“SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

After finally seeing the 2008 Academy Award winning Best Picture, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, I am beginning to suspect that this film had garnered a great deal of unnecessarily extreme reactions. Moviegoers either loved it with every fiber of their being or considered it as either vastly overrated or insulting to the citizens of India. My reaction to the movie has been neither.

Directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and written by Simon Beaufoy, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (Kaun Banega Crorepati, mentioned in the Hindi version) and exceeds people’s expectations, arousing the suspicions of the game show host and of law enforcement officials. Beaufoy based his script upon the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-nominated novel, ”Q & A” (2005), written by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup.

The question is – do I believe that ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” had deserved its Best Picture Oscar? Honestly? No, I do not. In fact, the movie did not even make my list of Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2008. In some ways, I do feel that it is slightly overrated. No movie is perfect, but the flaws in this movie – or aspects of the movie I saw as flaws – made me wonder how it managed to win Oscars in the Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. I realize that this movie is based upon Swarup’s novel, in which the plot is centered around a popular game show. But I really could have done without this particular plot device. I found the scenes that featured Jamal Malik’s moments during the question-and-answer sessions of the game show unnecessarily dramatic. This plot device also provided a ridiculously over-the-top ‘happy ending’ that provided a sharp contrast to most of the story. And the idea that the game show questions provided triggers to Jamal’s reminisces about his childhood and his feelings about Latika, a girl he first fell in love with following the deaths of their parents in a mob attack did not exactly work for me. It seemed . . . off. There were times when director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy made it difficult to keep track on what Jamal was reminiscing in regard to the question he was being asked on the game show. By biggest complaints centered around the movie’s second half, the characterization of Latika and Chris Dickens’ editing.

At least two-thirds of ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” are focused around the boyhoods of Jamal’s recollections of his childhood in the slums of Mumbai with his older brother, Salim. In my opinion, this was the movie’s strongest part. It was not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the second half. There have been complaints that Boyle’s savage look into Mumbai’s slums is not the real India. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I would not know. I have never seen the real India. I must admit that the series of incidents presented in the movie’s first half left me feeling that I was watching an Anglo-Indian version of a Charles Dickens novel. Especially ”Oliver Twist”. And I found it fascinating, despite the squalor presented on the screen. But once the movie’s setting shifted to 2006 Mumbai, I found myself mired in a contrived story in which the rescue of Jamal’s love, Latika, from a wealthy gangster depended upon his success on the ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” show. As it turned out, Latika ended up being rescued by Jamal’s gangster brother, Salim.

Speaking of Latika, she proved to be another problem. Quite frankly, I found her character rather one-dimensional and frustrating. She seemed to be the ultimate example of the damsel-in-distress archetype. Jamal saw her as his ”destiny”. I saw her as this rather uninteresting character that became nothing more than a trophy for various characters – including Jamal. There was one scene in which Salim decided to claim Latika as a sex partner after he had saved her and Jamal by killing some minor gangster for whom she worked. Jamal naturally tried to prevent Salim from claiming Latika. Latika did nothing . . . until she agreed to sleep with Salim to prevent him from hurting Jamal. And I . . . was disgusted. She could have easily helped Jamal overcome Salim. Instead, she stood there like an idiot before offering herself to the older brother. The only time Latika ever really did something for herself was when she unsuccessfully tried to flee from the wealthy gangster. She was a very frustrating character and I felt sorry for the actresses – especially Freida Pinto – forced to portray such an uninteresting character. One last problem I had with this movie was Chris Dickens’ editing. It seemed like it was more appropriate for a MTV music video clip, instead of a two hour movie. Worse, it interfered with my enjoyment of Anthony Dod Mantle’s colorful cinematography. What makes this nauseating is that Dickens managed to win an Oscar for his work.

On the whole, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is pretty good movie that tries to give Westerners a peek into late 20th century and early 21st century India. The movie can boast some first rate performances by the movie’s lead actor, Dev Petel, who portrayed the 18 year-old Jamal, Tanay Chheda as the pre-adolescent Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Tanay Chheda as the early adolescent Salim. I was also impressed by Irrfan Khan’s performance as the police inspector who interrogated Jamal throughout most of the movie. He and Petel created a very interesting screen team. As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by Mantle’s cinematography in the movie. Despite the squalor that permeated the scenes featuring Jamal and Salim’s childhood, he infused the photography with color, energy and sweep. And what can I say about the exciting music featured in this film? I loved it. A. R. Rahman definitely deserved his Oscar for one of the most exciting and original film scores I have heard in years . . . and that includes ”Jai Ho”, the song he wrote for the film. By the way, he earned a well deserved Oscar for that as well.

Considering the eight (8) Academy Awards that it had earned; I wish I could say that it deserved all of its awards. But I do not think it did. Despite the movie’s first-rate cast, Mantle’s excellent photography and Rahman’s superb score, I cannot say that it was the best movie I had seen in 2008. In fact, it failed to make my list of 10 favorite movies for that year. Frankly, I found Simon Beaufoy’s script rather uneven and his characterization of the Latika character one-dimensional. And Danny Boyle failed to rise above these flaws with his direction. But . . . despite the movie’s flaws, I could honestly say that it would have made my list of the top 20 movies of 2008.

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“THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

“THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Grant Heslov directed this comedic adaptation of Jon Ronson’s 2004 book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The movie starred George Clooney as one of the participants in this program and Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a journalist who stumbles across the story, while reporting on businesses with military contracts in Iraq.

One of the surprising aspects about “THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” is that its story is based upon fact. According to author Jon Ronson, there was actually a similar unit actually existed within the U.S. Army called the Stargate Project. The film featured a different name for the units . . . and had probably changed some of the facts, but the Army did explore New Age concepts and military applications of the paranormal. “THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” followed McGregor’s character, a journalist with the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram named Bob Wilton. After an emotional divorce from an unfaithful wife, Bob goes to Kuwait to report on the Iraq War. He stumbles upon an interesting story when he meets a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady during a trip across the Iraqi countryside. During the road trip, Cassady reveals his participation in an Army unit that trained to develop a range of par psychological skills by using New Age concepts. The unit ended up being named the New Earth Army. While the pair endured a journey that included encounters with a gang of Iraqi criminals, a kidnapped victim of the criminals, the head of a private security firm named Todd Nixon and two rival groups of American contractors who engage in a gunfight against each other in Ramadi.

During Wilton and Cassady’s journey, the latter revealed the story behind the creation of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam War veteran named Bill Django. The latter had traveled across America in the 1970s for six years to explore a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement) after being wounded during the Vietnam War. Django used these experiences to create the New Earth Army. Django’s recruits ended up being nicknamed “Jedi Warriors”. By the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Cassady and Larry Hooper, who developed a lifelong rivalry with the former because of their opposing views of how to implement the First Earth philosophy. Cassady had wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Hooper was more interested in the negative side of the philosophy. Wilton and Cassady’s journey ended when they locate a military base in the middle of the desert.

I must admit that I had not in a big hurry to see “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” when it first hit the theaters ten years ago. In fact, I never had any intention of seeing it. The only reason I went to see the movie in the first place was that I was desperate for something to watch. The Fall 2009 movie season had seemed pretty dim to me. Aside from “THE INFORMANT”, I had difficulty finding a movie that appealed to me. And what about “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”? Did I find it appealing? Honestly? It was not the best movie I had seen in 2009. But I must admit that thanks to Grant Heslov’s direction and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, I found the movie rather humorous in an off-kilter manner. Some of the most humorous scenes featured:

*Wilton and Cassady’s flight from a group of Iraqi criminals

*The “Battle of Ramadi” between two American private security armies

*Bill Django’s six year exploration of New Age movements

*The results of Wilton and Django’s spiking of the Army base food with LSD.

At first, the movie’s approach to New Age religion and movements seemed inconsistent. The first half of the film treated the subject as a joke. However, once Wilton and Cassady reached the base housing the PSIC, Straughan’s script treated the subject with a lot more respect. It took me a while to realize that the story was told from Bob Wilton’s point-of-view. It only seemed natural that he would first view the New Earth Army and New Age beliefs as a joke. But after time spent with Cassady and later Django at the PSIC base, Wilton naturally developed a newfound respect for both topics. The movie also provided a slightly pointed attack upon the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Normally, I would have cringed at such protesting in a comedy. Fortunately, Heslov used humor – and very sharp humor at that – to mock American presence in the Middle Eastern country.

I think that Lyn Cassady might turn out to be one of my favorite roles portrayed by George Clooney. One, he gave a hilarious performance. And two, he also did a marvelous job in infusing Cassady’s role with a mixture of militaristic machismo and wide-eyed innocence. And despite his questionable American accent, I was very impressed by Ewan McGregor’s poignant performance as the lovelorn Michigan journalist (his wife left him for his editor), who traveled to Iraq to prove his bravery to his former wife . . . only to discover something more unique. Another joyous addition to the cast turned out to be Jeff Bridges, who gave a wonderfully off-kilter performance as Cassady’s mentor and founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django. And Larry Hooper, the one man allegedly responsible for bringing down Django’s New Earth Army, turned out to be another one of Kevin Spacey’s deliciously villainous roles. The movie also featured performances that ranged from solid to zany from the likes of Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Nick Offerman, Waleed Zuaiter, Rebecca Mader and Glen Morshower.

“THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” managed to earn less than $70 million dollars at the box office. Because it only had a budget of $24 million, it still managed to earn a small profit. However, it was not a hit film and it received mixed reviews. Perhaps the audience found the film’s subject a bit hard to swallow. There is also the possibility that film goers found screenwriter Peter Straughan’s script use of constant flashbacks regarding the New Earth Army rather confusing. Personally, I rather enjoyed the movie. It never became a big favorite of mine, but I still found it entertaining and interesting.

“TOWER HEIST” (2011) Review

“TOWER HEIST” (2011) Review

Years ago, Eddie Murphy had an idea about him and a group of comedians starring in a movie about a group planning to rob Trump Tower. The script developed and changed into an “OCEAN’S ELEVEN”-style caper, leading Murphy to leave the project. When director Brett Ratner continued to develop the idea into the movie’s present story, Murphy eventually rejoined the production.

“TOWER HEIST” told the story about three employees of an exclusive apartment building called The Tower, who lose their pensions due to a Ponzi scheme of a Wall Street businessman, who also lives in the building. The group enlist the aid of a criminal, a bankrupt businessman that also lives in the building, and another building employee to break into the businessman’s apartment and steal back their money, while avoiding the FBI Agent in charge of his case.

One of my favorite types of movies has always been the heist comedy. This is why I am a fan of such movies like “LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS”“A FISH CALLED WANDA” and the “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” series. I do not know if I would place “TOWER HEIST” on the same level as the previously mentioned films. I would not regard it as one of the best heist films I have ever seen, or even one of the best comedies. But I cannot deny that I found it entertaining.

I must admit that I did not believe Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy would ever generate a strong screen chemistry. But in a rather odd way, they seemed to click. I suppose this was due to the fact that Stiller’s more subdued performance perfectly balanced Murphy’s more extroverted one. And they had solid support from the likes of Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Alan Alda, Michael Peña, Matthew Broderick and Gabourey Sidibe. I was especially impressed by Alda’s insidious performance as the scheming businessman Arthur Shaw and Sidibe’s portrayal of the sharp-tongued maid Odessa, whose savvy proved to be the group’s godsend on at least two occasions.

Another aspect of “TOWER HEIST” that I admired was the movie’s script written by Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson. It was not the most spectacular story I have seen on the movie screen. I had a problem with the movie’s last five or ten minutes. I would reveal what I found troubling about the ending. But if I did, I would give away the story. I suspect Griffin and Nathanson ended it this way to put a little bite in the movie’s ending. It just did not work for me.

However, I did enjoy most of the story. I also liked that one of the main aspects that injected a good deal of suspense into the story was the possibility of one or more of the robbers betraying the others – especially in the case of both Murphy and Affleck’s characters. This is something that is usually common in a heist drama. But I have yet to see such a thing in a comedy, until I saw “TOWER HEIST”.

In the end, “TOWER HEIST” proved to be a solid and entertaining comedy with a slightly weak ending. The movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast led by Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. And director Brett Ratner did a good job in utilizing both the story and the cast to make a pretty solid film.

“KILLERS” (2010) Review

“KILLERS” (2010) Review

Before the 2010 summer movie season had begun over twelve years ago, I saw the previews for two movies about an innocent blond woman who becomes entangled in the life of a super spy. The first of the two films released was “KNIGHT AND DAY”, which starred. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. The second film released was “KILLERS”, a romantic action comedy I had recently re-watched. The movie starred Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher.

Directed by Robert Luketic, “KILLERS” is about an over cautious American woman named Jen Kornfeldt who meets a mysterious stranger, while vacationing with her parents in Nice, France. After a whirlwind romance, Jen and her new beau, Spencer Aimes, get married; despite her father’s reluctance. Three years later, Jen discovers two things – someone has placed a $20 million dollars contract on Spencer’s head and that he is a former spy/assassin. Apparently, Spencer had become disenchanted with his profession and gave it up after meeting Jen. Despite her anger over her husband’s deception, the pair spend a harrowing day trying to avoid the series of assassins after him and discover the identity of the person who had placed the bounty on Spencer’s head.

It is possible that I had been wrong to compare “KILLERS” with the Cruise/Diaz movie. I now realize that the film’s premise and plot bore more of a resemblance to the 2005 movie, “MR. AND MRS. SMITH”. And as much as I hate to admit this, I believe that was not a good thing. Despite being a first-rate movie, “MR. AND MRS. SMITH” had ended on a weak note. Unfortunately, “KILLERS” had suffered from the same fate – but on a bigger scale. In fact, I would probably say that the movie’s last twenty minutes managed to spiral into a weak and rather silly finale. Too bad. “KILLERS” began with such promise.

Screenwriters Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin did a solid job with the movie’s first half that featured the two protagonists’ first meeting, Spencer’s attempted hit on a target picked out by their boss, a look into their marriage after three years, and Spencer’s birthday party. It ended with an exciting sequence that featured Jen walking in on the first assassination attempt on Spencer inside their living room and her discovery of his past profession. But once other assassins (pretending to be neighbors and Spencer’s co-workers) began appearing one after the other, the movie became a parody of itself. It eventually took a serious nosedive and ended on a weak note when Jen and Spencer learned the identity of the person behind the hits.

There is one positive thing I can say about “KILLERS” is that it had a top-notch cast. Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher made a pretty solid screen team. Mind you, I found their chemistry rather awkward during Jen and Spencer’s courtship phrase. But once the pair became more truthful with each other, the sparks began to fly and the chemistry between Heigl and Kutcher became a lot stronger. And judging from what I had seen on the screen, I believed at the time that Kutcher should have seriously consider working in more action movies.

Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara gave interesting performances as Jen’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kornfelt. Selleck was completely in character as a humorless and controlling man. And O’Hara provided plenty of humor as his long-suffering wife who not only loved him, but dealt with his controlling personality with heavy drinking. Martin Mull shed his comic persona to portray Spencer’s intelligence boss, Holbrook. And he gave an impressive performance as a ruthless, manipulative and morally questionable man. To my utter surprise, my favorite performance belonged to a U.S.M.C. Reserve officer/comedian/actor named Rob Riggle. He gave a hilarious and first-rate performance as the Aimes’ witty and slightly crude neighbor, Henry.

I wish I could say that I loved “KILLERS”. Honestly. It had a solid cast. The two leads – Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher seemed to have a solid chemistry. And the movie’s first half struck me as promising. But Bob DeRosa and Ted Griffin’s screenplay ruined that promise with a second half that sank and ended with a great deal of silliness and on a weak note. Not even Heigl, Kutcher or Robert Luketic’s direction could save it in the end.

“RUSH HOUR 3” (2007) Review

“RUSH HOUR 3” (2007) Review

Back in 2007, Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan and director Brett Ratner reunited after six years to film the third installment in the “RUSH HOUR”. In the end, the trio produce a silly, occasionally flawed yet very funny sequel.

I did not harbor any expectations about this comedy. Why should I? It’s a “RUSH HOUR” movie. Like its two predecessors, it was another comedic adventure featuring Hong Kong detective Chief Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) and Los Angeles Police Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker). However, this movie starts with the assassination attempt of Lee’s former mentor, now Ambassador Han (Tzi Ma) from the first film, in Los Angeles. It seems that Han and the World Criminal Court have concerned themselves with the growing threat of the Chinese Triads. Han announces that he has knowledge of the leadership behind the Triads. But before he can say anything further, he is shot by an assassin who turns out to be Lee’s godbrother, Kenji (Hiroyuki Sanada). The latter manages to get away before Lee and Carter can capture him. The pair eventually learns from the Kung Fu master of Ambassador Han’s now grown-up daughter – Soo Yung (Zhang Jingchu) that she, the Ambassador and French Ambassador Reynard (Max von Sydow)have all been targeted by the Triads. Their investigations also lead them to a Triad hideout disguised as a gambling club in Paris. With the help of an overeager Parisian cab driver named George (Yvan Attal) and a beautiful nightclub entertainer named Genevieve (Noémie Lenoir), Carter and Lee foil the plans of the Traids to keep their identities safe.

Like its two predecessors, “RUSH HOUR 3” is not perfect. The movie’s beginning – which featured the assasination attempt and Carter’s encounter with two L.A. socialites – seemed a bit lame in the humor department. In fact, the movie does not really pick up pace until the two partners find themselves at Soo Yung’s kung fu academy, where they encounter a rather “tall” adversary and Carter engages in a hilarious rendition of the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. One last aspect of the movie bothered me . . . namely the Parisian cab driver, George. At first, I found Attal’s performance very entertaining, as he conveyed the character’s distaste for Americans. But after Carter managed to convince him to embrace all things American – including Seattle’s finest coffee that he labeled “shit” – he became annoying. A bore. Not even his last minute rescue of Carter and Lee could change my mind about him.

But “RUSH HOUR 3” still possessed enough attributes that made it an entertaining movie. The fight sequences – especially the sword fight between Chan and Sanada – were excellent. Even Tucker managed to hold his own very well, for once. While Chan and Sanada were busy with their showdown, his character was engaged in fighting off four Triad minions. Many might consider this unrealistic, considering that Carter had barely been able to defend himself in the first movie. But the second movie conveyed that Carter had learned a few moves. And by the third movie, he had become an effective martial arts fighter. Aside from the movie’s first ten to fifteen minutes, the humor seemed just as snappy and hilarious as it had been in the first two movies. And as usual, it was the gregarious Tucker who provided most of the laughs. But what I really enjoyed about “RUSH HOUR 3” was the colorful Parisian setting. No one felt more happy than I when the movie shifted from Los Angeles to Paris.

If you are seeking a comedy that provides a sharp and witty look at our society’s ills, “RUSH HOUR 3” is not your movie. If you simply want a hilarious, yet silly movie with beautiful locations and plenty of action, I suggest you rent a DVD copy of this movie, search for it on streaming, turn off your brain and enjoy yourself. Trust me, you will.

My Ranking of the JACK RYAN Movies

Below is my ranking of the five movies featuring the C.I.A. character Jack Ryan, created by Tom Clancy. Four of these movies were adaptations of Clancy’s novels:

MY RANKING OF THE JACK RYAN MOVIES

1. “Clear and Present Danger” (1994) – In this adaptation of Clancy’s 1989 novel, C.I.A. analyst-turned-Acting Deputy Director Jack Ryan finds himself drawn into an illegal and secret war by the U.S. government against a Colombian drug cartel. Directed by Philip Noyce, Harrison Ford starred for the second time as Ryan.

2. “The Hunt For Red October” (1990) – John McTiernan directed this adaptation of Clancy’s 1984 novel, Ryan figures out that a rogue Soviet Navy submarine commander is planning to defect and scrambles to find a way to help the defection to happen without the Soviet Union’s knowledge. The movie starred Alec Baldwin as Ryan and Sean Connery.

3. “The Sum of All Fears” (2002) – In this loose adaptation of Clancy’s 1990 novel, Ryan stumbles across a neo-Nazi plan to use a catastrophic event to start a conflict between the United States and Russia. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the movie starred Ben Affleck as Ryan.

4. “Patriot Games” (1992) – This adaptation of Clancy’s 1987 novel featured Ryan facing the consequences of his decision to interfere with the assassination of a minor member of the British Royal Family by an extremist faction of the I.R.A. Directed by Philip Royce, this movie featured Harrison Ford’s first turn as Ryan.

5. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) – This original story featured Ryan uncovering a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack, during his early years as a C.I.A. analyst. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the movie starred Chris Pine as Ryan.

“THE LAST AIRBENDER” (2010) Review

“THE LAST AIRBENDER” (2010) Review

Eight to nine years ago, director M. Night Shyamalan had decided to explore the world of fantasy-adventure by filming “THE LAST AIRBENDER”, the 2010 adaptation of the 2005-2008 animated television series, “AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER”. This movie is a fantasy-adventure tale set in a fictional, Asian-influenced world with Chinese martial arts and elemental manipulation.

“THE LAST AIRBENDER” tells the story of a young monk and the only surviving airbender (one with the psi ability to manipulate air) named Aang, who is believed by others to be the future Avatar – one who can manipulate all four elements of air, water, fire and earth. With his two new friends from the Southern Water Tribe, Aang seeks to learn to manipulate three other elements – water, earth and fire. In this movie, he journeys with his friends Katara (a waterbender) and her brother Sokka to the Northern Water Tribe, where he can learn how to master the waterbending skill from a master. Tracking Aang, Katara and Sokka is Prince Zuko, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation; who has been exiled by his evil father, Fire Lord Ozai and sent to capture the future Avatar. With the Avatar’s capture, Zuko’s honor and right to the throne will be restored.

I would have never bothered to see this movie. But an office colleague of mine had really enjoyed the movie and recommended that I go see it. Needless to say, I do not regret following her advice. Mind you, ”THE LAST AIRBENDER” was not perfect. Nor would I regard it as a favorite of mine. The movie’s first five to ten minutes failed to kick start my interest. It bored me so much that I found myself on the verge of falling asleep. Most of the cast members gave performances that ranged from mediocrity to sheer boredom. And a good deal of the movie’s dialogue seemed extremely cheesy to me – the kind of dialogue one would find in the ”STAR WARS” and the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” movie franchises.

One of the biggest problems with “THE LAST AIRBENDER” for me proved to be the casting. Many of the leads – namely those characters that portrayed the film’s protagonists were portrayed by white actors. White actors in a movie set in Asia, portraying East Asians or Inuits? I found that troublesome. And although the film also featured non-Westerners in major roles, they portrayed the film’s main antagonists. I do not know about the rest of you, but this form of casting seemed to reek of racism.

However, ”THE LAST AIRBENDER” had its virtues. Ironically, its main virtue proved to be the cast. I was impressed by the performances of the film’s two leads, Noah Ringer and Dev Patel, who portrayed Aang and Zuko respectively. These two literally kept this movie together. It also helped that both young actors possessed genuine martial arts experience. I was also impressed by Shaun Toub, who portrayed Zuko’s wise uncle, Iroh; Aasif Mandvi, who played the Fire Nation’s cold-blooded military commander, Zhao; and Cliff Curtis, who portrayed the ruthless leader of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Ozai. Andrew Lesnie’s photography, Philip Messina’s production designs and the art directions supervised by Richard L. Johnson were very impressive, if not mind blowing. However, I did find Judianna Makovsky’s costume designs to be very beautiful and memorable.

From what I understand, ”THE LAST AIRBENDER” was not exactly a hit. The movie managed to earn a profit, but barely enough to fully earn back the money spent on its production and not enough to be regarded as a box office hit. It has failed to fully earn back the money spent on its production. Well . . . what can I say? Regardless of whether it was a hit or not, regardless of its flaws – including racist casting, “THE LAST AIRBENDER” managed to provide some semblance of entertainment.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1700 and 1749

Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1700 and 1749:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1700 AND 1749

1. “Tom Jones” (1963) – Tony Richardson directed this Best Picture Oscar winner, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. The movie starred Albert Finney and Susannah York.

2. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006) – Gore Verbinski directed this second entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the search for the chest that contains Davy Jones’ heart. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

3. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) – Gore Verbinski directed this first entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about a dashing pirate who forms an alliance with an apprentice blacksmith in order to save the latter’s beloved from a crew of pirates – the very crew who had mutinied against the former. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.

4. “Kidnapped” (1960) – Peter Finch and James MacArthur starred in Disney’s 1960 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel about family betrayal in 1740s Scotland. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) – Gore Verbinski directed this third entry in Disney’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN” franchise about the Pirate Lords’ alliance and their stand against the East Indian Trading Company and Davy Jones. The movie starred Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush.

6. “Against All Flags” (1952) – Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara starred in this swashbuckler about a British sea officer who infiltrates a group of pirates on behalf of the government bring them to justice. George Sherman directed.

7. “Rob Roy” (1995) – Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange starred in this adventure film about Scottish chieftain Rob Roy McGregor and his conflict with an unscrupulous nobleman in the early 18th century Scottish Highlands. Michael Caton-Jones directed.

8. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1984) – Michael York, Richard Thomas, Fiona Hughes and Timothy Dalton starred in this second adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. Douglas Hickox directed.

9. “Swashbuckler” (1976) – Robert Shaw starred in this adaptation of Paul Wheeler’s story, “The Scarlet Buccaneer”, about an early 18th century pirate who forms an alliance with the daughter of a disgraced judge against an evil imperial politician. James Goldstone directed.

10. “The Master of Ballantrae” (1953) – Errol Flynn, Anthony Steel and Roger Livsey starred in an earlier adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel about two estranged Scottish noblemen, who are also brothers. William Keighley directed.

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

Years ago, I had watched a 1952 movie called “THE BIG SKY”. The movie was an adaptation of a novel written by A.B. Guthrie Jr. I eventually learned that Guthrie had used some of the characters featured in “THE BIG SKY” and created a series of novels set between 1830 and the 1880s. One of them was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Way West”.

Twenty-eight years after the 1949 novel’s release, Harold Hecht produced an film adaptation of it. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, “THE WAY WEST” told the story about an Oregon-bound wagon train being led west by a former U.S. senator. Throughout the journey, the wagon train emigrants endure weather, accidents, encounters with Native Americans and the usual personal dramas that beset a group of people forced to live with one another over a long period of time. Many film critics have dismissed “THE WAY WEST” over the years, comparing it unfavorably to the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I never understood this comparison. The 1962 film was about the history of one family during most of the 19th century West. Out of the film’s five segments – two had focused on members of the family emigrating to the West. “THE WAY WEST” told the story of the members of one Oregon-bound wagon train in the year 1843.

Before one starts speculating over how a film with a 122 minutes running time could tell the story about all members of a wagon train. It cannot. Guthrie’s novel, along with Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann’s screenplay focused on a group of people:

*William Tadock – former U.S. senator and captain of the “Liberty Wagon Train”
*Lije Evans – restless Missouri farmer who decides to move his family to the Oregon Territory at the last moment
*Rebecca Evans – Lije’s pragmatic wife
*Brownie Evans – Lije and Rebecca’s shy son
*Dick Summers – widowed mountain man and guide for the wagon train
*Mr. McBee – Georgia-born farmer hoping to start a peach farm
*Mrs. McBee – wife of Mr. McBee
*Mercy McBee – flirtatious only child of the McBees and the object of Brownie’s desire
*John “Johnnie” Mack – recently married emigrant and object of Mercy’s desire
*Amanda Mack – Johnnie’s sexually frigid bride

There are aspects of “THE WAY WEST” that I found unappealing. One of those aspects proved to be Bronislau Kaper’s score for the film. I found it bombastic, awkward and unmemorable. Enough said. I was also not that impressed by some of the performances found in the film – especially from some of the supporting cast and one of the major leads. And like many other historical or period dramas, “THE WAY WEST” suffered from a few historical inaccuracies. Wagon trains were usually pulled by either oxen or mules. The stock used to convey the “Liberty Wagon Train” from Missouri to Oregon proved to be a hodge podge of horses, mules and oxen. I realize that “THE WAY WEST” is basically a Western about overland travel, but I found the costumes designed by Norma Koch very disappointing. The costumes looked as if they came straight from a warehouse. None of the women wore any layers of petticoats or corsets. And Koch’s costume designs for the McBee family proved to be a real head scratcher. I got the feeling she was trying to convey the family’s background as Georgia dirt farmers barely able to afford the journey to Oregon. Their clothes looked threadbare in compare to their fellow emigrants. And it is a miracle that the McBees did not finish their journey nearly naked. If the McBees were able to afford the journey to Oregon, they could afford to wear better quality clothing than what they wore.

The biggest historical head scratcher occurred midway into the film. During a social gathering between the emigrants and a group of Sioux warriors, one of the emigrants mistook the Sioux leader’s son for a wolf. The emigrant killed the boy and failed to inform the others of the incident. This led the Sioux to later track down the wagon party and demand the killer face justice. Initially, the wagon emigrants refused to comply until they discovered that a very large party of warriors had accompanied the Sioux leader. I am sorry, but I found this scenario improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot in the history of the American West was at the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from present-day southern North Dakota and Wyoming to northern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Sioux historically improbable.

Despite its flaws, I actually enjoyed “THE WAY WEST”. Very much. I can see why the original novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the first place. First of all, I enjoyed how the movie opened with a montage of westbound emigrants arriving and organizing in Independence to the movie’s The plot struck me as a solid psychological drama about how a group of strangers struggled to tolerate each other, while traveling long distance during a period between four to five months in a wagon train. Knowing myself, I would probably go crazy dealing with strangers who irritated me after more than two weeks. Perhaps less. And having to deal with a ruthless and controlling personality like former U.S. Senator William Tadlock? Good Lord!

In fact, I find it interesting how the megalomaniacal Tadlock seemed to have an impact on the other major subplots in this film, one way or the other. He and the easy-going farmer Lije Evans managed to consistently clash with each other from the beginning. Evans resents his controlling style of leadership, but seemed reluctant to replace him. The former senator’s attraction toward Lije’s wife Rebecca did not help matters. In onescene, Tadlock had offered himself as a potential wife to Rebecca . . . in case Lije failed to survive the journey to Oregon. I could not decide whether to be surprised or disgusted by his suggestion. Tadlock even had an impact on the Brownie Evans-Mercy McBee romantic quagmire with John and Amanda Mack.

And yet . . . despite being such a megalomaniacal personality, I must admit that I found some of Tadlock’s decisions. For example, Lije Evans and the other wagon party members wanted to fight the Sioux, instead of giving in to the latter’s demand for the Sioux boy’s killer. I suspect that a combination of racism and braggadocio led the emigrants believe it would be better to fight the Sioux than submit one of their own to justice. Tadlock, to his credit, realized it would be wiser to give in to the Sioux’s demand. I also found myself agreeing with his order that the emigrants ditch all non-essential possession in order to lighten the load for the stock that pulled their wagons. Unfortunately, Tadlock’s anger at Evans’ stubborn refusal to give up Mrs. Evans’ floor clock spun out of control and cost him his position as the wagon train’s leader. I would expand more about the human drama found in “THE WAY WEST”. But to do so would give away the plot.

Although I had a problem with the film’s music and costume designs, I certainly had none with its cinematography. “THE WAY WEST” was shot on location in Arizona and Oregon. And I found William H. Clothier’s cinematography outstanding, thanks to its sharp and colorful photography shown in the images below:

Another aspect of “THE WAY WEST” that impressed me, proved to be the sequence for its opening credits. This sequence was basically a montage of emigrants arriving in Independence, Missouri or forming wagon trains for the westbound journey. Despite Bronislau Kaper’s forgettable score and equally forgettable theme song, I thought the sequence permeated with atmosphere and strong sense of how Independence must have been during that period in history. The sequence’s strong atmosphere benefited from Andrew V. McLeglen’s skillful direction, Otho Lovering’s editing and Robert Priestley’s set direction.

For me, the performances in “THE WAY WEST” proved to be a mixed affair. A good number of the supporting performers gave some hammy performances. Most of them portrayed minor characters. But the two hammy performances that seemed to stand out belonged to Richard Widmark as Lije Evans and Jack Elam as Preacher Weatherby. Widmark seemed as if he was trying too hard to convey Evans’ good-natured personality . . . to the point that his performance seemed forced. I did not enjoy admitting that. Mind you, Widmark had some good moments, especially in those scenes in which Lije clashed with Tadlock. Otherwise . . . I found him just a tad over-the-top for my tastes. Elam portrayed a minister named Preacher Weatherby, who had sneaked aboard one of the wagons in an effort to join the wagon train. Not only did I find his portrayal of the “hell and brimstone” minister over-the-top, but also one-dimensional. On the other hand, there was one performance that seemed to go in the complete opposite direction. I am referring to Michael Witney, who portrayed John “Johnnie” Mack, one half of the newlywed couple and the object of Mercy McBee’s desire. Witney may have avoided giving a hammy performance, but he ended up being rather wooden – at least in my eyes. Watching his performance, I found myself wondering how his character managed to generate so much emotion from both Mercy McBee and his wife, Amanda.

Thankfully, “THE WAY WEST” had its share of good and excellent performances. Ironically, two of them came from Harry Carey Jr. and Connie Sawyer. Yes, I will admit they gave hammy performances as Mr. and Mrs. McBee. But their hamminess struck me as so entertaining that I could not dismiss the performances. It seemed as if both really enjoyed themselves. “THE WAY WEST” also featured solid performances from the likes of Patric Knowles, Stubby Kaye, Katherine Justice and Eve McVeagh.

But there were also exceptional performances in “THE WAY WEST”. One came from the likes of Lola Albright, who gave a competent performances as Rebecca Evans, a woman torn between her love for Lije. I thought Michael McGreevey, who gave a very skillful performance as the Evans’ shy and lovesick son, Brownie. Sally Field revealed signs of future stardom with a great performance as the ebullient, sexual and painfully naive Mercy McBee. Robert Mitchum seemed to be the film’s backbone, thanks to his portrayal of the wagon train’s warm, yet pragmatic scout Dick Summers. I especially enjoyed his scenes with McGreevey. But if I had to give the award for the film’s best performance, it would go to Kirk Douglas for his superb portrayal of the very complex and magnetic former Senator William Tadlock. Douglas’ performance struck me as so exceptionally complex that there were times I found myself wondering whether or not I should like him or not.

What else can I say about “THE WAY WEST”? Well, the movie had its flaws. I cannot deny it. But I feel that its virtues definitely outweighed its flaws. And I think that it does not deserve the lukewarm opinions it has received over the years. Thanks to screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann; a first-rate cast led by Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum; and excellent direction from Andrew V. McLaglen; I believe “THE WAY WEST” is a lot better than it is reputed to be.

“LIMITLESS” (2011) Review

“LIMITLESS” (2011) Review

When I first saw the movie trailer for the 2011 “techno-thriller” called “LIMITLESS”, I must admit that I found myself intrigued by the plot’s premise. But I never felt any real anticipation to see the movie. Its premise struck me as the type that could easily make or break a film.

Based upon Alan Glynn’s 2001 novel, “The Dark Fields”“LIMITLESS” told the story of a New York City writer named Eddie Morra, who is approached by his former brother-in-law (also drug dealer) to try out a new experimental drug. According to brother-in-law Vernon Grant, this NZT-48 has the ability for humans to access 100% of the brain’s power, as opposed to the normal 20% (which is in reality, a myth). Eddie accepts, and, much to his surprise, the drug works, allowing him to finish his book. Determined to continue using NZT-48, Eddie returns to Vernon for more of the drug. He runs a few errands for Vernon, returns to the latter’s apartment and finds him dead. Eddie also finds a large supply of NZT-48 hidden in Vernon’s oven. Thrilled by the impact of NZT-48, Eddie turns to the world of finance and attracts the attention of a high powered businessman named Carl Van Loon. He also attracts the attention of a Russian gangster named Gennady, from whom he borrowed money in order to enter the stock market on a large scale. And Eddie eventually discovers that the mysterious person who had killed Vernon, has been stalking him. Even worse, he learns from his ex-wife Melissa that anyone who ceases to use NZT-48 for a period of time, risks his or her health

I must admit that I was very impressed by “LIMITLESS”. First of all, I feel that Leslie Dixon wrote an excellent screenplay that had at least one or two minor flaws. I could not compare his screenplay to Glynn’s novel, because I have never read the latter. A family member who had read the novel informed me that Dixon did maintain the first person narrative, allowing leading actor Bradley Cooper to provide a first-rate narrative. Dixon also maintained the novel’s peek into the human psyche and our desire for power, prestige and money through any means possible. A good example of this desire came from the main character’s willingness to use the NZT-48 to make more money and at the same, not bother to hide his accomplishments. This unwillingness on Eddie’s part to bypass open acknowledgement led to a great deal of unwanted attention from people like Carl Van Loon, Gennady and his murderous stalker. One would think that “LIMITLESS” could easily be an ode to human brain power. And yet . . . I found it ironic that despite using 100 percent of their brains after using NZT-48, characters like Eddie and a few others failed to consider all aspects of their situations. And this failure either endangered their lives . . . or ended it. So, exactly how limitless was this drug?

As I had stated in the above paragraph, there were a few aspects of the movie’s plot that I would consider as flaws. After an encounter with the Russian thug Gennady, Eddie found himself without a NZT-48 pill and his life endangered. He had to go to his girlfriend Lindy’s office and recruit her to fetch his supply, which he had hidden inside her apartment. On her way back to her office and Eddie, Lindy found herself being followed by Eddie’s mysterious stalker. Why was he following her? How did he know that she had Eddie’s supply of NZT-48 on her in the first place? How did he know that she had gone to her own apartment for Eddie’s pills? I am certain that someone can explain this . . . mystery to me. Because I still cannot explain it. In the movie’s final sequence, which featured a last meeting between political candidate Eddie and Van Loon, the latter revealed his knowledge of the NZT-48 pills that Eddie had been taking, his purchase of the company that had been manufacturing the drug and his shutdown of Eddie’s private supply lab. Exactly how did Van Loon find out about the NZT-48 drug? Who told him? Because the businessman never did reveal how he had found out. The only thing he was ascertained of was Eddie’s occasional bizarre behavior.

I was very impressed by Neil Burger’s direction of the film. One important factor to the success of the film was that Burger managed to maintain a brisk pace throughout the entire film. And this is an important factor for me, because if there is anything that will divert my attention from any movie, it is slow pacing. Two, with cinematographer Jo Willems, and editors Tracy Adams and Naomi Geraghty; Burger presented this tale with original photography and editing that at times I found rather mind blowing. One of my favorite sequences featured Eddie’s discovery that the NZT-48 drug allowed him transport from one location to another without his knowledge. I felt as if I was on a PCP trip, while watching the sequence, without feeling any confusion whatsoever. Another favorite sequence of mine featured the last meeting between Eddie and Van Loon, at the former’s campaign headquarters. It was a sequence filled with snappy dialogue, great pacing and superb performances by both Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. Overall, I think that Burger’s original direction did justice to Dixon’s script and especially to Glynn’s novel.

The cast for “LIMITLESS” was outstanding. Tomas Arana gave a quiet and intense performance as the mysterious man in the tan coat, who was stalking Eddie. And Abbie Cornish was intelligent as Eddie’s book editor girlfriend, Lindy. Aside from one sequence, I thought her role could have had a stronger presence. On the other hand, Anna Friel made the most of her one scene in the movie, as Eddie’s former wife Melissa Gant, who had also taken the NZT-48. I was also impressed by Johnny Whitworth’s performance as Vernon Gant, the drug dealer who had hooked Eddie on to NZT-48. Sleaze had never looked classy. Welsh actor Andrew Howard injected style, if not class into his role as the Russian thug Grennady. And he did so without developing his character into a cliché. It has been a while since I have seen Robert DeNiro in a worthwhile role. And I must say that I found his portrayal of the subtle and intelligent Carl Van Loon as one of his best in several years. He was right on target in portraying a no-nonsense and powerful businessman that had risen to the top by his own intelligence and hard work. But the man of the hour . . . or movie was Bradley Cooper. And he gave a complex and superb performance as the novelist, whose life is changed by one little pill. Cooper proved that he had what it takes to become a Hollywood powerhouse, as he guided the role of Eddie Morra from a sad sack loser to a self-assured think tank through various little triumphs and setbacks. He certainly deserves to become a full-fledged star, thanks to his performance in this movie.

“LIMITLESS” has its minor flaws. After all, no movie is perfect. But I must admit that I found it a very entertaining and intelligent film. Director Neil Burger did justice to both Alan Glynn’s novel and Leslie Dixon’s first-rate script. And he had a superb cast, led by a very talented Bradley Cooper to help him. This is one movie I can never get tired of watching.