“The Staff of Fire” [PG] – 4/6

 

“THE STAFF OF FIRE”

Part IV

Saturday morning dawned and the occupants at Castle Dunleith discovered drizzling rain coming down from the gray clouds above. Paige felt certain that Colin McNeill would either cancel the picnic or move the family gathering inside the castle. 

“Considering that it’s too late to cancel the fete, it would have to be moved indoors,” the laird announced to those who had gathered inside the dining hall for breakfast. He seemed mournful over the idea of an indoor picnic.

Paige, who stood with Cole before the dining hall’s Sheraton sideboard, murmured, “He looks like a kid who had lost his favorite toy. The laird must really love picnics.”

“You mean that you haven’t noticed by now?” Cole whispered back. “From what Olivia has told me, he’s one of those hale and hearty types who love the outdoors. I think he’s one of what they call in this country, the ‘huntin, shootin and fishin’” types.”

A smile curved Paige’s lips, as she reached for a grilled tomato. The Sheraton sideboard groaned under the weight of dishes prepared for breakfast – scrambled eggs, smoked kippers, sausages, bacon, toast, grilled tomatoes, beans, fruit and other assortments. It was customary in many upper-class British homes to serve breakfast, buffet-style. As she spooned a ladle full of scrambled eggs upon her plate, she noticed Olivia sitting at the table and speaking with the laird’ aunt.

Cole asked, “When are Bruce and the others arriving?”

Paige replied, “Later this afternoon. Around three. Bruce and Barbara will be arriving. Along with Leo. I don’t think Piper or Phoebe are interested in showing up.”

“Too bad.” Cole shrugged his shoulders. “They’ll be missing something special. I’ve heard that the Aingeal ceremony is quite interesting. Rarely seen in the supernatural world.”

The pair carried their plates to the table and sat down near Olivia and Mrs. Ferguson. Paige asked, “How long have you known about . . .?” She broke off the question, as a servant appeared with a dolly carrying juice, coffee and tea. The latter – the same woman whom Paige had noticed at the McNeills’ dinner party a week ago – asked the pair if they would like something to drink. Paige asked for a glass of orange juice and Cole, coffee. After the servant handed Cole his coffee, a familiar sensation tingled at the back of Paige’s neck. She stared at the servant as she moved toward the next diner.

“Something wrong?” Cole asked. He added cream and sugar to his coffee.

Paige tore her eyes away from the servant. “Huh?”

Cole gave her a hard stare. “Why are you staring at that waitress? Does she look familiar to you?”

“No, it’s . . . Well, . . . I don’t know. There’s something odd about that woman. Something I can’t put my finger on. I don’t know. Maybe I’m imagining things.”

The half-demon grunted. “Hmmph, considering your talent for spotting trouble, I doubt it.” He took a swig of coffee. “With the ceremony coming up today, and all the hullabaloo over that car you and Olivia had spotted, maybe you should keep an eye on her.”

“Maybe I will.” Then Paige returned to their previous topic. “By the way, about that staff . . . how long have you known about it?”

According to Cole, he had first learned about the Aingeal staff during his childhood. As he continued on the subject, Paige’s mind became fixated on several incidents and feelings that have left her slightly uneasy during this trip. The two strangers in the car outside the Bloomsbury townhouse, Olivia’s notice of a similar car in Inverness, and her reaction toward one of the McNeills’ servants here at Castle Dunleith all led Paige to wonder if her feelings of foreboding had anything to do with tonight’s staff ceremony. Her ruminations soon began to wear down Paige, mentally. She decided to shrug it off for another time and enjoy her breakfast.

———-

Between nine-thirty and ten in the morning, the light rain finally ceased. The sun broke through the gray clouds and Colin McNeill announced – rather happily – that the picnic would be held outdoors, after all. By noon, most of the guests had arrived at the castle, including those Paige had not met at last week’s dinner party. Despite her disappointment over her sisters’ decision not to accompany Leo here to Scotland, Paige managed to enjoy herself. Harry introduced her to more McNeills, and she was happy to discover that most of them did not share Fiona Craig’s arrogant disposition.

Speaking of Fiona . . . she finally arrived around twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Bitchy as ever. She greeted Paige with a smile that screamed insincerity. “Well, if it isn’t Olivia’s little friend. Penny, right?”

Paige’s lips stretched into a tight smile. “Paige. Penny was my grandmother’s name.”

“Och, terribly sorry. I’ve always had trouble matching names with faces,” Fiona continued. “Especially unmemorable ones.”

Paige opened her mouth to retort, when a third voice added, “With a memory like that, Fiona, it’s a wonder you can remember a simple spell.” Two figures joined Paige and Fiona – Olivia and Cecile. The former smiled coolly at her cousin. “Fiona, I see that you finally made it,” Olivia said in a voice that made the other cousin’s insincerity seem mild. “Unfortunately.”

Fiona replied through clenched teeth, “Olivia.” Her gazed shifted toward Cecile. “And . . . um, Lucille. Am I right?”

Cecile ignored the insult and said, “So Phyllis, Olivia tells me that you’ve also manifested pyrokinesis. Is that true?”

The dark-haired woman glared at the Vodoun priestess. “It’s Fiona, and yes, I have pyrokinesis. It had manifested last April. And now it seems that I have become a contender for the staff. Who knows? I may end up being the new bearer.” She preened slightly.

“Really?” Cecile eyed the witch doubtfully. “What makes you so certain? Or is this simply hope on your part?” Fiona’s face turned red.

Paige spoke up. “Fiona told me, last week, that she had vanquished a demon, using her fire power.”

Olivia’s green eyes widened in mock appreciation. “Wow! One daemon! I’m impressed, cousin! I guess that you might as well claim that staff as yours, huh?”

“That’s funny,” Cecile piped in. “Haven’t you killed more than one daemon with your new power, Livy?”

Looking thoughtful, while amusement shined in her eyes, Olivia replied, “Why yes! I do believe that you’re right, Cecile. Now, how many of them have I killed?”

Paige replied in a droll voice, “At least seven or eight.”

“Hmmmm.”

“Am I supposed to assume this means that you’ll become the next Bearer of the Aingeal Staff?” Fiona asked in a tart voice.

Shrugging her shoulders, Olivia replied, “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows?”

Fiona smirked. “Olivia dear, don’t you think you’re stretching your impersonation of Gary Cooper, just a tad too much? You want possession of the staff, just as much as I do.”

“I doubt that any of us want to be the staff’s bearer as much as you do, Fiona.”

Acid tinged Fiona’s voice. “And what exactly do you mean by that?”

Olivia gave her cousin a look that mixed pity with contempt. “Poor Fiona! I see that you haven’t changed much, over the years. Still recovering from the loss of your glory days as Debutante of the Year?”

“You bloody bitch! How dare you?”

“My dear Fee,” Olivia shot back, “I’m not the one going around and declaring to everyone that I’m going to be the staff’s next bearer. Besides, what do you think having the staff is going to do for you? Magically return you back to the glory days of your youth?” She paused slightly as a malicious smile curved her lips. “Bring Allan back to you?”

A sound resembling a kitten being strangled escaped from Fiona’s mouth. “Why you . . .” She bit off her words, flashed a dark look at Olivia and stomped away.

“Good job, McNeill,” Cecile retorted with amusement. “You really did a good job of pissing her off.”

Olivia rolled her eyes in contempt. “So what else is new? Fiona and I have been pissing each other off for years.”

“Okay, but if Fiona does become the staff’s new bearer,” Cecile continued, “don’t be surprised if she decides to use that thing on you, one day.”

“Why? You had a premonition or something?”

Paige piped in, “Who’s Allan?”

Olivia replied, “Ex-husband. He had left Fiona for another woman some two years ago. She hasn’t recovered since.”

At that moment, Cole appeared by the three women’s sides. Paige noticed that he looked slightly haggard. “Dude!” she exclaimed. “Are you okay?”

Olivia peered at Cole. “Paige is right. You do look a little bedraggled.”

“I feel like shit,” Cole shot back. “And tired. Which is unusual for me. I, uh . . . I guess I need a little more sleep.”

A concerned-looking Olivia gently caressed Cole’s cheek. “I don’t know why. You had slept pretty good, last night.” She sighed. “Then again, perhaps you’re right. Besides, the ceremony won’t start until at least around eight o’clock, tonight. That should give you plenty of time for some rest. C’mon.” She linked her arm with his and led him away.

Paige and Cecile watched the couple head toward the castle’s terrace, which overlooked the garden and wide lawn. “Did you notice something odd about Cole?” the latter asked.

“Well, he seemed unusually tired,” Paige replied. “For a powerful half-demon.”

Cecile frowned at the couple’s receding figures. “Yeah, and that’s the problem. Cole reminds me of the time when he had been drugged. When we were dealing with the Crozats and Dako, last December. Remember?”

Paige grimaced, recalling the Vodoun spirit in Darryl Morris’ body, attacking her. “Barely. I was in the hospital, at the time. What are you getting at?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that he has been drugged. Today.”

Shaking her head, Paige found Cecile’s words hard to believe. “But Cole has a self-healing power. If he had been drugged, wouldn’t his power be clearing his bloodstream, or something?”

“Depends upon how strong the drug is,” Cecile replied. “Suzanne Crozat had fed Cole a very strong drug or herb. It nearly took him an entire day to recover. Looking at him now, reminded me of that day.”

All of Paige’s forebodings flooded her memory. “But . . . why? Why would someone drug Cole? To get him out of the way?”

Cecile gave Paige a long look. “What do you think?”

———-

Keira Andrews stood behind one of the refreshment tables, as she served drinks to the McNeills’ guests on the castle’s grounds. Although patience has long been one of her virtues, this weeklong stint as a temporary servant for the Laird of Dunleith had stretched it to the limits. If she had to serve any more food or drinks, or toady to another bloody toff beyond today, she would simply go barking mad.

An overdressed woman wearing a ridiculously large hat approached the table and ordered a glass of champagne. Keira bit back a sigh, as she filled a crystal glass with Bollinger ’84. After handing the glass of champagne to the woman, Keira spotted two figures passing the buffet tables – Olivia McNeill and Belthazor. The latter, Keira noticed, looked very haggard.

The potion she had mixed into Belthazor’s coffee, this morning, finally seemed to be working. And as far as Keira was concerned, it was about bloody time. Russell had informed her that the potion would make the half-daemon unconscious within an hour. Instead, the potion had taken over six hours to affect Belthazor. Even worse, the daemon looked far from unconscious. However, not all seemed lost. The McNeill woman seemed to be escorting Belthazor back inside the castle. Probably to his bedroom. Which meant that Keira saw a perfect opportunity to snatch the witch.

The warlock excused herself and rushed toward Dave, who was busy serving food to one of the McNeill cousins. Once he was alone, Keira approached him. “Dave,” she murmured. “Look behind you.”

Dave glanced over his shoulder. “Belthazor and the witch,” he murmured. “He looks a bit knackered, doesn’t he? Looks like the potion is finally working.”

Keira added, “I think they’re heading back inside the castle. And considering the way Belthazor looks, I have a feeling that the witch will soon be alone.”

The other warlock gave Keira a knowing look. “Meaning, we should give Russell a call. Let’s get out of here.” Dave slipped away from the table, with Keira close at his heels. Once they found themselves alone near the castle’s courtyard, she waited silently, while Dave called Russell on his cell phone.

“Russ, it’s time,” Dave reported. “The potion is finally working, and the witch is taking Belthazor back inside the castle. Probably to bed. She’ll soon be alone. What do we do?” A long pause followed, while Dave listened. Then, “Okay Russ, we’ll be there. Ta.” He disconnected the phone.

Keira asked, “Well?”

“We lure the McNeill woman to that gazebo near the lake and grab her,” Dave explained. “By the way, Russ suggested that you use that blowpipe of yours. Just in case.”

A knowing smile curved Keira’s lips. She could not wait.

————

“How are you feeling?” Olivia asked. Inside the bedroom that she and Cole shared, the red-haired witch examined an increasingly haggard-looking half-daemon with concerned eyes.

Cole sat upon the bed and sighed. “I still feel like shit. Only it’s worse. On one hand, I’m really exhausted, yet I don’t seem to have this urge to go to sleep. It’s weird.”

Olivia gently urged him to sit back against the bed’s headboard. “Why don’t you lay back and close your eyes. You don’t have to sleep. Just rest.”

“If I didn’t know any better,” Cole continued, “I’d swear that someone had drugged me. Just like Suzanne Crozat. Only, I feel sluggish and barely conscious.”

Frowning, Olivia pressed her hand against Cole’s forehead. “Hmmm, you do feel a bit warm. You’re not sick, are you?”

“I doubt it,” Cole replied gruffly.

Olivia continued, “I tell you what. I’ll go down to the kitchen and fix you a cup of tea. Something that will drain any drug from your system.” She planted a light kiss on Cole’s forehead. “I’ll be back.” She started toward the door.

Cole’s voice called out her name. “Olivia!” She paused. “If I had been drugged . . . that means that someone wants me away from you. Be careful.”

“I will.” Olivia gave him a reassuring smile and left the bedroom.

As Olivia reached the ground floor, at the foot of the wide staircase, one of the servants approached her. “Excuse me, miss,” the woman began. “Mr. Mc . . . uh, I mean the laird is looking for you.” Olivia noticed that the woman spoke with a slight Scottish Lowland accent. “He’s by that gazebo, near the lake.”

So far? For a moment, Olivia hesitated. Recalling Cole’s warning, she wondered if Cole had truly been drugged. And if this so-called summons by Colin was a trap. Olivia stared at the woman, recalling that the latter was among the servants hired for the week. “He wants me by the lake?”

The servant nodded. “Yes, miss.” Then she turned away, obviously no longer concerned about Olivia or the message. Which convinced the witch that Colin genuinely wanted to see her. Perhaps the police had finally located that missing car.

Heaving a sigh, Olivia decided that Cole’s tea would have to wait. She marched through a narrow corridor that led outside the castle. Skirting the crowds gathered on the terrace and on the lawn below, Olivia marched across the ground and toward the wide lake, located just south of the castle’s grounds. There, on the north shore, stood a small white gazebo. Olivia recognized Colin’s tall and stocky form, facing the lake.

As she approached the gazebo, Olivia called out her cousin’s name. “Colin? Did you wanted to see me?” A gasp left her mouth, as the figure whirled around. It was not the laird who faced her, but a stranger. Holding a gun. “Who in the hell . . .?”

“If you don’t mind, Miss McNeill,” the man said with a menacing smile, “it would be easier for all of us, if you would just . . .”

Using her telekinesis, Olivia forced the gun from the man’s hand. He cursed out loud. “Bloody hell! Len! Sean! Grab her!”

Two men emerged from the nearby underbrush and attacked Olivia. A blond-haired hulk tried to grab her arm. She effortlessly blocked his attack, before she sent him flying with a roundhouse kick. Before she could divert her attack to the other man, Olivia felt a sharp pain in the side of her neck. She glanced to her right. Standing near a clump of trees was the same woman who had directed her to the gazebo. Holding what looked like a blowpipe. Then everything went hazy – before it all faded to black.

END OF PART IV

“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

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“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

“EVELYN PRENTICE” marked the third collaboration between William Powell and Myrna Loy in 1934. MGM Studios first had the pair co-star with Clark Gable in the hit crime melodrama, “MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Then the pair hit gold and became solidified as a screen team in “THE THIN MAN”. Following the success of the latter, MGM paired them in a melodrama called “EVELYN PRENTICE”

William K. Howard directed this adaptation of W.E. Woodward’s 1931 novel about Evelyn Prentice, the neglected wife of a successful attorney, who drifts into dangerous waters when she becomes involved with another man. Although she loves her husband, John Prentice, Evelyn begins to despair of his long hours and begins to wonder if his career is more important to him than his family. John becomes engrossed in defending a young socialite named Nancy Harrison and has a brief affair with her before she is acquitted. Before Evelyn can celebrate his latest success, John is called to Boston for another case and during the train journey, encounters Miss Harrison. When Evelyn learns about Miss Harrison’s presence aboard the Boston-bound train, she commences upon a flirtation with a handsome man named Lawrence Kennard. Unfortunately, Lawrence proves to be a gold-digging gigolo, who blackmails Evelyn with a compromising letter. Just as Evelyn finds a gun inside a desk drawer, Lawrence’s girlfriend, Judith Wilson hears gunfire. But Evelyn manages to leave Lawrence’s room before being spotted by Judith. Evelyn eventually learns that Judith has been arrested for murder. And out of a sense of guilt, she convinces John to defend the younger woman.

I did not know what to expect with “EVELYN PRENTICE”. I had never heard of it, until recently. I knew it was a drama and did not expect any of the usual witty exchanges that highlighted the best of their “THIN MAN” movies and other comedies. Actually, screenwriters Lenore J. Coffee and Howard Emmett Rogers (uncredited) provided a good deal of witticism in “EVELYN PRENTICE”, but only for Una Merkel, who portrayed Evelyn’s best friend, Amy Drexel. I liked the costume designs created by Dolly Tree, who had served as Myrna Loy’s usual designer at MGM . . . even if I found them a tad over-the-top. Frank E. Hull’s editing proved to be valuable in the scene that featured Lawrence Kennard’s shooting. As for the performances, they proved to be solid, although not exactly dazzling. There were two or three performances that impressed me. They came from Merkel’s sharp-witted performance as best friend Amy; Isabel Jewell, who gave a passionate performance as Lawrence’s abused girlfriend, Judith Wilson; and even veteran actress Jessie Ralph, who gave a brief, yet lively performance as a charwoman who lived in the same building as the victim. Rosalind Russell made her screen debut as John Prentice’s lovesick client, Nancy Harrison. Mind you, I found her performance a bit theatrical, but at least she injected some fire into the movie.

Unfortunately, there was a good deal about “EVELYN PRENTICE” that made it difficult for me to really enjoy this film. I have nothing against melodrama. But there is good melodrama and there is bad. As far as I am concerned, “EVELYN PRENTICE” was not good melodrama. One, the performances of the two leads – Myrna Loy and William Powell – annoyed me. They did not give bad performances. But Loy spent a good deal of the movie utilizing enough pensive expressions that rivaled Evangeline Lilly from Season One of “LOST”. She almost bored me senseless. Powell, on the other hand, bored me. Although his John Prentice did not cheat on his wife during that train journey from New York to Boston, he did sleep with his client earlier in the film. I never realized that adultery could be so boring and I am afraid that Powell is to blame, not Russell. Cora Sue Collins portrayed the Prentices’ young daughter, Dorothy. She was sweet, cute and typical of the early 1930s child actors that I have always found nauseating. Shirley Temple made this kid look refreshing. And Harvey Stephens’ Lawrence Kennard proved to be one of the dullest gigolos in film history. This guy made sexiness seem like a bore.

In the end, it was Coffee and Rogers’ adaptation of Woodward’s novel, along with Howard’s direction that sunk this movie for me. For about the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I had no problems maintaining interest in this movie. But it did not take long for my interest to drift away from the plot. I was in danger of falling asleep. My interest perked again, following the death of the Lawrence Kennard character. I found myself wondering when Evelyn would tell the truth about what happened and save the girlfriend from a noose. I have never read the 1933 novel, so I do not know whether the solution to the movie’s plot came directly from the novel or was created by Coffee and Rogers. Needless to say, the legal solution to the Kennard murder took me by surprise . . . in a very negative way. I found myself disgusted by how the writers resolved the whole matter, when I first saw the film. And thinking about it later, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

What else can I say about “EVELYN PRENTICE”? I have read some reviews of the movie and there are some movie fans who liked it. I had hoped to become a fan of the movie. But between the lackluster performances of the leads, the mind-boggling bad writing, and William K. Howard’s dull direction; I can honestly say that I hope to never lay eyes on this film again. I am a big fan of Powell and Loy, but I feel this movie was one of their major missteps during their tenure as a screen team.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of Chickamauga

Chickamauga

 

TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF CHICKAMAUGA

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, during the U.S. Civil War. Fought in southwestern Tennessee and northeastern Georgia, the battle served as the last Union offensive in that region between September 19-20, 1863. It was the first major U.S. Civil War battle to be fought in Georgia.

Following his successful Tullahoma Campaign, General William Rosecrans, who commanded the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, set out to force the Confederate Army of Tennessee, under General Braxton Braggout of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In early September 1863, Rosecrans consolidated his forces scattered around Tennessee and Georgia and forced the Army of Tennessee out of Chattanooga. Bragg and his troops were forced south of the city and the Union troops followed them. The two armies engaged in a brief clash at Davis’s Cross Roads. Bragg became determined to reoccupy Chattanooga by meeting a part of Rosecran’s army, defeat it and move back into the city.

On September 17, his army marched north, intending to attack the Union’s isolated XXI Corps. While Bragg marched north on September 18, his cavalry and infantry fought with Union cavalry and mounted infantry. The actual Battle of Chickamauga between the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee began in earnest on September 19, 1863; near Chickamauga Creek in northwestern Georgia. This small body of water flows into the Tennessee River. Although the Confederate troops engaged in a strong assault, they could not break the Union line.

General Bragg resumed his assault on the following day, September 20. In late morning, Rosecrans received erroneous information that he had a gap in his line. While moving units to close the alleged gap, Rosecrans had accidentally created an actual gap, directly in the path of a Confederate eight-brigade assault on a narrow front byLieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet’s attack drove one-third of the Union army, including Rosecrans himself, away from the field. Other Union forces spontaneously rallied to create a defensive line on Horseshoe Ridge, forming a new right wing for the line of Major General George H. Thomas, who assumed overall command of remaining Federal forces. Although the Confederates launched costly and determined assaults, Thomas and his men held until twilight. The actions of Thomas earned him the nickname of “The Rock of Chickamauga. He led the Union forces to Chattanooga, while the Confederates occupied the surrounding heights and commenced upon a siege of the city.

Unable to break the Confederates’ siege of Chattanooga, General Rosecrans was relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland on October 19, 1863. He was replaced by General Thomas. During the siege, General Bragg commenced upon a battle against those subordinates he resented for failing him in the campaign. This conflict led to General D.H. Hill being relieved of his command and General Longstreet’s corps being sent to fight in the Knoxville Campaign against General Ambrose Burnside. These actions seriously weakened Bragg’s army at Chattanooga. General Bragg’s siege of Chattanooga remained in effect for two months, until General Ulysses S. Grant broke it during the Chattanooga Campaign in late November.

For more information on the Battle of Chickamauga, read the following books:

“The Chickamauga Campaign [Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland] (2010) Edited by Steven E. Woodworth

“The Battle of Chickamauga: The Fight for Snodgrass Hill and the Rock of Chickamauga” (2012) by Robert L. Carter

“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

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“GANGSTER SQUAD” (2013) Review

Every now and then, Hollywood would release a movie with a story based upon a particular event or individual from Los Angeles’ history. Movies such as “CHINATOWN”“L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”, and “CHANGELING” are examples. Recently, Hollywood released a new movie about a moment in Los Angeles’ history called “GANGSTER SQUAD”.

I must admit that I found myself surprised that the origin of the plot for “GANGSTER SQUAD” came from L.A. history. According to the book, “Tales from the Gangster Squad” by Paul Lieberman, Chief William Parker and the Los Angeles Police Department formed a group of officers and detective called the “Gangster Squad unit” in an effort to keep Los Angeles safe from gangster Mickey Cohen and his gang in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Screenwriter Will Beall took elements of Lieberman’s book and wrote a movie about the L.A.P.D.’s efforts to fight organized crime in the Southland. The movie starts in 1949 Los Angeles, where Cohen has become the most powerful figure in the California criminal underworld. Cohen has plans to expand his enterprises across the Western United States via the gambling rackets. Because the gangster has eliminated witnesses and bribed both the courts and the police, Chief Parker and the L.A.P.D. have not been able to stop Cohen’s rise. In a desperate move, Parker recruits the incorruptible and ruthless Sergeant John O’Mara to form a unit to wage guerilla warfare on Cohen’s operations and drive the gangster out of Southern California.

O’Hara, with the help of his very pregnant wife Connie, recruit the following men for his new unit:

*Coleman Harris, a tough beat cop from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood

*Conway Keeler, a brainy wire-tapper

*Max Kennard, a legendary veteran gangster killer and sharp-shooter

Kennard’s young partner, Navidad Ramirez tracks down the squad and O’Hara reluctantly allows him to join. The sergeant tries to recruit his close friend, Sergeant Jerry Wooters, but the latter declines his offer out of disillusionment with the recent war and the police force. But when Cohen’s attempted hit on rival gang leader Jack Dragna results in the death of a young shoeshine boy, Wooters decides to accept O’Hara’s offer to join the squad. Also, Wooters has become romantically involved with Cohen’s etiquette coach and girlfriend, Grace Faraday. The squad’s campaign of terror against Cohen encounter a good deal of road blocks, including an unsuccessful raid against Cohen’s Burbank casino, the gangster’s penchant for paranoia, Wooters’ secret romance with Grace, Connie O’Hara’s desire for her husband to leave the police force and a deadly trap set up by Cohen in Chinatown. Despite the setbacks, violence and death, the squad eventually persevere over Cohen.

When I first saw the trailer for “GANGSTER SQUAD”, I immediately viewed it as one of those splashy, yet cheesy crime dramas trying to cash in on the success of movies like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” and “THE UNTOUCHABLES” by setting it before the present time. After seeing the movie, I suspect that my assumption was correct. There were elements in the movie’s story that I found unoriginal. Honestly. One could easily imagine “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a post-World War II Los Angeles version of the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”. Well . . . almost. And there were moments when I found “GANGSTER SQUAD” rather cheesy. This was obvious in some of the dialogue that came out of the mouth of actor Sean Penn, who portrayed Mickey Cohen; and in the movie’s narration spoken by Josh Brolin, who portrayed John O’Hara. And I might as well be honest. Penn’s dialogue was not helped by the occasional hammy acting that also marred his performance. For a movie that is supposed to be based on a historical book, I could not regard it as historically correct . . . especially in regard to the fates of both Cohen and rival Jack Dragna. I am a fan of Nick Nolte’s work, but I believe that he was a least two to three decades too old to be portraying Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, who would have been in his mid-40s in 1949. Also, Parker did not become the city’s police chief until 1950.

“GANGSTER SQUAD” was not a perfect film, but I liked it very much. I enjoyed it. I found it very entertaining. And I found it gorgeous and colorful to look at. Thanks to production designer Maher Ahmad’s work, the film beautifully re-created post-World War II Los Angeles at the end of the 1940s. I was especially impressed by Ahmad’s elegant, yet colorful designs for the Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub, Cohen’s Spanish Colonial house and the Chinatown sequence. Ahmad’s work was enhanced by Gene Serdena’s set decorations, the movie’s art direction team and especially Dion Beebe’s photography. And Mary Zophres’ costume designs were absolutely gorgeous. Just to give you a hint, take a look at one of her designs for actress Emma Stone:

Gangster Squad grace faraday gown

Even though “GANGSTER SQUAD” seemed to be marred by cheesy dialogue, lack of originality and historical accuracy, I cannot deny that Will Beall wrote a very entertaining and exciting crime story. He did a pretty solid job of setting up the main narrative with Sergeant O’Hara’s disruption of one of Mickey Cohen’s illegitimate businesses – a whorehouse staffed by naive girls fresh off the bus or train and eager to make it big in the movies. This disruption catches Police Chief Bill Parker’s attention, prompting him to recruit O’Hara to organize and lead the “Gangster Squad” unit against Cohen’s operations. Beall also filled the story with exciting action sequences that included a nail-biting shootout in Chinatown, a forbidden romance between Jerry Wooters and Cohen’s girlfriend Grace Faraday, strong characterizations and more importantly, a good solid narrative. Rueben Fleischer did a first-rate job in transferring Beall’s script to the movie screen. And Fleischer did this with a great deal of flair and strong pacing.

The cast for “GANGSTER SQUAD” proved to be first-rate. Josh Brolin led the cast as the strong-willed, yet emotional police detective Sergeant John O’Hara. Utilizing his talent for projecting a no-nonsense demeanor with flashes of humor, Brolin was very effective as leader of “Gangster Squad” unit. Brolin also managed to generate on-screen chemistry with other members of the cast – including Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and especially actress Mireille Enos, who beautifully portrayed O’Hara’s equally strong-willed wife Connie. “GANGSTER SQUAD” marked the second time Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone worked together since they were co-stars in the 2011 comedy “CRAZY STUPID LOVE”. And once again, they proved to be quite the effective screen team, as they burned up the screen as the cynical lovers Sergeant Jerry Wooster and mob moll Grace Faraday. I also enjoyed Anthony Mackie’s colorful portrayal of tough beat cop Coleman Harris, who developed an aversion to Burbank, following the squad’s unpleasant encounter with that city’s law enforcement. Giovanni Ribisi gave a poignant performance as the squad’s brainy wiretapper, Conwell Keeler. Both Robert Patrick and Michael Peña created a solid screen team as police sharpshooter Max Kennard and his clever protégé Navidad Ramirez. Although I found him slightly too old for the role, I must admit that I found Nick Nolte’s portrayal of Police Chief William Parker rather entertaining in a garroulous way. And despite some of the cheesy dialogue he was forced to spew, I must say that Sean Penn struck me as an effective villain in his performance as the violent Mickey Cohen. Especially when the cheese and ham were missing from his lines.

If you expect “GANGSTER SQUAD” to be a crime drama masterpiece, you will be disappointed. It is no masterpiece, I assure you. But . . . I thought it proved to be an entertaining, yet splashy crime thriller that recaptured the era of post-World War II Los Angeles. I guess one could thank Will Beall for his solid script, colorful direction by Rueben Fleischer, and an entertaining cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn.

“The Staff of Fire” [PG] – 3/6

“THE STAFF OF FIRE”

Part III

Four days later, Olivia joined her mother, her grandmother, Cecile, Paige, Cousin Margaret and Colin’s wife – Lesley – on a shopping expedition to nearby Inverness. On Wednesday morning, the seven women boarded a local train at the small Dunleith station that conveyed them to the nearby historic city. Upon their arrival in Inverness, the group split up. The older women decided to focus their attention on the city’s shops and stores. Olivia and her two friends ended up visiting many of the city’s historical and tourist sites. 

Although Edinburgh remained Olivia’s favorite city in Scotland, Inverness never failed to dazzle her. No matter how many times she has visited. One of her favorite sites happened to be the regal Inverness Castle near the River Ness. She loved the reddish-brown structure, which invoked images of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Which seemed ironic, considering that the present castle had been erected around 1830, and was not a real castle – like the one in Edinburgh. But it did appeal to Olivia’s sense of history.

But the red-haired witch also enjoyed shopping. She looked forward to meeting the older women on one of the city’s premiere thoroughfares – High Street. There, she and her two friends met the older women at a local restaurant for lunch. After a surprisingly delicious meal, the seven women visited an old bookstore called MacDonald’s, in the nearby shopping areas, Eastgate Centre.

“Wow! Look at this place!” Paige declared breathlessly. She scanned the tall bookshelves that filled the store. “It could rival Barnes and Noble. Or Bretano’s.”

Olivia’s mother added, “Even better, it also sells a great number of old editions. Wait until you see the Occult section.”

While Gweneth led Paige, Leslie and Cousin Margaret to the Occult Section; Olivia, her grandmother and Cecile headed for the History Section. The latter was situated near a large window that overlooked the street, beyond. “Hey, look at this!” Cecile declared. She displayed the book in her hand. Olivia read the title – “Like Lions They Fought”. Cecile continued, “It’s about the wars between the Zulus and the British. Very interesting.”

“Do you see any books on American History?” Gran asked.

Both Cecile and Olivia scanned the shelves. “Not over here,” Olivia said. She faced the shelves behind her. “Wait, here they are.” She grabbed a large, brown book. “Here’s one the California Gold Rush.”

After Gran took the book from Olivia, the latter glanced out of the window. The redhead spotted a dark-blue Morris-Oxford parked across the street. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. There was something familiar about that car. “Something wrong?” Cecile’s voice cut into her thoughts.

Nodding toward the window, Olivia said, “See that car, outside? The Morris-Oxford across the street? Doesn’t it look familiar to you? I think I may have seen it in Dunleith.”

Cecile glanced out of the window. She shook her head. “No, not really.” Her eyes still fixed on the car, she added, “Then again, maybe I have. That model is pretty common in Britain.”

“Do you ladies need any help?” A store assistant appeared beside the three women.

Taken aback, Olivia tore her gaze away from the window, while her grandmother smiled at the assistant. “Yes,” the elderly woman replied, “Do you have a book on a Scottish immigrant named Archibald Grant? The book is a journal of his experiences during the California Gold Rush.” The shop assistant focused his attention to Gran, while Olivia and Cecile moved away to join the others in the Occult Section.

The two friends found Olivia’s mother recommending a book to Paige. “Now here’s an interesting book,” the middle-aged redhead was saying. “‘The Book of Druidry’. It’s about Druidism and it’s very good.”

Leslie, an attractive blond in her mid-fifties added, “And here’s another.” She handed the book to Paige.

“Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit,” Paige read. She looked questioningly at Colin’s wife. “Shamanism?”

Cecile explained, “It’s the same as being a witch, a priest or priestess or any other kind of spiritual Pagan figure.”

“We all are,” Cousin Margaret added.

“O-kay.”

Mom handed Paige one last book. “Now, I would highly recommend this one. ‘Drawing Down the Moon’. It’s about the different forms of Paganism in America. Excellent book.”

“A book on American Paganism in a bookstore in Scotland?” Paige exclaimed. “Now why does that sound odd to me?”

Cousin Margaret declared, “Nonsense! Why this store has books on every form of Paganism. But this book – the one that Gwen is recommending, is about the different forms of Paganism practiced in America. Including those religions that originated on other continents. Like ours.”

While the other women continued to discuss the books with Paige, Olivia returned to the History section in search of her grandmother. She found the latter still in deep conversation with the shop assistant. And after glancing out of the window, Olivia discovered that the mysterious Morris-Oxford had disappeared. Interesting.

————

Colin McNeill frowned. “A dark-blue Morris-Oxford? Here in Dunleith?” He paused momentarily and glanced at his middle child. “Jaime, do you know something about this?”

“Sorry Father,” Jaime replied, “it’s like I had told Olivia – I haven’t seen one around.” He faced his American cousin. “You say that you had spotted this car in Inverness? But why would you be suspi . . .?”

Olivia interrupted. “I may have seen it, yesterday. In Dunleith.” She paused. After the women’s return from Inverness, she had asked several members of the household about the car. Including the servants. No one knew the identity of the car’s owner.

Nodding, Colin said, “Perhaps we should speak to the local constable about this. Eh, Jaime?” His son worked as an inspector for the Inverness Branch of Scotland Yard.

“I don’t know,” Olivia said, feeling slightly embarrassed by the attention. “Maybe I’m just imagining things. Even on vacation, I can’t stop acting like a cop.”

Colin patted Olivia’s arm. “Jaime and I will speak with Inspector Grant, all the same. With the Aingeal ceremony coming up, perhaps it’s best to be cautious.”

“Considering your nose for trouble, I certainly think it’s a good idea,” Jaime added.

Olivia pecked the cheeks of her two cousins. “Thanks, Colin. Jaime.” She rushed out of the library, nearly colliding with one of the servants. Then she headed upstairs and found Cecile and Paige inside the room they shared.

“Cecile was telling me about that car you had spotted in Inverness,” Paige said. “I wonder if that’s the car I had saw.”

Olivia frowned. “You did? When?”

Cecile added, “Paige saw it outside your parents’ house in London. Last Thursday night.”

Olivia continued to stare at Paige, who nodded. Then she grabbed the Charmed One’s arm and dragged the latter out of the bedroom. “Olivia!” Paige protested. “What are you doing?”

“You . . . are going to have a talk with Colin. And hopefully, the police. C’mon!” The two women rushed out of the bedroom.

————

Russell Pierce and his small band of warlocks met in a large cottage, less than a mile from the lake’s north shore. He glared at one of his men and demanded, “Did you finally get rid of that bloody car, like I had asked?”

Len responded with a nervous nod. “Yeah. Sorry Russ. Me and Sean had stashed it in Inverness, like you asked. Could I get reimbursed, since we had to get rid of it?”

The warlock slowly walked around the kitchen table. “Tell me something, Len. Why didn’t you and Sean leave that bloody car behind in London? Like I had told you to do?”

“I . . .” Len hesitated. “Uh, well . . . Sean and me . . .”

Sean spoke up. “Len and me thought we could save money on renting a car, Mr. Pierce. So we decided to drive up north in Len’s car.”

“Save money?” Russell spoke in hushed tones. “Well guess what, Sean? Both that McNeill witch and . . .”

Sean interrupted, “Which one, Russ?”

Slowly, Russell turned his head to glare at the Irishman. “That red-haired bitch we’re after. Who else?”

“Oh.”

Russell continued, “As I were saying, you were spotted by both the McNeill witch and one of her friends. The other redhead. Who, by the way, had seen your car back in London. Thankfully Keira,” he nodded at the sole female inside the cottage, “had overheard our illustrious laird speaking to the local pigs.”

“I had overheard them in the library,” Kiera said impassively. She was a vaguely pretty woman with hazel eyes and dark blonde hair cut short. “One of the Yanks . . . the other redhead . . . saw Len’s car in London. The other two – Olivia McNeill and that Voodoo woman – saw it in Inverness, yesterday.”

A sharp, hunting knife appeared in Russell’s hand. Both Len and Sean squirmed with discomfort, as he slowly made his way toward the pair. “Now, I had you two keep an eye on the witch and her family, just in case someone had appeared to warn them about our client. And if it weren’t for the fact that I need the pair of you to help me deal with the McNeill woman . . . you two stupid bastards would now be at the bottom of the bloody lake!” His roar caused the two men to jump out of their seats. Russell continued, “However, I’m giving you two one last chance. If you bugger it up, you can forget about a reward or a new car.” He paused dramatically. “And your lives. You follow?”

“Yeah Russ,” Len surreptiously replied.

Sean swallowed visibly and nodded. “Aye. I understand.”

“Good.” Russell turned to his other capable lieutenant – a dark-haired man with a razor-sharp visage named Dave. “All right Dave, what can you and Kiera tell us what’s going on?”

Dave exchanged a quiet look with the blonde woman. “Well, the staff ceremony will be held this Saturday night.”

“Before that,” Keira added, “there will be some kind of fête for the relations. Dave and me think it would be the perfect time to snatch our cargo.”

Russell frowned. “Couldn’t we snatch her in the morning? Doesn’t she do some kind of morning exercise or something?”

A sigh left Dave’s mouth. “Oh yeah. Riding. She likes to go out riding in the morning. Especially with that mate of hers . . .”

“Belthazor,” Russell murmured.

Dave continued, “Right. The laird and the witch’s parents also ride. Her brother and the laird’s daughter like to go jogging. Keira’s right. It’s best we snatch her during the fête, when there’s a better chance she’ll wander on her own. She has a habit of doing that, you know. I had noticed last Sunday.”

Russell nodded. “Right. Saturday, during the fête. Here, take this.” He handed a small vial to Dave. “It’s a potion that our client gave me – a powerful sleeping draught. For Belthazor. Just in case he might prove to be a problem. It should be strong enough to put him to sleep.”

“Do you mind if I ask you a question, Russ?” Len asked.

“What?”

Len hesitated. “Why don’t we just kill her? The witch?”

Russell replied, “Don’t worry. We will. Just as soon as our client gets her hands on that staff. She’ll let us know.”

“But why do we have to wait for . . .?”

“Len?” Russell gave the other warlock a hard stare. “I’ve allowed you one question. And only one. Don’t stretch your luck.”

———-

“The police weren’t able to find that car,” Olivia told Cole. The couple strode side-by-side, within the castle’s maze of hedgerows. They had just finished dinner and had decided to enjoy an evening stroll in the garden.

Cole replied, “Is there a problem?”

“Well yeah,” Olivia protested. “That car couldn’t be found. And I ended up looking like a paranoid idiot to the local police.”

“You, Cecile and Paige,” Cole corrected. “Perhaps the car had simply left.”

Olivia added, “Or maybe someone had dumped it. If that’s the case, it means that someone found out that he or she had been spotted.”

Cole sighed. “Olivia . . .”

“But how?” Olivia continued. “Colin, Paige and I were in the library when he called the police, yesterday. Which means that someone at the police station isn’t whom he or she seems to be.”

Exasperated by her paranoia, Cole cried out her name for the second time. “Olivia!”

“What?”

Cole continued, “Will you please calm down? Or put your mouth on pause, for a minute?”

Green eyes flared with intensity. “Don’t you understand about all of this? I’m being followed. And I bet it has something to do with the staff.” Olivia paused. “Or do you agree with the good Inspector Grant? That I’m imagining things?”

“No, I don’t.” Cole paused in his tracks to face Olivia. “You have pretty good instincts about such matters. And since Paige was the first to notice that car back in London, you probably have a good reason to worry. However,” he wrapped his arms around her waist and gently pulled her toward him, “you need to relax. It’s one thing to be paranoid. It’s another to show it. And you never should. Especially if you don’t want to alert your enemy. Isn’t that what you always keep reminding me?”

Olivia placed her head on Cole’s shoulder. “I am relaxed,” she murmured. “Somewhat.”

“Oh really?” The pair stood in the middle of the garden’s maze, their arms wrapped around each other.

Then Olivia sighed. “Okay, maybe I have been acting a little anxious, today. And I’m not talking about the car.”

“Oh, I see. The Aingeal staff?”

Another sigh left Olivia’s mouth, as she nodded. Cole led her to a nearby marble bench, and the pair sat down. “I guess . . . I guess I feel a little anxious about the whole thing.”

“Anxious that you might not become the staff’s bearer?” Cole asked. “Or that you might?”

Olivia’s mouth gaped open. Then she closed it, before shaking her head. “I guess I can’t fool you, huh?” she muttered.

“It’s not that,” Cole said, as he wrapped an arm around Olivia’s shoulders. “You should see the look on your face, every time someone mentions the staff. Especially Harry.”

Rolling her eyes, Olivia asked, “Is it that obvious?” She sighed. “I think Harry is taking this staff business a little too seriously.”

“You don’t think he wishes he could be the staff bearer?” Cole asked. One hand began to rub the edge of Olivia’s right shoulder.

The redhead shook her head. “No, I think Harry’s just anxious that the next Aingeal bearer won’t be an American. Ever since he found out that Dennis and Fiona had also manifested pyrokinesis, he has suddenly developed this patriotic fervor.”

Cole frowned. “Hasn’t there been an American staff bearer in the past? I thought your great-grandfather was one.”

“My great-great-grandfather,” Olivia corrected. “William McNeill. He was the last American to possess the staff. From 1889 to 1936.”

The name struck a familiar chord within Cole. “William? That was his name?”

“Yeah. Why?”

After a brief hesitation, Cole continued, “Oh, nothing. It’s just that’s the name of my godfather. A mortal godfather. He was a friend of my father’s.”

“Oh.” Olivia continued, “Anyway, Great-great-grandfather William was about 78 years old when he died in 1936. Before him, a great-great aunt or something named Deborah McNeill Carwood, was the last American to have the staff before him. She became the staff’s bearer around 1769, I think. And she held it for nearly forty years.”

His hand still caressing Olivia’s shoulder, Cole added, “And now, there’s a chance you’ll be the next American.”

Perhaps.” Olivia paused. “Unlike Harry, I won’t be disappointed if I don’t become the bearer.”

Cole gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. “Liar!”

“Okay, perhaps I would be a little disappointed if Fiona becomes the next bearer. But . . .” Olivia sighed. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve never been interested in being some all-powerful witch. Simply being a witch, is fine with me. Period. Unlike some, using magic as some kind of weapon to simply vanquish daemons or other evil has never appealed to me.”

Magic as a weapon. Cole ignored what seemed like a swipe at the Halliwells’ use of witchcraft. Instead, he remained silent and allowed Olivia to continue. “As for that car, maybe I’m getting excited over nothing. Hell, Paige wasn’t even able to identify the color. Especially since she saw it at night. Perhaps you’re right. If it was here, it’s probably left by now.”

Cole heaved an inward sigh and silently hoped that Olivia was right.

END OF PART III

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001. 

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” has acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades since its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of plans to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign. GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date to December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It has been proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be at turns both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong? All three had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry. I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I find that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I have noticed that the media has been consistently labeling Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It strikes me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

Top Favorite Romantic Movies

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I decided to list my top ten favorite romantic movies. Here they are: 

 

TOP FAVORITE ROMANTIC MOVIES

2-Casablanca

1. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar-winning adaptation of the unpublished 1940 stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick”, which is about an expatriate American who is reunited with a former lover that happened to be married to a Resistance leader. Directed by Michael Curtiz, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains co-starred.

1-Lover Come Back

2. “Lover Come Back” (1961) – Rock Hudson and Doris Day co-starred in their second movie about rival advertising executives on Madison Avenue who clash over a product that does not exist. Directed by Delbert Mann, Tony Randall and Edie Adams co-starred.

3-It Happened One Night

3. “It Happened One Night” (1934) – Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert starred in this Oscar-winning adaptation of the Samuel Adams Hopkins short story, “Night Bus”. In it, an out-of-work journalist keeps tabs on a socialite running from her father to marry a playboy aviator. Frank Capra directed.

4-Brokeback Mountain

4. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) – Ang Lee directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about two mid 20th century cowboys who engage in a 20-year forbidden affair. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred.

5-The Lady Eve

5. “The Lady Eve” (1941) – Preston Sturges wrote and directed this comedy about a female cardsharp who falls for the heir of a brewery fortune. When he dumps her after discovering her profession, she turns on him in revenge. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda starred.

6-When Harry Met Sally

6. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) – Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan starred in this romantic comedy about two people who become friends during a cross-country trip and decide to abstain from sex to maintain their friendship over a period of twelve years. The movie was directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron.

7-Hitch

7. “Hitch” (2005) – Will Smith and Eva Mendes starred in this romantic comedy about a professional dating consultant who falls for a gossip columnist determined to ruin the reputation of the unmasked so-called “date doctor”. Directed by Andy Tennant, the movie co-starred Kevin James.

8-The Notebook

8. “The Notebook” (2004) – Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams starred in this adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ 1996 novel about a young couple in 1940s South Carolina, who struggle to overcome class differences. Nick Cassavetes directed.

9-Random Harvest

9. “Random Harvest” (1942) – Ronald Coman and Greer Garson starred in this adaptation of James Hilton’s 1941 novel about an amnesiac World War I veteran woh falls in love with a music hall star, only to suffer an accident which restores his original memories, but erases his post-War life. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the movie co-starred Susan Peters and Philip Dorn.

10-Wimbledon

10. “Wimbledon” (2004) – Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst starred in this romantic comedy about a British washed-up tennis player and an American up-and-coming star who meet and romance during the Wimbledon Championships. Directed by Richard Loncraine, the movie co-starred Sam Neill and Jon Favreau.

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

Over three years following the release of his 2009 movie, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Quentin Tarantino courted success and controversy with a new tale set the past. Called “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, this new movie combined the elements of the Old West and Old South and told the story about a recently freed slave-turned-bounty hunter in search of his still enslaved wife. 

The movie begins with a gang of male slaves being transported across Texas by a group of slavers called the Speck brothers. The group encounter Dr. King Schultz, a German-born dentist, who also happens to be a bounty hunter. Schultz offers to purchase Django, whom he believes can identify a trio of murderous siblings called the Brittle brothers, who had worked as overseers for Django’s previous owner. The Specks become hostile and Schultz kills one of the brothers. He then frees Django and leaves the wounded brother behind to be killed by the newly freed slaves. Django and Schultz come to an agreement in which the latter will give the former freedom, a horse and $75 for helping him identify the Brittle brothers. Once the pair achieve their goal at a Tennessee plantation owned by one Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, Schultz takes on Django as his associate and over the winter, collect a number of bounties. In the following spring, Schultz offers to help Django track down the latter’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft. They discover that she is owned by a brutal, yet charming Mississippi planter named Calvin Candie. The pair realize that in order to rescue Broomhilda, they would have to pose as potential buyers of a fighter slave in order to secure an invitation at Candie’s plantation called Candyland.

Even before its initial release in movie theaters in late December, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” managed to attract a good deal of controversy. Producer/director Spike Lee declared the movie as an insult to his ancestors in a magazine article and his refusal to see it. Others have criticized the film for its violence and its use of the word “nigger”. And some have criticized the movie for historical inaccuracy. They claimed that the practice of fighting Mandingo slaves never existed and that Tarantino depicted the Klu Klux Klan a decade before its actual existence. And Jeff Kuhner of The Washington Times complained that: “Anti-white bigotry has become embedded in our postmodern culture. Take Django Unchained. The movie boils down to one central theme: the white man as devil — a moral scourge who must be eradicated like a lethal virus.”

Mind you, I have my own complaints about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Actually, I have three complaints. One, I found the movie’s chronological setting rather confusing. According to the movie’s opening, it began in “1858 – Two years before the Civil War”. Judging by the weather, Django’s first meeting with Schultz in Texas occurred in the fall. Which probably means that the movie began two-and-a-half years before the Civil War, not two years. Yes, I am being anal about this. However, Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Only Tarantino can answer this. I also found the character of Broomhilda von Shaft slightly underdeveloped. Some have claimed that her character is passive. I would disagree, considering she was introduced being punished for attempting to run away from Candyland. But aside from a scene or two, I feel that Tarantino could have done a little more with her character. And three, I have mixed feelings about Tarantino’s use of flashbacks in this movie. Some of the flashbacks were well utilized – including those featuring Django’s memories of Broomhilda being whipped and branded as a runaway, Schultz’s trauma over witnessing the mutilation of a Candie slave named D’Artagnan, and Big Daddy organizing a group of night riders to attack Django and Schultz. But some of the flashbacks seemed to go by so fast that I found their addition to the film unnecessary.

As for the other complaints about the movie, I do have a response. Spike Lee is entitled to his decision not to see the movie. However, I do find his willingness to condemn the movie without seeing it rather strange. Criticism of Tarantino’s use of violence in his movies have become repetitive in my eyes. “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Can someone name one of his movies that did not feature any violence? Because I cannot. And his recent films do not strike me as violent as earlier films such as 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. Also, violence has played a part in many slave societies throughout history . . . including U.S. slavery. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan was first organized in the late 1860s, after the Civil War. But the Klan’s origins came from patrol riders, who were recruited by planters in many Southern states to maintain vigilance of both slaves and free black in local rural neighborhoods. So, the idea of “Big Daddy” Bennett organizing a group of local riders to attack Django and Schultz is not implausible.

In response to Jeff Kuhner’s accusation of anti-white bigotry, Tarantino not only created the German-born Schultz, who helped Django attain freedom and find Broomhilda; but also a Western sheriff portrayed by television veteran Lee Horsley (“MATT HOUSTON” anyone?), who seemed very friendly to both the German immigrant and the former slave. Tarantino also created Candyland’s head house slave, Stephen, who proved to be one of the film’s worst villains. So much for Kuhner’s accusation. A great deal of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is set in the pre-Civil War South and its topic happens to be about American slavery. The use of “nigger” is historically accurate for the movie’s setting. And I am surprised that no one has complained about the slur being used in Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, “LINCOLN”. Hell, the word is used throughout productions such as the two “ROOTS”miniseries, the three “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, “QUEEN”, the 1971 movie “SKIN GAME” and in a good number of other movie and television productions set in antebellum and Civil War America. Even the use of the slur in a production set in the 19th century North would be historically accurate. I also recall the use of racial slurs for whites in a few scenes. As for Tarantino’s use of Mandingo fighting slaves in the movie . . . I have no explanation for its presence in this film. There is no historical evidence of this particular sport. And I suspect that Tarantino was simply inspired by the 1975 movie, “MANDINGO” and Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel upon which the latter was based.

So . . . how do I feel about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Frankly, I believe it is one of the best movies of 2012. And I also consider it to be another cinematic masterpiece by Quentin Tarantino. One of the aspects of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s ability to take a rather dark topic like slavery and fashioned it into a explosive mixture of action, drama, suspense and some comedy. Many have complained that the movie should have been a straight drama, considering its topic. But I disagree. Yes, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” could have been an effective straight drama. But Tarantino decided to take a rare and unique route in unfolding his tale. And in doing so, he managed to fashioned a fascinating story that allowed me to experience an array of emotions that left me more than satisfied by the movie’s last scene.

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” was not the first time comedy was used to reveal one of the darkest episodes in this country’s history. This has been done in “SKIN GAME” and in television shows such as “BEWITCHED” and the comedy sketch series, “KEY & PEELE”. Tarantino used the same mixture of pathos, horror, drama and comedy for many of his past movies – especially in“INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”. I found this use of humor especially effective in scenes that included the surviving Speck brother’s attempt to convince the slaves freed by Schultz not to kill him. I never knew that James Russo, who portrayed the surviving Speck brother, could be so funny. Django and Schultz’s little exchange regarding the former’s identification of the Sprittle brothers struck me as funny. I could say the same about Stephen’s reaction to Candie’s treatment of Django as a house guest and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly’s (Candie’s sister) futile attempts to attract Schultz’s attention. But the funniest sequence has to be the flashback featuring “Big Daddy” Bennett’s recruitment of night riders for an attack on Django and Schultz. In fact, that particular scene practically had me rolling with laughter.

Some people have complained that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale for African-Americans. I find this accusation rather odd, considering that Django’s main objective was to find Broomhilda and get her out slavery by any means possible. And despite the movie’s prevalent humor, Tarantino did not hold back in presenting not only the horrors and emotional traumas of slavery, but also racism. This was especially true in a handful of scenes in the movie. The opening scene featured an emotionally shell shocked Django being transported across Texas as part of a slave coffle. Other traumatic scenes include Candie’s little speech on the inferiority of blacks, the erruption of violence at Candyland that resulted in Django hanging from a barn’s roof, naked and bound and Stephen’s maleovelent revelation of Django’s fate as a slave for a Mississippi mining company. One horrifying scene that I found particularly brutal was a flashback featuring Broomhilda’s brutal whipping at the hands of the Brittle brothers, while Django desperately tries to convince one of the brothers to spare her.

I really do not know what to say about the performances featured in the movie. I realize there are no Academy Award nominations for ensemble casts. If there were, I would nominate the cast of “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. One, Tarantino cast old movie and television veterans in cameo roles. I have already mentioned Lee Horsley and James Russo. I also spotted the likes of Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Cooper Huckabee, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks and a humorus special guest appearance by Franco Nero. Both Bruce Dern and M.C. Gainey (of “LOST”) were especially scary in their brief appearances as Old Man Carrucan (Django and Broomhilda’s former owner) and Big John Brittle. Both Dana Michelle Gourrier and Nichole Galicia gave solid performances as Cora and Sheba, Candie’s housekeeper and concubine respectively. And Dennis Christopher’s performance as Calvin Candie’s obsequious attorney, Leonide Moguy, struck me as spot-on.

Don Johnson provided a skillful combination of charm, menace and humor in his role as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, the Tennessee planter who served as the Brittle brothers’ current employer. Jonah Hill had a funny cameo as one of his night riders. I could say the same about Miriam F. Glover, who gave one of the movie’s funniest lines, while portraying one of Big Daddy’s house slaves. Ato Essandoh of A&E’s “COPPER” was very effective as D’Artagnan, the frightened fighting slave whose runaway attempt led to his brutal death. Laura Cayouette’s performance as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Candie’s widowed sister, struck me as effective. On one hand, I found her attempts to seduce Schultz rather funny. On the other hand, her outrage over Candie’s attempt to display a naked Broomhilda during supper provided a great deal of tension in the scene. Walton Goggins gave a memorable and scary performance as one of Candie’s henchmen, Billy Crash. James Remar got to portray two intimidating characters – Ace Speck and Candie’s main henchman, Butch Pooch. And he did a damn good job with both roles.

Although I had been critical of Tarantino’s creation of the Broomhilda von Shaft, I must admit that Kerry Washington still managed to wring out a first-rate performance from the role. I especially impressed with her in scenes that featured Broomhilda’s tense encounters with Stephen; and her subtle, yet pleased reaction to Schultz’s purchase of her from Candie and her painful whipping by the Brittle brothers in one of the flashback. And I must admit that I found that last shot of her removing a shotgun from her saddle rather interesting. Perhaps after all that Broomhilda had endured, she was not taking any chances. I believe that the year 2012 will prove to be one of Samuel L. Jackson’s best years professionally. Aside from portraying Nick Fury in the year’s biggest hit, “THE AVENGERS”; he got to portray one of the most complex and villainous roles in “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as Candie’s trusted and malevolent head house slave, Stephen. Watching the movie, I was struck at how much Stephen reminded me of the Mr. Carson character from the British television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Both characters possessed the same blinding loyalty, snobbery, jealousy over his position within the slave hierarchy, and anger toward anyone from their background who managed to rise higher than they (for example: Django). Jackson did a superb job in not only conveying Stephen’s penchant for utilizing the old “Puttin’ on Old Massa” routine publicly, but also his intelligence while in the private company of Django, Broomhilda or Candie. And by the way, the man has a nice singing voice. Many people have expressed surprise at Leonardo Di Caprio’s portryal of the villanous, yet charsmatic Calvin Candie. I was not that surprised, considering I have seen him portray a villain before – as the cold-blooded Louis XIV in 1998’s “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”. But I do believe that Candie not only proved to be a more memorable villain, but also one of the actor’s best roles ever. He was fantastic as the charming, yet brutal Candie . . . and at the same time rather contradictory. It was obvious that Di Caprio’s Candie fervently believed in the superiority of whites; yet at the same time, he had no problems with allowing Stephen to handle the plantation’s finances or accepting the elderly slave’s intelligence and sharp observations about Django, Schultz and Broomhilda with very little reluctance.

Instead of portraying a villain, Christoph Waltz portrayed Django’s friendly, yet ruthless mentor and partner; the German-born dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. And he was fantastic. Waltz effectively portrayed Schultz’s cold-blooded pursuit of wanted criminals for profit, yet at the same time; conveyed the character’s disgust over the institution of slavery and open-mindedness toward Django, Broomhilda and other slaves. Waltz’s best moments proved to be Schultz’s encounter with the Speck brothers and Django in Texas, his taking down of the wanted Sheriff Bill Sharp (portrayed by Don Stroud), his reaction to D’Artagnan’s mauling and the revelation of his disgust toward Candie. And Waltz proved to have great screen chemistry with Jamie Foxx. I believe that the latter’s portrayal of the title character has proven to be vastly underrated by the majority of film critics and some moviegoers. I am a little disappointed, but not surprised. Django turned out to be a somewhat introverted character that was not inclined to speak very much . . . whether as a slave or a free man. Critics and filmgoers are not inclined to pay much attention to non-showy characters. Since Django proved to be a quiet character, Foxx resorted to good old-fashioned screen acting to convey most of the character’s non-speaking moments. And he did a superb job in portraying Django’s array of emotions – especially in the opening scene featuring the slave coffle in Texas, Schultz’s killing of the criminal, his first view of Broomhilda at Candyland, and the confrontation with Candie during the latter’s supper party. Ironically, another one of Foxx’s best moments proved to be quite verbal in which he attempts to con a group of slavers for a mining company to take him back to Candyland in order to collect on a fake bounty. In the end, Foxx did a superb job in developing Django from a slave in shock over the traumatized separation from his wife to the soft-spoken, yet self-assured man who could be very ruthless when the situation demanded it.

I also have to say a word about the movie’s behind-the-scene production. I was impressed by Sharen Davis’ costume designs. She did a solid job in re-creating the fashions of the late antebellum period. However, I noticed a few oddball designs for Candie’s slave mistress Sheba and a maid at a social club in Greenville, Mississippi; reflecting the planter’s penchant for anything French. I suspect this was a visual joke on Tarantino’s part. I was also impressed by J. Michael Riva’s production designs and Leslie A. Pope’s set decorations in the sequences for the Texas town featured in the movie’s first 10 to 20 minutes, Candie’s Napoleon Club in Greenville and especially the interiors for Candyland’s mansion. Robert Richardson did an excellent in capturing the beauty of California, Louisiana and especially Wyoming with his photography. As he had done for “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Tarantino used already recorded music to serve as the score for his movie. I did notice that a few songs – especially one for the opening title sequence – seemed to have been written specifically for the movie. However, I do not know who may have written them.

It occurred to me that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s second period piece in a row. And I found myself wondering if he planned to write and direct a third period movie as part of some kind of semi-historical trilogy. Whether he does or not, I must say that I was impressed with “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. More than impressed. I believe it is one of the best movies I have seen released in 2012. And I feel that it is one of the writer-director’s more original works, due to superb writing, direction and an excellent cast led by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz.

P.S. Check out this photo:

Jamie+Foxx+Don+Johnson+CbSnoKvfAsGm

Ohmigod! It’s Crockett and Tubbs!

“The Staff of Fire” [PG] – 2/6

 

“THE STAFF OF FIRE”

Part II

The McNeills and their companions arrived at Dunleith station, in Scotland, on a late Saturday afternoon. They found two limousines and a Land Rover waiting to convey them and their luggage to Castle Dunleith, home of the Laird of Dunleith. During the trip to the castle, Cecile marveled at the beauty of the Scottish countryside – the sweeping moors, the patches of wood and especially the wide lake to her left. An even more impressive view awaited them, as the cars approached the driveway, leading toward the McNeills’ home.

Paige gasped out loud, as the sight of a three-story castle loomed before them. “Oh my God!” she declared breathlessly. “Is this . . .?”

“Cousin Keith’s home,” Jack McNeill finished. “Only, it now belongs to Colin.”

“Colin?”

Gweneth McNeill spoke up. “Colin McNeill. He’s the new Laird of Dunleith. Keith’s son. And an old friend of mine. He had first introduced me to Jack, thirty-six years ago.”

The three cars came to a halt in the middle of the castle’s courtyard. Three of the four servants that emerged from the castle, approached the Land Rover, and began to remove the luggage. As Cecile, the McNeills, Paige and Cole climbed out of the two limousines, a fourth servant accompanied a middle-aged man dressed in a dark green pullover and corduroy slacks approached the visitors. Cecile smiled, as the latter greeted cheerfully, “Welcome to Dunleith!”

“Colin!” Mr. McNeill rushed forward to greet his cousin with a bear hug. “Good to see you. How long has it been?”

The Laird of Dunleith replied happily, “Too long, cousin. Too long.” He then greeted both Gweneth and Elise McNeill with hugs and kisses.

The McNeill matriarch commented, “It’s a shame that you and Lesley had missed Bruce’s wedding. It was . . . very interesting.”

A sigh left the laird’s mouth. “Beastly luck for us. From what Jack told me, it was quite exciting. You were attacked by a succubus’ coven?”

“The Della Scalla Coven. I’m sure that Jack or Gwen gave you the details.” Mrs. McNeill glanced around. “Is Margaret here?”

Cecile overheard Harry murmur to Paige, “Margaret was Cousin Keith’s sister. And she’s Colin’s aunt. She’ll be performing the ceremony for Livy.”

“Who is that speaking?” Colin demanded, his eyes pinpointing the two younger witches. “Harry?”

The youngest McNeill stepped forward and shook the other man’s hand. “Colin. It’s good to be back.”

“To whom were you speaking?”

Before Harry could reply, Paige stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Paige Matthews.”

Old Mrs. McNeill added, “Remember Penelope Halliwell? Paige is her youngest granddaughter.”

Colin’s eyes swept appreciatively over Paige. “So, you’re one of the Charmed Ones.”

“Yes sir.” Paige’s face turned pink with embarrassment. Cecile also noted the pleasure in the young witch’s eyes at being recognized.

“Well, it’s nice to finally meet you.” The laird turned his gaze upon Cecile. “And Cecile. Welcome back to Dunleith.”

Cecile smiled at the witch. “Thank you.”

“How is Vivian? And your father? I haven’t seen them in quite a while.”

Although Colin had known Cecile’s family for nearly twenty years, the Dunleith branch of the McNeill family and her parents had rarely met. As far as Cecile knew, on at least five occasions since 1985. “It has been a long time,” Cecile added. “The last time you saw my folks, was six years ago.”

Colin nodded and then turned to Olivia, smiling broadly. “And look whom we have here. Possibly the future Bearer of the Aingeal Staff.”

Olivia quirked an eyebrow. “Possibly?”

The laird’s thoughts struck Cecile’s mind before she could stop herself. “So it’s true? There are two new fire witches, besides Olivia?” she demanded.

Everyone stared at Colin. Who nodded. “Dennis and Fiona. Both are strong enough to be tested during the ceremony.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “So much for me being the staff’s new bearer.”

“Now Livy, as far as we know, you still might be the top contender.” Colin held out his arms. “Now give me a hug.”

Cecile’s friend broke out into a wide smile and allowed herself to be enveloped into a hug. Olivia eased out of the older man’s arms and turned to the last member of the American visitors. “Colin, I’d like you to meet . . .”

“Belthazor.” The laird regarded Cole with a mixture of awe and disbelief, as he offered a hand. “We’ve met before. In . . .”

Cole took the laird’s hand and shook it. “In London. The summer of ’77. You remember?”

Colin shrugged his shoulders. “I was there. With Jack. I’m only glad that we can now meet on friendlier terms. Jack and Gwen have told me a lot about you, these past seven months. He quietly added, “Good show.” While Cole blushed with embarrassment, the laird added, “We’re having a few more guests, tonight. Dinner party. Should start in three hours.”

“Gives us plenty of time to unpack and freshen up,” Gweneth commented.

The laird turned to one of the servants. “Angus, please show our guests to their rooms. The others will carry the luggage. Inside everyone!” Cecile and the others followed their jovial host inside the castle.

————-

Originally built over eight hundred years ago by a McNeill ancestor, Castle Dunleith had endured a great deal of history over the centuries. At least that is what Cole had learned from Olivia, while they prepared for supper. According to the red-haired witch, the castle’s first laird – Fergus McNeill – had also been a previous keeper of the Aingeal staff. Cole learned that the castle had withstood many wars and political upheavals. It had also withstood attacks of the supernatural kind.

In the mid 14th century, a McNeill from another line had led a group of supporters – also from the McNeill family – in a failed attack against the laird, in an attempt to wrestle control of the castle and the staff. Nearly seventy years later, a clan of warlocks tried to wipe out the McNeills in the area and take control of castle. The battle ended with nearly thirty dead. And it took another laird, Archibald McNeill another twenty years to restore order to the area.

“Whew!” Cole exclaimed inside the privacy of the bedroom he shared with Olivia. The bedroom’s window offered a direct view of the castle’s formal garden. “This place has quite a bloody history, doesn’t it?”

Olivia shrugged her shoulders. “No more bloody than any other place in the entire United Kingdom. Or the USA, for that matter.” A mischievous smile touched her lips. “Guess what the Clan McNeill’s motto is.”

“Oh? What?” Cole asked.

Still smiling, Olivia answered, “Vincere vel mori. To conquer or die.”

“Hmmph, after what I’ve heard about this place, it seems appropriate.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me that our little family history is a little too bloody for you?”

Cole paused briefly, before a smirk apppeared on his face. “Let’s just say that the McNeills can give my mother’s family some stiff competition.” Olivia tossed a pillow at him. He deftly caught it before adding, “So, when did the first McNeill leave for America?”

According to Olivia, one Ian McNeill had joined the Scottish Royalists against Oliver Cromwell during the civil war that had raged in England and Scotland. “After the Scottish defeat at Worcester in 1651,” she continued, “he was captured by English soldiers. But he managed to escape before they could imprison him, and made his way back to the castle. His father helped him book passage aboard a cargo ship bound for Boston. He later ended up in New Bedford, Massachusetts.” She stood in front of a large, oval-shaped mirror and began to smooth her dress. “How do I look?” she asked.

The aqua-blue cocktail dress clung provocatively to Olivia’s shapely figure. Cole felt that the dress and the sandaled pumps contrasted perfectly with her red curls. “Not bad,” he murmured, as he gathered her into his arms. “Almost as good as you look without any clothes on.”

“Pervert,” Olivia murmured back, before Cole’s lips pressed against hers. He allowed one hand to surreptiously cup a firm buttock. “Cole.”

“Hmmm?” The half-daemon’s tongue slipped inside Olivia’s mouth.

After a minute or two of wet exploration of each other’s mouths, Olivia broke their kiss – much to Cole’s disappointment. “Oh God,” she whispered in ragged breath, “we better . . . we better get going before we’re late for dinner.”

Keeping Olivia’s body close to his, Cole replied softly, “Would it really hurt if we’re a few minutes late?”

“Something tells me that we’ll end up being more than a few minutes late.”

Images of him and Olivia on the bed filled Cole’s mind. Then he sighed, knowing that she was right. Shit! “All right,” he conceded. “Let’s go.”

Olivia gave him a peck on the cheek and led Cole out of their bedroom. They strode through the castle’s corridors, down the curved staircase and toward the larger drawing-room, where the castle’s inhabitants and other guests had gathered.

——–

Through Colin McNeill, Cole met other members of the family’s Dunleith branch. A handful of relatives seemed wary of meeting a notorious half-daemon. Thankfully, most of them did not seem concerned – including Colin McNeill’s middle child, an affable, yet charming man with shoulder-length brown hair. The latter introduced himself as Jaime McNeill.

“Dad had told us about you,” Jaime said to Cole, after the two were introduced. “When we were children. He told us about the time you had tried to steal that amulet back in . . . what? Seventy-seven? Seventy-eight?”

Cole corrected him. “Seventy-seven.”

“Hmmm, and when Elise had visited during Grandfather’s death, she mentioned that you were friends with Olivia and the rest of her family. Imagine our surprise.”

Smiling, Cole added, “Well, I’m still in shock over how my life has changed, since meeting Olivia and her family. Probably a little relieved.”

“Oh yes, Elise told us about that. How you had saved her from a warlock.” Jaime gave Cole a knowing smile. “Lucky you. I believe you’re the first man in a long time, who managed to snare the delectable Olivia. I had once tried my luck with her, you know.”

The revelation took Cole by surprise. “No, I didn’t.” He knew that Olivia and Jaime were probably distant cousins. Yet, the idea of the possibility of them being . . . “You and Olivia had dated once?”

“Oh Goddess, no!” Jaime replied with a laugh. “I wish! But nothing ever happened.” A wistful expression appeared on his sanguine face. “Like I said, I tried to woo her once, but she made it clear that she was not into thinning the family bloodline.”

Cole nearly choked on his brandy. He finally managed to squeak, “Really?”

Jaime continued, “Ah yes, dear Cousin Olivia. She really is something, isn’t she?”

“She certainly is,” Cole murmured.

“Of course, she’s not the only one,” Jaime added. “That friend of hers, for example. Cecile Dubois. Lovely thing, and very fascinating. She’s from New Orleans, you know. Bloody marvelous city.”

Cole nodded. “Yes, marvelous.” He paused. “I happened to be a friend of Cecile’s boyfriend, Andre Morell.”

Sighing, Jaime replied, “Yes, I’ve met him, once. Scary chap. Heard he was a Vodoun priest, or something. Powerful, too.”

“Very powerful,” Cole added with an edge to his voice.

Jaime continued, “Which is why I take the trouble to stay away from Cecile. However . . .” Cole noticed that Jaime’s gaze had turned to the youngest Charmed One. “. . . I see that Livy has a new friend. She’s also a lovely thing.”

“Yes, she’s also my former sister-in-law,” Cole added. “Paige.”

“Hmmm, really? Still, is she involved with anyone?”

Cole recalled Paige’s former boyfriend – someone named Nate or Nathan. Their romance had ended over a month ago, when Paige discovered that Nate was a married man. “Not at the moment,” the half-daemon answered reluctantly.

“Marvelous!” Jaime’s eyes danced with anticipation. “Perhaps I’ll have my chance at her, after all. I understand she’s supposed to be one of the Charmed Ones.” A brief frown flashed across his face. “By the way, she’s not a natural redhead, is she?”

“Uh . . .”

Giving Cole a quick jab in the arm, Jaime added, “To be honest, anyone could tell. Especially since her eyes are too dark for that shade of red. However,” he sighed wistfully, “she certainly is a lovely creature.”

Unable to find respond, Cole merely grunted and continued drinking his brandy.

Less than an hour later, another member of the McNeill family also proved to be interesting. She was a tall, formidable-looking woman with dark gray eyes and silver hair. Her name was Margaret McNeill Ferguson and she happened to be the current laird’s aunt. Cole found himself sitting next to her during supper, in the large dining hall.

“So, you’re Belthazor,” the old lady said to Cole. Her gray eyes were firmly fixed upon him. “How did you end up with a human name?”

After clearing his throat, Cole calmly revealed his family background. “You see, Cole . . . uh, Coleridge was my father’s middle name. And also my great-grandfather’s name.”

“You mean, they were human?” Mrs. Ferguson demanded.

Cole nodded. “Yes ma’am.” He took a bite of his Poached Wild Salmon. Covered with Whiskey Cream Sauce and served with a vegetable mixture called Kale Kenny, he found it delicious.

“Ma’am?” The old lady snorted. “Only the Queen is called ma’am, in this country. Besides, I’m probably younger than you. Mrs. Ferguson or Margaret will do.” She paused. “Did you know your father?”

Realizing that the laird’s aunt would not rest until she learned everything about him, Cole heaved an inward sigh. “Barely, to be honest. He was killed, when I was three.”

“Killed?” Two silver brows formed arches.

Cole added, “By my mother. Who was a daemon.”

“Bloody hell!” Mrs. Ferguson exclaimed. “Is she still alive? Your mother?”

With a casual shrug that did not match his inner feelings, Cole replied, “Probably. Although I haven’t seen her in over thirty years.” The half-daemon then steered the conversation to the upcoming Aingeal staff ceremony. “I understand that the ceremony will be held on Wednesday?”

“Next Saturday,” Mrs. Ferguson corrected. “Also, Olivia will not be the only one to take part in the ceremony. Apparently, two other contenders for the staff have appeared. Fiona and Dennis. And on Saturday, we will discover who is powerful enough to be the next bearer. I understand from Elise that you had helped Olivia learn to control her pyrokinesis.”

Cole nodded. “Somewhat. Olivia and I sometimes practiced at her family’s home, and sometimes . . .” He hesitated.

“Yes?”

“Uh, in another dimension.” Cole quickly returned his attention to his meal.

Mrs. Ferguson frowned. “In a demonic dimension?”

“No, not demonic,” Cole corrected. “The realm actually belongs to the Dann people.”

Surprise flickered in the old lady’s eyes. “The Tuatha Dé Dannan? Are you serious?” Cole stared at her. “I do beg your pardon. I don’t mean to be insulting, but why would the Tuatha Dé Dannan allow you in their realm?”

Cole found himself growing wary of this conversation. Aside from a few close people, he had always valued his privacy. Especially from the prying eyes of strangers. But there was something about Margaret Ferguson that made it impossible for him to ignore her questioning. Her frank curiosity reminded him of Elise McNeill. And Olivia. “Uh,” he said, hesitating, “the reason . . . I mean . . . I’m, uh . . . I’m a descendant of one of the Dann people. On my mother’s side.”

The news had apparently rocked the elderly witch. “Goddess! You mean to say that . . . you’re a descendant of the Tuatha Dé Dannan? A daemon?” Her voice rang across the dining hall. Cole winced, as all eyes fell upon the pair.

“What are you two talking about?” Elise McNeill demanded. “Did you say something about the Tuatha Dé Dannan, Meg?”

Mrs. Ferguson belted out for all to hear, “It seems that your Mr. Turner is a descendant of the Dann people. On his mother’s side. Why didn’t you tell me, Elise?”

“I had no idea,” the San Franciscan matriarch replied.

Cole felt a sudden desire to teleport out of the dining hall, and into the privacy of the bedroom he shared with Olivia. Or back to his penthouse in San Francisco.

An elderly man with snow white hair and small blue eyes demanded, “And how on earth did Belthazor end up as a descendant of the Tuatha Dé Dannan? They were magical people who fought against evil.” Cole recalled him being introduced as Simon McNeill, the laird’s only surviving uncle. And one of the few who seemed wary of Cole’s presence at the family dining table. “Olivia, did you know about this?”

All eyes now focused upon the red-haired witch. Olivia’s face grew pink. “Uh,” she began, “well, I do recall Cole first mentioning it, last January. But I don’t know the details . . .”

“Did the Source know?” Mrs. Ferguson asked, interrupting Olivia.

Cole sighed. “To be honest, I really don’t know. Neither he, the Triad, or Raynor had ever mentioned my connection to the Tuatha Dé Dannan. Nor did my mother.”

“Then how . . .?”

Memories of pleasant interludes in his childhood rushed back to Cole’s mind. “My mother’s brother. He used to tell me stories about them.”

Doubt gleamed in Mrs. Ferguson’s eyes. “A daemon that had served the Source, telling his nephew about magical beings that fought evil?”

“I never said that my uncle had served the Source,” Cole quickly replied.

“Oh. Terribly sorry.” Looking somewhat abashed, the elderly woman turned to her other neighbor. Cole sighed with relief. He had the oddest feeling this week might end up being remembered by the McNeills for his visit, rather than the initiation of the new Aingeal staff bearer.

———-

After supper, Paige met two other members of the McNeill family. She and Harry encountered the two contenders who would be vying against Olivia for possession of the Aingeal Staff – Dennis McNeill and Fiona Craig. The former was an affable-looking man with sandy hair, broad features, and the physique of a football player. Yet, it was Fiona who managed to capture Paige’s attention.

No one could deny that Fiona McNeill Craig was a beautiful woman. At five-feet ten, she made Paige feel like a dwarf. Dark brown hair cascaded down her back in thick waves. It also framed an oval-shaped face that possessed delicate features, full lips, pale skin, and the McNeill blue-gray eyes.

“So,” the older woman said in a soft Scots burr, “this is one of the famous Charmed Ones. How . . . interesting.” Her eyes raked over Paige with such insolence that the witch ended up earning the younger woman’s instant dislike.

Paige smiled coolly. “And you’re Olivia and Harry’s cousin. I understand that your fire power had recently manifested.”

Fiona sniffed. Harry rolled his eyes in disgust. “Yes,” the former said, “about a month ago.”

“Wow! A month ago! That’s four whole months after Olivia’s power had appeared.” Paige’s smile brightened, mindful of the other woman’s jealousy.

Fiona continued, “Perhaps it did appear a bit late, but I’ve managed to vanquish a daemon, thanks to my new power. Something I believe that poor Dennis, here, cannot claim.” The other fire witch’s face turned deep red. “Despite the fact that his power had manifested, last March.”

One daemon? Both Paige and Harry exchanged amused glances. “That must have been the defining moment of your life, Fee,” Harry remarked, sarcastically. “It’s a shame you weren’t at Bruce’s wedding. We could have used you.”

“I’m sure that the Charmed Ones,” Fiona glanced disdainfully at Paige, “had managed to assist ably. It must be a shock to realize that you’re no longer the most powerful witches.” Her blue-gray eyes grew wide in mock horror. “Oh dear! I forgot. You never really were the most powerful witches. As long as there was a Bearer of the Aingeal Staff. Why the Whitelighters’ Council had depended upon you to kill the Source, I’ll never know. But then, I had never harbored a high opinion of whitelighters. Including half-breeds.”

Seething privately, Paige struggled to keep her temper in check. Until . . . “Actually, there is a witch more powerful than any of us. Has been, since last February.”

Fiona’s eyes narrowed. “Oh?”

“My nephew, Wyatt,” Paige continued. “He’s half-witch, half-whitelighter like myself. Half-breed. Only,” she paused dramatically, “he’s a lot more powerful than any of us. Including a lot of demons.”

“Bloody hell!” Dennis exclaimed, garnering stares from the others.

Again, Fiona sniffed. Must come from a bad habit, Paige surmised. “Well, it doesn’t really matter. He will never be the Aingeal Staff Bearer.”

“And you will?” a fifth voice asked. All eyes turned to Jaime McNeill, who had approached the group.

Her delicate nose perched high in the air, Fiona continued, “I never said that. And just because Olivia had her power longer, does not mean she’ll have the staff. I certainly do not recall being a trigger-happy cop as a prerequisite for becoming the future Bearer of the Aingeal Staff. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She walked away, her nose still stuck high in the air.

Jaime shook his head. “Don’t worry about Fiona, love,” he commented. “There’s a lot of bad blood between her and Olivia.”

“Yeah,” Harry added. “They’ve detested each other since they first met.” He glanced to his right and noticed that another McNeill cousin was signaling him. “Excuse me. I think old Simon wants to talk to me.” He eased away from the group. Dennis followed.

Jaime continued, “You see, Fiona has always regarded herself as the family’s little princess. The girl everyone paid attention to. She had been one of the most popular debs, back in the late eighties and early nineties. Until Olivia visited the family, one summer. In 1990, I believe. Livy managed to steal all of Fiona’s thunder. And poor Fee hasn’t recovered since.” His eyes swept appreciatively over Paige’s face, making her feel self-conscious. “Of course, you could give both of my cousins, fair competition. Is there something about the water in America that produces such lovely creatures, such as yourself?”

The Charmed One gave the Scottish witch a cool stare. “Before I answer that question, I should let you know that I’m not a . . . ‘creature’. And a certain sister of yours named Amanda, told me all about you.”

Jaime’s face fell. “Oh.”

“Also, considering the fact that I had just broke up with a guy who forgot to mention that he was married, I have to tell you right now – you and me? Unless you’re talking about friendship, it ain’t gonna happen.”

The older man heaved a mournful sigh. “Well, so much for fulfilling my fantasies.”

A waitress dressed in a white shirt, black vest and black pants, appeared and offered the pair drinks from a tray. Jaime accepted a glass of whiskey. Paige merely shook her head. As the waitress walked away, the hairs on back of Paige’s neck began to rise. It was the same feeling she had experience in London, two nights ago. She stared at the servant’s retreating back. “Who is that woman?” she asked Jaime.

The other witch nonchalantly replied, “Probably one of the servants hired for the week.”

Paige frowned. “You mean, she doesn’t work for your dad?”

“Most of the chappies working here, tonight, are from a local employment service,” Jaime explained. “Except for the Royal Family, not many can afford a large permanent staff of servants. Too bloody expensive. Even Jack and Gwen have only a few servants, as you know. And they’re rich as Croesus. Is there a problem?”

Paige’s eyes scanned the crowd inside the drawing room for the waitress. Who was nowhere to be found. She sighed. “No. No problem at all.”

END OF PART II

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

a new hope blog2

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (1977) Review

Long ago (thirty-five years and seven months, to be exact) and in a galaxy far, far away, producer-director-writer George Lucas made film history with the release of his movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Only, during the summer of 1977, it was simply known as “STAR WARS”. And this science-fiction/fantasy homage to Saturday morning serials and mythology was something that moviegoers had never seen before. 

Now considered as the fourth film installment of Lucas’ STAR WARS saga, “A NEW HOPE” chronicled the adventures of a space-aged farmboy named Luke Skywalker, who finds himself swept up in a galactic conflict between a tyrannical empire and a band of rebel fighters determined to return freedom to the galaxy. Not only did the film introduced the concept of the summer blockbuster and created a movie/television/literary franchise that made billions for its creator, it also became the second highest grossing film in Hollywood history (as of 2012) and ushered in a new age for movie special effects. This movie has made such a major impact upon Hollywood that its effects are still being felt to this day.

“A NEW HOPE” began with an opening crawl describing a galaxy in a state of civil war. Spies for the Rebel Alliance have stolen the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new weapon – a heavily armed and armored space station capable of destroying an entire planet called the Death Star. One of the Rebel Alliance leaders, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, is in possession of the Death Star plans when her ship is attacked by Imperial forces under the leadership of the Sith Lord Darth Vader. Before she could be captured, Princess Leia hides the plans and a holographic recording into the memory of an astromech droid called R2-D2. The small droid and its companion, a protocol droid named C-3PO flee to the surface of the desert planet Tatooine. While Darth Vader sends a contingent of stormtroopers to look for the droids, R2 and 3PO find themselves captured by Jawa traders, who sell them to a moisture farmer and his nephew named Owen Lars and Luke Skywalker.

Luke, who is an orphan, yearns to leave his uncle’s farm and find adventure in the stars. He finds it when he releases Princess Leia’s holographic recording, while cleaning R2-D2. The recording is for a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Surmising that Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ben Kenobi, who is a neighbor of his Uncle Owen, are one and the same; Luke delivers the droids and the message to the aging hermit. The young man also discovers that Kenobi is a former Jedi Master, who knew his father Anakin Skywalker, who used to be a Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan suggests that Luke help him deliver the Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s father on Alderaan. At first, Luke rejects the offer. But when his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are found murdered by Imperial stormtroopers looking for the droids, Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on the latter’s new adventure. They recruit the services of two smugglers – Han Solo and Chewbacca – to convey them to Alderaan. The journey proves to be a new beginning not only for Luke, but also his new companions.

I have a confession to make. When I first saw “A NEW HOPE” during the summer of 1977, I did not like it at all. Looking back, I realize that my hostile feelings toward the movie stemmed from a sense of being overwhelmed by something I found mind blowing and completely new. The release of “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” eventually eased the impact of Lucas’ saga upon my psyche. But it took several years for me to first warm up and eventually embrace “A NEW HOPE”. Despite my eventual love for the movie, I have never viewed it as my favorite of the saga (so far) . . . or as one of my top favorites. But I can honestly say that after thirty-five years, it still has quite a punch. In fact, I believe that it is probably the most entertaining of the six STAR WARS films produced by George Lucas.

It is easy to see why “A NEW HOPE” is so beloved by many fans of the saga. The plot, written by Lucas, has the hallmarks of a first-rate adventure filled with space battles, escapes, daring-dos, a lightsaber duel, snarky dialogue, a roguish smuggler, a villain in black, a royal damsel-in-distress (who becomes a protagonist herself), a wise mentor and an innocent boy who answers the call to adventure. I suspect that another major reason why “A NEW HOPE” is so appealing to many of the saga’s fans is the “good-vs-evil” aspect of both its tale and its characters. It must have been very easy for moviegoers to identify with the movie’s protagonists and their fight against the tyranny of the “evil” Empire. For me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the entire sequence aboard the Empire’s Death Star. From the moment the heroes’ ship the Millennium Falcon found itself forced into the depths of the large battle station, to the moment when they escape some 20 to 30 minutes later, the entire Death Star sequence seemed to be one major fun fest that crackled with humor and action.

With the exceptions of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, the cast of “A NEW HOPE” was filled with unknowns. I do not recall any well-known movie that Mark Hamill had appeared in before he became famous as Luke Skywalker. But Carrie Fisher, who portrayed the sharp-tongued Princess Leia, had already appeared in 1975’s “SHAMPOO”. And Harrison Ford, who would become a bigger star than either of his co-stars, had worked for Lucas before in the latter’s 1973 classic,“AMERICAN GRAFFITI”. But all three actors created an excellent screen team. Actors such as Peter Mayhew, who portrayed Han Solo’s first mate Chewbacca; along with Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, who appeared in all six movies as the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; added their magic to the mix. Many people have made a big deal over David Prowse’s physical and James Earl Jones’ vocal portrayals of Sith Lord Darth Vader. And they were quite right to do so. Both actors contributed a great deal to the character. But I have rarely come across any comments about Peter Cushing’s performance as the cold-blooded and arrogant military commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin. I find that a shame, because I thought he made a very effective villain . . . even more so than Vader. And of course, there is Alec Guinness, who portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi. Guinness earned an Academy Award for his portrayal of the iconic Jedi Master. And I believe it was well earned. He did an excellent job as Luke’s wise and patient mentor, who was haunted not only by his past, but past deeds.

I was not kidding when I had stated that “A NEW HOPE” was not one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. I believe that it has its flaws. While I found the movie’s innocent air and joie de vivre approach to its story very appealing, I feel that the movie lacked a complexity that I believe gave an edge to the other five movies. I am not stating that the story and its characters lacked an emotional depth. There is some depth to both the story and the characters. But aside from the Han Solo character, the other characters seemed to be a bit one-dimensional in comparison. They were either good or evil. I can even say this about the Darth Vader character, who was given an opportunity for a bit of complexity in a scene in which he tried to explain the Force to the Death Star’s senior officers staff. While there are many who have no problems with a lack of moral ambiguity, I do. And I have to say that I was more than relieved when Lucas finally injected some moral ambiguity into his characters, in the franchise’s later films.

If there is one movie that initiated my dislike of Tatooine, it is “A NEW HOPE”. From the moment the camera focused upon 3PO and R2 trekking across the planet’s desert, I found myself struggling to maintain my interest on the movie. It is possible that Tatooine has a talent for putting me to sleep. Only something really exciting has to happen – like Luke and Obi-Wan’s first meeting with Han Solo and Chewbacca, along with their subsequent escape from the planet – could keep my interest sharply focused. I also have to admit that I am not a fan of the Battle of Yavin sequence that marked the destruction of the Death Star. It smacked too much of a World War II aerial dog fight, straight out of a 1940s movie. Speaking of that particular decade, I was not that impressed by Harrison Ford’s attempt to sound like a 40s tough guy, during Han’s argument with Leia following the escape from the Death Star in the following scene:

LEIA: That doesn’t sound too hard. Besides, they let us go. It’s the
only explanation for the ease of our escape.

HAN: Easy…you call that easy?

LEIA: Their tracking us!

HAN: Not this ship, sister.

Frustrated, Leia shakes her head.

LEIA: At least the information in Artoo is still intact.

HAN: What’s so important? What’s he carrying?

LEIA: The technical readouts of that battle station. I only hope that
when the data is analyzed, a weakness can be found. It’s not over yet!

HAN: It is for me, sister! Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution,
and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in
it for the money!

I know, I know. It does not seem like much. But hearing Ford spew those lines still make me wince after so many years. I was also disappointed by how Lucas handled the Princess Leia character in this film. I can already see heads spinning over this complaint. Superficially, Leia seemed like the perfect embodiment of a fictional female character of the late 20th century. Her intelligence, courage and razor-sharp wit practically screamed “I am woman, hear me roar!” And yet . . . Lucas dropped the ball with her character in one very significant moment in the film. His screenplay never revealed Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s use of the Death Star to destroy her home planet, Alderaan. Not once. The moment Alderaan blew to smithereens, the movie cut back to the occupants of the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan’s reaction. Audiences saw Leia’s reaction to Tarkin’s order to destroy the planet. But we never saw the aftermath. We never saw Leia mourn over the deaths of millions of Alderaaneans – including her parents. Instead, Lucas allowed audiences a look at Luke’s reaction and grief over Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death at the hands of Lord Vader. Even worse, Leia seemed so focused over comforting Luke that she seemed to have forgotten about Alderaan’s destruction.

The production values for “A NEW HOPE” still holds up today after so many years. However, I suspect that one can attribute this to Lucas’ decision to utilize CGI to make the special effects for the 1977 movie and the other two from theOriginal Trilogy more effective and less dated. I realize there are many veteran fans of the saga who claim that Lucas’ CGI retouches were unnecessary. They have also expressed their dislike of the revamped movies. All I can say is that they are entitled to their opinions. I simply do not share them. However, John Williams’ score remains as stirring and iconic as ever. John Mollo did an excellent job for his simple and elegant designs for the movie’s costumes. However, I am a little peeved that he managed to snag an Academy Award for his work on this film; whereas the Motion Picture Academy failed to give Trisha Biggar even a nomination for her outstanding work in the Prequel Trilogy.

In conclusion, I can happily state that STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” stands up very well after thirty-six years. The movie and the five other films of the STAR WARS franchise remain among the best adventure films ever made in Hollywood, as far as I am concerned. And I can only wonder if George Lucas and 20th Century Fox Studios ever released what it had unleashed upon the world when the movie was first released in theaters back in May 1977.