“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” – Series Two (2012) Retrospective

 

 

 

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” – SERIES TWO (2012) Retrospective

Poor “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. Poor Jean Marsh. I am saying this out of pure pity and disappointment. Poor “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. This revival of the old 1970s series really got the shaft from not only the viewers, but critics and one member from its Series One cast. And I feel that it did not deserve its fate. 

What fate am I referring to? After the BBC aired the third episode from Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, it announced the cancellation of the series after two seasons. Why? Poor ratings and poor reviews. How did it come to this? One could blame Jean Marsh and Heidi Thomas for producing and writing a poorly conceived second season. The problem for me is that I do not view Season Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” as poorly conceived and written. In fact, I consider this second season superior to the first. I also consider it equal to the first season of “DOWNTON ABBEY” and better than its second one (I have yet to see Series Three). But I doubt that the BBC or anyone else would agree with me or care over what I have to say. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” got cancelled and there is nothing I can do about it, but accept its fate.

Series Two endured a good deal of problems before the cast was ready to shoot its six episodes. One, actress Eileen Atkins publicly expressed her unhappiness with her character, Maud Lady Holland, and her decision not to return for the second season. Both Atkins and Jean Marsh had served as co-creators of both the original series and the recent one. I believe that she had every right to make this decision. Unfortunately, her announcement not only tattered the series’ reputation, but also kept viewers away and ruined her long friendship with Marsh. And in the end, the majority of viewers and critics paid more attention to Atkins, leading toward bad ratings and cancellation by the BBC. When Atkins dropped out of the series, both Marsh and Thomas raced to find a replacement. In the end, they hired Alex Kingston to portray Dr. Blanche Mottershead, Lady Holland’s much younger half-sister and aunt to Sir Hallam Holland. Then disaster struck again when Marsh suffered a minor stroke. The actress recovered long enough for minor appearances as housekeeper Rose Buck in two episodes. Despite these setbacks, Thomas managed to produce six episodes for this second series.

Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” focused on the last year before the outbreak of World War II – between September 1938 and September 1939. Sir Hallam Holland’s career with the Foreign Office no longer brings him pleasure, due to the Establishment and the public’s reluctance to consider a war against Nazi Germany. The latter demands control of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Only Hallam and a few others like his superior Sir Anthony Eden are against the idea of appeasing to the Germans in order to avoid another war – including the former’s wife, Lady Agnes Holland. The latter has no problems with supporting her husband’s career, but like many others, support the idea of appeasement. Mind you, Lady Agnes is dealing with the difficult birth of a second child and the news that she can longer carry a baby to full confinement. Lady Agnes’ younger sister, Lady Persephone Towyn, is still living in Germany, socializing with top-ranking Nazi politicians and military officers. But an unwanted pregnancy and the violence of the Kristallnacht forces Lady Persephone to seek help from her sister and brother-in-law to get her back to Britain. Following the death of Maud, Lady Holland; Sir Hallam’s aunt – an archaeologist named Dr. Blanche Mottershead – arrives to deal with her half-sister’s belongings. When she decides to remain with the Hollands to help raise her mentally challenged niece, Lotte Holland; a secret involving a past relationship threatens her reputation within high society. Along with Prince George, Duke of Kent, the series also featured the real life personages of Joseph, Rose and John Kennedy.

The second series also began with the arrival of a new servant in the Holland household named Beryl Ballard. Chauffeur Harry Spargo becomes attracted to her and commences upon a difficult campaign to win her love. Meanwhile, Rose Buck, the Hollands’ housekeeper, is confined to a sanatorium after contracting tuberculosis. Her absence creates a hole in the servants’ hierarchy and a clash of wills between the butler Warwick Pritchard and the cook Claire Thackeray. Their clash will temporarily lead Mrs. Thackeray to consider leaving service and expose a secret of Mr. Pritchard regarding his World War I experiences, which will affect his private life before the end of the series. Lady Holland’s secretary, Amanjit Singh struggles to establish a livelihood, following his employer’s death. Footman Johnny Proude is encouraged by Harry to consider a minor career as an amateur boxer and the household’s maids – Eunice McCabe and Beryl – struggle to deal with Lady Agnes’ demands.

I still believe that this second series was better than the first. But it was not perfect. I did not mind that some of the series’ story arcs did not last longer than one episode. A good example of this was Mrs. Thackeray’s decision to leave her employment at 165 Eaton Place to live with her nephew. It was a pleasant, yet interesting story. But I was not disappointed that it merely lasted one episode. There were two story arcs that could have lasted beyond one episode. One of them, “A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood” centered around the revelation of Blanche Mottershead’s lesbian relationship with Lady Portia Alresford. Unfortunately, the following episodes merely revealed Blanche’s banishment from “Society” through dialogue. The audience never really got to experience her social downfall on the screen. In the fourth episode, “All the Things You Are”, Mr. Amanjit meets with the teacher of the late Rachel Perlmutter’s daughter, Lotte, in a London tea shop. Although a waitress led them to a decent table, a snotty maitre’d coolly asks them to move to another table near the back of the tea shop. Aside from the Hollands’ servants initial cool response to Mr. Amanjit in Series One, the Indian-born secretary had never encountered any on-screen racism . . . until this scene. It felt . . . out of the blue. Nor was it ever fully explored or referred to again. I feel that Heidi Thomas could have done a lot more in portraying any racism that Mr. Amanjit may have encountered during the television series’ two season run.

Many of the fans had complained about the adulterous affair between Sir Hallam Holland and his fascist sister-in-law Lady Persephone (“Persie”) Towyn. When I first heard about it, I found the idea of an affair between them hard to believe. But after viewing Series Two, I realized that I had only one complaint about the affair – namely that it did not last long enough. After spending two episodes of developing a close and friendly relationship, Hallam and Persie finally dived into a sexual affair by the end of “All Things You Are”. The affair spanned nearly all of the fifth episode, “The Last Waltz”, until Hallam stumbled across a revelation that Persie might be using him for nefarious reasons at the end of that episode. Frankly, I wish their affair had lasted a little longer than one episode. I feel this expansion in running time would have served the story arc a little better. The episode also featured one death – a suicide. And to be honest, I thought Heidi Thomas’ direction of the moment seemed more anti-climatic than dramatic.

One of the aspects of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” that I like more than “DOWNTON ABBEY” is the portrayal of the relationship between the Hollands and their servants. Yes, the series featured at least two servants that seemed blindingly loyal to the Hollands – Mr. Pritchard and Rose Buck. But Rose spent most of this series in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In an odd way, the series benefited from Rose’s absence and focused even more on the other servants. Both Beryl Ballard and Eunice McCabe were constantly switching roles as Lady Agnes’ personal maid and nurse maid to the Hollands’ children. And both discovered that the socialite could be very demanding in regard to tasks and lack of any real appreciation for their hard work. In the end, Beryl resorted to recruiting help for their situation from the Girls’ Friendly Society, an employment service that upper-class women use to find female servants. Mr. Amanjit also clashed with Blanche over the deceased Lady Holland’s belongings early in the series, until both learned to work together, while helping with refugees from Nazi Germany. The most interesting clash between servant and employer manifested between Sir Hallam and Harry Spago. This clash came from Harry and Beryl’s matrimony plans and desire to emigrate to the United States. Sir Hallam expressed outrage over Harry’s desire to leave Britain, instead of face military service in the upcoming world war. Angry over Hallam’s self-righteous refusal to help him emigrate, Harry blackmailed his employer with his knowledge about the latter’s affair with Lady Persie. Even Beryl’s conflict with Lady Agnes played a role in the two men’s conflict.

But the series also featured conflict between servants and conflicts within the Holland family. Thomas wrote an excellent portrayal of Sir Hallam’s disappointment over Britain’s appeasement policy with Germany and Lady Agnes’ current inability to have more children. This disappointment with his country, the Foreign Office and his marriage eventually led to a friendship and later affair with Lady Persie. Many fans complained that the idea of the moderately liberal Hallam and a fascist like Persie having an affair – especially since they did not seem particularly friendly toward one another. But Thomas skillfully conveyed how helping Persie deal with an unwanted pregnancy, along with jealousy over Lady Agnes’ friendship with a wealthy American named Caspar Landry led him to drift into an affair with his volatile sister-in-law. The Hallan-Persie affair also had an effect on Harry and Beryl’s romance and plans for emigration to the U.S., along with Lady Agnes’ friendship with Landry, which had the potential to develop into a healthy romance. Another strong story arc that stood above the others proved to be Mr. Pritchard’s secret regarding his experiences during World War I. The other servants discovered in the first episode, “A Faraway Country About Which We Know Nothing”, that the butler had opposed military service in the war as conscientious objector. Although this seemed to be a rip off from the Alan Bates story arc from the 2001 movie, “GOSFORD PARK”, Heidi Thomas explored the issue with more depth and skill in “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. Mr. Pritchard’s secret not only created a bitter feud between the butler and Mrs. Thackeray (who had lost a husband) and Mr. Amanjit (a veteran of the war), but would also have a negative impact on his personal life in the last two episodes.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” featured some fine performances from the likes of Art Malik, Alex Kingston, Emilia Fox (as Blanche’s lover), Ellie Kendrick, Nico Mirallegro, Anne Reid, Keeley Hawes and Michael Landes. But there were performances that stood out for me. One came from Blake Ritson’s entertaining performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent. He really was entertaining, especially in the servants’ ball sequence. Another first-rate performance came from Ed Stoppard, who impressed me by his portrayal of Sir Hallam’s emotional crisis. Both Neil Jackson and Laura Haddock really made me care about the fates of Harry Spago and Beryl Ballard, thanks to their poignant performances. And Claire Foy did an excellent job of taking Lady Persie Towyn’s complex character to another level. For me, the best performance came from Adrian Scarborough, who did an excellent job in his portrayal of Warwick Pritchard. He especially stood out in the first, fifth and last episodes.

Looking back on Series Two of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, it occurred to me that it came off as somewhat darker than the first series. The series found some of the characters socially ostracized – briefly or otherwise, or enduring some kind emotional crisis. Its portrayal of the relationships between employers and servants struck me as somewhat more realistic than similar portrayals in “DOWNTON ABBEY”. The series also featured a poignant wedding, the end of a marriage – at least emotionally – and a suicide. And the series ended with the loud wail of a siren signaling the beginning of a devastating world war. It is a pity that the BBC decided to end the series. I would have given my right arm to learn of the surviving characters’ fates. Both Harry Spago and Johnny Proude found themselves recruited into the army. Sir Hallam resigned from the Foreign Office, due to the political disaster spawned from his affair with Lady Persie and became a royal equerry for the Duke of Kent (who died in a plane crash in 1942). And Lady Agnes said good-bye to Caspar Landry before sending her children and Rose Buck to the country for safety. Oh well. At least the series ended on an artistic note higher than it began. I am a fan of Eileen Atkins and I always will be. But I did not miss her, while watching Series Two.

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

 

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of director Tim Burton. Honestly. In fact, I can only think of one or two of his movies that really impressed me. Okay, I can think of two . . . before I saw his latest opus, “DARK SHADOWS”

The last Burton film that really impressed me was his 2007 Oscar-nominated film, “SWEENEY TODD”. I did not love it. And I have no desire to see it again. But it did impress me. So, when I discovered that he did a big screen adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC television series, I reacted with mild interest. I have never seen the old television series. And to be honest, I have no real desire to watch it. It was the humor featured in the trailer for Burton’s new film that led me to see it.

“DARK SHADOWS” told the story of Barnabas Collins, the 18th century scion of a wealthy Colonial family, who is transformed into a vampire by a scorned lover named Angelique Bouchard, who also happened to be a Collins family servant and a witch. After transforming him into a vampire, Angelique led a lynch mob that captures Barnabas and buries him alive in a chained coffin in the woods. Two hundred years later in 1972, a group of construction workers accidentally free Barnabas, before he feeds on them. He later makes his way back to the Collins manor and finds it inhabited by his mid 20th century descendants; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her 15 year-old daughter Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins, his 10 year-old son David; and their servants who are caretaker Willie Loomis and David’s governess, Victoria Winters, who is a reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette du Pres. One last occupant is David’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

Barnabas convinces Elizabeth of his identity when he reveals a secret room behind the fireplace. The room contains a vast treasure that can help the Collins family restore the family business. However, Elizabeth makes him promise to never reveal his identity as a vampire to the rest of the family. All seemed to be well for the Collins family, until Angelique, who has used magic to extend her life, discovers that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. Angelique has also used her own fishery business to bankrupt the family. Upset that Barnabas has returned, Angelique tries to win back his affections through sex. However, Barnabas makes it clear that he does not love her. And Angelique goes out of her way to ensure the destruction of Barnabas and his immediate family.

“DARK SHADOWS” is not perfect. I am quite aware that it is not ensemble piece, despite the likes of Michelle Pfieffer and Helena Bonham-Carter in the cast. I also realize that is basically about Barnabas Collins. But I do believe that two or three supporting characters were barely used in the story. And those characters proved to be young David Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman (portrayed by the marvelous Helena Bonham-Carter) and Roger Collins, portrayed by the woefully underused Jonny Lee Miller. And I wish the movie had explained how Angelique managed to survive and not age for two centuries. From what I had read, this was never explained in the television version either. I also found the revelation of Carolyn Stoddard as a werewolf near the end of the movie, very contrived. Either screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to hint this revelation or I simply failed to notice any his hint(s). And I also found the movie’s pacing slightly uneven three-quarters into the story. I suspect that Burton and his screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, were in such a hurry to get rid of Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman that the pacing somewhat became off-kilter.

But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy “DARK SHADOWS” very much. First of all, I was dazzled by Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. He gave it a rich, blue-tinted look that really contributed to the film’s setting and tale. This was especially apparent in the prologue that introduced the Collins family’s American origins and Barnabas Collins. Delbonnel’s photography also enhanced Rick Heinrichs’ production designs. Heinrichs did a beautiful job in re-creating both the mid and late-18th century Maine, along with the same location in 1972. And I feel he was ably supported by Chris Lowe’s art direction team, John Bush’s set decorations and Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costume designs.

Although I was somewhat critical of Grahame-Seth’s screenplay, I do not believe it was not a complete waste. In fact, I thought it was wise of him to center the main narrative around Barnabas Collins. The latter’s attempts to assimilate into the early 1970s had me shaking with laughter. And Grahame-Seth was wise to not only enrich Barnabas’ love for Josette du Pres and later, Victoria Winters; but also his concerns for his family. Family seemed to be very important to Barnabas, which allowed Grahame-Seth to focus more on Victoria and the Collins family . . . even Roger. Barnabas’ concerns for his family also made his conflict with Angelique Bouchard even more pressing. I am also glad that both Burton and Grahame-Seth’s portrayal of Barnabas was complex. They allowed him to feed on other human beings without labeling him as evil. Barnabas feeds on the blood of others to survive, just as we humans feed on other living beings – both animals and plants. He does not like feeding on others anymore than he likes being a vampire. There is no taint of one-dimensional morality that has marred television series like “BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”“ANGEL” and “CHARMED”. Several critics and many of the old television series also criticized Burton’s film for not being a close adaptation of the show. I find their criticisms a little irrelevant, due to the fact that I have yet to see a film adaptation of a television series to be that particularly close to its original source.

The cast for “DARK SHADOWS” is first-rate. Even those performers forced into roles that were not fully explored did a great job. It was nice to see Burton’s willingness to use again, actor Christopher Lee, who had a brief appearance as the top fisherman of Collinsport, Maine. I have never seen Jonny Lee Miller portrayed such a negative role like Roger Collins. And despite the minimal exposure, he did a great job of expressing Roger’s shallowness and lack of concern for his son and other members of the family. Helena Bonham-Carter was hilariously entertaining as young David Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, who developed a crush on Barnabas. It wsa nice to see Jackie Earle Haley again, who was also rather funny as the Collins family’s caretaker, Willie Loomis. I wish I could say something nice about Bella Heathcote. But her performance as Victoria Winters struck me as a little too ethereal and . . . wooden. Gulliver McGrath gave a sweet performance as young David Collins, but he did not strike me as particularly memorable.

For me, the best performances came from lead actor Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Eva Green and Chloë Grace Moretz. The latter has certainly grown a lot since I first saw her in “KICK ASS”, two years ago. I find her take on the fifteen year-old Carolyn Stoddard to be very eccentric (in a positive way). She also seemed to be a younger version of Michelle Pfieffer, who portrayed her imperious mother, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. I thought that Pfieffer was spot on as the indomitable matriarch of the Collins family, who hid her ruthlessly passionate and maternal nature behind a reserved facade. Eva Green nearly scared me out of my wits with her frightening portrayal of Angelique Bouchard, the witch who developed an obsessive love for Barnabas. Apparently, Angelique’s love and hatred proved to be so strong that she continued to slowly destroy the Collins family, long after Barnabas was locked in a coffin. Johnny Depp has portrayed some memorable characters over the years. But I must admit that his take on the Barnabas Collins character has proven to be one of my favorites. The man was superb. I could describe his performance with as many adjectives as possible. But it would take a great deal of my time. All I can say is that I believe he was perfect.

I realize that “DARK SHADOWS” has disappointed many fans of the old 1966-71 television series. And I must admit that I found a few aspects of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay rather questionable. But “DARK SHADOWS” proved to be an entertaining movie thanks to Tim Burton’s direction, the story’s concentration on the Barnabas Collins, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the excellent cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uber patriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character. 

My condescending contempt toward this new movie grew deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of“THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign upfor the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with“WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s “BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. She also did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. And it was easy to see why she fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies of this summer. And because of this movie, I found myself truly looking forward to “THE AVENGERS”, this summer.  Thankfully, it proved to be even more first-rate.

“SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009) Review

“SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009) Review

I have never been a major fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other writers. Once, I tried to get interested in them by reading one or two novels. But they had simply failed to spark my interest. 

I have shown a little more enthusiasm toward the various movies and television adaptations of Doyle’s novels and characters. Mind you, I never became a faithful viewer of the television series that starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes. But I have do have my private list of Sherlock Holmes movies that I consider as personal favorites. Including this latest film directed by Guy Ritchie.

The movie opened with Holmes; his good friend, Dr. John Watson; and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade rescuing a young woman from becoming the latest victim of an occult worshipper named Lord Henry Blackwood. Actually, Holmes and Watson rescued the young woman. Lestrade and his entourage of uniformed officers arrived in time to arrest the culprit. In the aftermath of the case, Holmes becomes bored and indulges in a series of bizarre experiments and bare knuckle fighting to relive his boredom. He is also upset over Watson’s recent engagement to a young governess named Mary Morstan. Before Lord Blackwood is executed, he informs Holmes that he will rise from the dead more powerful than ever, leaving Holmes and the police unable to stop him.

The story continues when a former ”nemesis” of Holmes named Irene Adler engages the detective to find a missing man named Reardon. Holmes discovers that Irene has been hired by a mysterious man to recruit him, but fails to follow up on his suspicions. When Reardon turns out to be linked to Lord Blackwood, who has ”risen from the grave” as promised, Holmes and Watson find themselves involved in another case.

One can see that ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is not an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s novels or stories; or any other Holmes work of fiction. The movie’s screenplay; written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; is an original story. Yet, the three writers managed to incorporate certain small aspects from Conan Doyle’s original works into the script that have rarely been seen in previous Sherlock Holmes adaptations. They include:

*Holmes’ untidy habits

*Holmes’ photograph of Irene Adler

*Watson’s military background

*Lestrade’s comment about Holmes’ potential as a master criminal

*Holmes’ ability to speak French

*Watson’s gambling habit

Before my first viewing of the movie, an acquaintance had warned me that some critics found the plot to be convoluted. After seeing ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” twice, I can honestly say that aside from the opening sequence, I found nothing confusing about the plot. Johnson, Peckham and Kinberg created a complex and clever tale about Holmes’ investigation into the murderous, yet alleged supernatural activities of one Lord Henry Blackwood. The story’s mystery was never a ”whodunit”, but a ”how did he do it”. How did Lord Blackwood rise from the grave? How did he kill three men by supernatural means? And what was his goal? In Holmes’ final confrontation with Blackwood, the screenwriters did a first-rate job in allowing the detective to reveal Blackwood’s methods and goals.

”SHERLOCK HOLMES” also captured the feel and nuance of late Victorian London beautifully, thanks to Ritchie and his crew. One can thank the combination work of Philippe Rousselot’s photography, and the visual effects team supervised by Jonathan Fawkner. I also have to commend designer Jenny Beavan for the costumes she had designed for most of the cast, and Jane Law for the colorful costumes she designed for the two leading female roles. They seemed straight out of the late Victorian period. I could not write this review without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s score for the film. Quite frankly, I adored it. I found it to be very original and unique. I also loved how he used the Dubliners’ song, ”The Rocky Road to Dublin” for two scenes and the movie’s final credits.

Ritchie also had the good luck to work with a top notch cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. As far as I know, Downey Jr. is the fourth American actor to portray Sherlock Holmes. Most of them have been pretty good – with the exception of Matt Frewer – but I must say that Downey Jr.’s performance not only rose above them, but also a good number of British and Commonwealth actors, as well. Aside from two or three moments, the actor’s English accent seemed spot on to me. Even better, Downey Jr. did a brilliant job in capturing the nuances and complexities of Holmes’ character – both virtues and flaws. And he managed to do all of this without turning the character into a cliché or portraying a second-rate version of the performances of other actors who have portrayed Holmes. Most importantly, Downey Jr. managed to create a sizzling chemistry with the man who became his Dr. Watson – namely Jude Law.

It has been a while since I have seen Jude Law on the movie screen. At first glance, one would be hard pressed to imagine him in the role of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ colleague. Then I saw a drawing and read a description of the literary Watson and realized that his casting in this particular role may not be a complete disaster. When I saw his performance on the screen, I immediately knew that he was the right man for the role. Law perfectly captured Watson’s firm and dependable nature that kept Holmes on solid ground. He also did an excellent job of portraying Watson’s intelligence and bravery as a man of action. I am also thankful that Law did not follow Nigel Bruce’s example of portraying Watson as Holmes’ bumbling, yet well meaning sidekick. Thank goodness for little miracles.

While reading some articles about the movie, I have come across many negative comments about Rachel McAdams’ performance as the mysterious adventuress, Irene Adler. Even worse, many have expressed disbelief that McAdams’ Irene was a woman who had bested Holmes twice, claiming that she had been fooled by her employer. I found this last complaint rather irrelevant, considering that Holmes ended up being fooled, as well. Personally, these are two assessments of McAdams’ performance that I found difficult to believe or accept. In fact, I ended up enjoying her portrayal of Irene very much. I thought she gave an excellent and subtle performance as the intelligent and sly Irene, who enjoyed matching wits with Holmes. Some fans also complained about McAdams’ accent. Why, I do not know. It seemed clear to me via the actress’ accent that she was portraying an intelligent and educated 19th century woman from the American Northeast. Her Canadian accent helped her on that score. When I had first laid eyes upon Mark Strong in 2007’s ”STARDUST”, I had no idea that I would become such a major fan of his. Three movies later, I definitely have. Strong was exceptional as always as the mysterious Lord Henry Blackwood, a nefarious aristocrat with a thirst for power who claims to have great supernatural abilities. Although I would not consider Blackwood to be Strong’s most interesting role, I must admit that the actor’s interpretation of the character as one of the better screen villains I have seen in the past five years.

The movie also featured first-rate performances from supporting actors Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly. Marsan portrayed the long-suffering Scotland Yard police officer, Inspector Lestrade. I first noticed Marsan in 2006’s ”MIAMI VICE” and genuinely thought he was American born. When I saw him in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” portraying a Central European, I began to wonder about his real nationality. It took me a while to realize that he was English. If Lon Chaney was ”the Man of a Thousand Faces”, then Marsan must be ”the Man of a Thousand Accents”. In ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”, he used his own accent. However, he also gave a first-rate performance as the intelligent, but long-suffering Lestrade, who constantly endures Holmes’ mild ridicule in order to get a case solved. I have to be frank. When I first saw Kelly Reilly in 2005’s ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I had not been impressed by her portrayal of Caroline Bingley. I am still not impressed. But after seeing her as Watson’s fiancée, Mary Morstan, my opinion of her as an actress has risen. Either Reilly’s skills as an actress had improved over the past four years, or she simply found herself a better role. I liked that Reilly’s Mary was not some missish Victorian woman prone to hysterics over her fiance’s relationship with Holmes. Instead Reilly portrayed Mary as a woman who understood the two men’s relationship and Holmes’ dependence upon Watson’s presence. Even if she was not that enamored of the detective.

I do have some problems with ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”. One, there were times when I could barely understand some of the dialogue. Especially when it came out of Robert Downey Jr.’s mouth. When it came to using a British accent, he had a tendency to mumble rather heavily. Honestly? I could have used some close captions for some of his scenes. Although I found the movie’s panoramic views of London and visual effects impressive, I was not particularly fond of the gray-blue tint of Rousselot’s photography. According to the movie’s official site, ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” is supposed to be set during 1891. Yet, Jane Law’s costumes for McAdams and Reilly seemed straight out of the late 1880s. Their bustles seemed too big for the early 1890s. My biggest gripe centered around the movie’s opening sequence. The screenplay never really explained why Blackwood had murdered four women and tried to kill a fifth. If it had, would someone please enlighten me?

What can I say about ”SHERLOCK HOLMES”? Sure, I have a few quibbles about the film. But I still love it. Guy Ritchie not only did a superb job of recapturing late Victorian London, but also the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary hero, Sherlock Holmes. And he did so with a superb cast led by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, a first-rate script written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg; and a group of craftsmen that managed to bring the world of Victorian London and Sherlock Holmes back to life.