“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

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“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

I can think of only three previous times in which one of director Martin Scorsese’s films has courted controversy. The first time the director courted real controversy was the release of his 1976 film, “TAXI DRIVER”. He also encountered controversy from two other movies – “THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST” (1988) and 1997’s “KUNDUN”. Scorsese and controversy have met once again . . . this time in the form of his latest release, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”

As the world now knows, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” is a film adaptation of the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who ran a firm that engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street in the 1990s. The movie begins when Belfort lands a job as a stockbroker at a Wall Street firm. His boss, Mark Hanna, advises him to adopt a lifestyle of sex and cocaine in order to succeed. Unfortunately for Belfort, the firm fails after the stock market crash ofBlack Monday within a few months. Now unemployed, Belfort is pushed by his wife Teresa to take a job with a Long Island boiler room which deals in penny stocks. Belfort’s aggressive pitching style soon earns him a small fortune and he also befriends Donnie Azoff, a salesman who lives in the same apartment building. The pair decides to start their own firm together and name it Stratton Oakmont. They recruit some of Belfort’s friends – among them, experienced marijuana dealers, colleagues from the boiler room and his parents as accountants. Despite the respectable name, the firm is basically a pump and dump scam. The movie depicts the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by Belfort and his employees, the break-up of his marriage to Teresa and his second marriage to lover Naomi Lapaglia. However, due to an exposé in Forbesmagazine, Stratton Oakmont attracts more enthusiastic employees and the attention of F.B.I. Agent Patrick Denham.

What can I say about “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”? I thought it was one of the most outlandish and crazy movies I have seen in years. Out . . . landish! And I loved every moment of it. Well, most of it. Who would have thought that after forty years as a director and producer, Martin Scorsese could still astonish moviegoers? Or even piss them off? I had first heard about the negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, when I read about veteran actress Hope Holiday’s angry post on her Facebook page about the Motion Picture Academy’s screening of the film. But her reaction was not the first. I have come across a good number of negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” since learning about Holiday’s reaction. Curious over the hullabaloo, I found myself becoming very eager to see the film. And it did not fail.

It is possible that some might assume that I enjoyed the film simply for the characters’ excess – the sex and drug use that could have easily turn this film into one with a NC-17 rating. Actually, I did not feel one way or the other about the characters’ exercises in degeneracy. I simply accepted it, due to the fact that his excesses had been a part of his life during those years as head of Stratton Oakmont. And from what I have learned about the financial world of the super rich, such excesses were and still are very common. Some have claimed Scorsese had not only glorified Belfort’s lifestyle and crimes, but also allowed the character to get away with the latter with very little punishment – less than two years in a “Club Fed” prison, before becoming a motivational speaker. The U.S. government is responsible for Belfort’s scant punishment, not Martin Scorsese. And I cannot accept that the director glorified Belfort’s lifestyle. All I saw on the movie screen were a bunch of silly men behaving like a bunch of overindulged adolescents with too much money and too many “toys” (namely women, drugs and other expenses) on their hands. Thanks to Scorsese’s direction and Terence Winter’s screenplay, Belfort and his cronies merely struck me as pathetic and infantile.

More importantly, Scorsese’s movie frightened me. Belfort’s willingness to exploit the desires of ordinary men and women to satisfy his own greed struck me as off-putting. Scorsese emphasized this negative aspect of Belfort’s profession by conveying the latter’s lack of remorse toward his victims. I am not lacking in compassionate when I say that I did not need to see the effects of Belfort’s machinations toward his clients. The amoral attitudes of the stock broker and his employees seemed more than enough for me to get an idea on how much those clients suffered. I still have memories of that bizarre scene in which Belfort and the Stratton Oakmont staff treated shoe designer Steve Madden with great contempt, as Belfort expressed his intent to invest in Madden’s company . . . a scene that almost left me shaking my head in disbelief. But if there is one scene that scared me senseless was the one that featured the business luncheon between Belfort and his boss at L.F. Rothschild, Mark Hanna. In this scene, Hanna gave the newly hired Belfort tips on how to become a successful stockbroker. A good deal of those tips involved the use of drugs and sex. But the one tip that really comes to mind was Hanna’s instructions that Belfort prevent clients from cashing out their investments for the profit of the firm and the stockbroker. Hanna’s advice reminded me of how Las Vegas casinos try to keep even winners playing so the latter would eventually lose what they had gained – something I learned from Scorsese’s 1995 film, “CASINO”. That was some scary shit. One other scene proved to be just as scary . . . the last one that found post-prison Belfort hosting a sales technique seminar in Auckland, New Zealand. That last shot of the audience drinking in Belfort’s words they believe will make them rich struck me as a sure symbol of the greed in human nature that really never dies – even if humanity would rather pretend otherwise.

I certainly cannot complain about the movie’s production values. “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be a sharp and colorful looking film, thanks to the crew that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the man mainly responsible for that sharp and colorful look that I had commented upon. But I also have to commend both Bob Shaw’s production designs and Chris Shriver’s art direction for taking movie audiences back to the excessive greed era of New York during the 1980s and 1990s. Legendary costume designer Sandy Powell contributed to this look by basing many of the men’s costumes on Giorgio Armani’s archives from the 1990s. I also enjoyed her costumes for the female cast members, especially those for actress Margot Robbie. Long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker took a movie with a four-hour running time and managed to trim it into a movie one-minute short of three hours. She did an excellent job, although I believe the movie could have benefited with another twenty minutes or so trimmed from its running time. In fact, the extended running time is my one major complaint about the film – especially the sequence that featured Belfort’s downfall.

Other than the frank portrayal of Jordan Belfort’s career as a stockbroker and the financial world of the 1990s and Martin Scorsese’s excellent direction, the one other major asset of “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” was its talented cast. Once again, the man of the hour is Leonardo Di Caprio, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the charismatic and corrupt Jordan Belfort. When I say it is one of his performances, I damn well mean it. Not only did he give an excellent performance throughout the movie, he gave one of the funniest and probably the best acting moment during the entire year of 2013 – namely a sequence in which Belfort, high on Quaaludes, struggle to get into his car and drive home in order to prevent his partner Donnie Azoff from revealing too much during a telephone conversation bugged by the F.B.I. My God! It was hilarious.

Portraying Donnie Azoff (who is based on Danny Porush) was comedy actor Jonah Hill, who proved he could mix both comedy and drama with great ease and hold his own with the talented Di Caprio. His portrayal of Azoff’s forays into excess and egotistical behavior was a marvel to behold. Margot Robbie, who I remembered from the ABC series, “PAN AM”, portrayed Belfort’s second wife, Naomi Lapaglia (based on Nadine Caridi). She really did an excellent job in portraying the sexy, yet very tough Naomi – especially in one difficult scene in which her character had to deal with marital rape before she put an end to their marriage. The always impressive Kyle Chandler portrayed F.B.I. Special Agent Patrick Denham (based on Special Agent Gregory Coleman), the man responsible for Belfort’s arrest. Superficially, Chandler’s Denham seemed like a quiet, straight-laced type whose dogged investigation brings Belfort to his knees. But Winter’s screenplay and Chandler’s subtle performance allows a peek into the possibility that Denham, who had harbored ambitions to become a stock broker, envies the lifestyle that Belfort managed to achieve, despite the corruption that surrounds the latter.

The movie also featured outstanding performances from Jon Bernthal, who portrayed Belfort’s muscle-flexing Quaaludes dealer. I was amazed at how much Bernthal resembled a younger and better-looking Danny Trejo. Joanna Lumley gave a charming performance as Belfort’s British in-law, Aunt Emma. I especially enjoyed one scene in which Belfort asked her to engage in money laundering on his behalf and both ended up wondering about the other’s attraction. Jean Dujardin gave a sly and funny performance as Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel, whom Belfort used to hide his money from the Federal authorities. The movie also featured solid performances from Cristin Milioti (“The Mother” from “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER”), Kenneth Choi (from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”), P.J. Byrne, Jon Farveau, Rob Reiner (who was especially funny as Belfort’s accountant father), Shea Whigham and Christine Ebersole. But the one supporting performance that really had me rolling with laughter came from Matthew McConaughey, who portrayed Belfort’s L.F. Rothschild boss, Mark Hanna. Despite the scary content of Hanna’s advice, I must admit that McConaughey really did a great job in making the most in what almost proved to be a cameo role.

“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be appreciative enough for the Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures to give it several nominations, including Best Picture. And there seemed to be a good number of people who seemed to understand what this movie is really about. But I get the feeling that too many are determined to write off this film as nothing more than a glorification of Jordan Belfort’s excessive lifestyle and corruption. I cannot share this feeling. I believe that Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and the first-rate cast led by Leonardo Di Caprio gave us a movie that many should view as a cautionary tale. I mean, honestly . . . if I ever consider investing my money in stocks, I will whip out a copy of this film to remind me there are plenty of people like Jordan Belfort in this world – even in reputable investment firms – who would not blink an eye to separate me from my money for their benefit. I once read an article that compared stock investments to casino gambling, to the detriment of the latter. After viewing “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, I cannot help but wonder if both means of “gambling” are a lot more similar than we would like to believe.

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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 (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.

“KING KONG” (2005) Review

 

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

Several years ago, producer-director Peter Jackson had stated in an interview that one of movies that had inspired him to become a filmmaker was Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 hit adventure film, “KING KONG”. Sixteen to eighteen years after his first directorial effort, Jackson was finally able to pay tribute to his inspiration with a remake of the 1933 film.

Anyone familiar with Cooper’s film should know the story of King Kong. Set during the early years of the Great Depression, an overly ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and the crew of a freighter ship to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who becomes immediately smitten with the producer’s financially struggling leading lady. After using his leading lady to lure Kong into a trap, the producer ships Kong back to Manhattan to be displayed to the public as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Unfortunately, Kong escapes and inflicts chaos on the city streets in search for the leading lady.

Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pretty much followed the 1933 movie. However, they made some changes. In the 1933 film, Carl Denham was a respected and successful filmmaker. He was a struggling filmmaker who resorted to stealing footage of his film from his financial backers in Jackson’s version. There is more backstory on the Ann Darrow character in the newer film and she is a vaudeville dancer/comedian, not simply a unemployed and starving woman. Ann remains frightened of Kong throughout the entire 1933 film (an emotion that actress Fay Wray did not share); whereas Naomi Watts’ Ann forms an emotional bond with him. The inhabitants of Skull Island are a lot more hostile in the 2005 film, and less human. Kong is portrayed as simply an animal and less of a monster. Jack Driscoll is a playwright hired as a screenwriter in this film, whereas in the ’33 film, he is the S.S. Venture’s first mate. And in Jackson’s film, the first mate is an African-American. The 2005 Captain Englehorn is at least fifteen to twenty years than his 1933 counterpart. Kong’s rampage across Manhattan was a lot more horrific than his rampage in the 2005 film. The character of actor Bruce Baxter was created as a homage to actor Bruce Cabot, one of the stars of the 1933 film. And it is he, along with Denham and some actress hired to impersonate Ann that ends up on the stage with Kong in Jackson’s film. In Cooper’s film, both Ann and Driscoll end up on stage with Denham and Kong.

So, what did I think of Jackson’s “KING KONG”? Technically and visually, it is a beautiful film. One of the first things that impressed me was Grant Major’s production designs for the movie. His work, along with the art direction team led by Dan Hannah, Hannah and Simon Bright’s set decorations and Andrew Lesnine’s photography did an excellent job in re-creating Manhattan of the early 1930s. And what I found even more amazing about their work is that all of the Manhattan sequences were filmed in New Zealand . . . even the opening montage that introduced the movie’s time period and its leading female character. Terry Ryan’s costume designs for the movie were attractive to look at. But if I must be honest, they did not particularly blow my mind. I really cannot explain why. It seemed as if her costumes – especially for the female characters – failed to achieve that early 1930s look, one hundred percent. I was also impressed by work of both the art department and the visual effects team. Their work on the Skull Island sequences struck me as impressive. But honestly, I was more impressed by their work on the Manhattan scenes . . . especially the sequence featuring King Kong’s confrontation with the U.S. Army planes. And here are two samples of their work:

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My only quibble about the visual work in the Manhattan sequences featured the S.S. Venture’s depature from Manhattan. Frankly, it looked like the work of an amateur, circa 1929. Why on earth did Jackson allowed the ship to leave New York Harbor at double speed? It looked so tacky.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did a pretty good job in re-creating Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s story. In fact, I believe they had improved on some aspects of the 1933 film. One, the Ann Darrow character was given more of a background and more screen time before the S.S. Venture’s journey to Skull Island. I could say the same for the Carl Denham character, who proved to be a more ambiguous character than his 1933 counterpart. Due to the depth given to both Ann and Denham’s characters, the setup for the S.S. Venture’s departure from Manhattan seemed more detailed and far from rushed. The movie spent a good deal of time aboard the S.S. Venture, building up suspense to the ship’s arrival at Skull Island and allowing relationships and the characters to develop – especially Ann’s romance with playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll. I wonder if many moviegoers had complained about the length it took the Venture to reach Skull Island. I certainly did not. The longer the movie focused on the Venture sequences, the longer it took the movie to reach Skull Island.

Because . . . honestly? I disliked the Skull Island sequences. I was able to bear it in the 1933 film. But I cannot say the same for Jackson’s film. There were some scenes in the Skull Island sequence that I liked. I enjoyed the chase sequence featured members of the Venture crew, Denham’s film production and a Venatosaurus saevidicus pack‘s hunt of Brontosaurus baxteri. I even tolerated Kong’s rescue of Ann from three Vastatosaurus rex. And I was impressed by the scene that featured Ann and Kong’s initial bonding. I found it both touching and slightly humorous. And I could see that the screenwriters, along with Naomi Watts and Fay Wray (who portrayed the original Ann) understood Kong’s feelings for the leading lady a lot better than Cooper and Wallace did. But I still disliked the Skull Island sequence – especially the scenes featuring Denham’s film crew’s encounter with the island’s natives and the visitors’ enounter with giant insects inside a large pit. The natives seemed more like Orc rejects from Middlearth with very little humanity. Despite the coconut bras and bone jewelry, the natives featured in the 1933 film struck me as a lot more human and less like savage stereotypes. As for the giant insect pit sequence . . . I usually press the fast-forward button for that scene. I not only dislike it, I find it repulsive.

Fortunately, the movie returned to Manhattan. And I noticed that for the first minutes or so, Jackson re-created Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s introduction of Kong to the people of Manhattan. I was impressed. In fact, I found this second Manhattan sequence very impressive . . . but not as much as I did the earlier one. Granted, Bruce Baxter’s quick departure from the theater following Kong’s escape provided some laughs. And Jackson handled Kong’s rampage of Manhattan rather well. I was a little disappointed that Jackson did not re-create the elevated train sequence from the first film. I was stunned by the sight of Ann searching the streets of Manhattan for Kong wearing nothing but her costume from a stage musical in the middle of winter. Hell, I was amazed that she managed to not to get pnemonia from wandering around the city with no overcoat and no sleeves for her gown. And frankly, I found Ann and Kong’s reunion in Central Park something of a bore. I truly wish that Jackson had cut that scene. As for the Empire State Building sequence, once again, Naomi Watt’s Ann did not seemed to be affected by the cold weather, while wearing nothing but a costume gown. And I noticed that Jackson plagerized Gandalf’s death in “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” for Kong’s final death scene. I felt nothing but a little relief because the U.S. Army Air Corp’s attempt to kill Kong seemed to last forever.

The cast of “KING KONG” seemed to fare very well, despite some of the mediocre lines written by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of the pragmatic and cynical Captain Englehorn struck me as very skillful and effective. Both Evan Parke and Jamie Bell provided some well-acted pathos as First Mate Ben Hayes and a young crewman named Jimmy, for whom Hayes seemed to act as mentor. Adrien Brody provided a nice balance of romance, heroics and cynicism in his portrayal of writer Jack Driscoll. Actually, I thought he made a more interesting leading man than Bruce Cabot. And Colin Hanks’ solid portrayal of Preston, Denham’s neurotic but honest personal assistant, proved to be the movie’s emotional backbone. But there were the performances that really stood out for me.

Andy Serkis, who had impressed the world with his portrayal of Gollum in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, proved to be equally impressive in his motion capture performance as Kong. Not only was he solid as the S.S. Venture cook, Lumpy; he did an excellent job in providing Kong with a great deal of emotional nuances. Kyle Chandler nearly stole the film with his hilarious portryal of movie actor Bruce Baxter. Not only was Chandler’s Baxter egotistical and self-involved, he also proved to be a surprisingly pragmatic character with a talent for self-preservation. He also provided, in my opinion, one of the film’s best quotes:

“Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me – not in the real world. In th real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation. Be seeing you.”

Jack Black gave a superb job as movie producer Carl Denham. In fact, I believe that Black’s Denham proved to be the film’s most ambiguous character. Even though his Denham seemed manipulative, greedy and exploitive; he also managed to bring out the character’s compassionate side and enthusiam for his profession. It seemed a pity that Black never received any acclaim for his performance. Many moviegoers and critics seemed disappointed that Naomi Watts did not receive a Golden Globes or Academy Awards nomination for her excellent portryal of out-of-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow. Frankly, I think she deserved such nominations for her work. More than any other member of the cast, she had to develop an emotional bond and work with an animated figure and at the same time, develop her own character. And she did one hell of a job. Think Bob Hoskins in 1988’s “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?”.

“KING KONG” has become a highly regarded film over the years. It made “Empire” magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmmm . . . no. Not really. It is a very entertaining film filled with plenty of action and adventure. It also featured some pretty damn good acting from a cast led by Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. But the movie also possesses some pretty obvious flaws and I find it difficult to enjoy the Skull Island sequence. Like I said, Jackson created a pretty good movie. But I could never regard it as one of the greatest movies of all time.

“ARGO” (2012) Review

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“ARGO” (2012) Review

Ben Affleck must be at a lucky point in his career. His third directorial effort had recently been released in theaters and is already a commercial and critical hit . . . like his two previous films. And he never struck me as the type who would direct and star in a film about the CIA rescuing American diplomats from the Middle East, let alone co-produce it. But he did and the result is the movie, “ARGO”

“ARGO” began in early November 1979, when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and took most of the civilian and military staff hostage in retaliation for American offering refuge for the deposed Shah of Iran. At least six staff diplomats managed to get out of the embassy and seek refuge at the home of Canada’s ambassador, Ken Taylor. With the six diplomats’ situation kept secret, the C.I.A. assigns one of their operatives, one Tony Mendez, to find a way to get the diplomats out of Iran before they could be discovered. After dismissing several proposals, Mendez creates a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting “exotic” locations in Iran for a science-fiction film.

Mendez and his C.I.A. supervisor Jack O’Donnell, contact John Chambers, a Hollywood make-up artist who has previously crafted disguises for the C.I.A., in addition to his work in the “PLANET OF THE APES” film series. Chambers puts them in touch with a film producer named Lester Siegel. Mendez, Chambers and Siegel set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretense of developing Argo, a “science fantasy” in the style of “STAR WARS” in order to lend credibility to the cover story. Meanwhile, the escapees grow frantic inside the ambassador’s residence. Shredded documentation from the American embassy is being reassembled, providing the militants with evidence that there are embassy personnel unaccounted for.

I am going to cut to the chase. I enjoyed “ARGO” very much. What am I saying? I really enjoyed this movie. So far, it is one of the better ones I have seen this year. Once again, Affleck knocked it out of the ballpark with a first-rate thriller that gave audiences a peek into the efforts of the C.I.A. to save those six diplomats who managed to get captured by the militants. Affleck, along with screenwriter Chris Terrio, did an excellent job in setting up the entire story from beginning to end.

One of the movie’s gem scenes featured the actual storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. It is quite obvious that Affleck, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, used a hand-held camera style to film this particular sequence. And although I am not a fan of this particular style, I must say that it suited this particular sequence very well, projecting an effective sense of chaos and panic. “ARGO” featured other memorable scenes, including Mendez’s efforts to recruit both Chambers and Siegel for his mission, a tense encounter between Taylor’s Iranian maid and intelligence officers looking for the diplomats, the humor-filled setup of the Argo Operation in Hollywood, frustrating moments in which Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan came close to shutting down Mendez’s operation, the final escape from Iran by air and a nail-biting sequence in which the same group hit the streets of Tehran for a “location scouting mission” in order to maintain their cover.

There is so much about this movie that I enjoyed that it would take an essay for me to explain in great detail. I do not have the patience for such a project, but I do have to comment on the movie’s technical aspects. Not only did Rodrigo Prieto did an excellent job in re-creating the violence and confusion of the American embassy takeover, he also captured the muted glamour and insanity of Hollywood with vivid color. I could see that a great deal of his work benefited from some outstanding editing from William Goldenberg. In fact, I really have to hand it to Sharon Seymour and her production designing team for their re-creation of the 1979-1980 period in American and Iranian history. Seymour and her team were ably assisted by Peter Borck
and Deniz Göktürk’s art direction, along with Jacqueline West’s realistic looking costume designs.

But “ARGO” would have never worked by Affleck’s outstanding direction and the talented actors and actresses that were part of the cast. Not only was I impressed by Affleck’s direction, but also his subtle performance as C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez, who did not need guns and fighting skills to accomplish his task – merely brains and nerves of steel. John Goodman was marvelous as the witty and slightly cynical make-up artist, John Chambers. He also had great chemistry with both Affleck and Alan Arkin, who portrayed the sardonic and prickly Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel. I was not that kind to Bryan Cranston in my review of “TOTAL RECALL”. But it was great to see his magic again, in his fiery and funny portrayal of Mendez’s C.I.A. supervisor, Jack O’Donnell.

“ARGO” also featured some wonderful supporting performances as well. Kyle Chandler made two brief, but very memorable appearances and President Jimmy Carter’s foul-mouthed Chief of Staff, Hamilton “Ham” Jordan. It is a pity that his role was not longer. I was also impressed by those who portrayed the besieged diplomats – the always entertaining Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham and Kerry Bishé. Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane were especially memorable as a paranoid Joe Stafford and the hilariously sarcastic Lee Schatz. Victor Garber gave solid support as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who gave the diplomats refuge. And Sheila Vand was marvelous in the tense scenes that featured the Taylors’ Iranian housekeeper, Sahar. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall.

Naturally, “ARGO” is not a perfect movie. Not all of it is historically accurate. This was very obvious in one shot that featured a dilapidated HOLLYWOOD sign that overlooks the Los Angeles Basin. The sign was restored to its former glory in November 1978, 14 to 15 months before Tony Mendez’s arrival in Southern California. And I found Mendez and the diplomats’ encounter with the Iranian airport security guards and escape from the country somewhat contrived and manipulative.

Flawed or not, I cannot deny that I found “ARGO” to be one of the most satisfying movies of the year. I enjoyed it that much, thanks to a first-rate script by Chris Terrio, superb direction by Affleck and an excellent cast that included John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin. In the end, “ARGO” strikes me as another triumph for Affleck and his two co-producers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov.

“SUPER 8” (2011) Review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“SUPER 8” (2011) Review

When I first saw the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ new movie, “SUPER 8”, I had a very difficult time generating any interest in the film. I would have easily ignored it if it were not for the fact that two or three of my favorite actors were featured in the film and that it was produced by Steven Spielberg. 

My feelings toward J.J. Abrams’ previous work are rather mixed. Yes, I realize that he was one of the creators of such television series as “ALIAS” and “LOST”. But Abrams ended up distancing himself from both shows before they eventually suffered from a decline in writing quality. I enjoyed his work on “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III”. But his “STAR TREK” reboot left me wondering about his talent as a writer and director. But after watching “SUPER 8” this summer, my faith in his talent has been fully restored.

Set in 1979, “SUPER 8” told the story of a group of young friends in their early teens filming their own Super 8 movie for a film festival for amateurs, when a train derails, releasing a dangerous presence into their town of Lillian, Ohio. The story began 13 year-old Joe Lamb dealing with the death of his mother in a factory accident. A neighbor named Louis Dainard appears at the wake, but Joe’s father a deputy sheriff named Jackson Lamb, leads him away in handcuffs. Jackson blames Louis for his wife’s death because he was absent during his shift and she had to fill in for him.

Four months later, Joe’s friend, Charles Kaznyk, makes plans to film a zombie movie on Super 8 mm film for an amateur film festival. Along with Joe, he hires Dainard’s daughter Alice to be part of the cast. After stealing her father’s car, Alice takes Joe, Charles, Preston, Martin, and Cary to an old train depot; where the group plans to film a scene. During the shoot, Joe watches a pick-up truck drive onto the tracks and place itself in the path of an oncoming train, causing a massive derailment. In the aftermath of the accident, the kids find the wreck littered with strange white cubes. They approach the truck and discover Dr. Woodward, their biology teacher, behind the wheel of the truck. He instructs them to never talk about what they saw; otherwise they and their parents will be killed. Moments afterwards, the U.S. Air Force, led by one Colonel Nelec, arrives to secure the crash site. The kids flee the scene. Over the next couple of days, a number of strange phenomena occur throughout the Lillian neighborhood. A good number of the town’s dogs run away. And kitchen appliances, car engines, and power lines vanish. Also, many people begin to disappear, among them the town’s sheriff. Joe, Alice and their friends start investigating the strange phenomenons around Lillian, as they continue to shoot Charles’ movie.

Not only has “SUPER 8” restored my faith in J.J. Abrams as a Hollywood talent, I believe it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. I really enjoyed. Abrams created a story that not featured mysterious happenings and an alien, but it also had plenty of human drama centering around Joe’s relationships with his recently widowed father and Alice Dainard; along with a delightful story arc featuring the group of friends’ attempt to film a movie. The interesting thing about “SUPER 8” is that all of the different story arcs in the movie – the personal dramas, the mystery surrounding the alien and Charles’ zombie movie – managed to connect seamlessly to form a first-rate movie. But more importantly, “SUPER 8” brought me back to the days of my childhood of the late 1970s – a time when many of my generation were first becoming fans of filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas.

Not only does “SUPER 8” has a first-rate story written by Abrams, it also featured a superb cast. I was surprised to discover that “SUPER 8” featured 15 year-old Joel Courtney’s film debut. Either Abrams has a talent for working with children, Courtney is a natural born film actor . . . or both. All I know is that his performance really knocked my socks off. I was especially impressed that he managed to hold his own with the likes of Kyle Chandler, who portrayed his father. Allie Fanning, who has more experience than Courtney, proved that acting talent obviously ran in her family (she is Dakota Fanning’s younger sister). She was very impressive as Alice Dainard, the daughter of the very man whom Joel’s dad hold responsible for his wife’s death. There were two scenes that really impressed me – her confession to Joe about the circumstances that led to his mother’s death; and her confrontation with her drunken father.

I have been fans of both Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard for a very long time. Chandler, who seemed to have a natural talent for portraying complex characters, displayed this talent again in his portrayal of Jackson Lamb, the deputy sheriff who finds himself as the leading law enforcement official following the disappearance of the sheriff. Chandler not only portrayed Jackson’s growing concern over the town’s strange incidents and disappearances with his usual skill, but also conveyed his character’s difficulties in dealing with the death of his wife and growing estrangement from his son. Eldard’s portrayal of Alice’s father, Louis Dainard, proved to be equally complex. He did an excellent job of conveying the character’s alcoholism, guilt over the death of Joe’s mother and his growing estrangement from daughter Alice. He and Fanning were absolutely superb in the scene that featured the explosive confrontation between father and daughter.

“SUPER 8” also featured first-rate supporting performances from another favorite of mine, Glynn Thurman, who portrayed the kids’ biology teacher and the man responsible for releasing the alien from the U.S. Air Force train; and Noah Emmerich, who portrayed the controlling U.S. Air Force colonel, Nelec. But the best performances came from the group of kids who portrayed Joe and Alice’s friends and fellow film fans – Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Remy Thorne. They were absolutely terrific. And more importantly, their performances were not tainted with any “cutesy” quirks that have made some previous child actors rather unbearable. Nor did they act like adults in children’s bodies – a phenomenon of which I have become increasingly intolerant.

The look of “SUPER 8” really brought back memories of past Spielberg films such as “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” and “E.T.”. And considering that the movie is produced by Spielberg, I hardly find that surprising. A small part of me suspects that “SUPER 8” is a homage to those particular works. Many critics and moviegoers have compared it to Spielberg’s films. The odd thing is that the storyline for “SUPER 8” reminded me more of the “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode called (4.16) “Prey”. Although not alike, the storyline for both the movie and the television episode struck me as surprisingly similar.

Whatever people might say about “SUPER 8”, there is no doubt that I really enjoyed it. And once it left the movie theaters, I had a hard time generating the patience to wait for its DVD release. Congratulations, Mr. Abrams. For once, you have really impressed me.

The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

 

The Major Problems of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994)

Any fan of the John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy would be more than happy to tell you that the worst entry in the author’s saga about two American families in the mid 19th century was the last one, ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. Those fans would be speaking of the 1994 television adaptation, not the novel itself. Unlike many of these fans, I do not share their low opinion of the three-part miniseries. But I will not deny that ”HEAVEN AND HELL”had its share of problems. Below is a list of I consider to be its major flaws. 

*Use of Montages – The miniseries did not hesitate to use montages to indicate a passage of time. Most of these montages centered on the Charles Main character, portrayed by Kyle Chandler. The problem with these montages was that they had exposed a blooper regarding Charles’ rank with the post-war U.S. Army in the first episode.

During a montage that featured Charles’ early courtship of actress Willa Parker (Rya Kihlstedt), Charles either wore corporal or sergeant stripes on his jacket. It went like this – Charles first wore corporal stripes, a fringe jacket and then sergeant stripes. And after the montage, Charles wore corporal stripes again.

*Orry and Madeline Main’s Presence in Richmond – BOOK II ended with Orry and Madeline Main (Patrick Swayze and Lesley Anne Down) attending the funeral of family matriarch, Clarissa Main. However, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” began with Orry and Madeline staying at a friend’s home in Richmond, in order to raise funds to feed the defeated post-war South. What in the hell for? The pair had a burnt home, an estate and family to care. They had no form of income or cash. And yet, they left their devastated home to raise funds for a cause that would have been implausible for them to achieve.

I realize that screenwriters Suzanne Clauser and John Jakes wanted an excuse to get Orry in Richmond so that he would be murdered by his old nemesis, Elkhannah Bent (Philip Casnoff). This could have been achieved in simpler fashion. For example, Clauser and Jakes could have used a funeral for an old comrade as an excuse to get Orry and Madeline to Richmond. This seems simple enough to me.

*Augustus “Gus” Main’s Age – In an article I had written about ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, I had pointed out that the screenwriters managed to foul up the age of Augustus Main, Charles Main’s (Kyle Chandler) only son by his first love, Augusta Main. Jakes and Clauser managed to repeat this mistake in their screenplay for ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. The third miniseries began with young Gus around the age of five. According to Charles, Gus had been born just before the war. Where did this come from? It was bad enough that Gus looked older than he should have in ”BOOK II”. Then they aged Gus even more, despite the fact that only a few months had passed between the second and third miniseries. Worse, Gus failed to age, as the story for ”HEAVEN AND HELL” progressed. Especially since the miniseries was obviously set between 1865 and 1868.

During my last viewing of ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”, I was surprised to discover that a good number of its so-called “bloopers” originated from writing mistakes that appeared in both ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Those “bloopers” include:

*Cooper Main – Prodigal Son – In John Jakes’ literary saga, South Carolina planter Tillet Main and his wife Clarissa had one nephew – Charles, and four children – Orry, Ashton, Brett and the oldest offspring, Cooper (Robert Wagner). However, Cooper was never featured in the first two miniseries. His appearance finally came in the third miniseries,”HEAVEN AND HELL”. Those fans who had never read Jakes’ novels had accused the producers and screenwriters of creating the character for the miniseries. Personally, I never understood why the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had failed to include Cooper. After all, his presence proved to be vital to the saga by the third novel.

My only problem with Cooper’s presence in this third miniseries is that Jakes and Clauser had failed to create a back story to explain his disappearance from the first two miniseries. This failure made his appearance in this third chapter rather incongruous.

*Charles Main and Elkhannah Bent in Texas – Another plotline that took the fans of Jakes’ saga by surprise was the revelation that Charles Main had served under Elkhannah Bent in Texas, during the late 1850s . . . before the Civil War. No such story arc had been present in the first miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. However, this plotline waspresent in Jakes’ 1982 novel. The first miniseries did show Charles serving in the U.S. Army in 1850s Texas. It also revealed Bent as an Army officer, visiting New Orleans, Louisiana around the same period. And New Orleans had served as one the main terminals in and out of Texas, east of the Mississippi River during the early and mid 19th century.

Charles’ past with Elkhannah Bent proved to be one of the major storylines in third story. The screenwriters for the miniseries had no choice but to include it. Especially since Charles and Bent’s past history played a major role in Jakes’ story. Most fans would probably hate for me to say this, but I believe that the screenwriters and producers for ”BOOK I” made a major mistake in their failure to include Charles’ experiences in Texas in the miniseries. Especially, since it proved to become an important storyline.

*The Return of Stanley and Isobel Hazard – I am surprised that many fans of the saga were surprised to see Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) footloose and fancy free in this third miniseries. After all, they were last seen in ”BOOK II” facing prosecution for war profiteering. As it turned out, the couple was never investigated or prosecuted for war profiteering in Jakes’ second NORTH AND SOUTH novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. Also, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” portrayed Stanley pursuing a political career, something that never happened in the first two miniseries. Yet, the literary Stanley Hazard had began his political career as far back as the second half of the first novel, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. Again, another so-called “blooper” in ”HEAVEN AND HELL” originated from the screenwriters’ failure to be faithful to the novels when it counted.

*Revelation of Madeline Main’s Ancestry – In the first miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the character Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main learned from her father that her mother was a quadroon (one-quarter African descent) and that she was an octoroon (one-eighth African descent). She eventually revealed this information to her love, Orry Main. Her secret ended up being exposed to both Elkhannah Bent and her despised sister-in-law, Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber) in the second miniseries, due to Bent’s discovery of a painting of Madeline’s mother in a New Orleans whorehouse. Somehow, the Mains’ local neighbors – including the local Klan leader, Gettys LaMotte (Cliff DeYoung) – learned about her ancestry. I would love to know how they managed this, because Bent and Ashton never had the opportunity to expose Madeline’s secret. In fact, the entire storyline regarding the exposure of Madeline’s ancestry is riddled with a good number of bloopers that originated in Jakes’ first novel, “NORTH AND SOUTH”.

*Miscellaneous Characters – Characters last seen in ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” failed to make an appearance in the third miniseries:

-Semiramis – the Mont Royal house slave was last seen engaged to another one named Ezra. Both had been given land to farm by Clarissa Main in the last episode. A former slave named Jane (Sharon Washington) took Semiramis’ place in the third miniseries. However, Semiramis was only featured in the first novel. And Jane was featured in both the second and third novels.

-Ezra – Semiramis’ future husband and a character that had been created solely for the second miniseries and not featured in any of the novels.

-Hope Hazard – George and Constance Hazard’s (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) had been a month before the Civil War broke out in the first miniseries and was seen in the second miniseries. However, she never existed in any of the novels. The literary George and Constance had two children – William and Patricia – in all three novels. And they were seen in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”.

-Virgilia Hazard – Portrayed by Kirstie Alley, George Hazard’s younger sister had been killed at the end of ”BOOK II” – executed for the murder of a congressman. However . . . this never happened in the second novel. And her character played a major role in the third novel. Unfortunately, she did not appear in the third miniseries. Her presence was sorely missed by me.

”HEAVEN AND HELL” was not a perfect miniseries. Its production values did not strike me as impressive as the first two miniseries. And it had its share of flaws. However, I was surprised to discover that it was a lot more faithful to Jakes’ third novel, ”HEAVEN AND HELL” than ”BOOK II” was to the second novel, ”LOVE AND WAR”. More importantly, a good number of changes made by the screenwriters of the first two miniseries produced some of the “bloopers” found in ”HEAVEN AND HELL”. I could accuse Wolper Productions and the screenwriters of ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for failing to consult author John Jakes on how he would continue his saga in the third novel. But the problem is that Jakes also happened to be one of the screenwriters for all three miniseries. While co-writing the first two miniseries, he should have stood his ground and resisted some of the major changes made in them – especially in the second miniseries.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy – Certain Topics

“NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy” – Certain Topics

In the past, there have been questions regarding plot points for the three miniseries of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. I thought I would clear up a few matters. 

Elkhannah Bent’s Survival Following Fight with Orry Main

Some “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans have wondered how Elkhannah Bent (Philip Casnoff) had survived his fight with Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) in the second book, “Book II – Love and War”. In the second novel, Orry and Bent had some sort of fight near the James River that ended when Orry shoved the latter over the falls and (at least I thought) to his death. Imagine my surprise when I read “Book III – Heaven and Hell” and saw that Bent never died after all. He ended up in an army hospital in Richmond.

In the second miniseries, North and South – Book II”, Bent rushed inside that warehouse just before it blew up. I thought that was the end of that bugger – until I read the novel, “Heaven and Hell” one year later. When the miniseries, “Book III – Heaven and Hell” finally aired, Bent was alive at the beginning of the first, although scarred. How he had survived that explosion, I don’t know. After Bent killed Orry, he and Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber) quarrelled. Bent had said the wrong thing to Ashton and she did to him, what Orry did in the book – shoved him over the falls and into the James River. And just as in the book, Bent ended up in an army hospital, crazy as ever.

Orry’s Swordsmanship in Book I

I must admit that I had a problem with Orry defeating Bent in that brief sword fight in Part I of the first miniseries. Especially since Orry was described as not being a talented swordsman. I had asked several people about sword fighting and according to them, brains and a solid understanding of strategy are required to be a good swordsman.

Since Orry was never that great with his studies (including military subjects), I never saw how he was able to defeat Bent, who was. The explanation that Patrick Swayze (who portrayed Orry) happened to be an excellent dancer did not seem much of an excuse. Nor did it seem like a good excuse to include that scene in the miniseries. This does not mean that all Northern cadets made better swordsmen than Southern cadets. After all, I can think of a good number of Southerners who had excelled academically at West Point – including Robert E. Lee, Pierre Beauregard and Porter Alexander.

Hanging in Book III

In the third miniseries, one of the characters – an ex-slave named Issac (Stan Shaw), ended up hanged by the local Ku Klux Klan. A “NORTH AND SOUTH” fan had believed that a similar hanging had taken place in the third novel, “Heaven and Hell”. I am here to say that no such hanging scene in the third novel. Issac’s literary counterpoint in the third novel turned out to be a former Mont Royal slave named Andy Sherman. Andy ended up being killed during the Klan’s attack upon Mont Royal. Ironically, Andy’s counterpoint in the second miniseries, was Ezra (Beau Billingslea), who happened to be in love with Semiramis (Erica Gimpel).

Mortgage on Mont Royal

In both the first novel and the first miniseries, Orry had put Mont Royal on mortgage, so he could pay back George for: a) the funds George gave to the Mains for construction of a steamship in the novel; and b) George’s investment in a cotton mill he co-owned with Orry in the miniseries. For those who do not know, the character of Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother – appeared in all THREE novels. However, the producers had decided to cut out his character in the first two miniseries. When Cooper finally appeared in Book III (in the form of Robert Wagner), the writers explained that he was the one who held the mortgage on Mont Royal. Where he had been all this time, they never bothered to explain. A moment of sloppy writing, if you ask me.

If you have any further questions regarding the plots of Jakes’ three novels or the three miniseries, please do not hesitate to ask.