Wednesday, May 17, 2017

NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - Episode Five "December 1864 - February 1865"

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"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - EPISODE FIVE "December 1864 - February 1865" Commentary

"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" finally reached its home stretch in Episode Five, the penultimate episode. Well . . . almost. Beginning several weeks after the end of Episode FourEpisode Five continued the miniseries' portrayal of the Civil War's last year for the Hazards and the Mains. It also put three or four subplots to rest. 

Episode Five opened with George Hazard still imprisoned inside Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The episode also continued with Madeline Main's efforts to feed Charleston's poor and war refugees, Charles Main and Augusta Barclay's wartime romance, and the survival of Mont Royal's remaining inhabitants. Episode Five also closed several subplots that included Stanley and Isobel Hazard's war profiteering, Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon's plot against Jefferson Davis' administration, and Madeline's relationship with former officer Rafe Beaudine. 

This episode featured some excellent dramatic moments. Lewis Smith certainly shined in his portrayal of Charles Main, who had hardened considerably after three-and-a-half years of war. This was especially apparent in scenes that included Charles' reluctance to help his cousin Orry Main rescue George Hazard from Libby Prison, his cold-blooded killing of a Union prisoner, his attempt prevent fellow scout Jim Pickles from deserting and his emotionally distant attitude toward lady love Augusta Barclay and her manservant, Washington. Another well acted scene featured Brett Main Hazard and Semiramis' encounter with former Mont Royal overseer, Salem Jones. Watching Erica Gimpel point a shotgun at Tony Frank, considering their characters' past history, brought a smile to my face. I also enjoyed the poignant scene between Brett and her mother, Clarissa Main, while the latter painfully reminisced about the past; thanks to Genie Francis and Jean Simmons' performances. And both James Read and Jonathan Frakes knocked it out of the ballpark in the scene that featured George's confrontation with Stanley and Isobel over their war profiteering. They were supported by fine performances from Wendy Kilbourne and Mary Crosby.

But another truly superb performance came from Terri Garber, who got a chance to portray Ashton Huntooon's increasing doubts over Elkhannah Bent's scheme against Davis. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Ashton silently expressed shame over her willingness to prostitute herself to a potential contributor for Bent's plot. She received fine support from Jim Metzler as her husband James Huntoon and Patrick Swayze as Orry Main. But I felt that Philip Casnoff's Bent nearly became slightly hammy by the scene's end. Even Lesley Anne Down and Lee Horsley managed to shine as Madeline and the infatuated Rafe Beaudine. But I must admit that I found one of their later scenes slightly melodramatic.

Yet, despite these dramatic gems, I was not particularly impressed by the writing featured in Episode Five. I had a problem with several subplots. One, I had a problem with the subplot involving Stanley and Isobel's profiteering. It made me wish the screenwriters had adhered to author John Jakes' original portrayal of the couple in his 1984 novel, "Love and War". I felt this subplot had ended with a whimper. It was bad enough that George had killed Stanley and Isobel's partner in a bar fight. But aside from the dead partner, the only way the couple could face conviction was to confess. And I found it implausible that a remorseful Stanley would still be willing to do that after receiving an earful of angry insults from George. Very weak.

Episode Five also allowed Madeline and Bent's subplots to interact for the purpose of killing off Rafe Beaudine. Frankly, I found the idea of Bent traveling from Richmond to Charleston for more funds . . . only to be told to seek hard cash from "the Angel of Charleston" - namely Madeline. The latter recruited a retired stage actress portrayed by Linda Evans to impersonate her and discover Bent's plans. And what was Madeline's next act? She left her boarding house (in the middle of the night) to warn . . . who? The script never made it clear about whom Madeline had intended to warn. Why? Because her night time task was interrupted by Bent, who had recognized the stage actress. And before Bent could lay eyes upon Madeline, Rafe comes to her rescue. What can I say? Contrived.

I also found Bent's scheme to get rid of Jefferson Davis and assume political and military control of the Confederacy rather ludicrous. Audiences never really saw him recruit any real political support for his scheme . . . just money from various wealthy Southerners. The screenplay never allowed Bent to make any effort to recruit military support for the weapons he had purchased. In the end, I found the entire subplot lame and a waste of my time.

And finally, we come to the efforts of "Madeline the Merciful" to find food for Charleston's poor. Personally, I found this subplot ludicrous. Madeline did not bother to recruit other women from Charleston's elite to help her. And I suspect some of them would have been willing to help. I also found this subplot extremely patronizing. Again, it seemed to embrace the "savior complex" trope to the extreme. The subplot seemed to infantilize all social groups that were not part of the city's white elite or middle-class - namely fugitive slaves, working-class whites and all free blacks. I found this last category surprising, considering that the screenwriters failed to acknowledge that not all free blacks were poor. In the end, this entire subplot struck me as a white elitist fantasy that Julian Fellowes would embrace.

The production values featured in the episode struck me as top-notch. Both director Kevin O'Connor and the film editing team did excellent work for the actions scenes in Episode Five. I found myself impressed by the scenes that featured George's escape from Libby Prison, his bar fight with Stanley and Isobel's profiteering partner, Bent and Rafe's fight in Charleston and the former's encounter with Orry and the Huntoons back in Virginia. More importantly, Robert Fletcher continued to shine with his outstanding costume designs, as shown in the following images:

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Yes, Episode Five featured some fine dramatic moments and performances. It even featured some solid action scenes. But . . . I was not particularly happy with most of the subplots. I also found the ending of one particularly subplot rather disappointing. No one felt more relieved than me when Episode Five finally ended.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

"DUMB WITNESS" (1996) Screencaps Gallery

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Below are images from "DUMB WITNESS", the 1996 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1937 novel. Directed by Edward Bennett, the movie starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot: 

"DUMB WITNESS" (1996) Photo Gallery

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Friday, May 5, 2017

"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (1995) Review






"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (1995) Review

There have been numerous adaptations of Jane Austen’s celebrated 1813 novel, "Pride and Prejudice" over the past decades. Two of these versions happened to be BBC miniseries that aired in 1980 and 1995. It has been a long time since I have viewed the 1980 miniseries. However, I recently saw the 1995 miniseries for the umpteenth time and decided to finally write a review of it. Adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies, the miniseries was produced by Sue Birtwistle and directed by Simon Langton.

Austen’s story centered around one Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters of a country gentleman living in Regency England and the efforts of her parents (or should I say of her mother) to find eligible husbands for her and her four other sisters. Two of these men happened to be the wealthy Charles Bingley, who has moved into the Bennets’ Hertfordshire neighborhood; and his wealthier friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. The cheerful Mr. Bingley has managed to easily win the favor of the Bennets and their neighbors. He has also fallen in love with Elizabeth’s older sister, the even-tempered Jane. On the other hand, the more reticent Mr. Darcy not only managed to alienate Elizabeth, the other Bennets and the entire neighborhood with his aloof manner, but also fall in love with Elizabeth. "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE", more than anything, focused upon the volatile love story between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Like nearly every other work of art in existence, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its share of flaws. Years after I first saw this miniseries, I still find myself wincing at actress Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the boorish Mrs. Bennet. I realize that the character possessed a wince-inducing personality. But there seemed to be a shrill note in Steadman’s performance during the miniseries’ first episode that made her portrayal of Mrs. Bennet seemed over-the-top. Another complaint I have about the miniseries is the lack of complexity in supporting characters like Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle – Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner – and Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. I found all three very likeable, but also slightly boring. They were the only characters that seemed to indulge in banal conversation that complimented everyone and everything.

I have two problems regarding the crisis over Lydia Bennet’s elopement with George Wickham, Darcy’s boyhood companion. One, I never understood why a calculating scoundrel like Wickham would bother to leave Brighton with Lydia in tow, on the promise of elopement. He knew that her family did not have the funds to buy him off. And I have read excuses, which explained that Wickham left Brighton because he had accumulated a good deal of debt during his regiment’s stay. I have also read that he took Lydia with him as an excuse to get out of town. With the promise of elopement? That does not sound right. Wickham was not a fool. It was bad enough that he had accumulated debts and had to get out of Brighton. But to drag Lydia in this mess did not strike me as logical. All he had to do was leave town in the middle of the night. Whether he was with Lydia or by himself, he ended up being absent without leave. I cannot help but wonder if Austen ever thought this through when she wrote her novel. The elopement crisis also forced Elizabeth to end her summer tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners and return to her family at Longbourn. For the next twenty minutes or so, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” grounded to a halt, while the Bennets received a series of correspondence and visitors. This sequence featured two scenes of a bored Lydia and an anxious, yet frustrated Lydia sharing a rented room in London, and two featuring Darcy’s search for the pair. This sequence also featured a meaningless visit from Mr. Collins in which he smirked over the family’s possible ruination for less than five minutes. These little scenes failed to help the sequence move at a faster pace.

Before one starts to assume that I do not like ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, let me make it clear that I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I absolutely adore it. Not only is it one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations of all time, it is one of my top ten favorite miniseries of all time. Yes, it has its flaws. Even some of the best movies and television productions have flaws. And as I have pointed out, I do believe that the 1995 miniseries is no exception. But its virtues definitely outweighed the flaws. The miniseries’ five-and-a-half hours running time proved to be more of a virtue than a hindrance. But the miniseries format allowed viewers to enjoy this adaptation at a more leisurely pace than is allowed in a movie adaptation and the rich details of the story. I have seen at least five versions of Austen’s ”Pride and Prejudice”. I have noticed that the plots for two of the movie versions went into great detail of the novel’s first half – from the Bingleys and Darcy’s arrival in Hertfordshire to Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth in Kent. But after that first proposal, the movie versions seemed to zoom ahead to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s visit to Longbourn. I cannot say the same for the two television versions I have seen – especially the 1995 version. Aside from the tedious “search for Lydia” sequence, the story’s second half proved to be quite entertaining – especially Elizabeth’s visit to Derbyshire, Lydia and Wickham’s visit to Longbourn as a married couple, along with Darcy and Bingley’s efforts to renew their pursuits of the two elder Bennet sisters.

It could be understandable that the movie adaptations seemed to focus more on the novel’s first half. After all, many consider it to be the best part. The Bennets’ encounters with Darcy and the Bingleys crackled with energy and great humor. The series of fascinating verbal duels between the two lead characters possessed that same energy, along with a great deal of sexual tension. And when one throws the obsequious and ridiculous Mr. Collins into the mix, one has the feeling of watching a comedy-romantic masterpiece. All of this humor, energy and romance, mixed in with an elegant setting seemed to be at an apex in the Netherfield ball sequence. Personally, I consider the dance shared warily between Elizabeth and Darcy to be one of the best written and filmed scenes in the entire miniseries. Another scene that many consider to be one of the best, featured Darcy’s first marriage proposal to Elizabeth, during her visit to Charlotte and Mr. Collins at Hunsford Lodge, in Kent. That particular scene has to be one of the most wince-inducing moments in the entire story. Why? Because I found it hard to watch Elizabeth receive that extra-ordinary marriage proposal laced with passion . . . and slightly insulting remarks about her family background on her mother’s side. And because I found it difficult to watch Darcy endure Elizabeth’s heart stomping rejection. Both Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth performed the hell out of that scene.

Speaking of performances, one of the miniseries’ greatest assets was its cast. Jane Austen wrote a novel filled with some rich supporting characters. Director Simon Langton and screenwriter Andrew Davies utilized them very well. And so did the cast. Now, I cannot take back my complaints regarding Alison Steadman’s performance as Mrs. Bennet in the first hour. Yet shrill or not, she managed to capture her character’s personality perfectly. And so did Benjamin Whitrow, who portrayed the sardonic and long suffering Mr. Bennet. Some fans of Austen’s novel have complained about David Bamber’s buffoonish take on Mr. Collins, the Bennet’s obsequious cousin fated to inherit Longbourn upon Mr. Bennet’s death. But my memories of the literary Mr. Collins were that of a buffoonish man. However, Bamber gave his Mr. Collins a brief, poignant moment when Elizabeth took pity on his efforts to hide his slightly damaged pride with a tour of Hunsford. Julia Sawalha did a superb job in her portrayal of the youngest Bennet sibling – the thoughtless and self-centered Lydia. In fact, Sawalha managed to give one of the funniest performances in the entire miniseries. However, she had some stiff competition from the likes of Polly Maberly, who portrayed the slightly less flighty Kitty Bennet; and Lucy Briers, who portrayed the bookish and slightly self-righteous Mary Bennet.

One of the memorable performances in the miniseries came from actress Anna Chancellor, who portrayed one of Charles Bingley’s annoying and snobbish sister, Caroline. Chancellor managed to convey not only Caroline’s pretentious and spiteful sense of humor very well, but also the character’s desperate attempts to woo an uninterested Mr. Darcy. I believe that Crispin Bonham-Carter did a good job in infusing his character, Charles Bingley, with a good deal of bohemian warmth and cheerfulness. Yet, he had a tendency to read his lines in a broad manner that struck me as a bit too theatrical at times. I must admit that he could be very subtle in conveying Bingley’s attempts to suppress negative reactions to certain members of the Bennet family and his two sisters. Superficially, Susannah Harker’s performance as Jane Bennet seemed solid . . . almost dull. But a closer look at the actress’s performance made me realize that her she did a much better job in the role than most people were willing to give her credit for. She was excellent in conveying Jane’s heartbreak over the separation from Mr. Bingley. And she had one truly hilarious moment during the Netherfield Ball, when her character anxiously pointed out Mr. Collins’ intentions to speak to Mr. Darcy. But more importantly, Harker’s Jane seemed more like an older sister than the performances of the other actresses who had portrayed the role.

If I have to cite what I consider to be the three best performances in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, they would be Adrian Lukis as George Wickham, Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. In my opinion, Lukis’ portrayal of the charming and devious wastrel, George Wickham, is the best I have seen by any actor who has portrayed the role. I would not claim that he was the best looking Wickham. But Lukis conveyed a seamless charm that hinted a heady mixture of warmth, false honesty, and intimacy that could make anyone forget that his Wickham was a man one could not trust. And the actor achieved this with a subtle skill that made the other Wickhams look like amateurs.

Many fans and critics have labeled Colin Firth’s portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy as “smoldering” or “sexy” . . . worthy of a sex symbol. I do not know if I would agree with that assessment. What many saw as “smoldering”, I saw a performance in which the actor utilized his eyes to convey his character’s emotional responses. Whether Firth’s Darcy expressed contempt toward others, growing love and desire for Elizabeth Bennet, anxiety, wariness or any other emotion; Firth uses his eyes and facial expressions with great skill. Some fans have complained that his Darcy appeared in too many scenes in the last third of the series. I consider this nothing more than an exaggeration. Personally, I enjoyed those little sequences in which Firth revealed Darcy’s struggles to deal with Elizabeth’s rejection. While several others drooled over Firth in a wet shirt and breeches, I enjoyed the awkwardness in the reunion between his Darcy and Elizabeth. Firth earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the complex and reserved Mr. Darcy. And as far as I am concerned, he certainly deserved it . . . and a lot more.

Jennifer Ehle won a BAFTA award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, the vivacious leading lady of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. And it was a well deserved award, as far as I am concerned. Ehle not only formed a sizzling screen chemistry with Colin Firth, but with Adrian Lukis, as well. And like the two actors, she put her own stamp on her role. Ehle perfectly captured the aspects of Elizabeth’s character that many fans have admired – her liveliness, intelligence, warmth and sharp wit. Elizabeth’s habit of forming and maintain first opinions of others have been well-documented, which Ehle managed to capture. She also conveyed another disturbing aspect of Elizabeth’s personality – namely her arrogance. In some ways, Ehle’s Elizabeth could be just as arrogant as Mr. Darcy. She seemed to harbor a lack of tolerance toward those she viewed as flawed individuals. And thanks to Ehle’s skillful performance, this arrogance is conveyed in Elizabeth’s wit, barely suppressed rudeness and unwillingness to listen to good advice about making fast judgment about others from two people she highly admired – her sister Jane and her good friend, Charlotte Lucas.

The most important thing I can say about both Ehle and Firth is that the pair managed to form a sizzling screen chemistry. In other words, their Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy crackled with a great deal of energy, subtle sexuality and sharp wit. Their screen chemistry seemed stronger than any of the other screen couples who have portrayed the two characters. Surprisingly, I do have one problem with the two leads in the miniseries. And I have to place all of the blame on Andrew Davies, when he decided to faithfully adapt one scene in which the newly engaged Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy discussed the development of their relationship. Unfortunately, they came off sounding cold and clinical – like two psychoanalysts examining the genesis of their romance.

There is no doubt that producer Sue Birtwistle, director Simon Langton and the production team did a superb job with the miniseries’ overall production design. Mind you, I feel that the overall credit belonged to production designer Gerry Scott and art designers John Collins and Mark Kebby. They did a top notch job in capturing Austen’s tone from the novel by giving the miniseries a light and natural look to its setting. I could say the same for cinematographer John Kenway’s photography. I am not claiming to be an expert on the fashions of Regency Britain. Yet, from what I have read in other articles, many believed that Dinah Collin’s costumes closely recaptured the fashion and styles of the period when the novel was first published. I could not make final statement about that. But I must admit that the fashions perfectly captured the tone of the story and the production designs. If there is one other aspect of the miniseries that reflected its look and tone, I believe it would have to be Carl Davis’ score. Either he or Birtwistle made the right choice in hiring pianist Melvyn Tan to perform the score for the series’ opening credit.

In the end, ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” became one of the most acclaimed miniseries on both sides of the Atlantic. Even after nineteen years, it is still highly regarded. And rightly so. Despite a few flaws, I believe it deserves its accolades. As far as I am concerned, the 1995 miniseries remains to be the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. I also believe it is one of the best adaptations of any Austen novel, period.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"The Moral Landscape of the 'STAR WARS' Saga" - Introduction


Below is the introduction to a series of small articles I plan to write about the moral landscape in the "STAR WARS" saga, created by George Lucas. Each article will focus the moral makeup of each character or group of characters: 


"THE MORAL LANDSCAPE OF THE 'STAR WARS' SAGA"

Introduction

Morality has always seemed to be a tricky subject with humans. Probably more so than we care to admit. We like to pretend that the majority of all human societies have basic rules when it comes to morality. But I suspect that is nothing more than an illusion. I believe that each individual . . . or each group has his/her or its own moral compass. What one individual is prepared to tolerate, another is not. It all depends upon our individual feelings regarding a certain matter. 

I could probably say the same about the "STAR WARS" saga, created by filmmaker, George Lucas. Many "STAR WARS" fans love to claim that their own interpretation of the moral compass of the saga’s major characters exactly matched Lucas’ intentions in his films. I wish I could say the same. But in the end, I realized that each person has his or her own interpretation of an artist’s work. And sometimes, that interpretation might also be different from the artist’s. Having expressed this view, I decided to express my own view of the moral landscape presented in the six movies of the "STAR WARS" saga.

I am going to make a confession. When I first saw the original "STAR WARS", I did not like it very much. In fact, I barely liked it at all. You must understand that I was rather young when the movie first hit theaters in 1977. I suspect that it blew my mind so much that I was inclined to reject it, instead of becoming a fan. This dislike did not extend to "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK", when I first saw it. I was a little older and was able to appreciate what George Lucas was trying to do. And yet . . . I did not embrace this movie, as well. But I must admit that I found it difficult not to think about it. Han Solo’s fate and Darth Vader’s revelation had taken me by surprise and I found myself thinking about it all summer long. Ironically, "RETURN OF THE JEDI" became the first STAR WARS movie that I fully embraced. I say this with a great deal of irony, considering that it is now my least favorite movie in the franchise. During the late 1980s and the 1990s, I slowly became a major fan of all three films. And by the time I saw the first of the Prequel Trilogy movies, "THE PHANTOM MENACE", I had fully embraced the saga. 

I realized that the Prequel Trilogy has been met with nothing but scorn and derision by many STAR WARS fans and the media. However, I have never shared their feelings. If anything, the Prequel Trilogy made me appreciate Lucas’ talents as a storyteller. It also made me realize that the producer had presented moviegoers with a very emotionally complex saga. 

However, this article is not about my basic feelings regarding all six films in the franchise. This article is about my opinions on the morality and characterizations presented in the films. One of the things I have always enjoyed about the Prequel Trilogy and movies like "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" was Lucas’ revelations had pretty much revealed both the virtues and FLAWS of individuals. The characters in the Original Trilogy were flawed, but I do not believe their flaws had not been portrayed with as much depth as those characters in the Prequel Trilogy. And judging from the many articles, blogs and message boards I have read about STAR WARS, many fans seemed to dislike the less idealistic and more ambiguous portrayal of the PT's main characters.

The following article will focus upon the Jedi Order and some of its senior members. I hope to discuss some of their actions and how it affected the Galactic Republic in the Prequel Trilogy and their impact upon the character of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire in the Original Trilogy.


Monday, April 24, 2017

"HELL ON WHEELS" Season One (2011) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from Season One of the AMC Series, "HELL ON WHEELS". Created by Joe and Tony Gayton, the series stars Anson Mount, Colm Meany, Common and Dominique McElligott: 


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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"12 YEARS A SLAVE" (2013) Review

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"12 YEARS A SLAVE" (2013) Review

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

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

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

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

"TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE" has gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It is already considered a front-runner for the Academy Awards. Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup's experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"A Convenient Proposal" [PG-13] 2/5




A CONVENIENT PROPOSAL"

PART 2 - Revelations

Evelyn leaned against the door, closed her eyes and sighed. Her body trembled from the furious outburst she had unleashed upon Rafe. Thoughts of the Army pilot produced another swell of anger. How could he possibly think she would accept such a proposal? Or think she would marry him out of convenience?

Well, you were prepared to do the same with Danny, weren't you? Evelyn immediately balked at her inner voice. She tried to convince herself that Danny was another matter. Or that Danny would have never proposed to her out of mere convenience. You would have accepted his proposal for that very same reason. Who are you to castigate Rafe? Evelyn ruthlessly squelched her last thoughts and started for her bedroom. She was in no mood to feel guilty over her temper outburst at Rafe. Not when she had other guilty feelings to deal with.

A voice from the kitchen cried out, "Evelyn? Is that you?" Martha. She and the other nurses must have returned from the base at Pearl. "Hey, Evelyn!"

Evelyn turned toward the kitchen, where she found her three roommates and a fourth nurse, sitting around the table eating sandwiches. "Hi," she greeted the quartet. "I thought you guys would still be at the hospital. Especially with so many wounded still coming in from Midway."

Over two weeks had passed since the June 4th battle between the U.S. and Japanese naval forces near Midway Island. While the country celebrated its first major victory against Japan, many American military hospitals, including the one at Pearl, had to deal with the sudden influx of wounded sailors and pilots.

The blond and sharp-tongued Barbara stifled a yawn, as she reached for a pot of coffee. "You've been gone too long. Our shift had ended over a half-hour ago, thank goodness. It seemed as if we've been living at that damn hospital for nearly two weeks, now."

"How is Rafe?" Sandra asked. The pretty, red-haired nurse removed her glasses. "Did his plane arrive on time?"

The mention of Rafe's name brought upon an unexpected wave of anger and sadness within Evelyn. She immediately squashed it and eased her bulky form into an empty chair. "Yeah, Rafe arrived. And right on time." Her reply drew stares from the other nurses. Evelyn realized that she must have sounded curt.

The oldest of the Navy nurses who shared Evelyn's bungalow reached over the latter's shoulder for a sandwich. Like Barbara, Martha was a working-class young woman from the East Coast who had developed a sharp tongue after years of dealing with life's disappointments. However, unlike Barbara, she had dark hair, a pleasant face and weighed several extra pounds.

"Hey kiddo," Martha began. "Is there something wrong? For a moment there, I thought you were gonna bite off Sandra's head." She gave Evelyn a shrewd look. "Something happened between you and Rafe?"

Evelyn blinked. Good old Martha. Never one to pull a punch. "No," replied curtly. "Everything's fine." Evelyn bit her tongue the moment she spoke. Again, she had responded a lot more sharply than she had intended. For once she wished she would think before opening her mouth.

"Everything's fine, huh?" One of Martha's dark brows cocked upward. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were pissed at him." Her use of profanity drew gasps from Sandra and fourth nurse, whose name escaped had escaped Evelyn's memory. "For crying out loud, you two! Grow up!"

Barbara added, "She's right. It's 1942 and there's a war going on. Besides, you've heard worse in the hospital. Geez!"

Grateful for the distraction, Evelyn smiled and reached for the coffee pot. The fourth nurse, whose name Evelyn now remembered as Clarice, reached it first and filled an empty cup with coffee. She handed the cup to Evelyn, who thanked her.

"Pardon me," Sandra retorted in her usual supercilious manner, "but not all of us are that worldly. My mother had raised me to be a lady. So, if you don't mind . . ."

The exhaustion on Barbara's face immediately vanished. She now looked as if she was ready to establish her own battleground. "A lady?" She snorted with derision. "Get her! I suppose you're trying to say that the rest of us 'worldly minions' aren't ladies?"

Sandra's eyes blazed with anger. "You're twisting my words! All I'm trying to say is . . ."

"Hey!" Martha's outburst interrupted the verbal battle. "You two can go at each other's throats another time. Right now, I'm more interested in Evelyn!" She faced the pregnant woman. "Well? Did Rafe say something to upset you?"

With four pairs of eyes riveted upon her, Evelyn realized she could no longer dodge the issue. Damn! If only Barbara and Sandra's fight had lasted a little longer. Might as well tell the truth. Or the girls will hound her until she does.

Evelyn cleared her throat. "If you must know," she began in a shaky voice, "Rafe had asked me to marry him."

* * * * 

The moment Evelyn slammed the door in his face, Rafe found himself frozen on the spot. Her actions had taken him by surprise. He had been certain that she would accept his marriage proposal.

Once the shock wore off, he felt an urge to bang on the door. Demand why she had rejected him. Yet, a mixture of uncertainty and fear prevented him. Nor did Rafe want to attract any unwanted attention, in case Evelyn's other roommates happened to be inside the house. He leaned his forehead against the door, hoping that somehow, she would read his thoughts. When that hope vanished, Rafe heaved a deep sigh and returned to the Buick.

He drove all the way back to Hickam Field and the new barracks that now housed the Army's pilots. When Rafe had first arrived in Hawaii over six months ago, he found himself homeless. He had arrived on a Friday night and most of the base's personnel, including the Quartermaster, had disappeared for the weekend and Rafe ended up at a local motel. Upon his return from the Tokyo raid, he had better luck and was housed with the rest of the pilots in new quarters.

After a twenty minute drive, Hickam Field loomed ahead. Upon arriving at his new quarters, Rafe found a noted taped to the door:

"Rafe,

Welcome back. Meet us at the Hula-La.

Red"


The Hula-La. The bar brought back memories of that last evening of peace, when Rafe had drank himself silly before getting into a fight with Danny. He even recalled seeing his own photograph on the wall behind the bar. Scrawled above were the words - KILLED IN ACTION. Rafe could only assume that his photo had been replaced with those of Danny, Anthony and other pilots who had recently died. He did not look forward to seeing Danny's picture on that wall. Then again, he was not in the mood to spend a lonely evening by himself.

With a sigh, he entered his quarters, took a shower, changed into civies and after climbing back into the Buick, drove toward the pilots' favorite bar. Rafe parked the convertible in front of a gazebo, topped by a thatched roof. Oriental and Polynesian knickknacks decorated the bar's interior and large statue of a Hawaiian girl in a hula skirt rose above the structure. He could hear strains of the Andrews Sisters singing "Rum and Coca-Cola", as he entered the bar.

"Rafe!" "Hey! Look who's here!" "How was the mainland, Rafe?" The young captain smiled, as his fellow pilots cried out to greet him. His eyes fell upon the photographs pinned to the wall behind the Hawaiian bartender. Sure enough, there photos of those who had either been killed during the Pearl Harbor attack last December, or during the Doolittle Raid. Rafe recognized several among them - Billy, Joe, Anthony and Danny. His smile disappeared.

Everyone's favorite red-haired pilot strode forward and slapped Rafe's shoulder. "Welcome back, Rafe. Glad to see you." There seemed to be no hint of Red Winkle's usual stutter.

"Thanks Red, "Rafe murmured. The pair joined the others at the bar. "Hey, everyone. What's buzzing?"

Gooz Wood replied in his usual laconic manner, "Nothin much. We just came back from another patrol. I guess you heard about Midway."

"Who hasn't these days? That's all everyone was talking about, while I was back home." Rafe grew silent. Again, his eyes shifted toward the photographs.

One pilot said, "Man, I would have loved to have been in that action. Midway!" His eyes gleamed with exultation. "Get another shot at the Japs after that Tokyo raid." Rafe and several other pilots stared at him. He was one of the new replacement pilots assigned to fill Rafe's squadron after the Doolittle raid.

"Midway was a Navy operation," said a familiar gruff voice. The pilots stepped aside to reveal the tall, slightly bedraggled figure in overalls. It was Earl, the squadron's chief mechanic, standing in the doorway. "After what you fellas did to Tokyo, naturally the Navy boys wanted their time in the sun."

Rafe allowed himself a slight smile. Army versus Navy. Not even wartime could stop that age-old rivalry. "I doubt that publicity had anything to with that, Sergeant," he said. "The Navy were simply the right people to stop the Japs at Midway. An Army operation probably would have been ineffective."

"If you say so, Captain." The mechanic joined the pilots at the bar. "I hope you don't mind me joining you, sir."

"Be my guest, Earl. Drinks are on me." Whoops filled the air, as Rafe dug several bills out of his pocket. The others soon issued their orders to the bartender, who began serving drinks. Rafe ordered a straight bourbon.

Once the bartendder had served all of the drinks, Rafe, Red, Gooz, Earl and a fourth pilot named Steve McCormick, retired to an empty table behind a beaded curtain. Like the other three pilots, Steve was a survivor from the Tokyo raid. Rafe took a sip of his bourbon and said, "By the way, fellas, thanks for not picking me up, this afternoon. Where were you?"

Anxiety flitted across Gooz's face. "Wasn't Evelyn there to pick you up?"

"Unfortunately, she was."

Red replied, "We ra. . . ran into . . . ran into E-E-Evelyn at the movies. When we told her a-a-abo. . . about you, she asked to p-p-pick you up in . . . instead." His stuttering seemed to have returned with a vengeance.

A sigh left Rafe's mouth. He had not meant to make Red that nervous.

"Evelyn?" Earl's brows quirked upward. "Isn't that Lieu . . . uh, Captain Walker's girl? The Navy nurse?" The sergeant's question drew a heavy silence from his four companions. He frowned. "Did I just say something wro . . .?"

Rafe interrupted. "No, didn't," he said curtly. "She was Danny's girl."

Another stretch of silence followed. Rafe barely paid attention to the tension from the other four men. Or the music blasting from the jukebox. "You okay, Captain?" Earl asked uneasily. "You seem a bit sore just now." 

"No," Rafe said, shaking his head. "Everything's fine." His mouth formed a grim line. "Just swell."

Earl gave Rafe a leery glance. "Uh huh. I, uh, I wondered what happened to her. Pretty lady. She must have taken Danny's death pretty hard."

Someone coughed. Red. Rafe poured himself another shot of bourbon. "Yeah," he finally answered. "She did." More silence followed. Rafe found himself wishing he had remained at the barracks. Hell, he regretted a lot of things. Including his marriage proposal to Evelyn.

"If everything is swell," Red asked, "why are you looking so sore?"

Without even thinking, Rafe replied, "Because I had proposed marriage to Evelyn and she said no." His mouth clamped shut the moment he spoke his last word. Dammit! When will he ever learn not to drink and talk at the same time? 

END OF PART 2"