“THOR” (2011) Review

 

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for“THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s “HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish in compare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and“STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero.“THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again. 

Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.

Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.

Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.

But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.

Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.

What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.

After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after sixty-six years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” (1996) Review

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” (1996) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1923 novel called “Murder on the Links”. But I have seen the 1996 television adaptation that starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. On several occasions. 

While on holiday in Deauville, France with his close friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot is approached by a wealthy businessman for help. Paul Renauld, whose assets include several South American business interests and the hotel where Poirot and Hastings are staying, claimed that someone – probably from South America – has made threats against his life. He asks Poirot to visit his home for consultation on the following morning. When Poirot meets the appointment, he discovers that Renauld has been kidnapped and Madame Renauld, left tied and gagged in their bedroom. The kidnapping case transforms into murder, when Hastings and his fellow golfers stumble across Renauld’s body on a golf course. Poirot also makes the acquaintance of Monsieur Girand of the Surete, an arrogant police official that views himself as the better detective. This clash of egos leads to a bet between the pair over who would solve the Renauld case first.

The case involves a bevy of suspects that include:

*Madame Eloise Renauld, the victim’s wife
*Jack Renauld, the victim’s stepson, who disliked him
*Marthe Daubreuil, Jack’s fiancée, who was frustrated by the victim’s opposition to the engagement
*Madame Bernadette Daubreuil, Marthe’s mother and the former lover/possible partner-in-crime of the victim
*Bella Duveen, Jack’s former lover, who may have mistaken the victim for him
*Mr. Stonor, the victim’s private secretary, who is in love with Madame Renauld

I would never consider “MURDER ON THE LINKS” as one of the best Christie adaptations I have seen. The movie’s prologue – set ten years earlier – almost made it easy to figure out the murderer’s identity. Second, the plot seemed hampered by one too many red herrings that involved mistaken identities and mistaken assumptions. And these red herrings nearly made the plot rather convoluted. I suspect that screenwriter Anthony Horowitz feared that the movie’s prologue nearly gave away the murderer’s identity and inserted these red herrings to confuse the viewers. Then again . . . I never read the 1923 novel and it is possible that Horowitz was simply following Christie’s original plot. Yet, the red herrings were nothing in compare to the line of reasoning that led Poirot to solve the case. The clues that he followed struck me as vague and slightly contrived.

But despite these flaws, I still manage to enjoy “MURDER ON THE LINKS” whenever I watch it, thanks to Andrew Grieves’ direction. One, I actually enjoyed the movie’s atmosphere and setting in Deauville. It gave the movie a touch of elegance without the series’ hallmark Art Deco style that had become a bit heavy-handed after this movie first aired. Production designer Rob Harris and cinematographer Chris O’Dell managed to capture the elegant mood of mid-1930s France without being too obvious about it. Andrea Galer’s costumes also struck me as near perfect. I especially enjoyed those costumes worn by the female cast members. The production’s pièce de résistance for me was the bicycle race featured two-thirds into the story. It struck me as a perfect blending of Grieves’ direction, editing, photography, production design, costumes and performances – especially by the extras.

Aside from one or two complaints, I thought the cast’s performances were first-rate. David Suchet gave his usual competent performance as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But I was especially impressed by Hugh Fraser’s portrayal of Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s close friend. “MURDER ON THE LINKS” provided a strong opportunity for him to shine as a man who falls in love with one of the suspects. Damien Thomas was excellent as the desperate and very complex Paul Renauld. In fact, his character seemed to be the lynch pin of the entire movie – even after his character was killed off twenty minutes into the film. Diane Fletcher seemed remarkably subtle and charming as Renauld’s beloved wife, Eloise. Portraying someone as ambiguous as Jack Renauld must have been a bit tricky, but Ben Pullen did a good job in capturing the character’s amiable, but callow and self-involved personality. Sophie Linfield was solid as Jack’s current love and fiancée, Marthe Daubreuil. However, she did not exactly rock my boat. Neither did Terence Beesley and Bernard Latham, who portrayed Renauld’s private secretary Stonor and Lucien Bex of the police, respectively. I also have to comment on Jacinta Mulcahy’s portrayal of Hasting’s love interest – the beautiful songstress, Bella Duveen. Mulcahy portrayed Bella as an effective minor femme fatale as Jack Renauld’s rejected lover. And she and Fraser made a surprisingly effective romantic pair.

The two performances that left me scratching my head came from Katherine Fahey and Bill Moody. I wish I could say that Fahey’s portrayal of Bernadette Daubreuil – Renauld’s former lover and Marthe’s mother – made an effective femme fatale. But I cannot. I cannot accuse her of hammy acting, but I thought she tried a bit too hard to project the image of a mysterious femme fatale who was blackmailing her former lover and possible partner-in-crime. But the one performance that really disappointed me came from Bill Moody’s portrayal of Monsieur Giraud of the Paris Sûreté and Poirot’s professional rival. I understood that he was supposed to be a boorish and arrogant man. However, I still had a problem with Moody’s performance. His portrayal of a French police detective seemed to border on parody. It was like watching a caricature of the John Bull persona tried to pass off as a Frenchman. It simply rang false to me.

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” was not perfect. Although I found the murder mystery intriguing, Poirot’s solution to the crime and the clues that led him to that solution struck me as slightly vague and improbable. I also had a problem with the performances of two cast members. But Arthur Hasting’s romance with one of the suspects, the elegant setting of Deauville and the performances of David Suchet, Hugh Fraser and Damien Thomas made “MURDER ON THE LINKS” worth watching.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie, “GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK” (which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that“DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as a swot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.

“CHARMED” RETROSPECT: (3.22) “All Hell Breaks Loose”

May 2011 marked the 10th anniversary of when the “CHARMED” Season Three finale episode called (3.22) “All Hell Breaks Loose” first aired. Not only did Shannen Doherty direct the episode, it also marked her last appearance as Prue Halliwell. Below is an article I had written about the events that in the episode: 

“CHARMED” RETROSPECT: (3.22) “All Hell Breaks Loose”

Many fans seemed to be of the opinion that the youngest Halliwell sister, Phoebe, was to blame for the death of the oldest sister Prue, in the Season Three episode, (3.22) “All Hell Breaks Loose”. It almost seems as if many wanted to use her as some kind of scapegoat. I am sorry, but I find this idea extremely hard to accept. I wonder if any fan of“CHARMED” has ever stopped to consider that Prue bore most of the responsibility for her own death? I wonder if many fans had forgotten how the whole mess in “All Hell Breaks Loose” had started in the first place?

It had all started because Prue forgot the very lesson that the sisters had learned in the Season One episode, (1.16) “Which Prue Is it, Anyway?” – the best offense is defense. The episode “All Hell Breaks Loose” started with the sisters being attacked by a demonic assassin, Shax, while they were protecting a Dr. Griffiths from him. Although Shax managed to seriously wounded both Prue and Piper, Phoebe used a spell that vanquished Shax . . . temporarily. And Leo healed Prue and Piper in time.

Unfortunately, the sisters were uncertain that Phoebe had vanquished Shax. Even worse, Prue forgot the lesson of“Which Prue Is It, Anyway?” and insisted that she and Piper leave the manor to track down Shax. The sisters could have remained at the manor and prepared themselves for another attack by Shax. Instead, Prue dragged Piper out of the manor and when they encountered Shax again and vanquished him – well, Piper vanquished him with her second power, their actions were videotaped by the media. This turned out to be the very incident that set in motion the events that led to Prue’s death – not Phoebe’s decision to find and save her half-demonic love, Cole Turner aka Belthazor:

Prue: Maybe the spell needs more than one witch to have it’s full impact. Okay, come on.

(Prue gets up and then helps Piper up.)

Piper: Come on? Where?

Prue: To find him so we can finish him off while he’s still hurt. (to Phoebe) Look, you just stay here with Griffiths, alright. If Shax comes back, say the spell to fend him off, okay? Ow. Come on.

(Prue and Piper go outside. Leo looks at the Doctor, who’s in shock.)

———-

[Cut outside. Prue and Piper are running down the street.]

Piper: Maybe Phoebe hurt him worse than we thought.

Prue: No, he’s gotta be around here somewhere, he wouldn’t leave without getting what he came for.

Piper: Do you really think he’d attack us in broad day light? Evil is usually more insidious than that.

(They stop.)

Prue: Ah, okay, shh.

Piper: What? (The tornado comes up behind them. They turn around and gasp. The tornado dies down and Shax appears. He throws an energy ball at them, and Prue deflects it back with her power. It hits him but doesn’t harm him.) Blow this! (Piper holds out her hands and blows up Shax. He disappears.) Okay, is he dead?

Prue: Well, we didn’t really say the spell.

Piper: Well, maybe we won’t have to. We don’t always. We’re lucky nobody saw us.

Prue: Alright, let’s just get back to Phoebe. Come on.

(They walk back towards the manor.)

———

[Cut to down the street. A female reporter and a camera man are watching Prue and Piper. She turns back to the camera.]

Reporter: Back to me, back to me, back to me. (The camera man points his camera at her.) Okay, um, I’m not exactly sure what just happened, but whatever it was, you saw it here… live.

In the following scene, Phoebe announced her intentions to help Cole. Prue and Piper’s protests against the idea seemed to be more about her getting emotionally involved with Cole, rather any demands that she hang around in case Shax was not dead. In fact, Piper seemed to believe that she had killed Shax:

Leo: How’d it go?

Piper: We dodged another bullet.

Prue: Yeah, with him maybe.

Leo: What do you mean?

Prue: I don’t know, I mean, something still bothers me about the way that we vanquished Shax. Like, I’m not so sure we really did.

Piper: What do you mean? He screamed, he went poof, just like they all do. Third demon in a row, by the way, that I vanquished with my new power, but who’s counting?

(Phoebe walks back in.)

Prue: Right, but if that’s all that we needed, then why was there a vanquishing spell in the book? I mean, hasn’t that always meant that our individual powers weren’t enough?

Leo: Except the book was written by witches with less powers than you guys have. They needed the spells.

Phoebe: Plus, I think if he was still alive, he probably would’ve attacked us again by now.

Prue: Ah, you know, Leo, can you just check to make sure, please? With the Elders?
Leo: No problem.

(Leo orbs out.)

Piper: If you ask me, I think you’re being paranoid. We kicked Shax’s behind. We bad.

Prue: Yes, you’re probably right.

Phoebe: Then I’m hoping you won’t need me around here for a while. I wanna try a new potion on Cole. One that’ll reverse the spell that turned him bad in the first place.

Piper: Phoebe…

Phoebe: I’m not looking for your approval, Piper, just your support.

Prue: Well, Phoebe, it’s sort of hard to give you support when you’re just setting yourself up to get hurt again.

Phoebe: Cole is good inside, I know it. And if dark magic did this to him, then how come white magic can’t save him? I can’t just turn my back, I have to try.

Piper: What do you want us to do?

Phoebe: I want you to use the magic-to-magic spell to send me down there. I reworded it to make it work.

(Phoebe hands Piper a piece of paper.)

Piper: Uh, Phoebe, that’s awfully dangerous. If something goes wrong we won’t be able to contact each other.

Phoebe: I’ll be safe, I’ll be with Cole. And he’ll bring me back, so don’t worry about that.

Prue: You’re banking a lot on that little potion of yours, you know.

Phoebe: No, I’m not. I’m banking on Cole.

Yes, it seemed quite obvious that Phoebe was determined to go to the Source’s Realm and find Cole. But regardless of her determination, there was no way she could have went after him, without her sisters’ help in using a “magic-to-magic spell” to teleport her to the Source’s Realm.

In the following scene, Prue still wanted verification that they or Piper had vanquished Shax. The subject of Phoebe was brought up. Piper expressed concerned that Cole might hurt Phoebe. Prue did not share her concerns:

[Scene: Outside the manor. Prue and Piper are on the sidewalk. Prue is crouching down looking at the ground.]

Piper: What did you expect to find?

(Prue stands up.)

Prue: I don’t know, something though.

Piper: Well, demons don’t usually leave footprints, remember?

Prue: No, but sometimes they leave a residue when they’ve been vanquished. Something otherwise innocuous. Look, I just don’t understand how we could vanquish such a powerful demon without a spell.

Piper: But frankly I’m more worried about Phoebe than Shax. We shouldn’t have let her go.

Prue: Phoebe can take care of herself, Dr. Griffiths can’t. (They start walking up the street.) Look, Piper, I’ve had a bad feeling about this. I’ve had one all day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a witch, is to trust those feelings. 

By this time, Piper and Prue had been exposed on television. And their friend in the San Francisco Police Department, Inspector Darryl Morris, had been ordered by his captain to question the sisters about “killing” Shax. Although Prue believed that they had done the right thing by leaving the house to go after Shax, Piper did not:

Piper: Isn’t that illegal? Can’t you do something about that?

Darryl: Hey, killing somebody on live TV is pretty illegal too, you know.

Prue: Okay, it wasn’t somebody, Darryl, it was a demon. And we’re pretty sure we didn’t kill him anyway.

Darryl: Do you wanna try telling them that?

Prue: Ugh…

Darryl: Look, I’ve called for backup, but that’s not gonna help for long. This thing’s gonna get ugly fast.

Piper: We shouldn’t have followed Shax into the street.

Prue: We didn’t have a choice, Piper.

Piper: Didn’t we?

Prue: Sure, we could’ve let him kill our innocent. That would’ve been better, you think? Alright, you know what? Let’s not let this thing get between us, okay? We have enough problems as it is, please. 

Following this scene, Prue and Piper went to Dr. Griffiths at the hospital to make certain that Shax was not after the man, in case they had not vanquished him. Sure enough, Shax appeared outside of the hospital. And Prue and Piper“vanquished” him . . . in front of television cameras again. They were informed by Leo that the Elders wanted them to contact the demon Tempus to set back time. Prue ordered Leo to contact Cole, so that he could make a deal with the Source and Tempus. And then the following happened:

Piper: I don’t know why we’re bothering to do this.

Prue: In case time doesn’t reset itself.

(Prue puts a chair against the door.)

Piper: If time doesn’t reset itself, this table against that door is not gonna help much.

Prue: Yeah, well, then we better start thinking about what would, okay? Because if Leo doesn’t succeed, we’re gonna have to figure out what we’re gonna do.

(They walk into the living room.)

Piper: We’re gonna do talk shows and book signings and movie deals, (Prue picks up the Book of Shadows) and then taken by the CIA and dissected.

Prue: Yeah, how can you be joking about this, Piper?

Piper: Who’s joking?

Prue: Well, I’m not. Alright, I’m scared. And you should be too. Okay, our lives, Piper, everything that we’ve worked for could be completely destroyed with-with one stupid mistake. Our entire future, our entire destiny could be wiped out just like that. (Prue clicks her fingers and a gunshot goes off. Piper gasps.) What was that? (Piper looks down and sees blood on her shirt. Her hands are shaking.) Piper? Piper. (Prue drops the Book of Shadows and grabs Piper before she falls. Prue looks at her hand and it has Piper’s blood on it.) Oh!

One stupid mistake. And that one mistake? I believe that Prue’s decision to leave the manor and track down Shax was that mistake. Piper certainly thought so.

Prue’s decision to leave the house and go after Shax led to the following:

• An erroneous belief that they had succeeded
• Exposure by the media
• Phoebe’s decision to go after Cole after Piper had mistakenly expressed the belief that they had succeeded
• Being exposed for the second time by the media
• Piper getting shot
• The deal with the Source and Tempus, which led to Phoebe being trapped in the Source’s Realm
• Time being reset, which led to a second attack by Shax
• Dr. Griffith and Prue’s deaths

I will not claim that Prue was solely responsible for her death. The other major characters also managed to add their two cents to the situation. The Source’s determination to destroy the Charmed Ones led him to assign Shax to commit the deed. Shax eventually did kill Prue. The media provided nothing but trouble for the Charmed Ones, after they had exposed the two older sisters. Phoebe’s determination to find Cole at all costs, led her to be missing at a time when her presence could have saved Prue’s life. Their whitelighter and Piper’s husband, Leo Wyatt, did not help with his insistence that Piper had succeeded in killing Shax, when the media first caught her and Prue on tape. Cole’s decision to cover his tracks with the Source and the Brotherhood of the Thorn at the end of (3.19) “The Demon Who Came in From the Cold” led to his eventual capture by his fellow demons and a brief estrangement from Phoebe. Piper certainly did not help matters. Granted, she did oppose both Phoebe’s trip to the Source’s Realm, but also Prue’s decision to leave the manor to track down Shax. But instead of maintaining her opposition, she allowed herself to become a pushover by caving in to her sisters’ wishes and opinions.

However, in my opinion, Prue Halliwell bored most of the blame for her death. The episode, (3.18) “Sin Francisco” made it clear that one of her biggest flaws happened to be her pride. Her inability to overcome that pride forced Leo to rescue her from the demon featured in that episode. And in “All Hell Breaks Loose”,it was Prue’s pride that led her to believe that no problem would arise in her and Piper leaving the manor – the one place that the Charmed Ones were at their strongest – to hunt down Shax. Unfortunately for Prue, the end of the episode would prove her wrong.