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as “sexual energy”. In fact, here is the exact quote from the article:

“In one of the movie’s finest moments, Ren—unmasked and intense—engages Rey in a major stare-down, an unholy duel between the light side of the Force and the dark. The sexual energy between them is strange and unsettling, like a theremin sonata only they can hear.”

Either critic Stephanie Zacharek was into the rape fantasy trope or perhaps she might be a racist who saw a potential romance between a young white woman and the white male villain who was trying to torture her via mind rape; instead of the friendship between the woman and the young black man she had befriended. And I cannot help wonder if Ms. Zacharek, along with these other critics and fans would have felt the same if Finn had been portrayed by a white actor, instead of one of African descent. I really do. In the end, many of these fans and critics (many of them white women) who either want Rey to end the trilogy with no romantic interest or with an immature and violent man child, who is portrayed by a white actor.  And guess what?  These fans got their wish after all.  With some incredibly bad writing, Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams rushed the “Reylo” relationship in the last third of the trilogy’s final film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER”in an attempt to plagiarize the Luke Skywalker-Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) relationship from the 1983 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”.  Abrams and Lucasiflm were so intent upon plagiarizing the 1983 movie that it actually brought the main villain from the Original and Prequel Trilogies – Sheev Palpatine – back from the dead.  However there is one difference . . . “Reylo” ended with a fatal kiss that struck me as one of the most forced moments in the history of the Star Wars franchise.

In the end, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo struck me as another over privileged man child who resorts to violence when his sense of entitlement is threatened. As I have pointed out, there have been similar characters in other movie and television productions. And there are people like him who do exist. My problem with this is that I do not find this type of characterization particularly original. Worse, his backstory seemed to be surrounded by a great deal of vague, rushed and uneven writing from J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. Adam Driver, who portrays the character, is a first-rate actor. I have seen him in other movies that featured him in what I believe are better roles. If he ever decides to turn his back on the STAR WARS franchise following the release of the Sequel Trilogy’s third film, “THE RISE OF SKYWALKER”, I would not blame him. Not by a long shot.

“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

 

“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

I feel sorry for the old X-MEN Movie Universe. Well . . . almost. For a franchise that began on a high note, it certainly ended with a whimper. At least from a financial point-of-view. And that whimper proved to be the 2019 movie, “DARK PHOENIX”.

Actually, “DARK PHOENIX” is not the final film of this franchise. The last film is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2020. As for “DARK PHOENIX”, it is the twelfth film associated with the franchise that was associated with the old 20th Century Fox Studios. It is also the second movie in the franchise, after 2005’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”, to adapt Marvel Comics’ 1976-1980 comic book series of the same title.

The movie begins in 1975 when nine year-old Jean Grey and her parents get involved in a car accident that leaves her as the sole survivor. Jean’s situation eventually attracts the attention of Professor Charles Xavier, who enrolls her as one of his students at the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The story jumps to 1992, nine years after the events of “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. Some of Xavier’s former students have become the next generation of the X-Men, with Mystique aka Raven as the team’s leader in the field and the Professor receiving their glory from the public and media. The U.S. President summons the team to assist NASA into rescuing the space shuttle Endeavour, which is critically damaged by a solar flare-like energy during its mission. While the X-Men save all of the astronauts, Jean is stranded and is struck by the energy, which she absorbs into her body to save the X-Men’s aircraft from destruction. Jean survives the event and her psychic powers are greatly amplified by the energy. Her powers become uncontrollable and she later accidentally unleashes her power on the mutants celebrating the success of their mission at Xavier’s school. Even worse, Jean’s enhanced powers attract the attention of a group of alien shape shifters called the D’Bari, whose home planet had been destroyed by the energy force. They want to use the energy (or Jean) to wipe out Earth’s inhabitants and re-shape the planet to resemble their own.

Eventually, Jean and the other X-Men learn that Xavier had placed mental walls in Jean’s mind as a little girl to protect her psychic mind from experiencing trauma from her childhood accident. Jean’s enhanced power destroys the mental walls and the trauma slowly returns, filling her with desire, rage, and pain. Jean then travels to her childhood hometown after finding out that her father is still alive and learned that he abandoned her. Jean recovers her complete memory of the car accident and remembers that her post-traumatic stress disorder had originated with the childhood car accident in which she had inadvertently caused by rendering her mother unconscious at the wheel with her telepathy. When the X-Men arrive to take Jean home but she injures Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver and accidentally kills Raven aka Mystique before disappearing. And her actions led to the U.S. Army searching for her and willing to imprison other mutants at the government’s order.

Many X-Men fans and critics had really dumped on this movie when it first hit the theaters. I am not going to examine why this film was so unpopular. I can only discuss how I felt about it. One, it was not an original film. In many ways, “DARK PHOENIX” almost struck me as a remake of the 2006 movie, “THE X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. Or perhaps I should say . . . a remake of the Dark Phoenix story arc, but with slightly different details. I suspect that Kinsberg and the X-Men producers wanted to use the changed timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to re-write the Dark Phoenix story arc from 2006. Personally, I feel it would have been more original of them to completely leave that story arc alone and utilize another narrative for the film.

I also found the enhancement of Jean’s powers via some alien energy wave not only unoriginal, but unnecessary. Why did Simon Kinberg even thought it was necessary to enhance Jean’s powers? She had displayed an uber level of power when she killed En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. I can only assume the solar flare energy situation was created by Kinsberg to introduce the D’Bari.  Speaking of the latter, I noticed that their goal to destroy humanity and settle on Earth as its new home bore a strong resemblance to General Zod’s plan in 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”. Look, I do not mind that Kinsberg had used aliens as the movie’s Big Bad for this film. But did he have to recycle a plot from a D.C. Comics movie? Or worse, create this energetic force to enhance Jean Grey’s powers, when they really did not require to be enhanced in the first place?

Despite the film’s lack of originality, I must admit that I actually managed to enjoy “DARK PHOENIX”. I noticed that Kinsberg’s screenplay featured a more in-depth exploration of how Jean’s enhanced powers had made an impact on her life and on those in her life. I also enjoyed how the actions of certain characters in regard to Jean had resulted in major consequences for many characters. I found it interesting how Jean found herself isolated by her fellow mutants and a lot of the blame could be tossed at Charles Xavier’s feet. He did not use his telepathy to contain her power – especially since he had encouraged her to use it to defeat En Sabah Nur in the 2016 film. Instead, he had used his telepathy to suppress her memories of her parents’ death and her emotional reaction to it . . . instead of simply helping her deal with a tragic loss. Xavier had used a short cut. And when the alien energy removed his mental blocks on Jean’s mind, tragic consequences followed. Xavier did not pay the consequences of his actions with death, but he did pay a heavy price.

Ironically, Erik Lensherr aka Magneto had no interest in exploiting Jean’s new powers, as he had done in the 2006 movie. He was more concerned in protecting Genosha, the refugee island for mutants he had founded and demanded that she leave after the U.S. Army appeared. Unfortunately, Magneto’s desire to protect those mutants under his leadership transformed into vengeance when he learned about Mystique’s death from a grieving Hank McCoy aka Beast. I found it interesting that Hank had never bothered to inform Erik that Mystique’s death had been an accident on Jean’s part. He was angry at Charles for the latter’s handling of Jean and decided to use the latter as a moral scapegoat. And unfortunately, the vengeful actions of both men ended up exacerbating an already dangerous situation. By the time the movie shifted to Manhattan, three forces (including the U.S. Army) were trying to contain, exploit or destroy Jean. Only a fourth group seemed concerned with Jean – namely the X-Men. And for once, Xavier WAS NOT the catalyst for the team’s attempt to rescue Jean. Her fellow team members – led by Scott Summers aka Cyclops and Ororo Munroe aka Storm – led this endeavor.

If I must be honest, most of the film’s visual effects did not blow my mind. At best, I found them serviceable. I could also say the same about Mauro Fiore’s cinematography. However, there was one particular scene in which the film’s visuals and Fiore’s photography really blew my mind. It involved the major clash that eventually evolved between the X-Men, the mutants under Erik Lensherr and Hank McCoy, the U.S. Army and the D’Bari. I have become increasingly weary of final action sequences shot at night over the past decade, thanks to the second “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I must say that I was more impressed by Fiore and the visual team’s work in this particular sequence, which began on the streets of Manhattan and ended on a train headed out of the city. And their work was more than ably supported by excellent editing from Lee Smith.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in “DARK PHOENIX”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Evan Peters, Kodi Smit Mc-Phee, Ato Essandoh and Brian D’Arcy James. Another solid performance came from Michael Fassbender, whose portrayal of Erik Lensherr struck me as skillful, but not particularly memorable. I do not think Kinsberg’s screenplay gave the actor something new or unusual to work with. At first, it seemed as if Alexandra Shipp was doomed to endure another movie in which her character, Ororo Munroe aka Storm, nearly became a background character. Thankfully, the movie’s second half gave Shipp an opportunity to convey Storm’s resilient nature with more dialogue and action scenes. I especially enjoyed that moment when Storm and Cyclops made it clear to Xavier their determination to help Jean.

Vuk proved to be the second time I have ever seen Jessica Chastain portray a villain. And I thought she gave an interesting and slightly . . . bizarre performance as the D’Bari’s manipulative leader, who seemed focused on seducing Jean for the latter’s powers. Nicholas Hoult surprised me by his skillful portrayal of the uglier side of Hank McCoy’s nature. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected McCoy’s desire to avenge Mystique’s death. Speaking of the latter, Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance barely spanned half of the movie. I thought she gave a solid performance. But there was one scene in which she truly impressed me. It featured Mystique’s sardonic rant against Xavier for using the X-Men as his personal publicity campaign. I was more impressed by Tye Sheridan’s portrayal of Scott Summers aka Cyclops in this film than I was in the 2016 movie. Sheridan’s Cyclops became a more mature and determined personality. That maturity was expressed in Scott’s continuing love for Jean and his determination to help her as much as possible.

I think “DARK PHOENIX” marked the first time I can truly recall Charles Xavier being portrayed in a negative light . . . and I enjoyed it. This has nothing to do with any dislike of Xavier. But I cannot deny that I found James McAvoy’s portrayal of his character very interesting . . . and new. What I really found interesting is that Xavier’s uglier side was not briefly manifested in the revelation of the telepathic blocks he had placed in Jean’s head. That revelation only deepened Xavier’s arrogance and blindness. But audiences first saw signs of these traits, thanks to his argument with Mystique over his exploitation of the X-Men team for personal glory. Some of the franchise’s fans felt that Sophie Turner was not up to portraying the “Dark Phoenix” aspect of Jean Grey’s character. I suppose they were expecting a re-play of Famke Janssen’s portrayal. Even if they were not, I still managed to enjoy Turner’s performance. The main reason why I did was because Turner did not try to repeat the older actress’ performance. Thanks to Kinsberg’s script, Turner was able to put a different spin of Jean’s evolution into the Dark Phoenix . . . one that did not paint her as villainous. I also felt that Turner did an excellent job of conveying how Xavier’s mental blocks had led Jean to experience post traumatic stress (PST) and loss of control of her powers.

I cannot explain why “DARK PHOENIX” proved to be a box office failure. And if I must be honest, I am not interested in expressing my opinion on this topic. The movie was not perfect. And frankly, I wonder if it was a good idea to use the shifted timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to create a new version of the Dark Phoenix story arc. But I cannot deny that I enjoyed the movie. I thought Kinsberg had created a solid piece of cinematic entertainment with a screenplay that did not become a convoluted mess and first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner.

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“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

What is there to say about the 1976 movie, “THE LAST TYCOON”? Well . . . it was adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, which had remained at the time of his death in 1941. It proved to be the last movie directed by Elia Kazan. And it starred Robert De Niro.

Actually, there is more to say about “THE LAST TYCOON”. It told the story of Monroe Stahr, Fitzgerald’s literary version of the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production chief, Irving Thalberg. Stahr served as production chief of a major Hollywood studio in the mid-1930s. The movie unfolds with Stahr juggling his time with emotional actors and directors, and several frustrated screenwriters. Stahr also deals with more pressing conflicts like the newly created Writers Guild of America, a union organizer from the East Coast and the growing resentment his boss and head of the studio, Pat Brady. During all this activity and growing turmoil, Stahr finds himself torn between two young women. One of those women is Brady’s only child, a recent college graduate named Cecilia who is infatuated with Stahr. The other is an Irish beauty with a troubled past named Kathleen Moore, with whom Stahr falls in love and eventually obsessed. Unfortunately for Stahr, Kathleen is engaged to another man.

The production values for “THE LAST TYCOON” struck me as first rate. Well . . . almost. I enjoyed Victor J. Kemper’s sharp and colorful photography. I also enjoyed Jack T. Collis’ art direction, which I thought effectively conveyed the locations of the Hollywood community during the 1930s. But I feel that Collis’ art direction would not have been as effective without Gene Callahan’s production designs. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have also been impressed by both Collis and Callahan. The two men ended up receiving Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. On the other hand, I am not surprised that Anna Hill Johnstone and Anthea Sylbert’s costume designs had failed to win any nominations. Do not get me wrong. They were not terrible. But . . . I did notice that like some of the hairstyles worn by the actresses in the film, the fashion styles of the 1970s tend to creep in.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Well . . . with most of them. May I be frank? Robert De Niro seemed to be an embodiment of Monroe Stahr . . . or should I say Irving Thalberg? De Niro did an excellent job in conveying Stahr’s obsessive nature – whether it was creating movies or falling in love with Kathleen Moore. A second standout performance came from Theresa Russell, who portrayed Cecilia Brady, the daughter of the studio chief. Russell did an excellent job in portraying both Cecilia’s passion for Stahr and her no-nonsense intelligence. Robert Mitchum was superb as Pat Brady, the studio chief who took his daughter’s intelligence for granted and who resented Stahr’s genius as a movie producer.

Both Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau gave excellent performances as Rodriguez and Didi, two Hollywood stars, whose egos and insecurities threaten a film they are currently shooting. Jack Nicholson provided a strong, yet quiet presence as an East Coast union official visiting Hollywood to organize the industry’s employees. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Donald Pleasance, Peter Strauss, Tige Andrews and Anjelica Huston. “THE LAST TYCOON” also featured Ingrid Boulting as Kathleen Moore, the woman who captured Monroe Stahr’s heart. How did I feel about her? Hmmmm . . . she was not a terrible actress. But I was not particularly impressed by her performance. She seemed to spend most of the movie trying to iconic or remote . . . a 1970s version of Greta Garbo. And it did not work for me.

For me, the real problem with “THE LAST TYCOON” was its narrative. Quite frankly, I thought it sucked. Mind you, I thought the film’s explorations of life at movie studio in the 1930s seemed interesting. What made this work is that most of this exploration was told from Monroe Stahr’s point-of-view. I cannot deny that the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system was interesting. But instead of fashioning a narrative from this topic or at least from studio politics, screenwriter Harold Pinter had decided revolve the film’s plot around the Monroe Stahr-Kathleen Moore love story. I can understand why he did this. F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same in the unfinished novel. The problem was that Stahr’s romance with Kathleen bored the hell out of me. One, the entire romance almost seemed on-sided on Stahr’s part. And two, both Robert De Niro and Ingrid Boulting lacked any chemistry whatsoever. Every time the pair shared the screen, I found myself struggling to stay awake. Perhaps Pinter could have done a better job in connecting the Stahr-Moore romance with studio politics . . . who knows? Unfortunately, I felt as if I was watching a movie with two different narratives that barely connected – and with the major (and boring) subplot overshadowing the minor one. Pity.

Would I ever watch “THE LAST TYCOON” again? I honestly cannot answer that question. It is a beautiful looking film, thanks to men like Jack T. Collis and Gene Callahan. I also cannot deny the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system and politics managed to somewhat fascinate me. Unfortunately, the movie was dominated by a dull love story that bored me senseless. So, would I ever watch this movie again? Right now, I would say no. I do not think so.

 

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“All Aboard the Orient Express”

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Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

 

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According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

 

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In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

 

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Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

 

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Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

 

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was called in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

 

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This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

 

 

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017)

In this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel, in which Kenneth Branagh directed and starred, Poirot solves a theft at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The detective hopes to rest in Istanbul after traveling there via the Mediterranean and Agean Seas, but a telegram summons him to London for a case and he boards the Orient Simplon Orient Express with the help of young Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. When an American passenger named Samuel Rachett is found stabbed to death following his second night aboard the Orient Express, Poirot is asked to solve his murder.

 

 

This movie featured the departure of the Simplon Orient Express around 7:00 p.m., instead of eleven o’clock. However, this is probably the only adaptation of Christie’s novel that featured the strongest similarity to the real Sirkeci Terminal in Istanbul, the train’s eastern terminus.

However, I also noticed that passengers boarded via the dining car, at the tail end of the train. That is correct. This adaptation also has a dining car attached to the Orient Express in Istanbul, instead of having it attached at Kapikule, the Turkish-Bulgarian border crossing. And unlike the previous adaptations, the dining car and the lounge car are dark blue like the sleeping compartments, instead of a color mixture of dark-blue and cream-colored. Which was an error.

 

 

The movie did not feature a stop in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It did, however, featured a brief stop at Vinkovci, before it encountered a snow drift, later in the night. Since it was definitely at night when the train stopped at Vinkovci, no error had been committed. Especially since it was not quite dark when the train departed from Istanbul. And the journey between Istanbul and Belgrade lasted roughly 24 hours. At the end of the film, Poirot departed from the Orient Express at Brod. This is also appropriate, since the train had been snowbound somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod in the novel. More importantly, unlike the 2010 adaptation, Poirot gave his false resolution to Rachett’s murder to the police … in Brod and not in the spot where the train had been trapped.

 

 

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

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“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

Following the failure of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” to storm the box office during the fall of 2017, Warner Brothers Pictures and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) turned to the franchise’s sixth installment to carry it and the studio to both financial and especially critical glory. That movie proved to be 2018’s “AQUAMAN”

The character of the DC Comics superhero, Aquaman aka Arthur Curry has made extensive appearances in both television and movie animations. His biggest role proved to be one of the main characters of the 1973-1986 Saturday morning animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS”. The character also made occasional appearances in the live-action WB (later, the CW) series, “SMALLVILLE”. The WB had plans for a series about Aquaman, starring Justin Hartley (who later became known as Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow on “SMALLVILLE”), but nothing came from it. In the end, it took Zack Snyder to bring Aquaman to the fore as a live-action figure, when he cast actor Jason Momoa in the role for the DCEU franchise. “AQUAMAN” would prove to be Momoa’s third appearance in the franchise, after a brief cameo in 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” and a more prominent role in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”, the following year. However, “AQUAMAN” is the first film to feature Momoa as the lead in a DCEU film, but also the first movie that is actually about the “King of the Seven Seas”.

Directed by James Wan, “AQUAMAN” is a two-fold story that explores the drama behind Arthur Curry’s family conflicts. The movie also told how Arthur aka Aquaman went on a quest to prevent his half-brother King Orm Marius from uniting the seven undersea kingdoms in order to inflict war upon the surface world. The story begins in 1985, when a Maine lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry rescues a woman who has washed ashore during a storm. The mysterious woman turns out to be Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, who had left her ocean world to escape an arranged marriage to another member of Atlantean royalty, Orvax. Both Tom and Atlanna fall in love, marry and conceive a child, whom they name Arthur. Unfortunately, Atlantean soldiers manage to find Atlanna. She decides to leave Tom and Arthur behind and return to Atlantis in order to protect them from Orvax’s wrath.

Over thirty years later, Arthur has become known as the metahuman vigilante, Aquaman. Months after the Justice League’s defeat of Steppenwolf, Aquaman prevents a group of pirates led by the father-son team, Jesse and David Kane, from hijacking a Russian Naval Akula-class submarine. Jesse dies during the confrontation with Aquaman, while David, vows revenge against the hero. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis attempts to convince King Nereus of Xebel to help him unite Atlantis and the other ocean kingdoms for an attack against the surface world for for harming the Earth’s oceans. Orm also hopes to solidify his position as Atlantis’ king. Nereus’s daughter and Orm’s fiancee, Princess Mera, heads to the surface to recruit Arthur in stopping Orm’s plans against the surface world and to present himself as the true king of Atlantis.

Over a year had passed between the release of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” and “AQUAMAN”. I noticed that many film critics and moviegoers seemed willing to heap lavish praise on the 2018 film, following the other movie’s poor performance and lack of critical acclaim. I will be honest . . . I did not dislike “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. I had mixed feelings about it. I still do. But I must admit that “AQUAMAN” is a better film. To a certain extent. “AQUAMAN” is a curious mixture of a family drama, a political film, an Indiana Jones-style adventure and the usual “save-the-planet” scenario.

For me, the best aspect of “AQUAMAN” is the family drama that centered around Queen Atlanna. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall did an excellent job in conveying the consequences of Atlanna’s initial refusal to be dragged into an arranged marriage. Her actions resulted in eventual exile and possible death for her, two sons in conflict with each other, a political vacuum and one of her sons becoming a future costumed hero. The political vacuum left by Atlanna also led to an exciting and action-filled search for a missing magical artifact – the Trident of Atlan, which used to belong to Atlantis’ first ruler and had been missing his disappearance. This search would lead Arthur and Mera on a picturesque journey from the Mediterranean region to the depths of the ocean’s most elusive worlds, the Kingdom of the Trench.

I also liked the fact that Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall’s screenplay did not rush in conveying Orm’s story arc. They did not rush his efforts to solidify his position on the Atlantean throne or his efforts to convince or coerce the rulers of the other ocean kingdoms to acknowledge and join him in the attack against the surface. And what seemed to be the cherry on the top of this particular story arc is that the two screenwriters managed to utilize Aquaman’s other major nemesis – David Kane aka Black Mantis – into Orm’s story arc. In doing so, the two screenwriters and director James Wan managed to establish David Kane’s own origin story and major conflict against Aquaman for future movies. But what I really liked about “AQUAMAN” is that instead of the outsider or the interloper of a royal court being the main villain, he is the main protagonist. In other words, the main protagonist is the one who shakes up a society and not the villain. I found this refreshing after movies like “THOR” and “BLACK PANTHER”.

Another aspect of “AQUAMAN” that I enjoyed was the film’s visual styles. Bill Brzeski did an excellent job as the film’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in not only re-creating Atlantis and other ocean worlds . . . to an extent. I also enjoyed his designs for those scenes that especially featured Arthur and Mera’s adventures in both the Sahara Desert and especially Sicily. Don Burgess’ cinematography did a great job in enhancing Brzeski’s work. This especially seemed to be the case for his photography of the shooting locations in Australia, Morocco and Italy. I am going to be frank. I am not a big fan of the traditional Aquaman suit . . . at least for Jason Momoa. From a visual perspective, I believe the suit he wore in “JUSTICE LEAGUE” worked better for him. But I must admit that I did enjoy Kym Barrett’s designs for the costume worn by Momoa in the Sicily sequence. And I especially enjoyed Ms. Barrett’s costumes for the other Atlantean and Xebel characters. Especially those costumes worn by Amber Heard. However, the one aspect of “AQUAMAN” that truly impressed me were the visual effects for the Atlantis scene created by the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) team led by Jeff White. I mean . . . oh my God! Those visual effects truly blew me away with the sharp colors, beauty and originality, as seen in the images below:

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How on earth did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fail to nominate White and the ILM team for their work in this film? It is simply criminal that the organization had failed to do this.

The performances featured in “AQUAMAN” struck me as either first-rate or solid. I would certainly describe Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Arthur Curry aka Aquaman as first-rate. One, the guy has charisma and presence oozing out of his pores. And two, Momoa did a great job in utilizing both his comedic and dramatic skills, when required by the screenplay. However, a part of me wishes there had been more of a balance between comedy and dramatic scenes for the actor. Another first-rate performance came from Amber Heard, who portrayed Princess Mera of Xebel. If I must be honest, I had been impressed by the way she had taken control of her performance in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. Her portrayal of Mera as a strong-willed and commanding personality seemed even stronger in this film. “AQUAMAN” features the second time I have seen Patrick Wilson portray a villain. In this film, he gave a strong and intimidating portrayal of Aquaman’s half-brother, King Orm Marius aka Ocean Master. Wilson’s character was not as . . . amusing as his character in 2010’s “THE A-TEAM”, but I must admit that he did a great job in conveying Orm’s arrogance and bigotry. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrayed the film’s other villain, sea pirate-tech specialist David Kane, who will become one of Aquaman’s biggest nemesis, Black Mantis. Since he was not the main villain, his presence was not as extensive. But I cannot deny that Abdul-Mateen gave a very intense and memorable performance. I really look forward to seeing him in future DCEU films.

“AQUAMAN” also featured strong, yet solid performances from the supporting cast.  Those performances include Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna; Temeura Morrison as Arthur’s father, Tom Curry; Willem Dafoe, who portrayed Arthur’s mentor Vulko; Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus of Xebel; Michael Beach as Jesse Kane, pirate leader and father of the future Black Mantis; and Graham MacTavish, who provided the voice for Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. I also wanted to point out Randall Park, who gave a rather funny and entertaining performance as Dr. Stephen Shin, a marine biologist obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis. I was surprised to discover that the movie also featured voice performances from the likes of Julie Andrews, Djimon Hounsou and John Rhys-Davies.

As much as I enjoyed “AQUAMAN”, I had some problems with the film. My biggest problem proved to be director James Wan. I realize that he has managed to establish a positive reputation from the horror flicks he had directed in the past. The problem is that there were times when I found his direction rather clunky. A good example would be the film’s opening scene that featured the introduction of Aquaman’s parents. It struck me as a bit rushed.

Utilizing slow motion scenes can annoy me in any movie. But what I found particularly annoying in “AQUAMAN” was that Wan did not use slow motion in action scenes. Instead, he used it for shots featuring Momoa in various poses . . . as if he was some kind of fashion magazine model. Also, it seemed as if Wan was incapable of going from action to drama to comedy in a seamless way. Perhaps he will be able to flow his scenes a little better as he become more experienced, but I did not sense such a skill in “AQUAMAN”.

Also, I am a little . . . confused about Queen Atlanna’s position in Atlantis society. Was she the ruling monarch when she first met Tom Curry? Was she ever the ruling monarch? Or did Atlantis society forbade women sovereigns and would only allow the royal spouses of a direct female heiress or sovereign to be considered for the throne? The movie never made it clear. According to the movie, one of Orm’s major reasons for planning an attack upon the surface world was humanity’s pollution of the ocean. Aside from one minor sequence featuring news reports of piles of garbage washing up on many beaches, I feel the movie did not explore the topic of pollution as much as it should have, considering IT WASone of Orm’s reasons to attack humanity.

I realize that “AQUAMAN” is at the moment, the DCEU franchise’s most successful film. It is the only one that has managed to earn over a billion dollars so far. But do I consider it the best in the franchise? Not really. Between James Wan’s uneven direction, some plot points regarding the Queen Atlanna character and the film’s use of the pollution topic; it did not quite impress me as I had hoped it would. On the other hand, I found some of Wan’s direction rather impressive, especially the action sequences. The visual effects struck me as stunning, the movie featured excellent performances from a cast led by Jason Momoa and I thought screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall wrote a first-rate adventure. I am more than satisfied.

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“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

I am about to confess to something many might regard as sacrilegious. I have never regarded Greta Garbo as one of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I had nothing against her . . . personally. But I realized that I could barely recall any of her movies that were personal favorites of mine. Because of this, I was very reluctant to do a re-watch of one of Garbo’s most famous films, “CAMILLE”.

Produced by Irving Thalberg and directed by George Cukor, “CAMILLE” is based upon the 1848 novel and 1852 play “La Dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady with the Camellias”) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The movie told the story of Marguerite Gautier, a woman of low-class birth who rose to become one of Paris’ top courtesans. Debt-ridden from helping friends and suffering from tuberculosis, Marguerite hopes to attract the attention of an aristocrat named Baron de Varville as her next “client” at the opera. However, just as she manages to attract the Baron’s attention, Marguerite meets a young member of the bourgeois gentry named Armand Duval and instant attraction flares up between them. The attraction eventually develops into love. But external influences – including Marguerite’s debts – threatens their potential for happiness.

I have not seen “CAMILLE” in a long time. A long time. There is a good chance I have not seen it since I was in my early twenties. But something . . . I have no idea what . . . led me to watch this film after so many years. In the end, the only regret that I managed to feel was that I had ignored this movie for so long.

Did I have any problems with “CAMILLE”? Perhaps a few. I noticed that the movie’s narrative began in 1847 and ended roughly a year later. I think. But considering the story’s setting, I found it surprising that the narrative never touched upon the political upheavals that swept throughout Europe between early 1848 and early 1849. In France, the upheaval was known as the French Revolution of 1848. During this event, the French king Louis Philippe I was overthrown in February 1848. Four months later, many Parisian workers had unsuccessfully risen in insurrection against the conservative Second Republic government. I realize that “CAMILLE” is not a political movie. But considering the film’s setting and the fact that one character had plans for a diplomatic career (Armand Duval) and another was a wealthy aristocrat (Baron de Varville), I found odd that the political upheaval was never touched upon.

I also had mixed feelings about the costumes created by legendary Hollywood designer, Adrian. I realize that the man had a reputation for creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable and famous costumes. But . . . I do not know. Oh, yes I do. I think Adrian should have stuck to modern day costumes. His period costumes were not bad. Some of them have actually impressed me. A good example would be this particular costume from “CAMILLE” – namely Marguerite’s dark velvet riding habit:

I also admired how Adrian managed to re-capture the fashion for men during the 1840s:

On the other hands, I had problems with gowns the ones worn by Greta Garbo in the images below:

 

I was inclined to complain about the sequins featured in the costumes, but I discovered that they had been worn as part of fashion for thousands of years – including the 19th century. But I have other problems with the above costumes. One, they looked as if they came from some cheap costume warehouse. And two, Garbo looked as if she was about to be consumed by the voluminous amount of material used to create those gowns. Or could it be that Garbo lacked the figure for the fashions of the mid 19th-century? No . . . I do not believe that is a good excuse. I am certain that Western women of the 1840s came in different shapes and sizes as they do today. It is possible that Adrian had simply failed to design Garbo’s costumes in a way that would fit her perfectly. As a high-priced courtesan, Marguerite Gautier had the funds to purchase a wardrobe filled with clothes tailored to fit her. I do not think that Adrian took the time to fit Garbo’s costumes. Or perhaps she did not give him the time.

Otherwise, I cannot think of any other complaints about “CAMILLE”. If I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best motion picture love stories I have ever seen, hands down. Ever. I was surprised that Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the man who had written classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”, had written “La Dame aux Camélias” when he was roughly 23 years old. And screenwriters James Hilton, Zoë Akins and Frances Marion did a superb job in adapting Dumas’ story.

“CAMILLE” could have easily developed into one of those sappy love stories that in which only external forces stood in the lovers’ way. And yes, Dumas’ tale featured those “forces” that stood in the way of Marguerite and Armand’s relationship – Baron Varville, Marguerite’s bank account, her friends and Armand’s father. But there were other forces in play. Namely, Marguerite and Armand. Between her passive aggressive personality, her penchant for evading the truth and her inability to handle her finances; Marguerite had put herself into a situation that made it nearly impossible to have a genuine romance with Armand, let alone anyone. And poor Armand. I could say that he was completely faultless in this romance. Yes, he was naive. Armand was also hot-tempered, rash and a bit too stubborn and proud for his own good. Considering the state of her health, I do not believe Marguerite’s romance with Armand was destined to last very long. However, I feel that it were not for their personal flaws, the pair could have enjoyed more time together than they actually had.

Many still regard Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite Gautier as her finest performance. As I had hinted earlier in this review, I have only seen less than a handful of Garbo’s movies. But I cannot deny that she gave a brilliant performance as the cynical, yet warm-hearted courtesan. Although Garbo was a healthy looking woman most of her life, I do admire how she utilized body language and facial expressions to convey Marguerite’s questionable health and languid lifestyle. I have always suspected that Robert Taylor was one of the underrated actors in Hollywood history. He had been in Hollywood for two years by the time he shot “CAMILLE”. Many critics tend to focus on Garbo’s performance when discussing the movie. As I had pointed out, she gave a superb performance. But so did Taylor, as Armand. He did an excellent job in conveying Armand’s character from a very naive young man to someone who is a bit more cynical and mature. And yet, Taylor made sure to retain Armand’s temper and stubbornness.

Another excellent performance came from Henry Daniell, who portrayed Marguerite’s “client”, Baron Varville. Daniell not only skillfully conveyed Varville’s cool and arrogant nature, but also the character’s slight infatuation with Marguerite, but also the latter’s pain in facing the reality of Marguerite’s true feelings for him. Laura Hope Crewes, famous for her role in the 1939 Best Picture winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, gave a very entertaining performance as one of Marguerite’s closest friends, a veteran courtesan named Prudence Duvernoy. It is a shame that Crewes never earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Her Prudence is a skillful mixture of friendly warmth and a mercenary nature. “CAMILLE” also featured first-rate performances from the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Rex O’Malley, Leonore Ulric, Jessie Ralph and Elizabeth Allan.

I was astounded to learn that “CAMILLE” had earned only one Academy Award nomination – Greta Garbo for Best Actress. And she lost to Luise Rainer’s performance in “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” . . . much to the surprise of the Hollywood community. Hell, I am not only shocked that “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” had also won Best Picture, I am flabbergasted that “CAMILLE” did not even earn a Best Picture nomination, along with nominations for the leading actor, a screenplay nomination or a Best Direction nod for George Cukor. How did this travesty happen? A superb movie like “CAMILLE”?

The discovery of the limited amount of acclaim that “CAMILLE” had earned back in late 1936/1937, this only convinces me how irrelevant that the Academy Awards truly are. Thankfully, movie fans still have the movie to enjoy for years to come, thanks to George Cukor’s superb direction; a great screenplay by the likes of James Hilton, Zoë Akins and the legendary Frances Marion; and a superb cast led by the iconic Greta Garbo and the excellent Robert Taylor.

 

 

“The Demand For An Ideal Woman”

“THE DEMAND FOR AN IDEAL WOMAN”

Recently, the STAR WARS movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” achieved a milestone. Twenty years has passed since it initial release in theaters in May 1999. However, there have been other recent or upcoming events within the STAR WARS franchise. One of them is the upcoming release of the third Sequel Trilogy movie in December. Another was the recent release of a Young Adults (YA) novel called “Queen’s Shadow”, the first stand alone story about the Prequel Trilogy’s leading lady, Padmé Amidala.

Many fans, especially women, celebrated the release of “Queen’s Shadow”. Written by EK Johnston, the novel focused on a period in Padmé’s life, when her career underwent a transformation from the elected monarch of Naboo to a senator of Naboo. This meant that the novel was set sometime during those ten years between “THE PHANTOM MENACE” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. More importantly, this novel featured the first time that Padmé was the main protagonist in any STAR WARS movie, television production or novel. “Queen’s Shadow” also led many fans to contemplate the idea of Padmé surviving the birth of her twin children, Luke and Leia, and becoming a leader for the early manifestation of the Rebel Alliance. More importantly, the novel and the 20th anniversary of “THE PHANTOM MENACE” has revived the fans’ never ending complaint that filmmaker George Lucas should have portrayed Padmé as an ideal character . . . a feminist icon.

As a woman, the idea of a leading woman character as a feminist icon sounds very appealing. But as a lover of films and novels, I tend to harbor a strong wariness toward such characters – regardless of their gender. Recently, some fans have suggested that Padmé should have been the main character of the Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005) and not her husband, Anakin Skywalker. Considering that Anakin eventually became Darth Vader from the Original Trilogy (1977-1983), I found this suggestion a little hard to swallow. Even worse, I find the constant complaints that Lucas had “ruined” Padmé’s character, due to the manner of her death in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, rather tiresome and pedantic. As I have pointed out in a previous article about Padmé, I found nothing wrong with a person succumbing to death due to a “broken heart” or allowing one’s emotions to affect his/her health. Such deaths have actually occurred in real life. And considering that Padmé was in the third trimester of her pregnancy, had endured a series of traumatic events in her professional and personal life, including a recent attack by a jealous Anakin, the circumstances of her death did not surprise me, let alone anger me.

In regard to the idea that Padmé should have been the main protagonist of the Prequel Trilogy Amidala . . . this did not make any sense to me. Like Han Solo and Leia Organa in the Original Trilogy, Padmé was a major supporting character in the Prequel Trilogy. The real focus of the Prequel Trilogy was Anakin Skywalker, which made sense considering he proved to be the catalyst of the Jedi Order’s downfall and rise of the Galactic Empire. And in his own way, Padmé and Anakin’s son, Luke Skywalker, was the Original Trilogy’s main character. Although Ewan McGregor was the leading actor in the second and third films of the Prequel Trilogy, Obi-Wan Kenobi was not the central character. It was still Anakin. And I do not recall any film in STAR WARS franchise being made solely about Obi-Wan. Oh yes, there had been plans for one, but due to the failure of “SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY”, Disney Studios had decided to curtail any Obi-Wan solo film. Yet, many did not complain.

Many had bitched and moaned about how Lucas treated Padmé’s character, because he had conveyed her weaknesses, as well as her strengths. He did the same with many male characters. Apparently, certain people cannot deal with a major female character’s weaknesses being on display, unless she is either the main character or in a drama. What am I saying? Many people still cannot make up their mines on whether they want the Rey character from Disney’s Sequel Trilogy to be ideal or flawed. On the other hand, I once came across an article – it might have come from “The Mary Sue Blog” but I am not sure – claimed that the problem with Padmé was not that she was not allowed to have flaws. This person claimed that the that moviegoers saw her as a problem solver who never gave up in the first two movies. The article also added that Padmé was not someone who would give up the will to live. A few years ago, I had written an ARTICLE that discussed Padmé’s mistakes in all three Prequel Trilogy movies and argued that she was not the “flawless” or “ideal” character that many still regard her as.

I had also pointed out that in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, Padmé had experienced the loss of the Galactic Republic, the rise of the Galactic Empire, the loss of her husband to Palpatine and the Sith, and his physical attack on her in a brief space of time – within two days or less. As someone who had recently experienced personal loss, I understood why she had given in to emotional despair. I had only experienced one loss. Padmé did not. Just because she was able to not give up and overcome a situation in the past, did not mean that she would always be able to do this.

I still recall the “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Five episode called (5.21) “The Weight of the World” in which the main protagonist, Buffy Summers, had went into a catatonic state after she failing to prevent her younger sister Dawn from being abducted by the season’s Big Bad, a hell demon called Glory. Buffy had failed to overcome her state of catatonic depression on her own. She needed help and she eventually got it in the form of one of her closest friends, Willow Rosenberg. There was no Willow to help Padmé deal with her emotional state during the downfall of the Republic and the Jedi Order. Padmé had no Willow to deal with the emotional trauma of Anakin’s transformation into a Sith Lord or his attack upon her. Instead, she had to deal with going into premature labor and giving birth to twins. I hate to say this, but neither Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda or Bail Organa were as emotionally close to Padmé as Willow Rosenberg was close to Buffy Summers. And instead of providing emotional support to her, the two Jedi Masters and the senator were more focused on her going into labor and giving birth.

There is something about today’s feminism that truly irritates me. Women (both in real life and in fiction) are not allowed to be flawed. Actually, I think today’s feminists and sexist men have that trait in common. Both groups demand that women be ideal in a way THEY believe the latter should be ideal. For feminists, women should be some all knowing saint, who can kick ass and have a successful career outside of the home. For sexist men (or men in general), women should be attractive or beautiful bed warmers, home carers and emotional crutches. Women are expected to revolve their lives around the men in their lives. Women in real life are not allowed to be flawed – especially if they are famous. And fictional women – especially those who are major characters in an action story – are definitely NOT ALLOWED to be flawed. Especially someone like Padmé Amidala.

I do not believe that Lucas had subjected Padmé’s character with weak writing. I think too many fans were too prejudiced to allow her to be a complex woman with both strengths and weaknesses. They had wanted . . . no, they had demanded she be some feminist icon. While complaining about Padmé’s character, they would always compare her with her daughter, Princess Leia Organa aka Skywalker. The ironic thing is that Leia was no more of a feminist icon than her mother. Leia had her own set of flaws. Yes, she was an intelligent and capable political leader, who was also knowledgeable about military tactics and defending herself. Leia also possessed a tough demeanor and a sharp wit. On the other hand, Leia harbored a hot temper, impatience and a penchant for being both judgmental and an emotional coward. Nor was she the type to be forgiving (except with certain people). Two of Leia’s flaws – her temper and being judgmental – were on full display in the 1980 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. In that film, she had supported Chewbacca’s angry and murderous attack upon Lando Calrissian, after the latter was forced to betray them to Darth Vader and the Empire. During that scene, both Leia and Chewbacca’s anger got the best of them at a time when it should not have. Neither had pondered over how the Empire had arrived on Bespin before them. Nor did they ever considered that Vader had coerced Lando into choosing between betraying Han and them or watching the Empire destroy Bespin and its citizens.

Many fans have also complained that George Lucas had failed to explore Padmé’s backstory . . . especially in “THE PHANTOM MENACE” and “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. I found this complaint rather hypocritical. Lucas had never bothered to explore Leia or her future husband Han Solo’s backstory in the Original Trilogy films. Yet, no one or very few people have complained about this. When Disney Studios finally green-lighted a movie about Han’s backstory, many film goers and media outlets like “The Mary Sue Blog” bitched and moaned about how it was not necessary. I suspect they had made this complaint, because it was easier than criticizing how Disney Studios/Lucasfilm had handled the movie’s production and theatrical release. Is it any wonder that I found this complaint that a movie about Han’s backstory was not necessary, but Padmé’s was? And to this day, no one has complained about a lack of Leia’s backstory in the 1977-1983 films.

Look, I am happy that a novel about Padmé Amidala has been written. And I find it interesting that STAR WARS fans will get a chance to peek into those years between “THE PHANTOM MENACE” and “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. But I must admit that I found myself getting irritated that so many have used the novel’s upcoming release to criticize George Lucas’ portrayal of her character. It seems obvious to me that a great deal of their criticism is wrapped around a lot of hypocrisy, an inability to understand human nature and a definite lack of attention toward what actually happened to Padmé in the Prequel Trilogy. I cannot help but feel that some people need to realize that in contemplating feminism, they also need to factor in the concept of human nature . . . and good writing. Good writing or a strong character is not one who can do no wrong or be strong, 24/7. A strong character, for me, is someone who possesses both strengths and weaknesses . . . or virtues and flaws. As far as I am concerned, George Lucas had included all in his creation of Padmé Amidala.