“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel: 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it. 

Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.

But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view ”NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE – namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.

The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.

Many have compared ”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, ”NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.

The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as ”Master” – the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.

I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.

Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.

Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.

The only problems I had with ”NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.

”NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, ”NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.

One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.

Before I actually saw ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.

I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.

I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for ”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.

Janeway’s Decision in (3.04) “THE SWARM”

 

JANEWAY’S DECISION IN (3.04) “THE SWARM”

Over an hour ago, I had just finished watching the early Season 3 VOYAGER episode, (3.04) “The Swarm”. And after watching it, I was reminded on why I have disliked it so much for so many years. 

Although most of the story focused around Kes’ efforts to save the Doctor’s degrading matrix, the B-plot focused around Voyager’s efforts to cut short fifteen months of their journey by trespassing through the territory of a species named by Voyager’s crew as the Swarm. Now, Tuvok tried to remind Janeway that the territory belonged to these aliens and that they had every right not to allow other travelers through their space. After two seasons, Janeway decided to adopt the “Maquis way” and ignore Tuvok. Instead, she labeled the Swarm as “bullies” – as if that was a sufficient reason for Voyager to trespass into their space.

I am quite certain that most Trek fans would disagree with me, but I found Janeway’s actions to be more of a “bully” than the Swarm. If some aliens had decided to trespass into Federation space, despite Starfleet’s decision to ban them, I bet that both Janeway and Chakotay would be among the first to defend Starfleet’s decision. But being the arrogant Starfleet officers that they were, I guess they decided that they simply lacked the patience to add fifteen months to a journey that already left Voyager with 68 or 69 years left to reach Earth. Fifteen months against 68 or 69 years. Hmmmm. Was Janeway’s effort to ignore the Swarm’s wishes really worth it? Personally . . . I don’t think so.

In the first two seasons, Janeway struggled to rigidly stick to Starfleet protocols. In “The Swarm”, she decided to drop this command style and adopt Chakotay’s method of utilizing “the Maquis way”. This decision eventually led to Janeway’s disasterous alliance with the Borg during their war against Species 8472.

I have read both Jim Wright and Julia Houston’s reviews of this particular episode. Wright practically celebrated Janeway’s decision to ignore Tuvok’s advise and trespass into the Swarm’s territory. Frankly, I was not surprised. During the show’s first three seasons, Wright had made it clear that he disliked Tuvok. In fact, I can only wonder if his dislike of Tuvok had blinded him to Chakotay’s constant taunting of the Vulcan during the show’s first season. Apparently, anything that would cut the Vulcan down to size seemed to satisfy him. And I also noticed that he also seemed to enjoy a vicarious thrill in Janeway telling the Swarm to go fuck themselves. Perhaps her aggressive aggressive move brought back memories of the “good old days” of James Kirk’s arrogant “gunboat diplomacy” attitude toward species hostile toward the Federation.

Then I read Julia Houston’s review. Although she seemed to believe that Tuvok was right in advising Janeway not to invade the Swarm’s territory, a small part of her felt a “twinge of imperialistic satisfaction” that Voyager did it anyway. Apparently, the Swarm’s attitude to keeping invaders at bay irked her. What can I say? I get the feeling that deep down, she was just as thrilled as Wright.

Frankly, I found Janeway’s decision a little repellent. I have never cared for any of the other Starfleet captains’ arrogant attitude toward other aliens. It was this same attitude that led Starfleet to ignore the Dominion’s wishes and invade their space in the Gamma Quadrant in “DEEP SPACE NINE”. A decision that led to a brutal two-year war against the Dominion. I also recalled an ORIGINAL SERIES episode called (1.23) “A Taste of Armageddon” in which Kirk forced two societies to end their war by destroying the computers that had conducted the war, and insisted that Federation society was better than theirs. This act forced the two warring aliens to turn to the Federation in the end. That episode had repelled me just as much as Janeway’s decision in “The Swarm”.

Do not get me wrong. I am a big fan of the STAR TREK franchise. I always have and I always will. But there are some aspects of STAR TREK in all five TV shows that have turned me off. One of those aspects was the habit of Starfleet captains making arrogant decisions against the wishes of those aliens they sometimes encounter. Decisions that the Federation would have definitely resented if some group of aliens had done the same to them. I guess that in their view, what is good for the Federation (or Starfleet) was not good for those other aliens. I find such attitudes rather distasteful.

“Second Power” [PG-13] – 3/8

“SECOND POWER”

PART THREE

A grim-faced Leo orbed in the middle of the Halliwells’ kitchen. Paige, who was busy helping her oldest sister prepare dinner, glanced up. “Hey Leo! You look as if you’ve had a crappy day.” 

“Pretty close.” Leo sat on the empty chair, opposite Paige. Piper stood near the stove, preparing a whole chicken for roasting. “Between helping one of my charges fend off a succubus and the Elders ranting about Olivia and Cole, it’s been pretty difficult.”

Paige paused in the middle of her task, allowing the knife in her hand to hover over a sliced cucumber. She frowned at her brother-in-law. “Ranting about Olivia and Cole? Why? Olivia hasn’t been your charge since she was in college.”

Leo sighed. “But Olivia is a close friend of mine. And they believe that Cole might be a dangerous influence over her. Especially now that she has this new . . . new power.”

“The Elders don’t have anything to worry about,” Paige said caustically. “At least not now.”

Piper whirled around to stare at the younger woman. “What are you talking about?”

“Cole and Olivia. They haven’t been around each other since the New Year.”

Shaking her head, Piper allowed a smirk to curve her lips. “What do you know? Olivia has finally seen the light! It’s about time, I say.”

Paige glared at her older sister. “It’s not what you think!” she retorted. “Actually, it’s . . . well, it’s personal.”

“What’s personal?” a new voice asked. Phoebe strolled into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and reached for a bottle of water. “Hey Piper, what’s for dinner?”

Piper replied, “Roast chicken. And as for the personal matter – Paige was talking about Olivia and your demonic ex. It seems they’re not exactly bosom buddies, anymore.”

Anxiety flitted across Phoebe’s face. “Why? What happened? What did Cole do wrong?”

“Nothing!” Paige cried out in exasperation. “Cole and Olivia . . . they just had a little disagreement around the New Year, that’s all! And they haven’t spoken to each other since. Mr. McNeill thinks Cole should help Livy control her new power.”

Piper rolled her eyes and mumbled, “That’s nice. A powerful half-demon helping a powerful witch control her brand new firepower. The Elders must be having heart attacks over that idea.”

“What they should be concerned about is Olivia’s lack of control of her new power,” Paige shot back. “She really needs his help.”

Phoebe took a swig of water. “Maybe the Elders are right to be concerned, Paige,” she said soberly. “It’s a miracle that Olivia hasn’t become a warlock with that new power.” She paused to stare at Leo. “Or has she?”

“No, she hasn’t!” Paige answered before Leo could speak. “Just because Olivia now has a fire power, doesn’t make her evil.”

One of Piper’s eyebrows quirked upward. “I thought she was evil before the fire power manifested.” Paige glared at her, and she heaved a sigh. “Look, how many witches do you know have pyrokinesis?”

“Barbara knows one who’s willing to help Olivia.” Paige’s response drew stares from the others. “She lives in Sausalito.”

Phoebe asked, “So why do the McNeills think Olivia needs Cole’s help?”

Paige resumed slicing the cucumber. “Because Mr. McNeill thinks this Margot Whatshername’s power isn’t as strong as Olivia’s.”

“I’m sure that Barbara’s friend will do nicely,” Leo added calmly.

The expressions on her sisters’ faces told Paige that they hoped Leo was right. She shook her head in disgust. Sometimes, her family can be so obtuse.

* * * *

A deep gong resonated from the CD player and filled every space inside Olivia’s living room, the following afternoon. GONG! A woman’s high-pitched voice murmured, “Relax. Take a deep breath and relax.” GONG! “Allow the tension to seep from the muscles within your body.” GONG!

Olivia frowned. It seemed pretty damn difficult to relax with that noise ringing in her ears. GONG! And Margot Palmer’s voice did not help. Was it really necessary for her to talk? GONG!

“You are standing at the foot of a long staircase,” Barbara’s friend continued. GONG! “At the top awaits a door. A door that will lead you to inner peace and control.” GONG!

Instead of relaxing, Olivia found herself growing increasingly tense. She wished that someone would turn off that damn CD player! GONG! Then to Olivia’s relief, the doorbell rang. She immediately sprang to her feet. GONG!

“Where are you going?” Margot demanded. She was a diminutive, dark-haired woman with attractive features and wide brown eyes. Like a doe’s. GONG!

Olivia strode toward the door. “To see who’s here, of course. What else?” GONG! She glared at the CD player.

“Oh no! We can’t have any interruptions! Remember?” GONG! Margot rushed forward to intercept Olivia. But the latter reached the door first. GONG! “Olivia, your meditation is more impor . . .”

GONG! Sweetly, Olivia trilled, “Excuse me.” She opened the door. Her smile disappeared at the sight of the tall man that filled the doorway. “Cole?” GONG!

The half-daemon smiled nervously. “Hey Olivia. Uh, how are you doing?” GONG! The sound reached the doorway. Cole frowned. “What is that?” GONG!

“Music,” Olivia snapped. “For my meditation.” GONG! “Now if you’ll excuse me . . .”

Margot Palmer took this opportunity to make her presence known to the new visitor. GONG! “Olivia? What’s going on?” She glanced at Cole. “Who is this?” GONG!

Olivia struggled to maintain her equilibrium. ‘Dear Goddess,’ she thought. ‘Why me?’ GONG! She sighed. “Margot, this is my fr . . . uh, my neighbor, Cole Turner. Cole, this is Margot Palmer, a fellow witch.” GONG!

“Olivia!” Margot glanced at her, looking abashed. GONG!

“Don’t worry. Cole knows I’m a witch.” GONG!

Margot stared at Cole, who smiled. “And what exactly are you?” she demanded in a not-so-pleasant voice. GONG! “Another witch?”

GONG! “Not exactly,” Cole politely replied. “I’m a daemon. Well, a half-daemon, actually.” GONG!

“WHAT??”

Olivia nervously tried to placate Margot. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” GONG! She indicated her neighbor with a nod. “Cole . . . you have nothing to worry about with him.” GONG! “He’s okay.”

GONG! “Okay?” Margot demanded. “But he’s a . . . a . . .” GONG!

“A daemon.” GONG! Right on cue, Cole transformed into some tall, muscular being with red-and-black skin, sharp teeth and a bald head. Belthazor. GONG! Olivia had seen his image in her father’s Book of Shadows. GONG! He returned to his normal state.

Margot let out a screech. “Aaaaugh! Oh my God! Oh my God!” GONG! She snatched her purse from a nearby table and started toward the door. GONG!

“No wait! Margot!” GONG! Olivia threw one of her hands out in a gesture, releasing a powerful burst of flames. GONG! Flames that would have incinerated Margot if Cole had not beamed her out of harm’s way. Seconds later, the pair reappeared in the same spot. GONG!

The older witch cried out, “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this madhouse!” GONG! “You can find someone else to help you!” Margot dashed out of the apartment. The CD player resonated with another . . . GONG!

Without saying a word, Olivia slammed the door shut. She seared Cole with the deadliest of glares. GONG! Even the half-daemon could not help but take a step back. “You son-of-a-bitch!” she growled. GONG! “Just what in the hell did you think you were doing?” GONG!

“I’m here to help you gain control of your new power,” Cole replied airily. GONG! “Only Harry failed to tell me that you had already found someone.” GONG! He frowned at the CD player. “You mind turning that off? It’s distracting.” GONG!

Olivia turned off the CD player with a wave of her hand. Then whirled upon Cole, fury emanating from her body. “Harry sent you here? Harry?”

“I ran into him at the Golden Horn during lunch, yesterday.” Cole started toward the sofa. “He told me that you have pyrokinesis as a second power.” A mirthful snort left his mouth. “I bet that didn’t sit well with Leo.”

“Cole!”

The half-daemon sat on the sofa. “Look, Harry told me that you were having trouble controlling this power and that you needed my help.”

“And it took you over a day to decide to help me?” Olivia demanded haughtily.

Annoyance, followed by sheer embarrassment flitted across Cole’s face. “I didn’t . . . well, I didn’t think you would accept my help.”

“You guessed right!” Olivia retorted. “I don’t need your help. And I don’t want it! And I don’t recall giving you permission to sit on my sofa!”

Cole heaved a sigh. “C’mon Livy, I realize that you’re still pissed about what happened during the New Year. You’re not going to push me away, when I’m offering you my help, are you?”

Olivia grabbed hold of Cole’s arm and jerked him to his feet. Surprising him with her show of strength. “Damn right I am. I’m pushing you away. Just like you pushed me away, two weeks ago.” She literally shoved him toward the door.

“Are you sure that you want to do that?” Cole stopped in his tracks, making it difficult for Olivia to continue shoving him. “Who else is there to help you? Your friend, Margot? This is fire we’re talking about, Olivia. It’s probably the most difficult element to control, aside from air.”

Olivia snarled. “If Bruce can control his aerokinesis without your help, I can control my pyrokinesis. And by the way, Margot is not my friend.”

“Whatever.” Cole turned around to face Olivia, giving her the full benefit of his blue eyes. “Look I’m sorry about Whats-her-name. But it’s obvious that she wasn’t really helping you. I mean, who uses gongs for meditation? Didn’t you find that distracting?”

With a sigh, Olivia had to admit that Cole had a point. Margot’s methods of attaining self-control had not seemed to be working. And the firewitch had also seemed taken aback by the strength of her pyrokinesis. “All right,” Olivia finally admitted. “Perhaps you can help me.”

Cole smiled triumphantly. “Great!”

She glanced at the half-daemon and noticed that he was smiling. “I wouldn’t get too cocky if I were you. I’m still pissed.”

Her words wiped the smile off Cole’s face. “Olivia, about what happened . . .”

Shaking her head, Olivia barked, “No! Right now, I’m not interested in what happened on New Year’s Day. I’m more interested in controlling this new power. Understand?” She gave her new trainer a pointed stare.

Cole sighed. “Loud and clear.”

* * * *

The telephone inside Jack McNeill’s private office rang. He answered it. “Hello?”

“Mr. McNeill, you have a call on Line 2,” his secretary replied. “It’s your mother.”

“Thanks, Sophie. Put her through.”

Seconds later, Elise McNeill’s voice filled Jack’s ear. “Jack? Is that you?”

“Mom! How is Palm Beach?” The McNeill matriarch had left San Francisco over a month ago, to visit her sister in Palm Springs.

The elderly woman replied, “It wasn’t bad. Got a little boring, though. Right now, I’m in Scotland.”

“Scotland?”

“Your Cousin Keith’s funeral. Remember?” Elise continued, “I decided to remain here for another week or so after the burial. She added that the inhabitants of Dunleith Castle seemed to be on edge. “With poor Keith’s death, we’re all wondering who will be the next McNeill staff bearer.”

Jack interrupted. “Mom?”

The elderly woman continued, “It’s rather silly, really. Everyone sitting around . . . waiting for some of the younger members to manifest pyrokinesis.”

“Uh Mom?” Jack added. “I believe I have a pretty good idea . . .”

“Really Jack! Can’t you at least wait for me to finish?” Elise protested. She added, “Anyway, as I was saying, everyone is sitting around, waiting for some of the younger family members to become a firestarter. Quite frankly, I’m getting bored. January in Scotland isn’t exactly my idea of a holiday. I think I’ll return to California by the end of the week. I’m not exactly in the mood for more Palm Beach charity balls and parties, either.” She paused. Finally. “Well, how are things at home?”

Jack rolled his eyes, grateful that his mother could not see him. He took a deep breath. “Nothing much. Harry is dating Dana Morton. We haven’t seen Cole since the New Year.” He paused dramatically. “And Olivia’s second power has manifested.”

A delighted squeal filled Jack’s ear. “Really? Livy has her second power? Oh and I missed it! What is it? Molecular Immobilization? Telepathy? Electrokinesis? Glamoring? Astral projection?”

Jack hesitated before he finally answered, “Pyrokinesis. And it’s very strong.”

“Pyrokin . . .” A protracted silence followed. Then, “OH. MY. GOD!! Livy has a fire power? Ohmigod! That means . . . Ohmigod!”

“Mom!”

Elise continued, “And it happened just ten days after Keith’s death!” She paused. “Does Olivia realize that she might soon be . . .?”

Sighing, Jack replied, “No. I don’t Livy and the boys have even thought of that since they were kids. Hell, I thought it was a family myth until I first saw Cousin Keith use it nearly thirty-six years ago.”

“When do you plan to tell her?”

Jack paused momentarily. “As soon as she gets her new power under control. I mean, we’re talking abou pyrokinesis here. Only the God and Goddess knows how long that will take. And . . .” Once more, Jack hesitated.

“What?” the older woman demanded.

Jack continued, “Gwen thinks that Olivia is going through some emotional stress right now. Something to do with Cole.”

“Oh?” Elise replied. “Has it to do with . . . Whatshername? Phoebe?”

“I don’t know. But it all started at Warren Mitchell’s New Year’s Eve party. The problem is that Cole might be the only one who can help her control this new power.”

A sound resembling dry leaves filled Jack’s ear. “Oh God! Why do we all have through some damn personal problem whenever a power manifests?” Elise sighed. “Anyway, I’ll be home within the next few days. At least by Saturday. I better tell the cousins about Olivia. See you in a few days, honey.”

“Bye Mom. I’ll see you.” The line went dead before Jack hung up.

END OF PART THREE

“RED” (2010) Review

“RED” (2010) Review

Loosely inspired by the three-part DC Comics comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, ”RED” told the story about a former black-ops C.I.A. agent named Frank Moses, who reassembles his old team in a last ditch effort to survive a series of assassination attempts on him. Thanks to one member of his team, Marvin Boggs, Frank learns that a mysterious figure is sending both assassins and a C.I.A. black-ops agent named William Cooper to wipe out all members of a secret mission in Guatemala that Frank participated in back in 1981.

”RED” turned out to be a pretty solid action-comedy film that greatly benefitted from veteran cast members that included Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss. The cast also included the likes of Mary Louise Parker, Julian McMahon and Karl Urban. Surprisingly, the only members of the cast that seemed to have a persistent presence throughout the movie were Willis (the main star), Parker, Malkovich and Urban. Everyone else seemed to be making cameo or guest appearances in the movie. Regardless of the amount of time spent in the movie, each cast member gave a first-class performance in the movie. I was especially impressed by Willis as the weary ex-agent who is stimulated back into life at the prospect of learning the identity of the person behind the assassination attempts upon him. Malkovich gave my favorite performance as the paranoid Marvin Boggs, who seemingly ridiculous theories about any potential danger end up being correct. And I also enjoyed Helen Mirren as a former MI-6 assassin Victoria, who seemed just as thrilled as Frank to be back in action.

German-born Robert Schwentke displayed a quirky sense of humor in his direction of”RED”. I had expected some humor in the movie, but Schwentke stylized the violence in a way that reminded me of movies like ”PAYBACK” or ”SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD”. Scribes Jon and Erich Hoeber did a solid job in adapting Ellis and Hammer’s comic tale. Some fans of the comic novel may have taken umbrage at their loose adaptation. But since I have never read the three comic books . . . . it did not bother me that much. However, I found the showdown inside the Chicago hotel parking garage rather confusing. The overall action did not confuse me, but the main villain’s reasoning and personal actions did. This did not ruin the movie for me, but it came damn close. Overall, ”RED” was a pretty solid movie, but I have seen better comic films.

“THE TOWN” (2010) Review

“THE TOWN” (2010) Review

I have never seen “GONE BABY GONE”, Ben Affleck’s debut as a movie director. But after seeing his second directorial effort, “THE TOWN”, I now find myself feeling determined to see it. Why? I believe that Affleck just might have a possible future as a successful movie director. 

Based upon Chuck Hogan’s 2007 novel called “Prince of Thieves”“THE TOWN” turned out to be an interesting crime drama about a working-class Bostonian from the Charlestown neighborhood named Doug MacRay (Affleck), who also happened to be part of a gang of brutal bank robbers. Their robbery of a Cambridge bank at the beginning of the movie allowed him to become acquainted with Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), one of the bank’s managers. Doug and his fellow bank robbers (Jeremy Renner, Slaine and Owen Burke) also attracted the attention of one Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), a ruthless FBI agent bent upon capturing or killing them.

I have never read Hogan’s novel. But I must admit that I really enjoyed Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard’s adaptation of it. One aspect of the movie that impressed me was its balanced mixture of action, romance and psychological drama. In fact, I found myself surprised that as the film’s director, Afflect managed to utilize all of these different aspects of the story and keep the pacing from becoming uneven. Another aspect of the movie turned out to be Robert Elswit’s photography. His sharp colors and focus gave Boston – including its old sections – a colorful look that made me longed to pack my belongings and move to the East Coast. Dylan Tichenor’s editing perfectly emphasized the movie’s action sequences without resorting to the dizzying camera work and quick cuts that seemed to have pervaded many action films in the past three to five years.

There were some aspects of “THE TOWN” that I found questionable. The movie never explained the military-style haircuts worn by the four bank robbers. The script revealed that the MacRay character had spent some time in the military, but never made it clear when that happened. Nor did the script ever revealed the background of MacRay’s friends, especially his best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Renner). And as much as I admire Jon Hamm as an actor, his attempt at a Boston accent sucked. Although he only made an attempt in one scene, Affleck should have reshot that scene with Hamm’s natural accent. Speaking of accents, there were moments when I found the cast’s use of Boston slang rather incomprehensible. I certainly look forward to the movie’s DVD release . . . and close captions.

Unlike his directorial debut “GONE BABY GONE”, Ben Affleck did not remain behind the camera. He also portrayed the main character, Doug MacRay. And he did an excellent job in portraying the complex bank robber torn between his life of crime, the woman he fell in love with and the lies he told to maintain their relationship. I have always enjoyed Affleck’s ability to portray complex characters. It seems a pity that many film critics and moviegoers seemed incapable of appreciating his talents as an actor. Although I have been aware of Rebecca Hall since “VICKY BARCELONA”, I must admit that I have not found her recent roles very interesting. I almost came to the same conclusion about her role as bank manager Claire Keesey . . . until the moment when she discovered the truth about Doug’s crimes. At that moment, Hall breathed life into the role, transforming her from what would be conceived as a nice woman, into a character that proved to be just as complex as the others.

Jon Hamm took time off from his hit television series, “MAD MEN” to portray F.B.I. Special Agent Adam Frawley, a character completely different from his 1960s ad man. And being the top notch actor he has always been, Hamm did a superb job in conveying his character’s ruthless determination to stop the bank robbers by any means necessary. Recent Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner portrayed an equally ruthless character, Charlestown bank robber, James “Jem” Coughlin, with great depth, complexity and first-rate acting. What made Renner’s performance so interesting to me was his character’s ruthless determination to maintain the status quo in his personal life – which included keeping MacRay in his life and in his sister’s life. Speaking of the latter, Blake Lively gave an outstanding performance as Krista Coughlin, Jem’s younger sister. Lively’s excellent performance easily conveyed her character’s weariness and desperate longing for MacRay to be in her life and to escape the economic and social trap of Charlestown.

Veteran actors Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite gave brief, yet top-notch performances in “THE TOWN”. What I found ironic about their appearances was that their characters had something to say to Affleck’s MacRay about his mother. Cooper portrayed Stephen MacRay, Doug’s jailbird father, who was serving a life-long prison term for robbery and murder. Postlethwaite portrayed Fergie the Florist, an Irish-born florist and crime boss that provided robbery jobs for MacRay and his crew. As I had stated earlier, both characters had something to say about the late Mrs. MacRay. Whereas Mr. MacRay’s memories were filled with cynicism and resignation, Fergie spoke of Doug’s mother with a great deal of malice and contempt. And both Cooper and Postlethwaite were superb in their roles.

Despite a few quibbles I might have about “THE TOWN”, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much. The movie turned out to be a first-rate adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel with an excellent script, exciting action sequences and superb acting by a well-picked cast. Because of “THE TOWN”, I look forward to more directing endeavors by Ben Affleck.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

“Second Power” [PG-13] – 2/8

“SECOND POWER”

PART TWO

Seconds after leaving the McNeill house, Leo orbed before the Elders’ Council. Judging by their expressions, none of the Elders seemed pleased. “Well?” one of them demanded. It was Sylvester, one of the Council’s veteran members. His dark eyes bored into Leo’s. “Does the McNeill witch have a fire power or not?”

Leo nodded. “Uh yes. Yes, she does.” Anxious voices filled the chamber. “But none of the McNeills seem concerned. According to Olivia’s father, she’s not the first in her family to receive pyrokinesis.”

“We are well aware of that fact,” another Elder replied tartly. It was MacKenzie. The white-haired, thin man also happened to be a veteran council member. “Which is one of the reasons why we have been leery of the McNeill family for centuries. Along with their . . . unconventional approach to the Craft, pyrokinesis has always been rather . . . strong in their line. And we’re not thrilled that this particular McNeill happens to be very close to that . . . to Belthazor.”

Discomfort surged through Leo. He shifted from one foot to another. “Uh, speaking of Bel . . . um, Cole, Olivia’s parents have suggested that he help her control her new power.”

Again, anxious voices filled the chamber. Only they seemed to rumble louder. Sylvester cried out, “Have that demon teach your witch to control her fire power? Are you insane?”

Leo found the Elders’ reaction toward Olivia and Cole baffling. Granted, he was never particularly thrilled about their relationship. But the Elders had never said a word about Phoebe and Cole. Why were they so antagonistic toward this new relationship? He finally expressed his confusion. “Olivia is no longer my charge. She hasn’t been my charge in over twelve years. I don’t understand. You were never this concerned about Cole and Phoebe.”

A pale, dark-haired woman in her late thirties spoke up. “That is due to the fact that as Belthazor, and later as the Source, he could be stopped by the Charmed Ones. In case he became a threat.” Elder Mathilda Wells had been an Elder for over 300 years. “We knew that Belthazor would play a part in the Charmed Ones’ destiny to destroy the Source. But now,” she gave her head a sad shake, “his new powers make him an undetermined threat.”

“Belthazor’s relationship with the McNeill witch might prove to be an even bigger threat,” MacKenzie added. “Now that she has this new power.”

Leo could not believe his ears. The Elders actually considered Olivia and Cole a threat! Why? “I . . .” he began.

“We have no say about the witch’s new power,” Sylvester said, interrupting Leo. He leaned forward, his dark eyes glittering in a manner that made the whitelighter nervous. “But her relationship with Belthazor is another matter. Nip it in the bud, Leo. Now! I realize that she is no longer your charge. But she is still a friend of yours, I believe. Use your influence and do something about her relationship with Belthazor. Before we all find ourselves in serious danger!”

* * * *

“I just spoke with Margot,” Barbara’s voice announced over the telephone. “I told her about your new power and she has agreed to help you learn to control it.”

Olivia heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks Barb. You’ve been a real help.”

Her future sister-in-law added, “Of course, I still don’t understand why you won’t ask Cole to help you. He is your best cha . . .”

“Barbara?” Olivia’s voice came out sharper than she had intended. “I’ve made my decision about Cole. Okay?”

But the other woman refused to dismiss the subject. “If you say so. But if you think I don’t know why you’re avoiding him, you’re mistaken. After all, I was also at that party. And so was Bruce.”

Silence fell between the two friends. Olivia’s first instinct was to lambaste her friend. But realizing that the ugly truth might rear its head, she decided to ignore the topic of one Cole Turner. “So, when will Margot be available?”

Barbara sighed. “Tomorrow, on Tuesday. She has a doctor’s appointment, today. Margot said to expect her around eleven in the morning.”

“Great. I’ll be expecting her.” The two friends exchanged a few more words before finally hanging up. Seconds later, Olivia dialed another number.

The telephone rang several times before a voice on the other end of the line answered. “San Francisco PD. Homicide. Inspector Morris speaking.”

“Hi Darryl, this is Olivia. I’m calling in sick, today. In fact, I might be out of the office, all week. Could you transfer me to the Captain?”

A pause followed before Darryl answered, “McPherson’s not in, right now. He’s at a Division meeting. Uh, are you okay? You have a cold or something?”

“It’s a lot worse than a cold,” Olivia answered ominously. “Let’s just say that it’s something I don’t want to be exposed at the office.”

“Oh. I see.” Darryl hesitated. “Well, uh I hope you get . . . you get better. See you in a week?”

Olivia sighed. “Hopefully. Catch you later, Darryl. Bye.”

“Take care, partner.” The line went dead.

Another sigh left Olivia’s mouth, as she disconnected her telephone. Then she took a deep breath and sat down in the middle of the floor. Meditation, Mom and Dad had said. Meditation and practice of her new power. Her new power, which consisted of fire. Deep down, Olivia knew who was the best person to help her. But she was damned if she would beg to Cole Turner for help. Not after he had humiliated her at Warren Mitchell’s New Year’s party.

Olivia felt the surging anger within her, as she recalled the kiss she and Cole had exchanged. A sensuous kiss, soft and light, yet filled with passion. For a few brief moments, Olivia believed that Cole harbored more than friendship toward her. Until . . . until he ended the kiss. Pushed her away with such abruptness. Was the idea of kissing her so repugnant to him?

Her anger continued to build. The more she brooded on the half-demon, the more difficult it became for Olivia to keep her emotions in check. ‘Calm down’ she told herself. ‘Relax. Or else you’ll end up torching the entire building.’ Olivia took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

“O eternal Goddess, Maiden, Mother and Crone, I am made from your flesh and you know me better than I know myself.”

Images of the New Year’s ball popped into Olivia’s mind. Images of guests glancing at the clock on the far wall, while seconds ticked toward midnight.

“You understand depression, frustration, and anxiety. Please help me to control these emotions, and help me to convert these powerful feelings into love. O eternal God, King of infinite wisdom and goodness, I am created from your essence, and I thank you for the gift of life.”

Olivia tried to suppress further memories of the New Year, but they continued to flood her mind. She saw the second’s hand reach the number twelve. Heard everyone cry out, “Happy New Year!” And the band began to play “Auld Lang Syne”.

“Please teach me to be patient and humble, tolerant and gentle, especially when life’s problems become heavy and difficult to bear. So Mote It Be.”

More images flashed in her thoughts. Olivia saw couples kissing. She saw her and Cole face each other with eyes filled with doubt, confusion and longing. She felt Cole’s warm lips press against hers and relived the memory of the heat and desire that radiated from those lips. Most of all, recalled the rough manner in which he had pushed her away . . . and the horrified expression stamped on his face.

Anger and embarrassment resurged within Olivia within a blink of an eye. And she quickly forgot about her attempts at meditation. Blue lights materialized in the air and converged into the form of one Paige Matthews.

“Hey Olivia! How’s the . . .?” The Charmed One broke off as a stream of fire rushed toward her head. Paige orbed away from the line of fire and reappeared behind the older witch. “What the hell?”

Olivia lowered her hand and heaved a huge sigh. “Dammit Paige!” she cried. “Haven’t you heard of knocking? I could have killed you!”

“Sorry,” the younger woman replied. “Bad habit.”

“Really? Then why don’t you try learning how to break it?”

Paige stared at Olivia through narrowed eyes. “My, we’re in a real snit, this morning. I guess your meditation isn’t helping after all.”

Another sigh left Olivia’s mouth. “No, I . . . I’m sorry. I guess I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever have control of this damn power.” She rose from the floor and stalked toward the kitchen. “You want something to drink? I’ve got lemonade.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Paige followed the older woman. “Hey, if you’re having so much trouble, maybe it’s due to some . . .” She sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. “Are you going through some emotional problems, now? Phoebe was having trouble with her powers, last fall. While she was dealing with Cole’s . . . uh, you know, return.”

Olivia removed a pitcher of lemonade from the fridge. “Are you saying that I’m now going through the same problems?” She retrieved two glasses from the cabinet and filled them with lemonade, before handing one to Paige.

Paige took a deep breath. “Maybe you are. I mean I haven’t seen you and Cole together for two weeks. And you can barely meditate, let alone control your new power.” Her eyes fell upon the glass in her hand. “Maybe you and Cole should um, . . . you know, deal with whatever is driving you two apart.”

Silence filled the air. Olivia took a sip of lemonade. So did Paige. The older woman hated to admit that perhaps the latter was right. Not because the younger woman’s wisdom seemed so obvious. Olivia simply hated the idea of reliving that humiliating moment from two weeks ago.

“But if you don’t want to talk about any problems you might have,” Paige began.

Olivia finished the rest of her drink in several gulps. She sighed. “No, you’re right. The only way to deal with this new power is to deal with whatever is bothering me.”

“Namely Cole.”

The older witch gave her younger guest a shrewd glance. “Gee, how did you guess?”

Paige shrugged. “Like I said, I haven’t seen you and Cole together in quite a while. And you seemed to get this look on your face, whenever someone mentions his name.”

“Okay, I get the picture,” Olivia snapped, as she poured herself another glass of lemonade. “In regard to Cole . . . it’s not what you might think. He hasn’t done anything one would consider . . . demonic. Or evil.”

Nodding, Paige replied, “Yeah, I kind of figured that. Or else Leo would have told us. Or we would all be dead.”

Olivia shot Paige a dark look. “My, that Halliwell wit is in top form, today. Isn’t it?”

“I wasn’t being witty,” Paige protested.

“I noticed.”

Paige heaved a frustrated sigh. “Olivia! C’mon! Be serious! Why are you so reluctant to get Cole’s help? What did he do to piss you off?”

After a few more sips of lemonade, Olivia revealed the events between her and Cole, at Warren Mitchell’s New Year party. Surprise, shock . . . and a little pity flashed in the Charmed One’s dark eyes. “Gee! No wonder you’re pissed! I would be too. How humiliating!”

“No kidding,” Olivia retorted. “Now, you understand why I refuse to ask for Cole’s help.”

Paige nodded. “Yeah, I understand. But I still think you should ask for his help, anyway.”

“What?”

“C’mon Livy,” Paige continued, “it’s like your dad said. You have pyrokinesis and it’s very powerful. How many witches do you know have a fire power at that level?”

Was it really difficult to accept that a novice witch (no matter how powerful) that was six years younger could dish out such wise advice? Olivia pondered over the possibility. But only for a moment. Since Paige happened to be younger and less experienced in life . . .

“Screw Cole!” the redhead spewed. “Barbara has already found someone to help me. She’s a fire witch from Sausalito named Margot Palmer and she’ll be here, tomorrow morning.” Olivia finished her second glass of lemonade. “So, contrary to what everyone else says, I don’t need Cole’s help. Nor do I need him in my life!”

Olivia glanced at Paige, who merely shook her head and sighed. “Oh well, I only hope that you don’t end up incinerating this Margot person by the end of the week.”

* * * *

The Golden Horn Restaurant bustled with activity during the early afternoon. Among the patrons inside the elegant restaurant, sat Cole and his latest client, one Mark Giovanni. The two men sat next to one of the large windows that overlooked the city of San Francisco and the bay.

“This Chardonnay is quite good,” Giovanni commented. He was a slender, dark-haired man of medium height. Although a year short of forty and not quite handsome, Giovanni possessed a pair of dark eyes that many have found compelling. Intense. “Good, but I’m sure that my own Chardonnay could top it.”

Cole nodded. “I’ve heard of your Chardonnay. It’s world famous, isn’t it?”

“Well, not quite famous,” the wine grower said with a modesty that failed to reach his eyes. “I believe that the BAY-MIRROR’s article may have been a bit exaggerated.”

“Hmmm.” From the corner of his eye, Cole spotted someone entering the restaurant. Someone with familiar red hair and green eyes.

Giovanni’s eyes followed Cole’s gaze. “Well! I do believe that the owner’s other son has graced us with his presence. I just saw him last week, at Cordelia Morton’s party. Gwen McNeill’s son, isn’t he?”

“He is,” Cole added curtly. “Younger son. Harry.”

The person in question glanced at the two men and nodded. Then he returned his attention to his beautiful companion. Cole and Giovanni continued to stare. “That’s Cordelia’s daughter he’s with, the latter said. “What’s her name? Dana. Dana Morton. Quite a looker. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that dynastic ties were being formed between the McNeills and the Mortons.”

“Speaking of dynasties, Mr. Giovanni,” Cole began, “let’s talk about saving yours. Namely a certain piece of property, outside Oakville.” A contrite Giovanni nodded and the discussion returned to business.

Twenty-five minutes later, the two men finished their meals. The wine grower excused himself and disappeared toward the men’s restroom. Cole leaned back and enjoyed the last of his Chardonnay. A shadow cast over the table. Cole glanced up and frowned. “Harry?”

“Cole.” The twenty-five year-old witch sat down in Giovanni’s empty chair. He flashed the half-demon a wary smile. “It’s been a while. Like two weeks. So, where have you been?”

A wave of embarrassment washed over Cole. “I . . . uh, I’ve been busy. Lately.”

“Uh-huh. Including Saturdays and Sundays?”

Cole sighed. “Yeah, Harry. Even on Sundays. I’ve been very busy on Sundays. Taking long drives up the coast,” he began sarcastically. “Sitting home and getting drunk on martinis.”

The redhead’s handsome face grew tight. Expressionless. “Sorry. Didn’t realize that my company was getting on your last nerve.”

“Harry, you didn’t . . . I mean . . .” Again, Cole sighed. “Look, I’m sorry that I snapped back like that.”

“It’s nothing,” Harry coolly replied. He shot a quick glance at his companion. “I better leave. I think Dana is getting impatient.” He stood up. “Look, before I go, I thought you would like to know that Olivia had just received her second power. Yesterday.”

Cole shot up in his seat, his attention focused on the younger man. “Second power? Olivia? What is it?” he demanded, frowning.

“I didn’t think you would be interested.”

Exasperated, Cole growled, “Harry!”

The youngest McNeill shrugged. “Okay, okay. Olivia now has a fire power. Pyrokinesis. And it’s very strong.”

Pyrokinesis? Speechless, Cole allowed his eyes to grow wide with shock.

END OF CHAPTER TWO

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

From the numerous articles and essays I have read on-line, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, “Mansfield Park” did not seemed to be a big favorite amongst the author’s modern fans. In fact, opinions of the novel and its heroine, Fanny Price, seemed just as divided today, as they had been by Austen’s own family back in the early 19th century.

When director-writer Patricia Rozema was offered the assignment to direct a film adaptation of “Mansfield Park”, she had originally rejected it. She claimed that she found both the novel and the Fanny Price character unappealing. In the end, she changed her mind on the grounds that she wrote her own screen adaptation. The result turned out to be an adaptation filled with a good deal of changes from Austen’s original text. Changes that have proven to be controversial to this day.

One obvious change that Rozema had made centered on the heroine’s personality. Rozema’s script allowed actress Frances O’Connor to portray Fanny as a talented writer with a lively wit and quick temper. Mind you, Rozema’s Fanny continued to be the story’s bastion of morality – only with what many would view as sass. Rozema also allowed the Edmund Bertram character to become romantically aware of Fanny a lot sooner than the character did in the novel. Because of this revision, actor Jonny Lee Miller portrayed an Edmund who seemed a bit livelier and less priggish than his literary counterpart. Characters like the Crawfords’ half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, failed to make an appearance. Fanny’s older brother, William Price, ceased to exist. And in this adaptation, Fanny eventually accepted Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal during her stay in Portsmouth, before rejecting it the following day.

But the biggest change made by Rozema had involved the topic of slavery. The writer-director allowed the topic to permeate the movie. Austen’s novel described Fanny’s uncle by marriage, Sir Thomas Bertram, as the owner of a plantation on the island of Antigua. Due to a financial crisis, Sir Thomas was forced to depart for Antigua for a certain period of time with his oldest son as a companion. Upon his return to England and Mansfield Park, Fanny asked him a question regarding his slaves. Sir Thomas and the rest of the family responded with uncomfortable silence. Rozema utilized the Bertrams’ connection to African slavery to emphasize their questionable morality and possible corruption. She also used this connection to emphasize Fanny’s position as a woman, a poor relation, and her semi-servile position within the Mansfield Park household. Rozema used the slavery connection with a heavier hand in scenes that included Fanny hearing the cries of slaves approaching the English coast during her journey to Mansfield Park; a discussion initiated by Sir Thomas on breeding mulattoes; Edmund’s comments about the family and Fanny’s dependence upon the Antigua plantation; oldest son Tom Bertram’s revulsion toward this dependence and graphic drawings of brutalized slaves. These overt allusions to British slavery ended up leaving many critics and Austen fans up in arms.

One aspect of  “MANSFIELD PARK” that impressed me turned out to be the movie’s production values. I found the production crew’s use of an abandoned manor house called Kirby Hall to be very interesting. Rozema, along with cinematographer Michael Coulter and production designer Christopher Hobbs, used the house’s abandoned state and cream-colored walls to convey a corrupt atmosphere as an allusion to the Bertrams’ financial connection to slavery. Hobbes further established that slightly corrupted air by sparsely furnishing the house. I also found Coulter’s use the Cornish town of Charlestown as a stand-in for the early 19th century Portmouth as very picturesque. And I especially enjoyed his photography, along with Martin Walsh’s editing in the lively sequence featuring the Bertrams’ ball held in Fanny’s honor. On the whole, Coulter’s photography struck me as colorful and imaginative. The only bleak spot in the movie’s production values seemed to be Andrea Galer’s costume designs. There was nothing wrong with them, but I must admit that they failed to capture my imagination.

I cannot deny that I found “MANSFIELD PARK” to be enjoyable and interesting. Nor can I deny that Rozema had injected a great deal of energy into Austen’s plot, something that the 1983 miniseries failed to do. Rozema removed several scenes from Austen’s novel. This allowed the movie to convey Austen’s story with a running time of 112 minutes. These deleted scenes included the Bertrams and Crawfords’ visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton; and Fanny’s criticism of Mary Crawford’s caustic remarks about her uncle. This did not bother me, for I feel that such editing may have tightened the movie’s pacing. Other improvements that Rozema made – at least in my eyes – were changes in some of the characters. Fanny became a livelier personality and at the same time, managed to remain slightly oppressed by her position at Mansfield Park. Both Edmund and Henry were portrayed in a more complex and attractive light. And Tom Bertram’s portrayal as the family’s voice of moral outrage against their connection to black slavery struck me as very effective. In fact, I had no problem with Rozema’s use of slavery in the story. I am not one of those who believed that she should have toned it down to the same level as Austen had – merely using the topic as an allusion to Fanny’s situation with the Bertrams. Austen opened Pandora’s Box by briefly touching upon the topic in her novel in the first place. As far as I am concerned, there was no law that Rozema or any other filmmaker had to allude to the topic in the same manner.

However, not all of Rozema’s changes impressed me. Why was it necessary to have Henry Crawford request that he rent the nearby parsonage, when his half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, resided there in the novel? If Rozema had kept the Grants in her adaptation, this would not have happened. Nor did I understand Sir Thomas’ invitation to allow the Crawfords to reside at Mansfield Park, when Henry had his own estate in Norfolk. I suspect that Sir Thomas’ invitation was nothing more than a set up for Fanny to witness Henry making love to Maria Bertram Rushworth in her bedroom. Now, I realize that Henry is supposed to be some hot-to-trot Regency rake with an eye for women. But I simply found it implausible that he would be stupid enough to have illicit sex with his host’s married daughter. And why did Maria spend the night at Mansfield Park, when her husband’s own home, Sotherton, was located in the same neighborhood? And why was Fanny in tears over her little “discovery”? She did not love Henry. Did the sight of two people having sex disturb her? If so, why did she fail to react in a similar manner upon discovering Tom’s drawings of female slaves being raped?

Many fans had complained about Fanny’s acceptance of Henry’s marriage proposal during the visit to Portmouth. I did not, for it allowed an opportunity for Fanny’s own hypocrisy to be revealed. After all, she claimed that Henry’s moral compass made her distrustful of him. Yet, upon her rejection of him; Henry exposed her as a liar and hypocrite, claiming the real reason behind her rejection had more to do with her love for Edumund. Unfortunately . . . Rozema seemed determined not to examine Fanny’s exposed hypocrisy and dismissed it with an intimate scene between her and Edmund; the revelation of Henry’s affair with Maria; and Edmund’s rejection of Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford.

This last scene regarding Edmund’s rejection of Mary revealed how truly heavy-handed Rozema could be as a filmmaker. In Austen’s novel, Edmund had rejected Mary, due to her refusal to condemn Henry for his affair with Maria and her plans to save the Bertrams and Crawfords’ social positions with a marriage between Henry and the still married Maria. Mary’s plans bore a strong resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s successful efforts to save the Bennet family’s reputation following Lydia Bennet’s elopement with George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Edmund rejected Mary after she revealed her plans to save the Bertrams from any scandal caused by the Henry/Maria affair – plans that included the eventual demise of a seriously ill Tom. The moment those words anticipating Tom’s death poured from Mary’s mouth, I stared at the screen in disbelief. No person with any intelligence would discuss the possible demise of a loved one in front of his family, as if it was a topic in a business meeting. I never got the impression that both the literary and cinematic Mary Crawford would be that stupid. In this scene, I believe that Rozema simply went too far. The director’s last scene featured a montage on the characters’ fates. And what fate awaited the Crawfords? Both ended up with spouses that seemed more interested in each other than with the Crawford siblings. I suppose this was an allusion to some fate that the Crawfords deserved for . . . what? Okay, Henry probably deserved such a fate, due to his affair with Maria. But Mary? I would disagree.

Ironically, both Rozema and Austen shared one major problem with their respective versions of the story. Neither the Canadian writer-director nor the British author bothered to develop Fanny and Edmund’s characters that much. In fact, I would say . . . hardly at all.  “MANSFIELD PARK” revealed Edmund’s penchant for priggish and hypocritical behavior in scenes that featured his initial protest against his brother’s plans to perform the “Lover’s Vow” play and his final capitulation; his argument against Sir Thomas’ comments about breeding mulattoes (which Fanny expressed approval with a slightly smug smile) and his willingness to accept his family’s dependence on slave labor; and his support of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. The above incidents were also featured in the novel (except for the mulatto breeding discussion). Not once did Fanny criticize Edmund for his hypocritical behavior – not in the movie or in the novel. Instead, both Rozema and Austen allowed Fanny to indulge in her own hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to Edmund’s faults. Worse, she used Henry Crawford’s flaws as an excuse to avoid his courtship of her and later reject him. Henry’s angry reaction to her rejection was the only time (at least in Rozema’s movie) in which Fanny’s hypocrisy was revealed. Yet, not only did Fanny fail to acknowledge Edmund’s flaws, but also her own.

For me, the best aspect of  “MANSFIELD PARK” proved to be its cast. How Rozema managed to gather such a formidable cast amazes me. Unfortunately, she did not use the entire cast. Two members – Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram) and Hugh Doneville (Mr. Rushworth) certainly seemed wasted. Rozema’s script failed to allow the two actors to express their talent. Waddell’s presence barely made any impact upon the movie. And Doneville seemed nothing more than poorly constructed comic relief. I almost found myself expressing the same belief for actress Lindsay Duncan, despite her portrayal of two of the Ward sisters – Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price. Her Lady Bertram seemed to spend most of the movie sitting around in a drug-induced state from the use of too much laudanum. However, Duncan had one memorable moment as Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price. In that one scene, she gave emphatic advise to Fanny about Henry Crawford by pointing out the consequences of her decision to marry for love.

Victoria Hamilton fared better in her nuanced performance as the spoiled, yet frustrated Maria Bertram. She effectively conveyed how her character was torn between her pragmatic marriage to Mr. Rushworth and her desire for Henry Crawford. Frankly, I believe that Austen gave her an unnecessarily harsh ending. James Purefoy gave an interesting performance as the Bertrams’ elder son and heir, Tom. He expertly walked a fine line in his portrayal of Tom’s disgust toward the family’s involvement in slavery and penchant for a wastrel’s lifestyle. The late actress Sheila Gish gave a slightly humorous, yet sharp performance as Fanny’s other aunt – the tyrannical and venomous Mrs. Norris.

I believe that the movie’s best performances came not from the leads, but from three supporting actors – Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, and the late playwright-actor Sir Harold Pinter. The literary Henry Crawford had been described as a seductive man that quite enjoyed flirting with or manipulating women. Nivola certainly portrayed that aspect of Henry’s character with great aplomb. But he prevented Henry from becoming a one-note rake by projecting his character’s growing attraction to Fanny and the hurt he felt from her unexpected rejection. Embeth Davidtz gave an equally compelling performance as Henry’s vivacious sister, Mary. She skillfully portrayed Mary’s more endearing traits – humor and sparkling personality – along with her cynical views on authority and talent for cold-blooded practicality. However, not even Davidtz could overcome that ludicrous rip-off from 1988’s “DANGEROUS LIAISONS”, in which her Mary briefly stumbled out of the Bertrams’ drawing-room, mimicking Glenn Close, following Edmund’s rejection. It seemed like a flawed ending to a brilliant performance. For me, the film’s best performance came from Sir Harold Pinter. His Sir Thomas Bertram struck me as one of the most complex and multi-layered film portrayals I have ever come across. I find it astounding that this intimidating patriarch, who considered himself to be the family’s bastion of morality, was also responsible for the corruption that reeked at Mansfield Park and within the Bertram family. And Pinter made these conflicting aspects of the character’s personality mesh well together. Rozema added an ironic twist to Sir Thomas’ story. After being shamed by Fanny’s discovery of Tom’s drawings of abused slaves, Sir Thomas sold his Antigua estate and invested his money in tobacco. However, since U.S. states like Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky were the world’s top producers of tobacco at the time, chances are that the Bertrams’ benefit from slavery continued.

I suspect that if actress Frances O’Connor had portrayed the Fanny Price character as originally written by Jane Austen, she would have still given a superb performance. O’Connor certainly gave one in this movie. Despite Rozema’s refusal to openly acknowledge Fanny’s flaws in the script (except by Henry Crawford), the actress still managed to expose them through her performance. Not only did O’Connor did a great job in portraying Fanny’s wit and vivacity, she also revealed the social and emotional minefield that Fanny found at Mansfield Park with some really superb acting. I first became aware of Jonny Lee Miller in the 1996 miniseries“DEAD MAN’S WALK”. I found myself so impressed by his performance that I wondered if he would ever become a star. Sadly, Miller never did in the fourteen years that followed the prequel to 1988’s “LONESOME DOVE”. But he has become well-known, due to his performances in movies like “MANSFIELD PARK”“TRAINSPOTTING” and the recent miniseries, “EMMA”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Miller portrayed the younger Bertram son, who also happened to be the object of Fanny Price’s desire. And he did a top-notch job in balancing Edmund’s virtues, his romantic sensibility and his personality flaws that include hypocrisy. I realize that Edmund was not an easy character to portray, but Miller made it all seem seamless.

Considering that Austen’s “Mansfield Park” is not a real favorite of mine, I am surprised that I managed to enjoy this adaptation of the novel. I will be frank. It is far from perfect. Patricia Rozema made some changes to Austen’s tale that failed to serve the story. Worse, she failed to change other aspects of the novel – changes that could have improved her movie. But there were changes to the story that served the movie well in my eyes. And the movie “MANSFIELD PARK” possessed a first-rate production and a superb cast. More importantly, I cannot deny that flawed or not, Rozema wrote and directed a very energetic movie. For me, it made Austen’s 1814 tale a lot more interesting.

“THE SOCIAL NETWORK” (2010) Review

“THE SOCIAL NETWORK” (2010) Review

One of the movies touted as a strong Oscar contender last fall and winter was David Fincher’s recent movie called ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”.  Based upon Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book about the founding of Facebook – The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal” – the movie starred Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield as two of Facebook’s co-founders, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” began in 2003, when Harvard University student, Mark Zuckerberg, came up with the idea to create a website to rate the attractiveness of female Harvard undergraduates, after his girlfriend Erica Albright broke up with him. After downloading photos and names of female students from the various databases of resident halls, Zuckerberg created a website called ”FaceMash” where male students can choose which of two girls presented at a time is more attractive. Zuckerberg’s actions became the catalyst for the creation of ”Facebook”, when his ”FaceMash” site attracted the attention of twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss and their friend and partner, Divya Narendra, who hire him as their programmer for their site, ”Harvard Connection”. Instead, Zuckerberg asked his friend Eduardo Saverin to finance a new site he planned to create called ”Thefacebook”, the predecessor to”Facebook”. Zuckerberg’s new site also attracted the attention of entrepreneur and co-founder of ”Napster”, Sean Parker, of whom Saverin developed a dislike. The website also led to the formation of a new corporation, the end of Zuckerberg and Saverin’s friendship and several lawsuits filed against him.

From a technical point of view, ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” is an excellent movie. Director David Fincher did an excellent job of making the best of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. And the latter portrayed the creation of Facebook and the conflicts of all those involved with a witty and complex story. When I had first saw the trailer for ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”, I suspected that the movie would portray Zuckerberg as this one-dimensional, arrogant and cold-blooded nerd with an inability to communicate with anyone. Superficially, actor Jesse Eisenberg portrayed the entrepreneur in that matter. But thanks to Fincher’s direction, Sorkin’s script and Eisenberg’s performance, Zuckerberg is portrayed with greater complexity. And I can say the same about the other characters. My only complaint about the movie is that I found the revelation that the scenes depicting the creation of ”Facebook” were flashbacks handled in a very awkward manner.

Aside from Eisenberg’s excellent performance, I was also impressed by Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of ”Facebook” co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Like Eisenberg, he gave a complex portrayal of his character without losing any sympathy. Armie Hammer must have had a ball portraying the Winklevoss twins. Rooney Mara was very effective as Erica Albright, the ”girl who got away” and whose rejection of Zuckerberg set in motion the creation of ”Facebook”. But I was truly impressed by Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of ”Facebook consultant and entrepreneur Sean Parker. I had no idea that the singer had the acting chops to portray such an energetic and complex role. Also, it was interesting to see Joseph Mazello (of ”JURASSIC PARK” and the recent HBO miniseries, ”THE PACIFIC”) portraying another ”Facebook” co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz. However, he does not seem to physically resemble the actual person.

From a technical point of view, it is easy to see why ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” became a front runner for the Academy Awards for a while.  It is basically a well made movie with very little flaws. However, it never became a favorite of mine. Why? Quite simply, it left me feeling cold.  It failed to move me. I found the events of the creation of”Facebook” and the law suits that followed very interesting . . . but cold. I suspect my lack of emotions over the film has a lot to do with Fincher’s chilly direction and my inability to really care for any of the characters. I like complex characters in fictional or biographical stories a lot. But I found the characters in ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”simply too chilly and self-involved for my tastes. And Fincher’s direction and Sorkin’s script failed to make me care about them or their situation.  Despite my feelings toward the movie, I think it deserved the Best Picture Oscar a lot more than the actual winner, “THE KING’S SPEECH”, did.

“DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” (1992) Review

“DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” (1992) Review

There are two things one should know about Agatha Christie’s 1935 novel, “Death in the Clouds”. One, it happened to be one of those “murder in a locked room” type of mysteries that she rarely wrote about. And two, I have not read the novel since high school. 

I would not exactly rate “Death in the Clouds” as one of my favorite Christie novels. But I must admit that screenwriter William Humble wrote a solid adaptation for the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S ‘POIROT’” television series. Starring David Suchet as Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, “DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” focused upon the murder of a French woman named Madame Gisele aboard a Paris-to-London flight across the English Channel. Madame Gisele’s profession as a moneylender (and occasional blackmailer) to the British and French members of high society has made her wealthy, feared and hated. Her murder occurred during a flight that included Poirot as one of the passengers. Other passengers and suspects included:

*Lady Horbury – the wife of a British aristocrat and former actress

*Jean Dupont – a French archeologist in need of funds for an African expedition

*Jane Grey – stewardess for Empire Airways (in the novel, she was a hairdresser’s assistant on holiday)

*Norman Gale – a British dentist on holiday, who falls in love with Miss Grey

*Venetia Kerr – British aristocrat and close friend of Lord Horbury

*Daniel Clancy – a British mystery author

*Anne Gisele – Madame Gisele’s illegitimate daughter, who was impersonating as Lady Horbury’s maid

Money, class and relationships figured prominently in ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”. With Arthur Hastings making a no-show in this tale, Poirot enlisted the help of fellow passenger Norman Gale and stewardess Jane Grey to assist him. And thanks to solid performances from Sarah Woodward and Shaun Scott, the pair proved to be mildly entertaining and made a romantic pair. Cathyrn Harrison gave a complex and interesting performance as Lady Horbury, a former actress who married into the British aristocracy and found herself in debt to Madame Gisele. Harrison’s performance conveyed a conflicted woman that hid her insecurities regarding her marriage behind a haughty and rude mask, and a gambling habit. Actor Roger Heathcott’s portrayal of mystery writer Daniel Clancy struck me as slightly bizarre and interesting. Philip Jackson’s Chief Inspector Japp was just as annoying and entertaining as ever. It was easy to for me to see why the Parisian police considered him an annoyance. However, I found his character’s control of the case on French soil very implausible. And David Suchet gave his usual, competent performance as Hercule Poirot. No . . . I take that back. In”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”, his Poirot seemed warmer than usual. Perhaps his friendship with the lovebirds – especially Jane Grey – brought out more of his warmth.

I would not view ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” as one of Agatha Christie’s more unusual novels. Well, she did use the”murder in a locked room” plot device for this particular story. But I found nothing that remarkable about it. I could say the same about this production. However, Humble did a solid job in adapting Christie’s novel. I found his decision to convert the Anne Gisele character into a possible suspect as unnecessary. Her role as a suspect did not go anywhere, once the movie featured her brief wedding and revelation to the police as Madame Gisele’s daughter. The humor of Japp’s presence in Paris tired quickly, once I realized that his appropriation of the case on French soil was very implausible. But Humble, with Stephen Whittaker’s direction, did a solid job in maintaining the movie’s mystery and most of the main plot. And I have to give kudos to both men for using the novel’s original publication year as an excuse to add the Fred Perry/Gottfriend Von Cramm 1935 match at the French Open as a historical backdrop.

One only has to look at ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” for a few minutes and correctly assume that it had been filmed during the 1990s. The movie has that sleek, Art Deco style that dominated the production of ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”during that period. But since a good deal of this particular story was set in Paris, production designer Mike Oxley’s intent upon maintaining the Art Deco style did not serve that particular setting very well. The Parisian atmosphere seemed to be dominated by stark images of tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur Basilica (which Poirot insultingly referred to as an enormous birthday cake). But I must admit that costume designer Barbara Kronig did an excellent job in recapturing the styles of the mid-1930s, especially for the Lady Horbury character. However, I cannot say the same about the women’s hairstyles. I understand that some women wore chignons during the 1930s. Unfortunately, most of the female characters in this movie wore one, which I found rather ridiculous. Only the Venetia Kerr character sported a 1930s soft bob.

”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” had a few problems that included Japp’s implausible presence of Chief Inspector Japp investigating the case in Paris. But it still turned out to be a believable and intelligent movie. For me, it was one of the better feature-length movies that aired on ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.