Top Favorite Episodes of “THE YOUNG RIDERS” Season One (1989-1990)

Below is a list of my top favorite episodes from ABC’s 1989-1992 Western television series called “THE YOUNG RIDERS”. Created by Ed Spielman, the series starred Ty Miller, Josh Brolin, Stephen Baldwin and Anthony Zerbe:

TOP FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE YOUNG RIDERS” SEASON ONE (1989-1990)

YR - Speak No Evil

1. (1.04) “Speak No Evil” – When Pony Express rider Ike McSwain turns in the leader of a gang responsible for a stagecoach massacre, the other gang members try to kill him in order to prevent him from testifying. Albert Salmi guest-starred.

YR - Unfinished Business

2. (1.16) “Unfinished Business” – The estranged husband of the Sweetwater Express station caretaker Emma Shannon, survives a wagon train massacre and turns to her for shelter, while the men responsible searches for him. Cliff De Young and Frederick Coffin guest-starred.

YR - Black Ulysses

3. (1.06) “Black Ulysses” – The Express riders struggle over whether to obey the Fugitive Slave Law or protect a fugitive slave from a group of militiamen, who have been tracking him from Missouri. Stan Shaw and Tim Thomerson guest-starred.

YR - Gathering Clouds

4. (1.23-1.24) “Gathering Clouds” – Virginia-born The Kid is recruited by the U.S. government to infiltrate a group of Southern guerillas, while the town of Sweetwater deal with the ruthless methods of an Army captain, who is determined to capture the group. David Soul and Cynthia Nixon guest-starred.

YR - Bull Dog

5. (1.19) “Bulldog” – When the Pony Express owners plan to move the mail route north through Sioux burial lands, they send a recent college graduate, with a case of hero worship for James Hickok, to secure the arrangement. Fisher Stevens guest-starred.

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Honorable Mention: (1.05) “Bad Blood” – Express rider Louise “Lou” McCloud returns to the orphanage where she had been raised to visit her younger brother and sister and discovers that her estranged father, a ruthless gunrunner, had retrieved them. Jon De Vries guest-starred.

 

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“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

“HAIL, CAESAR!” (2016) Review

When I first that Joel and Ethan Coen was about to release a new film, I rejoiced. When I learned that this new movie – called “HAIL, CAESAR!” – would be set in old Hollywood, my joy increased. Then I discovered that this new film would be released in February of this year. And . . . my anticipation decreased. Somewhat.

Now, why would my anticipation for “HAIL, CAESAR!” dampened after learning about its release date? Simple. February is one of those months that is considered by the movie industry as the graveyard for second-rate films. A Coen Brothers film set in February. This did not sit well with me. But my enthusiasm had not dampened enough for me to forgo “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I simply had to see it.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” is the fictional story about one day in the life of Eddie Mannix, the head of “physical productions” at Capitol Pictures and a “fixer” who keeps the scandalous behavior of its stars out of the press. The Lockheed Corporation has been courting him with an offer of a high-level executive position, but he is unsure about taking it. While Mannix contemplates a career change, he has to deal with the following problems for his studio:

*Unmarried synchronized swimming actress DeeAnna Moran becomes pregnant and Mannix has to make arrangements for her to put the baby in foster care and then adopt it without revealing herself as the mother.

*Mannix is ordered by the studio’s honchos to change the image of cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle, by casting him in a sophisticated drama directed by Laurence Laurentz. Unfortunately, Hobie seems uncomfortable in starring in a movie that is not a Western and gives an inept performance.

*While fending off the inquiries of twin sisters and rival gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, the former threatens to release an article about a past scandal involving Capitol Pictures veteran star Baird Whitlock and Laurentz, when they made a movie together some twenty years earlier.

*Mannix’s biggest problem revolve around Whitlock being kidnapped, while filming one of Capitol Pictures’ “A” productions, an Imperial Roman drama called “Hail, Caesar!”. A ransom note soon arrives, written by a group calling itself “The Future”, who are a group of Communist screenwriters, demanding $100,000 for their cause.

There were a good deal about “HAIL, CAESAR!” that I enjoyed. Primarily, I enjoyed the fact that the movie was set during the Golden Age of Hollywood and that it was about the Hollywood industry during that period. I enjoyed the fact that this was one Old Hollywood movie that was not a murder mystery, a biopic about the rise and downfall of some actor, actress or director. And I was especially relieved that it was no borderline nihilist portrayal of Hollywood like 1975’s “THE DAY OF THE LOCUST”. I had no desire to walk out of theater, harboring a desire to blow out my brains. Instead, the Coens’ film gave audiences a peek into a Hollywood studio circa 1951 with a good deal of irony and humor.

Out of the five story arcs presented in the film, I really enjoyed three of them – namely those story lines that focused on Hobie Doyle, DeeAnna Moran and Mannix’s new job offer. Although I suspect that the DeeAnna Moran character was at best, a superficial take onEsther Williams, I believe the storyline regarding the character’s pregnancy was based upon what happened to Loretta Young in the mid-1930s. I found this story arc mildly enjoyable, thanks to Scarlett Johansson’s funny performance as the blunt-speaking DeeAnna. But I would not regard it as the movie’s highlight. I also found the story arc about Mannix’s new job offer from Lockheed mildly interesting. There almost seemed to be a “would he or wouldn’t he” aura about this story arc. As any film historian knows, the real Eddie Mannix never received a job offer from Lockheed. Then again, he worked at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), not the fictional Capitol Pictures. And he was married twice with no kids, not married once with kids. So, at one point, I did find myself wondering if the events of the day would drive this Mannix into accepting Lockheed’s offer.

However, I felt that one of the movie’s real highlight centered around the Hobie Doyle and Capitol Pictures’ efforts to turn the singing cowboy into a dramatic actor. Why? It was funny. Hilarious. Not only did Alden Ehrenreich give a rather enduring performance as the charming Hobie Doyle, he was funny . . . very funny in one particular sequence. In fact, I could say the same about Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed the elegant director Laurence Laurentz tasked into transforming Hobie into a dramatic actor. I did not find this scene mildly amusing, as I did many of the film’s other scenes. Instead, watching Laurentz trying to direct the limited and very awkward Hobie in a sophisticated drama nearly had laughing in the aisle. Both Ehrenreich and Fiennes were incredibly funny and talented. The other highlight proved to be Josh Brolin’s performance as the much put upon Eddie Mannix. Brolin did an excellent job of carrying the film on his shoulders. More importantly, he gave a tight and subtle performance that allowed his character to serve as the backbone to all of the surrounding chaos.

“HAIL, CAESAR!” was set in 1951, a time when the Hollywood studio system was going through a traumatic shake-up. And this period was definitely reflected in two story arcs – Mannix’s job offer and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock. However, a part of me wishes that the movie had been set in the 1930s – especially the early 1930s, when Hollywood was battling the censors and the Great Depression. Oh well, we cannot have everything. But I was not that particularly impressed regarding the story line involving Mannix’s concerns over Thora Thacker’s knowledge about some past scandal regarding Baird Whitlock. Why? The movie’s screenplay barely focused upon it. The entire story arc was wasted. And so was Tilda Swinton. I find this doubly sad, considering that Swinton gave a sharp and funny performance as the Thacker twins. Instead, the Coens used the Baird Whitlock character for another story arc – the one centered around his kidnapping at the hands of a group of Communist writers and a Communist contract player named Burt Gurney.

I might as well put my cards on the table. This story line featuring Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping did not strike me as well written. In fact, I did not like it at all. Neither George Clooney’s funny performance or Channing Tatum’s dancing skills could save it. The main problem with this story is that Whitlock was basically kidnapped to provide funds for Gurney, a song-and-dance performer who was a thinly disguised take on actor/dancer Gene Kelly, who was known to be a hardcore liberal. The end of the movie revealed that Gurney took with him, the ransom from Whitlock’s kidnapping, when he defected to the Soviet Union via a Russian submarine. The entire story arc struck me as simply a waste of time. And I found myself wishing that Whitlock had been used for the scandal story line, featuring Thora Thacker.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Jess Gonchor did a fairly decent job in re-creating Los Angeles in the early 1950s. His work was ably assisted by the film’s visual and special effects teams, Nancy Haigh’s set decorations and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. However, in the case of the latter, I could have done without the occasional use of sepia tones. I also enjoyed Mary Zophres’s costume designs. But they did not exactly knock my socks off. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed were the different “film productions” featured in the movie – especially the ones for DeeAnna Moran and the Hobie Doyle/Laurence Laurentz debacle. I know what you are thinking . . . what about the dance sequence featuring Burt Gurney and dancing extras portraying sailors? Well, I found it well executed. But the whole number, including Tatum’s performance, seemed to be more about skill, but with little style.

In the end, I rather enjoyed “HAIL, CAESAR!”. I believe the Coen Brothers did a fairly successful job in creating an entertaining movie about Hollywood’s Golden Age. The movie also featured excellent performances from a talented cast – especially Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes. However, I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more if it had ditched the kidnapping story arc in favor of the one featuring the potential Baird Whitlock scandal. Oh well, we cannot have everything we want.

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.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

 

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

Most of the films featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been set on Earth – mainly in the United States – and featured human characters. There have been exceptions – namely the two “THOR” movies that were partly set in the realm of Asgard and 2012’s “THE AVENGERS”, which featured an alien invasion. For the first time, the MCU released a movie mainly set in worlds other than Earth. And it is called “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”.

Directed by James Gunn, who wrote the film with Nicole Perlman, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” told the story about an uneasy alliance between a group of extraterrestrial misfits, who find themselves on the run after one of them steals a coveted orb. The movie, ironically, begins on Earth in 1988, when a kid named Peter Quill is abducted by a group of space pirates called the Ravagers led by a mercenary named Yondu Udonta, following his mother’s death. Twenty-six years later, Quill steals a valuable orb from the abandoned planet of Morag. Before he can get away, Quill is intercepted by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture. Meanwhile Ronan, who originally agreed to acquire the orb on behalf of the villainous titan Thanos, sends an assassin named Gamora after the orb. In return for getting the orb for Thanos, Ronan wants the latter to destroy the Nova Empire.

Quill attempts to sell the orb on the Nova Empire’s capital world, Xandar, when Gamora ambushes him and steals it. A fight ensues, which attracts a pair of bounty hunters – the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket and his tree-like companion, the humanoid Groot. All four are arrested by the Nova Corps and they are sentenced to a prison called Kyln. The four form an alliance to profit from a sale of the orb to a buyer that Gamora knows on an outpost called Nowhere, once Rocket informs them that he knows how to break out of prison. They acquire a new ally named Drax the Destroyer, who wants revenge against Ronan for killing his family. Drax tried to kill Gamora, due to her past association with the Kree, but Quill talks him out of it after Gamora reveals that she never intended to hand over the orb to Ronan. Gamora is willing to betray Ronan, because she is unwilling to allow him to use the orb’s power to destroy the Nova Empire and other worlds. The five misfits eventually discover from Gamora’s buyer, Taneleer Tivan aka the Collector that the orb contains a powerful stone known as one of the Infinity Stones, a collection of gems of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield them. Fearful that Ronan might destroy the Universe if he gains possession of the orb, the five friends become determined to stop him from gaining possession of it.

At first glance, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” seemed to come out of nowhere and with no connection to the other films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, there were quite a few connections to the other films. One, other Infinity Stones – mentioned by Tivan – were featured in other films. “IRON MAN 2”, “THOR”, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” and “THE AVENGERS” all featured the Tesseract. And “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” featured the Aether, which found itself in Tivan’s possession by the end of that film. The character Thanos was revealed to be the one behind the Chitauri invasion in “THE AVENGERS” The character Tivan aka the Collector was featured in a mid-credit scene in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. Also, the Ronan character is not the only Kree character to appear in a MCU production. The corpse of a dead Kree was featured in an episode of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. So, the connections between “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and the other MCU films are pretty strong. Many had doubted the success of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”, due to its unknown factor of the major characters. Although the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book was first published by Marvel in 1969, the following publications of the title have been far and few. In fact, Marvel had to revamp the title in 2008.

Marvel and Disney’s fears proved to be groundless in the end. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became a major hit during the late summer of 2014. It even managed to surpass (slightly) the major success of the previous MCU movie,“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. I understand why “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became such a success. It is a first-rate film that proved to be the gem of the summer. Thanks to Nicole Perlman and James Gunn’s screenplay, the movie expertly set up the movie’s narrative – first with Peter Quill’s kidnapping and later, his theft of the orb. Mind you, there is nothing particularly original about the narrative for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. I cannot recall the numerous films or television productions about a group of outsiders who struggle to form an alliance or friendship in order to overcome an enemy or problem. Hell, this even sounds like the narrative backbone for “THE AVENGERS”. But I have never come across a movie or television that allowed this narrative to play out with such caustic wit and humor. Perlman and Gunn also did an excellent job in allowing the five protagonists to form both an alliance and later, a strong friendship, in a timely manner. In fact, friendship seemed to be the main theme of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. And the focus of that friendship centered around the Peter Quill character, who abandoned one set of friends – the Ravengers under Yondu Udonta – that proved to be rather questionable, and formed a more solid friendship with his four new companions.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” benefited from some very strong characterizations. Peter Quill – at first glance – seemed like some minor variation of the Tony Stark character. Although adept at defending himself in a fight, Quill never struck me as the aggressive type. I enjoyed how actor Chris Pratt portrayed him as someone who would prefer stealth and charm over action. Some of his facial reactions alone were a joy to watch. Gamora, the assassin who had been trained by Thanos . . . after he wiped out her family, proved to be a surprisingly moral character. In fact, I would say that she possessed the strongest moral center out of the five major characters. And that is an ironic thing to say about an assassin. Thankfully, Zoe Saldana did an excellent job of conveying Gamora’s moral center . . . and dangerous nature at the same time. I never thought I would become attached to a CGI animal described as a genetically-altered raccoon. But I must say that the character Rocket provided a great deal of sharp wit and verbosity that infused a lot of energy into the story. And a lot of that energy came from Bradley Cooper’s voice performance. Another dangerous, yet fascinating character proved to be the vengeful Drax the Destroyer. In fact, I can honestly say that Drax was probably the most chaotic character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But what else can you say about a character who is not only seeking revenge, but does not understand the meaning of metaphors. And I have to say that professional wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista did a marvelous job in portraying a ferocious, yet humorless character with such sharp comic timing. And finally we have – “I am Groot.”. Ah yes, the talking and walking tree. Rocket’s companion. What can I say? I adored that warm, compassionate and loyal walking piece of timber. And I have to give kudos to Vin Diesel, who only had one line to speak over again, throughout the movie, do so with different inflections.

But there were other interesting characters featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Audiences saw the return of Taneleer Tivan aka The Collector, who was last seen in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And once again, Benicio del Toro gave an eccentric, yet very interesting performance of the interstellar collector. Nebula, who was raised as Gamora’s sibling by Thanos, certainly proved to be a character I will never forget. Although not the main villain, Nebula proved to be a scary and intimidating character in her own right, whose own ambiguity is dictated by feelings of jealousy toward Gamora. And actress Karen Gillian did an excellent job in conveying these aspects of Nebula’s character. Despite the presence of Thanos, the movie’s main villain proved to be a Kree fanatic named Ronan the Accuser. The fanatical Ronan refuses to accept a peace treaty between the Kree and the Nova Empire and seeks Thanos’ help in destroying Xandar. In the end, he proved to be something of a one-dimensional character lacking any eccentricities or ambiguities whatsoever. And honestly, one has to thank Lee Pace’s intense performance that managed to maintain my interest in Ronan. Another character that proved to be a minor disappointment was Korath, one of Ronan’s subordinates. And like Ronan, he also struck me as a bit one-dimensional, yet rather intense. However . . . the character had one scene that proved to be rather funny – his first meeting with Quill on Morag, in which he failed to recognized the latter’s nickname. And one has to thank Djimon Hounsou’s performance for making that scene work. It seemed a pity that Hounsou did not have a larger role in the film.

The characters from Xandar struck me as solid, but not particularly memorable. There were two exceptions – Corpsman Rhomann Dey, a professional member of Xandar’s military/police force and whose dry sense of humor strongly reminded me of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson; and Nova Prime Irani Rael, the slightly intimidating and righteous leader of the Nova Corps. And both John C. Reilly and Glenn Close gave outstanding performances in their roles. The most fascinating supporting character for me proved to be Yondu Udonta, the temperamental, yet occasionally decent leader of the Ravagers, who had served as Quill’s guardian after snatching him. There were times when I could not tell whether he was a bad guy, a good guy or simply another self-absorbed rogue after his own interest. And I must say that Michael Rooker gave a very entertaining and flamboyant portrayal of the character. I look forward to seeing him in future films.

I have to be honest. Most of the visual effects for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” did not blow my mind. But there were a few scenes that I found noteworthy. I liked the idea of the Nowhere outpost being set inside the floating head of a Celestial corpse. Very original. And the wide exterior shot of the colony upon the protagonists’ arrival is very impressive, as shown the following image:

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The scene was enhanced by Ben Davis’ photography. I also enjoyed his work in the movie’s final action sequence that featured Ronan’s attempt to destroy Xandar. Gunn’s direction, along with the visual effects made the scene breathtaking. To a certain degree. Some of the aerial action involving Rocket and the Nova Corps struck me as somewhat confusing. I also enjoyed Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, but like the visual effects, they did not take my breath away. I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but . . . I found them at best, solid.

The summer of 2014 proved to be very dismal for me, aside from a few films. One of those films that provided some realentertainment was “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. If it were not for the work of director James Gunn, the exciting and witty screenplay he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, the 2014 summer could have ended on a bad note for me.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

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

2 - Munich

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

3 - Rush

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

4 - Casino

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

5 - Super 8

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

6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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

7 - Apollo 13

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

8 - Nixon

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

9 - Starsky and Hutch

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

10 - Frost-Nixon

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

“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

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“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

Every now and then, Hollywood would release a movie with a story based upon a particular event or individual from Los Angeles’ history. Movies such as “CHINATOWN”“L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, and “CHANGELING” are examples. Recently, Hollywood released a new movie about a moment in Los Angeles’ history called “GANGSTER SQUAD”.

I must admit that I found myself surprised that the origin of the plot for “GANGSTER SQUAD” came from L.A. history. According to the book, “Tales from the Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, Chief William Parker and the Los Angeles Police Department formed a group of officers and detective called the “Gangster Squad unit” in an effort to keep Los Angeles safe from gangsterMickey Cohen and his gang in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Screenwriter Will Beall took elements of Lieberman’s book and wrote a movie about the L.A.P.D.’s efforts to fight organized crime in the Southland. The movie starts in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the California criminal underworld. Cohen has plans to expand his enterprises across the Western United States via the gambling rackets. Because the gangster has eliminated witnesses and bribed both the courts and the police, Chief Parker and the L.A.P.D. have not been able to stop Cohen’s rise. In a desperate move, Parker recruits the incorruptible and ruthless Sergeant John O’Mara to form a unit to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s operations and drive the gangster out of Southern California.

O’Hara, with the help of his very pregnant wife Connie, recruit the following men for his new unit:

*Coleman Harris, a tough beat cop from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood

*Conway Keeler, a brainy wire-tapper

*Max Kennard, a legendary veteran gangster killer and sharp-shooter

Kennard’s young partner, Navidad Ramirez tracks down the squad and O’Hara reluctantly allows him to join. The sergeant tries to recruit his close friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters, but the latter declines his offer out of disillusionment with the recent war and the police force. But when Cohen’s attempted hit on rival gang leader Jack Dragna results in the death of a young shoeshine boy, Wooters decides to accept O’Hara’s offer to join the squad. Also, Wooters has become romantically involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend, Grace Faraday. The squad’s campaign of terror against Cohen encounter a good deal of road blocks, including an unsuccessful raid against Cohen’s Burbank casino, the gangster’s penchant for paranoia, Wooters’ secret romance with Grace, Connie O’Hara’s desire for her husband to leave the police force and a deadly trap set up by Cohen in Chinatown. Despite the setbacks, violence and death, the squad eventually persevere over Cohen.

When I first saw the trailer for “GANGSTER SQUAD”, I immediately viewed it as one of those splashy, yet cheesy crime dramas trying to cash in on the success of movies like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and “THE UNTOUCHABLES” by setting it before the present time. After seeing the movie, I suspect that my assumption was correct. There were elements in the movie’s story that I found unoriginal. Honestly. One could easily imagine “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a post-World War II Los Angeles version of the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”. Well . . . almost. And there were moments when I found “GANGSTER SQUAD” rather cheesy. This was obvious in some of the dialogue that came out of the mouth of actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Mickey Cohen; and in the movie’s narration spoken by Josh Brolin, who portrayed John O’Hara. And I might as well be honest. Penn’s dialogue was not helped by the occasional hammy acting that also marred his performance. For a movie that is supposed to be based on a historical book, I could not regard it as historically correct . . . especially in regard to the fates of both Cohen and rival Jack Dragna. I am a fan of Nick Nolte’s work, but I believe that he was a least two to three decades too old to be portraying Los AngelesPolice Chief William Parker, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1949. Also, Parker did not become the city’s police chief until 1950.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” was not a perfect film, but I liked it very much. I enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining. And I found it gorgeous and colorful to look at. Thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad’s work, the film beautifully re-created post-World War II Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s. I was especially impressed by Ahmad’s elegant, yet colorful designs for the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, Cohen’s Spanish Colonial house and the Chinatown sequence. Ahmad’s work was enhanced by Gene Serdena’s set decorations, the movie’s art direction team and especially Dion Beebe’s photography. And Mary Zophres’ costume designs were absolutely gorgeous. Just to give you a hint, take a look at one of her designs for actress Emma Stone:

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Even though “GANGSTER SQUAD” seemed to be marred by cheesy dialogue, lack of originality and historical accuracy, I cannot deny that Will Beall wrote a very entertaining and exciting crime story. He did a pretty solid job of setting up the main narrative with Sergeant O’Hara’s disruption of one of Mickey Cohen’s illegitimate businesses – a whorehouse staffed by naive girls fresh off the bus or train and eager to make it big in the movies. This disruption catches Police Chief Bill Parker’s attention, prompting him to recruit O’Hara to organize and lead the “Gangster Squad” unit against Cohen’s operations. Beall also filled the story with exciting action sequences that included a nail-biting shootout in Chinatown, a forbidden romance between Jerry Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday, strong characterizations and more importantly, a good solid narrative. Rueben Fleischer did a first-rate job in transferring Beall’s script to the movie screen. And Fleischer did this with a great deal of flair and strong pacing.

The cast for “GANGSTER SQUAD” proved to be first-rate. Josh Brolin led the cast as the strong-willed, yet emotional police detective Sergeant John O’Hara. Utilizing his talent for projecting a no-nonsense demeanor with flashes of humor, Brolin was very effective as leader of “Gangster Squad” unit. Brolin also managed to generate on-screen chemistry with other members of the cast – including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and especially actress Mireille Enos, who beautifully portrayed O’Hara’s equally strong-willed wife Connie. “GANGSTER SQUAD” marked the second time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked together since they were co-stars in the 2011 comedy “CRAZY STUPID LOVE”. And once again, they proved to be quite the effective screen team, as they burned up the screen as the cynical lovers Sergeant Jerry Wooster and mob moll Grace Faraday. I also enjoyed Anthony Mackie’s colorful portrayal of tough beat cop Coleman Harris, who developed an aversion to Burbank, following the squad’s unpleasant encounter with that city’s law enforcement. Giovanni Ribisi gave a poignant performance as the squad’s brainy wiretapper, Conwell Keeler. Both Robert Patrick and Michael Peña created a solid screen team as police sharpshooter Max Kennard and his clever protégé Navidad Ramirez. Although I found him slightly too old for the role, I must admit that I found Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Police Chief William Parker rather entertaining in a garroulous way. And despite some of the cheesy dialogue he was forced to spew, I must say that Sean Penn struck me as an effective villain in his performance as the violent Mickey Cohen. Especially when the cheese and ham were missing from his lines.

If you expect “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a crime drama masterpiece, you will be disappointed. It is no masterpiece, I assure you. But . . . I thought it proved to be an entertaining, yet splashy crime thriller that recaptured the era of post-World War II Los Angeles. I guess one could thank Will Beall for his solid script, colorful direction by Rueben Fleischer, a

“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

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“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

After 2002’s “MEN IN BLACK II”, I never thought I would ever see another movie from the franchise based upon Lowell Cunningham’s The Men in Black comic book series. Never. After all, it was not exactly a critical success and was barely a commercial hit. And yet . . . the team from the first two movies went ahead and created a third one for the franchise. 

“MEN IN BLACK 3” picks up ten years after the last movie. Boris the Animal, the last surviving member of the Boglodite species, escapes from the LunarMax prison on Earth’s moon with the intention of seeking revenge against the MIB agent responsible for his arrest and loss of arm – Agent K. The latter discovers during a skirmish he and Agent J experience at a local Chinese restaurant that Boris has escaped. Unfortunately for Agent K, Boris arrives in Manhattan and seeks Jeffrey Price, the son of a fellow prisoner who had possession of a few time-jump mechanisms. Not much time passes before Agent K disappears from existence and Agent J is the only one who remembers his partner.

Agent O, who is MIB’s new Chief following Zed’s passing, deduces from Agent J’s statements that a fracture has occurred in the space-time continuum. The two realize Boris must have time-jumped to 1969 and killed K. And now an imminent Boglodite invasion threatens Earth, due to the absence of the protective ArcNet that K had installed in 1969. J acquires a similar time-jump mechanism from Price, jumps off the Chrysler Building in order to reach time-travel velocity, and arrives in July 1969, a day before Boris kills K.

When I learned that Steven Spielberg, director Barry Sonnenfeld, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones planned to do a thirdMEN IN BLACK movie; I could only shake my head in disbelief. Mind you, I did not dislike the second film. But it seemed a disappointment in compare to the quality of 1997 original movie. But in the end, I could not say no to a MEN IN BLACKmovie. And thank God I did go see it.

Now, “MEN IN BLACK 3” was not perfect. There were a few aspects about Etan Cohen’s screenplay that left me scratching my head. If Boris the Animal (oops! I mean Boris) had been imprisoned in the LunarMax prison for over 40 years, how on earth did Boris’ girlfriend Lily, who helped him escape, learn about his existence in the first place? I am also a little confused about Agent J and Agent K’s ages. According to 1997’s “MEN IN BLACK”, Agent k was a teenager in New Jersey when he experienced his first alien encounter before becoming a member of the Men in Black agency in 1961 or 1962. Yet, according to Cohen’s script, Agent K was a Texas native born in 1940. As for Agent J, he was at least four years old in July 1969. Which makes him at least 46 or 47 years old in this story. I could have sworn he was at least three or four years younger. Oh well.

However, by the time I became deeply engrossed in the story, I managed to forget these questionable aspects of “MEN IN BLACK 3”. I believe that “MEN IN BLACK” is the funnier movie. I cannot deny this. However, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” had the best plot of the three films. Time travel tends to be a hit-or-miss topic when it comes to the science-fiction genre. Aside from the questionable aspects of Agents K and J’s ages, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story. One, Agent J proved to be the right character chosen for a time travel mission. Being over twenty years younger than his partner, he was the right person to see New York City and Cape Canaveral in 1969. Boris’ reasons for time travel proved to be a heady mixture of personal vengeance and the successful completion of his original mission to kill a refugee alien named Griffin, who possessed the ArcNet, a satellite device that would prevent Boris’ species, the Boglodites, from invading Earth and destroying mankind. Agent J’s time travel adventures gave audiences two peaks into what it must have been like for an African-American in the 1960s New York – something that the TV series “MAD MEN”more or less failed to do after five seasons. Kudos to director Barry Sonnenfeld for keeping this fascinating tale hilarious, poignant and on track.

Not only did “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story, it also possessed some memorable scenes that I will never forget. My favorite scenes include the brief, yet bizarre memorial service for the recently dead Agent Zed; Agents K and J’s skirmish with some truly bizarre agents at a Chinese restaurant that I would not recommend to humans; Agent J’s initial time jump to 1969; J’s hilarious elevator encounter with a bigot fearful of being in close proximity with a black man; Agent J and young Agent K’s very funny and surprising meeting with “Andy Warhol” at the latter’s factory; the two agents’ meeting with Griffin at Shea Stadium; the meeting between old and young Boris in 1969; and Agent J’s discovery at Cape Canaveral of the true reason behind K’s strange behavior at the beginning of the story. But my favorite moment featured Agent J’s discovery that Agent K’s habit of ordering pie was even frustrating in the past.

The production for “MEN IN BLACK 3” was also first-rate. Danny Elfman continued his outstanding work in providing a score similar to the franchise’s signature theme. I found Bill Pope’s photography to be rather sharp and colorful – especially the 1969 segments. Don Zimmerman did outstanding work as the film’s editor. I was especially impressed by his work in the time jump sequence and the showdown between the MIB agents and Boris at Cape Canaveral. And both Mary E. Vogt’s costume designs and Bo Welch’s production designs perfectly recaptured the end of the 1960s.

As for the performances . . . what can I say? The cast gave some truly outstanding performances in this film. Will Smith was absolutely marvelous as the time traveling Agent J. I thought he gave one of his best performances in a role that required him to be funny and poignant at the same time. I suspect that he more or less carried the movie on his shoulders. But he had fine support from a wonderful Tommy Lee Jones, who allowed audiences another peek into a personality who hid his emotions behind a stoic mask. I just never thought his emotions would be directed at Smith’s Agent J. And I never thought Spielberg and Sonnenfeld would find someone who not only could perfectly portray a younger Agent K, but create a similar screen dynamic with Smith. And Josh Brolin proved to be the man who did the job. He was fantastic.

Emma Thompson portrayed Agent O, the new leader of the Men in Black agency. And I adored her performance, especially the scene that required her to give a eulogy for Zed at his memorial . . . in an alien language. Alice Eve was charming as the younger Agent O. She and Brolin had a nice chemistry going as two MIB agents attracted to one another. What can I say about Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as the precognitive alien, Griffin? Oh God, he was so wonderful. He portrayed Griffin with a delicious mixture of wisdom and naivety. I wanted to gather him in my arms and squeeze him like a teddy bear. Someone once commented (or complained) that New Zealand comic Jemaine Clement as the movie’s main villain, Boris the Animal. Frankly, Clement was a lot more scary than funny. But he did have one scene that left me rolling in the aisles with laughter – namely Boris’ encounter with his younger self in 1969. Even more important, Clement portrayed Boris once scary and resourceful villain.

What else can I say about “MEN IN BLACK 3”? Sure, it had a few glitches regarding the plot and the two main characters’ ages. But thanks to Etan Cohen’s script that featured an outstanding time travel story, outstanding performances from a cast led by Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin; the movie turned out to be a first-rate addition to the franchise and one of my favorite movies of the summer of 2012. Thank you Barry Sonnenfeld! You have not lost your touch.

 

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