“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject. 

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on theWikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But “MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.

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Kathryn Janeway and Starfleet Principles – “STAR TREK VOYAGER” (2.14) “Alliances”

Kathryn Janeway and Starfleet Principles – “STAR TREK VOYAGER” (2.14 “Alliances”)

Many ”STAR TREK” fans have claimed that the lead character of ”STAR TREK VOYAGER” lead character, Captain Kathryn Janeway, barely developed as a character during the series’ seven (7) season run. After watching the Season Two episode, (2.14) “Alliances”, I am can see that I would never agree with those critics of Janeway’s character. The Season Two Kathryn Janeway featured in this episode struck me as a far cry from the Janeway that finally returned to Earth in the series finale, (7.25-7.26) “Endgame”

But this article is not simply about Kathryn Janeway. It is mainly about the good captain and the major role she played in ”Alliance”. The episode began with a Kazon attack upon Voyager, which resulted in damages to the starship, several wounded and the death of another Voyager crewman – the popular ex-Maquis and close friend of Commander Chakotay named Kurt Bendera. After Chakotay delivered the eulogy after the funeral, Crewmen Hogan and Michael Jonas voiced their opinion to Captain Janeway that Voyager should operate in a manner similar to the Maquis and consider making a deal with the Kazon for safe passage. Naturally, Janeway refused to consider the idea of trading technology with Kazon, which is something they have proposed in the past. But her resistance to the idea of an alliance eventually faded when Chakotay and Lieutenant Tuvok both proposed that she consider an alliance with one or two Kazon factions to secure peace. Not to trade technology, but to offer protection from attacking forces and emergency supplies. As I had pointed out, the Captain was reluctant to accept Chakotay’s idea, but eventually accepted. Ensign Harry Kim seemed horrified by the idea, claiming that the Federation would never consider forming alliances with the likes of the Kazon. Apparently, the young ensign forgot about the treaty that the Federation had signed with the Klingon Empire in the late 23rd century (something that Tuvok had reminded the Captain about) and one with Cardassia a few years earlier. Fortunately, Janeway ignored Kim’s protests.

During the series’ first two seasons, Janeway had been a rigid practitioner of Starfleet’s principles, unwilling to be flexible about her command style. She also had a bad habit of ignoring advice that required her to be a little more flexible . . . unless it suited her. Obviously, Chakotay’s suggestion of mixing a little Starfleet principles with Maquis methods never really appealed to Janeway. And I got the feeling that she was determined to prove him wrong. Bear with me. There was nothing wrong in Janeway’s policies about following Starfleet principles – when the situation demanded it. After all, if Janeway had not maintained discipline on her ship, Voyager could have easily become another U.S.S. Equinox. However, there was a time for adhering to Starfleet . . . and a time for using other methods.

Chakotay’s idea of forming an alliance with the Kazon seemed sound. Even Tuvok thought it was a good idea. Yet, Janeway decided to sabotage Chakotay’s idea by accepting Torres and Paris’ not-so-bright suggestion of forming an alliance with Seska and Maj Cullah of the Kazon Nistrim sect. Why on earth would she agree to sign a treaty with the very Kazon sect that the crew of Voyager had been in conflict with since Season One’s (1.11 “State of Flux”). And why did she not simply consider contacting other Kazon sects, as Chakotay and Tuvok had suggested. Then Janeway added more fuel to the fire when she disregarded Tuvok’s advice against forming an alliance with the Trabe, the Kazons’ blood enemy. The Trabe used to be a major power in the Delta Quadrant that were also brutal slave masters ruling over the Kazon race. The Kazon eventually revolted and stole all of the Trabe technology, spacecraft and even their home world. The Trabe had been reduced to wanderers that were constantly pursued by Kazon fleets and unable to settle on any permanent planet for fear of being exterminated by the former slaves. In the end, Tuvok’s objections against an alliance with the Trabe proved to be sound. The effort to form an alliance with the Kazon ended up being undermined by the Trabe’s attempt to assassinate the Kazon majes (leaders).

As I had earlier stated, one of Janeway’s major flaws had been her inability to be flexible in the face of Voyager’s extraordinary situation in the Delta Quadrant. During Seasons One and Two, she seemed obsessed with maintaining Starfleet principles. In the end, this strict adherence to these principles did not prevent Voyager’s capture by Seska, Maje Cullah and the Kazon in the Season Two finale, (2.26) “Basics, Part I”. Following this last incident with Seska and the Kazon, Janeway switched tactics and adhered more closely with utilizing Maquis methods. I would have cheered her for this . . . except she went from one extreme to another. Her determination to use any means possible to get home nearly led to Voyager’s destruction in the early Season Three episode, (3.04)”The Swarm”, when she decided to trespass into a hostile alien space after being warned away. Another form of this kind of extremism occurred when she decided to form an alliance with the Borg in order to avoid what she believed was certain destruction at the hands of Species 8472 in (3.26-4.01) “Scorpion”. This alliance led to Species 8472’s defeat and many home worlds opened to conquest and assimilation by the Borg. After Voyager’s encounter with the U.S.S. Equinox in (5.26-6.01) “Equinox”, Janeway finally learned to become flexible by striking a balance between maintaining Starfleet principles and being a little creative when the occasion demanded.

As for “Alliances”, it had the potential to be an excellent episode. Unfortunately, too much had occurred during the episode’s 45 minutes running time. ”Alliance” could have . . . should have been a two-part episode. But writer/producer Jeri Taylor decided to stuff this very eventful story into one episode. Worse, the story ended on a sour note with Janeway’s speech reaffirming Starfleet principles. Her strident speech not only made me wince, it also made me wonder if she was feeling a little smug at proving both Chakotay and Tuvok wrong. The ending did not strike me as one of her finest hours.

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

I suspect there might be a good number of movie fans who have seen William Wyler’s 1949 movie, ”THE HEIRESS”. This film, which led to a second Academy Award for actress Olivia DeHavilland, was based upon both Henry James’ 1880 novel, ”Washington Square”, and the 1947 stage play of the same title. In 1997, another version of James’ novella appeared on the movie screens. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. 

Anyone familiar with James’ tale should know that it told the story of one Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward daughter of the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper in antebellum Manhattan, who falls in love with a penniless, yet handsome young man named Morris Townsend against her father’s wishes. If one thinks about it, the plot sounds like a typical costumed weeper in which a pair of young lovers kept apart from outside forces – in this case, a disapproving parent. But James had added a few twists to make this story. One, the story kept many in the dark on whether the penniless Morris actually loved Catherine. Two, Dr. Sloper not only disapproved of Morris, but also harbored deep contempt and resentment toward his daughter’s plain looks and awkward social skills. Her crimes? Catherine’s birth had led to the death of his beloved wife. And his daughter failed to inherit her mother’s beauty and style. After a great of psychological warfare between Catherine, Dr. Sloper, Morris and Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia Penniman, the story ended on a surprising note for those who have never read the novel or seen any of the film or stage versions. Those familiar with the tale at least know that it ended on a note of personal triumph for the heroine.

Many movie fans and critics seemed incline to dismiss ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” as a poor remake of the 1949 film. I will not deny that in many respects, ”THE HEIRESS” is superior to ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. However, I would not be inclined to dismiss the 1997 film as a failure. It still turned out to be a pretty damn good adaptation of James’ novel. In fact, it turned out to be a lot better than I had expected.

Jennifer Jason Leigh did an excellent job of portraying the shy and socially awkward Catherine Sloper. Even better, she managed to develop Catherine’s character from a shy woman to one who became more assured with herself. However, I do have one small quibble regarding Leigh’s performance. She had a tendency to indulge in unnecessary mannerisms that would rival both Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

Maggie Smith gave an illuminating performance as Catherine’s silly and romantically childish aunt, Lavinia Sloper Penniman. I found myself very impressed by Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of Catherine’s handsome and charming suitor, Morris Townsend. The actor struck a perfect balance of charm, impatience and ambiguity. And his verbal battles with Albert Finney’s character left me spellbound. Judith Ivey gave an intelligent performance as Catherine’s other aunt, the sensible and clever Elizabeth Sloper Almond. I especially enjoyed one scene that featured a debate between Catherine’s father and Aunt Elizabeth over her relationship with Morris.

But in my opinion, Albert Finney gave the best performance in the movie as Catherine’s aloof and slightly arrogant father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The interesting thing about Finney’s performance was that he able expressed Dr. Sloper’s concern he felt over the possibility of Catherine becoming the victim of a fortune hunter. At the same time, Finney perfectly balanced Sloper’s concern with the character’s lack of affection or warmth toward his daughter. My favorite scene with Finney featured an expression of disbelief on his face, as his character noticed Lavinia’s enthrallment over Catherine and Morris’ musical duet.

If there is one aspect of ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” that impressed me more than Wyler’s 1949 adaptation was Allan Starski’s production designs. Under Holland’s direction, Starski worked effectively with costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Jerzy Zielinski’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Pascal Charpentier to transport moviegoers back to antebellum New York City. In fact, the movie’s late 1840s setting struck me as superior to that shown in the 1949 movie. And because of this, the movie managed to avoid the feeling of a filmed play.

Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle’s adaptation of James’ novel seemed a lot closer to the original source than the earlier version. At least the movie’s last twenty minutes adhered closer to the novel. I suspect that the movie’s first ten to fifteen minutes – which focused upon an embarrassing childhood incident regarding Catherine and her father’s birthday party – had been the screenwriter’s invention. Personally, I found this sequence rather unnecessary. Doyle could have easily used brief dialogue to reveal the origin of Dr. Sloper’s coldness toward Catherine. But in the end, Doyle’s screenplay basically followed James’ novel.

But after watching the movie’s last twenty minutes, I found myself wishing that Doyle and Holland had followed Wyler’s adaptation and the 1947 stage play. The movie nearly fell apart in the last twenty minutes, thanks to a decision on Holland’s part. Most of the dramatic moments in ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” appeared in the last half hour – Catherine’s realization of her father’s dislike, Morris’ rejection of her after discovering her decision to endanger her inheritance, Dr. Sloper’s death, the reading of his will and Morris’ second attempt to woo Catherine. Out of all these scenes, only Catherine’s reaction to her father’s will generated any real on-screen dramatics. All of the other moments were performed with a subtlety that robbed filmgoers of any real drama. The fact that I could barely stay awake during Catherine’s final rejection of Morris told me that Holland made a serious mistake in guiding her cast to portray these scenes in a realistic manner. There is a time for realism and there is a time for dramatic flair. And in my opinion, those final scenes in the last half hour demanded dramatic flair.

Despite my disappointments in the movie’s last half hour, I must admit that I managed to enjoy ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. It may not have been just as good as or superior to 1949’s ”THE HEIRESS”. But I believe that it still turned out to be a pretty damn good movie.

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

“SAN FRANCISCO” (1936) Review

I just recently watched the 1936 disaster film, ”SAN FRANCISCO”, which starred Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt. Released 30 years after the actual event, the movie is basically about a Barbary Coast saloonkeeper (Gable) and a Nob Hill impresario (Holt) who became rivals for the affections of a beautiful singer (MacDonald), both personally and professionally in 1906 San Francisco. The story culminated in the deadly April 18, 1906 earthquake that devastated the city. 

In the movie, a gambling hall tycoon named Blackie Norton (Gable) hires an impoverished but classically-trained singer from Colorado named Mary Blake (MacDonald). Mary also attracts the attention of a wealthy Nob Hill patron named Jack Burley (Holt), who believes that she is destined for a better career as an opera singer. Mary becomes a star attraction at Blackie’s saloon, and a romance develops between them. Complications arise when she is also courted by Burley. He also offers her an opportunity to sing in the opera. Meanwhile, Blackie’s childhood friend, Roman Catholic Father Tim Mullen (Tracy), keeps trying to reform him, while the other nightclub owners attempt to convince Norton to run for the City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to protect their crooked interests. Despite Father Tim’s best efforts, Blackie remains a jaunty Barbary Coast atheist until the famous 1906 earthquake devastates the city. He “finds God” upon discovering that had Mary survived.

Basically, ”SAN FRANCISCO” is an excellent movie filled with vitality, good performances and great music. Director Woody Van Dyke did an excellent job of capturing the color and energy of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. He was ably supported by the movie’s Assistant Director (Joseph M. Newman) and montage expert (Slavko Vorkapich). Composer Bronislaw Kaper and lyricist Gus Kahn wrote the now famous title song, performed by MacDonald. One of the best moments in the film occurred when MacDonald’s character announces her intention of performing the song in the movie’s Chicken’s Ball, producing applause and cries of joy from the audience. As for the famous earthquake itself . . . I am amazed that after seventy years or so, I still find it impressive. To this day, the earthquake montage is considered one of the standards that all disaster films are compared with. In fact, Assistant Director Newman won a special Academy Awards for his work.

Robert Hopkins (who received an Oscar nomination) wrote the story for ”SAN FRANCISCO” and the famous Anita Loos wrote the screenplay. Hopkins and Loos created a good, solid story. But I have to be honest that I found nothing remarkable about it. It seemed like your basic Gable programmer from the 1930s that easily could have been set during any time period in American history . . . well, except for the actual earthquake. I do have one major problem with the movie’s plot – namely its religious subplot in which Father Mullen spends most of his time trying to redeem Blackie. Quite frankly, it struck me as heavy-handed and a little out of place. Perhaps Hopkins and Loos had intended for the scene in which Blackie found Mary offering compassion to some of the earthquake’s survivors to be a tender and emotional moment. It could have been . . . if they had left out the heavy religious theme.

The only good thing about the religious aspect of the story was Spencer Tracy’s presence in the film. One cannot deny that he gave the best performance in the movie. Well, he and veteran actress, Jessie Ralph, who portrayed Jack Burley’s Irish-born mother. But Tracy’s presence also meant that one had to deal with the movie’s religious subplot. And as much as I liked Tracy in the film, I think it could have done without him. Jeanette MacDonald gave a solid performance as the saloon hall singer-turned opera diva, Mary Blake. However . . . I found MacDonald’s singing more remarkable than her character. Pardon me for saying this but Mary is one boring woman. Rather typical of the female characters that Gable’s characters had romanced in his movies during the mid and late 1930s. I find it amazing that two dynamic men like Blackie and Burley were so dazzled by her. Both Clark Gable and Jack Holt gave solid performances as the two rivals wooing for Mary’s hand. Ironically, despite the differences in their characters’ backgrounds, they were chillingly alike. Both were charming, gregarious and extremely underhanded men. Quite frankly, I found it amazing that Mary could prefer one over the other.

Despite some flaws – the most obvious being the religious subplot that turned out to be as subtle as a rampaging elephant – ”SAN FRANCISCO” is a first-class, rousing movie filled with music, drama, laughs and one of the best special effect sequences in movie history. I heartily recommend it.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of ”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.

“Return With a Vengeance” [PG-13] – 13/18

 

“RETURN WITH A VENGEANCE”

CHAPTER 13

It was an angry sorcerer who appeared before the Crozats. Judging from his expression, Edward realized that the attack on the youngest McNeill had failed. “What happened?” the warlock asked. 

Growling, Dako/Morris wrapped one hand around Cousin Louis’ throat. “I’ll tell you what happened! That witch had used his psychic abilities to summon help before I could kill him! I found myself surrounded by that girl’s two sisters, the McNeill woman, a man surrounded by blue lights, some woman I don’t even know and another man who just might be a daemon.” He gave Louis’ throat a slight squeeze. Edward’s cousin gurgled. “And do you want to know what else I had discovered? One of the witches is not only pregnant, but she also might be as powerful as myself. And the same can be said about the man with the demonic powers. Something you had failed to tell me.” Dako squeezed Louis’ throat tighter, causing the latter’s face to turn red.

A panic-stricken Henry blurted out, “We don’t know anything about a daemon! As for the witch . . . well, we knew she was carrying a powerful baby, but we didn’t realize it would be as powerful as you.”

Dark eyes narrowed dangerously. The sorcerer released Louis, who promptly fell upon the floor, coughing. “You had extensive details on the other Halliwell witches and the McNeill witches,” Dako replied in a crisp tone, “and you expect me to believe that you knew nothing about the extent of the pregnant witch’s powers or the daemon? Do you take me for a fool?”

Feeling the extent of the sorcerer’s dark power, Edward immediately bowed. “No, Your Eminence. We sim . . . our source had failed to provide this information to us.”

“Then I suggest that you make your source understand the repercussions of his failure to inform you.” Dako paused. “Now, I want to know everything about these people. Their secrets and the extent of their powers. Including the daemon.”

Edward, Henry, Rudolf and Suzanne responded as one, “Yes, Your Eminence.”

Dako stared at the trio. “One question – is there a way to steal this daemon’s powers? He struck me as being very powerful.”

An uneasy Edward glanced at his fellow warlocks. “If this daemon was with the Charmed Ones and the McNeills, he must be Belthazor. I understand that he is very powerful. Even more powerful than he had been as the Source. Together with his powers and yours, we could possibly kill the pregnant witch.”

The bokor stared at the warlock for a long, terrifying moment. Then he declared, “I will kill the witch. I take the demon’s powers, and together with mine, I will kill her child. Am I clear?”

His emotions in turmoil, Edward struggled to keep them in check. He had no intention of helping Dako take Belthazor’s new powers. But it did seem prudent to keep his intentions to himself. And healthier. In the end, Edward merely nodded in agreement and murmured, “Yes, Your Eminence.”

“Start preparing a potion or spell that will help me steal this Belthazor’s powers.” The sorcerer glared at the warlocks. “You have the knowledge to create this, I hope.”

Edward turned to Suzanne, who kept her mouth shut. Good. “I’m sure that we’ll be able to, Your Eminence. It’s just a matter of time.”

“We don’t have much time,” the bokor snapped. “Once the potion or spell is completed, inform me.” Dako glanced down at Louis, who was struggling to stand up. “Meanwhile, I will be in my room, meditating. I . . . this mortal. He is still making it impossible for me to completely control him. And have this one,” he pointed at the unfortunate Louis, “deliver my morning meal at sunrise, precisely.” With a frown on his face, the sorcerer disappeared.

Edward heaved a large sigh and turned to Suzanne. “Belthazor. What happened to him, tonight?”

Suzanne responded with a glare. “Don’t blame me! He stood me up, thanks to ‘His Eminence’!”

“All right! No more procrastinating! Make an appointment to see Belthazor, tomorrow. Get him to meet you at the office,” Edward snapped. “We have to get our hands on his powers, as soon as possible!”

* * * *

Cole sat in one of the plush chairs inside the McNeills’ long drawing rooms. His eyes followed Olivia, who was engaged in a telephone call with an agent from the U.S. Customs Office. He had returned to the family’s residence, after dropping off Cecile at Olivia’s apartment.

“Yeah Martin, it has been a long time. Like three weeks,” Olivia was saying. “I guess you heard about Ben Mallard.” She paused. “Yeah, well your boss wasn’t exactly thrilled to see me. What can I say? It was San Francisco PD who stumbled across his body.” Another pause. “What do I want, this time? Marty, why do you always assume I’m after something?” Olivia threw back her head and laughed.

It was a rich, throaty laugh that seemed filled with warmth and promise. For a brief moment, Cole felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. He wandered what this Marty could have said to generate such a response from Olivia. Something personal? Intimate? Deep down, Cole knew he had nothing to worry about, but speculating the reason behind Olivia’s laugh seemed a hell of a lot more preferable than brooding over what was really bothering him.

“Harry’s fine. Gwen and Bruce are upstairs with him.” The statement came from Jack McNeill, who loomed above Cole. “I guess dodging that sorcerer’s attack must have taken a lot out of him.”

His eyes still fixed upon Olivia’s smiling countenance, Cole nodded. “I’m not surprised. This Dako seemed very powerful. Harry’s lucky to be alive.”

Mr. McNeill sat down on the sofa, near Cole’s chair. “I understand that Paige was also lucky. Third-degree burns.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Whew!”

Cole’s gaze wrenched away from Olivia. Mention of Paige’s name brought back memories of Piper and Phoebe’s reaction to his encounter with Dako. He recalled the anger and contempt in their eyes. “Yeah, lucky,” he murmured.

Silence followed, broken only by the sound of Olivia’s voice. She said, “All right, Marty. You got me. I do need a favor. Is there a way for me to get a copy of the S.S. Enigma’s manifest? It had arrived in San Francisco, the day before yesterday. I also need its manifest before it had departed from Singapore.” She paused. “I don’t know. Maybe two weeks ago.” Then, “How soon can I . . .?” Another pause. “That soon?”

“Cole?” The older man’s voice drew Cole’s attention away from Olivia. “Is there something wrong?” He nodded at Olivia. “She and Marty are old friends. He used to work for San Francisco PD. They tend to flirt sometimes, but it’s nothing serious. He’s married.”

Nodding, Cole merely replied, “Oh.” Once the mystery behind Olivia’s relationship with this Marty vanished, Cole’s real reasons behind his blue mood came back in full force.

Still staring at the half-daemon, Mr. McNeill continued, “But that’s not the problem, is it?”

Cole assumed an innocent expression. “What problem?”

Blue-gray eyes bored into the half-daemon’s. The latter squirmed uncomfortably. “Okay Cole, what the hell is really bothering you?” the middle-aged witch gently insisted.

Heaving a large sigh, Cole explained what had occurred inside Harry’s office, about an hour ago. How Piper managed to deflect one of Dako’s attacks and how he did the same, but with different results. “I deflected his electrokinesis right back to him, hitting him in the chest.”

“I know,” Mr. McNeill calmly replied. “Olivia told me what happened.”

Cole continued, “Did she also tell you how Phoebe and Piper had reacted?” He sighed again, as his mind relived that moment, over and over. “Piper . . . well, both she and Phoebe pointed out that I had used unnecessary force to stop Dar . . . uh, Dako. And that I could have killed Darryl.” He shook his head. “You should have seen the look on Phoebe’s face. I never realized until now that I have lost my chances with her. Things will never go back to what it used to be.”

To Cole’s surprise, Mr. McNeill shrugged. “So what? Why should you care about what they think about you? You’re not part of their family, anymore.” He paused. “Unless you plan to change that situation, sometime in the future.”

Cole shook his head. “That’s just it. I don’t see it happening. It’s just . . . I’m tired. I’m tired of taking the blame for all that happened, earlier this year. And I’m tired of their self-righteous crap over everything that I do.”

“Then to hell with them.” Cole stared at Olivia’s father. “Look Cole, I know what you’re going through. I’ve been through the same, myself. Believe me.” Mr. McNeill paused. His eyes assumed a distant air, as if remembering things past. “Her name was Pamela. Pamela Davidoff. I had met her during my first year in college. At first, she seemed like the world to me. I thought that she liked me for myself, Jack McNeill.” A wry smile touched his lips. “I’ve never exactly been a . . . promising child, if you know what I mean. Many other McNeills tend to view me as morally ambiguous and have always disapproved of me. And perhaps they’re right about me. Being the perfect citizen or the perfect witch has never been my forte. Hell, I went through three whitelighters before I was twenty-one.”

The revelation took Cole by surprise. Ever since he had recalled Jack McNeill from his past, he knew that Olivia’s dad was capable of great ruthlessness and intelligence. Yet, he never realized that the witch had such a troubled past.

The other man continued, “My parents, on the other hand, had treated me differently. And thank God, because if they hadn’t, my life would have been hell.”

“What about this Pamela?” Cole asked.

“Well, like I said, I had met her during my first year in college. The McNeills were well-known. Still are. And Pamela’s family didn’t like the idea of us dating, regardless of how much money my family had.” Mr. McNeill added, “The Davidoffs were also witches, by the way. I had met her at a Wicca club. But not many of them had a psychic ability, like the McNeills or the Morgans. As for Pamela, I thought she was different from her family, until I found out differently.” Blue-gray eyes became clouded. “Pamela . . . she found out that I had helped a daemon. This was back in early ’67. The demon name was Marbas . . .” Cole nearly twitched when the other man mentioned the familiar name. “. . . and I helped him after discovering that another daemon was using him as a diversion, in order to steal this pendant. I didn’t bother to vanquish Marbas, since it was obvious that he was being framed. Well, Pamela and her family found out, they hit the roof. She dropped me like a hot potato, making it clear that she regarded me no more than a borderline warlock.”

Cole murmured sympathetically, “I’m sorry. Did you . . . did you try to win her back?”

Mr. McNeill sighed. “Unfortunately, yes. But Pamela wouldn’t have anything to do with me. And I became bitter. I would have stayed that way if hadn’t met Gwen. Who, by the way, had also found out what happened between Marbas and me. But as far as Gwen was concerned, I did right. Marbas was the innocent in that incident, regardless in whether he was a daemon or not. She’s a true Wiccan, by the way. I can’t say the same about a few of my in-laws.”

“And you never saw Pamela again?”

After another shrug, Mr. McNeill continued, “Yeah, I did. Not long after I had met Gwen, she decided that she wanted me back. But in the end, I realized that it was too late for us and I had fallen in love with Gwen, by that time. Don’t get me wrong. I had some happy times with Pam, but she never seemed willing to accept me for myself. And to be honest, I’ve never regretted marrying Gwen. Not in a long shot,” he added with a small smile. Then Mr. McNeill gave Cole a stern look. “As for Phoebe, I don’t know if she’ll ever change, but it’s obvious that unless you’re willing to become the man she wants, she’ll never accept you. Not really. And quite frankly, I think it’s time you stop worrying about what she and her family thinks about you, and live your own life.”

Olivia hung up the telephone, distracting her father and friend from their discussion. She flopped down on the sofa, next to Mr. McNeill. “Why is it that every time I talk to Marty, I end up finding myself in the middle of a bargaining session?”

“Perhaps poor Marty has finally realized that he’s given you one too many favors over the years,” Mr. McNeill replied with a smirk.

“Thanks a lot, Dad!” Olivia shot her father with a mild glare.

The older man’s eyes grew wide with innocence. Cole looked away, as he repressed a smile. The former continued, “So, what was it that you asked Marty for? A manifest?”

“Yeah, one for the S.S. Enigma. I have this suspicion that Dako had somehow arrived on that ship, thanks to the Crozats. Don’t ask me why, but I find it odd that our troubles with both them and Dako had occurred during the same week.”

Cole sat up. “You’re saying that the Crozats might be responsible for this bokor? I guess it’s possible, if they knew someone connected with Vodoun. Especially if the Crozats probably considered us too powerful to deal with, themselves.”

“The problem is,” Olivia added, “that the Crozats might have bitten off more than they can chew. If they have a spell to vanquish Dako . . .”

A short, mirthless laugh escaped from Cole’s mouth. “If they have, it won’t do them any good. They’re missing one important factor.”

“Cecile.”

Cole nodded. “Right. Only a Vodoun houngan or mamba can vanquish Dako. Whoever sent Dako to the Crozats, probably forgotten to mention that one little matter. Or did he?”

* * * *

Piper poured the contents of the pot into a small glass jar. “That’s it,” she declared. “The potion is ready. All we have to do now is find Darryl.”

“And what happens after that?” Phoebe asked. She regarded her sister with anxious eyes. “This potion is only good for freeing Darryl’s body from Whatshisname. How do we vanquish it?”

A sigh left Piper’s mouth. “I don’t know, Phoebe. The Power of Three?”

“What Power of Three? Paige is in the hospital. And we can’t get Leo to heal her without drawing suspicions from the doctors.” Phoebe paused, as she carefully contemplated her next words. “Maybe . . . maybe Olivia was right about Cecile being the only one who can vanquish this spirit. I mean, think about it. Even though her premonitions were being blocked, Cecile managed to detect that something wrong would happen to Darryl. The only premonition I had was one with him at a crime scene. And even when I had been with Paige all morning, I didn’t get one premonition of her being attacked. Yet, Cecile managed to get one, even if she didn’t see the attacker.”

Irritation flitted across Piper’s face. “C’mon Pheebs. Do you really believe that Cecile is the only one of us capable of defeating Dako, just because she’s into Voodoo? If I recall, all of us helped An-Ling defeat Yen-lo inside the Zen Limbo. And you and Paige helped Ava vanquished Orrin when he had the Evil Eye. Using both a Gypsy spell and Wicca magic, I might add.” She plugged the small bottle with a cork. “If Cecile can find some Voodoo spell, I have no problem with using it. But I still think we’ll have just as much chance with success with this.” Piper held up the bottle with a flourish.

“And what about vanquishing that sorcerer?” Phoebe asked.

Piper cocked her head. “Maybe we can’t use the Power of Three, but with the Power of Two and the baby . . .” she patted her slightly protruding belly, “we should do just fine.”

“Yeah. Along with Olivia, Cecile and maybe even Bruce or Mrs. McNeill. Right?” Phoebe added.

Piper’s mouth formed moue. “Yeah,” she replied unenthusiastically. “Right.”

END OF CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Eight) Commentary

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Eight) Commentary

This latest episode of ”THE PACIFIC” managed to affect me in a very emotional way. To my great surprise. And I find this amazing. After all, I knew what it was about – namely John Basilone’s return to active duty, along with his courtship and marriage to fellow Marine, Sergeant Lena Riggi. And I knew how it would end. Yet, Episode Eight had a great emotional impact upon me. 

In a nutshell, the episode began with a glimpse of Eugene Sledge and his fellow 5th Regiment Marines at Pavuvu, recovering from their ordeal on Peleliu. Not much really happened in this little sequence. Eugene discovered that someone had tossed one of the late Captain Haldane’s books into the garbage. He became irritated by ‘Snafu’ Shelton’s claims of coming down with a tropical disease. The sequence ended with Jay De L’Eau informing Sledge and Shelton that he had been transferred to either regimental or company headquarters.

The meat of Episode Eight centered on the last months of one Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. The beginning of the episode featured Basilone and his brothers participating at a radio program at NBC in New York City. Whereas his brothers and the rest of the family seemed thrilled by the Marine’s celebrity, he seemed sick to his stomach. No longer able to deal with the publicity and longing to return to active duty, Basilone reenlisted into the Marines.

He found himself at Camp Pendleton, California; transferred to the Fifth Marines Division. Among the new recruits assigned to his company are future war hero Charles “Chuck” Tatum and Steve Evanson. The two ended up becoming While Basilone prepared them and other recruits for combat, he met the love of his life – Marine Sergeant Lena Piggi. I could say that it was love at first sight for the both of them, but I would be lying. Basilone obviously fell completely in love with Lena. However, she did not seem to want anything to do with him. At first. But when she realized that the war hero had no interest in simply wooing her for the sake of a one-night stand or two during a breakfast date, she finally opened her feelings toward him. After learning that his division was about to be shipped overseas, Basilone proposed marriage to Lena . . . and she accepted. But all good things must come to an end. And it did for Basilone; when he, Tatum, Evanson and the rest of the Fifth Marines landed smack into the violence and chaos of Iwo Jima.

When I had first contemplated Basilone’s fate a few days before Episode Eight had aired, I found myself crying. And I asked myself . . . why? After all, I knew that the Marine hero would die. So, I dismissed my little outburst of emotion and anticipated the episode. And I watched it. I enjoyed Basilone’s interactions with Tatum and Evanson, and their humorous reactions to his training. I especially enjoyed his courtship of Lena and the peek into wartime New York and Southern California. I spent most of the Iwo Jima sequence holding my breath and wincing at the graphic violence that unfolded. But it was not until my family and I discussed the manner of Basilone’s death that I found myself on the verge of tears again. The following day, I found myself thinking about the episode . . . and I cried again.

It finally occurred to me that Episode Eight had an underlying sense of doom that I found slightly depressing. It was interesting that Andrew Haldane’s death, which took me by surprise, barely affected me. Yet, Basilone’s death had a strong impact upon me. Of course it did. I had been emotionally invested in Basilone since the first episode. And Jon Seda’s subtle and spot-on portrayal of the war hero had a lot to do with that. The fact that he found true love just before departing for Iwo Jima made his death all the more poignant. Actress Annie Parisse gave a complex and feisty performance as Basilone’s wife, Lena Riggi Basilone. More importantly, she and Seda created a strong screen chemistry. And I found Ben Esler and Dwight Braswell rather hilarious as the two friends and witnesses to Basilone’s last months, Chuck Tatum and Steve Evanson. In many ways, they almost seemed like a comedy act. It seemed a pity that they would only be featured in this episode.

Many have complained that the Iwo Jima battle sequence could have lasted longer. I honestly do not see how. The episode more or less covered the events leading to his death. And he was killed during the battle’s first day. I believe that screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Michelle Ashford were right to focus most of the episode on his months at Camp Pendleton and his courtship of Lena Riggi. The fact that his death capped a romantic episode made it all more poignant and slightly depressing for me. However, I do have one complaint about the episode – namely the Sledge sequence. I simply found it unnecessary. Unless Episode Nine end up proving otherwise, I could not see how the events on Parvuvu continued Sledge’s story.

But despite the Parvuvu sequence, I still enjoyed Episode Eight. Superficially, it did not seem like it would prove to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. But the love story between John Basilone and Lena Riggi, topped by his death at Iwo Jima, made it – at least for me – one of the most poignant ones in the series.