FRANCHISE RANKING: The “HARRY POTTER” Movies

Below is my ranking of the eight movies in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, based upon J.K. Rowling novels:

FRANCHISE RANKING: The “HARRY POTTER” Movies

1. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) – During his third year at Hogswarts, Harry becomes acquainted with creatures called the dementors and a past mystery regarding his parents and an escaped prisoner by the name of Sirius Black. Alfonso Cuarón directed.

2. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I” (2010) – In this first half adaptation of Rowling’s final novel, Harry and his friends begin their search of the Horcruxes, objects that contain parts of Lord Voldemort’s soul. They are also forced to evade the evil wizard’s forces as the latter assume control of the wizarding world. David Yates directed.

3. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007) – David Yates directed his first HARRY POTTER movie in which Harry Potter and his friends deal with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge. They also become acquainted with the Order of the Phoenix, an old organization revived to deal with the new threat of Lord Voldemort.

4. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) – Harry Potter returns to Hogswarts for his second year, when the school is beset by a strange monster with a link to the school’s Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Chris Columbus.

5. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone” (2001) – Harry Potter is introduced into the world of magic for the first time as he enters the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chris Columbus directed.

6. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009) – During Harry’s sixth year at Hogswarts, he is assigned to discovered the deep secret of the new Potions teacher and stumbles across a mysterious Potions book labeled the property of the Half-Blood Prince. Romance also fills the air. David Yates directed.

7. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II” (2011) – In this continuation of “THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART I”, the three heroes, along with the staff and students of Hogswarts have their final confrontation with Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Directed by David Yates.

8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) – Harry is manipulated into participating in the Triwizard Tournament as a last minute contestant. Mike Newell directed.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uberpatriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character. 

My condescending contempt toward this new movie grew deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of “THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign up for the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with“WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used her character as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s“BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. And she did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. It was easy to see why Atwell’s Peggy fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies of this summer. And because of this movie, I am truly looking forward to “THE AVENGERS” next year. I only hope that it proves to be just as first-rate as “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”.

“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.23-1.25) “Exodus”

“LOST” RETROSPECT: (1.23-1.25) “Exodus”

If one was to ask me what was my favorite season finale of “LOST”, I would be prone to answer Season Three’s (3.22-3.23) “Through the Looking Glass”. But my second choice – and a very close one at that – would have definitely been the Season One finale, (1.23-1.25) “Exodus”

Although I do not consider it to be my favorite “LOST” finale, I can honestly say that I found it to be the most emotional . . . at least for me. Many would say that the series finale, (1.17-1.18) “The End”. Mind you, “The End” had its share of emotional moments. But there were many aspects of it that I found very irritating. I found some flaws in the script for“Exodus”. But I felt those flaws were overshadowed by some great writing by screenwriters/producers Damon Lindehof and Carlton Cuse.

I might as well begin with what I consider to be the episode’s flaws. The Season One finale featured flashbacks that revealed the castaways’ experiences during their last hours in Sydney, Australia, before boarding Oceanic Flight 815. Mind you, I did not have any trouble with most of the flashbacks. Some of them revealed the development in personalities or relationships for some of the characters. This was apparent in Michael Dawson and Walt Lloyd’s two flashbacks, along with Shannon Rutherford’s, Charlie Pace’s and to a certain extent, James ‘Sawyer’ Ford’s. Other flashbacks revealed the personal clouds that hung over Jin-Soo Kwon, Sayid Jarrah and John Locke. Jack’s flashback served as an introduction to Ana-Lucia Cortez, who would have a major role in the second season. But there were some flashbacks which I found useless and a waste of my time:

*Kate Austen – Her flashback featured U.S. Marshal Edward Mars explaining his long search for the young fugitive. Basically, all he did was reveal to the Sydney Airport authorities about his cat-and-mouse games with Kate and her infantile bank robbery in New Mexico. Yawn!

*Sun-Hwa Kwon – Her flashback merely confirmed her original secret knowledge of English via her understanding of the racist American couple who seemed to harbor clichés about Asian marriages.

*Hugo “Hurley” Reyes – His flashbacks consisted of a series of minor incidents that nearly causes him to miss Oceanic Flight 815. Was it Lindehof and Cuse’s intent for the audience to view Hurley’s experiences with the ironic view that he would have been better off by missing the flight? I do not know. Then again, I do not care.

Not only did I find Kate’s flashback a bore, I found some of her actions in this episode rather . . . peculiar. Okay, I had no problem with her decision to accompany Jack and Locke to the Black Rock. She wanted to help. Okay. But following Leslie Artz’s death, she decided that she wanted to be one of the two to carry the dynamite in her backpack:

LOCKE: It’s not smart to keep it all together. So, we split them up. If we need 3 sticks to blow the hinge then we should bring 6 — 3 and 3 — failsafe, in case one of us…

JACK: You and me, then.

KATE: No, I’m — I’m taking one.

JACK: It’s not going to happen, no.

KATE: This is why I came.

JACK: Then, you wasted a trip.

I realize that the castaways’ leader, Jack Shephard was being controlling. But why on earth was it necessary for Kate to carry some of the dynamite? Why on earth would a woman with the survival instinct of a well-trained mercenary want to risk her life to carry a bunch of instable sticks of dynamite? Cuse and Lindehof never made Kate’s reasons clear. Poor Evangeline Lilly. She really had to put up with a lot of shit from Cuse and Lindehof.

At the beginning of the episode, Danielle Rousseau appeared at the Losties’ camp with news that the Others were going to attack their camp. After accompanying Jack’s expedition to the Black Rock, she returned to the Losties’ camp with the intent to steal baby Aaron in order to exchange him for her long missing daughter, Alex. When Sayid and Charlie finally caught up with her and Aaron, she revealed that she ‘did’ hear whispering about the Others coming for the “boy”. As it turned out, the Others were after Walt. And they snatched him from the raft that Michael, Sawyer and Jin used in their attempt to leave the island. But . . . why did they snatch Walt? More importantly, how did they know that he was special? I doubt that Others spy Ethan Spy had found out. He spent most of his time with the Losties keeping an eye on Claire Littleton, who was pregnant during his stay with them. If Cuse and Lindehof did reveal the details behind Ben Linus’ decision to order Walt’s kidnapping, they failed to do so in any of the series’ 121 episodes.

Thankfully, “Exodus” was filled with so many memorable scenes and moments that I am willing to forgive Cuse and Lindehof some of the episode’s missteps. As I had stated earlier, this episode was filled with some very emotional moments. My favorite included Sawyer’s revelation to Jack about his meeting with the latter’s now deceased father back in Australia. Superb acting by both Josh Holloway and Matthew Fox. Another great moment featured Walt’s decision to hand over his dog Vincent to the greiving Shannon. Neither Malcolm David Kelley or Maggie Grace had ever received any recognition for their acting. Well, perhaps Kelley did once. Yet, both of them gave some of their best performances in this scene – especially Grace. But who gave the best performances in the episode? For me, the honors should have went to Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as the castaways’ estranged Korean couple. The couple finally reconciled over their matter regarding Sun’s secret ability to speak English in a very emotional moment that featured tears, hugs and superb acting by the two. In fact, I am still wondering why the two Kims had never received any major acting nominations for their performances on the show. Both Fox and Terry O’Quinn gave excellent performances in an interesting scene in which Jack questioned John Locke about his penchant for revolving his life around the island’s mysteries.

Many fans have claimed that strong characterization has always been the major strength on “LOST”. Perhaps. But there have been many times during the series’ six season run in which some of the characterization seemed to have declined. Think (2.04) “Everybody Hates Hugo”(3.09) “Stranger in a Strange Land”(3.14) “Exposé”(4.04) “Eggtown” or (4.06) “The Other Woman”. But when it came to action-oriented scenes and story arcs, “LOST” was truly in its element. And“Exodus” had its share of memorable action-oriented scenes and one truly chilling one.

My favorite action scenes included the expedition to the Black Rock, Leslie Artz’s death, and Sayid and Charlie’s search for Danielle and the kidnapped Aaron. However, one of the better scenes featured the Black Rock expedition’s encounter with the Smoke Monster (aka the Man in Black) and the latter’s attempt to drag Locke into some hole. When I think about it, some of the most effective action scenes during the series’ first four seasons featured the Smoke Monster. But not even the Smoke Monster’s attack upon Locke, Jack, Kate and Hurley was nothing in compare to the castaways on Michael’s raft. In what I believe to be one of the most chilling scenes in the series’ history, Walt ended up being kidnapped by the Others. Between the night setting, the violent attack upon the raft passengers and Walt’s cries as he was being carried away by his kidnappers still leaves chills within me, even after six years.

My recent viewing of “Exodus” also left me pondering about some of the characters and events. While my family and I were watching those moments leading up to Walt’s kidnapping, we found ourselves openly wondering what would have happened if Sawyer and Walt had not convinced Michael to fire that flare gun. Because once he did, the Others managed to find them within minutes. While reading some of the reviews and posts about this episode, I noticed that back in 2005, many assumed that Charlie would resume taking drugs after he found the Virgin Mary statuettes filled with heroin. Considering how Locke “helped” Charlie get over his drug addiction in (1.06) “House of the Rising Sun”, I am not surprised that Charlie took one of those statuettes. In fact, I believe that Charlie did the right thing. Only he could really help himself get over his drug addiction. All Locke did was manipulate him into doing something that he had never volunteered to do in the first place. That is not real help.

Jack may be a controlling and doubting ass at times, I found myself sympathizing with him during his conversation with Locke about the island. The fact that Locke believed that opening the hatch would lead to his “destiny” and his willingness to be dragged away by the Smoke Monster made me realize that the latter had been right in Season Six – Locke was a chump. He had spent most of his time on the island believing that he had to delve its mysteries in order to achieve some kind of destiny and the position of being special. And when Locke told Jack that the late Boone Carlyle had been a sacrifice that the island demanded, I am surprised that the good doctor managed to refrain from shooting him. If I had been in Jack’s shoes, I would have shot him. I realize that it would have been the wrong thing to do, but I still would have shot him. I just do not see how Locke could justify Boone’s death in that manner.

“Exodus” has its flaws that I found worthy of a head shake, including some questionable flashbacks and the story arc featuring Kate and the dynamite sticks. But most of the episode featured some excellent writing that included great emotional moments and action sequences, along with first-rate acting by most of the cast. Not surprisingly, it is not only one of my favorite season finales of “LOST”, but also one of my favorite episodes period.

“Obssessions” [PG-13] – Chapter 9

“OBSESSIONS”

Part 9

The opportunity for Phoebe and Paige to pay a second visit to DeWolfe Mann’s apartment finally arose on Saturday. Apart from the police tape attached to the front door, they found nothing. Nor had Phoebe been able to conjure up a premonition. Which did not surprise her. Summoning premonitions had always been difficult for her.

“Have you ever thought of practicing?” Paige suggested. “You know, learn how to summon a premonition? I mean, Cecile does. She even uses spells, sometimes.”

It took all of Phoebe’s efforts to bite back a retort. Meeting Olivia’s friend, Cecile Dubois, had made her feel even more inadequate about her powers. Not only did Phoebe lately found herself wishing she had a more active power, she also envied Cecile’s control over the latter’s own psychic abilities.

“I don’t have the time,” Phoebe finally shot back. “And I doubt that Cecile’s control over her own premonitions is that great. Besides, I tried it once some four years ago, and it didn’t work.”

Paige added, “Maybe you shouldn’t give up so . . .”

“Paige! Please? Not now!” Phoebe continued to touch the various items and furniture inside the apartment. Nothing. “This is a waste of our time. I should have told Olivia, when she asked me. Let’s get out of here.” The two sisters returned to the Halliwell manor.

While Paige called Olivia, Phoebe found herself contemplating the interview between Jason, Olivia and Darryl, last Wednesday. The former had been right about the red-haired inspector. Olivia’s attitude toward Jason had been cruel and needling. Phoebe noticed how she seemed to take great pleasure in making the young publisher feel uncomfortable. Phoebe brought up the matter, once Paige hung up.

The youngest Charmed One dismissed Phoebe’s accusation with a wave of her hand. “C’mon Phoebe! Olivia may be a little direct at times, but she isn’t cruel. At least not deliberately.”

“You weren’t there, Paige. She really seemed bent upon putting Jason through the wringer,” Phoebe insisted.

Paige shrugged her shoulders. “From what I’ve heard, he’s the only one who has a motive to kill ‘Wolfie’.”

“Jason’s not a killer! Unlike some people!”

“Oh. You mean us?” A twisted smile formed on Paige’s mouth.

Phoebe glared at her younger sister. There were times she wished that Paige did not possessed such a twisted sense of humor. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.

Paige rolled her eyes. “Jeez, Phoebe! Lighten up! As for Jason, I’m sure that Olivia and Darryl were only doing their jobs. Does Olivia still believe that Jason’s guilty?”

“No.”

“Well then,” Paige continued, “what’s the problem? Or maybe there’s a reason for Olivia’s attitude toward Jason.”

Phoebe cried out, “Like what? According to Jason, they had a mutual breakup!”

Paige fell silent for a brief moment. “Are you sure?”

Her sister’s question reverberated in Phoebe’s mind. It continued to do so, two days later, while she was standing next to the water cooler inside the BAY-MIRROR’s main newsroom. However, the question disappeared from her mind, when she spotted a tall and strikingly beautiful woman step out of the elevator.

No one seemed capable of keeping his or her eyes off the woman. Including Phoebe. Who could ignore the statuesque figure, the long and curly dark hair and air of sophistication. “Ho-ly mackerel!” one male staff member, who stood near Phoebe, exclaimed. “Would you take a look at that? We’re in the presence of a goddess!”

Another reporter – female – merely sniffed. “Hmmm, couldn’t one be anymore obvious? She’s practically a walking ad for sex!”

“Yeah, but she does it with such style,” gushed the male reporter. He regarded the newcomer with lust filled eyes. Everyone watched as she strode toward one of the editors’ offices.

Phoebe declared, “She’s going to see O’Keefe.”

“Huh.” A smirk formed on her male colleague’s face. “I guess you know what that means. O’Keefe has found someone to replace dear old Wolfie.”

Sure enough, the beautiful stranger knocked on Milo O’Keefe’s office door. A few seconds passed before she entered. “Her?” Phoebe’s voice echoed with disbelief. “She’s going to be the paper’s newest food critic?”

“Hell, I’d sample anything she happens to recommend,” the male reporter suggested. Both of his female colleagues rolled their eyes. He leaned back against the wall and sighed. Happily.

* * * *

Jason Dean stared at the beautiful woman who sat opposite him. He barely acknowledged the tall, lanky man who stood near his entertainment console. “Your name is . . .?” he began.

Milo O’Keefe answered instead of the new guest. “Portia. Portia Della Scalla. Her background includes . . .”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Keefe,” Jason said, interrupting the Food Editor. “But I’m sure that the lady can answer for herself.” He smiled broadly at his newest employee.

The Italian woman leaned forward. Jason found it difficult to ignore her full lips. Or the sherry-brown eyes that sparkled with promise. “Yes. Of course. My name is Portia Della Scalla. I’m originally from Venice, Italy. I have spent the last seven years writing about food and restaurants for various magazines and newspapers, including here in the United States.” The last two words seemed to roll enticingly from her tongue.

Jason’s smile remained fixed on his face. “Well, I believe that says it all. Even Mr. O’Keefe seemed impressed by your as. . . uh, qualifications. When will you be available to begin work?”

Ms. Della Scalla spread out her arms in an appealing manner. “Is today too soon? It is only,” she glanced at the clock on Jason’s desk, “only nine forty-three.”

“Well . . .”

The lips and eyes were once again in full view. “Please? I would so love to begin work, immediately.”

A workaholic. Jason approved. “If you insist. Uh, some of Mr. Mann’s belongings are still inside his office. I guess we can find a desk for you – until his office is cleared.”

Grazie,” Miss Della Scalla said with a smile. Then, “Oh, one more thing. Signor O’Keefe has informed me that this Signor Mann was involved in a story, when he died. I would be more than happy to complete the assignment.”

Last assignment? Finally, Jason remembered. The McNeills and the Golden Horn restaurant’s silver anniversary. “Oh, that story is dead,” Jason replied. “I’m sure that Mr. O’Keefe can find something new for you.”

“But this is the Golden Horn restaurant we are talking about,” Miss Della Scalla continued. “I have heard of it and the owner, Gweneth McNeill. She is one of the world’s most renowned chefs. And her son, Bruce, who is the current executive chef, is developing his own reputation. Also, I understand that the restaurant will be celebrating its silver anniversary. You want to forget about the story?”

Mustering all of his patience, Jason explained that he wanted the newspaper’s Food Section to focus less on exclusive restaurants and more on establishments that the average reader can afford. “You know,” he added, “places like Eliza’s, La Taqueria, the Sear’s coffee shop, and Zarzuela.”

“And Morgan’s,” O’Keefe added. Jason shot him a quick glare. Morgan’s happened to be the other McNeill-owned restaurant in San Francisco. “Anyway, you see what I mean, don’t you?”

Sherry brown eyes grew rounder. Ms. Della Scalla’s lips became fuller. In fact, they almost formed a pout. Jason became aware of her scent. Gardenias and . . . sex. “I understand, Signor Dean,” she finally said. Her voice seemed so bell-like. “Believe me, I do. But I also believe that an excellent restaurant . . . is an excellent restaurant. No matter the price of the meal. And if there is an excellent restaurant in this city, it is my job as a food critic, to write about it.”

Jason felt himself completely enveloped by her presence. As if there was nothing else in the world. He smiled. “Well, Ms. Della Scalla, you’ve got my vote. The Golden Horn story will continue.”

Ms. Della Scalla smiled. Beautifully. “Grazie. Uh, do you know if Signor Mann had left any notes on the story?”

“In his office,” O’Keefe replied. “I can show where it is.”

Jason insisted, “Actually, I can.”

Both men made a move to help the new columnist out of her chair. Jason reached her first.

* * * *

When Cole strode inside the BAY-MIRROR’s newsroom, it occurred to him that he has not stepped foot inside for the last six months. Six very long months. He turned to his companion and asked, “Are you sure that you’re ready for this?”

Deborah Mann nodded. While holding an empty cardboard box in his hand, Cole led the bereaved woman toward her late brother’s office. Several employees nodded at the pair. Or stared. Cole had no idea if what his presence or Deborah’s that seemed to be attracting the attention.

They finally reached DeWolfe Mann’s office. When Cole opened the door, he was surprised to find three other people inside – including Jason Dean. “Uh, excuse me. May I help you, gentlemen?” He glanced at the beautiful woman standing beside Dean. “Miss?”

Recognition flickered in Dean’s eyes. “Turner! What are you doing here?” His glance fell upon Deborah. “Who is this?”

“This . . . is Ms. Deborah Mann,” Cole explained. “DeWolfe Mann’s sister. And she’s here to collect his personal belongings.” He indicated the box in his arms.

Dean’s face turned red with embarrassment. “Oh. Uh, yeah. Of course.”

“What are YOU doing in here?” Deborah demanded. Her voice bridled with hostility. “You shouldn’t even be in here! At least not until I clear out Wolfie’s belongings.”

Both Dean and the other man – whom Cole figured to be Milo O’Keefe – looked even more embarrassed. The former said, “Yes, of course. Please excuse us.” The three visitors began to file out of the office.

The third visitor approached Cole. He could not help but noticed how beautiful she looked. Nor could he ignore the familiar sensation, as she walked past him. A familiar sensation at the base of his neck. One that usually hinted . . . danger. He frowned at the woman.

“And who are you?” Deborah sharply demanded, knocking Cole out of his reverie. He realized that his client had also noticed the woman. “Who is this woman? And why is she in this office?”

The object of Deborah’s questions turned to face the grieving woman. Her lovely face expressed compassion and understanding. “Buena sera, Signora,” she said in a bell-like voice. “My name is Portia Della Scalla. I am so sorry for the loss of your . . . husband?”

“Brother,” Deborah shot back. “And thanks. I think. So what are you doing here?”

Dean spoke up. “Miss Della Scalla has been hired as one of our new food critics. She’ll be taking over your brother’s column.”

“How comforting.”

Detecting hostility from his client, Cole spoke up. “Uh, thank you for your kind words, Miss Della Scalla.” He held out his hand to shake the other woman’s. As he gently clasped her hand, the sensation of danger returned. He briefly glanced into her sherry brown eyes, before she looked away and released his hand. “However, if all of you won’t mind,” he continued, “Ms. Mann would like to be alone, while she gathers her brother’s belongings.”

The other three murmured apologies and marched out of the office. Cole turned to his client. “Why don’t you go ahead, Deborah? There’s someone I need to speak with.” The grieving woman nodded and Cole left.

* * * *

Phoebe sat behind her desk, staring at her laptop computer screen. She tried to concentrate on the letter in her hand, but images of DeWolfe’s dead body continued to flash in her mind. Along with the mysterious woman who had appeared at the office just a little over an hour ago. Did this woman have any connection with Wolfie’s murder?

A knock on her door broke Phoebe out of her thoughts. “Come in!” she ordered. Seconds later, she found herself regretting her words, as a surprise visitor entered her office. Stunned, Phoebe stared at the tall figure before her. “Cole?”

Her ex-husband nodded. “Phoebe.

“What . . . what are you . . . what do you want?” God! Could she sound even more paranoid?Calm down, Phoebe. He’s not a threat. At least not yet. Taking a deep breath, Phoebe asked in a calm voice, “So, what brings you here?”

“My client,” Cole replied, “Deborah Mann. She’s here to gather her brother’s personal belongings from his office.”

Phoebe nodded. “Oh. That’s right. Wolfie had told me that you were his lawyer. And his sister’s.” She paused, before adding in a pointed tone, “So, why are you here? Inside my office?”

Cole sighed. “Come here.” He cracked open the door.

“Why?” Phoebe protested, feeling wary.

Rolling his eyes, a caustic Cole shot back, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you, or anything like that.” Phoebe could not help but wince. “I want you to see someone. Out here.”

Slowly, Phoebe rose from her desk. She walked over to the door and stood next to her ex-husband, desperately trying to ignore the effect his nearness was having upon her. “See whom?” she asked in a soft voice.

Cole widened the door, slightly. “You see that woman with your boyfriend and the skinny guy outside DeWolfe’s office?”

Phoebe peered outside. She spotted Jason, along with Milo O’Keefe and the beautiful stranger that had attracted the office’s attention. “Do you know her?” she asked.

“No. She had introduced herself as Portia Della Scalla. Apparently, she’s been hired to take over DeWolfe’s column.”

Phoebe let out a gasp. “Oh my God! Lee had been right! I didn’t realize they would replace Wolfie so soon.”

“Yeah. Neither did Deborah. Listen,” Cole closed the door and faced Phoebe, “do me a favor, will you? Keep an eye on her. I’ve got a very funny feeling about Ms. Della Scalla.”

Frowning, Phoebe asked, “What feeling? Are you saying that she’s some kind of warlock or demon?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Just keep an eye on her, okay? I find it highly suspicious that DeWolfe’s old position would be filled within a few days after he was killed.”

Phoebe could not believe it. Cole had come into her office to ask her to act as a spy? And nothing else? Resentment welled within her. “If you’re so suspicious about this woman, Cole, why don’t you just tell the police? You don’t need me as a spy and I’m sure that Olivia would be more than happy to help you.” The moment she had spoken, Phoebe wished she could take back her words. But her resentment proved to be stronger, as she added, “Besides, the last time you had asked me for a favor, a certain slumlord ended up dead.”

Blue eyes turned cold as chipped ice. Cole’s face became a mask. Phoebe mentally kicked herself for her big mouth. She also felt guilty for bringing up the past and throwing it in Cole’s face. Especially since all he wanted was her help for a good cause. The apology came quick. “God, Cole, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .”

“Sure you did,” Cole replied sharply. “But you’re right. I’m probably better off telling Olivia and Darryl. I’ll be seeing Olivia this evening, anyway. See you around.” He turned his back on his ex-wife and left.

Phoebe’s shoulders sagged with defeat. Shit! Why did every encounter with Cole had to end on a bad note? And why was it always her fault?

* * * *

Ever since learning about DeWolfe Mann’s murder, Bruce had been fighting the disappointment that threatened to overwhelm him. Yes, he felt bad that the columnist had met a violent death. And he certainly felt sorry for Deborah Mann, who by Cole’s account, had taken her brother’s death very hard. But what Bruce mainly felt was disappointment. Disappointment that the Golden Horn would not be featured in a newspaper story in time for its silver anniversary. And if his disappointment made him seem selfish, Bruce took comfort in the knowledge that he was not alone. The restaurant’s staff shared his feelings.

Bruce sighed, as he contemplated the menu for the second week of May. With his wedding and honeymoon over two weeks away, he had decided to make plans plans for his upcoming absence. Plans that included the daily special during the last week of April and three weeks of May. What should he consider as the special for the second Tuesday of May? Duck Tangine With Apples? Or the . . .

The telephone on his desk rang. Bruce immediately picked up the receiver. “Hello, Golden Horn restaurant. Bruce McNeill speaking.”

The first thing that struck Bruce was the caller’s foreign accent. Italian, perhaps. The second thing he noticed was that the caller’s voice had a breathy quality that hinted sex. “Hello? Signor McNeill? Bruce McNeill?”

“Yes.”

A heavy sigh of relief followed. “Buena sera. My name is Portia Della Scalla. I have just been hired as a columnist for the SAN FRANCISCO BAY-MIRROR.” Bruce could not help but admire the way “San Francisco” rolled off her tongue. She continued, “I understand that a certain Signor DeWolfe Mann was supposed to write an article about your restaurant. As it so happens, I have been assigned to write the story in his place.”

Euphoria gripped every nerve in Bruce’s body. He could not believe his ears. “So you . . . you’ll be writing the article, instead? On the restaurant?”

Si Signor.” The Italian woman paused. “By the way, when will you be available for the first interview? Tomorrow? This evening?”

* * * *

Unaware of the danger facing one of his former charges, Leo focused his attention on another and one of his present charges. All in the name of acting as matchmaker. And his plans led him inside Paul Margolin’s office, at the city’s criminal courts building.

“Leo!” The ADA nearly jumped out of his seat in shock. “Wha . . . what are you doing here?”

The whitelighter eased into one of the chairs on the other side of his charge’s desk. “I came to see how you’re doing. I haven’t heard from you in nearly a week.”

“I’ve been busy,” Paul tersely replied. “Trying to become acquainted with the cases I’ve been assigned.”

Quietly, Leo added, “Including the DiMatteo case?”

Paul’s face became a mask. “Of course. Why do you . . .?”

“C’mon Paul! I haven’t heard hide or hair of you since that day you came by the house! That was almost a week ago! And I think we both know why.”

The New Yorker leaned back and heaved a sigh. “Yeah. I’m . . . I’m sorry. It’s just finding out that Olivia is friends with a demon . . .”

“. . . who once was my brother-in-law,” Leo finished.

Shaking his head, Paul continued, “And that I can’t understand, Leo. I mean, why? Why would any of you associate yourselves with a demon? A notorious killer like Belthazor?”

Leo proceeded to reveal Cole Turner’s long history with the Halliwells. And his recent history with Olivia and the other McNeills. “Lately, I’ve been having suspicions that Olivia and Cole were more than just friends. That they were attracted to each other,” Leo continued. “But I’m not sure. It’s been nearly six months, and they haven’t . . . you know, start dating.” The whitelighter’s face flushed with embarrassment. “I think Cole still hopes that he will win back Phoebe. Someday.”

“Which means,” Paul finished, his voice reflecting hope, “he might be using Olivia to make Phoebe jealous. And Olivia might be free, after all.”

Leo added, “And considering the way she warmed up to you at our house, I don’t think you should give up on her. At least not yet.”

Silence fell between the pair. Leo watched Paul whirl his seat around to face the windows behind. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s time I pay Olivia a visit.” He whirled around to face Leo. “Do you, uh . . . know her address, by any chance?”

The whitelighter allowed himself a triumphant smile, as he reached for a pen and piece of paper.

END OF PART 9

Top Ten Favorite ROAD TRIP Movies

Below is a list of my ten favorite ROAD TRIP movies: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE ROAD TRIP MOVIES

1. “Midnight Run” (1988) – Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin starred in this hilarious movie about a bounty hunter who escorts his prisoner from New York City to Los Angeles. Martin Brest directed.

2. “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) – Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason starred in this fun and witty tale about two Georgia truckers hired to illegally transport beer from Texarkana to Atlanta within 28 hours. Hal Needham directed.

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – This Oscar nominated film was the second adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about an expedition into uncharted African territory to locate a missing explorer looking for the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred.

4. “LORD OF THE RINGS: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – This first of three installments from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga about an epic quest to destroy an ancient and powerful ring is my favorite.Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellan starred.

5. “It Happened One Night” (1934) – Frank Capra directed Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in this Oscar winning classic comedy about a runaway heiress and a roguish reporter on a cross country trip.

6. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” – A small group of North Carolina slaves risk their lives for a cross country bid for freedom in Canada. Produced by actor Tim Reid, this excellent television movie starred Courtney B. Vance, Janet Bailey and Glynn Thurman.

7. HARRY POTTER and the Deathly Hallows, Part I” – David Yates directed the first half of the film adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s 2007 novel about Harry Potter’s attempts to find the means to destroy Lord Voldemort, while evading the evil wizard throughout Britain. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this emotional and satisfying adaptation of Charles Frazer’s novel about a Confederate Army deserter’s journey back to his North Carolina home during the Civil War. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Rene Zellweger starred.

9. “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) – Walter Salles directed this excellent adaptation of Che Guevara’s memoirs about his 1952 motocycle journey across South America. Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna starred.

10. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed this entertaining comedy-drama about a family’s cross country trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to a children’s beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Oscar winner Alan Arkin starred.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

 

If you have never read Agatha Christie’s novel, “Taken at the Flood” or seen the 2006 television adaptation, I suggest that you read no futher. This review contains major spoilers. 

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

Written in 1948, Agatha Christie’s novel called “Taken at the Flood” told the story of the Cloade family in post-war Britian, who depends upon the good will of their cousin-in-law, Rosaleen Hunter Cloade; after her husband and their cousin is killed in an air raid during World War II. When her controlling brother, David, refuses to share Gordon Cloade’s fortunate, the family enlists Poirot’s help to prove that Rosaleen’s missing first husband, Robert Underhay, might not be dead. Although the novel received mixed reviews when it was first published, it now seems highly regarded by many of Christie’s modern day fans.

Nearly sixty years later, screenwriter Guy Andrews adapted the novel for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series. However, Andrews set the novel in the 1930s, which has been the traditional setting for the novel. In doing so, Andrews changed the aspect of Gordon Cloade’s death, making it an act of murder, instead of a wartime casualty. This change also removed the ennui that a few of the characters experienced in a post-war world. Other changes were made in the screenplay. The character of Rosaleen Cloade became a morphine addict. She also survived a morphine overdose. Also, Andrews changed the fate of the story’s leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

I really wish that Andrews and director Andy Wilson had maintained the novel’s original setting of post-war Britain. It would not have hurt if “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” broke away from its usual mid-1930s setting to air a story set ten years later. Most adaptations of the Jane Marple novels have always been set in the 1950s. Yet, both adaptations of Christie’s novel, “A Murder Is Announced” managed to break away from that decade and set the story in its proper setting – mid-to-late 1940s. By changing the setting and making Gordon Cloade a murder victim, Andrews and Wilson transformed the original novel’s theme, which centered on how some of the characters took advantage of a certain situation to “make their own fortune”. This theme brings to mind the story’s title and its origin – a quotation from William Shakespeare’s novel, “Julius Caesar”. The movie also established a friendship between the Cloade family and Hercule Poirot. And if I must be honest, I find this friendship implausible. The Cloade family struck me as arrogant, greedy, corrupt, and a slightly poisonous bunch. I find it hard to believe Poirot would befriend any member of that family – with the exception of the leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

Despite my misgivings over the movie’s setting and some of the changes, I must admit that most of it was very intriguing. Despite being an unpleasant bunch, the Cloade family provided the story with some very colorful characters that include a telephone harasser and a drug addict. Lynn is engaged to her cousin Rowley Cloade and it is clear that she does not harbor any real love for him . . . even before meeting Rosaleen’s brother David. And instead of being a war veteran and former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Lynn is merely a returnee from one of Britain’s colonies in Africa Actress Amanda Douge portrayed Lynn and she portrayed the character with great warmth and style.

But David Hunter proved to be the most interesting and well-written character in the story. I would go further and state that he might be one of the most complex characters that Christie ever created. David is blunt to a fault, arrogant and has no problems in expressing his dislike and contempt toward the Cloades. He does not make an effort to hide some of his less than pleasant personality traits and is a borderline bully, who is controlling toward his sister. The character provided actor Elliot Cowan with probably one of his better roles . . . and he made the most of it with great skill. When David Hunter and Lynn Marchmont become romantically involved, Cowan ended up creating great screen chemistry with Douge.

The mystery over Rosaleen Cloade’s marital state proved to be rather engaging. One is inclined to believe both Rosaleen and David that she was widowed before marrying Gordon Cloade. But when a man named Enoch Arden appeared and claimed that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive, the audience’s belief in the Hunter siblings is shaken. But when Arden is killed violently, David becomes suspect Number One with the police and Poirot.

I have already commented upon Elliot Cowan and Amanda Douge’s performances in “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. I was also impressed by Patrick Baladi’s portrayal of Lynn’s obsessive and intense fiancé, Rowley Cloade. Eva Birthistle was subtle and unforgettable as David’s nervous and very reserved sister, the wealthy widow Rosaleen Cloade. And veteran performers such as Jenny Agutter, Penny Downie, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pip Torrens and a deliciously over-the-top Celia Imrie provided great support. I also have to commend David Suchet, who gave his usual first-rate performance as detective Hercule Poirot. If there is one virtue that “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” possessed, it was a first-rate cast.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” could have been a first-rate movie. But I believe that both Andrews and Wilson dropped the ball in the movie’s last thirty minutes. Their biggest mistake was adhering closely to Christie’s original novel. I am aware of some of the changes they made. I had no problem with some of the changes. Other changes really turned me off. But despite these changes, they managed to somewhat remain faithful to the novel. As as far as I am concerned, this was a major mistake.

In the novel, David Hunter ended up murdering Rosaleen Cloade by giving her a drug overdose. Poirot managed to reveal that Rosaleen was merely his sister’s former housemaid, who became an accomplice in a scam to assume control of the Cloade fortune. Andrews’ script changed this by allowing Rosaleen to attempt suicide and survive. Instead, they had David guilty of murdering his sister and brother-in-law in a house bombing featured at the beginning of the movie. Worse, Poirot claimed that David had deliberately impregnated the false Rosaleen and forced her to get an abortion in order to control her. Poirot also hinted he was behind Rosaleen’s suicide attempt. How he came to this conclusion is beyond me. In other words, Andrews’ script transformed David Hunter from a swindler and killer of his accomplice to an out-and-out monster. In the end, he was hanged for his crimes.

Both Christie and Andrews’ handling of the Cloade family proved to be even more incredible. Mrs. Frances Cloade had recruited a relation to call himself as Enoch Arden and claim that Robert Underhay was still alive. Another member of the Cloade family recruited a Major Porter to lie on the stand and make the same claim. Later, Major Porter committed suicide.

The murder of Enoch Arden proved to be an accident. In other words, Rowley Cloade discovered that Arden was the relation of his cousin-in-law, Mrs. Frances Cloade, reacted with anger and attacked the man. Rowley’s attack led to Arden’s fall and his death. Then Rowley proceeded to frame David by deliberately smashing in Arden’s head in order to make it resemble murder. Upon Lynn’s revelation that she was in love with David Hunter, Rowley lost his temper and tried to strangle her. Poirot and a police officer managed to stop him. One, Rowley was guilty of manslaughter, when he caused Enoch Arden’s death. Two, he was guilty of interfering with a police investigation, when he tried to frame David for murder. And three, he was also guilty of assault and attempted murder of Lynn Marchmont. Once Poirot discovered that Arden’s death was an accident caused by Rowley, he immediately dismissed the incident and focused his attention on David Hunter’s crimes.

In the end, Rowley was never arrested, prosecuted or punished for his crimes. Frances Cloade was never questioned by the police for producing the phony Enoch Arden in an attempt to commit fraud. And the member of the Cloade family who had recruited Major Porter was never prosecuted for attempting to perpetrate a fraud against the courts. The only positive change that Andrews made to Christie’s novel was allowing Lynn’s rejection of Rowley to remain permanent. In the novel, Lynn decided that she loved Rowley after all, following his attempt to kill her. She found his violent behavior appealing and romantic.

I sometimes wonder if Christie became aware of her negative portrayal of the upper-class Cloades, while writing “Taken at the Flood”, and became determined to maintain the social status quo in the novel. And she achieved this by ensuring that the lower-class David Hunter proved to be the real criminal and no member of the Cloade family end up arrested or prosecuted for their crimes. In other words, Christie allowed her conservative sensibilities to really get the best of her. Aside from the permanent separation between Lynn and Rowley, Andrews and Wilson embraced Christie’s conservatism to the extreme. And it left a bitter taste in my mouth. No wonder “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” proved to be one of the most disappointing Christie stories I have ever come across.