“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” (2013) Review

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“FAST AND FURIOUS” (2013) Review

When “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” first hit the movie screens in 2001, I never imagined that it would be such a major hit . . . or spawn five sequels. The franchise seemed in danger of ending with a whimper with 2006’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT”, due to its lack of critical success. Three years later saw the rejuvenation of the franchise with the success of 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS”. This movie spawned a mini trilogy of its own, culminating in the latest film,“FAST AND FURIOUS 6”

The franchise’s fifth installment, “FAST FIVE” ended with Dominic Toretto and his accomplices reaping the rewards of a successful heist from a Rio drug lord. In the film’s Easter egg segment, U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent Luke Hobbs learns from U.S. Customs agent Monica Fuentes (from 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”) that Dom’s former girlfriend, Letty Ortiz, is alive and well, and working with one Owen Shaw, a British criminal (and former Special Forces soldier) who had recently pulled a heist on a Russian military convoy. Hobbs and his new partner, Riley Hicks, recruit Dom, Brian O’Conner and other members of the gang who helped pull off the Rio heist; to help them take down Shaw. Hobbes convinces Dom to help him, revealing Letty’s existence and offering full amnesty for past crimes. With the exception of Mia Torretto and former Rio police officer Elena Neves (who remain behind to care for Mia and Brian’s new baby), along with Leo Tego and Rico Santos (who remain on the French Riviera gambling); Dom, Brian and the rest of the gang arrive in London to help Hobbes and Hicks to track down Shaw. Upon their arrival, they discover that Letty has amnesia and that capturing Shaw might prove to be more difficult than they had originally imagined.

After watching “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, I came to the conclusion that it was my second favorite movie in the franchise after “FAST FIVE”. However, I am not so sure anymore. There are certain aspects of this latest film that makes me reluctant to view as the franchise’s second best. One, the movie’s premise is not that original – even for a FAST AND FURIOUS movie. In fact, the story premise for “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” bears a strong resemblance to the premise for the 2003 movie, “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”. In that movie, Brian O’Conner and Roman Pearce helped the Feds bring down a Miami-based drug lord in exchange for pardons and clean records. Brian, Roman, Dom and others help Fed Luke Hobbes take down international criminal Owen Shaw for . . . what else? Pardons and clean records. I also had a problem with the Roman Pearce character. I had no problem with Tyrese Gibson’s portrayal of the character. But I found it odd that Roman would immediately drop his airborne love fest with a group of models due to a summons from Dom Toretto, of all people.“FAST FIVE” did not exactly end with Roman and Dom as the best of friends. If the movie had established that Roman had received the summons from Brian, who was his childhood friend, I could accept his immediate decision to join the team. One last problem I had with “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” proved to be a flashback from 2009’s “FAST AND FURIOUS” regarding the origin of Letty Ortiz’s amnesia. The 2009 movie hinted that Letty had been killed by Arturo Braga’s henchman, Fenix Calderon. But a flashback in “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” revealed that Calderon missed Letty completely and shot the car to which she was standing near. The car exploded, injuring Letty. Why Calderon failed to confirm her death after the explosion remains a mystery to me. The entire scene struck me as clumsily handled. I also noticed that Dom’s ridiculous “Daddy issues” and desire to be “Papa Toretto” to anyone close to him still remains. When he made a comment at the end of the movie about Brian and Mia’s son, Jack O’Conner, being solely a Toretto, I merely laughed. When he repeated the “joke” again, I began to wonder if he was making a demented attempt to claim the toddler as his own offspring. Right now, I feel that Brian and Mia should leave the Toretto home and purchase their own house to raise their kid.

But despite these problems, “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” turned out to be a pretty damn good movie. The franchise’s street-racing theme played a major part in the efforts of Dom’s team to stop Shaw’s team from carrying out their crimes. This theme was definitely apparent in four scenes. One of them was a car chase through the streets of nighttime London that ended with the team’s failure to capture Shaw, as he was fleeing his hideout. Another scene featured Dom and an amnesiac Letty in a street race that ended in a sexy moment in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. There was also the film’s final action sequence at a NATO air strip in which Dom and his team finally prevented Shaw from escaping by plane. I found that particular sequence a little hard to bear, considering that at times, it seemed to go on forever and it was shot at night. The only daytime sequence that featured vehicles on a highway not far from that NATO base in Spain. What made this sequence memorable for was the spectacular car chase that featured an outstanding stunt performed by Tyrese Gibson . . . or his double. There is a spectacular fight scene between Letty and Hobbes’ partner, Riley Hicks, in the London Underground. I heard that Michelle Rodriguez felt a bit wary in doing a fight scene with Gina Carano . . . and I do not blame her, considering the latter is a mixed martial arts champ. There was also a pretty decent Dom and Hobbes vs. Shaw and his men aboard the cargo plane in Spain.

Action sequences were not the only staple that made “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” entertaining for me. The movie also featured some pretty damn good dramatic moments and rather funny scenes. I have already pointed out that sexy moment between Dom and Letty in which the former tried to revive the latter’s memories. I also enjoyed the sequence in which Brian allowed himself to be “arrested” (courtesy of Luke Hobbes’ Federal connections) by the FBI, in order to question former adversary Arturo Braga about Letty’s connections to Shaw. Not only did it featured a humorous reunion between Brian and his former FBI colleague, Special Agent Stasiak; but also a very dramatic one between Brian and Braga. “FAST FIVE” featured the beginning of a romance between Han and Gisele. But their relationship took on a more poignant note in this movie, which I found very satisfying. I especially enjoyed how Roman quickly figured out Han’s true feelings for Gisele. Speaking of Roman and Han, the movie featured a very funny moment in which both of them secretly agreed not to inform the others of their defeat against one of Shaw’s men in the London Underground. In fact, Roman proved to have the best lines in the movie. My ultimate favorite? Read the following scene between him and Tej Parker:

[Roman asks Tej for change to use the vending machine]
TEJ: You’re a millionaire and still asking for money?
ROMAN: That’s how you stay a millionaire.

“FAST AND FURIOUS 6” featured some pretty decent performances. But there were those that stood out for me. I especially enjoyed Tyrese Gibson, who not only proved to be even funnier as Roman Pearce, but shared a nice dramatic moment with Sung Kang, while the two discussed Han’s feelings for Gisele. Michelle Rodriguez gave one of her better performances as an intense and amnesiac Letty Ortiz, who is torn between her confusion over her identity and her growing wariness toward Shaw. Dwayne Johnson continued his energetic portrayal of DSS Agent Luke Hobbes with great style. Luke Evans made a particularly formidable foe as former Special Forces soldier Owen Shaw, who proves to be a very difficult to take down. Then again, the franchise has always featured some first-rate villains. Not only did Vin Diesel provided an unexpectedly sexy performance in one particular scene with Rodriguez, he and Elsa Pataky provided a nice poignant moment between Dom and former Brazil cop Elena Neves, who end their relationship due to Letty’s re-emergence in Dom’s life. However, Paul Walker really surprised me in this film. He has always struck me as mediocre or solid actor in the past. But his acting skills seemed to have grown considerably between “FAST FIVE” and “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”. This was apparent in his scenes with John Ortiz, which featured a hostile reunion between Brian and Braga in a California prison.

I feel that “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” had its share of flaws. But thanks to Justin Lin’s direction, a charasmatic cast and a solid script written by Chris Morgan, I feel that it not only proved to be one of the better films for the summer of 2013, but also one of the better films in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise.

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Ranking of THE FLASHMAN PAPERS

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Below is my ranking of THE FLASHMAN PAPERS, the series of novels and short stories written by the late George MacDonald Fraser about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Flashman. The novels and stories were published between 1969 and 2005: 

 

RANKING OF THE FLASHMAN PAPERS

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1. “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) – Serving as an immediate follow-up to “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”, this 1982 novel depicted Harry Flashman’s experiences in the Old West when he joined a wagon train in 1849 and became an unwilling witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Probably my favorite in the series.

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2. “FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985) – Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and Lord Elgin’s March to Peking during the Second Opium War in 1860 are depicted in this 1985 novel.

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3. “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) – Serving as a follow-up to “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, this 1975 novel depicted Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1858) in India and a reunion with a deadly former enemy.

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4. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) – Harry Flashman’s experiences during the first year of the Crimean War (1854-1856) and with Kokand freedom fighters in Central Asia between 1854 and 1855 are depicted in this novel.

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5. “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) – Fleeing the country from a scandal not of his making, Harry Flashman finds himself aboard a slave ship and receives a first hand look at the trans-Atlantic slave trade and American slavery in the late 1840s.

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6. “FLASHMAN’S LADY” (1977) – When a former pirate-turned-businessman from the East Indies become obsessed with Flashman’s wife, Elspeth, and kidnaps her during a trip to Singapore; the cowardly hero’s pursuit leads to him fighting Borneo pirates with the legendary James Brooke and becoming a slave of the notorious Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar during the early 1840s.

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7. “FLASHMAN” (1969) – This 1969 novel served as an introduction to Fraser’s literary series and his infamous main character, Harry Flashman. After being expelled from Rugby School, Flashman joins the British Army and eventually participates in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842).

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8. “ROYAL FLASH” (1970) – This 1970 novel turned out to be a spoof of the famous Anthony Hope novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”. Set during the Revolutions of 1848, Flashman finds himself “recruited” by the Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck to impersonate a Danish prince set to marry the ruler of a German duchy.

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9. “FLASHMAN AND THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT” (1990) – Flashman’s experiences during the First Sikh War in the Punjab is depicted in this 1990 novel.

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10. “FLASHMAN AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD” (1994) – After being shanghaied by an old enemy in South Africa, Flashman finds himself back in the United States, where he unwillingly gets caught up in the John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

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11. “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) – Instead of a novel, this 1999 book is a collection of three stories that depicted Flashman’s experiences in aborting an assassination attempt on Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria; his and wife Elspeth’s participation in the infamous Tranby Croft Affair; and his troubling encounter with a former acquaintance from the Zulu War.

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12. “FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH” (2005) – In this final novel written by Fraser, Flashman finds himself caught up in Great Britain’s 1868 military expedition against King Tewodros II of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

“STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” (2013) Review

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“STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” (2013) Review

Following the success of the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”, producer/director J.J. Abrams continued the saga of this alternate STAR TREK with a sequel called “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. This latest film not only continued the adventures of Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk and his crew, but also re-introduced a well-known villain from the franchise’s past. 

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” begins a year following the events of the 2009 movie. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise has been ordered to observe the volcanic activities of Nibiru, a class “M” planet that serves as home for its primitive inhabitants. Unfortunately, Kirk and his crew violate the Federation’s Prime Directive by using a cold fusion device to deactivate the volcano. Worse, in order to fetch Spoke from the volcano’s depth, the Enterprise rises out of the planet’s ocean and is seen by the Nibirians. Upon the starship’s return to Earth, both Kirk and his first officer, Spock, are chewed out by Admiral Christopher Pike for violating the Prime Directive on Nibiru. Spock is reassigned to another starship and Kirk has lost command of the Enterprise and ordered to finish Starfleet Academy.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man offers a vial of blood to a Starfleet officer named Thomas Harewood in order to save the life of the latter’s dying daughter. In exchange, Harewood used the mysterious ring to blow up the Kelvin Memorial Archives (a secret Section 31 facility) on the mysterious man’s behalf. This new emergency leads Starfleet to assign Admiral Pike as commander of the Enterprise. Pike manages to convince Marcus to assign Kirk as his new First Officer. The bombing of the Kelvin Archives leads to a meeting of starship commanders ordered to hunt down the mysterious perpetrator, revealed as rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison. However, an attack upon the meeting by a jumpship piloted by Harrison leaves several Starfleet officers dead – including Pike. Admiral Marcus reinstates Kirk as commander of the Enterprise and orders the latter to hunt down Harrison to the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, and destroy the rogue agent’s base with 72 prototype photon torpedoes placed aboard the Enterprise. However, the manhunt for Harrison ends up providing a good deal of surprises for Kirk and his crew – including the revelation of Harrison’s true identity.

When I first saw “STAR TREK” four years ago, my initial response to J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the franchise had been . . . somewhat positive, yet slightly uneasy. A second viewing of the movie made me realize that it was a piece of crap, thanks to a script riddled with plot holes. I still maintained hope that this new sequel would prove to be a improvement. And it did . . . to a certain extent. The plot for “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” did not strike me as particularly original. Rogue Starfleet officers have been used in the franchise before – especially in “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” and the 1991 film, “STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY”. The John Harrison character proved to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh, originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalban in an episode of “STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES”and the 1982 movie, “STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN”. In fact, the screenwriters not only used the Khan character, but also Dr. Carol Marcus and put a different spin on a famous scene from the 1982 movie. Khan/Harrison’s attack on Admiral Marcus’ meeting bore a strong resemblance to a scene from a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode called(2.14) “Alliances”.

Despite the lack of originality that seemed to permeate the film, I must admit that I enjoyed a good deal of it. I found the conspiracy that surrounded Khan’s connections to Admiral Marcus rather interesting. This was especially the case in the jumpship attack scene, the phaser fight on Kronos, Carol Marcus’ rescue of Doctor McCoy from one of the photon torpedoes and finally Kirk and Khan’s transportation to Admiral Marcus’ ship U.S.S. Vengeance via a “space jump”. These scene proved to be very exciting, thanks to Abrams’ excellent direction. The chemistry between Zachary Quinto and Zoë Saldaña as lovers Spock and Nyota Uhura seemed to have vastly improved from the 2009 film. Perhaps the emotions between the two characters seemed more two-way and genuine the second time around. The chemistry between Quinto and Chris Pine’s James Kirk seemed stronger than ever. Bruce Greenwood gave an intense and superb performance as Admirable Christopher Pike, even if I found the character’s faith in Kirk rather questionable. On the other hand, I found Peter Weller’s portrayal as the warmongering Admiral Marcus a bit hammy. And Simon Pegg’s Scots accent became slightly more bearable in this film. But I do feel that Karl Urban, John Cho and Anton Yelchin had less to do in this film, than they did in “STAR TREK”. Benedict Cumberbatch struck me as effectively ambiguous and sinister at the same time. However, if J.J. Abrams needed someone to portray the Indian-born Khan, why did he not consider another actor he had worked with in the past? Namely “LOST” alumni Naveen Andrews. He would have been perfect.

Do I consider “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” a vast improvement over “STAR TREK”? There are a good number of fans who view the first film as superior. I simply do not share this opinion. However, I would not exactly label “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” as one of the better movies for the summer of 2013. In fact, I view it slightly better than the first film . . . and nothing more.

However, this movie did have its share of problems. And one of them proved to be the film’s opening sequence on Nibiru, which found Kirk and Dr. McCoy being chased through some kind of forest by some of the planet’s inhabitants. Apparently, Kirk had stolen some sacred scroll to led the Nibirians away from the volcano. This tactic proved to be unnecessary, considering there were only two means to save the Nibirians – Spock’s cold fusion device into the volcano’s core, or the physical removal of the planet’s inhabitants. In other words, this chase scene proved to be completely irrelevant. Another aspect of this sequence that proved to be irrelevant was Spock’s protests against Kirk raising the Enterprise from the planet’s ocean floor and exposing it to the Nibirians. One, what was the Enterprise doing below the ocean? Why not simply allow it to orbit the planet? And the Enterprise does not have the ability to land on the ocean floor, let alone on solid ground. It was never the 23rd century version of the U.S.S. Voyager. And why was Spock complaining about Kirk violating the Prime Directive in regard to the Enterprise’s exposure, when he was violating it by saving the planet with the cold fusion device? I suspect his decision to save Nibiru may have been related to the loss of Vulcan in the first movie. But why did he even bother to protest against Kirk’s actions, when he was just as guilty? And by the way, what happened to Earth’s defense system? This movie is set in the mid 23rd century. There is a defense system for early 21st century Washington D.C. Why was there not one for mid 23rd century San Francisco, the main location for the Federation and Starfleet? Khan’s ship could have been easily destroyed before it had a chance to enter Earth’s atmosphere. I would go on about the photon torpedoes that harbored members of Khan’s crew. But I found this scenario too confusing to discuss.

There were other problems. Why did Khan risk his hide to fire at the room of Starfleet captains and Admiral Marcus, when he could have easily achieved his goal with a bomb? What happened to the situation on Kronos? Marcus had sent the Enterprise to Kronos in order to hunt down Khan and start a war against the Klingons. Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Khan’s encounter with the Klingons proved to be violent and especially deadly for the latter. But no war manifested after the incident on Kronos. In fact, the screenwriters and Abrams completely forgot about the Klingons once Admiral Marcus appeared aboard the Vengeance. Many critics complained about Alice Eve (who portrayed Carol Marcus) being shown in her underwear, accusing Abrams of exploiting the actress. Where were these same critics, four years ago, when both Zoë Saldaña (as Uhura) and an actress who portrayed Uhura’s roommate stripped down to undies in “STAR TREK”? I found both Khan and Admiral Marcus’ plans somewhat convoluted. But I was willing to . . . tolerate them. What I could not tolerate was the movie’s last twenty to thirty minutes. Apparently, the screenwriters and Abrams decided it would be cool to pay some kind of “homage” to the famous Spock death scene in “STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN”. I wish to God they had not. I really do. I found it embarrassing to watch Kirk and Spock switch roles with the former sacrificing his life to prevent the Enterprise from crashing upon Earth. Listening to some of the titters from other members of the audience did not help. And when Zachary Quinto channeled William Shatner’s cry of “Khaaaannn!”, my inner mind screamed “Whhhhyyyy?” I have never been so embarrassed for any actor as I was for Quinto at that moment. To make matters worse – if that was possible – McCoy brought Kirk back to life by using Khan’s superpower blood. And all I can say is . . . “Whhhhyyyy?”

We come to the main problem of “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”. James T. Kirk. I had no problem with Chris Pine’s performance. But I am still wondering why his Kirk is in command of a top-of-the-grade starship. Why? He never finished Starfleet Academy. He never even finished his third year. Yet, Christopher Pike not only saw fit to give him command of the Enterprise at the end of “STAR TREK”, but also prevent Kirk from being sent back to the Academy to finish it. Even after watching “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”, it was plain to see that Kirk was not ready to be a starship commander. Yes, he sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise. Hell, anyone – crewman or officer – could have done this. It was Spock who discovered a way to damage the Vengeance . . . . and prevent it from destroying the Enterprise. He should be the one in command of the Enterprise, not Kirk. I wish I could say that Pike paid his decision to make Kirk a starship commander with his life. Unfortunately, Kirk’s command skills had nothing to do with his death. Only bad writing.

What else can I say about “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS”? I found it somewhat more bearable than 2009’s “STAR TREK”. I found the movie’s photography and special effects rather impressive – except for the lens flares, which I despise. And the movie did feature some solid direction by J.J. Abrams and very solid performances from a cast led by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. But in the end, I was not that impressed by the movie. If I must be honest, the screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof nearly sunk it in the end. Better luck next time, fellas.

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

“Lessons in Witchcraft” [PG] – 3/9

“LESSONS IN WITCHCRAFT”

Chapter 3

NOTE: In the previous chapter, the three Halliwell sisters learn about magic tools and their status as witches, and unlearn a few misconceptions. The story picks up with Olivia McNeill discussing the previous lesson with Cole.


————-

The doorbell rang. Exhausted from the lessons with the Halliwells, Olivia rose reluctantly from the sofa and walked toward door. She barked, “Yeah, who is it?”

“Cole,” a muffled voice replied.

“You know how to get inside.”

As she returned to the sofa, a tall figure materialized in the middle of the living room. “Hey,” Cole greeted. Then he leaned down and planted a light kiss on the edge of Olivia’s mouth. When she failed to respond, he frowned. “Something wrong? You look a little beat.”

Olivia sighed. Heavily. “I feel worse. I just spent the entire afternoon teaching Paige and her sisters about the Wiccan Rede, some history on Wicca and magical tools. All afternoon. I even had to demonstrate on how to use each tool. And I had planned to talk about magick altars, but I never got the chance.” Another sigh left her mouth.

Cole sat down on the sofa and lifted Olivia’s legs upon his lap. “Poor Olivia. I guess you’re not cut out to be a teacher.”

Responding with a derisive snort, Olivia continued, “The problem is that I had overestimated on how much the Halliwells knew about the basics of witchcraft and Wicca. I mean, they’ve been practicing magic for nearly five years – at least Piper and Phoebe have, and Paige, for two years. I realize they’re talented and all, but they really have no knowledge of the basics. What the hell were they doing all this time?”

“Dealing with attacks by the Source and his minions,” Cole replied. He began to rub Olivia’s right foot. “I guess they really didn’t have the time to learn the basics.”

Olivia nodded. “I can understand that. I remember what it was like when I had to deal with a lot of demonic and warlock attacks, a few years ago. That’s how I first met Richard. The thing is, I never knew why.”

Cole continued to rub Olivia’s foot. His long fingers felt so good; she had to bite her lower lip to keep from moaning out loud. “You really don’t know,” he said. “Do you?”

“Know what?”

Pausing briefly, Cole shook his head. “Never mind. Let’s just say the Source had considered you a threat . . . along with Phoebe and her sisters. Only a threat of a different nature.”

Olivia frowned. “Wha . . .? What on earth did the Source have against me? Had the Oracle foreseen that I would one day become the Aingeal Staff’s bearer?”

“No, nothing like that. Although the Source did fear your Cousin Keith. He, uh . . .” Again, Cole paused. “Well, it seems that you had developed a reputation as a redeemer of daemons. Especially high-level daemons.”

Olivia sat up and stared at her boyfriend. “You’ve got to be kidding! Just because I had managed to convince one or two daemons . . .”

“Actually, you had turned eight daemons, Olivia. You had turned eight daemons and . . . and a powerful warlock against the Source, during a period of ten years,” Cole continued. “That’s a feat unheard of for any witch. Or any enemy of the Source.”

The whole matter seemed ludicrous to Olivia. She found it difficult to believe that the Source would consider her a threat over eight daemons. “I’m sure there have been plenty of daemons and warlocks that managed to ‘redeem’ themselves without my help, over the years.”

Cole resumed massaging her foot. “True. But you’re the only witch who’s ever had such an impact on the Source’s Realm. Killing them is one thing, but convincing them to turn against the Source and everything he stood for? He was never able to deal with such a betrayal. Why do you think he was so determined to go after me?” He switched to Olivia’s other foot. “Strange that I had forgotten all about that, until now.”

“I think my opinion of the Source has lowered another notch, after what you had told me,” Olivia grumbled. “Sending assassins after me, for what . . . over eight daemons and Richard?” She shook her head in disgust. Then she returned to the previous topic. “As for the Halliwells – I understand that they had been busy fending off attacks, but the Source has been dead for over a year. Only Paige has made efforts to study more on witchcraft, since then.”

“Don’t have an answer for that one.”

Olivia continued, “However, I really blame old Mrs. Halliwell. I mean I understand why she had to bound their powers when they were young. Some warlock or daemon was after them. But couldn’t she at least teach them some of the basics of the Craft, while they were growing up? They were all in their twenties when she died!”

Instead of answering, Cole merely continued his massage. Then he asked, “By the way, what’s the next lesson about?”

Sighing, Olivia replied, “Herbal craft. I had called Bruce and asked if he and Barbara would hold the next lesson.”

Cole snorted with derision. “That will be a short lesson. If there’s one thing the Halliwells know, it’s herbal craft. In fact, it’s Piper’s specialty.”

“Which is why I think Bruce had no problem in volunteering for this particular lesson,” Olivia retorted wryly.

———

On the following Saturday morning, the Charmed Ones appeared at the McNeills’ resplendent Spanish-Colonial manor for their next lesson. Upon entering the foyer, the family’s manservant led them to the large kitchen, where the newly married Bruce and Barbara awaited them.

“Okay,” the oldest McNeill sibling declared. “This morning, we’ll be talking about the use of herb magick. Or herbal craft.”

Piper heaved a small sigh. “Is this really necessary? I mean, if there’s one thing we know is using herbs for magic. Including Paige.”

The youngest Charmed One glared at her older sister. “Gee Piper, thanks a lot. I’m thrilled that you finally believe that I know something about herbal craft. Even after two years.”

As her face turned red with embarrassment, Piper replied, “Look, I didn’t mean to imply that . . .” She paused. “Never mind.”

“All right,” Bruce said, “let’s see how much you know about herbal craft. What is snapdragon used for?”

Phoebe replied, “That’s easy. Protection.”

“Um-hum.” Bruce nodded his head.

Barbara asked, “And what’s the herb for an exorcism?”

Looking almost bored, Piper answered, “Basil. Look, why don’t we just skip all of this?”

Bruce held up his hand. “Just one more question. What other herb can be used for protection? Aside from snapdragon?”

The question took the Halliwells by surprise. “Wha . . .?” Phoebe began. “What do you mean? Is this a trick question? Snapdragon is the only herb used for protection. At least according to our Book of Shadows.”

Both Bruce and Barbara exchanged knowing looks. “Are you sure?” Bruce asked. “For a protection spell, we sometimes use mallow. Or ague root.”

Barbara added, “And basil isn’t just used for an exorcism. It can also be used for love spells, spells for wealth, flying . . . and protection.”

The Halliwells, stunned by the couple’s revelation, merely stared at them – boggle-eyed. “Do you understand what we’re trying to say?” Bruce asked. “A witch has to discover what works for him or her – whether we’re talking about spells, potions, or any other kind of magickal tool. What may work for one witch, may not work for another. It all depends upon the individual.”

Shaking her head, Paige said, “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

“In regard to herbs . . . or even spells,” Barbara began, “it’s not about following the recipe. Paige. Didn’t you once tell Maddy about the trouble you had with transforming objects into animals and reverse?”

The young witch nodded. “Yeah. I was having trouble using Prue’s spell. The one she had used to turn into a dog. Even though I had finally managed to do it, I’m still having trouble.”

“Honey, maybe the reason you’re having trouble is, well . . .” Piper paused. “Well, you’re not as experienced in magic, as we are.” The older woman’s words earned another glare from Paige. “I mean Phoebe can transform herself and other people, using Prue’s spell.”

Paige opened her mouth to retort, but Barbara spoke first. “I suspect that the real reason why Paige is having so much trouble with Prue’s spell, is that it simply doesn’t work for her. Paige, maybe you should try to find your own spell, using herbs or some other kind of tool that might work for you.”

Bruce added, “Or try to use what you already have. Let’s say that you want to do a prosperity spell . . .”

“Isn’t that personal gain?” Phoebe asked. Her question drew stares from her sisters and the McNeills. “What?”

Frowning, Bruce said, “I thought Olivia had dismissed the notion of personal gain, as part of the Wiccan Rede?”

Phoebe’s mouth hung open. Then, “Oh, uh . . . I . . . never mind.”

“Anyway,” Bruce continued, “let’s say that you want to do a prosperity spell. Now, some witches believe that patchouli oil should be used. There are some who would use clove oil. Personally, I prefer jasmine.”

Piper asked, “You’ve done a prosperity spell?”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “For a few friends, who are into Paganism.”

“By the way,” Barbara added, “not only herbs are used for prosperity spells. Many witches like to use candle spells. What we’re getting at is that you need to determine what color candles, herbs, oils, stone or any other tool will work best for a spell or potion you are creating. Or using. Just use what works best for you. However, when using these tools for a spell or potion, make sure that you use three herbs. I’m sure that you guys know why.”

Paige nodded. “For the physical realm, the mental realm, and the spiritual realm.”

Smiling, Barbara said, “Nice to know that you have been listening. Now, as you all know, you might also need some form of animal part . . .”

“I thought Wiccans weren’t into animal sacrifice,” Piper coolly asked.

“I’m not saying that you should go out and kill an animal for a spell or potion. Just use the part of a dead animal. After all, didn’t your potion to vanquish Cole require a pig’s foot?” Barbara paused dramatically. “Along with a piece of his flesh?”

Phoebe remained silent, while Piper murmured a quick, “Yeah. Forgot about that.”

Bruce spoke up. “Do you guys know anything about the background on herbal craft?”

“Not really,” Paige replied. Her sisters shook their heads.

Bruce continued, “According to tradition, witches would go out on a full moon to collect strange plants. It seemed that the full Moon had special significance for Witches. At certain times of the year, the full Moon coincided with the one of the Sabbats, when they gathered to worship the God and Goddess. This is still true, today. Now, during these meetings, ritual ointments, made from the plants were employed to promote particular experiences.”

“What type of experiences?” Phoebe asked.

“Of the spiritual kind.” Bruce paused. “Like ‘flying’.”

Paige frowned. “Flying?”

The older witch nodded. “Yeah. There is a folklore about witches flying on broomsticks at night to meet the God and Goddess.”

“I’ve flown on a broomstick,” Phoebe commented. “Remember, Piper? Back in the seventeenth century?”

Barbara gave Phoebe an enthusiastic look. “You too? Both Livy and I did it at least twice. During a coven gathering in Modesto, when we were in college. Wasn’t it great?”

Looking somewhat nostalgic, Phoebe nodded. “Yeah, it was.”

Paige regarded Bruce with inquisitive eyes. “Have you ever flown on a broom?”

“No,” Bruce promptly replied. “Nor do I ever intend to. The idea of whizzing through the air on a stick of wood doesn’t appeal to me. If I’m going to fly unnaturally, I’ll do it inside a 747.” He paused. “But . . . there is another method for ‘flying’. I’m talking about using plants and ointments to experience an ‘out of body’ experience. Or in other words, communicate with the Spiritual World. Many ancient religions throughout the world, practice this. Like, the Native American shamans. For example, I do know that peyote is commonly used by shamans in the Southwestern region, Mexico and other Central American countries.”

Phoebe commented, “But is it really necessary to use plants to do this? Paige and I once used a spell to get into Piper’s mind, when she was kidnapped by the Source.”

“Something I hope I never experience again,” Piper murmured.

Bruce continued, “Traditionally, there were other reasons why witches collected plants on a full Moon, at night. Witches also believed that the collecting of plants at night, especially when the moon was full had some kind of basis in plant biology. They felt that these plants were at its highest active drug content around this time. If you take away some of the magical aspects of Witchcraft, you’ll probably find a deep understanding of Herbal Lore and Medicine.”

“Is this why witches are highly regarded as healers?” Paige asked.

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, today’s modern medicine owes a lot to traditional use of herbs in Witchcraft and other Pagan religions.”

Barbara added wryly, “Of course, not many doctors would admit that, today.”

Bruce nodded. “True. But there is an 18th century doctor named William Withering, who had admitted in his book on Foxglove that he owed his knowledge of the herb and for its use on those with heart conditions to Witchcraft herbal lore.”

Piper frowned. “Foxglove. You mean Digitalis?”

“You do know your herb, don’t you?” Bruce smiled at Piper, who looked slightly pleased. “Have you guys ever used herbs and other plants for medicinal purposes?”

“I once made an aromatherapy treatment for Phoebe,” Paige piped in. “A facial crème. To help her relax for her wedding.”

Phoebe murmured, “Now that’s one memory ‘I’ would like to forget. I ended up being invisible.” She glared at Paige.

“That’s not my fault!” the youngest sister protested. “It was Cole . . . or should I say, the Source, who messed with the crème, after I had given it to you.”

Phoebe merely heaved a sigh, and shook her head.

Bruce asked, “Anything else?”

The sisters glanced at each other. Piper shrugged her shoulders and said to Bruce, “Well, this Gypsy named Jenna once helped us make a salve for Phoebe’s arm. And other than using herbs to make tea . . . no. Why?”

“You mean you’ve only made this salve for healing, once? Don’t forget, one of the main tasks of a witch is healing.”

Phoebe shot back, “We realize that herbs can be used for healing, but isn’t that what we have whitelighters for?”

“Not all witches have whitelighters,” Barbara countered, sarcastically. Everyone looked at her. “In fact, most of them don’t. Many have refused to acknowledge the whitelighters’ authority. I’ve never had one. Apparently, the Whitelighters Council has never been concerned about me.”

For a moment, Paige wondered if she had heard a glimmer of resentment in her employer’s voice. But considering the McNeills’ prevalent view on whitelighters, she decided that she might have been mistaken.

Barbara continued, “Regardless on whether or not we have whitelighters, witches are healers. Which is why herbal craft is one of the first arts we study to become witches.”

“I had found the recipe for the facial cream in some recipe book, left by Grams,” Paige said. “But I couldn’t find anything else, in regard to healing or medicine. So, where do we find stuff like that?”

Bruce replied, “There are plenty of books on the subject. And it’s possible you might find something, either in your Book of Shadows or on the Internet.”

“How are we supposed to know which herb to use for a specific reason?” Phoebe demanded. “Especially since it’s apparent that our knowledge of uses for herbs isn’t that great.”

A smile lit up Bruce’s face. He extended a hand toward Barbara, who placed in it, a yellow envelope. “I have copies of a list of herbs for magick uses, right here.” He emptied the enveloped and passed out the lists to the three sisters. “We’ll be visiting the greenhouse and the garden, while we go over the list. Okay?”

The Charmed Ones exchanged long-suffering looks, as they followed the couple out of the kitchen.

END OF CHAPTER 3