“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

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Top Five Favorite “HOUSE OF CARDS” Season One (2013) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season One of Netflix’s series, “HOUSE OF CARDS”, a remake of the 1990-1995 BBC miniseries trilogy that was based upon Michael Dobbs’ 1989 novel. Produced and developed by Beau Willimon, the series stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. 

“TOP FIVE FAVORITE “HOUSE OF CARDS” SEASON ONE (2013) Episodes

Chapter 5

1. (1.05) “Chapter Five” – Congressman Frank Underwood’s feud against a union over the Education Bill threatens his wife Claire’s charity gala and her own ambitions. And journalist Zoe Barnes mixes work with play.

Chapter 11

2. (1.11) “Chapter Eleven” – Angry at Frank, Claire reconnects with former flame, photojournalist Adam Galloway. And when junior Congressman Peter Russo wrestles with his personal demons and considers confessing his and Frank’s sins, the latters decides that he has become a liability that needs to be eliminated.

Chapter 2

3. (1.02) “Chapter Two” – Utilizing Zoe’s help, Frank plants a story that loosely ties Michael Kern, the President’s pick for Secretary of State, to an anti-Israel editorial that appeared in the college newspaper Kern edited.

Chapter 6

4. (1.06) “Chapter Six” – Frank strikes back at the striking teachers by undermining the credibility of the teachers’ union representative, Martin Spinella. Claire is caught off guard by a deathbed confession from one of Frank’s personal bodyguards.

Chapter 13

5. (1.13) “Chapter Thirteen” – Frank accepts the recently vacated Vice-President post from the President. Claire learns that she is being sued for wrongful termination by a former employee. And Zoe becomes increasingly aware of Frank’s plots in this season finale.

“THE IDES OF MARCH” (2011) Review

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“THE IDES OF MARCH” (2011) Review

During my recent re-watch of George Clooney’s 2011 political thriller, “THE IDES OF MARCH”, it occurred to me that a good number of years have passed since I last watched a movie about politicians . . . inside a movie theater. It also led me to wonder if Hollywood has become increasingly reluctant to make movies about politicians. It would be a shame if that were truth. Because I believe the studios need to release more movies about them. 

I am certainly grateful to Clooney for directing, co-producing and co-writing “THE IDES OF MARCH”, an adaptation of co-writer Beau Willimon’s 2008 play called “FARRAGUT NORTH”. The movie is about Stephen Meyers, an idealistic junior campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, and his crash course on the brutal realities of politics on the campaign trail in Southern Ohio. His life and role in Governor Morris’ presidential campaign is threatened when Tom Duffy, the senior campaign manager of Governor Morris’ Democratic rival, Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman, offers him a job. Unfortunately for Meyers, his boss, Governor Morris’ senior campaign manager, Paul Zara learns about the job offer. Complicating Meyers’ situation is his romance with one of the campaign interns and daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman, Molly Stearns, leads him to discover about her one night liaison with Governor Morris and her eventual pregnancy.

On paper, “THE IDES OF MARCH” looks and reads like a lurid melodrama with political overtones. But I believe the movie revealed to be a lot more. This is just a theory, but I believe that “THE IDES OF MARCH” served as a warning for those who tend to look toward politicians as saviors or leaders who can solve the problems of society. At the beginning of “THE IDES OF MARCH”, Stephen Meyers is a sharp and canny political campaigner. He has seen enough of the world to be somewhat jaded. But he is still young enough at age thirty to believe that one man can change his world for the better. And in his mind, that man is Michael Morris. But his own ambitions for a career as a political adviser and the revelation of Morris’ brief affair with Molly Stearns forces Meyers to grow up . . . in a most painful way. Considering the methods that he used in an effort to save his career, one might view Stearns’ loss of idealism with a negative eye. Or one might now. Personally, I believe that loss turned out to be a mixture of good and bad for Stearns.

“THE IDES OF MARCH” received a good deal of positive reviews from many of the media’s critics. Did the movie deserve the positive word-of-mouth? I believe so. I really enjoyed the story. And I believe that Clooney, Willimon and the third co-writer, Grant Heslov, did an excellent job of conveying Stephen Meyers’ final loss of innocence with plenty of melodrama (oh, that word!), tight pacing, political wheeling-dealing and plot twists. What is interesting about this movie is that all of the characters involved in the story are Democrats. There is no Republican or hard line conservative in sight. And I have to hand it to Clooney, Willimon and Heslov for being willing to show that in their own way, Democratic politicians and political wheeler-dealers could be just as dirty and manipulative as their Republican counterparts. Personally, I believe that this is a good lesson to learn that when it comes to the world of politics – and the media, for that matter – you cannot trust anyone, regardless of political suasion.

Clooney managed to gather a fine collection of actors and actresses for his movie. I do have one minor quibble about this . . . and it involves actress Jennifer Ehle, who portrayed Governor Morris’ wife, Cindy Morris. I had no problem with her performance. But aside from a brief scene with Clooney in which the two discussed his future in the White House, she seemed wasted in this film. I almost found myself thinking the same about Jeffrey Wright, who portrayed a North Carolina senator, whose support both Democratic candidates sought. He only had brief scenes in the movie. But he made the most of it by portraying Senator Thompson as an egotistical power seeker with great relish. Max Minghella gave a decent performance as Meyers’ assistant who harbored ambitions to achieve the latter’s position. Marisa Tomei gave a witty performance as a snarky New York Times reporter, whose attitude toward Meyers changes drastically by the end of the movie. The year 2011 had been a busy year for Evan Rachel Wood. The young intern Molly Stearns proved to be her third major role that year. Wood did an excellent job portraying Molly as a sexy and outgoing woman, who also proved to be vulnerable and scared by the consequences of her brief affair with Governor Morris. Her description of Morris’ seduction of Molly at an Iowa hotel left my skin crawling.

Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti gave powerhouse performances as the two rival senior campaign managers, Paul Zara and Tom Duffy. Watching these two manipulate and trip up Meyers was like watching two war horses showing the world how to give colorful performances. George Clooney’s portrayal of Governor Mike Morris was a lot more restrained than those given by Hoffman and Giamatti. But I found him equally memorable as Democratic candidate, Michael Morris. Superficially, Clooney invested a great deal of subtle charm and idealism into the character. But I liked the way he slowly revealed the ambition and corruption behind the Mr. Smith persona. If anything, Clooney’s Governor Morris reminded me of the numerous so-called ideally liberal politicians, who are revealed to be not only corrupt, but disappointing.

Despite the powerhouse appearances of veterans like Clooney, Giamatti, Hoffman, Wright and Tomei, the real star of “THE IDES OF MARCH”turned out to be Ryan Gosling. The ironic thing is that his portrayal of political campaign manager Stephen Meyers made Clooney’s restrained performance look absolutely subtle. Yet, along with Clooney’s direction, Gosling more or less managed to carry the movie. I am not saying this because Gosling is the star of the movie. In his quiet way, he managed to carry a film featured with more colorful performances from an older cast. More importantly, Gosling did an excellent job in quietly conveying Stephen Meyers’s development from a savy, yet idealistic junior campaign manager to a harder and wiser politico who is willing to embrace corruption in order to save his career. I thought he gave a very impressive performance.

In the end, “THE IDES OF MARCH” was able to earn an accolades during the movie awards season, including an Academy Awards nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Well, I believe the film deserved its accolades.  Thanks to George Clooney’s direction, the script and a talented cast led by Ryan Gosling, I was very impressed by it.

 

Southern Belle Fashionistas

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Below are images featuring my favorite costumes worn by two Southern Belle characters in fiction – Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and its 1939 movie adaptation, “GONE WITH THE WIND”; and Ashton Main from John Jakes’ 1982-1987 literary trilogy and its 1985-1994 television adaptation, “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy: 

SOUTHERN BELLE FASHIONISTAS

Scarlett O’Hara – “GONE WITH THE WIND”

I may have mixed feelings about the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, I cannot deny that I really liked some of the costumes designed by Walter Plunkett for the story’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. Here are my five (5) favorite costumes:

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Wedding Dress – The dress that Scarlett wore when she married Charles Hamilton in the spring of 1861.

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Christmas 1863 Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she bid good-bye to Ashley Wilkes at the end of his army furlough around the Christmas 1863 holiday.

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Wedding Announcement Dress – She wore this dress when she informed her sisters and the Wilkes about her marriage to second husband, Frank Kennedy, in 1866.

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Businesswoman Dress – Scarlett wore this outfit in one scene featuring her role as manager of her second husband Frank Kennedy’s sawmill.

Post-Honeymoon Visit to Tara Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she and third husband Rhett Butler visited Tara following their honeymoon in 1868.

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Sawmill Visit Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she paid a visit to Ashley Wilkes, who was manager of the sawmill she had inherited from Frank Kennedy in the early 1870s.

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Ashton Main – “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy

I am a fan of the ABC adaptations of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Among my favorite costumes worn by the character, Ashton Main and designed by Vicki Sánchez, Robert Fletcher and Carol H. Beule. Here are my favorite costumes:

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Mont Royal Ball Gown – Ashton Main wore this gown at the ball held at her family’s plantation during the summer of 1854.

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Wedding Gown – Ashton wore this gown when she married her first husband, James Huntoon, in the fall of 1856.

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Richmond Ball Gown – Ashton Huntoon wore this ballgown when she met her future lover Elkhannah Bent at a reception held in Richmond, Virginia in July 1861.

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Day Dress – Ashton wore this dress during her first visit to Elkhannah Bent’s Richmond home during the summer of 1861 and when she was married to her second husband, salesman Will Fenway, in 1866-67.

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Huntoon Reception Dress – Ashton wore this dress at a reception she and her husband James Huntoon had hosted at their Richmond home in November 1861.

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Evening Dress – Ashton wore this dress during an evening visit to Bent’s Richmond home in August 1862.

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Travel Dress – Ashton wore this dress during a visit to her family’s plantation, Mont Royal, in August 1863.

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Factory Visit Dress – Ashton wore this dress when she paid a visit to her husband Will Fenway’s Chicago piano factory in 1868.

“Marie” [PG-13] – Chapter Three

Civil War nurse Charlotte Evans uncovers a mystery at a Mississippi plantation during the middle of the war.

* * * *

 

“MARIE”

Chapter Three

Being a New Englander, it had been difficult for me to adjust to the hot and humid summers of Tennessee and Mississippi. To be honest, I still have not adjusted to it. It came as no surprise that I found myself unable to sleep during the sultry nights. The patients’ moans and Alma’s light snores did not help matters. One night, during our second week at Green Willows, I heard two people arguing next door. Our host and his mother.

“After I had begged you not to hang around that darky, you still defied my wishes during supper. Oh yes, Jenny told me all about it!” I assumed that the screeching voice belonged to Mrs. Scott. “You’re just like them. Just like the Scotts! And to think I thought you were a son of mine!”

Major Scott was not as loud. “For heaven’s sakes, Mother! Not so loud! The entire house can hear you.”

“I don’t care! Can you imagine my feelings when I saw you in the garden with that woman? Not only did you upset me, you have insulted Judith’s memory!”

That woman? Mrs. Scott had obviously been referring to me.

“Judith has been dead for six years, Mama! And I don’t recall you ever having any regard for her! And as for Miss Evans, we happen to be friendly acquaintances. That’s all. Unlike you, I happen to like people for whom and not what they are.”

A loud slap followed. Mrs. Scott must have struck her son.  “How dare you talk to me like that!” she cried in a voice loud enough to wake the dead.

Mrs. Scott certainly woke up Alma. She sat up in bed, her light brown eyes barely opened. “What’s that?” she asked.

I answered, “Mrs. Scott giving her son hell.”

Both of us remained silent as we overheard Major Scott continue. “I feel we have nothing further to say ma’am. Now if you will please excuse me.” His voice was cold as steel.

“Richard! I won’t have it, you hear? I won’t have you insult your family name with that black slut!”

“Good-night Mother!” A door slammed shut.

“RICHARD!!”

Alma turned to me. “Whew! I reckon you’re the . . . black slut Miss Scott was referring to?”

I merely rolled my eyes.

She shook her head. “Lord knows how many times I’ve heard Miss Catherine call my momma that.” Alma sighed. She happened to be one of the offsprings of a cotton planter and his slave mistress. After his death, his widow began making preparations to sell Alma and her brothers to Texas. Which led them to run for the Union lines. “If I were you, Miss Charlotte, I’d stay away from that woman. Maum Janey tole me she was a little crazy.”

What Alma had said about Mrs. Scott did not worry me. I felt I could handle the woman easily. What disturbed me was something she had said to Major Scott. “Just like the Scotts!” What did she meant by that?

* * * *

I finished wrapping a clean bandage on the corporal’s leg. On the following afternoon, I found myself with Miriam and Doctor Anders on the manor’s wide, front lawn. Before I could walk away, the corporal laid a hand on my arm. “Excuse me nurse, but am I crippled?” He looked up at me with brown hopeful eyes.

A lump formed in my throat. I knew he could walk again, but a Minie ball at Vicksburg shot off a fragment of his knee ligament and stiffened his leg for good. He would limp for the rest of his life.  The corporal had been so polite and friendly toward me that I decided to spare him the full details. I told him that he would be on his feet within a matter of days. At least I was being partially truthful. Relieved, the corporal laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes with a smile.

“Poor bastard’ll be limping for the rest of his days. Won’t he?” a voice murmured. I glanced up. Major Scott stood behind me, wearing a sad expression.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

“I’m sorry. What I meant was the corporal there has a permanent limp. Am I right?”

“How did you know?”

“I saw the expression on your face.” His dark eyes met mine. There was something in them that reminded me of someone from the past. Josh Bradley, the son of a merchant in my hometown, once looked at me in the same manner before proposing marriage. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

It was not that I did not find Major Scott unattractive. I did. Very much. But like Josh, I knew there were too many differences in our backgrounds that would divide us. Major Scott happened to be white and I was colored. Jack was colored also, but came from a well-to-do family. Major Scott had the same problem of coming from a wealthy background. And worse, Major Scott was a native of Mississippi. I would not have lasted with him a lot less longer than I would have with Josh.

The front door opened and three people emerged from the manor – Maum
Janey, Shelby and Mrs. Scott. Major Scott followed my stare with uneasy eyes. “Going shopping Mama?” The three females were dressed for travel.

“We’re heading into town to purchase new shoes for Shelby,” Mrs. Scott replied coolly. “We should return before supper.” Mrs. Scott deliberately ignored me. That is until Major Scott helped her settled in an old barouche. For a brief moment, I felt the malevolence in her eyes, as she glanced at me. Major Scott excused himself and returned inside the manor. The carriage rattled down the road, driven by a dark old man.

“My goodness,” Alice declared in a breathless manner. “Did you see the way Mrs. Scott looked at you? She must really hate you!”

I shrugged. “What can you expect? I’m a free, colored and a Yankee.”

“I don’t think so, Charlotte. I’ve never seen her look at Alma like that. She usually gets one of those ‘don’t-sass-me-I-am-your-superior’ looks.” I stared at Alice. I never realized she was capable of such cattiness.

Alice continued, “But you . . . she gave you a look of pure hatred. Like it was personal.” Her remarks produced a glimmer of suspicion in my mind. Perhaps the reason Mrs. Scott disliked me so, was because I reminded her of Marie. After all, the man in my dream strongly resembled Major Scott. Perhaps his father had been Marie’s lover. If so, then Mrs. Scott must have killed the nursemaid.

* * * *

Later that night, I had that same dream. Unable to return to sleep, I slipped out of bed and went downstairs to the library, hoping that I could find a book to read.

Decorated in brown oak paneling, the library was scantily furnished. The only furnishings in the room were a large desk with a kerosene lamp, green cushioned chair, two small wood-carved chairs and a tall grandfather clock.

After I had lit the lamp, my eyes fell upon two portraits hanging side by side on the north wall. Both men in the paintings strongly resembled Major Scott. Both possessed the dark hair and eyes, cleft chin and the aquiline nose of the Scotts. The man in the left portrait, with his fleshy skin and ruthless set of the mouth, had a more dissipated look. The other man happened to be an exact replica of Major Scott.

The signatures of both paintings were the same. Solomon Green. Both paintings had been completed in June 1840. “That’s Massa Richard’s papa and uncle,” a voice behind me said. I turned around. It was Maum Janey. She continued. “What you doin up so late, child?”

“I had a bad dream and could not go back to sleep,” I answered. Looking at the paintings again, I realized that handsomer one must have been Major Scott’s father. “What was Major Scott’s father like?”

A heavy sigh escaped from Maum Janey’s lips. “A real bastard.” She paused momentarily before adding, “Pardon my language, miss. As I was trying to say, but Massa Coleman barely paid any attention to Miss Deborah, young Massa Richard or any of the other children. And he treated his niggers like dirt. Hardly a soul mourned his death.”

I looked at the handsome man in the painting. This man was Marie’s lover?

“No female slave, house or field, was safe from him,” Maum Janey continued. “Except a few. You know I can’t get over how much you look like her. Like Marie.”

“Were you two close?”

“We were friends. Massa Coleman bought brought both of us from Nawlins years ago.” I gathered Maum Janey meant New Orleans. Ironically, the housekeeper never struck me as someone with a Creole background. She continued, “I reckon almost thirty years ago. She became Massa Richard’s nurse mammy and I became a house maid.”

I asked, “Were you in the house when she died?”

“No. No I wasn’t. Marie slept in Massa Richard’s room and I slept in the slave quarters. Massa Coleman was getting ready to sell her anyhow. I saw him and Massa Brent – his brother – with Marie in this room the very day she died. Massa Coleman tore off her blouse so that he could look her over. Almost made her bend down to look some more, but a visitor was coming and they stopped.”

I flinched at her story. Poor Marie. To be treated so brutally by her lover. So Major Scott’s father had planned to sell Marie. I wondered why. I asked, “Did Mrs. Scott force him to sell her?”

“Why you ask that?” Maum Janey demanded.

“Perhaps Marie and Mr. Scott . . .” I began.

Maum Janey snorted with derision. “Are you kidding? Massa Coleman had never shown the least bit interest in Marie. Not during the five years she had been there. Besides, I doubt Miz Deborah could make Massa Coleman do anything. She couldn’t care less about him and he felt the same about her. They stayed away from each other.”

Now, I felt confused. Perhaps Maum Janey did not know about Marie and Coleman Scott. I looked at the handsome man on the right. “I must say that Major Scott is the spitting image of his father.”

Maum Janey followed my gaze. “Oh, that’s not Massa Coleman.” She pointed to the left portrait. “That’s him. You were looking at his brother, Massa Brent. Now he . . . was more than interested in Marie.” The old housekeeper paused momentarily. “She was his bed wench.”

Completely astonished, I realized my mistake. Marie had an affair with Major Scott’s uncle, not his father. So that meant Mrs. Scott had no reason to kill Marie. But who did?

End of Chapter Three

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” (1932) Review

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“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” (1932) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw the 1932 movie, “SHANGHAI EXPRESS”. Many years. In fact, the last time I saw it was on late night television back in the early 1990s. But I had such difficulty in finding it on VHS and later, on DVD that I never thought I would see it again . . . until I recently viewed it online. 

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” marked the fourth out of seven collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. Filmed and set in 1931, the movie featured a train journey in civil war-torn China from Beiping (now known as Beijing) and Shanghai. Among the passengers are missionary Mr. Carmichael, an inveterate gambler named Sam Salt, opium dealer Eric Baum, a boarding house keeper named Mrs. Haggerty, French officer Major Lenard, and mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang.

Also among the passengers are a British Army doctor named Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey and two high-priced “coasters” (prostitutes) – Hui Fei and the notorious coaster, “Shanghai Lily”. The train journey marked the reunion between “Doc” Harvey and “Shanghai Lily”, who had been lovers five years ago, when he knew her as a woman named Magdalen. Back then, Magdalen had played a trick on Harvey to test his love for her, but it backfired and he left her. Upset over the loss of Harvey, Magdalen became a courtesan, And according to her, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Lily informs Harvey that she still loves him and it becomes apparent that his feelings for her have not changed.

When government troops stop the train to search and arrest an enemy agent, the mysterious Henry Chang is revealed to be a powerful warlord, who is the agent’s commanding officer. He sends a telegram and hours later, rebel troops loyal to him stop the train and take the first-class passengers hostage. Chang intends to find the right passenger he can use as barter to get back his spy. And he finds that passenger in Captain Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on a British official in Shanghai.

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” managed to earn three Academy Award nominations – Best Picture, Best Director for Sternberg and Best Cinematography for Lee Garmes. Only Garmes won a statuette. And it was a well deserved win. The movie’s look has gained a reputation for its lush and atmospheric photography, especially in the way he shot the movie’s star, Marlene Dietrich. A famous example of the movie’s photography could be found in the shot below:

There were other memorable moments that made the movie’s photography so memorable. Moments that include the passengers boarding the train, the takeover of the train by Chang’s men, and the two leads’ arrival in Shanghai. But the moment that really impressed me featured the train’s departure from Beiping. Not only did I find the photography in that scene impressive, but also Hans Dreier’s art direction.

As for its Best Picture and Best Director nominations . . . well, I am not so certain about that. According to Dietrich, von Sternberg was more responsible for the atmospheric photography than Garmes or an uncredited James Wong Howe. That is grand. However, that little tidbit only convinced me that Sternberg should have taken home the Best Cinematography statuette, not Garmes. But I must admit that I found the nominations for Best Picture and Best Director rather questionable. “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” is an entertaining film and an interesting example of the Pre-Code era of the early 1930s. I simply found the Best Picture and Best Director nominations a little hard to swallow.

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” struck me as the type of story that would have made a perfect summer blockbuster, if given a bigger budget and a little more action. But Jules Furthman’s story did not exactly knock my socks off. And von Sternberg’s slightly turgid direction could not exactly light a fire under it. Also, there were certain aspects of the story that I found questionable. Considering the circumstances behind Magdalen’s breakup from Donald Harvey, I found it hard to swallow that this would drive her to become a high-priced prostitute in China for five years. I simply found that ludicrous. And Chang decided to take the train passengers hostage “before” discovering which one could be used to get his spy back. I could not help thinking it would have been more prudent to search for that valuable hostage first, before capturing the entire train.

For a movie that featured sex, travel, romance and intrigue; there was very little action in this film. I realize this movie was made and released in 1931-32, and not in 2011-12. But even for an early 30s movie, it had very little action, considering its story line. Also, good old-fashioned early 20th century racism reared its ugly head in Chang’s dealings with Magdalen and her fellow prostitute Hui Fei. The Eurasian warlord wanted both women, but was only willing to rape Hui Fei. In 1931-32 Hollywood movies, a non-white man could not soil the depths of a white woman, even if she was a whore.

The cast seemed pretty solid. But if I must honest, I could not find an exceptional performance within the cast. Marlene Dietrich gave a solid performance as the soiled Shanghai Lily. And that is the best I can say about her. She was not exactly at the top of her form as an actress in the early 1930s. Garmes . . . or should I say von Sternberg’s photography contributed to her status as a film icon after a year or two in Hollywood, not her acting skills.

Dietrich was supported by the likes of Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. Of the three performers, the Swedish-born Oland ended up looking the best. Despite portraying the villainous Chang, he managed to give a relaxed, yet commanding performance without resorting to any hammy acting or posing. Anna May Wong also managed to restrain from any histronics. And her character’s actions near the end of the film saved the lives of the other passengers. But she barely had twenty lines, let alone ten lines in the movie; and spent the first two-thirds of the movie looking iconic . . . and playing cards. Why on earth did von Sternberg cast British actor Clive Brook as Dietrich’s love interest, British Army Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey? Why? He was so wrong for the role. Brook was perfect as the patriarch of the Marryot family in Noel Coward’s 1933 sentimental family saga, “CAVALCADE”. But as the dashing, yet bitter Captain Harvey, he seemed out of his depth. And his chemistry with Dietrich struck me as rather flat. I hate to say this, but he was no Gary Cooper. Thankfully, other supporting players such as Eugene Pallette, Louise Classer Hale and Lawrence Grant provided plenty of comic relief and color as some of the other train passengers.

I realize that “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” is one of those highly regarded films from the Pre-Code Era. But after watching it, I could not help but feel that it might be slightly overrated. Yet, I could not deny that despite its flaws, it is a beautiful and exotic-looking film with an entertaining story. More importantly, it is an example of Josef von Sternberg’s work and Marlene Dietrich’s beauty at their heights.

 

 

Five Favorite Episodes of “THE MUSKETEERS” Season One (2014)

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of “THE MUSKETEERS”, the BBC’s historical action-drama based on Alexandre Dumas, père‘s 1844 novel. Created by Adrian Hodges, the series stars Tom Burke, Santiago Cabrera, Howard Charles and Luke Pasqualino: 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE MUSKETEERS” SEASON ONE (2014)

1 - 1.09 Knight Takes Queen

1. (1.09) “Knight Takes Queen” – Musketeers Aramis and Athos are forced to protect Queen Anne from assassins hired by Cardinal Richelieu at a convent, after King Louis XIII expressed disillusion with the Queen’s inability to have children. Meanwhile, Porthos and d’Artangnan race back to Paris to gather more Musketeers to come to their aid.

2 - 1.06 Exiles

2. (1.06) “The Exiles” – Aramis and d’Artagnan try to protect a young woman and her baby, who are sought by armed men. Both mother and child are sought by both Cardinal Richelieu and the King’s treacherous the exiled Marie de’ Medici. Tara Fitzgerald and Amy Nuttall guest starred.

3 - 1.10 Musketeers Dont Die Easily

3. (1.10) “Musketeers Don’t Die Easily” – In the season finale, a rift develops between d’Artangnan and Athos, when the latter in a state of drunkenness takes his estranged wife Milady de Winter hostage and learns about her brief affair with the younger Musketeer. Sean Pertwee guest starred.

4 - 1.05 The Homecoming

4. (1.05) “The Homecoming” – A drunken Porthos is framed for murder in his old neighborhood, Paris’ Court of Miracles slum. When his three colleagues seek to exonerate him, they stumble across a real estate conspiracy regarding the neighborhood. Ashley Walters, Helen Cotterill and Anton Lesser guest starred.

5 - 1.02 Sleight of Hand

5. (1.02) “Sleight of Hand” – The Musketeers engineer d’Artagnan’s imprisonment in a cell with a notorious criminal named Vadim. The latter has a plan to use the visiting Queen Anne to escape and start a revolution. But his plans proved to be more criminal than political. Jason Flemyng guest starred.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

 

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise. 

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!” Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

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But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for “THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after eleven years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

 

 

“Marie” [PG-13] – Chapter Two

Civil War nurse Charlotte Evans uncovers a mystery at a Mississippi plantation during the middle of the war.

**********************

“MARIE”

Chapter Two

She breathed heavily while the man above her pushed further inside. In and out he moved. Then suddenly he gasped her name. “Marie!” She shuddered as the exquisite pain vibrated throughout her body.

Both woman and man laid flat on the soft bed for a few moments, catching their breaths. The warm air did nothing to dry their glistening bodies.

The woman heard a noise against the door. She sat up. “What was that?” she asked.

“Probably someone walking down the hall, darlin’. Nothing to worry about,” the man answered. He began to caress her back languorously.

She looked at the clock on the side table. Two-oh-five. She must get back to Richard. “Ma petite. I have to go and check on Richard. I didn’t mean to stay away so long.”

“Damn! I was hoping you would stay a little longer. But, if you must.” He began planting kisses on the back of her neck and his hand cupped her right breast from behind. “How about we meet near Walker’s Pond tomorrow? Around two?”

She turned around and kissed him deeply. “Of course, cheri. I’ll see you then. Bonne nuit.” After one last kiss, she put on an old faded dressing robe and left the room.

The stairs were centered in the middle of the hallway. She stopped in front of the banister and peered down. Who had passed by a few minutes ago? She leaned over, trying to get a glimpse of the person. There seemed to be no one.

Suddenly someone’s hot breath seared her left ear. “You whoring bitch!” the voice hissed. She twirled around and found icy cold eyes glaring at her. Mad eyes. Before she could do anything, a pair of hands shoved her against her chest over the railing she flew. Down she fell, screaming with terror until there was nothing but darkness.

* * * *

Gasping, I sat up in bed like a shot. Perspiration trickled down my face and under my arms. I glanced around. I had returned to the bedroom I shared with Alma. Over to my right laid Alma, snoring lightly. I sighed with relief. It had only been a dream.

Too scared to go back to sleep, I laid back down with my eyes wide open. Marie. Not only did she haunt me in the day, but also at night. Had she died in that manner? Pushed over the railing by someone with mad eyes?

Oddly enough, I had dreamed the entire incident through her eyes. As if it had been I who made love that night before being pushed over the railing. Even odder, Marie’s lover strongly resembled the present master of Green Willows. His father perhaps? I was not sure, but curiosity made me determined to find out.

The next day, Miriam and I helped Doctor Henson tend the patients situated in the front hall. Many of the soldiers suffered mainly from fever, dysentery and smallpox. And there were those who still suffered from battle wounds sustained during the Vicksburg and Port Hudson sieges.

Miriam’s lean face wore a worried expression as it hovered over a soldier convulsing under a thin blanket. She glanced up. “Sarah? Could you do me a favor? I had left several bottles of laudanum in the Rose Room. Could you get one for me?”

I told her yes and headed for the parlor. As I entered the room, I spotted the bottles on the large fireplace’s mantle. A large portrait of a young woman hung above it. Judging by the style of the blue gown she wore, the painting must be dated some thirty years ago.

I must admit that she looked rather pretty, though she did not resemble a Scott. With her birdlike nose, thin lips, brown hair and pale blue eyes, she looked nothing like the major.

“That’s my grandmother,” a silvery little voice said. I turned around. A small and handsome, dark-haired boy entered the parlor with Maum Janey. It was Major Scott’s son.

I replied politely, “She looked very pretty.”

“Not anymore. She looks old now.” He smiled and stuck out a small hand covered in dirt. “My name’s Shelby. What’s yours?”

“Charlotte. Charlotte Evans.”

“How come you sound funny? You don’t sound like the other nigras.”

“Mister Shelby! I didn’t teach you to be rude,” Maum Janey scolded with a frown.

Little Shelby’s face puckered with confusion. “I wasn’t bein’ rude. I just wanted to know . . .”

“That’s because I’m a Yankee,” I answered. “From a small town in Massachusetts called Falmouth. I didn’t see your grandmother last night. Was she ill?”

“No. She didn’t want to come down. I heard her tell Papa that she’d rather die than sit with Yankees and niggers.”

“Shelby!” Maum Janey again.

Shelby protested, “It was Grandma who said that! I know that Papa doesn’t want me sayin’ that word.” He turned to me with a grave expression. “‘Never call people names by what they are’. That’s what he told me.”

I decided to excuse his remark. At least young Shelby had been raised properly. “What about you?” I asked. “Why weren’t you at supper? Or don’t you like sitting with Yankees and Negroes?” I refused to utter the other word.

“He’s too young to be up that late Miz Charlotte,” Maum Janey replied. She tugged Shelby’s arm. “Time for your nap, honey.”

“But I want to talk with Sarah some more!” Shelby argued. “You know, you look a lot like Marie. Maybe that’s why Papa seems to like you. He’s been talking about you ever since you all got here.”

Utterly speechless, I stared at him. I did not realize that he was aware of Major Scott’s growing friendliness toward me. I barely heard Miriam’s voice.

“Marie? You know what she looks like?” I asked.

“Course. She visits my room every night.”

Maum Janey, I noticed, seemed nervous. “Let’s go honey.” She started pulling Shelby toward the door.

I wanted to ask the boy another question but Miriam popped at the doorway. “Charlotte! What happened to the bottle?”

I handed the bottle to Miriam and she left. Maum Janey and Shelby started to follow her.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Just how did Marie die?”

Maum Janey’s dark eyes became somber. And sad. “She fell over the railing, from the second floor.”

* * * *

Over the next several days, whenever I had the time, I became better acquainted with the Scott household. It amazed me how they all warmed to me so quickly. Major Scott, Maum Janey, Shelby and the remaining slaves on the plantation.

“Oh, they’re not slaves anymore,” Major Scott corrected me. We sat inside the white gazebo, facing a garden that had seen better days.

Despite President Lincoln’s proclamation, I knew that all slaves residing in loyal states or areas under Union occupation were exempted from the so-call ‘freedom’ document. I did not realize that an Confederate and slave owner like Richard, would take it to heart and I said so.

“I know that Mr. Lincoln only ‘freed’ those under the Confederacy,” he said with a slight smirk. “But I decided to free mine on my own.”

“Why?”

“Well they deserve to be free. Don’t you think so? I always did.”

Well, well. So Mississippi harbored a secret abolitionist in its midst. “But you fought for the Confederacy.”

He replied simply, “Well, Mississippi is my home. I was defending it from invaders. Besides, I do not believe that the Federal government has the right to free slaves. It still should be left to the states and individual owners to do so.” And yet, Federal occupation gave him the chance to finally free his slaves. I knew that except a few, most Southern states had outlawed manumission. “I never thought about it before, until Marie became my nurse mammy. Through her I found out what it was really like to be a slave. Whenever I noticed my parents, especially Mother, treating her badly, I’d wish she could be free from them. That’s when I really started to hate it.”

I asked, “Do you miss her? Marie, I mean.”

Major Scott nodded. There was a sad smile on his face. “Oh yes. Course I grew real fond of Maum Janey. But she was my nurse mammy for a short time. On my tenth birthday, my papa thought it was time I had a more masculine companion. But Marie and I were very close. If fact, she was closer to me than any of my. . .” The major suddenly stopped and looked up. I followed his glance. Peering from a second floor window was a middle-aged woman with gaunt and pale features. It was the first time I laid eyes on Richard’s mother. I could detect her displeasure of seeing Richard and myself together, by the stiff set of her shoulders.

“I see that Mother is awake.” He smiled briefly. “Would you pardon me please? I have a feeling that she requires my attention for a moment. I shall return.”

Sighing, I watched as he rushed inside the house and then I glanced up. Mrs. Scott had disappeared from the window.

End of Chapter Two

“IRON MAN” (2008) Review

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“IRON MAN” (2008) Review

I had never heard of the Marvel comic book hero, Iron Man, until I saw the trailer for the new movie, a few months ago. Mind you, I had heard of Iron Man’s alter ego – Tony Stark. The latter’s name had been mentioned in several Internet articles written about Spider-Man. Which is why I could not summon any excitement when I saw the trailer for the new movie starring Robert Downey, Jr.

Until the release of 2000’s “X-MEN”, I have never been that familiar with most of Marvel Comics’ costumed crime fighters – with the exception of Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. I had spent a great deal of my recreational time with DC Comics characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Just about anyone could imagine my reaction when I learned that Robert Downey Jr. had been signed to portray Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Not particularly thrilled. But I was impressed by the major cast of actors who had signed up for the film – Downey, Gwenyth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges. All four performers have been favorites of mine over the years, along with director Jon Favreau. And since “IRON MAN” was a Marvel Comics film, I decided to give it a chance.

I might as well say it right now. “IRON MAN” has already become one of my favorite movies of 2008. And if I must be honest, I think it is one of the BEST superhero movies I have ever seen, hands down. I would place “IRON MAN” in the same golden circle as“X-MEN 2: X-UNITED” (2003)“SPIDER-MAN 2” (2004) and “BATMAN BEGINS” (2005). Yes, it is that good.

What would be the point of focusing upon the movie’s many virtues, when my previous statements pretty much said it all? But . . . I am going to try, anyway. And I would like to start with the excellent screenplay written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Arthur Marcum and Matthew Hollaway. They managed to create a good, solid story focusing upon Iron Man’s origins. In an unusual move, the writers began the story with Tony Stark in Afghanistan in the company of an Army escort. Stark had just presented a demonstration of Stark Industries’ latest weapon – the Jericho missile. While Stark jokes around with his military escort, Afghan terrorist group called Ten Rings. At this point, the movie rewind back to thirty-six hours earlier before Stark’s departure from the States. This opening immediately conveyed to me that the movie might turn out to be ten times better than I had originally assumed. By the time Tony Stark uttered those last words – ”I’m Iron Man” – it proved me right.

There are two aspects of “IRON MAN” that truly made it a cinematic gem for me. One happened to be Jon Favreau’s direction. The other turned out to be the movie’s superb cast. And speaking of the cast, I might as well start with the man of the hour. What can I say about Robert Downey Jr.? He IS Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Downey now owns the role. I have never seen an actor take possession of a role so thoroughly since Daniel Day Lewis in “THERE WILL BE BLOOD”, Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond in“CASINO ROYALE”and Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN”trilogy. Downey is also the first actor or actress I have seen portray a comic book hero as a wiseass. And he also managed to produce sparks with not only his supporting cast, but also with an android and a computer voice.

Supporting Downey was Terrence Howard as USAF Lieutenant Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Air Force liaison to Stark Industries and personal friend of Tony Stark. Howard portrayed Rhodes as a stalwart military man who found Stark’s cavalier life both exasperating and enduring. I have never seen Howard do comedy . . . until this movie. And I was surprised to discover that his flair for comic timing seemed to match Downey’s. Some people have pointed out his role had been reduced. I cannot say that I agree. One, he had yet to become War Machine, Tony’s future armored crime fighting partner. However, his line – ”Next time, baby” – as he glanced at the extra armor suit seemed to hint that he will play a bigger role in future movies. And two, Howard possessed such a strong on-screen presence that no one was bound to forget . . . no matter how many scenes he had.

When I first learned that Gwenyth Paltrow would be playing Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts, I found myself wondering if her career was in a decline. Playing the main hero’s Girl Friday seemed like a step down – even from her role in”SKY CAPTAIN: WORLD OF TOMORROW”. Fortunately, the script and Paltrow’s witty and elegant performance gave her the opportunity rise above the usual cliché of the Girl Friday role. Mind you, “Pepper” Potts never struck me as interesting as the charming and conniving Polly Perkins from ”SKY CAPTAIN”. But instead of becoming the “damsel-in-distress”, Paltrow ended up helping Stark/Iron Man to defeat the main villain. Good show!

Speaking of villains, I must applaud Jeff Bridges for portraying one of the smoothest that I have seen on the silver screen – namely Tony Stark’s business partner and mentor Obadiah Stane. Not even Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine from ”STAR WARS” had possessed such subtlety when it came to evil. At first glance, Bridges did not seem the type who could effectively portray a villain. Then I recalled his performance in the 1985 thriller with Glenn Close, ”JAGGED EDGE”, in which he portrayed a similarly subtle villain. Being a skillful actor, Bridges managed to convey many aspects of Stane’s personality – a superficial warmth and intelligence that hid a murderous and manipulative streak.

Another memorable villain was portrayed by actor Faran Tahir, who portrayed Raza, leader of the terrorist group – the Ten Rings – hired to kidnap Stark while the latter was in Afghanistan. Like Bridges, Tahir did an admirable in projecting villainy with suave, sophistication and a strong presence. In regard to a strong presence, I could say the same about Shaun Tolb, who portrayed Dr. Ho Yinsen, an Afghan surgeon and captive of the Ten Rings that saved Stark’s life. I have seen Talb portray some interesting characters over the years. But I must admit that his warm, yet firm portrayal of Yinsen made me realize that he possessed quite a commanding presence.

As I had earlier pointed out, the movie’s four screenwriters managed to produce a script that featured a very solid story. Unlike many other comic book movies, ”IRON MAN”seemed to be laced with a great deal of witty dialogue and humor. There were times when I wondered whether I was watching a superhero action film. But there was plenty of action-filled scenes to remind me that this movie was basically an adventure film – like Iron Man’s two encounters with the Ten Rings group in Afghanistan, his encounter with two USAF fighter planes and his showdown with Stane in downtown Los Angeles. Director Jon Farveau, along with the four screenwriters and cast, managed to bring together all of the action, humor and drama with perfect balance.

Okay . . . let me rephrase my last sentence. Perhaps ”IRON MAN” was not completely ”perfect”. In fact, it was not really perfect at all.  I do have  some quibbles about the movie. One of them happened to be the first sequence in Afghanistan. I realize that the setting of Iron Man’s origins could not be in Vietnam. And it would make sense for the setting to be changed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The problem is that most of the sequence featuring Stark’s captivity by the Ten Rings was boring as hell. It almost seemed to drag forever. And matters did not help much that most of this sequence was set inside a series of caves. Another problem I had with the movie was its score. Quite frankly, I found it unmemorable. But I am not surprised. I can only think of three comic book hero movies that had a score or theme song I found memorable. Unfortunately, ”IRON MAN” is not one of them.  And if I must be brutally honest, I would not regard the film’s narrative as particularly original or mind blowing.  The plot for “IRON MAN”was basically a paint-by-the-numbers comic book hero origin story.  Only the character of Tony Stark made it unique . . . at least back in 2008.

But despite the first Afghanistan sequence and the movie’s score, it is easy to see why ”IRON MAN” proved to be one of the best summer movies of 2008. With Jon Farveau in the director’s chair and Robert Downey Jr. as the leading man, the movie became – well, briefly – one of the best of its genre.