Five Favorite Episodes of “THE MUSKETEERS” Season One (2014)

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of “THE MUSKETEERS”, the BBC’s historical action-drama based on Alexandre Dumas, père‘s 1844 novel. Created by Adrian Hodges, the series stars Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera, Howard Charles and Luke Pasqualino:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE MUSKETEERS” SEASON ONE (2014)

1 - 1.09 Knight Takes Queen

1. (1.09) “Knight Takes Queen” – Musketeers Aramis and Athos are forced to protect Queen Anne from assassins hired by Cardinal Richelieu at a convent, after King Louis XIII expressed disillusion with the Queen’s inability to have children. Meanwhile, Porthos and d’Artangnan race back to Paris to gather more Musketeers to come to their aid.

2 - 1.06 Exiles

2. (1.06) “The Exiles” – Aramis and d’Artagnan try to protect a young woman and her baby, who are sought by armed men. Both mother and child are sought by both Cardinal Richelieu and the King’s treacherous the exiled Marie de’ Medici. Tara Fitzgerald and Amy Nuttall guest starred.

3 - 1.10 Musketeers Dont Die Easily

3. (1.10) “Musketeers Don’t Die Easily” – In the season finale, a rift develops between d’Artangnan and Athos, when the latter in a state of drunkenness takes his estranged wife Milady de Winter hostage and learns about her brief affair with the younger Musketeer.

4 - 1.05 The Homecoming

4. (1.05) “The Homecoming” – A drunken Porthos is framed for murder in his old neighborhood, Paris’ Court of Miracles slum. When his three colleagues seek to exonerate him, they stumble across a real estate conspiracy regarding the neighborhood.

5 - 1.02 Sleight of Hand

5. (1.02) “Sleight of Hand” – The Musketeers engineer d’Artagnan’s imprisonment in a cell with a notorious criminal named Vadim. The latter has a plan to use the visiting Queen Anne to escape and start a revolution. But his plans proved to be more criminal than political. Jason Flemyng guest starred.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

Recently, I came across a comment that the last “X-MEN” movie, 2009’s “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”, had been a failure. I found this opinion surprising, considering that it actually made a profit at the box office. Failure or not, Marvel Studios decided to continue the movie franchise with a fifth entry called “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is, like the 2009 movie, another origins tale. Only it traced the beginnings of the two friends-turned-adversaries, Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr. The movie began in a scene straight out of 2000’s “X-MEN” – at a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. While young Erik Lensherr was being separated from his parents by Nazi guards, he displayed an ability for magnetism manipulation by tearing at one of the camp’s gates. This ability attracted the attention of the camp’s scientist, Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who tried to coerce Erik into using his ability again by threatening his mother with death. Unfortunately, Erik failed and Dr. Schmidt killed Mrs. Lensherr. At an estate in Westchester, New York of the same year, young Charles Xavier awakened from a deep sleep by a noise from the kitchen. He investigated and found his mother searching for something to eat. However, being a telepath, Charles was able to discover that he was facing a stranger. The stranger turned out to be a young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme. Charles invited the young stranger to stay at the Xavier mansion and the two became close friends.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” jumped another eighteen years forward to 1962. Charles Xavier has become an instructor on genetics at Oxford University. Raven has remained his close companion in a sibling-like capacity. Erik Lensherr has spent the last decade or so, hunting down Nazis that escaped prosecution by the Allies – especially those who had served at the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He has especially become interested in finding and killing Dr. Schmidt out of revenge for his mother’s death. The story shifted to Las Vegas, Nevada; where one Moira MacTaggart and other CIA agents are investigating the Hellfire Club, a social organization led by Sebastian Shaw (aka Dr. Schmidt). After infiltrating the club as an “escort”, Moira discovered that Shaw and his mutant followers – Emma Frost, Azazel, and Riptide – are intimidating a high ranking Army officer into relocating military missiles to Turkey. Moira sought help from Charles and Raven to provide information to her CIA bosses about mutants. They also met Erik, during a trip to Miami to track down Shaw. After preventing Erik from drowning during an attempt to kill Shaw, Charles became close friends with the Holocaust survivor; as they work with Moira and the CIA to bring down Shaw.

Personally, I do not believe that “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” deserved its low reputation. I thought it was a pretty damn good movie – not perfect, but entertaining. However, I do believe I could say the same about “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I would add that it might be better than the 2009 film. Despite its flaws. In fact, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”turned out to be a cleverly written movie that managed to weave two historical events – the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis – into its plot. Director Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job in maintaining an even pace for a movie not only filled with exciting and occasionally exaggerated action sequences and dramatic scenes. But aside from the director, the movie’s main virtue proved to be its first-rate cast.

Someone once pointed out that the X-MEN movie franchise did an excellent job of using the topic of “mutation” or psychic abilities to reflect upon the themes of bigotry and tolerance in our society. This theme became even more relevant, considering the movie’s setting of 1962 – a period that reflected the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I can go further and commend screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn for daring to explore all aspects of the bigotry experienced and engaged by the characters.

Some of the movie’s main characters experienced intolerance at the hands of others. Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr not only suffered under the Nazi regime as a Jew, but also endured the U.S. government’s (in the form of C.I.A. officials) wariness and contempt toward mutants, as did fellow mutants such as Charles Xavier, Raven Darkhölme, Hank McCoy and the group of young mutants they had recruited. C.I.A. officials Director McCone and William Stryker Sr. (father of the villain from the second and fourth movies) were ready to imprison Charles and Raven upon discovering their mutations. Fortunately, one C.I.A. man in particular – the nameless Man in Black – prevented this from happening. The script also focused upon the two mutants regarded as “odd men out” because their mutations were reflected physically. Raven’s natural blue skin led her to maintain a “human” form that allowed her to blend with other humans and mutants. And C.I.A. scientist who constantly wore shoes to hide his mutation – animal-like feet. Their desperation to blend with the others on a regular basis led Hand to create a formula that eventually backfired.

Finally, the movie also focused on those mutants that viewed their mutation as signs of their superiority over non-mutant humans. Characters such as villain Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club followers, and eventually Erik and Raven allowed their dislike toward humans to manifest into a bigotry that encouraged them to engage in plots of genocide that made the Nazis, North Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries and other bigoted societies look like amateurs. One such plot served as the background of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. The movie revolved around Sebastian Shaw’s efforts to use his connections to the U.S. and Soviet military to start a third world war between the superpowers. Such a war would bring humanity to the brink of extinction, allowing mutants (with Shaw as the leader) to dominate the world. This plot eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The producers of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” chose the right actors to portray the younger versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy perfectly captured all of Charles’ intelligence, talent for leadership and subtle wit. He also delved deeper into the character’s idealism and occasional naivety. And McAvoy gave audiences an audacious peek into Charles’ penchant for little seduction with pick-up lines that were both charming and wince-inducing. Michael Fassbender portrayed all of the intensity and anger of the vengeance-seeking Erik Lensherr. Every once in a while, an actor comes along with the ability to perfectly walk the fine line between heroism and villainy. Fassbender certainly achieved this in his portrayal of Erik. And looking at the screen chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, it seemed a pity that they had never shared a scene when they appeared in the 2001 miniseries, “BAND OF BROTHERS”. Because they were dynamite together.

The supporting cast also proved to be top-notch. The X-MEN movieverse has always provided first-rate villains. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the villainous Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt was no exception. If I must be honest, his Shaw may prove to be my favorite “X-MEN” villain. Aside from intelligence, wit and a taste for grandiose plotting and gadgets that rivaled a Bond villain, Bacon injected a joie de vivre into Shaw’s character that I found very entertaining. Some critics and fans have criticized January Jones’ portrayal of Shaw’s consort, Emma Frost, accusing her of being “wooden”. I am sorry, but I do not agree with this opinion. Yes, Jones portrayed Emma as Miss ‘Cool Hand Luke’. But she also did a first rate job of conveying the character’s strong attraction to Shaw and dislike of his occasional sexist attitudes. And thanks to her subtle comic timing, she provided the movie’s funniest moment in a scene that featured Emma having ‘telepathic’ sex with a Soviet general. Her reaction to being caught had me laughing in the aisle. Instead of Rebecca Romijn, the film’s producers chose Jennifer Lawrence to portray the younger Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique. And I thought she did a pretty damn good job. I have nothing against Romijn’s portrayal of Mystique, but I believe that Lawrence was given a better opportunity for a deeper exploration of the character . . . and she made the best of it. The movie also featured fine support from the likes of Rose Byrne as C.I.A. agent and ally Moira MacTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy, Jason Flemyng as the frightening teleporter Azazel, Oliver Platt as the C.I.A. ‘Man in Black’, and Zoë Kravitz’s subtle and passionate performance as mutant Angel Salvadore.

As I had earlier hinted, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is not perfect. I believe it has two major flaws that prevented it from potentially becoming the best film in the franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw proved to be its lack of continuity with the other four films. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” included the beginning of Charles Xavier’s paralysis and the end of his partnership with Erik Lensherr. Yet, Charles was still walking and working with Erik in a flashback set around the beginning of the 1980s in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. I am aware that Raven’s cells allowed her to mature very slowly. But did the same happen to Dr. Hank McCoy? He was in his early-to-mid 20s in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. Yet, he looked somewhere in his 40s in the third “X-MEN”, which was set some 40 years later. And the Emma Frost portrayed by actress Tahyna Tozzi in “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” looked at least five to ten years younger than January Jones’ Emma in this latest film. And “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is supposed to be set 17 years before the 2009 film. Charles began his school for young mutants in this movie. However, he told Wolverine in 2000’s “X-MEN” that Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean Grey were his first students. They are no where to be seen and quite frankly, I could have done without this early edition of the Xavier School of Mutants. I found it annoying.

Another major problem proved to be the film’s costumes – especially for women. The movie is set mainly in 1962. Yet, Sammy Sheldon’s costumes reflected the late 1960s, not the early years of that decade. Just to prove my point, look at the following photographs:

1962 Fashions For Women

January Jones in “MAD MEN” Season Two (set in 1962)

January Jones in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (set in 1962)

In fact, the costumes and hairstyles for other female characters DO NOT reflect the year 1962, as well:

 

Both actresses Rose Byrne and Zoë Kravitz are wearing knee-high boots, which WERE NOT in fashion in 1962.

Yes, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS” had some major flaws. But I cannot deny that I still managed to enjoy the movie very much. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn wrote a flawed, but very entertaining and epic story. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. And Vaughn brought all of these factors together with some fine direction. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”has made me an even bigger fan of the franchise and I would heartily recommend it for anyone’s viewing pleasure.

“THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” (2003) Review

“THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” (2003) Review

Comic novel writer Alan Moore must have a legion of fans to rival or maybe even surpass Marvel Comics icon, Stan Lee. I have noticed that whenever one of his comic creations is adapted as a motion picture, many of these fans seemed to crawl out of the woodworks to express their judgment on the finished film. This certainly proved to be the case for 2003’s “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN”

Based upon Moore’s comic series, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” followed the adventures of famous 19th century literary characters that became part of a league to stop a madman named the Fantom from starting and profiting from a major world war, during the summer of 1899. Among the members of the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are:

*Allan Quartermain, British big game hunter and explorer
*Captain Nemo, the Indian pirate/captain of the Nautilus and inventor
*The Invisible Man aka Rodney Skinner, invisible thief
*Mina Harker, British chemist/widow of Jonathan Harker and vampire
*Dorian Gray, British gentleman and immortal
*Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde, British scientist/evil alter ego
*Tom Sawyer, American Secret Service agent

The story begins in the spring of 1899 with an attack upon the Bank of England by men dressed in German Army uniforms, using explosives and automated weapons. A month later, men dressed in British Army uniforms, attack a Zeppelin factory, using the same or similar weapons. Both the British and German Empires seemed to be on the verge of war. A British government emissary arrives in British East Africa to recruit the famous big game hunter and explorer Allan Quartermain to investigate. Quatermain expresses disinterest in the mission, until some armed men attack a gentleman’s club in order to assassinate him. Upon his arrival in London, Quartermain learns from his new boss, a mysterious government official named “M”, the latter’s plans to form a new version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in order to thwart the war mongering plans of the Fantom. According to “M”, the Fantom plans to start a war and profit from it by blowing up Venice, Italy during its Festival.

While recruiting the immortal Dorian Gray at his home, the League is attacked by the Fantom and his men. During the attack, the League acquires a new member, an American Secret Service agent named Tom Sawyer. As the League sets out to recruit Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in Paris and later for Venice aboard the Nautilus, Nemo’s submarine; they remain unaware that the Fantom’s plans to start a world war involves more than just blowing up a major city. His plans also involve acquiring and selling the League’s collective skills as weapons of war.

I have never read Alan Moore’s comic series. Nor do I have plans to read it. In fact, I have not laid eyes upon a comic book or novel since the age of nine. For me, comparing Moore’s story to the movie adaptation seemed irrelevant. But I can give an opinion of the movie. What did I think of it? Well, I had enjoyed it when I first saw it, eight years ago. And I still continue to enjoy it, whenever I view my DVD copy.

Mind you, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” was not perfect. One, I never understood the reasoning behind the Fantom’s attack upon the League members at Dorian Gray’s home . . . especially since he proved to be so interested in acquiring or stealing their skills/talents. My second problem concerned a certain invention created by Captain Nemo – namely an automobile. I realize that the movie was set in an alternate 1899. I also understand that Nemo’s character was supposed to be the creator of various inventions a’la Jules Verne. What I did not understand was how Tom Sawyer knew how to drive Nemo’s car throughout the streets of Venice at top speed, without any previous experience behind the wheel. Three, I found Quartermain’s description of American shooting (“buckaroo” that shoots too fast without any real accuracy) not only ludicrous, but false. Who on earth came up with this opinion in the first place? My father, who had been an expert shot in the military, immediately dismissed Quartermain’s description of American gunmanship, claiming that he had been taught to utilize patience for long distance shooting. My final beef has to do with Dan Laustsen’s photography for the movie’s exterior shots. Quite frankly, I found it unnecessarily dark. The only exterior scenes or shots that featured any bright light were the sequences set in British East Africa and aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, while above surface. All other exterior shots were either at night, in the rain or overcast. I have the deepest suspicion that all of this was done to save money on the exterior scenes.

However, despite my complaints or those by the fans were disappointed with the movie’s adaptation, I enjoyed “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” very much. Hell, I saw it twice when it first reached the movie theaters, eight years ago. And the moment it was released on DVD, I immediately bought it. It may not have been the perfect adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic series, but I thought that it had a pretty damn good story, thanks to screenwriter James Dale Robinson.

One, I like stories about friends or colleagues that form a team to achieve a goal that involves a great deal of action. For me, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” is like a 19th century forerunner of The Justice League of America or The Avengers. And I have to give credit to Moore for coming up with the idea of using 19th century literary characters as members of the team and the story’s main villain. I found it very innovative. Many fans and critics had complained that with Sean Connery in the role of Allan Quartermain, the latter seemed to dominate the film. I agree that Connery’s Quartermain turned out to be the movie’s main character. But I do not agree that he dominated the movie. The other supporting characters were given a good number of chances to strut their stuff . . . so to speak. If anything, the movie seemed to have a strong, ensemble feel to it. This was especially apparent by the time the Nautilus reached Venice.

Speaking of Venice, the movie seemed to reach a turning point by the time the League reached it. During Nautilus’ voyage between Paris and Venice, the story showcased the numerous conflicts and jealousies that the team seemed to engage, as they became more acquainted with one another. But when forced to work together to foil the Fantom’s plans to destroy Venice, all conflicts were thrown aside and the League worked together as a very effective team. Venice also represented a major plot twist in the story. It is in Venice, when the League discovered a traitor within its midst . . . and the fact that they had been betrayed on a major scale by the Fantom. Personally, I found it to be one of the most satisfying aspects of the movie.

I read an article that Stephen Norrington had a great deal of trouble with Sean Connery and vowed to give up directing. Needless to say that despite the conflict between director and star, the latter gave one of his more poignant performances as the aging hunter who has become disenchanted with the British Empire, after his service to it has caused him so much loss. I was also impressed by Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of the intrepid Captain Nemo. He seemed to be the only member of the cast who seemed as commanding as Connery. I also enjoyed Peta Wilson’s performance as the sexy and intelligent vampire, Nina Harker. One of my favorite scenes featured her character’s surprising revelation that she was a vampire. Most people seemed to dismiss Shane West’s portrayal of Tom Sawyer, but I rather enjoyed it. He managed to create a strong chemistry with Connery, and I also found his quiet wit rather endearing. Tony Curran was a blast as Rodney Skinner, gentleman thief and the Invisible Man. He gave a hilarious performance and projected a lot of style for a character that was barely seen. Stuart Townsend seemed to be the epitome of degenerate style and sexuality as the immortal, Dorian Gray. He also had the good luck to spout some of the best lines in the movie. Richard Roxburgh gave an effectively quiet and intense performance as the man who created the League, the mysterious “M”. But as far as I am concerned Jason Flemyng had the best role in the movie as the morally conflicted Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, the ferocious, misshapen giant, Mr. Edward Hyde. I really enjoyed how he managed to slip back and forth between the two personalities. More importantly, Flemyng did an excellent job in incorporating Hyde’s darkness into Jekyll and the latter’s decency into Hyde with great ease. Well done.

Despite my complaints about Laustsen’s photography of the movie’s exterior shots, I must admit that he did a pretty good job in shooting the film. And Paul Rubell did a first-rate job with his editing – especially in the sequence that featured the League’s attack upon the Fantom’s lair at the Asiatic Artic. I also thought that Jason Barnett and his team did an excellent job in handling the makeup – especially for the Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde characters. One last aspect of the movie that truly impressed me was Carol Spier’s production designs that nicely captured an alternate or Jules Verne-style take on the late Victorian Age. This was especially apparent in the interior designs for Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus.

I could recommend that others keep an open mind in watching ”THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN”. Although it does not bear a close resemblance to Alan Moore’s comic series and I am not particularly fond of its dark exterior shots, I must admit that I was impressed by James Dale Robinson’s screenplay, the ensemble cast and some of the production designs. Considering what he had to work with – especially an allegedly difficult leading man – I think that director Stephen Norrington did a solid job in bringing it all together for what I believe to be a very entertaining movie.

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008)  Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2003 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – ”COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick.

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony.

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. I understand that the movie has received at least five (5) Golden Globe nominations and is a shoe-in for Academy Award nominations as well. I cannot honestly say whether it deserves these accolades or not. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I have seen in 2008.

“STARDUST” (2007) Review

“STARDUST” (2007) Review”

When I had first saw the poster for “STARDUST” three years ago, I could not drum any interest in seeing it.In fact, my interest remained dormant after viewing the trailer. Just today, someone had suggested that we see it, considering there was no other movie in the theaters we were interested in seeing. I said “no thanks”. It did not end there. This “someone” literally had to coerce me into seeing the film. And you know what? I am glad that he did. 

Based upon Neil Gaiman’s novella and directed by Matthew Vaughn, “STARDUST” told the story of a young 19th century Englishman named Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), who became involved in a series of adventures in magical kingdom located beyond the wall of his hometown of . . . Wall. His adventures resulted from his love of a young neighbor named Victoria (Sienna Miller) and his desire to find and retrieve a fallen star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) in order to prove his worthiness as a future husband. Tristan had no idea that his mother (Kate Magowan) was not only a citizen of this magical kingdom, but also a royal princess who was enslaved by a witch named Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). He did not realize that his two surviving uncles – Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) and Prince Primus (Jason Flemyng) – were in search of a ruby that would give either of them the throne to the kingdom. A ruby that had caused Yvaine to fall from the sky and ended up being worn by her. And Tristan was also unaware of a witch named Lamia who seek Yvaine. With the latter’s heart carved out, Lamia and her two sisters would be able to regain their youth and power.

I will go any further into the story, because it is simply too damn complicated. But it is not confusing. Trust me, it is not. But I do feel that in order to know the entire story, one would simply have to see the film. I have never read Gaiman’s novella, so I have no idea how faithful Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn’s script was to the story. But I do feel that Goldman and Vaughn’s adaptation resulted in an exciting, yet humorous tale filled with surprisingly complex characters and situations.

The acting, on the other hand, was first-class. It could have been easy for Charlie Cox and Claire Danes to fall into the usual trap of portraying the leads, Tristan and Yvaine, as a pair of simpering and and over emotional young lovers – a cliche usually found in many romantic fantasies over the years. Instead, Cox and Danes seemed to be having a good time in portraying not only the ideal personality traits of the two lovers, but their not-so-pleasant sides through their constant bickering and mistakes. Vaughn filled the cast with some of his regulars like the always competent and dependable Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng, along with Sienna Miller, who did a surprisingly good job of portraying Tristan’s bitchy object of desire, Victoria. Mark Strong was excellent as the ruthless and sardonic Prince Septimus. Robert DeNiro did a surprising turn as Captain Shakespeare, a flaming drag queen who pretends to be a ruthless and very macho captain of a pirate ship in order to maintain his reputation. DeNiro was very funny. But by the movie’s last half hour, the joke surrounding his deception threatened to become slightly tiresome. But the movie’s true scene stealer turned out to be Michelle Pfieffer as the evil and treacherous Lamia, the oldest and most clever of the three sister witches. At times seductive, funny, malevolent and creepy, Pfieffer managed to combine all of these traits in her performance, allowing her to literally dominate the movie and provide one of the most creepiest screen villains to hit the movie screens in the past decade. Margaret Hamilton, look out!

As much as I had enjoyed “STARDUST”, I had a few problems with the movie. I have already pointed out how the joke surrounding Captain Shakespeare’s sexual orientation threatened to become overbearing. I also found the movie’s running time to be a bit too long. This problem could be traced to an ending so prolonged that it almost rivaled the notoriously long finale of“LORD OF THE RING: RETURN OF THE KING”. And the fact that the movie’s style seemed to be similar to the 1987 movie, “THE PRINCESS BRIDE”, did not help. Another problem I found with the movie was its “happily ever after” ending that left me feeling slightly disgusted with its sickeningly sweet tone. But what really irritated me about “STARDUST” was Jon Harris’s editing. It seemed so choppy that it almost gave the movie an uneven pacing.

But despite the movie’s disappointing finale and Harris’ editing, “STARDUST” proved to be a very entertaining movie. Using a first-class cast and an excellent script, director Matthew Vaughn managed to pay a proper homage to Neil Gaiman’s novella. He also proved at the time that his debut as a director (“LAYER CAKE”) was more than just a fluke.