“INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS” (2008) Review

 

“INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” (2008) Review

As much as I enjoyed this latest installment of the INDIANA JONES saga – ”Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” – I had found myself perplexed by it. There was something about the movie’s tone that failed to strike a chord similar to the past three movies. It took a second viewing of the movie for me to understand that it had a lot to do with its setting. 

”INDIANA JONES and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is set in 1957, in which Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) leads a convoy of Soviet troops, dressed as American soldiers on a mission to infiltrate a military base in the Nevada desert called “Hangar 51”. Spalko and her men force Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to lead them to a crate holding the remains of an extraterrestrial creature that crashed ten years before in Roswell, New Mexico. When Jones attempts to escape, he is foiled by his old partner, George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone), who reveals that he is working with the Soviets. Jones then escapes on a rocket sled into the desert, where he stumbles upon a nuclear test town and survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. While being debriefed, Jones discovers he is under FBI investigation because his friend Mac is a Soviet agent. Jones returns to Marshall College, where he is offered a leave of absence to avoid being fired because of the investigation. As he is leaving, Jones is stopped by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) and told that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), disappeared after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.

Like ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD” of last year, I had harbored some serious doubts on whether George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could relive the old magic of their previous three Indiana Jones adventures of the 1980s. Needless to say, my fears proved to be groundless. Like the Bruce Willis “DIE HARD” movie, this fourth installment ended up being very entertaining. And although it had some of the old magic of ”RAIDERS””TEMPLE OF DOOM” and ”LAST CRUSADE”, it had a tone that made it different from the other three. It took a movie review by someone named Lazypadawan and a second viewing of the movie to not only notice the difference, but to eventually appreciate it.

The main problem I originally had with ”CRYSTAL SKULL” was the presence of a spaceship at the end of the story. The City of Gold that Indy, Spalko, Oxley and others wanted to find, ended up with something to do with . . . an inter-dimensional beings. One might as well call them aliens, judging by their look. This is something that has never been seen in an Indiana Jones film before. And of course it has not. The other three movies had been set in the 1930s. It would be only natural that they had a feel of a 30s B-serial adventure. But I made the mistake of expecting a 1930s serial adventure in a story set in the late 1950s. What I should have realized – and what Lazypadawan had pointed out in her review – was that ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” was not supposed to be a 30s serial adventure set in the 1950s. It was supposed to be a send up of the 1950s “B” movies. And what are the elements of a “B” movie from the 1950s? Here are just a few:

*atomic power
*the presence of Soviet troops or spies
*science fiction
*horror
*hybrid of science fiction and horror
*conflicts between biker hoods and high school/college jocks
*the “Red” scare
*Soviet (and American) interests in psychic paranormal activities and UFOs

”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” had most, if not all elements in the film. I had just read a review in which someone had complained that the movie seemed like a “rip-off” of a cheesy B-movie. I had made that same mistake when I saw the spaceship sequence near the end of the movie. But now I know better. Lucas and Spielberg had every intention of the movie being a “rip-off” of 1950s B-movies. Like I had said before, it would only make sense.

Someone else had mentioned that Harrison Ford had not seemed this animated in years. I am not surprised. Indiana Jones had always been amongst his favorite characters. And it really showed in his performance. It is also nice to see that after 27 years, his chemistry with Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood) seemed as strong as ever. By the way, she was great. And I was very impressed by Shia LaBeouf as Marion and Indy’s love child – Mutt Williams aka Henry Jones III. As much as I liked his performance in ”TRANSFORMERS”, I have always thought it seemed a bit too frantic for my tastes. I much preferred his role as Henry III (I’m sorry, but I can barely bring myself to say – let alone write – “Mutt”). LaBeouf managed to convey a strong screen presence that matched Ford, without resorting to the frantic acting he had utilized in “TRANSFORMERS”.

Like Ford, I could tell that Cate Blanchett really enjoyed her role as the villainous Soviet Colonel-Doctor Spalko. She was as obsessive and ruthless as the past Indy villains. But Blanchett’s performance had a verve and theatricality I have not seen since Amrish Puri’s portrayal of Mola Ram in ”THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”. And John Hurt filled Denholm Elliot’s role as friend/mentor of the Jones family quite beautifully. But unlike Marcus Brody, Harold Oxley had a good reason for his loopy behavior. I also enjoyed Ray Winstone’s performance as Indy’s treacherous old friend and colleague, McHale. In a way, he reminded me of the Elsa Schneider character in “LAST CRUSADE”. But as much as I like Alison Doody, I must say that Winstone’s take on a very morally ambiguous character had been handled with more skill.

Is there anything about ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” that I disliked? Well, I was not impressed by John Williams’ score. There was nothing original or memorable about it, aside from moments of the old Indy theme being rehashed. Rather disappointing. Nor was I fond of the movie’s heavy-handed style of action and special effects. However, I could honestly complain about the same about the other three films. But the one thing that really irritated me was the sequence featuring the villain’s defeat/destruction. In the end, it was not Indy who had defeated the villain or set her destruction in motion. It was the inter-dimensional being. In other words, Indy became nothing more than a passive bystander of the villain’s defeat. This is the one major fault I have noticed in two other Indiana Jones films. And it gave those films – at least in my eyes – an anticlimatic feeling that I found disappointing. In ”RAIDERS”, the opening of the Ark of the Covenant set in motion Belloq and the Nazis’ deaths. Both Indy and Marion were tied to a pole, unable to do anything except keep their eyes closed. In ”THE LAST CRUSADE”, Elsa Schneider turned out to be responsible for the main villain’s death and the destruction of his men through her handling of the Grail Cup. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg were trying to convey some message about humans being too arrogant to take heed of things/beings that are more powerful or more evolved than mankind. But that same message had also been conveyed in ”TEMPLE OF DOOM”. Only in that particular movie, Indy’s action – namely invoking the power of Shiva with the Sanakara stone – did lead to the villain Mola Ram’s destruction. Perhaps this is why I have always found the 1984 movie’s finale a lot more impressive than those of the other three movies.

But despite my initial confusion on what Lucas and Spielberg were doing with the movie’s 1950s theme, along with my disappointment of the score and the handling of the villain’s defeat, I found ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” to be very enjoyable. It was great to see Indiana Jones back in action, again. And even more satisfying was his marriage to his lady love, Marion Ravenwood, in the end. After 30 odd years, those two finally got it right.

“The Love Triangle From Hell”

”THE LOVE TRIANGLE FROM HELL”

Now that the James “Sawyer” Ford/Juliet Burke romance has ended with a blast in “The Incident”, fans of “LOST” are once again speculating on whom Kate Austen will choose for her permanent mate by the end of the series – James or Dr. Jack Shephard. Honestly? I no longer care. And right now, I am beginning to wonder if I ever did. 

As much as I disliked Kate, I used to believe that she was better off with Sawyer. He seemed more like an equal partner than someone who would look down upon her . . . like Dr. Shephard. Then I remembered. Jack have a bad habit of treating Kate as a wayward child. How many times have viewers seen him vent his anger or frustrations upon her, treating her as someone beneath him? Then again, Jack also had a bad habit of being a pushover for Kate’s schemes and lies. After all, she did managed to manipulate him into opening the U.S. Marshal’s case in ”Whatever the Case May Be”, despite his anger at her lies. Even worse, he allowed himself to be manipulated into supporting her lie that she was Aaron Littleton’s mother.

I had figured that at least Sawyer would never have been stupid enough to be manipulated by an obvious liar like Kate. Looking back on their relationship, I realized I was wrong. Yes, Sawyer would have allowed himself to be manipulated by Kate. And he would have done so with his eyes wide open. Why? Because like Jack, he was stupid enough to do anything for her. He pretty much made that clear in ”The Hunting Party” and in one of the late Season 3 episodes, when they were sleeping together. Even Sawyer has used Kate . . . in his scheme to assume control of the castaways’ guns in ”The Long Con”. He used her to plant a suspicion about Ana-Lucia Cortez in order to distract everyone from his own scheme. But that was a rare occasion. Before Season 5, Sawyer allowed to use him. Especially for sex. What was even more pathetic about their Season 3 affair was that Kate was using him as rebound over her jealousy toward Jack’s new friendship with Juliet. Sawyer knew it and made the choice to be her bed warmer anyway. Moron.

Most Sawyer/Kate fans would see nothing wrong with this, arguing that Sawyer was a grown man who had made his own choice. Well, the Jack/Kate fans can say the same about Jack’s choices. After all, he did commit perjury at Kate’s trial to support her lies about her relationship with Aaron and to continue his own lies about her activities on the island, following their return to the States. And Jack finally did cave in to Kate’s ultimatum after their return to the States that he would be allowed to share her bed – only if he agreed to act as Aaron’s father. Thinking below his belt, Jack caved in to Kate’s demands, until his guilt over their lies led to a fight between them and his abandonment of Kate and Aaron. But it did not take him very long to help her keep custody of Aaron . . . even when the three year-old’s grandmother was in Los Angeles for business regarding her daughter’s death and Oceanic Airlines.

This also brings me to Juliet Burke. Jack had used her back in Season 3 and most of Season 4 to hide his own discovery of Kate and Sawyer’s sexual encounter in the Others’ cages. I think that Jack liked her a lot, but he was never in love with her. Yet, that did not stop him from using her. And I suspect that Sawyer did the same in Season 5. When I noticed Sawyer and Juliet’s interactions between each other in the first eight episodes of that season, I thought they made a first-rate pair and was happy to see their romance confirmed in ”La Fleur”. But recalling Sawyer’s reaction to seeing Kate again after three years at the end of that particular episode and the silent exchange that Juliet had witnessed in ”The Incident”, I now suspect that Sawyer may have used her as rebound for being apart from Kate during those three years. After all, it was Sawyer who had convinced Juliet to remain on the island, claiming that he needed her company. Perhaps he did. But if he really did love Kate more, I have nothing but contempt toward him for using Juliet . . . just as much as I have contempt toward Jack for doing the same thing. And I think I would have been happier if Jack, Sawyer and Kate had ended up in that pit before everything had blown to sky high, instead of Juliet.

Most fans would have pointed out that the Terrible Trio should not deserve Juliet’s fiery death. After all, Jacob had interacted with Jack, Kate and Sawyer before the fateful crash of Oceanic Airline’s Flight 815 in September 2004. But you know what? That would not have been a substantial argument for me. Considering Jacob’s view of humanity, I consider him to be a fucking moron. And the fact that he had ”touched” Jack, Sawyer and Kate did not impress me one bit. I still believe that their asses should have been blown to hell. Instead, Cuse and Lindehof will continue one of the most badly written love triangles in television history into the last season of ”LOST”. But I can no longer tolerate watching two men whom I hardly have any respect for, fight over a worthless bitch like Kate. No wonder I can barely muster any further interest in this series.

“MOONRAKER” (1979) Review

 

“MOONRAKER” (1979) Review

Well, I just watched “MOONRAKER”. Today, it is considered to be one of the worst Bond movies of all times. It has been accused by fans and critics alike of taking the Bond franchise into a realm of tasteless excess and fantasy. I will not deny there are aspects of “MOONRAKER” that turned me off – including Bond’s final confrontation with the villain aboard the latter’s space station. But after watching it . . . I cannot honestly list “MOONRAKER” as one of my least favorite Bond films, let alone as one of the worst. Trust me, I have seen a lot worst.

Despite some similarities, the movie did not heavily adapt the 1955 novel. The movie kept the same villain – Hugo Drax. And it did involve rockets and space travel. Also, the villain’s intent did involve the destruction of a place – in the novel, the villain wanted to destroy London and in the movie, the human race on Earth. But . . . there were differences. Instead of a British policewoman named Gala Brand, the movie features an American CIA agent/NASA-trained astronaut named Dr. Holly Goodhead.

There were several aspects of “MOONRAKER” that made me want to wince. Now, I did not mind the boat/gondola chase in the Venetian canals, but watching Bond’s gondola turned into a land vehicle . . . yeah, it made me want to wince. Along with a few of Roger Moore’s lines. The fact that Jaws’ villainy (last seen in “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME”) came across as less menacing and more comic in this movie did not help. The double-take pigeon? I had barely noticed it. But the final battle between American astronauts and Drax’s men turned me off considerably. I felt as if I was watching a second-rate version of “STAR WARS” – blasters and all.

But “MOONRAKER” had its virtues. The movie’s production quality seemed to be among the best in the franchise, thanks to director Lewis Gilbert, and cinematographer, Jean Tournier. The movie took the audience from California to Venice, Brazil and finally outer space. Aside from the latter, the film’s photograph captured these setting beautifully. I especially enjoyed John Barry’s score, along with the movie’s theme song written by both Barry and lyricist Hal David, and sung by Shirley Bassey. Aside from a few cliché lines, I found nothing wrong with Roger Moore’s performance. He seemed to be at the top of his game. I was especially impressed by his take on Bond’s reaction to being nearly killed by Drax’s Astronaut Training Centrifuge. Michel Londsdale seemed smooth and villainous as the space-obsessed billionaire Hugo Drax. However, I was a little put off by having to deal with another megalomaniac out to destroy the world in order to rule the survivors. I find such storylines rather tiresome. But the rest of the cast seemed adequate.

I do have a few complaints about four cast members. Lois Chiles was in her early 30s and already a veteran of a few movies (“THE GREAT GATSBY” and “DEATH ON THE NILE” included) by the time she did “MOONRAKER”. As Dr. Holly Goodhead, she managed to physically project the image of a memorable Bond leading lady that happens to be a competent CIA agent and astronaut. But despite her experience, she did come off as slightly wooden. Actually, I could say the same for Corinne Clery as the doomed Corinne and Emily Bolton as the Brazilian agent, Manuela. “MOONRAKER” seemed to be filled with beautiful leading ladies with limited acting skills. I also had a problem with Richard Kiel. As I had stated before, he seemed less menacing and more comic than he did in “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME”. However, I was impressed by Kiel’s acting in one particular scene – when Bond convinces Jaws that Drax plans to exterminate him for his imperfections. Kiel had wonderfully captured Jaws’ confusion and growing realization that he might be betrayed and killed by his employer.

I had started watching “MOONRAKER” with the belief that I was about to experience one of the worst Bond movies in the franchise’s history. As it turned out, I was wrong. I think that Roger Moore had put it best when he said that “MOONRAKER” was not a bad movie . . . until it shifted to outer space and became a second-rate “STAR WARS”, which only occurred during the movie’s last half hour. This unfortunate shift of setting seemed to have influenced many of the franchise’s fans about the movie. Many seemed so focused upon the movie’s last half hour and other flaws that they seemed to have forgotten its virtues.

“TAKEN” (2009) Review

”TAKEN” (2009) Review

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen wrote this tight thriller about a retired CIA agent who tracks down his daughter after she was kidnapped by Albanian criminals engaged in the sex slave traffic, while traveling in Europe. Directed by Pierre Morel, the movie stars Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen and Olivier Rabourdin.

Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a divorced, former paramilitary officer from the CIA’s famed Special Activities Division. His 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) lives with his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new wealthy husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley). After Kim accompanies her close friend, Amanda (Katie Cassidy) to Europe, they are kidnapped by sex trade traffickers from the apartment they share in Paris. Since Mills was talking to Kim at the time the kidnapping took place, he is able to get some information on who may have snatched her and Amanda before heading to Paris to track them down.

I am going to put my cards on the table. I enjoyed ”TAKEN” . . . a lot. It was a fast paced thriller filled with the usual stuff one can find in a top-notch action film – exciting car chases, tension, well choreographed fight scenes and sharp acting. I would not view it as an exceptional film. If I have to be honest, there is nothing new in this film that I have not seen in previous action thrillers. It also had its share of clichés that usually pop up in other action films. But I still enjoyed it. If there is one thing I must commend upon the movie is the level of global involvement in the sex slave traffic. Morel and screenwriters Besson and Kamen not only involved Kim’s Albanian kidnappers into the trade, but also French government officials and customers from all over the globe.

The cast did a pretty good job. But I was particularly impressed by four actors in particular. Olivier Rabourdin was surprisingly interesting as Jean-Claude – an old friend of Mills’ who also happens to be a former operative and now deputy director of the French intelligence agency. At first, I had assumed that Rabourdin would act as an ally who would help Mills in his search for his daughter. But thanks to Rabourdin’s performance, his role turned out to be surprisingly more ambiguous. I was also impressed by Famke Janssen’s performance as Mills’ ex-wife, Leonore. This was a different Janssen, who portrayed an uptight woman still harboring some residual of bitterness toward Mills and the way their marriage had ended. And I have to give kudos to Maggie Grace for effectively portraying a character that was at least seven to eight years her junior. Although I am certain that many actresses in their mid-twenties have portrayed a teenager, I have rarely come across many that were as convincing as Grace. She was excellent.

Liam Neeson must have been at least fifty-five years old when he filmed ”TAKEN”. Mind you, there have been other actors around his age or older who have managed to convincingly portray action characters. But his performance as Bryan Mills could give Jason Bourne or James Bond some stiff competition. Granted, his interactions with the various thugs and bodyguards almost made him seem unnaturally superhuman. But if one might as well accuse Matt Damon’s Bourne or Daniel Craig’s Bond of the same thing. Thankfully, Neeson’s Mills was more than just an above-average action hero. The Irish-born actor also infused his character with all of the emotional angst, paranoia and anger any father would face at the prospect of one’s child being snatched by strangers and placed into danger.

I do have one major complaint about ”TAKEN” – namely the photography and editing featured in the movie. Like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY”, ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” and ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” before it, ”TAKEN” is filled with that ”shaky camera” technique that I loathe so much. I realize that this technique was used to give a film an ad-hoc, news, or documentary feel. Frankly, I have never seen the need for to give action movies such as ”TAKEN” this type of style for action films, with the exception of movies based upon real life dramas or war movies. Thanks to director Morel, cinematographer Michel Abramowicz, and editor Frédéric Thoraval; the shaky camera technique only made me feel dizzy and frustrated. I am thankful that the fight scenes – especially in the film’s last twenty minutes – did not seem affected by this technique. However . . . Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two ”BOURNE” films, has a lot to answer for making this filming technique popular for action films.

In a nutshell, ”TAKEN” is not exactly what I would call an original film. It utilized many of the typical clichés used in action films. And the subject – the sex slave traffic – has been told with greater detail in such productions like 2005’s ”HUMAN TRAFFICKING”. And the shaky camera technique used by Morel, Abramowicz and Thoraval made it difficult for me to enjoy some of the actions scenes, especially those featuring car chases. But thanks to a first-rate cast led by Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace, solid direction by Morel and a straightforward script written by Besson and Kamen, ”TAKEN” is a tense, yet entertaining film that I found very satisfying. I enjoyed it so much that I might be inclined to go see it again.

“Neighbors” [PG] – 9/11

“NEIGHBORS”

Part 9

From inside the warlocks’ trap, Phoebe felt a familiar portent of impending doom. And her feeling had nothing to do with a premonition of any kind. But it felt hard to dismiss such feelings while a group of warlocks carrying athames watched and waited with evil intent on their faces.

Phoebe sighed. How she wished that she, Piper and Paige had heeded Olivia McNeill’s advice to stay away. It seemed ironic that within a period of six months, the Charmed Ones would find themselves in a trap similar to the one that the Seer had imprisoned them within. Only this time, they would not be able to deflect the warlocks’ attack. Especially since the latter planned to use a good old-fashioned stab fest to kill the sisters . . . after draining their power with this trap.

The dark-haired leader of the warlock coven raised his hand for some kind of action. Before he could do anything, a figure in black materialized beside him. Phoebe’s heart literally jumped with relief. It was Cole.

“What the . . .?” Crozat stared at Cole in shock. “Who the hell are you?”

Cole’s mouth stretched into a smirk. “What’s the matter, Crozat? Forgotten me, already?”

The warlock’s eyes grew wide. “Belthazor? But I thought you were dead!”

“Well, Belthazor is,” Cole coolly replied. “Have been for at least a year. I was even the Source for a while. Until I was killed.” He seared the Charmed Ones with a death glare. Phoebe shivered.

Crozat declared, “The Source? You were the Source? I had heard about a new Source, last spring. But he was vanquished by the Charmed Ones.”

“That’s right.” Cole continued to glare at the Halliwells. “But I survived. Ironically, thanks to my human side.” His eyes veered back to Crozat. “And I’m here to take back what’s mine.”

Crozat sneered. “Take back what? Your loving bride?”

Blue eyes that had once looked at Phoebe with love and passion, now regarded the warlock with icy rage. Crozat immediately assumed a more humble expression. “The only thing I want back is the Source’s power. And the only way I can achieve that is through their whitelighter.”

One of the warlocks cried out, “What a load of crap! He’s lying! How can a whitelighter help him become the Source? I say we kill him now! He’s just one daemon.” Before Phoebe could blink, Cole destroyed the dissenter with one quick fireball.

“Anyone else want to doubt my word?” Cole challenged. The warlocks remained silent.

Inside the trap, Paige whispered in a sarcastic tone, “I guess not. I see that Belthazor or maybe the Source is back. At least in spirit.”

“Paige!” Piper hissed. The younger woman remained silent.

Phoebe, however, remained silent, as she continued to listen in on the conversation outside the trap. A frowning Crozat added, “Gregor was right. How can a whitelighter help you become the Source again?”

Cole nonchantlantly replied, “Easy. The Charmed Ones’ whitelighter was the one who had hid the Grimoire. And whoever possesses it, can become the Source. I intend to get my hands on that Grimoire.”

“Leo destroyed the Grimoire, right?” a worried Paige asked.

Piper sighed. “Of course he did! He tossed it into a volcano.”

“But that doesn’t mean it was destroyed.”

Irritated by their chatter, Phoebe snapped at her sisters. “Hey you two! Can you please keep it down?”

“Why bother?” Paige retorted. “It’s plain that Cole wants to become the Source, again. At least he can’t use possession as an excuse, this time. I wonder how he plans to use Leo.”

Phoebe shot back, “Well, if you just keep quiet for one moment, we’ll find out!” Everyone fell silent and continued to listen to the conversation outside the trap.

“What makes you think the whitelighter will tell you where to find it?” Crozat asked. Phoebe assumed he was referring to the Grimoire.

Cole replied, “You’ve got the Charmed Ones. You can kill them and steal their powers. But not until I lure their whitelighter here and get him to retrieve the Grimoire for me. He’ll do anything to keep them alive. Especially his wife . . . who’s carrying his child.” Cole glanced at Piper. “He’s broken the rules for her, before.”

“Oh no!” Piper murmured to her sisters. “He’s not serious, is he?”

Before Phoebe could reply, she caught sight of a flash of red in front of the one of the warehouse’s windows. Red hair. Seconds later, her eyes adjusted to the sight of Olivia McNeill climbing through that window. The police inspector was followed by another redhead. Her brother, Harry McNeill. “Piper, Paige!” Phoebe hissed. “Look over there. Near the second window from the right. It’s Olivia and Harry McNeill.”

Piper frowned. “What are they doing here?”

“Isn’t it obvious? They’re here to help us. And Cole. He must be distracting the warlocks.”

A doubtful Paige added, “Are you sure? Maybe the good inspector found out about Cole.”

“Paige!” To Phoebe’s relief, the hard tone in her voice convinced Paige to keep quiet. The three sisters watched in silence, as the two McNeill siblings cautiously positioned themselves for an attack. Cole, however, continued his conversation with the warlock leader.

“. . . all a good story, Belthazor,” Crozat was saying. “But you haven’t told us how you plan to lure their whitelighter here.”

Casually, Cole turned his back on Crozat and glanced around. Then he gave the warlock a chilling smile. A smile that Phoebe found disturbing. “Simple,” he said. Then with a flick of his wrist, he vanquished another warlock.

The next thing Phoebe knew, all hell had broken loose. At least for the warlocks. While Cole continued to incinerate more warlocks, Olivia McNeill sent others flying across the room and into large crates and the walls. Others she knocked unconscious using martial arts skills that Phoebe could only envy. One warlock flung an athame toward her direction. Fortunately, she used her telekinesis to counter the attack and bury it into the warlock’s chest.

Harry McNeill, like his sister, used martial arts on the warlocks. And he used something else that Phoebe could not see. She saw him stare at a pair of warlocks. Who eventually stabbed themselves with their athames. And the realization finally hit Phoebe. “Of course! He’s a telepath!” she murmured. Subliminal suggestions.

Paige asked, “What did you say?”

“Harry McNeill. Didn’t you see him? He used his telepathic abilities to force those warlocks to kill themselves.”

Piper said, “Never mind that. I think this trap is weakening. See?” She pointed at the force shield and a hole immediately formed, thanks to her combustion power.

“Try it again,” Paige suggested. Which Piper did. A second hole appeared. “Maybe if you keep using your power, the trap will finally break.”

Piper retorted, “Are you kidding? I’m only punching holes in this thing!”

Phoebe added, “Maybe the only way for Piper to break free is for more warlocks to disappear. Remember, they’re using the combination of their powers to keep this trap intact.” She glanced at their saviors. To her relief, the McNeills and Cole were still alive. And kicking ass.

To Phoebe’s right, Harry dispatched more warlocks using his telepathy. One warlock managed to jump him from behind. Fortunately, Harry viciously elbowed the latter in the gut, before knocking him down with a well-placed blow to the face. Before the warlock could recover, Harry tossed a small vial at him, and the warlock disintegrated in a ball of flames.

A small group of warlocks suddenly formed a circle around Cole and Olivia, causing the latter to gasp. Cole disappeared out of sight. A second later, he reappeared behind one warlock and quickly snapped the latter’s neck. Then he reappeared behind another warlock. One quick twist and -snap- that warlock was dead.

A blond-haired female warlock in a security guard’s uniform threw an athame at Cole. Olivia used her telekinesis to redirect the weapon, sending it straight into the warlock’s throat. She flung another warlock against the wall, causing his back to make impact into a jutting hook.

Rage filled the dark eyes of the warlocks’ leader. He stuck his arm out and sent a line of flames toward Olivia, much to Phoebe’s horror. Now she knew who had killed that warlock in Candlestick Park, last Saturday. She blinked and the next thing she knew, Olivia and Crozat had changed places. Leaving the warlock leader to feel the impact of the flames. Cole. There could be no other explanation. Her ex-husband had just saved Olivia, using the same power he had used when he had saved Phoebe from Agent Jackman’s bullet, last spring.

With Crozat and many other warlocks dead, the power holding the trap around the Charmed Ones, faltered. Once more, Piper used her combustion power to break the force field . . . and finally succeeded. The destruction of the trap seemed to stun the remaining warlocks, forcing them to reel about in confusion.

“Stand back!” Olivia barked. Once everyone followed her order, she used her telekinesis to gather all of the warlocks – alive and the remaining dead – to the same spot where the Charmed Ones had been held. Then the red-haired witch glanced at the Halliwells. “Okay, ladies.”

Phoebe, Piper and Paige stared at Olivia, then at each other. “Jeez! Did you see that?” the youngest sister muttered.

“Hello! The Power of Three! Use a spell to get rid of them now!” Olivia seemed to be using her power to hold those warlocks still alive, at bay.

Her sisters faced Phoebe and they struggled to create an impromptu spell. Unfortunately, this evening’s events had left their power slightly weakened.

“What’s the matter with us?” a concerned Piper asked.

Phoebe stared at her older sister in panic. “It’s the trap. It must have weakened our powers.”

Olivia cried out, “Hey! What’s taking you so long? I can’t hold them forever!”

“Oh, uh, . . . evil that has formed here,” Phoebe began. Then, “No, wait! Let’s try . . . no.”

An exasperated sigh left Olivia’s mouth. She turned to the half-demon. “Cole! Could you, please?”

Cole nodded. Then he formed an enormous fireball in his hands and tossed it at the warlocks. Every one of them, whether they were alive, unconscious or dead, disappeared into a ball of explosion. Olivia shook her head with mild disbelief. “You are such a ham,” she said with a teasing smile.

“It takes one to know one,” Cole shot back. He was also smiling. Which disturbed Phoebe. Very much. She could almost feel the hot knife of jealousy, twisting in her gut.

Piper mumbled to her sisters, “Well, that’s great. The Charmed Ones saved by two witches and a demon. Boy, do I feel like an eunuch.” Phoebe could not have said it any better.

END OF PART 9

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

A Few Problems Regarding “AVATAR” (2009)

I am going to put my cards on the table. I have a problem with James Cameron’s new movie, ”AVATAR”. In fact, I have several problems with it. I was willing to remain silent about these problems, but after the movie’s recent big win at the Golden Globe Awards, I realized that I could not keep silent about them.

One would think I was just another fan expressing her dislike of ”AVATAR”. On the contrary, I happened to like ”AVATAR” very much. I saw the movie three times. And it became one of my top ten favorite movies of 2009. So, why post a rant against the movie? Because I fear that the movie has become a front runner for the Best Picture Academy Awards. And as much as I had enjoyed ”AVATAR”, I do not believe that it will not deserve all of its accolades. Even worse, I have a bone to pick about the movie’s distribution.

Award Season

Two nights ago, ”AVATAR” scored big at the Golden Globes Award show. It managed to collect at least two major awards – Best Director for James Cameron and Best Picture. In a documentary about 20th Century Fox called ”20TH CENTURY FOX: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS” (1997), a former executive had pointed out that legendary producer and studio boss Darryl Zanuck believed that the backbone of any good movie was the story. Not the special effects, the casting or even the score; but the story.

Now, I am not claiming that ”AVATAR” has a weak story. Actually, I believe that it has a solid, good story with a relevant theme. However, many critics and moviegoers – including myself – believe that the story has mediocre dialogue. Even worse, it also seems very unoriginal. In fact, I would go as far to say that it is close to being a blatant rip-off of the 1990 Academy Award winner, ”DANCES WITH WOLVES”. Frankly, I cannot see how a movie that is unoriginal to the point that it seems to blatantly plagiarize another film deserves to win a Golden Globe Best Drama Picture award, let alone the Academy Award for Best Picture. I simply cannot.

3-D Special Effects and Movie Tickets

What has really ticked me off about ”AVATAR” is the fact that director James Cameron had decided to film the damn thing in 3-D. Well, he also provided regular prints of the movie. And the movie theaters have allowed filmgoers the choice to view the 3-D showings or regular showings. Unfortunately, all of the movie theaters that I usually attend, offer more showings of the film in 3-D. Worse, not only are the regular viewings scheduled late at night, filmgoers have to pay higher ticket prices for the 3-D showings. This really pisses me off. I find the 3-D glasses very uncomfortable. And the special effects struck me as being less impressive than those featured in the Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time show at Universal Studios Hollywood. The higher ticket prices for the 3-D effects are simply not worth the effort. At least not to me. And I feel that Cameron, 20th Century Fox and the movie theaters are ripping off moviegoers in the process.

Will ”AVATAR” win the Best Picture Oscar? I suspect that it will. And frankly, I consider this a travesty. I am not saying that the movie is terrible. It is not. But Cameron has already managed to win a slew of Oscars for a movie with impressive visual effects and a mediocre script that turned out to be a blatant rip-off of 1937’s ”MAYTIME”. I am talking about 1997’s ”TITANIC”. And I fear that history will repeat itself when he wins a slew of awards for ”AVATAR” – a movie with the same virtues and flaws.

“BULLITT” (1968) Review

Below is my review of the 1968 classic crime drama, “BULLITT”, which starred Steve McQueen and was directed by Peter Yates:

”BULLITT” (1968) Review

Many fans of Steve McQueen seemed to revel in their view of him as some kind of epitome of 1960s Hollywood cool. And his starring role in the 1968 crime drama, ”BULLITT” seemed to symbolize this viewpoint more than any of his other roles – before or after. As much as I feel reluctant to embrace the idea of coolness of any kind, I must admit that McQueen did project some kind of aura in the film that made him such a strong screen presence . . . just like any film star worth his or her weight in gold.

Fortunately, ”BULLITT” also happened to be a first-class crime thriller that was directed with style, energy and competency by Peter Yates. Based upon Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, “Mute Fish”, the movie told the story of a San Francisco lieutenant named Frank Bullitt (McQueen), who is assigned by a haughty and well-born local politician named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect an informant (Felice Orlandi) from the Chicago mob. Chalmers hoped that bringing down the Chicago mob would lead to an improvement in his political standing. However, the assignment turns into a murder mystery that resulted into some surprising twists.

The head of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts studio had originally planned for ”BULLITT” to be shot on location in Los Angeles, California. But director Yates felt that the City of Angels had been seen quite enough in previous crime dramas and mysteries. He also had no desire to shoot the film under the studio’s constant eye. So, Yates convinced the studio to allow him to shoot the film on location in San Francisco. As much as I love Los Angeles, I am glad that Yates made this choice. San Francisco proved to be a perfect setting for the movie and its surrounding hills provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s car chase that became one of the most influential car chase sequences in movie history.

Speaking of the car chase, I understand that McQueen took lessons in stunt driving in order to perform some of the stunts in the chase sequence. Now, McQueen only drove a little in the scene. Most of his stunt driving had been performed by Bud Ekins, famed stuntman and motorcycle racer. And I have to give kudos to stunt coordinator Carey Loftin for creating an exciting and memorable sequence. Another favorite action sequence of mine proved to be the final showdown at the San Francisco International Airport – a scene filled with both tension and superb action. Yates’ direction and Frank P. Keller’s film editing proved to be the decisive factors that made the above scenes first rate. Keller went on to win an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner did an excellent job of adapting Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, ”Mute Witness” for the screen. Not only did they managed to re-create a murder mystery that proved to be somewhat complex with great competency, the two writers also managed to delve into Frank Bullitt’s persona. And this is a job that could have proven to be nearly impossible, due to the character’s subtle and reserved personality. The Mystery Writers of America rewarded Trustman and Kleiner for their work with a 1969 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Screenplay.

Although many fans tend to view ”BULLITT” as a showcase for Steve McQueen, I noticed that he had been ably supported by a talented cast. Robert Vaughn (another actor who became a 1960s icon for his starring role in the television series, ”THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” ) expertly portrayed politician Walter Chalmers as a charming, self-involved and arrogant man who expects the world to revolve around him, due to his wealth. Portraying Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy, was a 24 year-old Jacqueline Bisset. Just a year earlier, she had a brief appearance in the James Bond spoof ”CASINO ROYALE”. The role of Bullitt’s girlfriend, who fears that he might love his job more than her, not only hinted the talent that would make her a star, it proved to be a career-making one for her. Don Gordon (who also happened to be a close friend of McQueen’s) gave a quiet and solid performance as as Sergeant Delgetti, Bullitt’s right-hand man. Simon Oakland also gave solid support as one of Bullitt’s police superiors, Captain Bennett. The movie also featured brief appearances by future stars such as Robert Duvall as a local cab driver, Norman Fell as Police Captain Baker – Chalmers’ toady – and Georg Stanford Brown as a young, hospital doctor.

As for star Steve McQueen . . . he practically owned the movie. Hell, he deserved to own the movie. Not only did he provide his usual magnetic screen presence, McQueen gave what I believe to be one of the best performances in his career. I had heard on the movie’s DVD featurette that McQueen did not really view himself as an actor. Instead, he saw himself as a mere reactor to his co-stars’ lines. I wish . . . I hope that someone had told him that reacting is one of the qualities that marked a first-rate screen performer. And McQueen did it very well. Hell! He could be a first-rate actor when words came out of his mouth. In the case of ”BULLITT”, his character turned out to be not particularly verbose. Which left McQueen to express Frank Bullitt’s emotions via facial expressions and in his eyes. What I liked about McQueen’s performance was that he did not simply portray the character as some epitome of 60s cool. He portrayed Bullitt as an intelligent and quiet man whose no-nonsense personality seemed to lack patience for either incompetence or egotistical types like Chalmers.

Thanks to critics, some moviegoers and organizations like the American Film Institute (AFI), the public is expected to accept their prevailing views about any movie . . . regardless if they view a movie as either a classic, mediocre or simply terrible. Because of my nature, I have a tendency to ignore the prevailing view and form my own opinion. ”BULLITT” seemed to have the reputation as a classic crime melodrama. And Frank Bullitt is viewed as one of McQueen’s best roles. In the case of ”BULLITT” and McQueen, I would heartily agree.

“IRON MAN” (2008) Review

“IRON MAN” (2008)  Review

I had never heard of the Marvel comic hero, Iron Man, until I saw the trailer for the new movie, nearly two years 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” quickly became 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 ”SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE” (1978), ”X-MEN: 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 a suave sophistication and a strong screen 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”. I do have two 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.

But despite the first Afghanistan sequence and the movie’s score, it is easy to see why ”IRON MAN” ended up being 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 has become – at least in my eyes – one of the top five of its genre.

“FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

Below is my review of George MacDonald Fraser’s 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, which featured the character of British Army officer Harry Flashman: 

”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

In my review of ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975), I had stated that there are at least six novels from George MacDonald Fraser’s series about the adult adventures of Harry Flashman, the cowardly bully from ”Tom Brown’s School Days”, that I consider among the best that the author has written. One of these six novels happens to be ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”.

Published in 1971, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences with the Atlantic trade of African slaves and the American slave system in the antebellum South. The novel took that great English symbol of cowardice, lechery and bigotry from the coast of Dahomey in West Africa, to the Caribbean, Washington D.C., New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio River Valley and finally back to New Orleans.

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”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” began with Flashman’s arrival from the European continent, where a series of revolutions had appeared during the early spring of 1848 (see ”ROYAL FLASH”). Fearful of a class uprising that seemed to be brewing within a British radical group called the Chartists, Flashy’s father-in-law, John Morrison, arranged for Flashman to meet political figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck at a country house party in order to seek help in jumpstarting his own political career. But an encounter with an old nemesis from ”FLASHMAN” (1969)framed Flashman with card cheating . . . and the surprisingly innocent Flashy assaulted him. Morrison has Flashman shipped out of the country to ride out the scandal . . . on a slave ship bound for the western coast of Africa.

I had not been kidding when I claimed that ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” was one of Fraser’s best novels. His passages featuring Flashman’s experiences aboard the Balliol College are masterful. Not only did the author give a detailed description of life aboard a 19th century slave ship, he provided readers with probably his best fictional creation – master of the S.S. Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. Not long after Flashman becomes a member of the Balliol College’s crew, he realize that his father-in-law has put him under the thumb of a Latin-quoting psychotic. In one sequence, Spring discoveres that another crewman, a mentally challenged young man named Looney, has pissed on the food prepared for the slaves:

“They gave Spring a hastily made cat, and he buttoned his jacket tight and pulled down his hat down.

‘Now, you b—-r, I’ll make you dance!’ cries he, and laid in for all he was worth. Looney screamed and struggled; each time the lashes hit him he shrieked, and between each stroke Spring cursed him for all he was worth.

‘Foul my ship, will you?’ Whack! ‘Ruin the food for my cargo, by G-d!’ Whack! ‘Spread your pestilence with your filth, will you?’ Whack! ‘Yes, pray, yes you wharfside son-of-a-b—h, I’m listening!’ Whack! ‘I’ll cut your b—-y soul out, if you have one!’ Whack! If it had been a regulation Army cat, I think he’d have killed him; as it was, the hastily spliced yarn cut the idiot’s back to bits and the blood ran over his ragged trousers. His screams became moans, and then silence, and then Spring flung the cat overboard.

‘Souse him and let him hang there to dry!’ says he, and then he addressed the unconscious victim. ‘And let me catch you at your filthy tricks again, you scum, so help me G-d I’ll hang you – d’ye hear!’

He glared at us with his madmen’s eyes, and my heart was in my mouth for a moment. Then his scar faded, and he said in his normal bark:

‘Dismiss the hands, Mr. Comber. Mr. Sullivan, and you, supercargo, come aft. Mrs. Springs is serving tea.’”

Needless to say, Spring’s enraged whipping of poor Looney would turn out to be an event that Flashman would later attempt to exploit for his own means.

Upon the Balliol College’s arrival upon the coast of West Africa, Fraser gave readers a bird’s eye view of how African slaves were purchased from African rulers like King Ghezo of Dahomey and European traders along the West Africa coastline. Fraser also provided readers with a peek into the kingdom of Dahomey (which eventually became Benin), its ruler and the latter’s famous female warriors – Dahomey Amazons – some of whom the Balliol College’s psychotic captain longed own for scholarly reasons.

When King Ghezo hands over six of his “Amazon” warriors to Captain Spring, the remaining women attack the Balliol College’s landing party during its trek back to the ship. One of the women (who had taken a slight fancy to Flashy) wounds one of the crewmen, an Englishman named Beauchamp Comber. Just before his death aboard the Balliol College, Comber confessed to Flashman that he was a Royal Navy agent charged with gathering evidence against Captain Spring and the other owners of the ship. One of the ship’s investors turned out to be Flashman’s pernicious father-in-law. The Balliol College eventually reach the Honduras coast, where the crew deliver the new slaves and pick up a half-dozen mulatto slave prostitutes to be delivered in New Orleans. But a U.S. Navy sloop under the command of the young and ambitious Captain Fairbrother spots the Balliol College and a brief sea battle ensues in which the slave ship is damaged and Springs is shot by a mentally challenged mate named Looney, at Flashman’s instigation. To avoid facing arrest for illegal slave trading, Flashy assumes the late Lieutenant Comber’s identity.

Once more, Fraser used his journalistic skills to good use in his description of what is known by historians as the Middle Passage. He went into great detail about how slavers dealt with captured slaves being held below deck. Fraser also described the practice of some sailors to mate with female slaves in order to impregnate them. This sexual practice was used to ensure a higher value among these female slave and any racially mixed children they might produce. Flashman is assigned to have sex with a Dahomey female slave he has named Lady Caroline Lamb.

Another interesting aspect about this passage in the novel was how Fraser revealed the racism and herd mentality of white Westerners like Flashman, Captain Spring and the Balliol College’s first mate, Mr. Sullivan. Following Comber’s death, Spring refused to immediately bury the Royal Navy officer at sea, after one of the slaves had died on the same day and was tossed into the sea. Apparently, the slave captain found the idea of a white man and a black man being “buried” in the same area within hours of each other racially repellent. And in the following passage, Mr. Sullivan seems to have a ready answer for Flashman’s ponderings about the slaves’ docile behavior:

”If they’d had a spark of spirit the niggers could have torn them limb from limb, but they just sat, helpless and mumbling. I thought of the Amazons, and wondered what changed people from brave, reckless savages into dumb resigned animals; apparently it’s always the way on the Coast. Sullivan told me he reckoned it was the knowledge that they were going to be slaves, but that beingbrainless brutes they never thought of doing anything about it.”

I found it interesting that both Flashman and Sullivan used race as an excuse to the newly captured slaves’ ”docile” behavior. Neither man bothered to consider the possibility that a series of traumatic experiences – being captured as prisoners of war, enduring a trek from the interior to the coast; and being tossed into a barracoon or holding place, before being loaded aboard the Balliol College. Instead, they indulged in some kind of herd mentality and dismissed the slaves’ behavior as typical of their race.

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Forced to continue his disguise as Comber, Flashman becomes acquainted with various American politicians that happened to be sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. One of them turned out to be one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln. I must admit that I enjoyed Fraser’s portrayal of the future president as a shrewd, manipulative and humorous man. Lincoln not only spotted Flashman as a rogue, but suggested that he might also be one. The novel also featured a dinner conversation in which Lincoln expressed his exasperation with the abolitionist movement and especially the presence of blacks in the United States. If ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had been published for the first time in the past twenty years, Lincoln’s opinion of blacks would not have seem surprising. But in 1971 (when the novel was first published), his opinion probably did. Ironically, many 19th century abolitionists – black and white – had harbored ambiguous or even contemptuous feelings toward Lincoln’s moderate views.

Congressman Lincoln manages to blackmail Flashman into traveling to New Orleans in order to testify against Captain Spring. It seemed the sea captain had survived Looney’s attack. Having no desire to be exposed as a charlatan, Flashman manages to escape from his U.S. Navy escort in New Orleans and seek refuge at a brothel owned by an English Cockney madam named Susie Wilnick. Fraser must have visited New Orleans, while researching for this novel . . . and fallen in love. Not only did he describe the Crescent City circa 1848 in great detail, but also allowed Flashman to fall in love with the city. This segment also introduced the character of Susie Wilnick, the red-haired madam who will end up having a major impact upon Flashy’s life in the novel, ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Before Flashman can board a ship bound for Europe, local agents of the Underground Railroad, an organization that aids escaped slaves, snatches him. They deliver him to their leader, a Mr. Crixus. He “recruits” Flashman into escorting a wanted escaped slave named George Randolph to Canada, via a steamboat journey up the Mississippi River.

Flashman’s meeting with Mr. Crixus of the Underground Railroad is where Fraser committed a major mistake. The mistake centered around Crixus’ description of the Underground Railroad as an organization that sent agents into the Southern states to help slaves escape to the North and Canada. And according to Mr. Crixus, many or most of these agents happened to be white. This might be one of those rare times in which Fraser’s research may have failed him. The Underground Railroad was not as organized as the author had indicated. It simply consisted of anti-slavery sympathizers who assisted any runaway slave that managed to reach their homes in the Free States. Granted, there were a few like the wanted runaway Harriet Tubman and the white Virginian John Fairfield, who made excursions into the South to free slaves. But their numbers were few and usually operated in the Upper South. Either Fraser had known this and made the Underground Railroad more organized for the sake of the story, or he simply embraced the myth of it being highly organized and mainly operated by white abolitionists.

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This segment also introduced the character of George Randolph, an infamous runaway slave whom Flashman was recruited to escort up the Mississippi Valley. Randolph’s self-righteousness and conceit proved to be a thorn in Flashy’s side. Yet, his presence in the story allowed Fraser to sharpen his writing skills and describe the society that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley with his usual penchant for detail. Flashman’s journey up the Mississippi River not only revealed steamboat travel in the antebellum South, but also the colorful characters that populated that particular region – including slave traders and planters that acquired new money from the slave trade and the cotton plantations. Fraser also contrasted these slave and cotton magnates to the more haughty and refined planters from older regions of the South like Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas:

”All very fine, in a vulgar way, and the passengers matched it; you may have heard a great deal about Southern charm and grace, and there’s something in it where Virginia and Kentucky are concerned – Robert Lee, for instance, was as genteel an old prig as you’d meet on Pall Mall – but it don’t hold for the Mississipi Valley. There they were rotten with cotton money in those days, with gold watch-chains and walking-sticks, loud raucious laughter, and manners that would have disgraced a sty.”

The dialogue spoken by these Mississippi Valley citizens seem a lot more cruder than what one would have heard coming from Robert E. Lee’s mouth. Which makes me wonder if Fraser had read Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel about slavery, ”MANDINGO”:

”Don’ you give me none o’your shines, ye black rascal! Beds, by thunder! You’ll lay right down where you’re told, or by cracky you’ll be knocked down! Who’re you, that you gotta have straw to keep your tender carcase offen the floor? ‘Tother hands is layin’ on it, ain’t they? Now, you git right down there, d’ye hear?”

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George Randolph’s refusal to play the docile slave ends up endangering his life and Flashman’s chances to leave the South. The runaway slave’s conceit ends up attracting the attention of a slave trader named Peter Omohondro (my God, what a name!). Flashman makes his escape over the rails and into the Mississippi River and swims toward the state of Mississippi. He eventually ends up at a cotton plantation called Greystokes, where he is hired as an observer. There, Flashman’s use of slave women as concubines attracts the attention of Greystokes’ mistress, Annette Mandeville.

I must say that was a little disappointed that Fraser never bothered to delve into any detail about life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s misery at being stuck in the U.S. and far from home. He also touched upon the English officer’s frustration at his dalliances with women he viewed beneath contempt – namely Greystokes’ female slave population. This segment also dealt with Flashman’s observations of the Mandevilles’ pathetic marriage. Mr. Mandeville, who was a noveau riche cotton planter, had married the daughter of a Creole aristocrat. Mandeville had married for love and his wife, for money. And yet, it is the haughty Annette who regards her husband with contempt. And Flashman ends up sharing her feelings whenever Mandeville brags about Annette’s non-existent sexual desire for him.

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Not surprisingly, Flash realizes that the haughty Mrs. Mandeville has a yen for him and the two embark upon a sexual affair for a few months. The affair becomes easy to conduct, due to Mr. Mandeville’s frequent business trips. Flashman tries to incite expressions of emotion or passion from his mistress, but she seems to regard him as nothing more than her own personal bed warmer. The affair eventually ends when Mandeville returns home earlier than expected:

”We had just finished a bout; Annette was lying face down on the bed, silent and sullen as usual, and I was trying to win some warmth out of her with my gay chat, and also by biting her on the buttocks. Suddenly, she stiffened under me, and in the same instant feet were striding up the corridor towards the room, Mandeville’s voice was shouting:

 

“Annie! Hullo, Annie honey, I’m home! I’ve brought –“ and then the door was flung open and there he stood, the big grin on his red face changing to a stare of horror. My mouth was open as I gazed across her rump, terror-stricken.”

I must admit that I found the above passage a little evocative. How often does Fraser allow Flashman to be caught in a compromising position, while nipping his bed partner’s ass? On the other hand, I found Harry’s attempts to provoke some kind of passionate response from Annette Mandeville rather irritating – and a little out of character. It was quite obvious that she saw him as nothing more than a mere stud. And she was not the first female character to use him in such a manner. So, why was it important to Flashman for Annette to express some kind of affection toward him? Ego? These scenes between Flashman and Mrs. Mandeville seemed a bit off to me.

———————

Upon discovering his wife in bed with Flashman, Mandeville goes ballistic and threatens the former’s life. However, one of the planter’s slave trading friends offer to sell Harry as a mixed-blood slave to his cousin, an Alabama cotton planter with a plantation near the Tombigee River. Harry finds himself tossed into a slave cart bound for Alabama. Also in the cart is a beautiful light-skinned slave named Casseopeia “Cassy”.

Mandeville’s discovery of Flashman and Annette’s affair was a well-written segment that featured one of the Englishman’s most terrifying moments in the novel. I found it terrifying not because of the possibility of Flashman facing death, as he had done fleeing the Dahomey Amazons, facing gunfire from the U.S. Navy or fleeing from Peter Omohundro’s suspicions. What made this sequence terrifying was that Mandeville’s friends, Luke Johnson and Tom Little, were sending him into the constant hell of black slavery. I think that Mandeville had put it best:

”One of my friends here, he got a prime idea. His cousin a planter over to Alabama – quite a ways from here. Now my friend goin’ over that way, takin’ a runaway back to another place, and he ready to ‘blige me by takin’ you a stage farther, to his cousin’s plantation. Nobody see you leave here, nobody see you git there. An’ when you do, you know what goin’ to happen to you? You goin’ to be stripped an’ put in the cane-fields, ‘long with the niggers! You pretty dark now – I see mustees as light as you – an’ by the time you labored in the sun a spell, you brown up pretty good I reckon. An’ there you’ll be, Slave Arnold, see? You won’t be dead, but you’ll wish you were! Ain’t nobody ever goin’ to see you, on account it a lonely place, an’ no one ever go there – ifn they do, why you just a crazy mustee! Nobody know you here, nobody ever ask for you. An’ you never escape – on account no nigger ever run from that plantation – swamps an’ dogs always git ‘em. So you safe there for life, see? You think you’ll enjoy that life,Slave Arnold?”

——————

During their first hours together inside the slave cart, Cassy tries to comfort Flashman. But when she realizes that he is a white man being punished by Mandeville, Cassy’s own racism towards whites – generated from years of enslavement – kicks in:

”’Well, now one of you knows what it feels like.’ She went back to her corner. ‘Now you know what a filthy race you belong to.’”

Cassy ignores him for several more hours, while Flashman tries to convince Johnson and Little to release him. Eventually, she overcomes her disgust toward Flashman’s race and conspires to free them both from the slave cart. She attracts the two slave traders’ attention by faking sex with Flashy (must have been a great temptation for the poor devil), before killing the pair. Cassy and Flashman dump the bodies and head for Memphis.

The above sequence brought back memories of Flashman’s conversation with the Balliol College’s first mate about the Africans’ disposition to be docile about becoming slaves. Yet, in a near ironic twist, the very same thing nearly happened to Flashman inside the slave cart. Especially after Luke Johnson and Tom Johnson refused to heed his pleas to release him. Just before Cassy could laid out her plans for escape, Flashman seemed on the verge of surrendering to years of slavery for himself. And I found it interesting that Cassy turned out to be the one instrumental to their escape. Then again, I should not have been surprised, considering the Englishman’s cowardly and obsequious nature.

———————-

The pair arrives in Memphis, Tennessee; where Flashman puts Cassy on the market to be sold. Again, Fraser’s journalistic eye comes to the fore. Flashman’s description of the Tennessee metropolis seemed to center around two words – rain and mud. But his account of a slave auction struck me as another example of Fraser’s ability to send his readers back into the past:

If you’ve never seen a slave auction, I can tell you it’s no different from an ordinary cattle sale. The market was a great low shed, with sawdust on the floor, a block at one end for the slaves and auctioneer, and the rest of the space taken up with the buyers and spectators – wealthy traders on seats at the front, very much at ease, casual buyers behind, and more than half the whole crew just spectators, loafers, bumarees and sightseers, spitting and gossiping and haw-hawing. The place was noisy and stank like the deuce, with clouds of baccy smoke and esprit de corps hanging under the beams.”

Very colorful indeed. Yet, there was something about the slave auction segment that disturbed me. Through Flashman’s eyes, Fraser focused on the entertaining and colorful auctioneer, the auction’s location and the male attendants’ reaction to Cassy’s attempts to raise her price (via a strip tease, apparently). Not once did Fraser give the readers a glimpse – however brief – into the other slaves’ reaction to being sold like stock on parade. Granted, Flashman is not the type who would care about their feelings. But being an observant man, surely he would have noticed the reaction of those slaves who were sold before Cassy? Like I had said, I had found this particular aspect of the sequence slightly disappointing.

———————-

In the end, someone buys Cassy for $3,400 dollars. After Flashman purchases steamboat tickets and clothes for them both, Cassy escapes from the Memphis slave pen and board a northbound steamboat with Flashman. During the trip up the Mississippi River, Flashman and Cassy become lovers. And the Englishman discovers that his companion has great ambitions and an exceedingly strong will. He also discovers that her trust of him is not as strong as he had assumed:

”And yet I know that you are not by nature a kind man; that there is little love in you. I know there is lust and selfishness and cruelty, because I feel it when you take me; you are just like the others. Oh, I don’t mind – I prefer that. I tell myself that it levels the score I owe you.”

Unfortunately, the pair discovers that Flashman had purchased tickets for a steamboat bound for St. Louis, Missouri, instead of their intended location, Louisville, Kentucky near the Ohio River. They are forced to travel all of the way to St. Louis. There, Flashman discovers that he is wanted for slave stealing and the murders of Luke Johnson and Tom Little. Flashman and Cassy board another steamboat to take them from St. Louis on the Mississippi Rover to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania at the end of the Ohio. However, the Ohio River freezes near Owensboro, Kentucky and the pair is forced to leave the safety of the steamboat. At a Kentucky tavern near the river, Flashman and Cassy have an unpleasant encounter with a slave catcher named Buck Robinson. Flashy ditches Cassy and flees across the frozen Ohio, with the escaped slave, along with Robinson and his friends close at his heels. Cassy proves to be more dependable when she saves Flashman after he had been shot in the ass in this well written passage:

”It was so bitter that I screamed, and she turned back and came slithering on all fours to the edge. I grabbed her hand, and somehow I managed to scramble out. The yelping of the dogs was sounding closer, a gun banged, a frightful pain tore through my buttock, and I pitched forward on to the ice. Cassy screamed, a man’s voice sounded in a distant roar of triumph, and I felt blood coursing warm down my leg.

 

‘My God, are you hurt?” she cried, and for some idiot reason I had a vision of a tombstone bearing the legend: “Here lies Harry Flashman, late 11th Hussars, shot in the arse while crossing the Ohio River”. The pain was sickening, but I managed to lurch to my feet, clutching my backside, and Cassy seized my hand, dragging me on.”

I strongly suspect that Fraser may have been inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1851 novel, ”UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”; when writing Flashman and Cassy’s flight across the Ohio River. The pair eventually seek refuge at an abolitionist’s home in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, Flashman is reunited with Abraham Lincoln. Buck Robinson catches up with them and Lincoln defends Flashy and Cassy in a scene that has become legendary with fans of the FLASHMAN novels:

”Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.

‘So am I, Buck. And more – for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people – you’re going to take them?’ He gestured toward Cassy. ‘All right, Buck – you try it. Just – try it.’

The rest of the world decided that Abraham Lincoln was a great orator after his speech at Gettysburg. I realized it much earlier, when I heard him laying it over that gun-carrying bearded ruffian who was breathing brimstone at him.”

In the above passage, Fraser continued to tear down the prevailing view of Lincoln as some modest, gentle giant who found himself caught up in national politics. Fraser’s portrayal of Lincoln revealed a tough and intimidating man to the rough-neck Buck Robinson. And once more, he managed to blackmail Flashman into returning to New Orleans for John Charity Spring’s slave smuggling trial. Before Flashman could leave Ohio, a Canada-bound Cassy says good-bye to him in one of the funniest scenes in the novel:

”’There,’ says Mrs. Payne. ‘I think you may kiss your deliverer’s hand, child.’

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Cassy had burst out laughing, or in a fit of raage, but she did something that horrified Mrs. Payne more than either could have done. She bent down and gave me a long, fierce kiss on the mouth, while her chaperone squawked and squeaked, and eventually bustled her away.

‘Such liberties!’ cries she. ‘These simple creatures! My child, this will never-‘

‘Good-bye,’ says Cassy, and that was the last I ever saw of her – or of the two thousand dollars we had had between us.”

As noted the recent passage, Flashman discovers that Cassy had quietly taken the remaining money they had “earned” in Memphis. No wonder she remains one of my favorite female characters in the FLASHMAN novels.

———————

After a U.S. marshal escorts our hero back to New Orleans (thanks to Lincoln), Flashman appears in court to testify against Spring for smuggling slaves into the U.S. Due to the testimonies of two of Spring’s “cargo”, Flashman realizes that the insane captain had been conveying American-born slaves to New Orleans, when the U.S. sloop had captured the Balliol College. Which meant that Spring had not broken the law by conveying American slaves. This also meant that Flashman had the means to avoid testifying against Spring and avoid being exposed as a fraud.

I must admit that this latest sequence featured one of the funniest moments in the novel. I especially enjoyed the testimonies of two female slaves named Drusilla and Messalina. The novel ends with the charges against Captain Spring are dismissed and Flashman asking for passage back to Europe aboard the Balliol College. From the psychotic Spring, Flashy learns that his father-in-law had passed away; leaving his beloved Elspeth a rich woman. Unfortunately for Flashman, another year or two will pass before his return to England . . . as ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” will reveal.

———————

As I had stated at the beginning of this article, I consider ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” to be one of the best from the FLASHMANseries. Through Flashman’s jaundiced eyes, Fraser revealed a richly detailed account of the African slave trade during the mid 19th century. In fact, Fraser’s account of the trade is one of the most detailed I have ever read in any fictional story – from the Balliol College crew’s preparation of the slave deck, to the crew’s expedition to Dahomey and King Gezo’s court; from the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the slave marts of Honduras and Cuba; and finally the Balliol College’s encounter with a U.S. Navy frigate in the Gulf of Mexico. I have to admit that Fraser’s writing was supreme in the novel’s first half.

Once Flashman reached the United States, the story became unevenly paced. From the moment Captain Fairbrother sent Flashman to Washington D.C. to the moment when the Englishman boarded the Sultana Queen with George Randolph and black Underground Railroad agents posing as slaves, the story raced at a fast pace. Perhaps too fast for my tastes. The story managed to slow down to a leisurely pace in order to describe Flashman’s trip up the Mississippi River aboard the Sultana Queen. But upon his arrival at Greystokes, the Mandevilles’ plantation; the story’s pace quickened again. And for the second time, it slowed down when Mandeville caught Flashman in bed with the missus. This meant that Fraser never bothered to give readers a detailed account of life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s affair with Annette Mandeville.

I also found myself surprised by Fraser’s description of the Underground Railroad. For a writer who usually went through a great deal to incorporate historical accuracy into his novels as much as possible, he certainly failed to do so in regard to the abolitionist organization. The Underground Railroad had never been as organized as Fraser described it in the novel. Most of the agents lived above the Mason-Dixon line. And they simply assisted those slaves that managed to reach the Free States with food, clothing and temporary shelter. The Underground Railroad was never dominated by white agents that escorted runaways out of the South. Granted, personalities like Harriet Tubman, John Fairfield and John Brown may have engaged in such activities, but they were rare in numbers and usually operated in the Border or Upper South. Regardless of whether they were successful or not, the runaway slaves bore most or all of the responsibilities for their bids for freedom.

And I never understood how Captain Spring managed to avoid being convicted of slave smuggling in the end. Granted, the slaves he had picked up in Honduras and Cuba were all American-born . . . save for one. There was also the Dahomey slave, Lady Caroline Lamb. Captain Fairbrother of the U.S. Navy had certainly met her. I never understood how the Federal judge managed to overlook her presence aboard the Balliol College. Flashman claimed that she had not been shackled. And because of this particular testimony, she was not deemed a non-American slave aboard Spring’s ship. Frankly, I found this a bit too thin . . . but what can one say?

One last problem I had with ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” centered around Fraser’s portrayals of non-white characters. Mind you, he had provided strong portrayals of West African characters in the novel’s first half. However, King Gezo was a historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb was a passive bed mate for Flashy, and not one of the Dahomey Amazons had a name – not even the leader who had taken a fancy to Flashman. With the exception of two, the African-Americans featured in the novel’s second half ended up being mere background characters. Even worse, the only two major slave characters of African descent were light-skinned. George Randolph was one-quarter black and Cassy was one-eighth black. Both were light enough to pass for white, bar a few physical characteristics that hinted their African ancestry. And once again, I stumbled across another disappointment. Granted, Fraser probably needed Cassy light enough to pass for white during her and Flashman’s flight up the Mississippi River. But why Fraser thought it was necessary to portray Randolph as light-skinned? What exactly was the author trying to hint? That only light-skinned African-Americans were intelligent enough to be interesting characters?

But despite my misgivings about ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I still consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works. First of all, I thought it took a great deal of guts on his part to write a serio-comic story that featured African slavery or race in the 19th century American South as its main theme. The only other works of art that I can recall that dared to even touch upon the subject seemed to be an episode of ”BEWITCHED”called (5.02) “Samantha Goes South For A Spell” in which Samantha Stevens ends up trapped in 1868 New Orleans, the 1971 movie ”SKIN GAME” and its 1974 remake, ”SIDEKICKS”. And despite the novel’s grim subject matter, Fraser provided some very funny moments:

*Flashman’s attempt to seduce Fanny Locke (soon to be Duberly) at the political house party at Cleeve House

*A cabin boy’s offer to sexually service Flashman

*One of the Dahomey Amazons’ interest in Flashman

*Abraham Lincoln sniffs out Flashman as a scoundrel

*Cassy’s passionate farewell to Flashman

*Captain Spring’s trial in New Orleans

*Flashman’s reaction to John Morrison’s death

But there are two humorous scenes that truly stood out for me. One involved Flashman’s description of Captain Spring and his wife:

”At any rate, he lost no opportunity of airing his Latinity to Comber and me, usually at tea in his cabin, with the placid Mrs. Spring sitting by, nodding. Sullivan was right, of course; they were both mad. You had only to see them at the divine service which Spring insisted on holding on Sundays, with the whole ship’s company drawn up, and Mrs. Spring pumping away at her German accordion while we sang ‘Hark! the wild billow’, and afterwards Spring would blast up prayers to the Almighty demanding his blessing on our voyage, and guidance in the tasks which our hands should find to do, world without end, amen. I don’t know what Wilberforce would have made of that, or my old friend John Brown, but the ship’s company took it straight-faced – mind you, they knew better than to do anything else.”

Another passage that I found particularly hilarious was U.S. Navy Captain Fairbrother’s reaction to finding the slave Lady Caroline Lamb inside his cabin, aboard the Balliol College:

”’Mr. Comber,’ says he, ‘there’s one of those black women in my berth!’

‘Indeed?’ says I, looking suitably startled.

‘My G-d, Mr. Comber!’ cries he. ‘She’s in there now – and she’s stark naked!’

I pondered this; it occurred to me that Lady Caroline Lamb, following her Balliol College training, had made her way aft and got into Fairbrother’s cabin – which lay in the same place as my berth had done on the slaver. And being the kind of gently-reared fool that he was, Fairbrother was in a fine stew. He’d probably never seen a female form in his life.”

”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had its share of virtues. But what really stood out in the novel was its collection of some of the most interesting fictional characters created by Fraser. Yes, the novel had its share of historical figures like Benjamin Disraeli, King Gezo and Abraham Lincoln. But the fictional characters proved to be the novel’s finest assets. Fraser introduced his readers to characters like the imbecilic and pathetic Looney, the Dahomey Amazon that took in interest in Flashy, the intense and enthusiastic Underground Railroad agent Mr. Crixus, the conceited and self-involved George Randolph, the ever suspicious slave trader Peter Omohundro, the pathetic Mandeville and his cold and controlling wife Annette, and the brutish slave catcher Buck Robinson. But two characters stood above the rest. They were the beautiful, yet ruthless and determined fugitive slave, Casseopeia; and the psychotic master of the Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. In fact, I would say they were among the best of Fraser’s creations.

I might as well add that the novel was not perfect. Its description of the Underground Railroad was historically incorrect. Most of the African-American characters were poorly conceived, with the exception of two that happened to be light-skinned. And the novel’s second half seemed to be marred by uneven pacing. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Fraser did an excellent job of creating semi-humorous story from the grim topic of slavery. The story had its share of drama and action. It provided a detailed account of the Atlantic slave trade during the mid 19th century. And the novel also featured some of the most fascinating fictional characters in the entire FLASHMAN series. In the end, I believe it is one of the best novels written by George MacDonald Fraser.

“Neighbors” [PG] – 8/11

“NEIGHBORS”

Part 8

The manor’s doorbell rang constantly, luring Piper downstairs to the foyer. She reached the bottom of the staircase, strolled toward the front door and opened it. In the doorway stood a frantic Darryl Morris. “Hey Darryl,” she greeted. “What brings you here?” 

The police inspector brushed past Piper and into the house. “Where in the hell have you all been?” he demanded. “I’ve been trying to reach you all day!”

“Well, I’ve spent the better part of the day visiting my gynecologist and trying to book this new group for the club. Paige went to Sausalito to visit one of her Matthews cousins. And I believe Phoebe has been locked in her office all day, trying to catch up on the letters for her column. You know, now that I think about it, we’ve all been pretty . . .”

“Piper!” Darryl placed his hands on her shoulders. “Is everyone here, now?”

Seeing the consternation in Darryl’s eyes, Piper immediately sensed trouble. “What’s wrong? Has something happened?” she demanded. “Has another dead witch been found?” Before Darryl could answer, Piper called for her sisters. “Paige! Phoebe!”

A minute later, the other two Halliwells descended the staircase. “What’s wrong, Piper?” Phoebe demanded. “Has something happened?”

Darryl shook his head. “Not yet. But I have some news.” He paused to catch his breath. “Olivia McNeill has a lead on those warlocks you’ve been looking for.”

“She has?” Paige demanded. “What kind of lead?”

Piper and her sisters listened with rapt attention, as Darryl revealed Olivia’s discovery. It seemed the Crozat Coven owned a corporation called Malehex and one of its holdings was a San Francisco-based company called the Tower Bay Import/Export. “Did she give you an address?” Piper asked.

“Well yeah,” Darryl answered, “but she said . . .”

“Never mind that,” Phoebe interrupted. “What’s the address?”

Darryl sighed. “534 Bayshore Boulevard. But Olivia said . . .”

This time, Piper interrupted. “Let’s go. Paige can orb us there.”

“Wait a minute!” Darryl shouted. “Before you barge into there like John Wayne, I better tell you that Olivia said not to go.”

The sisters stared at the inspector, as if he had lost his mind. “Why would she say that?” Paige demanded.

Barely containing his patience, Darryl continued, “Look, Olivia said to lay low, until you get a call from her. She also said something about reconnoitering the place, before going after the warlocks. Maybe you should follow her advice.”

“We’d love to oblige,” Piper commented sarcastically, “but we can’t sit around and wait for Inspector McNeill to make plans, when there’s a chance that another witch might get killed. Phoebe. Paige.”

The three sisters linked hands. Before Paige could orb them out of the manor, Phoebe let out a gasp. Her eyes glazed over for a few seconds. Then she automatically released Paige’s hands.

“What is it?” the youngest Charmed One asked.

After a large gulp of air, Phoebe replied, “I just had a premonition. About us. We orbed into the middle of this warehouse and got caught into this trap set by warlocks. We couldn’t get out. Even without Piper’s combustion power. But they were able to kill us. With daggers. We were too weak to defend ourselves.”

Both Piper and Paige fell silent. Darryl added, “Now will you wait for Olivia’s call?”

Paige was the first to recover from Phoebe’s revelation. “I say we should leave now. Like Phoebe said, it’s better we go after those warlocks than take the chance of another witch getting killed.”

“What about my premonition?” Phoebe asked uneasily.

The oldest Halliwell responded, “Paige can orb us outside the warehouse. Phoebe?” The latter took hold of Paige’s other hand. And the Charmed Ones orbed out of the manor.

* * * *

Harry McNeill sat in the middle of his bedroom at the McNeill manor, deep in meditation. Just as his mind visualized himself stepping on that last stone toward the hut – his sacred place – a vision flashed before his eyes. A vision of the Charmed Ones being trapped inside a warehouse filled with warlocks. He let out a gasp and his eyes flew open.

Did he just . . .? Was that a premonition he had just witnessed? But it was impossible! Harry knew that he did not possess the power of premonition. Like his grandmother Elise, he was a telepath. He read and had the power to control the minds of others. So had he read someone else’s premonition?

The only person he knew that had such a power was the middle Charmed One – Phoebe Halliwell. And since that vision involved the Halliwells, Harry could only conclude that they might be in danger. Unless Phoebe’s premonition had convinced them to change plans.

Harry took a deep breath and closed his eyes. If only he could focus upon Phoebe’s thoughts again. Or those that belonged to the other Halliwells. After another few minutes of meditation, Harry made a psychic connection to another Halliwell. Piper. The sisters had just appeared outside the warehouse. Which meant there was a good chance they might be in danger, after all.

Fearful of any possible trouble, Harry called for his siblings’ former whitelighter. “Leo! Hey LEE-OO!” The whitelighter failed to appear. The twenty-five year-old heaved a frustrated sigh, reached for his telephone and dialed the number to his sister’s cell phone.

* * * *

“Are you sure?” Olivia demanded. She stood off to the side of an empty corridor, inside the police station.

Harry’s voice replied, “Yeah, I’m sure. I think I might have read one of Phoebe Halliwell’s premonitions. That’s one of her powers, right?”

Olivia took a deep breath and mentally cursed the Halliwells. They had obviously decided not to heed Darryl’s message, after he told them about the warehouse. Unless . . . “Maybe we don’t have anything to worry about,” she said to Harry. “Maybe they decided to wait for me after Phoebe’s premonition.”

“I’m afraid not, Livy.” A pause followed, before Harry spoke up. “I managed to read the thoughts of another Halliwell. Piper, I think. They had decided to go to the warehouse, after all. Despite the premonition. And I can’t reach Leo.”

Another curse escaped Olivia’s mouth. Then she sighed. “Okay. Listen. Get ready to leave and pick a few vials of Mom’s vanquishing potions, while you’re at it. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“A few . . . How?”

“Trust me, I’ll find a way,” Olivia quickly replied. “Just be ready.” She disconnected the line, before dialing a new number. One that belonged to Cole Turner’s penthouse.

After a few rings, Phoebe Halliwell’s ex-husband answered, “Hello?”

“Cole!” Olivia declared in breathless relief. “This is Olivia McNeill. I need your help. It’s about those warlocks that have been killing wit . . .” A second later, Cole appeared before her, looking concerned. “Well that was quick!”

Cole said in a curt voice, “You said something about warlocks. Where are they?”

“Actually, I know where they are. The problem is that Darryl told Phoebe and her sisters about the warlocks and there’s a good chance they might be in trouble. We need to pick up Harry, first.”

Cole took hold of Olivia’s hand. “Okay. Let’s go.” And the pair disappeared from the corridor.

* * * *

Less than two minutes later, Olivia, Cole and Harry reappeared in the parking lot of Tower Bay Imports/Exports. And the Charmed Ones were no where to be seen. “Where are they?” Olivia vented in frustration.

Harry closed his eyes for a few seconds. Then, “Inside. They’ve just been caught. I wonder just how powerful these warlocks are? I mean, they managed to capture the Charmed Ones?”

A grim Cole replied, “Why don’t we find out?” He strode toward the building. The two McNeills followed. Soon, all three found themselves peeking through one of the building’s low windows.

The trio glanced inside and saw the Charmed Ones trapped within a barely seen, dome-shaped force field. Piper Halliwell seemed to be making some kind of effort to break through the trap, using magic. But to no avail.

“It’s useless,” Phillip Crozat declared triumphantly. “You can’t break free. Not even with the Power of Three. We found an old spell that once belonged to the Seer – you remember her, don’t you? She had used it to create an inescapable cage. Mind you, our trap is not as powerful as hers – alone. But with the power of the coven, along with those belonging to three witches we’ve killed – it’s impregnable. And the trap is also designed to slowly drain all magic abilities of those inside. Even for someone as strong as the old Source.

Phoebe shot back, “It’s a shame you didn’t think of that, some years ago.”

Nodding, Crozat added, “You’re right about that. But with the Triad, the Seer alive and the Brotherhood of the Thorn breathing down our necks, we could have never created such a trap. Or attempt to grab control of the Source’s Realm. But thanks to you, both the Source and the Seer are gone for good. And the demonic world is in chaos . . .”

Olivia returned her attention back to Cole and Harry. “Okay,” she whispered, “does anyone have a plan?”

Both men stared at her in shock. “What are you talking about? Don’t you have a plan?” Cole demanded.

“Of course not! I had thought about coming up with something with the Charmed Ones. I can’t help it if they had decided to do a ‘Custer at Little Big Horn’ act.”

Cole grumbled, “All right! I get the picture.” Then he sighed. “I think . . . I think I might have a plan. Or at least a distraction. If I can . . .”

Harry interrupted with a muted cry. “Someone’s coming!”

Sure enough, a figure clad in black appeared from around the corner. Another Crozat, Olivia surmised. She hissed at Cole, “Get rid of him!”

“Like what? Kill him?”

Olivia shot back, “Well do something!”

The warlock finally caught sight of the trio. Before he could do anything, Cole turned him into an innate object. A pebble. Olivia sighed with relief and she, along with her two companions, returned their attention to the conversation inside.

A dagger appeared in Phillip Crozat’s hand. The same happened with the other warlocks inside the warehouse. They all moved toward the trapped Charmed Ones. “What’s that for?” an obviously disturbed Paige asked.

Phillip Crozat’s thin lips stretched into an evil grin. “To kill you, of course. And steal your powers.”

Piper asked, “How do you propose to do that with us inside this trap?”

“Don’t worry.” Crozat tossed his athame back and forth in his hands. “We won’t kill you now. In about a few minutes, you all should be weak enough for us to kill you without any problems.” He raised the knife, using telekinesis. The other warlocks followed his example. “We can be patient.”

Olivia turned to Cole. “I think it’s time to use your plan,” she whispered. “When do we attack?”

“When I kill a second warlock,” the half-daemon murmured.

Harry frowned. “A second?”

But Cole blurred out of view before an explanation could be given.

END OF PART 8