Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the decade between 1800 and 1809:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (2013) – Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 mystery novel, set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, featuring the style and characters of the latter. Daniel Percival directed.

 

 

2. “Sense and Sensibility” (2008) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about the experiences of two well-born, yet impoverished sisters following the death of their father. Directed by John Alexander, the miniseries starred Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield.

 

 

3. “War and Peace” (2016) – Andrew Davies wrote this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Tom Harper, the miniseries starred Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton.

 

 

4. “War and Peace” (1972) – David Conroy created this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about a group of noble families during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by John Davies, the miniseries starred Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie.

 

 

5. “Mansfield Park” (1983) – Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The six-part miniseries was written by Kenneth Taylor and directed by David Giles.

 

 

6. “Jack of All Trades” (2000) – Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin starred in this syndicated comedy series about two spies – one American and one British – who operate on a French-controlled island in the East Indies.

 

 

7. “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015) – Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan starred in this adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel about the return of magic to Britain through two men during the early 19th century. The series was created by Peter Harness.

 

 

8. “Mansfield Park” (2007) – Billie Piper and Blake Ritson starred in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young impoverished girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their elegant estate. The television movie was written by Maggie Wadey and directed by Iain B. MacDonald.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never seen a movie or television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace”. Never. Well . . . I once made an attempt to watch the 1956 movie adaptation directed by King Vidor. Unfortunately, I could never go the distance. In fact, I have never read the novel. 

However, many years passed. When I heard about the BBC’s latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give “WAR AND PEACE” a chance. The six-part miniseries is simply about the experiences of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Those families include the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and theDrubetskoys. The miniseries seemed to be divided into three segments during a period between 1805 and 1812-13. The first segment featured the introduction of the main characters and Russia’s preparation of a war against Napoleon’s France. This culminates into the Battle of Austerlitz in which two major characters – Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov – participate.

The second segment featured the characters’ personal experiences at home. During this period, the miniseries explored Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov’s failed marriage with the beautiful, but vapid and unfaithful Princess Yelena “Hélène” Vasilyevna Kuragina; the Rostov family’s financial woes and how it affected Nikolai Rostov; the emotional strains within the Bolkonsky family; Prince Boris Drubetskoy’s efforts to advance his military career; and especially Countess Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova’s love life, which included both Andrei Bolkonsky and Prince Anatole Vasilyevich Kuragin. This segment also included news of Treaties of Tilsit of 1807, which ended hostilities between Imperial France and Imperial Russia and Prussia. The miniseries’ final segment focused on France’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and the characters’ efforts to survive it.

I could compare director Tom Harper and screenwriter Andrew Davies’ adaptation with Tolstoy’s novel, but it would be a useless effort. As I had earlier pointed out, I have never read the novel. But I do have at least two complaints about the productions. One of them revolved around the relationship between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. I realize that the publicity machine on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone a great effort to build up the relationship between the pair. Frankly, I found the publicity campaign rather wasted. The Natasha/Andrei romance struck me as a disappointing and wasted effort. The majority of their story arc – which began with their meeting at a ball near the end of Episode Three, continued with Natasha’s brief romance with the slimy Anatole Kuragin, and ended with Natasha’s romances with both men crashing around her by the end of Episode Four; had moved . . . so damn fast that it left my head spinning. I cannot help but wonder if the entire arc could have been portrayed with more detail if the series had stretched a bit longer.

I also had a problem with Edward K. Gibbon’s costume designs. I found most of them very colorful, especially for the aristocratic characters. But I also found most of them rather troublesome. Well . . . to be honest, I found them either mediocre or historically questionable. One of them left me gritting my teeth:

But my jaw had literally dropped at the sight of a few costumes worn by actresses Tuppence Middleton and Gillian Anderson – including those shown in the images below:

 

WHAT IN THE HELL??? Their costumes looked more appropriate for present-day evening wear than the early 19th century. What was Mr. Gibbons thinking?

Despite the rushed Natasha Rostova/Andrei Bolkonsky romance and despite the rather questionable costumes, I managed to enjoy “WAR AND PEACE” very much. I am a sucker for family sagas, especially when they are seeped in a historical background. And “WAR AND PEACE” nearly pushed every one of my buttons when it comes to a well made saga. It had everything – romance, family struggles, historical events and personages. When I realized that Tolstoy had originally focused his tale on five families, I did not think Andrew Davies would be able to translate the author’s novel in a tight story without losing its epic quality.

There were certain sequences that really blew my mind, thanks to Davies’ writing and especially, Tom Harper’s direction. I thought Harper did an outstanding job of re-creating battles like Austerlitz and Borodino, along with the French Army’s retreat from Moscow. Harper also did a great job in directing large parties and ball scenes. My two favorites are the party held at St. Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon in Episode 1 and the ball where Natasha and Andrei met in Episode 3.

But it was not just the battle and crowd scenes that impressed me. “WAR AND PEACE” is – after all – a melodrama, even if many literary critics are inclined not to admit it. I never thought I would find myself getting caught up in the lives of the saga’s main characters. But I did. I must admit that I admire how Tolstoy . . . and Davies managed to allow the three main characters – Pierre, Natasha and Andrei – to interact with the five families, regardless of blood connection or marriage. I especially enjoyed the explorations into the lives of Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. At first glance, some might regard the miniseries’ ending that featured a picnic with the families of the three leads as a bit on the saccharine. It did have a “happily ever after” tinge about it. But I read in a newspaper article that complained about Tolstoy’s “realistic” ending – one that featured a less-than-happy view of the protagonists’ lives and a critique from Tolstoy on all forms of mainstream history. Thanks to Davies’ screenplay, audiences were spared of this.

“WAR AND PEACE” featured a good number of first-rate performances from a supporting cast that included Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Rebecca Front and Aneurin Barnard. However, I was especially impressed by certain supporting performances. One came from Greta Scacchi, who portrayed the Rostov family’s practical and sometimes ruthless matriarch Countess Natalya Rostova. I also enjoyed Brian Cox’s portrayal of the world weary General Mikhail Kutuzov, who has to contend with not only Napolean’s army, but also the amateurish interference of the Czar. Tom Burke did a great job in portraying the wolfish and ambitious army officer, Fedor Dolokhov, who eventually becomes a better man following Napoleon’s invasion. Jack Lowden’s portrayal of the young Count Nikolai Rostov really impressed me, especially when his character found himself torn between following his heart and marrying a wealthy woman to restore his family’s fortunes. And Jim Broadbent gave a very colorful performance as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, the mercurial and controlling patriarch of the Bolkonsky family.

And what about the production’s three leads? Lily James gave a very charming performance as Countess Natasha Rostova. Well . . . I take that back. Describing James’ performance as simply “charming” seemed to hint that I found it rather shallow. Yes, James handled Natasha’s “light” moments with her usual competence. More importantly, she did an excellent job in conveying Natasha’s personal struggles – especially during the series’ second half. There were times when I did not know what to make of the Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. He struck me as a very unusual protagonist. Although I found him rather honorable and filled with valor, Andrei did not always struck me as likable – especially in his relationship with adoring, yet ignored wife Lise. And Norton superbly captured the many nuances of Andrei’s character. If Andrei Bolkonsky struck me as an unusual protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov struck me as one of a kind. Well . . . one of a kind for a literary piece written in the 19th century. Sometimes, I get the feeling that someone like Pierre could easily translate into a late 20th century or early 21st century geek. Or perhaps not. I think Pierre is too kind and open-minded to be considered a geek. But he is very unusual for a leading man. And thanks to Paul Dano’s superb portrayal, Pierre has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He did a stupendous job in conveying Pierre’s character from this insecure and rather naive man to a man who learned to find wisdom and inner peace through his struggles. Dano was so good that I had assumed that his performance would garner him a major acting nomination. It did not and I am still flabbergasted by this travesty.

My taste in period dramas usually focused on stories set in the United States or Great Britain . . . with the occasional foray into France. I was very reluctant to tackle this latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel. But I was in the mood for something new and decided to watch the six-part miniseries. I am happy to say that despite some flaws, I ended up enjoying “WAR AND PEACE” very much, thanks to Andrew Davies’ screenplay, Tom Harper’s direction and an excellent cast led by Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie’s stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful “IRON MAN” movies, helmed the director’s chair. At least five of the screenwriters – Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby – have been associated with projects like “LOST” and the “STAR TREK”. And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” remained one of the flops of this summer. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word “pity” as a response to the movie’s failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed“COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde’s gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake’s former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film’s dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique’s photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie’s visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of “SUPER 8”, I had commented that it reminded me of an old “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode. I cannot say the same for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. But it did remind me of a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” fanfiction story called “Ashes to Ashes”. At least Jake’s experiences with the aliens occurred before the movie began. And“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds” had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”, I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake’s history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” provided plenty of opportunities for character development – and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig’s super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s DOLLAR TRILOGY”. Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford’s usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde’s distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde’s performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution’s citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde’s performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution’s insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from “THE LAST AIRBENDER”), who portrayed the sheriff’s grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films of the summer of 2011.

“THERE WILL BE BLOOD” (2007) Review

“THERE WILL BE BLOOD” (2007) Review

I really do not know what to say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD”. This movie, based upon Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel ”Oil!”, is about a ruthless oilman in California between 1898 and 1927. I cannot deny that this is basically an excellent film and that Daniel Day-Lewis gave one of the best performances of career. I cannot also deny that”THERE WILL BE BLOOD” was basically well written, produced and directed by director Anderson. I basically enjoyed it very much and consider it to be one of the better films released this year. But for some reason, I cannot muster any real passion for it.

I must admit that there were times that I found the movie fascinating. One has to thank leading Daniel Day-Lewis’ riveting performance maintaining my interest. He portrayed the ruthless Daniel Plainview, a hard-working silver prospector who discovered an oil well, while prospecting for silver. On the very day he discovers his first oil well, one of his employees die in an accident and Plainview adopts the dead man’s infant son. By 1911, he is one of the most successful oil men in California. In order to convince many farmers and other small landowners to drill on their land, he uses his adoptive son, whom he names H.W. (Dillon Freasier), as his “partner” to project his status as a family man and a family businessman. Plainview is approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who sells Plainview an oil lead located on his family’s property in Little Boston, California. Plainview and H.W. travel to Little Boston, and, pretending to be hunting quail, scout out the Sunday property and discover a good amount of seepage oil. Plainview attempts to buy the property without notifying Paul’s father Abel (David Willis) of the oil, but Paul’s twin brother, Eli (again Paul Dano), knows of the oil and raises the price to $10,000, the bulk of which he intends to put into the founding of his own Church. Plainview pays him $5000 up front and promises the other $5000 as a donation to the church. In order to ensure the monopoly on the Little Boston oil, Plainview buys the “ranches” of a number of the surrounding neighbors, with the exception of one property, which the owner, a Mr. Bandy (Hans Howes), was hesitant to sell.

As I had earlier stated, the heart and soul of ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD” for me was Daniel Day-Lewis. His Daniel Plainview has to be one of the most fascinating characters in movie history. Certainly not in literary history, since Plainview was a character created for the screen by Anderson. I really do not know how to describe him. He seemed to be the epitome of those ruthless tycoons of the late 19th century and early 20th century. He is certainly not typical. Utilizing a John Huston accent, Day-Lewis captured all of the malevolence , cunning and emotional perversity of Plainview, as he draws the audience into the character’s unchecked greed for wealth and power. The ironic thing is that Plainview does not seem to care for the trappings of wealth. One example of this is his habit of sleeping on the floor, even when a comfortable bed is available. And even in that exclusive mansion he has built by the end of the film, he sleeps on the floor inside the mansion’s bowling alley. But the money and power, he definitely needs. And he needs an audience to witness his financial triumphs, judging how he had temporarily abandoned H.W. when the latter first lost his hearing in an accident and how he took under his wings, a man claiming to be a long lost brother named Henry Brands (Kevin J. O’Connor). Day-Lewis has already won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama for his performance. And he is a front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. If he does win the award on February 24th, I will not be surprised.

It is a shame that the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science had failed to acknowledge Paul Dano for his performances as the twin brothers – Paul and Eli Sunday, and Dillon Freasier as the young H.W. Plainview. Dano, who had impressed critics with his supporting role in ”LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE”, studied evangelism for his role as the Sunday twins. The Paul Sunday character made a brief appearance near the beginning of the story, but Dano’s performance as the other twin Eli really impressed me. Dano’s performance revealed the malevolence and greed for wealth and power behind Eli’s meek and religious demeanor – traits that seemed to match Plainview’s. Anderson could not find a child actor to portray Plainview’s adoptive son, H.W., so he had hired the son of a Texas state trooper who had pulled over the movie’s casting agent for speeding. Like Dakota Blue Richards in ”THE GOLDEN COMPASS”, Dillon Freasier turned out to be find. Especially for Anderson and the movie. With very few words, the young actor managed to convey all of his character’s array of emotions experienced in the film – from his intelligence and warmth, to his suspicions and resentment of Plainview’s relationship with Henry Brands.

Most of ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD” seemed to be set during 1911. Sinclair’s novel seemed to be a condemnation of the oil industry itself and a response to the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal during the Warren G. Harding administration. Anderson does condemn the oil industry in California, especially in his revelation of how many small landowners were cheated out of millions of dollars through the manipulations of oil companies and tycoons. But for me, ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD” seemed more like a character study than an expose on a major industry. But I must admit that it is a first-class movie and probably one of the better ones of 2007. Anderson paced the movie very well, making one ALMOST forget that this movie is fifteen minutes short of three hours. With actors like Day-Lewis, Dano, Freasier, Ciarán Hinds and Kevin J. O’Connor, Anderson managed to make the most of a first-class cast. Well, almost. More on that later. Did it deserve to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar? Quite frankly, I am not sure. As excellent as the movie is . . . as first-rate is Day-Lewis’ performance, it did not exactly rock my boat. Quite frankly, I do have a few problems with the film.

As I had stated earlier, ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD” seemed more like a character study, instead of an expose. And because of that, I feel that it could have been at least a half hour or forty-five minutes shorter. When I said that Anderson had almost made me forget that this movie was nearly three hours long, I was serious. He ALMOST made me forget about the film’s running time. Until the story shifted to 1927. Frankly, I do not see why Anderson had even bothered. Following the time shift, the movie lost its epic scope. Even Plainview’s personality seemed to have lost some of its steam . . . until his last encounter with Eli Sunday. Speaking of those two, I believe that the make-up artist may have done both Day-Lewis and Dano a bit of a disservice. Despite the fifteen to sixteen year difference between the two time shifts, I never really got the impression that either Plainview or Sunday had aged at all. There was barely a strand of gray in Day-Lewis’ hair and Dano still looked like a young man in his early twenties, despite the fact that Eli Sunday must have been at least in his mid-to-late thirties during this period. But the one thing I truly disliked about the film was its abrupt ending. One can say that the movie ended with the final confrontation between the two adversaries. But there is this feeling in my gut that Anderson had ended the movie in the middle of the story’s finale. He probably had a reason for ending it in this manner. Whatever reason he had, it has eluded me.

Despite some of my disenchantment with ”THERE WILL BE BLOOD”, I must admit that it is overall, an excellent film. It may not have rocked my boat, but I did find it fascinating. And if you can deal with a two hour and forty-five minute study about a fictional character, then I suggest that you go rent the movie.