Monday, March 27, 2017
Below are images from "THE BLACK DAHLIA", the 2006 adaptation of James Ellroy's 1987 novel and the famous 1947 criminal case. Directed by Brian DePalma, the movie starred Josh Harnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank:
"THE BLACK DAHLIA" (2006) Photo Gallery
Sunday, March 26, 2017
"THE STING" (1973) Review
Whenever film critics or film fans bring up the subject of Best Picture Oscar winners during the 1970s, the topic usually turned to movies like 1975s "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO NEST". But the two main Oscar winners usually discussed are the "GODFATHER" movies - 1972's "THE GODFATHER" and 1974's "THE GODFATHER - PART II". The 1973 Oscar winner, "THE STING" is sometimes remembered . . . but not always with the same reverence. At least it seems that way to me.
"THE STING", which was a caper film set during the middle of the Great Depression, reunited stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill. The latter had directed the pair in the 1969 biopic Western, "BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID". In "THE STING", Newman and Redford portrayed a pair of grifters who set out to con a vicious crime boss who had ordered the death of a friend. Screenwriter David S. Ward was inspired by the careers of grifters Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose exploits were featured in David Maurer's book, "The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man".
The movie begins in 1936 Joliet, Illinois; in which three grifters - Johnny Hooker, Luther Coleman and Joe Erie - con an unsuspecting victim out of $11,000 in cash. Both Hooker and Erie discover from a corrupt cop named Lieutenant Synder that they had conned a numbers racket courier, who was carrying the $11,000 for a vicious crime boss named Doyle Lonnegan. Even worse, Lonnegan has discovered their identity and sent hit men to kill them. The killers manage to murder Coleman before Johnny and Joe can split up. On Coleman's advice, Hooker seeks out Henry Gondorff, a world-class grifter hiding from the F.B.I. in Chicago with his girlfriend, Billie, who runs a brothel in the city. Hooker asks Gondorff's help in getting revenge for Luther's death. Although reluctant to pull a con against the crime boss, Gondorff decides to use an elaborate and supposedly obsolete scam known as "the wire", using a crew of con artists to create a phony off-track betting parlor. Hooker eventually discovers that both Lonnegan's hitmen and Lieutenant Synder have tracked him to Chicago, and he has to maintain a step ahead of them in order to keep Gondorff's scam on track.
While watching "THE STING", I found myself wondering if there was anything about it that did not appeal to me. I realized that most of my problems with the film were at best, ascetic. Before the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood seemed to have great difficulty in recapturing women's fashion in the early-to-mid 1930s . . . and that includes hairstyles. In fact, this seemed apparent in "THE STING" regarding the hairstyles for actresses Eileen Brennan and Dimitra Arliss. I hate to say this, but it looked as if Brennan was wearing a wig. And Arliss' hairstyle reminded me of one worn by women in the 1940s, not the 1930s. Only Sally Kirkland managed to escape this fate. Hmmm . . . you know what? I cannot think of any other flaws in "THE STING". At least not now. Perhaps I need to watch it again. I could complain about Marvin Hamlisch's use of Scott Joplin's music used in a movie set in the mid-1930s- especially since Joplin's music dated back at least 30 years before the movie's setting. But for some reason it worked. It worked. I could write an essay on how songs written at the turn of the 20th century meshed so well in a movie set during the Great Depression. But I cannot explain how this happened, other than movie magic.
However, there is so much to admire in this film. Former 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl Zanuck, once said that the backbone to any movie is the story. And I heartily agree. Apparently, the producers of "THE STING", Tony Bill, Julia and Michael Phillips, felt the same about the movie's screenplay written by David S. Ward. On the surface, "THE STING" is a first-class story about grifters pulling a major con against a crime boss responsible for the death of one of their own. First of all, Ward's script gave audiences a detailed account of the con pulled by Gondorff, Hooker and the others. Audiences not only got to see the con play out from the beginning to the end, but also its planning stages and unexpected problems. There were three major problems that the grifters had to face - namely Lonnegan's contract on Hooker for the con that he, Coleman and Erie had pulled; Hooker's conflict with Detective Synder, who was after the grifter for passing counterfeit money as a bribe to him; and the F.B.I., who seemed to be closing in on Gondorff. And Ward's screenplay handled all of these plot lines with a seamless skill that led to his Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay.
I can honestly say the same about George Roy Hill's direction. When Hill won the Best Director Oscar for his work on "THE STING", he had responded that with Newman, Redford and Ward's script; he could not lose. But I have come across a good number of movies that possessed a first-rate cast and a decent script. Yet, these films still managed to result in pure crap. Another director could have screwed up with the cast and script given, but Hill did not. Instead, he transformed quality material - the cast, the crew and the script - into Oscar gold. He also injected a great deal of oomph into the movie's storytelling by shooting it with a "Saturday Evening Post style" that included page turning chapter headings and graphics. He and cinematographer Robert Surtees imitated the flat camera style of the old Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s, which included ending each scene with a slide across the screen or a circular motion. The most interesting thing about Hill's direction is that he managed to inject the desperate air of the Great Depression in a movie that is generally regarded as somewhat light froth. And that is a hell of a thing to accomplish. Both Newman and Redford had expressed great admiration toward Hill's stylized direction and his firm handling of the movie during its production. After watching the movie for the umpteenth time, I can see why they held him in such high regard.
Looking at "THE STING", I am still amazed that aside from a few locations around Southern California and Chicago, most of it was filmed on the Universal Studios lot. As a Southern Californian, I have seen those backlot locations during many visits to the studio. But I am still amazed at how Bob Warner's special effects, the film's art department, James W. Payne's Oscar winning set decorations and Robert Surtees' cinematography made me forget about the studio lot locations and convince me that I had transported back to Depression-era Chicago and Joliet. I could also say the same about Edith Head's costume designs, which led to her winning an Academy Award. But Albert Whitlock's visual effects - especially his matte paintings - really gave this movie its unique visual style, as shown below:
I am happy to say that Whitlock also won an Academy Award.
"THE STING" marked the second screen teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It seems a damn shame they never shot other films together, because those two are magic as a team. Hell, they were magic period. Newman was perfect as Henry Gondorff. He did a great job in portraying who proved that despite his world weary attitude, he was still the master grifter capable of operation a first-rate con job, acting as mentor to less experienced grifters and handling unexpected problems. I especially enjoyed the sly air that Newman injected into the character and one particular scene in which his Gondorff emotionally manipulated the Doyle Lonnegan character. Someone once claimed that Robert Redford was wrong for the Jay Gatsby character, because his personal background and "golden boy" looks prevented him from understanding the air of desperation that drove Fitzgerald's character. I disagree. In fact, I would point to Redford's portrayal of Johnny Hooker in "THE STING" as an example of why that particular criticism is utter bullshit. He did a beautiful job of conveying Hooker's impatience, addiction to gambling and more importantly, air of desperation - traits that led him into trouble with Lonnegan and Stryder in the first place.
Robert Shaw's portrayal of Red Grant is considered one of the best James Bond villains of all time. Frankly, I found his portrayal of crime boss Doyle Lonnegan to be a lot more scary. Lonnegan must have been one of the most chaotic characters that the actor had portrayed. On one hand, Lonnegan seemed to be the epitome of the cold-blooded businessman, who did not suffer the loss of even one penny. At the same time Shaw was excellent in portraying the gangster's pride and hair-trigger temper that led him into moments of recklessness. "THE STING" was the first movie that ever made me take notice of actress Eileen Brennan . . . and this was seven years before her Oscar-nominated performance in "PRIVATE BENJAMIN". I thought she gave a very sly and sexy performance as Gondorff's grifter/madam girlfriend, Billie. This was especially apparent in one scene in which she was forced to deal with Lieutenant Synder, who was searching for Hooker. Speaking of Synder, this role marked the first major one on film for Charles Durning. I thought he did a marvelous job as the vindictive and crooked Joliet cop. Durning did an excellent job in conveying Synder's venal nature in a very subtle manner.
Both Ray Walston and Harold Gould gave very entertaining performances as two of Gondorff's trusted men - J.J. Singleton and Kid Twist. Walston injected a good deal of sardonic humor that I found particularly fun to watch. And Gould gave a very elegant performance as the charming Twist. Jack Kehoe, who was also in 1988's "MIDNIGHT RUN", did an excellent job of portraying Hooker's loyal, yet slightly nervous partner, Joe Erie. Kehoe was especially effective in the one scene in which Erie had a brief conversation with Lonnegan during the con. I suspect a good number of people would be surprised to learn that Robert Earl Jones, who portrayed Luther Coleman, was the father of actor James Earl Jones. After watching the father's performance as the aging grifter who served as Hooker's mentor, it is easy to see from whom the junior Mr. Earl Jones had inherited his talent. Robert Earl Jones, despite a screen time of twenty minutes or less, gave a first-rate performance as the doomed elderly grifter.
What else can I say about "THE STING"? I managed to spot a flaw or two. But right, I cannot think of any more flaws. I would have to watch the movie again. However, between the film's visual artistry, Marvin Hamlisch's use of Scott Joplin's music, David S. Ward's excellent screenplay and the first-rate cast led by Paul Newman and Robert Redford; director George Roy Hill created magic. And it is due to this magic that "THE STING" remains one of my favorite movies of all time, to this day.
Friday, March 17, 2017
"DOWNTON ABBEY" – SERIES TWO (2011) Retrospective
The debut of Julian Fellowes' series about an aristocratic family during the last few years before the outbreak of World War I garnered a great deal acclaim and awards, earlier this year. The success of the series led the ITV and Fellowes to continue the saga of the Earl of Grantham, his family and servants in a new season.
Series Two of "DOWNTON ABBEY" covered the last two years of World War I and the first year of peace during the years 1916 to 1919. Episode One began with Matthew Crawley, the heir presumptive for the Earl of Grantham enduring the last days of the Somme Offensive in November 1916. The story immediately shifted toward the personal dramas that unfolded over eight to nine episodes.
Last season focused upon the entail issue that prevented Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham from bequeathing his title or any of his fortune to his three daughters - Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil Crawley and forced him to accept Matthew Crawley, a third cousin raised as a middle-class cousin as his heir. Season Two focused upon the Crawleys' attempts to adjust to the changes caused by the war, their love lives and the impact of the war upon their servants.
One of the main subplots introduced in this season's first episode turned out to be Matthew's engagement to Lavinia Swire, the daughter of a London solicitor. Most of the family and servants like Mr. Carson oppose Matthew's engagement to Lavinia, due to her status as a member of the middle-class and her position as an impediment to a reconciliation between Matthew and the family's elder daughter, Lady Mary. The youngest Crawley daughter, Lady Sybil, becomes a wartime nurse and faces a growing attraction to the family's Irish-born chauffeur, Tom Branson. Meanwhile, middle daughter Lady Edith learns how to drive and later, becomes a nurse's aide. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embarks on a campaign to ensure Matthew and Lady Mary's engagement. Meanwhile, the scandal from her Season One encounter with Turkish diplomat, Kamal Pamuk, threatens to rear its ugly head for Lady Mary. She seeks help from Sir Richard Carlisle, a suitor, to nip the scandal in the bud. But he exacts a price from her, for his help - an official engagement to marry. Cora, Countess of Grantham and Matthew's mother, Isobel Crawley, transform Downton Abbey into a convalescent hospital for Army officers. The two become involved in a power struggle before Lady Grantham assumes full control. Only Lord Grantham spends the rest of the war with nothing to do and sinks into a depression over his inactivity.
Most of the servants continue their household duties at Downton Abbey. Just as valet John Bates announces his intentions to divorce his wife to lady love and head housemaid Anna Smith, his wife Vera make the first of a few visits. Her threat to expose Lady Mary's Season One tryst with the dead Turkish diplomat, Mr. Kemal Pamuk, forces Bates to give up his position as Lord Grantham's valet and return to her. After being needled for being out of uniform, footman William Mason caves in and joins the Army. His decision eventually has an impact on Daisy, the scullery maid for whom he harbors unrequited love. Both the cook Mrs. Patmore and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, pressures Daisy into becoming William's fiancé before he leaves for the war front in Episode Three. And when William returns to Downton Abbey, mortally wounded, Mrs. Patmore coerces Daisy into marrying him out of pity, leaving a bad taste in the scullery maid's mouth. After the trick she had pulled that cause Lady Grantham to miscarry in Season One, lady's maid Sarah O'Brien becomes increasingly devoted to her mistress. Yet, she continues to go out of her way to make life miserable for Mr. Bates, by communicating with his wife. Downton Abbey's new housemaid, Ethel Parks, becomes involved with one of the patients at the Crawleys' convalescent hospital, which results in a baby for her. She seeks help from Mrs. Hughes to contact the officer's parents for financial assistance. Former footman Thomas Barrow started out the season as a medic in France. But the horrors of war drives him to deliberately expose his hand to gunfire in order to permanently leave the front. He eventually becomes a medic at the local hospital near the Crawley estate and later, as an aide at the Crawleys' convalescent hospital.
I just learned that "DOWNTON ABBEY" recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most critically acclaimed English-language television show" for 2011, becoming the first co-produced U.S./British show to be recognised as such by the Guinness Book of Records. One, I did not know that "DOWNTON ABBEY" was co-produced in both Great Britain and the U.S. And two, as much as I enjoy the series, I am beginning to feel that a good deal of its acclaim might be undeserved.
One might assume that I dislike "DOWNTON ABBEY". On the contrary, I like it very much. I became a big fan of the series when its first season aired. But I also noticed certain flaws in Julian Fellowes' depiction of Downton Abbey's inhabitants that continued to both flourish and increase in Season Two. There were aspects of Season Two that I admired. The cast, led by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern continued to give first-rate performances. Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith's performances seemed to stand out with most fans and critics. I cannot say that I agree with them. I suspect that Fellowes' detailed attention to Dockery's character and Smith's witty one-liners made them more popular than the other characters. The series' early 20th century costumes remained exquisite as ever, thanks to Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebbutt's designs. And aside from the few combat sequences, the series' production values and designs continued to be top-notch.
The second season of "DOWNTON ABBEY" provided some truly memorable moments. The Spanish Flu sequence in Episode Eight impressed me, with the exception of how the epidemic claimed its only victim. People might find this surprising, but I have always enjoyed Laura Carmichael's portrayal of middle daughter, Lady Edith. She was never a villainess to me even back in Season One. I understood her problems. However, I was happy to see that her character developed further when she finally overcame her resentment toward older sister, Lady Mary. I also enjoyed watching the experiences of former footman Thomas Barrow in the season's first two episodes. The scenes featuring his combat experiences in France and his work with Dr. Clarkson and Lady Sybil Crawley at the village hospital really impressed me. One other character that made Season Two bearable for me, turned out to be Mrs. Hughes, the family's housekeeper. Her down-to-earth nature, along with her efforts to help housemaid Ethel Parks and her comments about Lady Mary pretty much anchored the season for me.
Unfortunately . . . when it came to Season Two, the bad outweighed the good. One of my complaints about Season One was that the only characters that seemed to display any real complexity were members of the aristocratic Crawley family. Aside from a few scenes, most of the servants continued to be portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. In Julian Fellowes' world (without Robert Altman and Bob Balaban looking over his shoulders), the only good working-class character was one loyal to his or her employer.
From the moment she was introduced arrogantly proclaiming her desire for a life outside of service, Ethel Parks was doomed. Unlike Gwen Dawson from Season One, she did not seek or acquire the help from a Crawley to rise in the world. She slept with an officer and paid the price with a baby and unemployment. Fellowes seemed to have ceased portraying former footman Thomas as a one-note villain and portray him in a more sympathetic light in the season's first two episodes. By the time Thomas returned to Downton Abbey as a medic at the estate's convalescent hospital, the former footman returned to his usual sneers and sharp comments. Only he did so, standing in the doorway or sitting at the servants' table, sneering. And when he tried to earn enough money through the black market to start his own business at the end of the war, he discovered that he had been swindled. Thomas was forced to seek work at Downton Abbey again. I cannot help but wonder if he would have been more successful if he had sought the "noble" help of Lord Grantham or some other member of the Crawley family.
The subplot involving Daisy, William and Mrs. Patmore disgusted me. Period. I found it bad enough that Mrs. Patmore bullied and cajoled Daisy into a deception by becoming William's fiancée and later, his wife. In the "Christmas Special", Fellowes decided to condone Mrs. Patmore's bullying by allowing Daisy to form some kind of relationship with William's dad. It was sickening to watch and I cannot believe that Fellowes would actually finish a subplot on this note, because many of the fans wanted Daisy to be in love with William. Mr. Carson remained ridiculously loyal to the Crawleys and more importantly, to Lady Mary. In fact, his loyalty led him to consistently make insulting and snobbish remarks about Matthew's middle-class fiancée, Lavinia. Anyone could have perceived this as part of Fellowes' efforts to portray Mr. Carson in an ambiguous light. Unfortunately, Fellowes' one-dimensional portrayal of Lavinia as a dull "goody-goody" have led many fans to embrace Mr. Carson's disapproval of her. On the other hand, Fellowes did an excellent job in assassinating the family's radical chauffeur, Tom Branson. His friendship with Lady Sybil had created a shipper's following by the end of Season One. But once Fellowes ridiculed Branson's radicial beliefs in two scenes - his plan to embarrass a visiting British Army general, which backfired; and his casual dismissal of the Romanovs - he became one of the most disliked characters of Season Two. And many fans expressed disapproval when Lady Sybil began to hint some kind of attraction toward him, claiming that their relationship lacked any chemistry. The hypocrisy toward Branson, generated by Fellowes' conservatism, was astounding to witness. Even Sarah O'Brien did not fare well. Although she became more loyal toward the Countess of Grantham following the latter's miscarriage in Season One, O'Brien continued her hostility toward John Bates even when Thomas lost interest in the valet. And the reason behind O'Brien's hostility remained consistently vague, until she dropped it altogether in the wake of Bates' arrest.
Speaking of Bates, his romance with Anna Smith turned out to be one of the biggest jokes of the season. I never thought it would come to this. Honestly. Aside from the appearance of the one-note villainous Vera Bates, nothing happened. I am trying to remember what was so interesting about their relationship. Instead, I find myself recalling how much I found Bates' martyr complex so tedious. Why on earth would he give up a job that he liked to prevent the likes of Lady Mary from facing a scandal about her one night tryst with the late Kemal Pamuk? I mean . . . really! If Vera Bates knew about the scandal, half of Britain's upper-class families and their servants must have heard the rumor. Meanwhile, Anna kept making a chump of herself, while buying Bates' promises of how he was going to get rid of Vera. I wish Fellowes never brought her on the scene in the first place. I enjoyed Maria Doyle Kennedy's performance in "THE TUDORS", but ended up with one of the dullest and badly written villains in television history.
For once, the Crawley family did not fare any better. Lady Mary remained the only upper-class character with any real complexity and a strong subplot. I suspect that the character became a personal favorite of Fellowes, and actress Michelle Dockery benefited a great deal from his writing. However, not even she or Dan Stevens could overcome the maudlin romance that their characters had been saddled with in Season Two. The Matthew/Mary romance had started as an interesting one in Season One, and transformed into a cliché-riddled love story fit for a bad romance novel. The two worse moments in their relationship turned out to be that Godawful moment when Matthew (who had been reported missing) suddenly appeared at Downton Abbey during a concert, joining Mary in "If You Were the Only Girl" and when Mary experienced a "feeling" the moment Matthew suffered a major wound in Episode Five. I had to struggle to keep from throwing up during both scenes. And although Lady Edith managed to overcome her resentment of Lady Mary, the two subplots that Fellowes saddled on her character went no where. The "Patrick Crawley" subplot, in which a Canadian officer claimed to be one of her father's former heirs . . . simply went no where. Her "affair" with a local farmer, which consisted of a kiss, ended just as soon as the farmer's wife had her dismissed. I have already revealed what happened with Lady Sybil's relationship with Tom Branson.
Cora, Countess of Grantham was involved in two major subplots. One involved her power struggle with Isobel Crawley (Matthew's mother) over who would manage the convalescent hospital and Downton Abbey. Poor Isobel was portrayed as a tyrannical do-gooder from the middle-class. And many fans cheered when Cora managed oust her from Downton Abbey. I did not. All Cora had to do was remind Isobel that she was mistress of Downton Abbey, while the latter continue to run the hospital. Instead, she resorted to a passive-aggressive means to get rid of Isobel and I ended up feeling disgusted. I was also disgusted by the machinations that Cora and the Dowager Countess used to detract Isobel from keeping the convalescent hospital opened after the war ended. I found it ridiculous. They seemed incapable of simply telling Isobel that Downton Abbey would return to being a private home. Yet, once again, fans cheered over the aristocratic women's triumph. Sickening. Robert, the Earl of Grantham came close to being written as a complex character. He spent most of the season feeling useless, because he was unable to obtain a command and go to the front. Eventually, Robert's feelings of uselessness and abandonment led him to become romantically involved with a housemaid named Jane Moorsum. This subplot would have worked, if it had been introduced . . . before Episode Five. Aside from plotting Lady Mary and Matthew's reconciliation, Violet, the Dowager Countess spent most of the season spouting one-liners. I hate to say this, but I eventually found this tiresome. Poor Maggie Smith had been reduced to being the show's comic relief.
Thanks to Vera Bates, Lady Mary had to seek the help of her suitor, press baron Sir Richard Carlisle, to help her get rid of the blackmailing woman. In return, Lady Mary promised to become officially engaged to Sir Richard. Poor Iain Glen. Vera Bates was not the only badly written villain to appear in Season Two. Sir Richard was another. Despite his title, Sir Richard was a self-made man, who certainly did not originate from the upper-classes. Both Lady Mary and Lord Grantham did not hesitate to let him know. More importantly, Fellowes did not hesitate to portray him as some mustache-twirling villain without any complexities, whatsoever. Which is not surprising, considering he was not an aristocrat. Poor Iain Glen. His previous roles were a hell of a lot more ambiguous and interesting than Sir Richard "Snidely Whiplash" Carlisle.
I might as well face it. Season Two of "DOWNTON ABBEY" disappointed me. Sure, there were a few aspects about it that I found admirable. But Fellowes' writing simply undermined the show's quality. I had hoped that his portrayal of the Crawleys' servants would improve from Season One. It did not. Worse, the season was marred by incomplete subplots that went no where and badly written romances that left me shaking my head in disgust. I hope . . . I pray that Season Three will prove to be a lot better.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Below is a photo gallery featuring images from "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE", the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel. Directed by Simon Langton, the miniseries starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth:
"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (1995) Photo Gallery