Friday, October 30, 2015

"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" (2011) Photo Gallery

Below are images from "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY", the new adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the movie stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley: 

"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" (2011) Photo Gallery













Monday, October 26, 2015

"CAMBRIDGE SPIES" (2003) Review


"CAMBRIDGE SPIES" (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC's four-part television miniseries called "CAMBRIDGE SPIES"

"CAMBRIDGE SPIES" followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold "Kim" Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union's KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two - Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction - mainly from the right - toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men's lives. I had no problem with the miniseries' sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind - a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting - has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first - even if historical facts get in the way. 

There are some aspects of "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with "Kim" Philby's defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess' defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean's criticisms of America - back then and today - were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now - including its citizens' mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat's way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby's decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB's orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie's cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries' production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists' incursion into Britain's diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period's fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production's sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men - Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean - were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision - namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins. 

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain's working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby's aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess' increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean's insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess' embarrassing outbursts and Maclean's insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King's Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries' historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized. 

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light's performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton's intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions - gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt's distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean's witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby's emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean's insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors - Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean - were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; "CAMBRIDGE SPIES" proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Nine "The Crime" Commentary

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Nine "The Crime" Commentary

The ninth episode of "CENTENNIAL" proved to be an improvement over the last installment. Picking up a few months after "The Storm""The Crime" proved to be an intriguing episode that featured a blossoming romance, psychological warfare and two shocking events. 

"The Crime" begins during the spring of 1888, which finds Oliver Seccombe at the end of his reign as manager of Venneford Ranch. Unable to face a future in disgraced and unemployed, Seccombe commits suicide to end his misery. His widow, Charlotte Seccombe returns to England to grieve. After a conversation with her dying uncle, the Earl of Venneford, she becomes the sole owner of the Colorado ranch. Upon her return to Centennial, Charlotte becomes attracted to ranch hand-turned-foreman, Jim Lloyd, and sets out to woo him in her subtle way.

Hans Brumbaugh's efforts to find permanent farm hands continue to frustrate him. Using John Skimmerhorn as an intermediary, he contacts Ignacio "Nacho" Gomez to recruit future farm hands from Mexico. "Nacho" tries to recruit his nephew,Tranquilino Marquez, into immigrating to the United States and Colorado. But the cynical younger man does not seem interested in leaving Mexico. Brumbaugh, Jim and Amos Calendar are still threatened by gunfighters, hired by the remnants of the Petis gang, who want revenge for the deaths of Frank and Orvid Pettis in Episode Seven. Sheriff Axel Dumire was forced to arrest a hired gun in a tense moment at Centennial's train station.

Speaking of Sheriff Dumire, he continues to harbor suspicions that the Wendell family are more than just actors and entertainers. He believes they are swindlers, who acquired a home by using the Badger Game on the town's local pastor, Reverend Holly. Dumire's suspicions create a surprising consequence - namely a burgeoning friendship with the Wendells' only son, Philip. Although the young boy encourages the friendship to keep an eye on Dumire and vice versa, the two develop a liking for one another. Their friendship is tested when Maude and Mervin Wendell try to use the Badger Game on a Mr. Sorenson, a visiting businessman interested in purchasing land near Centennial. When the scam backfires, Sorenson attacks Mervin and Maude accidentally kills him with a blow to the head. Philip comes to his parents' aid by hiding the man's body in a nearby creek, Mervin discovers a great deal of money inside Sorenson's satchel and Dumire begins to investigate the man's disappearance.

"The Crime" proved to be one of the better episodes from the miniseries' second half, thanks to Charles Larson's screenplay and Virgil Vogel's direction. It proved to be a well-balanced mixture of character study, psychological warfare and romance. The consequences from "The Shepherd" continue to cast a shadow on the lives of Hans Brumbaugh, Jim Lloyd and Amos Calendar. Oliver Seccombe's suicide proved to be a sad and poignant affair, thanks to Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave's performances. The surprising consequence to Seccombe's death proved to be a burgeoning romance between two unlikely people - Charlotte and ranch hand, Jim Lloyd. On paper, the idea of a romance between a British aristocrat and a cowboy from Texas seemed so unlikely . . . and even a little clumsy. Yet, it worked thanks to Larson's writing and subtle performances from Redgrave and William Atherton. Brumbaugh's search for permanent ranch hands served to introduce a new character to the saga, future immigrant from Mexico, Tranquilino Marquez - a story that will continue with more detail in the following episodes.

But the episode's pièce de résistance proved to be the cat-and-mouse game between Sheriff Axel Dumire and the Wendell family. The story line about the two antagonists began in "The Storm", when Dumire tried to run the theatrical family out of Centennial. Their scam on Reverend Holly kept them in town. Two events threatened the Wendells' increasingly popularity with the citizens of Centennial. One, young Philip and Dumire have developed a surprising friendship, despite their wariness of each other. And two, the Wendells' use the Badger Game on the businessman, Mr. Sorenson not only backfired, but led to manslaughter, when Maude bashed him on the head. Eventually, the sheriff became aware of Mr. Sorenson's disappearance and what followed was a delicious game of cat-and-mouse and some tense psychological warfare between Dumire and Philip. I really enjoyed it, thanks to some superb performances by Brian Keith, Doug McKeon, Lois Nettleton and Anthony Zerbe. 

Although I had enjoyed "The Crime" in the past, I never really considered it as one of my favorite episodes from the miniseries. I have now changed my mind. Now that I am older, I feel as if I have developed a greater appreciation of the episode. And I also believe that it just might be one of the better ones of the miniseries.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"EMMA" (1996) Photo Gallery

Here is a gallery of photos from the 1996 movie adaptation of "EMMA". Based upon Jane Austen's novel, the movie starred Gwenyth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. Douglas McGrath directed: 

"EMMA" (1996) Photo Gallery



Thursday, October 15, 2015

"THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" (1982) Review

"THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" (1982) Review

In 1982, CBS television aired a three-part miniseries about the experiences of two families during the Civil War. Sounds familiar? It should, for John Jakes had wrote something similar in three novels between 1982 and 1987 – namely the"NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy. Jakes’ novels were adapted for television in 1985, 1986 and 1994. However this miniseries was produced by Larry White and Lou Reda. And despite the mildly similar theme to the "NORTH AND SOUTH" saga, there are some vast differences. 

"THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" had not been based upon any particular novel or series of novels. Instead, it was based upon a story concept by Bruce Catton, a famous historian who had written a book on the Civil War with the same title. As I had stated before, the miniseries told the story of two families and their experiences between 1859 and 1865. The two families in question are the Geysers and the Hales. The Geyers and the Hales are linked by two sisters portrayed by Colleen Dewhurst and Diane Baker. Although the miniseries revealed the families’ experiences via many characters, the two main characters in the story are John Geyser (John Hammond), who is the third son of the Virginia Geysers and Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), a former Pinkerton agent and abolitionist who befriends John and marries the latter’s Pennsylvania cousin, Mary Hale (Julia Duffy).

Many sagas about the Civil War – especially those on television – tend to focus upon wealthy families or those from exclusive families. Prime examples of this would be 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND", the "NORTH AND SOUTH"Trilogy (1985-1994), 1980's "BEULAH LAND" and the 1984 miniseries called "LOUISIANA""THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" took another route in which its main characters hailed from a middle-class background. The patriarchs of the two families seemed to reek of the middle class. As I had earlier pointed out, John Geyer’s father was a middling farmer named Ben Geyser (Lloyd Bridges). And his uncle by marriage – Jacob Hale Sr. (Robin Gammell) – happened to be the owner and editor-in-chief of a small newspaper in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Even after thirty-two years, I still enjoyed "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY". It has not lost its allure one bit. It rarely played footloose with history. And aside from the miniseries’ last fifteen to twenty minutes, it managed to maintain a brisk pace despite being at least eight (8) hours. The two leads – John Hammond and Stacy Keach managed to create an excellent chemistry and it was easy to view the pair as close friends. And both men were ably supported by a first-rate cast. But amongst them, I was especially impressed by the performances of Julia Duffy as Mary Hale – John’s cousin and Jonas’ wife; Brian Kerwin as Malachai Hale, Mary’s oldest brother; Cooper Huckabee as Matthew Geyser, John’s oldest brother; Dan Shor as Luke Geyser, John’s irrepressible younger brother; Paul Winfield as Jonathan Henry, a free black pottery maker and John's close friend; and Gerald S. O'Loughlin as the Hale brothers’ platoon leader Sergeant O’Toole. I also have to commend upon Gregory Peck’s steady, yet humorous take on Abraham Lincoln and Sterling Hayden for refraining from an over-the-top performance, while portraying abolitionist John Brown.

Someone once complained that the battle sequences in "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" came off as rather bloodless. I found this complaint a little ridiculous, considering that this story was presented as an eight-hour television miniseries, rather than a theatrical movie. After all, the miniseries was made at least 16 to 17 years before Steven Spielberg's 1998 movie, "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN", which changed the cinematic look of battles. Besides, I saw plenty of blood in the miniseries. But two of the most chilling scenes in "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" barely featured any blood:

*John Geyser’s brother Mark (Michael Horton) found himself badly wounded during the Battle of the Wilderness, while the woods surrounding him burn from shellfire.

*Jonathan Henry is lynched for helping two runaway slaves by a local slave patrol led by a fanatical pro-slavery preacher (Warren Oates). What is amazing about this scene is that it happened partially off screen.

As much as I like "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY", it does have its flaws. My main complaint about the miniseries has a lot to do with the vast number of extras and minor characters in the story. Granted, there are some minor characters portrayed by veteran character actors who gave solid performances like Rory Calhoun, Christopher Stone, Julius W. Harris and Geraldine Page. Unfortunately, their presence could not hide the number of amateur . . . or should I say very untalented actors and actresses in minor roles. A prime example would be a nameless actor who portrayed a patriotic Union officer that John Geyser met at the Willard’s Hotel. And there was the actor who portrayed Confederate general Barnard Bee, whose declaration of a famous line was at best hammy. I have no idea why producers White and Reda had hired these people in the first place. Perhaps they were desperate to fill as many roles as possible. 

I have two other problems. One happened to be the romance between John Geyser and the daughter of a Massachusetts senator named Kathy Reynolds, portrayed by Kathleen Beller. Quite frankly, they made quite a boring pair. There is nothing more boring than a couple consisted by two people inclined to be reserved. Superficially, they looked cute. Individually, both John Hammond and Beller gave very first-rate performances. But as an on-screen romantic pair . . . they bored the pants off me. And the last problem with the miniseries centered on its last half hour. Its coverage of the war's last months dragged incessantly. This period stretched from John, Emma and Jonah's efforts to free John and Emma's younger brother Luke from prison in Fort Elmira, New York; to the aftermath of President Lincoln's asassination. The pacing during this sequence was incredibly slow and it took a great deal of effort on my part just to stay awake. The only segment that struck me as interesting during this sequence was Jonah and John's failed efforts to prevent the president's asassination.

But "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" had some memorable scenes. Two of them featured actor Cooper Huckabee. Portraying the oldest Geyser sibling Matthew, I believe that he gave the best performance. And Huckabee had the opportunity to shine in the following scenes:

*A brief, yet emotional reunion between Matthew and John Geyser in the lines right outside Vicksburg, Mississippi.

*Matthew’s death, following a minor battle at the Geyser Farm (beautifully acted by Huckabee).

And there were other memorable scenes, as well. There was what I consider to be the two funniest in the entire miniseries – namely Malachai Hale’s hilarious encounter with a Confederate soldier, while both were trying to hide from a battle; and the barn dance behind enemy lines that the Hale brothers and John Geyser had attended at the invitation of John’s mischievous younger brother Luke, who had become a Confederate soldier during the war's second year. The latter scene also featured Canadian actor Duncan Regehr ("ZORRO") as a Confederate officer, affronted at the idea of two Union soldiers and a correspondent behind enemy lines at a barn dance. I also enjoyed the scene featuring the Hale family witnessing a speech by President-elect Lincoln at a whistle stop in Southern Pennsylvania. And both the lynching of Jonathan Henry and the entire Battle of the Wilderness sequence seemed both poignant, yet too harrowing to believe.

It seems a shame that "THE BLUE AND THE GRAY" is barely mentioned by film critics or fans in regard to Civil War movies in the theaters or television. Quite frankly, it is one of the better ones I have ever seen. It gave a view of the late antebellum period and the Civil War through the eyes of the masses rarely seen in movies like ”GONE WITH THE WIND” or the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy. I heartily recommend it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire: 


1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. "Flashman in the Great Game" (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser - Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in theFlashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman's experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. "Shadow of the Moon" (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye - This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

3 - The Bastard

3. "The Bastard" (1974) by John Jakes - Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. "Flashman and the Dragon" (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser - The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman's experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

5 - Noble House

5. "Noble House" (1981) by James Clavell - Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family's company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

6 - Zemindar

6. "Zemindar" (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald - This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter's wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

7 - Tai-pan

7. "Tai-Pan" (1966) by James Clavell - Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain's Hong Kong colony.

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. "Liberty Tavern" (1976) by Thomas Fleming - This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. "The Far Pavilion" (1978) by M.M. Kaye - This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

10 - Forget the Glory