“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

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“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

With the exception of the 1994 miniseries, “MIDDLEMARCH”, I am not that familiar with any movie or television adaptations of George Eliot’s works. I finally decided to overlook my earlier lack of interest in Eliot’s final novel, “Daniel Deronda” and watch the television version that aired back in 2002.

This adaptation of Eliot’s 1876 novel was set during the same decade of its publication, although the literary version was set a decade earlier – during the 1860s. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Hooper, “DANIEL DERONDA”contained two major plot arcs, united by the story’s title character. In fact, Davies followed Eliot’s narrative structure by starting its tale mid-way. The miniseries began in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany with the meeting of Daniel Deronda, the ward of a wealthy landowner; and the oldest daughter of an impoverished, yet respectable family, Gwendolen Harleth. The two meet inside a casino, where Gwendolen manages to lose a good deal of money at roulette. When she learns that her family has become financially ruined, Gwendolen pawns her necklace and considers another round of gambling to make her fortune. However, Daniel, who became attracted to her, redeemed the necklace for her. The story then flashes back several months to the pair’s back stories.

Following the death of her stepfather, Gwendolen and her family moves to a new neighborhood, where she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man who proposes marriage safter their first meeting. Although originally tempted to be courted by Grandcourt, Gwendolen eventually flees to Germany after learning about Grandcourt’s mistress, Lydia Glasher and their children. Meanwhile, Daniel is in the process of wondering what to do with his life, when he prevents a beautiful Jewish singer named Milah Lapidoth from committing suicide. Kidnapped by her father as a child and forced into an acting troupe, Milah finally fled from him when she discovered his plans to sell her into prostitution. Daniel undertakes to help Milah find her mother and brother in London’s Jewish community before he departs for Germany with his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Although Daniel and Gwendolen are attracted to each other, she eventually marries the emotionally abusive Grandcourt out of desperation, and he continues his search for Milah’s family and becomes further acquainted with London’s Jewish community. Because Grandcourt is Sir Hugo’s heir presumptive, Daniel and Gwendolen’s paths cross on several occasions.

There are times when I find myself wondering if there is any true description of Eliot’s tale. On one hand, it seemed to be an exploration of Jewish culture through the eyes of the Daniel Deronda character. On the other hand, it seemed like an exploration of an abusive marriage between a previously spoiled young woman who finds herself out of her depth and a cold and manipulative man. Most critics and viewers seemed more interested in the plotline regarding Gwendolen’s marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt. At the same time, these same critics and viewers have criticized Eliot’s exploration of Jewish culture through Daniel’s eyes, judging it as dull and a millstone around the production’s neck. When I first saw“DANIEL DERONDA”, I had felt the same. But after this second viewing, I am not so sure if I would completely agree with them.

Do not get me wrong. I thought Andrew Davies, Tom Hopper and the cast did an excellent job of translating Gwendolen’s story arc to the screen. I was especially transfixed in watching how the arrogant and spoiled found herself drawn into a marriage with a controlling and sadistic man like Henleigh Grandcourt. However by the first half of Episode Three, I found myself growing rather weary of watching Hugh Bonneville stare icily into the camera, while Romola Garai trembled before him. Only Gwendolen’s pathetic attempts to rattle her husband and Grandcourt’s jealousy of Daniel provided any relief from the constant mental sadism between the pair. In contrast, Daniel’s interest in Milah, her Jewish ancestry and especially his confusion over his own identity struck me as surprisingly interesting. I also found the conflict between Daniel’s growing interest in Judaism and his godfather’s determination to mold him into an “English gentleman” also fascinating. When I first saw “DANIEL DERONDA”, I thought it could have benefited from a fourth episode. Or . . . the producers could have stretched the second and third episodes to at least 75 or 90 minutes each. But you know what? Upon my second viewing, I realized I had no problems with the production’s running time. Besides, I do not think I could have endured another episode of the Grandcourts’ marriage.

I have to give George Eliot for creating an interesting novel about self-discovery . . . especially for the two main characters, Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. And I want to also credit screenwriter Andrew Davies for his first-rate translation of Eliot’s novel to the television screen. I would not say that Davies’ work was perfect, but then neither was Eliot’s novel. I have to praise both the novelist and the screenwriter for effectively conveying Daniel’s confusion over his own identity and his fascination toward a new culture and how both will eventually converge as one by the end of the story. Although Gwendolen plays a part in Daniel’s inner culture clash, she has her own struggles. I do not simply refer to her struggles to endure Grandcourt’s emotional control over her. I also refer to Gwendolen’s moral conflict – one in which she had earlier lost when she had agreed to marry Grandcourt. But a trip to Italy will eventually give her a second chance to resolve her conflict. On the other hand, I do have some quibbles about Davies’ screenplay. Daniel was not the only character who had developed feelings for Milah. So did his close friend, Hans Meyrick. Unfortunately, Davies’ screenplay did little to explore Hans’ feelings for Milah and toward her relationship with Daniel. Speaking of Milah, I could not help but feel fascinated by her backstory regarding her relationship with her father. In many ways, it struck me as a lot more traumatic than Gwendolen’s marriage to Grandcourt. A part of me wishes that Eliot had explored this part of Milah’s life in her novel. Speaking of Milah, Episode Two ended on an interesting note in which she finally became aware of the emotional connection between Daniel and Gwendolen. And yet, the story never followed through on this emotional and character development. Which I feel is a damn shame.

Some fans and critics have expressed regret that Daniel ends up marrying Milah, instead of Gwendolen. After all, Eliot allowed two other characters to form a mixed marriage – the Jewish musician Herr Klesmer and one of Gwendolen’s friends, Catherine Arrowpoint. Surely, she could have allowed Daniel and Gwendolen to marry. I do believe that they had a point. I feel that Daniel and Gwendolen would have made emotionally satisfying partners for each other. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about Daniel and Milah. I believe the two women represented choices in lifestyles for Daniel. Gwendolen represented the lifestyle that both Sir Hugo and Daniel’s mother wanted him to pursue – namely that of an upper-class English gentleman. Milah represented a lifestyle closer to his true self. In the end, Eliot wanted Daniel to choose his “true self”.

I cannot deny that the production values for “DANIEL DERONDA” struck me as outstanding. Don Taylor’s production designs for the miniseries did a beautiful job in re-creating Victorian England and Europe during the 1870s. The crew who helped him bring this era to life also did exceptional jobs, especially art director Grant Montgomery and set decorator Nicola Barnes. However, there were technical aspects that truly stood out. Simon Starling’s colorful and sharp photography of Great Britain and Malta (which served as Italy) truly took my breath away. I could also say the same for Caroline Noble, who did an excellent job of re-creating the hairstyles of the early and mid-1870s. As for Mike O’Neill’s costume designs for the production . . . in some cases, pictures can speak louder than words:

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Truly outstanding and beautiful. I was especially impressed by Romola Garai’s wardrobe.

“DANIEL DERONDA” also featured a good deal of outstanding performances. If I must be honest, I cannot find a single performance that struck me as below par or even mediocre. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Celia Imrie, Anna Popplewell, Anna Steel, Jamie Bamber and Daniel Marks. “DANIEL DERONDA” also included some interested supporting performances, especially Allan Corduner’s skillful portrayal of the blunt-speaking musician Herr Klesmer; David Bamber as Grandcourt’s slimy sycophant, Lush; Edward Fox as Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s loving benefactor; Amanda Root’s interesting portrayal of Gwendolen’s rather timid mother; Daniel Evan’s intense performance as Miriam’s long lost brother; and Greta Scacchi’s very complex portrayal of Grandcourt’s former mistress, Lydia Glasher.

Superficially, the character of Miriam Lapidoth seemed like the type that would usually bore me – the “nice girl” with whom the hero usually ended. But actress Jodhi May projected a great deal of depth in her portrayal of Miriam, reflecting the character’s haunted past in a very subtle and skillful manner. Barbara Hershey more or less made a cameo appearance in“DANIEL DERONDA” that lasted a good five to ten minutes. However, being an excellent actress, Hershey gave a superb performance as Daniel’s long lost mother, a former opera singer named Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who gave him up to Sir Hugo in order to pursue a singing career. Perhaps I should have been horrified by her decision to give up motherhood for a career. But Hershey beautifully conveyed the contessa’s frustration over her father’s determination that she adhere to society’s rules by limiting her life to being a wife and mother. And I found myself sympathizing her situation.

Like Miriam Lapidoth, the Daniel Deronda character seemed like the type of character I would find boring. Superficially, he seemed too upright and not particularly complex. However, I was surprised and very pleased by how Hugh Dancy injected a great deal of complexity in his portrayal of Daniel. He did an effective job in portraying Daniel’s conflict between the lifestyle both Sir Hugo and his mother had mapped out for him and the one represented by Miriam, her brother Mordecai, and their friends, the Cohens. Romola Garai was equally superb as the complex Gwendolen Harleth. She did such an excellent job in conveying Gwendolen’s growth from a spoiled and ambitious young woman, to the matured and more compassionate woman who had survived an emotionally traumatic marriage that I cannot help but wonder how she failed to earn an action nomination, let alone award, for her performance. Hugh Bonneville also gave an excellent job as Gwendolen’s emotionally abusive husband, Henleigh Grandcourt. I read somewhere that the role helped Bonneville break out of his usual staple of good-natured buffoons that he had portrayed in movies like 1999’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and“NOTTING HILL”. I can see how. I found his Grandcourt rather chilly and intimidating.

“DANIEL DERONDA” may have a few flaws. But overall, it is a prime example of the British period dramas at its zenith during the fifteen-year period between 1995 and 2010. It is a superb production and adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, Andrew Davies’ writing, the excellent work by its crew and the first-rate cast led by Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai. It is something not to be missed.

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List of Favorite Movie/Television Productions About the AMERICAN REVOLUTION/FOURTH OF JULY

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the American Revolution and/or the Fourth of July holiday:

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIE/TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION/FOURTH OF JULY

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“John Adams” (2008) – Produced by Tom Hanks and directed by Tom Hooper, this seven-part award winning miniseries about the second U.S. president is set on the eve and during the American Revolution. The miniseries is based on David McCullough’s 2001 biography. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams.

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“TURN: Washington’s Spies” (2014-Present) – Craig Silverstein created this AMC television series about the Culper Spies ring during the American Revolution. The series stars Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull.

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“National Treasure” (2004) – Jon Turteltaub directed this adventure/heist film about the search for a massive treasure that had been gathered over the centuries and hidden by American Freemasons during the American Revolution. Nicholas Cage starred.

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“Live Freed and Die Hard” (2007) – Bruce Willis returned in this fourth “DIE HARD” movie about Detective John McClane’s attempt to stop a cyber terrorist from hacking into the Federal government’s computers with the help of a computer hacker, during the Fourth of July holiday. Directed by Len Wiseman, the movie co-starred Justin Long and Timothy Olyphant.

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“1776” (1972) William Daniels, Howard DaSilva and Ken Howard starred in this entertaining adaptation of the Broadway musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Peter H. Hunt directed.

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“Independence Day” (1996) – Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and Bill Pullman starred in this epic science-fiction adventure about a group of people surviving an alien invasion during the Fourth of July holiday. Roland Emmerich directed.

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“The Patriot” (2000) – Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger starred in this historical drama about the experiences of a South Carolina farmer and his family during the American Revolution. Roland Emmerich directed.

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“Johnny Tremain” (1957) – Robert Stevenson directed this adaptation of Esther Forbes’ 1944 novel about the experiences of a young apprentice during the few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten and Richard Beymer starred.

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“The Crossing” (2000) – Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington in this television drama about the Continental Army’s Delaware River crossing and the Battle of Trenton. The movie was directed by Robert Harmon.

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“April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this television adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the coming-of-age for a Massachusetts adolescent during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

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“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “THE BUTLER”, I resisted the urge to see it. I have nothing against films about the African-American experience. I could not wait to see Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War opus, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. But there was something about the trailer for “THE BUTLER” that turned me off. It had that dignified, pretentious aura that marred “THE KING’S SPEECH” and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for me. I was determined to avoid it. But thanks to my family, I could not avoid it in the end. 

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong, “THE BUTLER” was loosely inspired by the life of former White House butler, Eugene Alley. Now, when I say “loosely inspired”, I meant it. Contrary to what many have claimed, the movie was not based upon Allen’s life. Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong read an article in the The Washington Postcalled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Will Haygood. Inspired by Allen’s 34 years as a White House butler, Strong created the character of Georgia-born Cecil Gaines, who witnessed the murder of his sharecropper father by the plantation owner who also raped his mother. The estate owner’s elderly mother reassigns Cecil to being a house servant. Another decade pass before Cecil decides its time to leave the cotton plantation. He makes his way for parts unknown, but the Great Depression in the form of hunger and unemployment leads him to break into a pastry shop for food. The shop’s servant, Maynard, helps him get a job and later, recommends him for a job at a Washington D.C. hotel. During his two decades at the hotel, Cecil marries a woman named Gloria and they conceive two sons, Louis and Charlie. Then in 1957, Cecil is hired for a butler position at the White House and spends the next three decades working there. His job not only gives Cecil the opportunity to meet seven U.S. presidents, but also threatens his marriage to Gloria and creates tension between him and his activist older son, Louis.

In the end, I am glad that I saw “THE BUTLER”. It turned out to be a lot better than I had assumed. I have to give kudos to Danny Strong for creating a fascinating story that mingled history with personal drama. And Lee Daniels did a fabulous job of transforming Strong’s tale to the screen. More importantly, “THE BUTLER” managed to avoid that annoying and pretentious air that have tainted a good number of historical dramas in the past. Except in perhaps two scenes. Watching “THE BUTLER” reminded me of an old NBC miniseries that aired back in 1979 called “BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE”, which told the story of a mother/daughter pair named Margaret Rogers and Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as White House housemaids between 1909 and 1961.

What really impressed me about the plot for “THE BUTLER” is how Cecil’s past and profession had such an impact upon his adult life. Witnessing his mother’s rape and his father’s death seemed to have an impact upon Cecil’s psyche. In a way, these events led him to develop an obsequious personality that served him well,professionally. But his obsequiousness also led him to fear and oppose his son Louis’ participation in the Civil Rights movement for many years. I must admit that those sequences featuring Louis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders during the early and mid 1960s struck me as both fascinating and harrowing. Cecil and Louis’ estrangement deepened when younger son Charlie was killed during the Vietnam War . . . and Louis failed to appear at the funeral for personal reasons. And as I had earlier pointed out, Cecil’s job also had an impact on his marriage to Gloria. She resented how his profession kept him away for long hours, leading her to contemplate an adulterous affair with a neighbor.

As much as Daniels and Strong emphasized the impact of Cecil’s job upon his private life, they allowed the audiences glimpses of his interactions with not only the presidents who occupied the White House during his tenure, but also with his fellow servants – especially Carter Wilson and James Holloway. The movie featured interactions between Cecil and five U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If I had to select my favorite presidential segment, it would have to be Cecil’s interactions with Johnson, whose penchant for the occasional racial slur I had learned about, years ago. I found those scenes hilarious and sardonic – especially Carter’s sarcastic reaction to Johnson’s announcement about the Civil Rights bills. There were three scenes I found particularly interesting – Cecil’s eavesdropping of Reagan’s discussion with GOP politicians regarding South Africa’s apartheid policy, Kennedy’s revelation of his knowledge regarding Louis’ arrests and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; and Nixon’s appearance (when he was Vice-President) in the servants’ work room in an effort to recruit their votes during the 1960 Presidential Election. I also enjoyed the private moments between Cecil and his two colleagues that eventually spread to his home, when they began spending off hours with him and his family.

Production-wise, “THE BUTLER” is a beautiful movie to behold. Andrew Dunn’s photography provided sharp and colorful images of Cecil’s life throughout the 20th century. Tim Galvin’s production designs certainly benefited from Dunn’s work. Then again, Galvin did a superb job in recapturing those 80-odd years of Cecil’s life with great accuracy. This was especially apparent in the period featuring Cecil’s first decade as a butler for the White House – between the late 1950s and early 1970s. I can also say the same about Ruth E. Carter’s work as the film’s costume designer. Not only were they beautiful to look at, I was also impressed by how she recaptured the fashion styles of each period featured in the movie. Here are a few examples of Carter’s designs:

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As much as I had enjoyed “THE BUTLER”, I cannot deny that it had its share of flaws. Earlier, I had complimented the movie for its lack of pretentiousness – except in two scenes. One of those scenes that seemed to reek of pretentiousness featured Cecil’s interaction with President Eisenhower. The scene began with Eisenhower ordering the U.S. Army troops to protect the lives and rights of a group of African-American high students integrating a Little Rock, Arkansas high school. The scene eventually segued into Eisenhower reminiscing about his late father to Cecil. And although the scene’s drama was portrayed in a straightforward manner by Forest Whitaker and Robin Williams, it seemed to reek of sentimentality and pretentiousness that I found annoying. Another scene that I found off-putting proved to be Cecil’s encounter with President Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The entire scene seemed to have come straight from Cinematic Nixon 101. It featured a slightly drunk Nixon, lounging on a White House sofa, while spouting self doubts about his political abilities and integrity. I found the scene boring, pretentious and very unoriginal. In fact, I would swear I had seen similar views of Nixon in at least two other films.

I would even go as far to say that the movie’s main weakness seemed to be its portrayals of the U.S. Presidents featured. For some reason, most of the actors who portrayed those presidents in the movie seemed to be miscast. I had nothing against Robin Williams’ performance as Dwight D. Eisenhower. But I took one look at him and was reminded of the character’s predecessor – Harry S. Truman. Really. Liev Schreiber struck me as being at least ten to fifteen years too young to be portraying Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet . . . he did such as great job as Johnson that I am willing to allow the issue of his age to slide. John Cusak was not only too young, but also too slender for his role as Richard M. Nixon. In my opinion, he was definitely the wrong actor for the job. As for Alan Rickman . . . hmmm. Well, if I must be honest, I found his portrayal of Ronald Reagan very effective in a subtle way. The only other piece of casting that seemed to be spot on proved to be James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. Not only did he give a pretty good performance, but his Boston accent seemed decent. “THE BUTLER” also featured the appearances of two First Ladies – Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Kelly did a solid job as Jackie Kennedy, especially in one scene that featured the First Lady’s return to the White House after the death of her husband. And Fonda gave a very entertaining performance as the ambitious and slightly controlling Nancy Reagan.

Since I am on the subject of acting, I might as express my views on those performances by the main cast. “THE BUTLER”featured some solid work from cast members such as Colman Domingo, who portrayed the White House maitre d that hired Cecil in a rather funny scene; Clarence Williams III, who gave a poignant portrayal of an elderly man who first trained Cecil to become a professional waiter; Yaya DaCosta, who did an excellent job of developing the character of Carol Hammie (Louis’ girlfriend) from a college student to a hardened activist; Vanessa Redgrave, who gave a brief, yet memorable performance as the elderly mother of the elderly plantation owner who caused havoc within the Gaines family during the 1920s; Alex Pettyfer, as the temperamental landowner, who managed to be effectively scary with very little dialogue; and Mariah Carey, who was surprisingly effective as Cecil’s victimized mother. It was great to see Cuba Gooding Jr., who gave a very entertaining performance as the fast-talking White House head butler Carter Wilson, who becomes a long-time friend of Cecil’s. Lenny Kravitz gave a subtle performance as Cecil’s other White House colleague, the more educated James Holloway. And Terrence Howard gave an excellent performance as the Gaines’ somewhat sleazy neighbor, Howard, who becomes interested in Gloria. He was especially brilliant in one scene in which his attempts to seduce Gloria into having an affair with him.

But in my opinion, the best performances came from the movie’s three leads – Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. This is the third or fourth time I have seen British-born Oyelowo portray an American character. And I am still amazed at his grasp of an American accent. More importantly, he did a wonderful job in his portrayal of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s older son who becomes hardcore activist over the years, aging from 17 years old to a man in his late 60s. While watching “THE BUTLER”, I found myself wondering how many years have passed since Oprah Winfrey had a major role in a movie. The last major role I could recall was her performance in the 1998 drama, “BELOVED”. Watching her portray Cecil’s strong-minded wife, Gloria, reminded me how much of a superb actress she really is. There were two scenes that reminded me how skillful she really is – her bedroom rant against the demands of Cecil’s job and her angry response to Louis and Carol’s derogatory comments about actor Sidney Poitier. I really do not know what to say about Forest Whitaker’s performance in the title role. Personally, I feel that if went on about Whitaker’s performance in this movie, this article would stretch even longer. The man was brilliant. He really was. Whitaker did a superb job in developing Cecil from the 35-40 something obsequious butler to the 90 year-old man, looking back on his life and career. And I believe that Cecil Gaines is one of the best roles of his career. It would be a crime if he never receive an Academy Award for his performance.

I have noticed that “THE BUTLER” has received some mixed reviews from the movie critics. And most of these reviews seemed to be in the extreme from high praise to accusations of clumsy direction from Lee Daniels or equally clumsy writing from Danny Strong. I am not going to pretend that “THE BUTLER” is a perfect movie. It has its flaws. But I feel that its virtues more than outweighed its flaws. And thanks to Daniels’ direction, Strong’s screenplay and a superb cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, I feel that “THE BUTLER” is one of the best historical dramas I have seen in years.

“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

There were a few movies released in 2012 that I was very reluctant to see in the theaters. One of those movies turned out to be “LES MISERABLES”, the recent adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 stage musical of the same name. And that musical was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. 

Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, “LES MISERABLES” told the story of early 19th century French convict Jean Valjean released from prison on parole by a guard named Javert in 1815. Nineteen years earlier, Valjean had been imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family. Because of his paroled status, Valjean is driven out of every town. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals the latter’s silver during the night. Valjean’s former prison guard, the police captures him. But the Bishop informs them that he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. The former convict eventually breaks his parole and Javert vows to capture him. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Some of Valjean’s factory workers discover that one of their own, a woman named Fantine, one of his workers, has been sending money to an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. Fantine uses her salary to pay an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thénardiers, his equally shady wife and their daughter Éponine to take care of Cosette. However, Valjean’s foreman dismisses Fantine and she resorts to desperate measures to support her daughter by selling her hair and teeth, before becoming a prostitute. Javert, who has become the town’s chief inspector, arrests Fantine for striking an abusive customer. Valjean saves her and has her hospitalized. He also learns that a man believed to be him, has been arrested. Refusing to allow an innocent man to become condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity during the man’s trial. Then then returns to the hospital and he promises the dying Fantine that he will look after Cosette.

Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean escape with a jump into the local river. He then pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take Cosette. The pair elude Javert’s pursuit and begin a new life in Paris. The story jumps nine years later in which the grandson of a wealthy man and student and named Marius Pontmercy becomes involved in a growing revolutionary movement following the death a government official sympathetic to the poor named Jean Maximilien Lamarque. He also falls in love with Cosette, much to Valjean’s dismay, who believes he is an agent of Javert’s. Meanwhile, Marius is unaware that Éponine Thénardier, the daughter of Cosette’s former caretakers, has fallen in love with him. Most of these storylines – Valjean’s reluctance to acknowledge Cosette and Marius’ love; Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius; and Valjean’s problems with Javert, who has joined the Paris police force, culminates in the long and detailed sequence that features the June Rebellion of 1832.

After watching my DVD copy of “LES MISERABLES”, I cannot deny that the movie has some great moments and struck me as pretty damn good. The sequence featuring Fantine’s troubles greatly moved me. After winning an Academy Award for her outstanding performance as the doomed woman, Anne Hathaway had expressed a hope that one day the misfortunes of Fantine would be found only in fiction in the future. That is a lovely hope, but knowing human nature, I doubt it will ever happen. And watching Fantine’s life spin out of control, due to the narrow-minded views of society and male objectivity of her body, I think my views on human nature sunk even further. Some critics had the nerve to claim that Fantine’s situation was something from the past and could never be considered relevant today. I am still amazed that adults – even those who considered themselves civilized and intelligent – could be so completely blind and idiotic. Even Valjean’s attempts to make a life for himself, following his release from prison struck me as relevant – echoing the attempts of some convicts to overcome the criminal pasts and records in an effort to make a new life. Usually with little or no success, thanks to the chilly attitude of the public. Hugh Jackman’s performance beautifully reflected the struggles of many convicts – past and present – to make new lives for themselves – especially in the movie’s first half hour. Although many people tend to view the police officer Javert as evil, I suspect they view his villainy as a product of any society that creates rules – at times rigid – to keep the general population in check. While watching “LES MISERABLES”, I realized that I could never view Javert as a villain of any kind. He merely seemed to be a foil or object to Valjean’s chances for a new life. More than anything, Javert seemed to be a victim of his own rigid views on good, evil and upholding the law. Russell Crowe did a beautiful job of expressing Javert’s inability to be flexible in his views on morality . . . even when his own flexibility comes to the fore when he allows Valjean to finally escape in the end. And it is a shame that he never earned an Academy Award or Golden Globe Award nomination.

“LES MISERABLES” has a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Yet, only 50 minutes of the film focused on Valjean’s early years as an ex-convict, his tenure as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Merhis, Fantine’s troubles and young Cosette’s time with the Thénardiers. The rest of the movie is set in 1832 Paris, leading up to the outbreak of the June Rebellion. And if I must honest . . . I found that a little disappointing. Mind you, not all of the 1832 segment was a waste. Thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, the segment featured a well directed and detailed account of the June Rebellion – especially from Marius Pontmercy, Valjean and Javert’s viewpoints. It featured more fine performances from Jackman and Crowe, as Valjean and Javert continued their game of cat and mouse. It also featured an excellent performance from Samantha Barks, who made a very impressive film debut as Éponine Thénardier, the oldest daughter of Cosette’s cruel caretakers. Many filmgoers and critics had complained about the romance between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy, claiming that it seemed forced. I do not know if I could agree with that assessment. I thought Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did a pretty good job in conveying the young couple’s romantic interest in each other. The problem with their romance centered on Cosette’s character.

I realized that Seyfried did all she could to infuse some kind of energy into the role. I could say the same for Isabelle Allen. Both Seyfriend and Allen gave first-rate performances. Unfortunately, both were saddled with a one-dimensional character. At times, I found myself wishing that Éponine and not Cosette had ended up with Marius. In fact, I felt the movie could have explored Cosette and the Thénardiers’ relationship with a little more depth. As for the Thénardiers, they proved to be the story’s true villains. Unfortunately, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen injected a little too much comedy into their performances. The couple came off more as comic relief, instead of villains. And I blame both Hooper and the screenwriters. Cosette and the Thénardiers were not the only problems. Although I had complimented Hooper’s direction of the June Rebellion scenes, the entire sequence threatened to go on and on . . . almost forever. I ended up as one relieved moviegoer when the sequence ended with quick violence and Valjean’s rescue of Marius. I have a deep suspicion that “LES MISERABLES” was really about the June Rebellion. Many claimed that Hugo was inspired by his witness of the insurrection. Which would explain why the story’s earlier period between 1815 and 1823 were rushed in a span of 50 minutes or so. Pity. Other moviegoers complained about Hooper’s constant use of close-ups in the film. And I have to agree with them. For a movie that was supposed to be a historic epic wrapped in a musical production, the balance between wide shots and close-ups somewhat unbalanced. During Valjean’s death scene, he envisioned not only the long dead Fatine, but also the insurrectionists who had fought alongside Marius before getting killed. One of those insurrectionists turned out to be Éponine Thénardier. Only she had died before Valjean had arrived at Marius’ barricade. So . . . why was he experiencing images of her?

I could comment on the singing performances of the cast. I thought they had more or less did a pretty good job. Many had criticized Crowe’s singing, but I honestly felt nothing wrong about it. Hathaway’s acting during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” impressed me a lot more than her singing voice, which struck me as pretty solid. I had expected Jackman’s singing to knock my socks off. It did not quite reach that level. Like Hathaway and Crowe, his acting impressed me a lot more than his singing. Both Redmayne and Seyfried sang pretty well. So did Bonham-Carter and Cohen. But the one musical performance that really impressed me was Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own”. The actress/singer has a beautiful voice.

I liked “LES MISERABLES” very much. The movie featured fine performances from the cast. And Tom Hooper did a very good job in directing the film, despite the many close-ups. And I do believe that it deserved a Best Picture nomination. Do not get me wrong. I enjoy musicals very much. But I simply could not endure a musical that not only featured songs, but dialogue acted out in song. It stretched my patience just a little too much – like the drawn out sequences leading up to the violence that ended the June Rebellion. I would like to say that I regret missing “LES MISERABLES” in the movie theaters. But I would be lying. I have no regrets . . . as much as I like the film.

“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

I must have been one of the few people who had been unaware of “THE ARTIST”, when it first hit the American movie theaters in late 2011. To be honest, I was not paying much attention to the previous awards season. I could not find a movie that aroused my interest. When I discovered that the French-American film had overcome George Clooney’s “THE DESCENDANTS”, to become the Academy Awards front-runner . . . well, color me surprised.

Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to Old Hollywood told the story of a successful silent film star named George Valentin, who seemed to be at the peak of his fame in 1927. At the premiere of his latest hit, he meets a young fan named Peppy Miller outside of the movie theater. She eventually catches the eyes of the press, when a photograph of the two appear in the newspapers, the following morning. It does not take long for Peppy’s career as a movie actress to rise. But when George’s studio boss, Al Zimmer, announces the end of Kinograph Studios’ silent movies production, the actor dismisses the news, claiming that sound is nothing but a fad. George decides to finance, produce and direct his own silent film. Both his new silent movie and Peppy’s new sound film open on the same day as the 1929 Stock Market Crash. While audiences flock to see Peppy’s new movie – making her a major Hollywood star – George’s film becomes a flop . . . and he finds himself financially ruined. Because his rejection of talkies remain steadfast, it is not long before George becomes a broke, Hollywood has been.

Within a few months, “THE ARTIST” managed to acquire near universal acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did the movie win five Academy Awards – including Best Picture, Best Director (Hazanavicius) and Best Actor for leading man Jean Dujardin; the movie also won seven BAFTA awards, six César awards, three Golden Globe awards and two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. I have not encountered a movie this universally acclaimed in years. And if I must say so, it did not deserve a single award.

That is correct. I consider “THE ARTIST” to be one of the most overrated movies I have seen in years. In fact, I find it even more overrated than the 2010 Oscar winner, “THE KING’S SPEECH”.  Perhaps I had exaggerated a bit. There were a few awards that I believe it deserved. I found Ludovic Bource’s score surprisingly impressive. I was also impressed by Mark Bridges’ award winning costume designs and Guillaume Schiffman’s nominated cinematography. And I cannot deny that I was more than impressed by Jean Dujardin’s performance as the ego-centric George Valentin. Did he deserve the Best Actor award? Personally, I would have given Gary Oldman’s performance in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” the award. But I still believe that Dujardin gave an above-average performance. The movie also featured supporting performances and cameos from Hollywood veterans such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller. I thought they all gave solid performances, especially Miller and Cromwell.

Despite my feelings about the costumes, photography, the score and Dujardin’s performance, I still believe that “THE ARTIST” is an overrated movie that did not deserve most of the accolades it received. For me, it was a charming little movie with gimmicks about Old Hollywood. I would equate it at the same level as Blake Edwards’ 1988 Hollywood mystery, “SUNSET”. Okay, perhaps I am being a little cruel. Even “THE ARTIST” is better than Edwards’ film. But I find myself unable to view it as a cinematic masterpiece. For me, it was simply an entertaining, yet mediocre film.

One of the problems I had with “THE ARTIST” was that Hazanavicius’ script never explained why Valentin refused to do a talking picture. Why? Unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was not originally described as a multi-tasked Hollywood talent. Valentin was never regarded as another Emil Jennings, whose Hollywood career ended due to a thick European accent. Granted, Dujardin’s French accent struck me as somewhat thick, but it was never pointed out. And if the Valentin character really had a thick accent, his Hollywood career would have never been revived as a song-and-dance man at the movie’s conclusion. Even Fred Astaire needed a decent voice. Nor was Valentin portrayed as a another John Gilbert, whose career was destroyed by a studio boss that hated his guts. Granted, Valentin managed to annoy Zimmer in his refusal to accept talkies. But Zimmer merely regarded Valentin with mild contempt, not hatred. In the end, Valentin’s refusal to do talkies was never really explored. And this strikes me as bad writing on Hazanavicius’ part.

The movie earned a good deal of controversy when Hollywood icon Kim Novak accused composer Ludovic Bource of incorporating a portion of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “VERTIGO”. Since I have never seen “VERTIGO”, I cannot comment on Novak’s accusation. However, I have seen “A STAR IS BORN”“SUNSET BOULEVARD”, and “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”. I noticed that “THE ARTIST” incorporated a great deal of story ideas and scenes from these movies. Unfortunately, I believe that Hazanavicius did so in an unoriginal way. Even the happy-go-lucky “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” had ten times the biting wit and a more in-depth, if slightly fictional looking into the transition to sound. Perhaps the reason I found the story hard to accept was because Hazanavicius decided to film the movie without sound. All I can say is . . . why? What was the point? I wanted a look at Old Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 1930s, not a gimmicky ode to the era.

“THE ARTIST” possessed other aspects that did not sit well with me. Hazanavicius cast his wife, French-Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo, to portray rising star Peppy Miller. Bejo received numerous nominations and a César Award for Best Actress for her performance. I cannot deny that she gave a first-rate performance. Unfortunately, she seemed like a 21st century anchorism, stuck in the early 20th century. Bejo simply looked out of place in period movie like “THE ARTIST”. Valentin’s Jack Russell terrier, Uggie, was so cute that I found myself in danger of a sugar overdose, just by simply watching. After viewing the scene in which Uggie saved Valentin from a burning house by summoning a police, I either wanted to throw up or put a bullet in that mutt. As much as I enjoyed Mark Bridges’ late 1920s costumes, I was not impressed by the costumes for the movie’s 1930s setting. Looking at Bridges’ costumes for the early sound era, I found it hard to believe that the film’s second half was set between 1930 and 1932/33. Many people enjoyed Dujardin and Bejo’s dance routine that marked the film’s conclusion. I cannot deny that I found their performance impressive. But it was also a jaw-dropping moment for me . . . and not in a good way. My mind kept reminding me that I should be applauding. Instead, I found myself silently chanting – “What the hell?”

Look, I am not claiming to dislike “THE ARTIST”. How could I? I thought it was an entertaining film about Old Hollywood. It seemed a lot of fun. But a fun movie does not automatically it make a great one. And despite the awards and accolades that it received, I cannot agree with the prevailing view that “THE ARTIST” was a great film. Not by a long shot.

“THE KING’S SPEECH” (2010) Review

“THE KING’S SPEECH” (2010) Review

Inspirational movies have been the hallmark of Hollywood films over the decades. They especially became popular between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. After the mid-90s, I never thought they would become popular again. But the recent release of the historical drama, “THE KING’S SPEECH” proved me wrong. 

Directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, ”THE KING’S SPEECH” told the story of Great Britain’s King George VI’s difficulties with a speech impediment and his relationship with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who helped him overcome his stutter. The movie opened with George VI (then Prince Albert, Duke of York) at the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, with his wife Elizabeth by his side. There he gives a stammering speech that visibly unsettles the thousands of listeners in the audience. After nine years of unsuccessfully finding a speech therapist that can help him, Elizabeth recruits Australian-born Lionel Logue to meet him. The two men eventually bond and Logue helps the Duke of York overcome the latter’s stammer during a series of crises that include the death of George V; his brother, King Edward VIII’s romance with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson; the abdication of Edward; the Duke of York’s ascension to the throne as George VI; his coronation and the start of World War II. Also during this period, both king and speech therapist become close friends.

What can I say about ”THE KING’S SPEECH”? I cannot deny that it was a heartwarming tale about the growing friendship of two men from disparate backgrounds. Seidler’s script was filled with wit, charm, warmth and pathos that filled the heart. The cast, lead by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, did great credit to the script. There have been complaints about the film’s historical accuracy from both the media and historians. And there is a good deal of the story that is historically inaccurate. George VI and Lionel Logue’s collaboration began as far back as 1926, not 1934. And the king was also pro-appeasement in the late 1930s. In fact, the majority of Britons during that period were pro-appeasement. What historians fail to realize is that appeasement was popular due to a lack of desire for another war against Germany. World War I had traumatized a generation that included George VI. One also has to remember that ”THE KING’S SPEECH” is a drama based upon historical fact, not a documentary. One would know by now that complete historical accuracy in a work of fiction is rare. It has been rare for as long as there have been fictional work based upon history. And to be honest, I do not believe that the movie’s fiddling with historical fact has not harmed the story.

One would think that I consider ”THE KING’S SPEECH” to be one of the best movies this year. Frankly, I find labeling what is”the best” rather subjective. I did enjoy the movie and it made the list of my Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2010. However, I must admit that I do not consider it to be a particularly original film. One, it is one of those inspirational films that moviegoers tend to love – movies like ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” and the 1976 Oscar winner, ”ROCKY”. And if I must be brutally honest, there was nothing original about ”THE KING’S SPEECH” – even for an inspirational film. I already have a nickname for it – ’ROCKY in the Palace’. Another problem I have with the movie is that I was not that impressed by its visual style. I found Danny Cohen’s photography rather pedestrian. And Eve Stewart’s production designs and Judy Farr’s set decorations were very disappointing. Only the movie’s exterior shots prevented ”THE KING’S SPEECH” from becoming another filmed stage play. And the actual sets struck me as very dull. My hopes of a rich look at London and the rest of Great Britain during the 1920s and 30s fell short. I suppose I should not have been surprised by the movie’s uninspiring visual style. It only had a budget of $15 million dollars. I suspect the producers had very little money to work with.

With a few exceptions, the cast turned out to be first-rate. Colin Firth gave a superb and complex performance as the insecure sovereign with the speech impediment. I am not that surprised that he managed to earn nominations and win a good number of acting awards. Geoffrey Rush, who portrayed Lionel Logue, gave a first-rate performance filled with a great deal of sly humor. Also, he and Firth generated a strong screen chemistry. Helena Bonham-Carter was a charming and witty Duchess of York/Queen Elizabeth. However, I would have never considered her performance worth of any acting award nomination. She was simply portraying the “loyal wife” schtick. I was surprised to find Guy Pierce portraying the love obsessed and selfish Edward VIII. And I must he was very subtle and effective in revealing the man’s less admirable traits. The movie also benefitted solid performances from the likes of Michael Gambon as King George V, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, and Anthony Andrews, who was surprisingly effective as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

However, there were some performances that I found unsatisfying. Being a fan of Jennifer Ehle, I was disappointed in the limitations of her role as Logue’s wife, Myrtle. She hardly had a chance to do anything, except murmur a few words of encouragement to Logue. Her only great moment occurred in a scene that featured Myrtle Logue’s realization that the King of England was one of her husband’s clients. Seeing Ehle and Firth in the same scene together brought back memories of the 1995 adaptation of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. I also had a problem with Eve Best’s portrayal of American divorcee, WallisSimpson. Her Wallis came off as more extroverted than the divorcee in real life. And I hate to say this, but Timothy Spall’s interpretation of Winston Churchill seemed more like a parody than a serious portrayal. Every time he was on the screen, I could not help but wince.

In conclusion, I enjoyed ”THE KING’S SPEECH” very much. Despite its lack of originality, I found it heartwarming, humorous, and dramatic; thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction and Seidler’s writing. And aside from a few performances, I was impressed by the cast, especially leading men Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. I do not believe that it deserved the Best Picture Oscar it won. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining.

“JOHN ADAMS” (2008) Review

“JOHN ADAMS” (2008) Review

Over two years have passed since HBO aired the last episode of its seven-part miniseries, ”JOHN ADAMS” . . . and I have yet to post any comment about it. I realized that I might as well post my views on the series, while my memories of it remains fresh. 

In a nutshell . . . ”JOHN ADAMS” is an adaption of David McCullough’s bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize winning biography on the country’s second president, John Adams. Instead of beginning the story during Adams’ childhood or early adulthood, the miniseries began in the late winter/early spring of 1770, when he defended seven British soldiers and one officer accused of murder during the ‘Boston Massacre’ crisis. It ended with the episode that covered the last fifteen years of Adams’ life as a former President. And despite some historical discrepancies and a rather bland fourth episode, ”JOHN ADAMS” ended as another glorious notch in HBO’s history.

The performances were superb, especially Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. On screen, they were as well matched as the second President and First Lady were, over two hundred years ago. If either of them is passed over for either an Emmy or Golden Globe award, a great travesty will end up occurring. Especially Giamatti. He is the first actor I have seen make the role of John Adams his own, since William Daniels in ”1776”. Another performance that left me dazzled was British actor Stephen Dillane’s subtle and brilliant performance as one of the most enigmatic Presidents in U.S. history – Thomas Jefferson. I had heard a rumor that he preferred acting on the stage above performing in front of a camera. If it is true, I think it is a damn shame. There is nothing wrong with the theater. But quite frankly, I feel that Dillane’s style of acting is more suited for the movies or television. These three fine actors are backed up with excellent performances from the likes of David Morse as George Washington, a brooding Sam Adams portrayed by Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson portraying a roguish and very witty Benjamin Franklin.

I found most of the miniseries’ episodes very enjoyable to watch and very informative. Not only did ”JOHN ADAMS” gave its viewers a detailed look into the United States and Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rarely seen on the silver or television screen. One particular scene comes to mind occurred in Part 1 – “Join or Die”, when Adams witnessed the tar-and-feathering of a Boston Tory by members of the Sons of Liberty. The entire incident played out with grusome detail. Another scene that caught my attention occurred in Part 6 – “Unecessary War”, when the Adamses had their first view of the recently built White House, located in the still undeveloped Washington D.C. I am so used to Washington looking somewhat civilized that its early, ramshackle appearance came as quite a surprise. And instead of allowing the actors and scenery resemble something out of a painting or art museum, everything looked real. One might as well be stepping into the late eighteenth century, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells . . . if one could achieve the latter via a television set. Speaking of sounds, I have to comment on the opening scene score written by Rob Lane. It is very rare find a miniseries theme song this catchy and stirring. Especially in recent years.

If I could choose one particular episode that left me wanting, it had to be Part Four – ”Reunion”. This episode covered John and Abigail Adams’ years in Paris during the Treaty of Paris negotiations and as the first U.S. Minister to the British Court of St. James in London. It also covered his return to Massachusetts and election as the first Vice President. I enjoyed the development of the Adams’ friendship with Jefferson in this episode. Unfortunately that is all I had enjoyed. I wish that the episode had expanded more on the troubles surrounding the Treaty of Paris and especially the Adams’ stay in London. The most that was shown in the latter situation was Adams’ meeting with King George III (Tom Hollander) and Abigail’s desire to return home. On the whole, I found this episode rushed and slightly wanting.

But there were three others that I found fascinating. One turned out to be Part 3 – ”Don’t Tread on Me”. This episode featured his subsequent Embassy with Benjamin Franklin to the Court of Louis XVI, and his trip to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. I would not exactly view this episode as one of the miniseries’ best, but it did feature an excellent performance by Paul Giamatti, who expressed Adams’ frustration with the opulent Court of Louis XVI and the rakish Benjamin Franklin, rakishly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. Watching Adams attempt to win the friendship of the French aristocrats and fail was fascinating to watch.

One of the episodes that really stood out for me was Part 6 – ”Unnecessary War”. This episode covered Adams’ term as the second President of the United States and the growing development of a two-party system in the form of the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) and the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. This episode featured standout performances from not only Giamatti, but from Linney, Dillane and Sewell as a rather manipulative and power hungry Hamilton. The episode also featured a detailed history lessons on the beginning of political partisanship in the U.S. and the country’s (or should I say Adams’) efforts to keep the U.S. neutral from the war between Great Britain and France. It also focused upon a personal matter for both John and Abigail, as they dealt with the decline of their alcoholic second son, Charles. An excellent episode all around.

My favorite episode – and I suspect that it might be the case with many fans – is Part 2 – ”Independence”. This episode focused upon the early years of the Revolution in which Adams and his fellow congressmen of the Continental Congress consider the option of independence from Great Britain and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It also focused upon Abigail’s struggles with the Adams’ farm and a smallpox outbreak in the Massachusetts colony. Personally, I consider this the best episode of the entire series. I especially enjoyed the verbal conflict between pro-independence Adams and delegate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (superbly portrayed by actor Željko Ivanek), who favored reconciliation with the Crown. But one scene I found particularly humorous featured Adams and especially Franklin “editing” Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence. All three actors – Giamatti, Wilkinson and Dillane were hilarious in a scene filled with subtle humor.

Despite being based upon a historical biography, ”JOHN ADAMS” is not historically accurate. Which is not surprising. It is first and foremost a Hollywood production. Some of the best historical dramas ever shown on television or on the movie screen were never historically correct. Whether or not ”JOHN ADAMS” is 100% historically correct, it is one of the best dramas I have seen on television in the past three years. Now that it has been released on DVD, I plan to buy and watch it all over again.