Monday, December 26, 2016

"CASHELMARA" (1974) Book Review

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"CASHELMARA" (1974) Book Review

My experiences with novels by Susan Howatch are rather limited. If I must be honest, I have only finished three of her novels. I tried reading two other novels - "THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT" (1977) and the first novel in The Starbridge Series"GLITTERING IMAGES" (1987). However, I could not maintain any interest in the last two novels. Neither focused upon the history of an upper-class British family, which happened to be my main interest when I was in my late teens and early twenties. 

One of the three novels I did finish was 1974's "CASHELMARA", a saga that focused upon an Anglo-Irish family called the De Salis. The story began in 1859 when Edward Baron de Salis journeyed to antebellum New York City to visit his late wife's cousins, the Marriotts; and ends some 32 years later in 1891 with his grandson Edward, resorting to extraordinary means to regain control of the family's Irish estate called Cashelmara. During this 32 year journey, readers become acquainted with six main characters and a fascinating cast of supporting characters that add to Howatch's tale.

Before reading "CASHELMARA", one has to understand that it is one of three novels that are based upon one of the British Royal Family's royal houses - that of the Plantagenets. The 1971 novel, "PENMARRIC" focused on characters based upon the Plantagenet line that stretched from King Henry II to one of his younger sons, King John. However, Howatch skimped a generation and decided to continue her focus on the Plantagenet line with John's grandson, King Edward I and finished the novel with a character based upon the latter's grandson, King Edward III"CASHELMARA" is divided into six segments. Those segments are narrated by the following characters:

*Edward, Baron de Salis - a middle-aged English aristocrat and owner of both Woodhammer Hall (in England) and Cashelmara (based upon King Edward I)
*Marguerite Marriott, Baroness de Salis - a 17-18 year-old adolescent from a wealthy New York family who becomes Edward's second wife (based upon Margaret of France, later Edward I's second consort)
*Patrick, Baron de Salis - Edward's only surviving son, who loses Woodhammer Hall ten years after his father's death via gambling debts (based upon King Edward II)
*Sarah Marriott, Baroness de Salis - Marguerite's oldest niece and Patrick's wife (based upon Isabella of France, later Edward II's consort)
*Maxwell Drummond - an Irish tenant farmer on the Cashelmara estate, who becomes Sarah's lover and Patrick's enemy (based upon Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Isabella's lover)
*Edward "Ned", Baron de Salis - Patrick and Sarah's oldest son (based upon King Edward III)

Another aspect about "CASHELMARA" that Howatch fans might find fascinating is that "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" could be considered a direct sequel to the former novel. Remember . . . "CASHELMARA" ended with Ned as the novel's narrator. And Ned is supposed to be based upon Edward III. "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" began with Robert Goodwin, who is based upon Edward the Black Prince, Edward III's oldest son. Since Robert's father was still alive in the first half of the 1984 novel, this means that Howatch based two characters on Edward III - Ned de Salis and "Bobby" Goodwin. Really, one might as well view "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" as more of a direct sequel to "CASHELMARA" than "PENMARRIC". In fact, Bobby Goodwin's background story in the 1984 novel is practically a re-enactment of what happened between Ned and his parents, Patrick and Sarah in "CASHELMARA", but with a few changes.

How do I feel about "CASHELMARA"? I thought Howatch had created a very fascinating tale. On one level, she took a family saga and placed it within a setting that gave readers a look at how British Imperial policy worked in Ireland. And we saw this policy in motion via the viewpoint of an aristocratic family - except for the Maxwell Drummond character. And although there are many novels set within the British Empire - even in Ireland - "CASHELMARA" is probably the only one that I can recall that had been written by Howatch. More importantly, Howatch's description of the Cashelmara estate left a stark image in my mind that I found rather interesting. It was interesting that half of the major characters regarded the Irish estate with a negative view. The other three major characters seemed to have different views of Cashelmara. Edward de Salis seemed to have a mixed view of the estate. Cashelmara reminded him of the period he had enjoyed as a child. Yet at the same time, it stood as a reminder of his failure to offer genuine help to his tenants during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Ironically, the de Salis family and their tenants would find themselves facing another famine over thirty years later. Maxwell Drummond seemed to regard Cashelmara as a symbol of his ambition to become a landowner and a gentleman. And he would try to achieve these goals through Sarah with disastrous results. As far as Ned de Salis was concerned, Cashelmara was his home, and a family legacy that he would go through great lengths to regain. After all, his father Patrick had lost the family's English estate, Woodhammer Hall, sometime before his birth.

Most of the novel proved to be interesting in its own right. The first two segments - narrated by Edward de Salis and his second wife, Marguerite - also proved to be interesting. Howatch did an excellent job in painting a portrait of both antebellum New York City and mid-Victorian England at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s. Readers got a peek into Edward's fascination with his future bride, along with his the disappointment he felt regarding his children. But I especially enjoyed Marguerite's narration. I found it interesting to read how this 18 year-old girl struggled to maintain a healthy and happy marriage with a man over thirty years her senior. Marguerite's narration also revealed the struggles that she had to endure as an American in a foreign country. Between others - including her husband - making assumptions about her American nationality, dealing with the British high society's reactions to the American Civil War, and struggling to act as a mediator between Edward and her stepchildren; the 1860s proved to be somewhat difficult for Marguerite. However, being a strong-willed young woman in her own right, she survived.

Also, I found "CASHELMARA" to be the most disturbing tale of the three family sagas written by the author. What made this novel so disturbing? It has to be the marriage between Patrick and Sarah de Salis. Howatch based their marriage on the lives of Edward II and his wife, Isabella. But from what I have read, the private lives of the Plantagenet monarch and his consort were not as disturbing as the marriage between Patrick and Sarah. The novel's third segment, told from Patrick's point-of-view, revealed their courtship and the first four years of their marriage. It also revealed how Sarah's spending and especially Patrick's gambling habits managed to dwindle away his fortune. Their financial problems had only added to the existing strain caused by Patrick's continuing friendship with his childhood friend, Derry Stranahan. But the segment narrated by Sarah also proved to be the novel's nadir in terms of what occurred and how low her marriage to Patrick had sunk. And for Sarah and Patrick, their marriage had sunk to alcoholism and loss of property for him; imprisonment and rape for her. Despite the ugliness that permeated Sarah's segment, the latter also proved to be one of the two most interesting in the novel. 

Like "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", the novel's last segment proved to be the most difficult for me. Narrated by Sarah and Patrick's oldest child, Ned, I had some difficulty relating to the character. Perhaps Ned was simply too old. After all, he aged from thirteen to seventeen or eighteen years old during this last chapter. But I recall that one of the segments of "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" had been narrated by a character named Christopher "Kester" Goodwin, who aged from nine to nineteen years old. I had no problems with the Kester character from "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", but I did with the Ned de Salis character. Why? Perhaps I did not find him that fascinating. Or perhaps I found his penchant to view his father as a hero, Maxwell Drummond as a villain and his mother as a stooge for Drummond a little too simple for me to stomach. I find it difficult to relate to characters who harbor one-dimensional views about life and other people. And because Howatch ensured that Ned never learned what his mother had endured at the hands of Patrick and the latter's lover/estate manager, Hugh McGowan, I found my ability to relate to him even more difficult.

I have read some reviews of "CASHELMARA' and discovered that a good number of readers managed to enjoy this family saga very much. Only a handful seemed to regard the characters as unsympathetic and not worthy of their interest. I believe that a first-rate author could create a sympathetic character with unpleasant traits, if he or she had a mind to do so. Susan Howatch certainly managed to create some very interesting characters - aside from one - for "CASHELMARA". She also created a first-rate family saga that still remains fresh after forty-one years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"TOM JONES" (1963) Review

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"TOM JONES" (1963) Review

Recently, I searched my memories for any movies produced outside of the United States that not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I would also consider a personal favorite of mine. Only one came to mind - the 1963 movie, "TOM JONES"

"TOM JONES" turned out to be the second non-Hollywood film that won the coveted Oscar prize. Directed by Tony Richardson, the movie is an adaptation of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel, "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling", about the coming-of-age and misadventures of an illegitimate young man, raised by a landowner in mid-18th century England. I might as well start from the beginning. Sometime during the 1720s, one Squire Allworthy returned home to his Somerset estate and found an abandoned infant in his bedroom. Demanding to learn the identity of the infant's parents, the Squire learned from his housekeeper and other servants that the child's parents were a local schoolmaster named Partridge and a servant girl named Jenny Jones. Squire Allworthy banished both from the immediate neighborhood and became the baby's new guardian.

Named Tom Jones, the infant grew up to become a charming, handsome and slightly roguish young. He also became friendly with most of the locals, especially his guardian's neighbor, Squire Western. Tom's good looks and charm not only captured the eyes of Squire Western's only child, Sophie, but also Molly Seagrim, the promiscuous daughter of a local poacher named Black George Seagrim. But malignant forces in the form of Squire Allworthy's venomous nephew, Mr. Blifil, the tutors for both young men - Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square, and Tom's own personal vices; eventually lead Squire Allworthy to order the young hero's departure from the Allworthy estate. Tom sets out for London, where more acquaintances and adventures await.

I first saw the Best Picture Oscar winner, "TOM JONES", on television, when I was in my early teens. And I immediately fell in love. Mind you, my love for the movie has not blinded me from its flaws that are featured in the last ten minutes. It felt so rushed. And it seemed as if director Tony Richardson had retold Henry Fielding's tale with a great deal of detail and atmosphere, before he lost his impatience and rushed the last few minutes of the movie's narrative. Richardson and screenwriter John Osbourne never allowed the audiences to witness Lawyer Dowling's revelation to Squire Allworthy of the details in the letter written by the Squire's late sister, Mrs. Bridget Allworthy Blifil. Instead, they allowed the Mrs. Waters character to break the fourth wall and inform the audiences of the letter's contents. I found this very frustrating, especially since the audience was denied the Squire's immediate reaction. I also found the appearance of Lieutenant Norton, the Army officer whom Tom prevented from harming Mrs. Waters on the journey to London. By some bad coincidence, Norton managed to rejoin the Army and ended up leading the detail that escorted Tom to a public execution. For me, this is coincidence of the cheap kind. But as I had stated earlier, my complaints are few.

Overall, "TOM JONES" strikes me as a beautiful and lively film to watch. I have the feeling that it ushered in a new style for period movies on both sides of the Atlantic. One, the movie lacked the gloss that marred the realism of most costume dramas before 1963. Richardson approached the story's earthiness, sexuality and violence with a great deal of realism without any overindulgence. Prime examples of the director's approach could be found in famous scenes like Tom and Mrs. Waters' lusty supper at the Upton Inn, Tom and Mr. Partridge's colorful entry into mid-18th century London, and the fox hunt sequence that still delivers quite a cinematic punch after fifty years. Richardson also utilized a filming style used in comedies from the silent era with great effect in scenes that included Squire Allworthy's discovery of the infant Tom and the romantic chaos that ensued following Mr. Fitzgerald's erroneous interruption of Tom and Mrs. Waters' nocturnal activities at Upton.

I have to express my admiration for John McCorry's costumes. I believe they perfectly reflected the fashions for all classes in Britain of the 1740s, without any pesky 20th century influences. Both Ralph W. Brinton's production designs and Josie MacAvin's set decorations conveyed Richardson's earthy and realistic view of mid-18th century Britain. Brinton and MacAvin earned Oscar nominations, along with Ted Marshall for his art direction. "TOM JONES" was filmed mainly in the rural areas of Somerset and Dorset. And Walter Lassally's photography captured the beauty of the English countryside with a natural elegance and zest that I found very appealing. It seemed a pity that he was not recognized with an Oscar nomination. I feel he deserved it . . . especially for his work on the fox hunt and London arrival sequences. On the other hand, John Addison won the Best Score Oscar for his work on the film. I cannot deny that I found his music for the film truly outstanding. It beautifully captured the spirit and atmosphere of the movie's setting. Despite my pure satisfaction of Addison's score, a part of me still wishes that Elmer Bernstein had won that Oscar for the "HOW THE WEST WAS WON" score.

I read somewhere that Albert Finney found the character of Tom Jones something of a bore. If he did find the character boring, it is a credit to his acting skills and perseverance that his boredom never appeared in his performance. In fact, I believe he gave a sparkling, charismatic and star-making portrayal of one of the most charming and roguish characters in English literature . . . and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for his work. I have no idea how Susannah York felt about the character of Sophie Western. For me, it does not matter. She was a delight, as far as I am concerned. More importantly, she infused a great deal of fire into her performance, reminding viewers that despite the well-mannered and elegant appearance, she is her father's daughter. Speaking of Squire Western, Hugh Griffith seemed to be having a ball, portraying the lively and somewhat coarse landowner, Squire Western. It was not surprising to learn that he had earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. Three other cast members earned Oscar nominations - Edith Evans, who gave an energetic performance as Squire Western's caustic and snobbish sister; Diane Cilento, whose portrayal of Molly Seagrim seemed to be an interesting mixture of sexiness and desperation; and Joyce Readman, who radiated a more mature sexiness in her portrayal of Mrs. Waters, Tom's famous companion at the Upton Inn. 

I do wish the Academy had considered Joan Greenwood for a nomination. I was very impressed by her subtle, yet malevolent portrayal of the lustful, yet insidious Lady Bellaston. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of George Devine, who gave a solid and heart-warming performance as Squire Allworthy; David Tomlinson as the sexually aggresive Lord Fellamar; Jack MacGowran as Tom's faithful companion, Partridge; and George A. Cooper as Sophie's hot-headed cousin-in-law, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Four other performances struck me as noteworthy. One came from Rachel Kempson, who not only gave a brief, yet solid performance as Bridget Allworthy Blifil, but also happened to be Richardson's mother-in-law. The second one belonged to well-known character actor David Warner. "TOM JONES" not only featured his film debut, but also featured the first of many villainous roles he would portray over the years. Also in the movie was Julian Glover, who also made an impressive film debut in "TOM JONES" as a villain, namely Lieutenant Northerton. And Richardson's sister-in-law, Lynn Redgrave, made her film debut in a brief scene as a maid at Upton Inn.

I read somewhere that Tony Richardson was never satisfied with his work on "TOM JONES". According to cinematographer Walter Lassally, an unsatisfied Richardson tinkered a bit too much with the movie's editing during the post-production period. Perhaps that is why the movie is not particularly perfect. But neither Richardson's unsatisfied tinkering or Albert Finney's boredom with the main character could mar what became one of my favorite Oscar winning movies of all time . . . or cause Richardson to lose his Best Director Oscar. After half a century, "TOM JONES" has lost none of its magic.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - Episode Three "September 1862 - August 1863" Commentary

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"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - EPISODE THREE "September 1862 - August 1863"

I have mixed feelings about Episode Three of "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II". Fortunately, most of my feelings are positive. This episode featured the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, and a major schism in the Main family, regarding Madeline Main and her two sisters-in-law - Brett Hazard and Ashton Huntoon. But there was still certain aspects of this episode that I did not find particularly appealing. 

I found the first half of this episode to be rather dull. Those reading this article would find this statement surprising, since the Battle of Antietam was featured in this first third of the episode. But I did. Following President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, one of the Mains' slaves, Jim, decided to take matters into hands and run away. Unfortunately, he was caught and killed by the Mains' former overseer, Salem Jones. I will admit that the reaction to Jim's death proved to be slightly interesting, thanks to the excellent acting by Erica Gimbel, Beau Billingslea and especially Forest Whitaker; who portrayed Semiramis, Ezra and Cuffey. I was especially impressed by Whitaker's performance as he conveyed Cuffey's bitterness over being owned by the Mains. However, I found Brett and Madeline's presence at Jim's funeral to be a touch patronizing. But that is merely a private opinion.

Now, I had no problems with Kevin Connor's direction of the Battle of Antietam. I believe he did the right thing by keeping the battle solely focused upon Billy Hazard and Charles Main. This allowed their brief reunion to be not only surprising, but dramatic. But I do have one major quibble about this particular sequence. How did Charles and his fellow officer, Ambrose Pell go from being cavalry scouts to leading large bodies of infantry troops on the field? If the miniseries had earlier included a small band of scouts under their command, I could see them leading these men into battle. But large bodies of infantry troops? Were the officers of these troops dead? And what kind of troops were they leading? Infantry or dismounted cavalry? I found this kind of inconsistent vagueness very irritating. The Battle of Gettysburg was better handled . . . somewhat. Considering it was one of the major conflicts of the war and fought in the same region - Southern Pennsylvania - as the Hazards' hometown of Lehigh Station, I was surprised that the screenplay did not focus too highly on it. The battle was simply used as a literary device for the reunion of George and Billy Hazard and an excuse for the latter to go AWOL and see Brett. 

The second half of Episode Three turned out to be a big improvement. Most of the slaves left Mont Royal and I did not blame them one bit. Orry's reaction to their departure was interesting, considering how "BOOK I" had established his slight aversion to slavery. More importantly, his character came off as increasingly conservative. I found this surprising, considering that in the novel, "Love and War", his views on slavery and racial relations had become slightly more radical. I found that little moment in which Orry bid his mother Clarissa Main good-bye, following his furlough, rather lovely and touching, thanks to the performances of Patrick Swayze and Jean Simmons. But I have mixed feelings about Billy's decision to go AWOL in order to see Brett in South Carolina. Frankly, I found it disturbing. I do not blame him for missing Brett. But if the writers had not sent her to South Carolina in that ridiculous story line in Episode 2, she would have remained in the North and Billy would not have went AWOL. And his decision to head for South Carolina will prove to be troublesome for Episode Four's plot. I am also remain dumfounded by George's position in the Union Army. During his reunion with Billy before the Gettysburg battle, he claimed that he had been transferred to field duty. And he was seen commanding artillery units. Yet, after the battle, he was seen attending another meeting with President Lincoln and his Cabinet. What the hell? The screenwriters really screwed up this time.

The episode's second half, Ashton Main Huntoon's appearance at Mont Royal really stirred things a bit. I found it to be the episode's most enjoyable segment. Before I explain why I enjoyed it, I have to say a few words regarding Ashton's reason for visiting her home - namely to confront Madeline about her African ancestry and drive her from Mont Royal and Orry's radar. If I must be frank, I found Ashton and Bent's revenge against Orry by using Madeline's family secret, a bit . . . anti-climatic. Frankly, I thought they could have exposed Madeline's secret in a more dramatic and satisfying moment - like during a political party in Richmond (which happened in the novel) or expose the secret to the Mains' neighbors. However, their act of revenge did result in a marvelous scene well acted by Terri Garber and Lesley Anne Down. Semiramis' rant against Ashton, thanks to another great piece of acting from Gimpel, was nice touch, although a bit fruitless. But it was Brett's confrontation with Ashton that really did justice to this episode. Kudos to Garber and especially Genie Francis. Francis also shared an excellent scene with Parker Stevenson, who as Billy Hazard expressed his growing discontent with the war. 

There is one major problem with this sequence. When Ashton arrived at Mont Royal, she carried foodstuff for the plantation. This makes no sense whatsoever. Ashton was traveling from a state - namely Virginia - that had been ravaged by two years of war. The amount of foodstuff she was carrying from Virginia should have been rare. South Carolina, on the other hand, had been freed of any battles by 1863, aside from the Sea Islands and the forts off the coast of Charleston. There should have been plenty of foodstuff at Mont Royal, thanks to Madeline, Brett, Semiramis and Ezra.

Anthony Zerbe made his first appearance as General Ulysses S. Grant, whom George had traveled all the way to Tennessee to meet, on behalf of President Lincoln. Veteran stars James Stewart and Olivia De Havilland appeared near the end of this episode. Did anyone know that those two had once dated in the late 1930s? Anyway, Stewart gave a charming performance as Madeline’s Charleston attorney, despite his Midwestern accent. However, De Havilland's portrayal as Virgilia Hazard's field hospital supervisor, Mrs. Neal, proved to be more interesting and complex. I could not decide which character was more irritating - Virgilia's arrogant disregard for Mrs. Neal's advice, or the latter's patronizing concern for Southern patients at the expense of the other patients and her unfounded suspicions that Virgilia was ignoring them. Both De Havilland and Kirstie Alley gave superb performances in their scenes together. 

Although Episode Three had its flaws, I cannot deny that Kevin Connor did an excellent job as the director. But I believe he was ably supported by the miniseries' crew. Once again, Jacques R. Marquette's photography provided a good deal of color and style to this episode - especially in the Battle of Antietam sequences. Jospeh R. Jennings continued his excellent production designs, ably transforming viewers back to the United States of the early 1860s. I could say the say about Robert Fletcher's costume designs. I was especially impressed by his wardrobe for Maude and Isobel Hazard, along with Ashton Huntoon, who ended up being the best-dressed character of the episode. Below are examples of Fletcher's work:

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Despite a some quibbles and a dull first half hour, Episode Three was an improvement over Episode Two. I was surprised by the number of excellent dramatic moments and first-rate acting in this episode. Also Kevin Connor's direction of the Battle of Antietam and Gettysburg struck me as pretty damn good. I could say that Episode Three was the highlight of the 1986 miniseries. But I do not believe I would go that far.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"LAWLESS" (2012) Review

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"LAWLESS" (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called "The Wettest County in the World" back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant's novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed "LAWLESS", the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers - Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant - run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie's arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers - including the Bondurants - give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes' intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant - Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family's shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes' men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family's moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

"LAWLESS" turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that "LAWLESS" had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie's introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack's role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, "LAWLESS" proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher BenoĆ®t Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg's beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy's production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson's costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson's costumes not only accurately reflect the movie's period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes - including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie's second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave's introduction of the movie's character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie's overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected "LAWLESS" would end up as some dramatic version of "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD" with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. "LAWLESS"proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave's script not only explored the Bondurants' illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves - the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant's character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009's "PUBLIC ENEMIES". He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie's credits than Jessica Chastain. I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant's love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants' feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest's attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman's performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce's over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce's ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack's best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County's backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that "LAWLESS" is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character's introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave's adaptation of Matt Bondurant's tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, "LAWLESS" still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the 2012 summer season.