“Altered Lives” [PG-13] – Chapter Five

“ALTERED LIVES”

CHAPTER FIVE

CORUSCANT

Palpatine glanced up from the data pad in his hand, as Sly Moore entered his office. She bowed to the new Emperor. “Pardon me, Your Highness. Senator Jaren Tagge of Bonadan awaits your presence.”

The Emperor quickly switched off his data pad and tossed it on his desk. “Send him in.” The Umbaran female started to turn away, when Palpatine added, “Also, send in the Jedi prisoner . . . after you have escorted Senator Tagge into my office.”

Sly Moore nodded and left the office. Nearly a minute later, she returned with the senator from Bonadan, Jaren Tagge. A stocky human with pale skin and pale blue eyes, Senator Tagge happened to be a scion from a wealthy family that has represented Bonadan for the past twelve years. “Your Highness!” the visitor greeted Palpatine with a low bow. “As you can see, I have returned from Naboo. Very sad business. Very sad.” He spoke with the sincerity of a smuggler from the Outer Rim.

“Ah yes,” Palpatine responded with equal insincerity. “Senator Amidala’s funeral. I regret not being there. Considering that she had represented my homeworld.”

Senator Tagge heaved a feigned sigh. “And to have died so young . . . and violently.” He paused, as a sly expression crept across his solid face. “By the way, did you know that she was with child at the time of her death?”

“Really?” Palpatine crowed inwardly at the comment. He had seen the news report of Amidala’s funeral and recalled noticing her pregnant body being carried through the streets of Theed. The HoloNet News Service made no mention of the late senator’s pregnant state. Obviously, the news service had decided to respect Nabooan tradition of respecting the citizens’ private lives. It seemed that Senator Tagge could not care less about Nabooan tradition. Palpatine felt greatly relieved. He already has to live with the idea of Anakin Skywalker no longer within his grasp. A possible encounter with both Skywalker and his offspring could prove to be a greater threat.

“I wonder who was the father.”

Palpatine deliberately hesitated. “I am not in the habit of spreading rumors, mind you, but I have been aware of a . . . friendship between the late senator and a young Jedi Knight.”

Pale blue eyes widened with surprise . . . and pleasure. “A Jedi? No wonder they had her killed. I never believed the story that Senator Amidala had merely been caught up in the Jedi’s attempt to grab control of the Senate.”

Heaving a mournful sigh, Palpatine replied, “I can only say that we will never know the truth. By the way,” he sat down in the chair behind his desk, “I wanted to discuss another matter. Namely, the hyperbarides that your family’s corporation has been supplying the Empire. I . . .” He paused dramatically. “I have just received word from your sister-in-law, the Baroness that the Tagge Company insists upon charging the Empire 1,000 credits per kilo for the mineral. Is this true?”

Tagge’s demeanor stiffened. The obsequious politician with a taste for gossip had disappeared. In its place appeared a cool and ruthless businessman. “Yes, I’m afraid so, Your Highness. My sister-in-law had been foolish to promise you that the price for the hyperbarides would remain at 600 credits per kilo. Considering the recent political upheavals and the costs of the war, we felt it was best to raise the prices. After all, hyperbarides is very expensive to mine.”

Palpatine gave the politician a long, hard stare. He considered using the Force to manipulate the senator’s thoughts. But instinct told him that corrupt or not, Jaren Tagge was not weak-minded. The Tagge family possessed a reputation for their business acumen, ruthlessness and strong will. So that left . . .

His office door slid open, revealing Sly Moore. The Umbaran aide entered the room. “Pardon me, Your Highness. The Jedi prisoner is here. I believe you wanted to see him before we send him to the detention center for execution.”

“He’s here?” Palpatine asked, feigning surprise.

Sly Moore hesitated. “Why . . . yes. He is . . . in the corridor, outside. I wanted to make sure . . .”

“Send him in,” Palpatine ordered. “I want to speak to him, one last time.”

A frowning Tagge spoke up. “Pardon me Your Highness, but is that wise? He could be a danger to you.”

Playing her role to perfection, Sly Moore added, “The Jedi traitor has been slightly drugged. He is in no condition to be a threat.”

Palpatine nodded. “Send him in,” he repeated.

Sly Moore bowed and disappeared into the corridor. Seconds later, she returned with two red-clad Imperial Guards escorting a slightly dazed Romulus Wort. “Like I said, he is slightly drugged,” the aide added.

From the corner of his eye, Palpatine saw his aide surreptiously inject the Jedi prisoner’s arm with a needle . . . something to purge the drug from the latter’s blood system. It did not take long for Wort to lose his dazed expression. “What hap . . .?” He glanced down at the shackles that bound his wrists. They snapped open. Tagge jumped back in fear. Using the Force, Palpatine refastened the shackles. The Jedi Knight stared at him with sheer hatred. The Sith Lord could barely contain his revelry in the young man’s emotions. This should prove to be interesting.

“So, this is the Jedi,” Tagge pronounced in a sneering voice. “Guardians of the galaxy. Or should I say . . . usurpers?” The Bonadanian senator regarded Wort with contempt. “Tell me Jedi, were you into seducing female senators, as well?”

Wort stared at Senator Tagge with shock and confusion. “What?”

The Bonadanian ignored the younger man’s question, as he snorted with derision. “Jedi scum! You know, clone troopers managed to find two of your kind hiding out on my homeworld. Thankfully, they were cut down like the scum they were. It’s a shame that you’ll receive a military execution.” He turned to Palpatine. “Your Highness, may I ask how you had captured him?”

The Emperor replied smoothly, “Our Imperial troopers found him inside the Jedi Temple.” He found himself enjoying Tagge’s harassment of the young Jedi. The Bonadanian not only enjoyed gossip, but intimidating his lesser opponents. This made Tagge well feared in the Senate.

“Probably hiding, while his comrades were finally being rid of.” Tagge returned his attention to Wort. “You! Jedi! Did you hide, while your comrades were being killed? How did it feel to betray the Senate? To betray the Re . . . the Empire? I bet you enjoyed it.” A sly smile curved his lips. “Just as you must have enjoyed Senator Amidala’s favors. Were you the piece of scum who had conceived a child with her?

In a timely fashion, Palpatine intervened. “Now, Senator. Even though Senator Amidala had a relationship with one of the Jedi Knights, I do not believe that Master Wort here, was the father of her child.”

Wort’s eyes widened in shock. “Senator Amidala was . . .?” He shook his head. “That means Ana . . .”

Nodding, Tagge interrupted. “I believe you may be right, Your Highness. I doubt very much that this . . .” He sneered at the Jedi Knight. “. . . this scum has the energy, let alone the imagination to warm the late senator’s bed. I can only imagine which Jedi filth had been responsible.” He threw back his head in raucous laughter.

The next few minutes happened so fast that it nearly took Palpatine’s breath away. Once more, Wort’s restraints snapped open. He shook them off, grabbed one of the guard’s pike and knocked both guards to the floor. Then the Jedi Knight let out a roar and swung the pike Senator Tagge’s head. Three times. His left temple bleeding profusely, the senator slowly slumped to the floor. Palpatine quickly intervened by using the Force to thwack the back of Wort’s neck, causing the latter to fall to his knees, bleeding.

“Good!” Palpatine cackled. “Very good!”

The second Imperial Guard examined the unconscious senator and announced sonorously, “He is dead.”

“I assumed as much,” the Emperor coolly replied. “Leave us. All of you.” The guard dragged his unconscious colleague out of the office. A slightly shaken Sly Moore followed closely behind. Once the door slid shut, Palpatine turned to the slightly injured Jedi Knight. “Congratulations, Master Wort. I’m afraid that Senator Tagge was becoming quite a problem for me. However, you have managed to solve it, quite well.”

Wort regarded Tagge’s body with horror. “What have I done? I didn’t mean to hurt . . . I mean . . . He was saying all those horrible things about the Jedi. I had to shut him up.”

“Of course you did,” Palpatine replied in his most sympathetic voice. “But you must realize that you have just murdered a member of the Senate and a member of a prominent family. The Bonadanians, and especially the Tagge family will not take kindly to learning of his murder.”

“It’s not true,” Wort demanded, “about Senator Amidala being pregnant, is it?”

Palpatine sighed. “She was pregnant. Both she and the unborn child did not survive the recent upheaval, thanks to the child’s father.” He paused. “And I am quite certain that you now know his identity.”

Disbelief and rage formed storm clouds within Wort’s eyes. “Skywalker! This is all his fault! He is responsible! I never trusted him. Even from the day when he first joined the Order! And now, this? He had an illicit affair with Senator Amidala?”

“Yes, that did come as a surprise,” Palpatine murmured. “Along with the unborn child.”

Rage literally poured from Wort’s eyes. “Where is he? Where is Skywalker? Before you execute me, I should at least have the chance to kill him! He deserves nothing less!”

Coolly, Palpatine faced the young Jedi. “I’m afraid that Skywalker is . . . missing. Disappeared. He has failed to return from an assignment on Mustafar.”

“Is he dead?”

“Oh no, my young Jedi. No, I believe that he is still alive.” Palpatine paused before he murmured, “Or else I would have sensed otherwise.”

Wort’s dark eyes bored into Palpatine’s. “So, he has betrayed you, as well. I’m still asking for that chance.”

Palpatine returned Wort’s stare. “I sense a great desire to exact revenge, Master Wort. If that is what you truly desire, there is only one path in which to attain it.” He paused dramatically. “By my side.”

For a long moment, Wort hesitated. His eyes reflected a conflict between his past loyalties and oath and a new desire to inflict pain. The latter finally won out, as he slowly knelt on one knee. His face trembling with emotion, Wort declared, “The Jedi is gone. The Order no longer exists. Everyone that mattered to me in my life is . . . gone. I’ve committed murder . . . in cold blood.” His eyes once again expressed rage. “And that scum, Skywalker roams the galaxy. There is nothing left for me . . . other than to spill that traitorous scum’s blood. If serving you means allowing me the chance to do so, then so bet it.”

“You cannot back away from this,” Palpatine warned. “One apprentice has already betrayed me. I will not take kindly to another . . .”

Wort resolutely declared, “Unlike Skywalker, I am not in the habit of betraying one’s trust.” He lowered his head. “I will do . . . as you ask. Even if learning the Dark Side will achieve both of our goals. I . . . I pledge myself to the Empire, to the ways of the Sith . . . and to you.”

Palpatine allowed himself a triumphant smile. “Arise, my young apprentice. From now on, you shall be known as Darth Rasche.”

“Yes . . . Master.” The new Darth Rasche rose unsteadily to his feet and faced his new master.

“And now, we need to see about your immediate needs.” Palpatine activated the comlink on his desk. Sly Moore entered the room. “Please tend to Lord Rasche’s injuries. And he will also need new clothes and new quarters. Also, have someone tend to . . . Senator Tagge’s body. I will need to contact Baroness Tagge, as soon as possible.”

Sly Moore bowed. “Yes, Your Highness.” She turned to face Darth Rasche. “Please follow me, my Lord.”

After his aide and new apprentice had left the office, Palpatine strode toward the new windows that overlooked Coruscant’s skyline. Amazing, he thought. In one fell swoop, he had managed to rid himself of a troublesome senator and acquire a new apprentice . . . all at the same time. And this new apprentice might prove to be more malleable than his predecessor. Anakin Skywalker will rue the day he had turned his back on the Sith.

END OF CHAPTER FIVE

“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

 

“MEN IN BLACK 3” (2012) Review

After 2002’s “MEN IN BLACK II”, I never thought I would ever see another movie from the franchise based upon Lowell Cunningham’s The Men in Black comic book series. Never. After all, it was not exactly a critical success and was barely a commercial hit. And yet . . . the team from the first two movies went ahead and created a third one for the franchise. 

“MEN IN BLACK 3” picks up ten years after the last movie. Boris the Animal, the last surviving member of the Boglodite species, escapes from the LunarMax prison on Earth’s moon with the intention of seeking revenge against the MIB agent responsible for his arrest and loss of arm – Agent K. The latter discovers during a skirmish he and Agent J experience at a local Chinese restaurant that Boris has escaped. Unfortunately for Agent K, Boris arrives in Manhattan and seeks Jeffrey Price, the son of a fellow prisoner who had possession of a few time-jump mechanisms. Not much time passes before Agent K disappears from existence and Agent J is the only one who remembers his partner.

Agent O, who is MIB’s new Chief following Zed’s passing, deduces from Agent J’s statements that a fracture has occurred in the space-time continuum. The two realize Boris must have time-jumped to 1969 and killed K. And now an imminent Boglodite invasion threatens Earth, due to the absence of the protective ArcNet that K had installed in 1969. J acquires a similar time-jump mechanism from Price, jumps off the Chrysler Building in order to reach time-travel velocity, and arrives in July 1969, a day before Boris kills K.

When I learned that Steven Spielberg, director Barry Sonnenfeld, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones planned to do a third MEN IN BLACK movie; I could only shake my head in disbelief. Mind you, I did not dislike the second film. But it seemed a disappointment in compare to the quality of 1997 original movie. But in the end, I could not say no to a MEN IN BLACKmovie. And thank God I did go see it.

Now, “MEN IN BLACK 3” was not perfect. There were a few aspects about Etan Cohen’s screenplay that left me scratching my head. If Boris the Animal (oops! I mean Boris) had been imprisoned in the LunarMax prison for over 40 years, how on earth did Boris’ girlfriend Lily, who helped him escape, learn about his existence in the first place? I am also a little confused about Agent J and Agent K’s ages. According to 1997’s “MEN IN BLACK”, Agent k was a teenager in New Jersey when he experienced his first alien encounter before becoming a member of the Men in Black agency in 1961 or 1962. Yet, according to Cohen’s script, Agent K was a Texas native born in 1940. As for Agent J, he was at least four years old in July 1969. Which makes him at least 46 or 47 years old in this story. I could have sworn he was at least three or four years younger. Oh well.

However, by the time I became deeply engrossed in the story, I managed to forget these questionable aspects of “MEN IN BLACK 3”. I believe that “MEN IN BLACK” is the funnier movie. I cannot deny this. However, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” had the best plot of the three films. Time travel tends to be a hit-or-miss topic when it comes to the science-fiction genre. Aside from the questionable aspects of Agents K and J’s ages, I feel that “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story. One, Agent J proved to be the right character chosen for a time travel mission. Being over twenty years younger than his partner, he was the right person to see New York City and Cape Canaveral in 1969. Boris’ reasons for time travel proved to be a heady mixture of personal vengeance and the successful completion of his original mission to kill a refugee alien named Griffin, who possessed the ArcNet, a satellite device that would prevent Boris’ species, the Boglodites, from invading Earth and destroying mankind. Agent J’s time travel adventures gave audiences two peaks into what it must have been like for an African-American in the 1960s New York – something that the TV series “MAD MEN” more or less failed to do after five seasons. Kudos to director Barry Sonnenfeld for keeping this fascinating tale hilarious, poignant and on track.

Not only did “MEN IN BLACK 3” provided a first-rate time travel story, it also possessed some memorable scenes that I will never forget. My favorite scenes include the brief, yet bizarre memorial service for the recently dead Agent Zed; Agents K and J’s skirmish with some truly bizarre agents at a Chinese restaurant that I would not recommend to humans; Agent J’s initial time jump to 1969; J’s hilarious elevator encounter with a bigot fearful of being in close proximity with a black man; Agent J and young Agent K’s very funny and surprising meeting with “Andy Warhol” at the latter’s factory; the two agents’ meeting with Griffin at Shea Stadium; the meeting between old and young Boris in 1969; and Agent J’s discovery at Cape Canaveral of the true reason behind K’s strange behavior at the beginning of the story. But my favorite moment featured Agent J’s discovery that Agent K’s habit of ordering pie was just as frustrating in the past as it was in the present.

The production for “MEN IN BLACK 3” was also first-rate. Danny Elfman continued his outstanding work in providing a score similar to the franchise’s signature theme. I found Bill Pope’s photography to be rather sharp and colorful – especially the 1969 segments. Don Zimmerman did outstanding work as the film’s editor. I was especially impressed by his work in the time jump sequence and the showdown between the MIB agents and Boris at Cape Canaveral. And both Mary E. Vogt’s costume designs and Bo Welch’s production designs perfectly recaptured the end of the 1960s.

As for the performances . . . what can I say? The cast gave some truly outstanding performances in this film. Will Smith was absolutely marvelous as the time traveling Agent J. I thought he gave one of his best performances in a role that required him to be funny and poignant at the same time. I suspect that he more or less carried the movie on his shoulders. But he had fine support from a wonderful Tommy Lee Jones, who allowed audiences another peek into a personality who hid his emotions behind a stoic mask. I just never thought his emotions would be directed at Smith’s Agent J. And I never thought Spielberg and Sonnenfeld would find someone who not only could perfectly portray a younger Agent K, but create a similar screen dynamic with Smith. And Josh Brolin proved to be the man who did the job. He was fantastic.

Emma Thompson portrayed Agent O, the new leader of the Men in Black agency. And I adored her performance, especially the scene that required her to give a eulogy for Zed at his memorial . . . in an alien language. Alice Eve was charming as the younger Agent O. She and Brolin had a nice chemistry going as two MIB agents attracted to one another. What can I say about Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as the precognitive alien, Griffin? Oh God, he was so wonderful. He portrayed Griffin with a delicious mixture of wisdom and naivety. I wanted to gather him in my arms and squeeze him like a teddy bear. Someone once commented (or complained) that New Zealand comic Jemaine Clement as the movie’s main villain, Boris the Animal, was not funny. Frankly, Clement was a lot more scary than funny. But he did have one scene that left me rolling in the aisles with laughter – namely Boris’ encounter with his younger self in 1969. Even more important, Clement portrayed Boris as one scary and resourceful villain.

What else can I say about “MEN IN BLACK 3”? Sure, it had a few glitches regarding the plot and the two main characters’ ages. But thanks to Etan Cohen’s script that featured an outstanding time travel story, outstanding performances from a cast led by Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin; the movie turned out to be a first-rate addition to the franchise and one of my favorite movies of the summer of 2012. Thank you Barry Sonnenfeld! You have not lost your touch.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epic and commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “BABYLON 5” (Season One: “Signs and Portents”)

Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season One (1994) of “BABYLON 5”. Created by J. Michael Straczynski, the series starred Michael O’Hare, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle and Mira Furlan: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “BABYLON 5” (SEASON ONE: “SIGNS AND PORTENTS”)

1. (1.13) “Signs and Portents” – In this episode, a Centauri noble comes to Babylon 5 to transport an important Centauri relic in Londo’s possession back to the homeworld. And a mysterious man named Mr. Morden visits all the alien ambassadors in order to ask them an unusual question.

2. (1.08) “And the Sky Full of Stars” – Commander Sinclair is kidnapped and interrogated by two war veterans determined to prove that he had betrayed Earth at the Battle of the Line, during the Earth-Minbari War.

3. (1.20) “Babylon Squared” – The previous Babylon station, Babylon 4, reappears at the same place it had disappeared four years earlier. Sinclair and Garabaldi lead an evacuation team for the station’s crew. The story concludes in Season Three. Meanwhile, Ambassador Delenn is summoned by Minbar’s Grey Council and is asked to become the new leader.

4. (1.22) “Chrysalis” – In the season finale, Delenn commences upon a physical transformation, Ambassador Londo Mollari receives an offer from Mr. Morden to deal with a problem regarding the Narns, and Garabaldi uncovers a deadly conspiracy against the President of Earth Alliance.

5. (1.12) “By Any Means Necessary” – Following a fatal accident in the station’s docking bay, an increasingly exhausted Sinclair is forced to deal with a potential labor uprising. And Ambassador G’Kar has to get a replacement G’Quan-Eth plant for an important religious ceremony.

“THE LADY VANISHES” (1938) Review

 

“THE LADY VANISHES” (1938) Review

During a seventeen year period between 1922 and 1939, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock became one of the more prolific directors during the early years of British cinema. Films such as 1934’s “THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH” and 1935’s “THE 39 STEPS” caught the attention of film critics and Hollywood producers. But it was 1938’s “THE LADY VANISHES” that paved the way for Hitchcock to achieve Hollywood fame and fortune.

Based upon Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, “The Wheel Spins”“THE LADY VANISHES” is about a young English woman named Iris Henderson, who stumbles across a mystery surrounding the disappearance of an elderly woman and fellow Briton from a train traveling westward, across Europe. In the fictional country of Bandrika, a group of travelers eager to resume their journey west is delayed by an avalanche that has blocked the railway tracks. Most of the travelers bunk at a local hotel, where Iris and her two friends had been staying for their holiday. Later that night, a folk singer plays a tune that catches the attention of the elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty), who has been working abroad for several years as a governess. Before the singer can finish his tune, he is silenced . . . murdered.

The following morning, the rail tracks are cleared and the passengers are able to resume their journeys. Iris, who plans to marry a wealthy man upon her return to England, becomes one of the train’s passengers. While waiting to board the train, a flower pot meant for Miss Foy, hits Iris on the head. Other passengers include a young English musicologist named Gilbert; Miss Froy; a adulterous couple named “Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter”, who are returning home to their respective spouses; Caldicott and Charters, two friends eager to return to England for a cricket match; and a Central European surgeon named Dr. Egon Hartz, who is accompanying a patient to his clinic. Iris and Miss Froy become acquainted, first in their compartment and later, in the dining car for some tea. Upon their return to their compartment, Iris falls asleep. When she awakens, the the governess has vanished, and Iris is shocked to learn that the other passengers in her compartment claim that Miss Froy had never existed.

Many film critics have claimed that “THE LADY VANISHES” was Hitchcock’s best film during his English period as a director. I cannot agree or disagree, since the only other Hitchcock film made in Britain that I have seen was “THE 39 STEPS”. Unfortunately, I have not seen that particular movie since I was a teenager. However, I cannot deny that “THE LADY VANISHES” was a first-rate, yet slightly flawed movie. I also cannot deny that I consider it to be one of his better movies during the first half of his career as a director.

“THE LADY VANISHES” possessed several aspects that made it very enjoyable for me. One, the movie is set during a journey – in this case, a train journey across Europe. I am a big sucker for “road” movies, especially when it is well made. Two, Hitchcock and the movie’s two screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, made several changes to White’s novel – the most important that changed the Miss Foy character from an innocent who had stumbled across a secret to a genuine spy with some vital information for the British government. This particular change injected an air of necessity into the movie that allowed its story to be more suspenseful and urgent. The movie also benefited from some first-class photography by cinematographer Jack E. Cox. He did a solid job of conveying the illusion of travel. But I was especially impressed by two scenes featuring Cox’s use of a train window – a moment in which Iris sees Miss Foy’s name on a dining car window, and Gilbert’s discovery of Miss Foy’s existence by his glimpse of a tea box wrapping pressed briefly pressed against another window.

Hitchcock originally considered Lilli Palmer as his leading lady. But he changed his mind and went with unknown actress Margaret Lockwood, who was a fan of Ethel Lina White’s literary heroines. Personally, he made the right choice. I have nothing against Lilli Palmer, who was a talented actress in her own right. But Lockwood really made Iris her own with a passionate and intelligent performance. Iris could have easily become one of those beautiful, yet slightly bland damsels that solely depended upon men to help her. But Lockwood infused the character with a strong will and an intelligence that allowed her to be a major participant in the deduction of Miss Foy’s whereabouts. A successful stage actor, Michael Redgrave did not want to be a part of the “THE LADY VANISHES”, being reluctant to leave the stage to be in a film. John Gielgud convinced him to accept the role of Gilbert and Redgrave became an international star, following the movie’s release. And it is easy to see why. The man had a natural talent for the screen. And that is not something I can say about many other stage actors who have been lured into movies. Not only did he have a natural grace and charm, his portrayal of Gilbert struck me as both subtle and very funny. He and Lockwood projected a strong screen presence together. And I am surprised that “THE LADY VANISHES” proved to be the first of only two movies they made together. Pity.

“THE LADY VANISHES” was also blessed by a first-rate supporting cast. Paul Lukas gave a very subtle role as the European doctor that proved to be the main villain. Although her character proved to be the story’s main catalyst, Dame May Whitty had very few scenes in this movie. Yet, her warm and intelligent performance as the mysterious Miss Foy proved to have a strong presence throughout the story. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford had worked on both the stage and in films throughout the 1930s before they worked together for the first time in “THE LADY VANISHES” as the two cricket-loving passengers, Caldicott and Charters. The pair created screen magic and would end up working together as a first-rate comic team for years to come. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers provided some subtle melodrama as a pair of adulterous lovers returning home to their spouses in Britain. Parker’s character, the pretentious “Mr. Todhunter”, ended up serving as an allegory of the appeasement supporters who preferred caving in to Adolf Hitler’s demands, instead of war. Mind you, the use of the “Mr. Todhunter” character seemed a bit heavy-handed, but effective.

As much as I enjoyed “THE LADY VANISHES”, I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. All right, I found it flawed . . . period. The movie’s first twenty minutes at the Bandrika inn struck me as a little boring. Only Iris and Gilbert’s first meeting kept me from falling asleep. And if I must be frank, I found that scene a little hard to accept. After getting kicked out of his room for disturbing Iris’ sleep, Gilbert barged his way into her room and threatened to sleep there if she did not retract her complaint. Why was Iris’ room unlocked? What woman (or man) would leave his hotel room unlocked in a strange country, far from home? Even in 1938?

My biggest problem with “THE LADY VANISHES” turned out to be the British xenophobia that marred the movie’s last half hour. Now, a part of me realizes the movie may have been a propaganda piece against fascism. But in “THE LADY VANISHES”, I believe that Hitchcock, Gilliat and Launder went too far. One, the English-born “nun” (read actress) whom Dr. Hartz hired to guard the unconscious Miss Foy became outraged when she learned that her prisoner was also English. Let me see if I understand this. “The Nun” had no problems helping Dr. Hartz maintain a prisoner, as long as the latter was not a fellow Briton? Really? Even more incredulous was the shoot-out scene in which all of the English passengers found themselves inside the dining car and engaged in a shoot-out with Hartz and his fellow countrymen, after the train is diverted to a side track. Why not allow passengers from nations such as France, Belgium, Holland or the Scandinavian countries participate in the shootout? Why was it so important to Hitchcock and the screenwriters to allow only Britons to duke it out with Hartz and his men? This scene was one of the most blatant forms of xenophobia I had ever come across.

But you know what? Despite the xenophobia and the movie’s dull beginning, “THE LADY VANISHES” remains a big favorite of mine. It is still a first-rate political thriller that is infused with sharp humor and a very believable romance, thanks to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. I am not surprised that in the end, “THE LADY VANISHES” ended up serving as the catalyst for Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.

“BATTLESHIP” (2012) Review

“BATTLESHIP” (2012) Review

Several years ago, the toy company Hasbro made a deal with Universal Pictures to produce and release a series of movies based upon their games and toys. The first movie to emerge from this deal turned out to be the 2009 movie, “G.I. JOE” THE RISE OF COBRA”. Recently, another movie emerged from this deal, namely an alien invasion tale called“BATTLESHIP”

Named after the popular board game, “BATTLESHIP” told the story of a fleet of U.S. and Japan Navy ships forced to do battle with an advanced group of invading aliens. The story began in 2005, when NASA discovers an extrasolar planet with conditions similar to Earth. The space agency transmits a powerful signal from a communications array in Hawaii. Also, an undisciplined slacker named Alex Hopper tries to impress a woman by getting her a chicken burrito by breaking into a convenience store. The woman in question is Samantha Shane, the daughter of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Terrance Shane, who is the superior of Commander Stone Hopper, Alex’s older brother. After Alex is arrested, an infuriated Stone forces Alex to join the Navy.

Seven years later, Alex is a lieutenant and the Tactical Action Officer aboard the destroyer, U.S.S. John Paul Jones, while Stone is the commanding officer of U.S.S. Sampson. Alex is still dating Samantha and wants to marry her, but is afraid to ask her father for permission. During the opening ceremony for the RIMPAC naval exercises, Alex clashes with Japanese officer Captain Nagata. This incident proves to be the latest in a string of incidents that could result in the end of his Navy career. Meanwhile, Samantha, who is a physical therapist, accompanies retired Army veteran and amputee Mick Canales on a hike to help him adapt to his prosthetic legs. However, the arrival of five alien ships places Alex and Samantha’s problems on the back burner, when the U.S. Navy and forces from the Pacific Rim nations to deal with the alien invading force, after it places a force field around the Hawaiian Islands.

When I first saw the trailer for “BATTLESHIP”, I found myself wondering if Universal Pictures and Hasbro came up with the idea of a movie about the U.S. Navy battling aliens, from the naval warfare service. And I found myself wondering if the Navy wanted their own alien invasion movie, following the success of last year’s “BATTLE: LOS ANGELES”, which was about U.S. Marines fighting aliens. However, production for “BATTLESHIP” began some two years ago; so I nixed that idea. Whoever came up with the idea for “BATTLESHIP” . . . I wish that he or she never had in the first place.

There were aspects of “BATTLESHIP” that I liked. I thought it had a solid cast. Taylor Kitsch was very effective as Alex Hopper, who developed from an undisciplined slacker to a responsible and resourceful naval officer. He also had good chemistry with singer Rihanna, who portrayed a weapons specialist under Hopper’s command; and Alexander Skarsgård, who portrayed Alex’s uber disciplined older brother, Stone. But I was especially impressed with Kitsch’s chemistry with Tadanobu Asano, who portrayed Japanese naval officer, Captain Nagata. Both Kitsch and Asano did a great job in developing the relationship between the two men. I was also impressed by Tobias A. Schliessler’s breathtaking photography of the Hawaiian Islands and the nearby Pacific Ocean. And I was also impressed by the visual effects team led by Akemi Abe. Although I found the aliens themselves a little too mechanical, I must admit that visually, they were effectively frightening.

But when all has been said and done in the end, I must admit that I did not like “BATTLESHIP”. Not one damn bit. Well . . . at least most of it. I feel that it was one of the most over-the-top action movies I have ever seen. Even worse, I got the feeling that Peter Berg, who has proven to be a solid director in the past, was trying to channel Michael Bay and the latter’s TRANSFORMER movies. And it just did not work. It is bad enough that I am not a fan of the TRANSFORMERfranchise. For me, it is like watching a science-fiction version of the TWILIGHT films. But that a decent director like Berg felt he had to lower himself to that level . . . dear God! Why? What director in his or her right mind want to become a second-rate Michael Bay?

So . . . what was it about “BATTLESHIP” that I disliked? After watching this film, I realized that a movie about an alien invasion set aboard naval ships is not very effective. The aliens in this movie limited themselves to naval ships and a communication array in the hills above Honolulu, Hawaii. Very limiting. And how on earth did a character like Alex Hopper lasted seven years in the U.S. Navy? Apparently, seven years of military service had done nothing to curb his undisciplined personality. It took an alien invasion to get him in line. Really? Give me a break. I bet that a character like Alex would not even last during officer training school, let alone seven years in the Navy. How on earth did a guy who had been arrested for breaking into a convenience store ended up as a naval officer in the first place? Guys like Alex would have ended up as an enlisted man. And yes, I found some of the performances rather mediocre – especially from the inexperienced Gregory Gadson, who was a former U.S. Army Colonel amputee; and actor Jesse Simmons, who came off as a second-rate Matt Damon, “the early years”. And Liam Neeson proved to be wasted in this film, due to his appearances in the movie’s first 30 minutes and last 10 minutes. But what proved to be the last straw for me was the initial encounter between the survivors of the destroyed U.S.S. John Paul Jones and a group of World War II veterans aboard the museum ship U.S.S. Missouri. This scene was so ridiculous that it took me at least five minutes to stop rolling my eyes in disgust.

I wish I could say that I liked “BATTLESHIP”. But I would be lying through my teeth. It had certain aspects that I found . . . admirable and likeable, including a strong screen chemistry between leading man Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano.  And there were moments in the movie that I found entertaining.  But in the end,“BATTLESHIP” made director Peter Berg seem like a second-rate Michael Bay. And you know what? That is not good for a solid director like Berg.

Altered Lives [PG-13] – Chapter Four

“ALTERED LIVES”

CHAPTER FOUR

OUTSKIRTS OF MOS ESPA, TATOOINE

Anakin glided his Jedi fighter over the stark Tatooine desert before he landed at a spot just outside of Mos Espa. The heat from the planet’s twin suns seemed to radiate even stronger than he remembered from the last time he had visited, three years ago. He checked his pockets. Thank goodness he had remembered that Republic credits were not valued highly on Tatooine. Back on Melida/Daan, he had the good luck to exchange the Republic credits in his possession for Wupiupi, which Tatooine’s merchants did value.

A sigh left his mouth, as he contemplated his situation. Although he possessed Wupiupi, he only had enough to possibly last him a few days. If he failed to find employment with Watto or any other Tatooine merchant in Mos Espa, he might find himself in serious financial trouble.

The former Jedi Knight and Sith apprentice grabbed his robe and climbed out of the cockpit. He then removed his Jedi tunic before donning the robe to protect himself from the suns’ heat. For nearly a half hour, he trudged across the planet’s flat sandy terrain. Anakin found himself remembering why he had always disliked this planet. He could already feel the sand slip into his boots and torment the bottom of his feet.

The dome-shaped roofs of Mos Espa finally appeared on the horizon. Upon closer looked just as Anakin had remembered from his early childhood and from three years ago – crowded, dusty and crude. However, he knew that Mos Espa was a glittering metropolis in compare to smaller cities and towns like Mos Entha, Anchorhead, Tosche Station and the planet’s capital – Bestine. Only Mos Eisley was larger. He weaved his way through the crowds, ignoring the occasional stare from passing pedestrians. He finally came upon the junk shop where he had worked for several years as a slave.

A door chime announced his entrance. A young human male with light brown hair and a face slightly red from too much sun rushed from the workroom in the back to greet Anakin. “Good afternoon, sir,” he greeted obsequiously. “May I help you?”

Anakin hesitated. Had Watto finally managed to survive hard times and acquire a new slave? If so, his chances for employment looked slim. “Um . . . may I speak to the owner of this shop?”

The man’s smile widened. “You’re speaking to him. I’m the owner. Bashir Gupa. May I help you?”

Oh no. This really looked bad. “You mean that Watto no longer owns this shop?”

Gupa’s smile disappeared. “Uh, no. I’m afraid not. I became the new owner nearly two years ago. Watto had lost it in a bet we had made. Over podracing.” He peered warily at Anakin. “Were you . . . an old friend?”

Anakin nearly snorted at the idea. He could hardly describe his relationship with his former Toydarian master as friendly. Then he blinked. Did the man just said . . .? “Were?”

“Why yes.” Gupa hesitated. “Watto had been killed by one of the Hutts. He had failed to pay back a loan given to him by one of their moneylenders. You see, he had borrowed money from them to save his business. Instead of using it to save his business, he lost it betting on the podraces. And then we . . . uh, wagered on another race. I put up money. And he bet his shop.” Looking slightly embarrassed, Gupa added, “I won, as you can see. And when the time came to pay back the loan . . . I’m sure that you understand.”

Shock overwhelmed Anakin’s mind. Watto dead at the hands of the Hutts? Yet, recalling his former owner’s betting habits, Anakin realized that he should not have been surprised. Poor Watto. The Jedi Knight was surprised to feel a glimmer of grief for the late Toydarian. But more importantly, he saw his initial plans for a new life in danger.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Gupa asked politely. A plea for a temporary job entered Anakin’s mind. He opened his mouth to speak, when he spotted an R4 astromech droid rolled into the main room. Anakin saw his chances for employment with Gupa turn into dust.

Smiling politely, the former Jedi shook his head. “No, I’m fine. Thank you for the information.”

“If you have parts you might want to acquire . . .” Gupa began. But Anakin had left the shop before the other man could finish.

———-

THEED, NABOO

The funeral of Padme Nabierre Amidala proved to be a stately and memorable affair. Reports of her death had not only drew prominent Nabooan figures and many of her fellow senators to the planet’s capital, Theed, but also Nabooan citizens from all walks of life.

Jobal Nabierre glanced around the chapel with great interest. Her eyes rested upon the tall senator from Alderaan. Bail Organa stood before a podium, as he delivered what Jobal found to be a very stirring eulogy about her daughter. As she listened to Senator Organa’s words, Jobal understood how he had become such a prominent figure in the Galactic Senate. It seemed a shame that he had been unable to use that prominence to prevent the three-year Clone War. Or stop the Chancellor from becoming Emperor.

As for the Emperor, he had not bothered to appear at Padme’s funeral. Which Jobal found rather odd, considering that he had once been her daughter’s mentor. Instead, Palpatine had sent Mas Amedda, the Senate’s Speaker, to represent him. Perhaps it was fortuitous that the Emperor had not bother to appear. Considering her daughter’s true fate.

Three days ago, the citizens of Naboo had received word that their respected senator and former was dead. The news shocked the planet’s citizens and enveloped the Nabierre household into a state of grief. Then more terrible news followed. The Jedi had killed Padme and a few other senators during an attempt to overthrow the Chancellor and take control of the Senate. According to the HoloNet news, this incident had led to the Jedi Temple massacre and the Order’s destruction.

After Padme had first began a career in politics, Jobal feared that her daughter’s profession might prove to be troublesome or worse, hazardous. In the following years, her fears proved correct after Padme survived the Trade Federation invasion, the Battle of Genoisis and several assassination attempts. But never did Jobal imagine that the Jedi would cause her daughter’s destruction. And never did she felt so happy to be proven wrong when she and Ruwee finally learned the truth.

Bail Organa had arrived in Theed with two Jedi masters, Padme’s unconscious body and two infants. When the Alderaanian senator and the Jedi revealed the circumstances behind Padme’s present state, Jobal and Ruwee learned that they were the grandparents of twin infants. They had already known of their daughter’s secret wedding to the young Jedi, Anakin Skywalker. But Jobal found it slightly disturbing that Padme had never bothered to reveal her pregnancy to her own parents.

Following the memorial service, many gathered around the Nabierre family to pay their respects. Jobal accepted well wishes from prominent Nabooans as Boss Nass and Jar-Jar Binks of the Gungans, Queen Apailana, and Grand Moff Panaka – who used to be Padme’s bodyguard, when she was Naboo’s queen. Only Padme’s immediate successor and Apailana’s predecessor, former Queen Jamilla, was conspicuously missing. Jobal suspected that Jamilla’s sympathies toward the Separatist movement made it impractical for her to make an appearance. Some of Padme’s former colleagues also came forth to pay their respects – Senators Garm Bel Iblis, Mon Mothma, Jaren Tagge, Giddean Dann, Solipo Yep and Meena Tills, amongst them. Jobal overheard her husband inhaled sharply, when Senator Mas Amedda approached them.

“The Emperor wishes to convey his sympathy during these trying times for your family,” the Chagrian boomed solemnly. “He also wishes to convey his regret for being unable to attend. Due to the present political turmoil, he has been forced to remain on Coruscant.”

Juwee bowed politely. “Thank you,” he began.

Senator Amedda continued, “And I would also like to convey my sympathy, as well. Senator Amidala had been a bright beacon within the Senate. What had happened to her was a travesty.”

Ruwee’s jaw twitched slightly, as he replied, “Again, thank you . . . for your kind words.” The Chagrian senator bowed slightly and moved on. Husband and wife heaved muted sighs of relief.

Less than an hour later, the funeral procession commenced. Padme’s drugged body was placed in an open carriage. Three teams of white horses pulled the carriage along a route that stretched from the chapel, through the streets of Theed and to the Nabierre’s house. Candles carried by Theed’s grieving citizens illuminated the procession. Jobal could not help but feel touched by the Nabooans’ response to her daughter’s memory. She wondered how many would feel if they knew that Padme was still alive.

The procession finally ended at the Nabierres’ townhouse. There, the family held a wake. Jobal felt an overwhelming sense of relief when the wake finally ended after three hours. While her older daughter, Sola, bid the guests good-bye, Jobal and Ruwee made their way to a private room in the far west wing of the house. There, they found Padme’s two droids attending their now conscious younger daughter. In one corner of the room, the twins slept in matching basquinetts.

“Mother, Father,” Padme muttered, as she struggled to sit up.

Jobal rushed forward to help her daughter. “Padme,” she exclaimed, “you shouldn’t get up. You need more rest.”

A sigh left the younger woman’s mouth. “I’ve had enough rest for the past day or two. What I need is to get up. Please help me.”

Reluctantly, Jobal and Ruwee helped escort their daughter from her bed to a nearby chair. “Do you want to hold the children?” Ruwee asked.

Padme shook her head. “No, let them sleep.” She turned to her protocol droid. “Threepio, could you please pour a glass of juice for me?”

“Yes, Miss Padme.” The protocol droid made its way toward the sideboard.

“Where are Master Yoda and Master Kenobi?” Padme asked, after the droid handed her a glass of juice. “And where is Bail?”

Ruwee replied, “The Jedi are in another room. They would like to speak to you before they leave. To say good-bye.”

A grimace appeared on Padme’s face before it quickly disappeared. “Now that I’m awake, you might as well send them in.”

After Ruwee left the room, Jobal sat down in a nearby empty chair. “Well, this has certainly been an interesting week. By the way, Padme, when were you planning to tell us about your pregnancy?”

Padme sighed heavily. “Ani . . . Anakin and I had plans to move here to Naboo. We wanted to go to the Lake District for the twins’ births. Only . . .” Another sigh left her mouth. “Only, we never had a chance to go ahead with our plans.”

“Like Anakin joining the Emperor?” Jobal asked. Padme glanced sharply at her. “Yes, Senator Organa and Master Kenobi told us what happened on Mustafar and Polis Massa.”

Padme’s mouth twisted into another grimace. “I wanted to tell you and Father, myself.”

“Would you have told us the truth?”

The younger woman took another sip of juice. “What happened is a long story, Mother. It’s not as simple as you think.”

At that moment, Ruwee returned with the two Jedi masters in tow. Both Master Yoda and Master Kenobi bowed at Padme. “Have recovered, I am happy to see,” the green, dimunitive Jedi Master commented. “You are well, we hope?”

Padme’s mouth barely stretched into a smile. “Yes. Thank you, Master Yoda. And thank you for your help. Both of you.” She paused, as hope gleamed in her dark eyes. “About . . . um, what happened to Anakin on Mustafar? You never told me.”

Master Yoda and Master Kenobi exchanged uneasy looks. Jobal felt a small, sense of forebordance. Master Kenboi inhaled sharply, as he glanced at her daughter with mournful eyes. “I’m so sorry, Padme. I really am. But you must understand. I had to . . . face him.”

Jobal saw the hope dim from her daughter’s eyes. Her mouth twitched momentarily. “I see,” Padme murmured. She glanced away. “So much for that.”

“Again, I am so sor . . .”

Padme held up one hand, interrupting Master Kenobi. “No. It’s fine. I . . .” She took a deep breath. “I suppose it’s time for you two to leave.”

Master Yoda murmured, “Yes, of course.” He took hold of her hand and bowed over it. “Farewell, Senator Amidala. May the Force be with you.” He hobbled out of the room.

Slowly, Master Kenobi approached Padme with sorrowful eyes. He leaned forward and planted a light kiss on Padme’s cheek. She flinched slightly. “Take care, Padme. And may the Force be with you.” He then bowed and immediately left. Ruwee followed.

A heavy silence permeated the room. Jobal glanced at her daughter’s mournful expression. Pity welled within her chest. She tried to lift Padme’s mood by suggesting that the latter eat a meal. “You probably haven’t eaten a bite in days. I’ll have one of your droids bring you a tray . . .”

“I’m not hungry, Mother,” Padme murmured. “Not now. Frankly, I would rather rest.”

Jobal protested. “But you said that you had enough rest for the past few days.”

Padme sighed. “Apparently, I was wrong. So, if you don’t mind?”

Keeping her thoughts to herself, Jobal helped lead her daughter back to the bed. As she covered Padme with a blanket, a dark wish came to her that Padme had never given up on Kun Largo’s son, Ian, those many years ago.

——–

MOS ESPA, TATOOINE

The tavern’s barkeep walked along the bar’s length before he dumped a plate of food before Anakin. “Anything else, sir?”

Anakin stared at the food and murmured, “No. This will be fine. Thanks.” The bartender nodded and moved away.

Ignoring the conversation that buzzed around the tavern’s main dining room and the Holonet monitor situated above the bar, Anakin heaved a sigh. Now that his plans for being temporarily employed by Watto no longer existed, he realized that he might have to consider another option – the Lars’ moisture farm. He did not look forward to facing the painful memories of his mother’s death. But it was either that or face gradual homelessness and starvation, here in Mos Espa.

After learning of Watto’s death, Anakin had sought employment at some of the other local businesses. But slavery had maintained a firm grip upon Tatooine’s economy. Most merchants were willing to accept Anakin’s labor – but only if he volunteered his services as an indentured servant. Being a slaveowner was considered to be part of the planet’s status quo. And if one could not afford to purchase slaves, one used droids instead. Free labor seemed a long way from becoming popular on Tatooine. Anakin wondered if it ever will.

He took a bit of the Lamta. Not bad, he thought. Although Shmi Skywalker could have done a lot better. While he continued to eat his Lamta and Jerked Dewback Meat, a dusty stranger sat down on the stool next to him. “Bartender!” the man cried. “I’ll have a Tatooine Sunburn.” The bartender nodded and proceeded to prepare the beverage.

“How do you do?” the stranger greeted Anakin. “Nice little meal you got there.”

Anakin suppressed an annoyed sigh. He felt no urge to engage in light conversation. “It’s not bad,” he politely replied.

The bartender returned with the man’s drink. He took a sip. “Ah! That hits the spot! Nothing like a Tatooine Sunburn to relieve you after hours in this damn, dusty town.”

So much for a private meal. Anakin spared the man a cool smile and said, “Yeah. Mos Espa can be rather congested.”

“No kidding! I much prefer the wide, open spaces of my moisture farm, near Anchorhead.” The man paused. “Are you a farmer? Though to be honest, you don’t look like one.”

Anakin took a sip of his blue milk. “I’m a pilot. A spacer.”

“Oh.”

A thought came to the younger man. “You say that you’re a moisture farmer?” he asked. “Do you, by any chance, know one named Cliegg Lars?”

The man nodded. “Sure, I knew him.”

“Knew?” A bad feeling formed in the pit of Anakin’s stomach.

“Well . . . yeah.” The man paused. “I’m Gorn Meese, by the way.”

Anakin replied, “I’m . . . Ric Olie. Did you say that you knew Cliegg Lars?”

Meese nodded. “That’s right. Lars had passed away over two years ago. Poor fellow. He had lost a leg after his wife was kidnapped and killed by Tusken Raiders. He didn’t live very long after that. His son, Owen, now owns the farm. Good solid lad, but a bit too solemn for my taste, if you ask me.”

Dead? Anakin’s mind reeled at Meese’s news. Cliegg Lars had died . . . along with his last hope. Anakin realized that he could still seek refuge at the Lars’ homestead. But the idea of spending most of his time with Owen Lars did not appeal to him. The two step-brothers had not exactly warm to each other when they met, three years ago. Anakin harbored a slight suspicion that Owen either disliked him – or merely disapproved of him. And he had no desire to spend time at a place where he was barely tolerated. Thirteen years with the Jedi Order had been bad enough.

“Hey fella! Mr. Olie. Are you okay?” Meese asked with a slight frown. “You look a bit pale.”

Anakin shook his head. “No, I’m . . . I’m fine. I . . . I had known Mr. Lars. A few years ago, I had sold him a utility droid in exchange for parts. He and his . . . wife . . . had offered me a meal and a bed for the night.” Anakin swallowed hard, as he spoke his next words. “I haven’t forgotten their kindness.”

Again, Meese nodded. “I know what you mean. Quite a pair they were – Cliegg and Shmi Lars.” He drained the last of his Tatooine Sunburn. “Well, nice meeting you, Mr. Olie. Hope you have good luck in your future ventures.”

“Same to you, Mr. Meese. Good day.” Anakin managed to give the farmer a brief smile, before the latter left the bar.

Once alone, the former Jedi Knight sighed long and hard. Since he could not find refuge with Watto and refused to do so with Owen Lars, he no longer had a place to go. Well, that not might be true. He could return to Coruscant and continue to serve Palpatine. But Anakin could no longer accept the idea of becoming a Sith Lord again. Of course, there was Naboo . . .

While Anakin continued to finish his meal, the bartender turned up the Holonet monitor’s volume. “. . . yesterday, mourned the loss of one of the Senate’s most prominent members. During the Jedi Order’s attempted takeover of the Galactic Senate, Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo had been killed during the ensuing struggle. Her body was returned to Theed, Naboo’s capital, where fellow citizens bid her a final farewell.”

A horrified Anakin glanced up at the monitor and listened while the journalist described details of the funeral at Theed and Padme’s personal and political background. The journalist concluded, “Senator Padme Nabierre Amidala, Princess of Theed, Queen of Naboo and Senator of the Galactic Senate . . . dead at the age of 27. This is Narella Shibab of the HoloNet News Service, reporting.”

“Damn Jedi!” the bartender muttered. “Can you beat that? Killing a good woman for their own thirst for power.” He faced Anakin. “Say mister, would you like a refill? Mister?”

Anakin could not hear the bartender over the anguished cries that filled his mind.

———

It took all of Anakin’s self-control to keep his grief in check. Anger, sorrow and disbelief raged within him as he quickly paid the bartender for his meal. Then he rushed out of the tavern and made his way toward the edge of town. By the time he reached his the spot where had left his starfighter, Anakin allowed his emotions to overwhelm him.

Padme dead? It could not have been possible! He had felt her. Sensed her, after he had . . . With a cry, Anakin shut off the unpleasant memory of his attack upon his wife. No! No, it was impossible. She could not be dead. Not his Padme. She . . .

At that moment, Anakin completely surrendered to his grief. He plopped down on the sand and began to cry. She could not be dead. Not Padme. Not . . . The sobs tore from his mouth, while his shoulders heaved up and down in grief. After several minutes had passed, he sniffled for a few seconds and wiped away his tears. He decided that he would go to Naboo and discover the truth. There must be some mistake. Perhaps she was in hiding from the Emperor. Or perhaps she . . . Memories of the HoloNet News Service airing Padme’s funeral procession flashed in Anakin’s mind. Along with a memory of his wife’s body – her pregnant body – being carried throughout the streets of Theed in an open carriage.

Utter despair finally settled within him. There seemed to be no doubt that Padme was dead. By his hand. He was evil. An evil monster. Not only had he helped destroy the Jedi Order, he had killed the one person who meant more to him than anyone in this galaxy, aside from his mother. At first, Anakin had an urge to return to Mos Espa and inflict his grief upon the city’s population. Someone had to experience the pain he now felt. But then he remembered Shmi’s death and how he had reacted. A sigh left his mouth. He simply could not do it. Not again. Becoming a monster had done nothing but ruined his life. And indulging in his darker impulses would only sink his life further into the abyss. But Anakin could not remain here on Tatooine. Once again, the desert planet had reared its ugly head and inflicted great pain upon him. He had to leave. Find a place where he could escape from his painful memories.

Anakin took a deep breath and stood up. His eyes fell upon a few small cogs half-buried in the desert sand near his left foot. He also noticed tracks made from a Jawa sandcrawler. What were they . . .? Then Anakin glanced around his surroundings. Sure enough, this seemed to be the very spot where he had landed on Tatooine. Only . . . aside from a few cogs, his Jedi starfighter seemed to be missing.

END OF CHAPTER FOUR

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

“DARK SHADOWS” (2012) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of director Tim Burton. Honestly. In fact, I can only think of one or two of his movies that really impressed me. Okay, I can think of two . . . before I saw his latest opus, “DARK SHADOWS”

The last Burton film that really impressed me was his 2007 Oscar-nominated film, “SWEENEY TODD”. I did not love it. And I have no desire to see it again. But it did impress me. So, when I discovered that he did a big screen adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC television series, I reacted with mild interest. I have never seen the old television series. And to be honest, I have no real desire to watch it. It was the humor featured in the trailer for Burton’s new film that led me to see it.

“DARK SHADOWS” told the story of Barnabas Collins, the 18th century scion of a wealthy Colonial family, who is transformed into a vampire by a scorned lover named Angelique Bouchard, who also happened to be a Collins family servant and a witch. After transforming him into a vampire, Angelique led a lynch mob that captures Barnabas and buries him alive in a chained coffin in the woods. Two hundred years later in 1972, a group of construction workers accidentally free Barnabas, before he feeds on them. He later makes his way back to the Collins manor and finds it inhabited by his mid 20th century descendants; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her 15 year-old daughter Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth’s brother Roger Collins, his 10 year-old son David; and their servants who are caretaker Willie Loomis and David’s governess, Victoria Winters, who is a reincarnation of Barnabas’ lost love, Josette du Pres. One last occupant is David’s live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

Barnabas convinces Elizabeth of his identity when he reveals a secret room behind the fireplace. The room contains a vast treasure that can help the Collins family restore the family business. However, Elizabeth makes him promise to never reveal his identity as a vampire to the rest of the family. All seemed to be well for the Collins family, until Angelique, who has used magic to extend her life, discovers that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. Angelique has also used her own fishery business to bankrupt the family. Upset that Barnabas has returned, Angelique tries to win back his affections through sex. However, Barnabas makes it clear that he does not love her. And Angelique goes out of her way to ensure the destruction of Barnabas and his immediate family.

“DARK SHADOWS” is not perfect. I am quite aware that it is not ensemble piece, despite the likes of Michelle Pfieffer and Helena Bonham-Carter in the cast. I also realize that is basically about Barnabas Collins. But I do believe that two or three supporting characters were barely used in the story. And those characters proved to be young David Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman (portrayed by the marvelous Helena Bonham-Carter) and Roger Collins, portrayed by the woefully underused Jonny Lee Miller. And I wish the movie had explained how Angelique managed to survive and not age for two centuries. From what I had read, this was never explained in the television version either. I also found the revelation of Carolyn Stoddard as a werewolf near the end of the movie, very contrived. Either screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to hint this revelation or I simply failed to notice any his hint(s). And I also found the movie’s pacing slightly uneven three-quarters into the story. I suspect that Burton and his screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, were in such a hurry to get rid of Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman that the pacing somewhat became off-kilter.

But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy “DARK SHADOWS” very much. First of all, I was dazzled by Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. He gave it a rich, blue-tinted look that really contributed to the film’s setting and tale. This was especially apparent in the prologue that introduced the Collins family’s American origins and Barnabas Collins. Delbonnel’s photography also enhanced Rick Heinrichs’ production designs. Heinrichs did a beautiful job in re-creating both the mid and late-18th century Maine, along with the same location in 1972. And I feel he was ably supported by Chris Lowe’s art direction team, John Bush’s set decorations and Colleen Atwood’s beautiful costume designs.

Although I was somewhat critical of Grahame-Seth’s screenplay, I do not believe it was not a complete waste. In fact, I thought it was wise of him to center the main narrative around Barnabas Collins. The latter’s attempts to assimilate into the early 1970s had me shaking with laughter. And Grahame-Seth was wise to not only enrich Barnabas’ love for Josette du Pres and later, Victoria Winters; but also his concerns for his family. Family seemed to be very important to Barnabas, which allowed Grahame-Seth to focus more on Victoria and the Collins family . . . even Roger. Barnabas’ concerns for his family also made his conflict with Angelique Bouchard even more pressing. I am also glad that both Burton and Grahame-Seth’s portrayal of Barnabas was complex. They allowed him to feed on other human beings without labeling him as evil. Barnabas feeds on the blood of others to survive, just as we humans feed on other living beings – both animals and plants. He does not like feeding on others anymore than he likes being a vampire. There is no taint of one-dimensional morality that has marred television series like “BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”“ANGEL” and “CHARMED”. Several critics and many of the old television series also criticized Burton’s film for not being a close adaptation of the show. I find their criticisms a little irrelevant, due to the fact that I have yet to see a film adaptation of a television series to be that particularly close to its original source.

The cast for “DARK SHADOWS” is first-rate. Even those performers forced into roles that were not fully explored did a great job. It was nice to see Burton’s willingness to use again, actor Christopher Lee, who had a brief appearance as the top fisherman of Collinsport, Maine. I have never seen Jonny Lee Miller portrayed such a negative role like Roger Collins. And despite the minimal exposure, he did a great job of expressing Roger’s shallowness and lack of concern for his son and other members of the family. Helena Bonham-Carter was hilariously entertaining as young David Collins’ live-in psychiatrist, who developed a crush on Barnabas. It wsa nice to see Jackie Earle Haley again, who was also rather funny as the Collins family’s caretaker, Willie Loomis. I wish I could say something nice about Bella Heathcote. But her performance as Victoria Winters struck me as a little too ethereal and . . . wooden. Gulliver McGrath gave a sweet performance as young David Collins, but he did not strike me as particularly memorable.

For me, the best performances came from lead actor Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Eva Green and Chloë Grace Moretz. The latter has certainly grown a lot since I first saw her in “KICK ASS”, two years ago. I find her take on the fifteen year-old Carolyn Stoddard to be very eccentric (in a positive way). She also seemed to be a younger version of Michelle Pfieffer, who portrayed her imperious mother, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. I thought that Pfieffer was spot on as the indomitable matriarch of the Collins family, who hid her ruthlessly passionate and maternal nature behind a reserved facade. Eva Green nearly scared me out of my wits with her frightening portrayal of Angelique Bouchard, the witch who developed an obsessive love for Barnabas. Apparently, Angelique’s love and hatred proved to be so strong that she continued to slowly destroy the Collins family, long after Barnabas was locked in a coffin. Johnny Depp has portrayed some memorable characters over the years. But I must admit that his take on the Barnabas Collins character has proven to be one of my favorites. The man was superb. I could describe his performance with as many adjectives as possible. But it would take a great deal of my time. All I can say is that I believe he was perfect.

I realize that “DARK SHADOWS” has disappointed many fans of the old 1966-71 television series. And I must admit that I found a few aspects of Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay rather questionable. But “DARK SHADOWS” proved to be an entertaining movie thanks to Tim Burton’s direction, the story’s concentration on the Barnabas Collins, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the excellent cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Three – “CENTENNIAL” (1978-79)

centennial 3.1

Below is Part Three to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “”, the third episode of the 1978-79 television miniseries, “CENTENNIAL”

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Three – “CENTENNIAL” (1978-79)

I. Introduction

Between the fall of 1978 and the winter of 1979, NBC aired an adaptation of James Michner’s 1973 novel, “Centennial”. The twelve-part miniseries spanned 180 years in the history of a fictional town in Northern Colorado called Centennial. Episode Three, titled “The Wagon and the Elephant”, revealed the experiences of a Pennsylvania Mennonite from Lancaster named Levi Zendt and his bride, Elly, during their overland journey to the west.

In the early spring of 1845 (1844 in the novel), Levi found himself shunned by his conservative family after being falsely accused of attempted rape by a local Mennonite girl named . Apparently, Miss Stoltzfus did not want the community to know about her attempts to tease Levi. Only two other people knew the truth, two 17 year-olds at the local orphanage – Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. Levi eventually befriends Elly. And when he decides to leave Lancaster, he asks Elly to accompany him to Oregon as his bride.

Since “CENTENNIAL” was about the history of a Northern Colorado town, one would easily assume that Levi and Elly never made it to Oregon. Instead, a few mishaps that included Elly nearly being raped by their wagon master named Sam Purchas and a bad wagon wheel, convinced the Zendts to turn around and return to Fort Laramie. There, they teamed with former mountain man Alexander McKeag and his family to head toward Northern Colorado and establish a trading post.

“The Wagon and the Elephant” is my favorite episode of “CENTENNIAL”. One of the reasons I love it so much is well . . . I love the story. And aside from one of two quibbles, I believe the episode gave a very effective portrayal of life for an emigrant traveling by wagon train.

II. History vs. Hollywood

From a historical perspective, I believe producer John Wilder made only one major blooper in the production. The fault may have originated with writer James Michner’s novel. Before leaving Lancaster, Levi Zendt purchased a large Conestoga wagon from a teamster named Amos Boemer. As I have stated in the Introduction, a Conestoga wagon was a heavy, large wagon used for hauling freight along the East Coast. It was considered too big for mules or oxen to be hauling across the continent. Which meant that the Zendts’ Conestoga was too heavy for their journey to Oregon.

The wagon eventually proved to be troublesome for Levi and Elly. Yet, according to the episode’s transcript and Michner’s novel, the fault laid with a faulty left wheel, not the wagon’s impact upon the animals hauling it. In St. Louis, both Army captain Maxwell Mercy and wagonmaster Sam Purchas had advised Levi to get rid of his teams of gray horses, claiming they would not survive the journey west. Levi refused to heed their warning and Purchase swapped the horses for oxen behind his back. This was a smart move by Purchas. Unfortunately, neither the wagonmaster or Captain Mercy bothered to suggest that Levi rid himself of the Conestoga wagon. Since the miniseries said nothing about the size of the Zendts’ wagon, it did not comment on the amount of contents carried by the couple and other emigrants in the wagon party.

But I must congratulate both Michner and the episode’s writer, Jerry Ziegman, for at least pointing out the disadvantages of using horses to pull a wagon across the continent. “The Wagon and the Elephant” also made it clear that the Zendts were traveling along the Oregon Trail, by allowing their wagon party to stop at Fort Laramie. The miniseries called it Fort John, which was another name for the establishment. Before it became a military outpost, the fort was known officially as “Fort John on the Laramie”.

The miniseries’ depiction of the emigrants’ encounter with Native Americans was not exaggerated for the sake of Hollywood drama . . . thank goodness. The Zendts, Oliver Seccombe and other emigrants encountered a small band of Arapahos led by the mixed-blood sons of a French-Canadian trapper named Pasquinel. Levi, who was on guard at the time, became aware of Jacques and Michel Pasquinel’s presence and immediately alerted his fellow emigrants. A great deal about this encounter reeked with realism. The emigrants were obviously well armed. The Pasquinels and the other Arapaho only consisted of a small band of riders. More importantly, no violence erupted between the two parties, despite Sam Purchas’ obvious hostility. Due to Paul Krasny’s direction, the entire encounter was tense, brief and polite. The miniseries also conveyed a realistic depiction of whites like Purchas to randomly murder an individual brave or two out of sheer spite or hatred.

Thanks to the episode, “The Wagon and the Elephant”“CENTENNIAL” provided a brief, yet realistic portrait of westward emigration in the mid 19th century. The miniseries was historically inaccurate in one regard – the Conestoga wagon that Levi and Elly Zendt used for their journey west. But in the end, this episode provided a injection of history, without allowing Hollywood exaggeration to get in the way.

“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

 

“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

Back in 2007, Marvel Studios set out to do something that DC Comics managed to achieve some forty years ago through a Saturday morning animated series. The studio created a series of movies based upon some of its company’s popular comic book characters. This series culminated into the recent hit movie, “THE AVENGERS”

The group of comic book heroes that became a team in “THE AVENGERS”, turned out to be the following – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first four starred in their own movies and the last two, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, appeared as supporting characters in 2010’s “IRON MAN 2” and 2011’s “THOR” respectively. And each movie, starting with 2008’s “IRON MAN”, hinted at the formation of Marvel Comics’ team of superheroes.

Written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon and directed by the latter, “THE AVENGERS” begins with Loki, the villain from “THOR”and the latter’s adopted brother, making a deal with the leader of the Chitauri aliens called the Other to lead an army on Earth, in order to subjigate the human race. In order to do this, Loki needs to retrieve the Tesseract, a powerful energy source originally found on Earth in “CAPTAIN AMERICA”. The Tesseract opens a doorway that allows Loki to arrive a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D., use his scepter to enslave a few agents, Dr. Eric Selvig and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye and take the Tesseract.

In response to Loki’s attack, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative. He, along with agents Phil Coulson and Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow; recruits Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk to form a team and stop Loki’s plans and recover the Tesseract. Both Captain America and Iron Man manage to capture Loki in Germany. But during a flight back to the States, Thorarrives and frees Loki, hoping to convince him to abandon his plan and return to Asgard. Instead, a confrontation ensues between the three heroes before Thor agrees to accompany them all back to the Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier. Despite Loki being a captive, the Avengers still need to find the missing Tesseract. Even worse, Loki does not remain a captive very long.

Over a month has passed since “THE AVENGERS” hit the movie screens. And during that time, it managed to become the third highest-grossing film of all time. Most fans and critics of comic hero movies tend to view any film with more than one villain as a box office or critical disaster. And yet . . . many of these same critics and fans seemed to have no problem with a movie featuring six comic book heroes. I find that rather . . . odd and contradictory, but there is no explaining humanity’s chaotic nature. I have never had a problem with a comic book movie featuring more than one villain or hero, as long as that movie was well written. And I cannot deny that Whedon and Zak Penn wrote a first-rate movie.

First of all, Marvel Studios made the wise decision to map out the movie’s plot with four to five other movies. This enabled them to set up most of the characters before shooting “THE AVENGERS”. Natasha Romanoff had received a small introduction in “IRON MAN 2”. And Clint Barton was allowed nothing more than a cameo appearance in “THOR”. This meant that these two were the only ones left to be properly introduced in this film, along with their previous relationship as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Tesseract, the energy source that Loki will use to allow Chitauri warriors to invade Manhattan in the movie’s last act, had originally been introduced in “CAPTAIN AMERICA” and hinted briefly in “IRON MAN 2” and in the Easter Egg scene for“THOR”. I wish I knew who had the idea to set up the story and characters for “THE AVENGERS” in previous movies. I would congratulate him or her for convincing Marvel to pursue this course of storytelling. For it paid off very well.

Second, I was impressed at how the main cast members – especially those portraying members of the Avengers – managed to click so well and create a viable screen team. Whedon and Penn’s script did not make it easy for them. Only the Black Widow and Hawkeye initially felt comfortably working together and even their relationship was disrupted by Loki’s temporary enslavement of Hawkeye’s mind. I could point out one or two particular performances by the cast. But if I must be honest, practically all of them stepped up to bat and performed beautifully. Okay, I must admit there were a few dramatic scenes that really impressed me.

I enjoyed the quarrel between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who did a great job in developing the characters from initial hostility and wariness to trust and teamwork. I also enjoyed Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who continued their outstanding work and screen chemistry as the two Asgardian siblings, in a scene in which Thor tries to convince Loki that he and their family still loved the latter, despite his actions in “THOR”. Scarlett Johansson managed to appear in three scenes that impressed me. One featured a contest of will and intellect between her Black Widow and Hiddleston’s Loki. Another featured both her and Mark Ruffalo, as she manages to convince Bruce Banner to help S.H.I.E.L.D. to track down the Tesseract. But my favorite scene featured a heart-to-heart conversation between Natasha and her old partner, Clint Barton, as they discussed her past and his mind enslavement by Loki. Samuel L. Jackson did an excellent job as the intimidating, yet manipulative director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. He also seemed surprisingly spry for a man in his 60s, as his character dodged several near death experiences. Clark Gregg was entertaining as ever as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents, Phil Coulson. It was nice to see Stellan Skarsgård repeat his role as Dr. Eric Selvig. Although his role was not particularly big, Selvig had a major impact on the plot. And Skarsgård managed to give his usual, top-notch performance. Cobie Smulders managed to hold herself well as one of Fury’s assistants, Maria Hill. It is a pity that Whedon was unable to showcase Alexis Denisof a little more as leader of the Chitauri aliens. I suspect that being cloaked and hidden in the small number of scenes probably did not help much, in the end.

I have heard that Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner/the Hulk has received rave reviews from the critics and the fans. Many critics have also suggested his portrayal of the character was superior to both Eric Bana’s performance in 2003 and Edward Norton’s 2008 portrayal. I say bullshit to that. I suspect that the critics are spouting this crap, because Ruffalo got to portray the Hulk in a movie that is a box office and critical hit. Ruffalo did a great job in portraying Bruce at this later stage of his existence as the Hulk. However, I also feel there was nothing exceptional about his performance that made his Hulk superior to Bana and Norton’s. This whole notion of Ruffalo giving a better performance than the other two actors strikes me as nothing but a lot of fanboy horseshit.

One cannot talk about “THE AVENGERS” without discussing the film’s visual effects. What can I say? They were outstanding. Well . . . somewhat outstanding. Seamus McGarvey’s photography struck me as very effective in giving the movie an epic feel. And his work was vastly assisted by the visual effects team led by Jake Morrison. For a movie set either in New York City, or over the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a flying aircraft carrier, I was very surprised to learn that a great deal of the movie was shot in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, the film crew only spent two days shooting in Manhattan.

I do have a few complaints about “THE AVENGERS”. One, although I was impressed by Whedon’s direction and McGarvey’s photography, I cannot say the same about the work they did for the Black Widow/Hawkeye fight scene aboard the Helicarrier. To be honest, I found it slightly murky and confusing. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek’s editing did not help. Their work revived bad memories of Paul Greengrass’ quick-cut editing at its worst. Honestly? Jon Favreau did a better job of shooting her fight scenes in “IRON MAN 2”. I also realized that Whedon had been talking out of his ass, when he claimed that a good deal of the movie would be shown from Steve Rogers’ point-of-view. Even worse, the film never really hinted any troubles Steve may have experienced dealing with the early 21st century. And could someone explain why the Hulk turned out to be more powerful than a pair of Norse gods – namely Thor and Loki? How in the hell did that come about? This certainly was not the case nearly 50 years ago, when Thor beat the pants of both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner in the Marvel issue, Avengers #3 (Jan. 1964). Could someone please explain this phenomenon?

“THE AVENGERS” may not be perfect. But it is obviously one of the best comic book movies I have seen, hands down. And so far, it has turned out to be one of the best movies of 2012. It deserves all of the accolades it has earned. And for the first time in his career, Joss Whedon seemed to have directed a movie that matched his work with his “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and “ANGEL” television series.