“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

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“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford’s new drama about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination called “THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be the case. 

Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, “THE CONSPIRATOR” told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken’s efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President’s death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt because of her son John’s connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt’s case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.

Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney’s initial belief in Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford’s thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman’s noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.

Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would barely harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford and screenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt’s experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone – even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.

Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, “THE CONSPIRATOR” succeeded on two other points – at least for me. I found the movie’s basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie’s plot on Mrs. Surratt’s case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants’ participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination, the attempt on William Seward’s life, John Wilkes Booth’s death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken’s efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.

However, no movie is perfect. And “THE CONSPIRATOR” had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters – a close friend of Aiken’s named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel’s portrayal of Aiken’s fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long’s presence proved to be a waste of time – at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy’s Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken’s devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney’s other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford’s Theater and Seward’s home, and ignoring Aiken’s attempts to contact him; Kline’s Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.

Fortunately for “THE CONSPIRATOR”, the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy’s best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken’s character from a reluctant legal defender to his client’s most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright’s performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright’s Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.

The majority of the cast for “THE CONSPIRATOR” gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston’s intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt’s character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale’s portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken’s friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.

I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for “THE CONSPIRATOR”. But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford’s current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give “THE CONSPIRATOR” a second chance.

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“PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” (2010) Review

“PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” (2010 Review

Recently, I had listened to a radio talk show in which a movie reviewer compared Disney’s new movie, ”PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME” to the 1962 Oscar winning film, ”LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”. Much to the detriment of the Disney film. And as I sat there and listened to him bash ”PRINCE OF PERSIA”, it occurred to me that there still were plenty of idiots in this world . . . including radio disc jockeys. 

Directed by Mike Newell and based upon the 2003 video game, ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” is about an orphaned street urchin in sixth century Persia named Dastan whose gallant and courageous act at a marketplace attracts the attention of King Sharaman and leads to his adoption into the Royal Family. Fifteen years later, Dastan, his royal-blooded foster brothers, Prince Tus and Prince Garsiv, and his uncle, Prince Nizam are planning an attack on the sacred city of Alamut, which is believed to be selling weapons to their enemies. However, Persia’s successful invasion of Alamut eventually leads to a great deal of trouble for Dastan, when he is framed for the assassination of the king. With the help of Tamina, Princess of Alamut, Dastan eventually discovers that the invasion was nothing more than a means for the real assassin to search for a magical dagger that Dastan has already managed to get his hands on. The dagger enables to bearer to travel back in time. The assassin wants to use the dagger to overthrow the Persian Royal Family and seize the throne.

I had mixed feelings about watching ”PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME”. A part of me was attracted to the idea of viewing another Disney live-action movie with a fantasy setting. Another part of me recalled my disappointment over Tim Burton’s rather flaccid movie, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Attraction and curiosity won out and I went to see the movie . . . despite my low expectations. Needless to say, I ended up enjoying the movie a lot.

Granted, the movie had its share of flaws. First of all, one had to endure some of the over-the-top dialogue that has plagued movies like ”SPIDER-MAN”, and from the ”STAR WARS””LORD OF THE RINGS” and ”THE MUMMY” franchises. Some of the action sequences that featured actor Jake Gyllenhaal jumping all over the place struck me as a tad too frantic. It almost seemed as if Mike Newell and cinematographer John Seale had channeled Paul Greengrass and photographer Oliver Wood from the”BOURNE” movies. I love actor Alfred Molina. I have been a fan of his for years. But I must admit that I found his performance as an ostrich racing-organizer named Sheik Ama waaaay over-the-top. Speaking of ostrich racing . . . WHAT THE HELL? I have never seen anything so ludicrous in my life. I mean . . . I could understand camel racing or even horse racing. But ostrich racing?

Yes, I do have some quibbles about the movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an example of artistic Hollywood movie making at its height. It is certainly not the best movie of this summer. But dammit! I liked it a lot. One, screenwriters Jordan Mechner, Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard wrote a very entertaining adaptation of the video game. I am certainly not familiar with it, but I did like the story. Not only was it filled with plenty of action and fantasy, it had a good, solid mystery over the identity of King Sharaman’s assassin. This mystery also served as the background of a well-written family drama involving Dastan and the Persian Royal Family. Most importantly, the movie’s script featured a funny and spirited romance between Dastan and Princess Tamina.

Speaking of the cast, I never thought I would see the day when I actually enjoy a sword-and-sand fantasy that featured Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead. He is not the type of actor I would associate with a costume movie from the Disney Studios. I must admit that for the movie’s first ten to twenty minutes, I found it difficult to accept Gyllenhaal in the role of a street urchin-turned-adopted member of the Persian Royal Family. But he seemed to be doing such a good job and I was becoming engrossed in the movie that I eventually overcame any unnecessary problems I had with him in the role. Most importantly, Gyllenhaal had great chemistry with Gemma Arterton, who portrayed Tamina. The only other movie I had seen Arterton in was the last James Bond movie, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”.  Honestly? I had not been that impressed by her performance in that movie. But I was impressed by her performance as Princess Tamina. She gave the character a strength and drive rarely seen in female roles from the past five or six summers. She also seemed to have better chemistry with actors that are from her generation . . . like Gyllenhaal.
Ben Kingsley gave a very subtle performance as Dastan’s adopted uncle, Prince Nizam. He did a great job in portraying the one character that acted as the Persian Royal Family’s backbone. Both Richard Coyle and Toby Kebbell gave solid performances as Dastan’s two royal brothers. However, I must admit that I did not find them particularly memorable. Steve Toussaint did a good job in portraying the dependable, yet intimidating Ngbaka knife thrower Seso. I certainly enjoyed his performance more than I did Alfred Molina’s. It seemed a pity that the latter’s character annoyed me so much. I also have to commend Gísli Örn Garðarsson, who portrayed the leader of the Hassansins, hired to kill Dastan and recover the dagger. For a character that did not say much, I found his performance particularly intimidating.

I have another confession. I was not that particularly enamored of Mike Newell’s direction of the 2005 movie, ”HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE”. And when I heard that he was the director of ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” . . . well, I was not expecting to be impressed by his latest work. ”GOBLET OF FIRE” had convinced me that Newell should avoid the science-fiction/fantasy genre. However, his direction of ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” proved me wrong. Sure, I could have done without some of the frantic action sequences. And I would never consider the movie to be on the same level as the ”PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” movies. But I thought it was a pretty damn entertaining film.

Which brings me back to the radio disc jockey. Why did I consider him an idiot for comparing ”PRINCE OF PERSIA” to”LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”? Who, in their right mind, would compare a summer Disney movie based upon a video game, with an Oscar winning film about a World War I hero? Who would be stupid enough to do this? Apparently that radio disc jockey was stupid enough to do so. And why did he do this? Because both movies were set in the Middle East. Go figure.