“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

Most of the films featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been set on Earth – mainly in the United States – and featured human characters. There have been exceptions – namely the two “THOR” movies that were partly set in the realm of Asgard and 2012’s “THE AVENGERS”, which featured an alien invasion. For the first time, the MCU released a movie mainly set in worlds other than Earth. And it is called “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”.

Directed by James Gunn, who wrote the film with Nicole Perlman, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” told the story about an uneasy alliance between a group of extraterrestrial misfits, who find themselves on the run after one of them steals a coveted orb. The movie, ironically, begins on Earth in 1988, when a kid named Peter Quill is abducted by a group of space pirates called the Ravagers led by a mercenary named Yondu Udonta, following his mother’s death. Twenty-six years later, Quill steals a valuable orb from the abandoned planet of Morag. Before he can get away, Quill is intercepted by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture. Meanwhile Ronan, who originally agreed to acquire the orb on behalf of the villainous titan Thanos, sends an assassin named Gamora after the orb. In return for getting the orb for Thanos, Ronan wants the latter to destroy the Nova Empire.

Quill attempts to sell the orb on the Nova Empire’s capital world, Xandar, when Gamora ambushes him and steals it. A fight ensues, which attracts a pair of bounty hunters – the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket and his tree-like companion, the humanoid Groot. All four are arrested by the Nova Corps and they are sentenced to a prison called Kyln. The four form an alliance to profit from a sale of the orb to a buyer that Gamora knows on an outpost called Nowhere, once Rocket informs them that he knows how to break out of prison. They acquire a new ally named Drax the Destroyer, who wants revenge against Ronan for killing his family. Drax tried to kill Gamora, due to her past association with the Kree, but Quill talks him out of it after Gamora reveals that she never intended to hand over the orb to Ronan. Gamora is willing to betray Ronan, because she is unwilling to allow him to use the orb’s power to destroy the Nova Empire and other worlds. The five misfits eventually discover from Gamora’s buyer, Taneleer Tivan aka the Collector that the orb contains a powerful stone known as one of the Infinity Stones, a collection of gems of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield them. Fearful that Ronan might destroy the Universe if he gains possession of the orb, the five friends become determined to stop him from gaining possession of it.

At first glance, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” seemed to come out of nowhere and with no connection to the other films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, there were quite a few connections to the other films. One, other Infinity Stones – mentioned by Tivan – were featured in other films. “IRON MAN 2”, “THOR”, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” and “THE AVENGERS” all featured the Tesseract. And “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” featured the Aether, which found itself in Tivan’s possession by the end of that film. The character Thanos was revealed to be the one behind the Chitauri invasion in “THE AVENGERS” The character Tivan aka the Collector was featured in a mid-credit scene in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. Also, the Ronan character is not the only Kree character to appear in a MCU production. The corpse of a dead Kree was featured in an episode of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. So, the connections between “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and the other MCU films are pretty strong. Many had doubted the success of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”, due to its unknown factor of the major characters. Although the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book was first published by Marvel in 1969, the following publications of the title have been far and few. In fact, Marvel had to revamp the title in 2008.

Marvel and Disney’s fears proved to be groundless in the end. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became a major hit during the late summer of 2014. It even managed to surpass (slightly) the major success of the previous MCU movie,“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. I understand why “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became such a success. It is a first-rate film that proved to be the gem of the summer. Thanks to Nicole Perlman and James Gunn’s screenplay, the movie expertly set up the movie’s narrative – first with Peter Quill’s kidnapping and later, his theft of the orb. Mind you, there is nothing particularly original about the narrative for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. I cannot recall the numerous films or television productions about a group of outsiders who struggle to form an alliance or friendship in order to overcome an enemy or problem. Hell, this even sounds like the narrative backbone for “THE AVENGERS”. But I have never come across a movie or television that allowed this narrative to play out with such caustic wit and humor. Perlman and Gunn also did an excellent job in allowing the five protagonists to form both an alliance and later, a strong friendship, in a timely manner. In fact, friendship seemed to be the main theme of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. And the focus of that friendship centered around the Peter Quill character, who abandoned one set of friends – the Ravengers under Yondu Udonta – that proved to be rather questionable, and formed a more solid friendship with his four new companions.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” benefited from some very strong characterizations. Peter Quill – at first glance – seemed like some minor variation of the Tony Stark character. Although adept at defending himself in a fight, Quill never struck me as the aggressive type. I enjoyed how actor Chris Pratt portrayed him as someone who would prefer stealth and charm over action. Some of his facial reactions alone were a joy to watch. Gamora, the assassin who had been trained by Thanos . . . after he wiped out her family, proved to be a surprisingly moral character. In fact, I would say that she possessed the strongest moral center out of the five major characters. And that is an ironic thing to say about an assassin. Thankfully, Zoe Saldana did an excellent job of conveying Gamora’s moral center . . . and dangerous nature at the same time. I never thought I would become attached to a CGI animal described as a genetically-altered raccoon. But I must say that the character Rocket provided a great deal of sharp wit and verbosity that infused a lot of energy into the story. And a lot of that energy came from Bradley Cooper’s voice performance. Another dangerous, yet fascinating character proved to be the vengeful Drax the Destroyer. In fact, I can honestly say that Drax was probably the most chaotic character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But what else can you say about a character who is not only seeking revenge, but does not understand the meaning of metaphors. And I have to say that professional wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista did a marvelous job in portraying a ferocious, yet humorless character with such sharp comic timing. And finally we have – “I am Groot.”. Ah yes, the talking and walking tree. Rocket’s companion. What can I say? I adored that warm, compassionate and loyal walking piece of timber. And I have to give kudos to Vin Diesel, who only had one line to speak over again, throughout the movie, do so with different inflections.

But there were other interesting characters featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Audiences saw the return of Taneleer Tivan aka The Collector, who was last seen in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And once again, Benicio del Toro gave an eccentric, yet very interesting performance of the interstellar collector. Nebula, who was raised as Gamora’s sibling by Thanos, certainly proved to be a character I will never forget. Although not the main villain, Nebula proved to be a scary and intimidating character in her own right, whose own ambiguity is dictated by feelings of jealousy toward Gamora. And actress Karen Gillian did an excellent job in conveying these aspects of Nebula’s character. Despite the presence of Thanos, the movie’s main villain proved to be a Kree fanatic named Ronan the Accuser. The fanatical Ronan refuses to accept a peace treaty between the Kree and the Nova Empire and seeks Thanos’ help in destroying Xandar. In the end, he proved to be something of a one-dimensional character lacking any eccentricities or ambiguities whatsoever. And honestly, one has to thank Lee Pace’s intense performance that managed to maintain my interest in Ronan. Another character that proved to be a minor disappointment was Korath, one of Ronan’s subordinates. And like Ronan, he also struck me as a bit one-dimensional, yet rather intense. However . . . the character had one scene that proved to be rather funny – his first meeting with Quill on Morag, in which he failed to recognized the latter’s nickname. And one has to thank Djimon Hounsou’s performance for making that scene work. It seemed a pity that Hounsou did not have a larger role in the film.

The characters from Xandar struck me as solid, but not particularly memorable. There were two exceptions – Corpsman Rhomann Dey, a professional member of Xandar’s military/police force and whose dry sense of humor strongly reminded me of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson; and Nova Prime Irani Rael, the slightly intimidating and righteous leader of the Nova Corps. And both John C. Reilly and Glenn Close gave outstanding performances in their roles. The most fascinating supporting character for me proved to be Yondu Udonta, the temperamental, yet occasionally decent leader of the Ravagers, who had served as Quill’s guardian after snatching him. There were times when I could not tell whether he was a bad guy, a good guy or simply another self-absorbed rogue after his own interest. And I must say that Michael Rooker gave a very entertaining and flamboyant portrayal of the character. I look forward to seeing him in future films.

I have to be honest. Most of the visual effects for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” did not blow my mind. But there were a few scenes that I found noteworthy. I liked the idea of the Nowhere outpost being set inside the floating head of a Celestial corpse. Very original. And the wide exterior shot of the colony upon the protagonists’ arrival is very impressive, as shown the following image:

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The scene was enhanced by Ben Davis’ photography. I also enjoyed his work in the movie’s final action sequence that featured Ronan’s attempt to destroy Xandar. Gunn’s direction, along with the visual effects made the scene breathtaking. To a certain degree. Some of the aerial action involving Rocket and the Nova Corps struck me as somewhat confusing. I also enjoyed Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, but like the visual effects, they did not take my breath away. I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but . . . I found them at best, solid.

The summer of 2014 proved to be very dismal for me, aside from a few films. One of those films that provided some realentertainment was “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. If it were not for the work of director James Gunn, the exciting and witty screenplay he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, the 2014 summer could have ended on a bad note for me.

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“A Convenient Proposal” [PG-13] 1/5

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The following is a “PEARL HARBOR” (the movie) story I had written some time ago. It is called, “A Convenient Proposal” and is set several weeks following the Doolittle pilots to Hawaii:

 

A CONVENIENT PROPOSAL

RATING: PG-13
SUMMARY: Rafe returns to Hawaii after burying Danny in Tennessee and asks Evelyn a very important question.
DISCLAIMER: Yadda, yadda, yadda! All characters pertaining to the motion picture, “Pearl Harbor”, belong to Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, Randall Wallace and the Walt Disney Company . . . unfortunately.

NOTE: Following Danny’s death, I’ve always wondered how Rafe and Evelyn managed to resolve their problems and become the happily married couple shown at the end of the movie.

——

PART 1 – The Proposal

Talk about déjà vu. Evelyn Johnson stood near a gate at Hickham Field and watched a B-25 aircraft circle over the runway. Her hand gently pressed against her swollen belly, as she sighed.

Just nearly a month ago, she had stood at this very same spot, awaiting the arrival of the Doolittle Raid pilots who had returned from China. Evelyn recalled feeling a surge of happiness at the sight of one Rafe McCawley descending from another plane. That happiness had soon transformed into dread when Rafe failed to return her smile. And when the other surviving pilots left the plane, carrying a coffin, Evelyn’s dread became grief. Draped over the coffin was Danny’s flight jacket.

Danny Walker. A wave of grief washed over Evelyn. Along with guilt. She had been carrying his child for nearly seven months. Ever since that evening inside the hangar, following a flight over Oahu. Evelyn considered that evening a magical time for her. Without it and other times with Danny, she would have never recovered from her heart-wrenching grief that had threatened to consume her, following news of Rafe’s “death” over the English Channel. Yet, Rafe did returned and Evelyn’s happiness soon became chaos.

The B-25 straightened out as it glided over the runway. The wheels extended and the plane finally touched down. Evelyn held her breath as it rolled to a stop. A minute passed before the plane’s doors swung open. Four Army officers – two men and two women descended the stairway. A fifth figure appeared in the plane’s doorway. Rafe.

Evelyn let out a gust of breath. Her heartbeat increased ten times its normal pace. A warm flush ignited her skin. Even after all that has happened between them in the past year-and-a-half, Rafe’s presence still managed to affect her, since that first moment their eyes met back in New York.

Brown eyes scoured the airfield, until they rested upon Evelyn. An invisible electricity crackled in the air. Evelyn longed to run toward Rafe and throw her arms around him. Unfortunately, her bulky form made that impossible. Instead, she waved. Rafe returned her wave with a smile. A rather dim one, in Evelyn’s opinion.

With one hand holding his overnight bag and the other, clenching his Army jacket, the Tennessee pilot strode toward Evelyn. “Hey,” he greeted quietly.

Evelyn replied in an equally quiet voice, “Hey, yourself.” She reached out to touch his arm. Rafe did not flinch from her touch. Nor did he seem to welcome it, either. His reaction disturbed Evelyn. To cover her feelings, her smile widened before she added, “Welcome back.”

“Thanks.” Rafe glanced around the field. “Where’s Red and Gooz? I had sent them a telegram to pick me up.”

“Yeah, Red told me. I asked him to let me pick you up, instead.”

A slight frown crinkled Rafe’s forehead. “Why?” he asked.

Doubt crept into Evelyn’s heart. She began to wonder if he still felt the same for her after all that has happened between them. They had went through so much lately – eleven months apart, her romance with Danny, Rafe’s return, the pregnancy, the attack at Pearl, her decision to marry Danny, the latter’s death in China. It was a wonder that they managed to carry on a conversation.

Rafe repeated his question. “Why couldn’t Red pick me up? I mean, considering your condition . . .”

An answer failed to reach the tip of Evelyn’s tongue. What could she say? That the last time Rafe was in Hawaii, grief over Danny’s death and the preparations for the burial in Tennessee kept them apart? That she longed to see him again? Remain longer than five minutes in his presence? Evelyn found herself unable to confess her true feelings to Rafe. Fear of rejection or outright laughter prevented her.

Evelyn finally replied, “I asked Red and Gooz to let me pick you up.” She gave her shoulders a shrug. “I just wanted to welcome you back.” The moment those words left her mouth, Evelyn regretted them. Her heart lurched as disappointment and confusion mingled in Rafe’s brown eyes. My God! How lame that sounds!

* * * *

Rafe found himself in mental turmoil. That’s it? She just wanted to welcome me back? What about I miss you? Or I love you?

He mentally castigated himself. What in the hell did he expect? An outburst of emotion? Hell, neither he or Evelyn have exchanged a word of love since she informed him of her plans to marry Danny right after the Pearl Harbor attack. Looking at her round belly reminded Rafe of that terrible moment at the motel court. When he learned that Evelyn was pregnant with Danny’s child, Rafe realized that he had lost her for good.

“Shall we go?” Evelyn said, interrupting Rafe’s thoughts. He stared at her dark eyes. Eyes that merely reflected friendly curiosity. Rafe let out a sigh and followed her away from the airfield.

The couple walked slowly – thanks to Evelyn’s pregnancy – to a parked car, a 1937 black Buick convertible. Danny’s car. Rafe spotted the bullet holes left by Japanese Zeroes on that unforgettable morning, over six months ago. A frown creased his brow, as he halted in his tracks. “I didn’t realize you had Danny’s car.”

Evelyn’s face turned pink. “Danny gave it to me, just before the both of you left for California. You know, when you reported to Colonel Doolittle. After he died . . . well, you and I never really saw much of each other and I found out that Danny left the car to me in a will.” She paused, as the pink in her cheeks deepened. “It helped me get around easier. But you can have it, if you want.” A slight wariness crept into her eyes.

“That’s okay,” Rafe murmured. “Danny wanted you to have the car. You should keep it.”

“Oh.”

Rafe added, “But I wouldn’t mind using it every now and then. At least until I’m sent overseas.”

A brief, sad smile touched Evelyn’s lips. “Hmmm, overseas. I forgot about that. But since you’re here,” she handed Rafe a set of keys, “you can drive.” Evelyn’s smile broadened. Looking at it warmed Rafe’s own heart and he smiled back. Forever the Southern gentleman, he escorted Evelyn to the convertible’s passenger side and helped her climb in. She murmured a quiet “thank you” before he climbed into the driver’s seat.

Within a matter of minutes, the Buick was speeding along the Hawaiian countryside. Evelyn instructed Rafe to drive toward a quiet, residential area near the beach, instead of the hospital base at Pearl. When her pregnancy had begun to show, she decided to rent a bungalow near the beach. “I would have rented a smaller house, but the girls decided they had enough of the base and moved in with me.” Rafe assumed the girls were Barbara, Sandra and Martha.

Evelyn continued with a detailed description of the bungalow. Rafe barely heard a word. Not even the lush, tropical countryside could grab his attention. His mind focused on the road ahead . . . and past memories.

Hearing Evelyn’s voice, seeing her smile and her pregnant state, produced a stream of regrets within Rafe. There seemed to be so many “if onlys” to choose. If only he had never volunteered to serve in the RAF’s Eagle Squadron. If only he had more than a month with Evelyn before leaving the States for England. If only he had not been shot down over the English Channel. And if only he had returned to Evelyn before she could recover from her grief with Danny. What Rafe regretted the most was the death of his best friend – the only man he had ever regarded as a brother.

“Penny for your thoughts,” a soft voice said, interrupting Rafe’s musings.

He blinked and shot a quick glance at his companion. “Huh? What did you say?”

“I was describing the bungalow,” Evelyn continued. “Yet, somehow I got the feeling that your mind was on something else.”

Rafe gave a nervous cough. “What made you think that?”

“You just passed the road that leads to my house. Even after I told you to turn.”

Embarrassed over his mistake, Rafe immediately made a U-turn. He then made a right turn on a small road and the convertible eventually came upon a two-story bungalow built out of whitewashed clapboards. “Well, here we are.” Rafe announced after he stopped the car and turned off the engine. “Home.”

The sounds of palm fronds rustling in the wind and waves beating against the shore filled the silence between the couple inside the Buick. Rafe would usually enjoy the shared silence with Evelyn. But not today. In fact, he wondered if he would ever learn to enjoy Evelyn’s company again. But he had to. Especially after what he had promised his dying friend back in that rice paddy in China.

“Would like to come in for a cup of coffee or another drink?” Evelyn asked, breaking the silence before Rafe could.

Rafe felt his palms grow moist. God, this was difficult!

“Rafe?” Evelyn continued. “Did you hear me? Is everything okay?”

The pilot nodded. “Yeah. Everything’s swell. Just swell.”

Evelyn frowned. “Are you sure? You seem rather quiet.” Despite her seemingly calm voice, Rafe thought he had detected a hint of nervousness.

“Don’t worry. I’m fine. I just . . .”

“Just what?” Evelyn added.

A heavy sigh escaped Rafe’s mouth. Memories of the past six months began to assault his mind. His arrival in Hawaii. Evelyn’s reaction to his appearance at the hospital at Pearl. Danny’s reaction. The fight at the Hula-La Bar. The Japanese attack, the following morning. Evelyn’s revelation of her pregnancy. His talk with Danny on that California beach. The raid on Tokyo. Danny’s death. Rafe sighed one last time. He might as well get it over with.

Rafe reached into the backseat for his jacket. “Uh, Evelyn,” he began. “I have . . . well, I have something to ask you.”

“Yes?” Dark eyes grew round.

A lump rose in Rafe’s throat. He had not felt this nervous since that last night in New York City, when he said good-bye to Evelyn. Rafe reached inside one of the jacket pockets for a small, dark blue velvet case. “I . . . uh . . . hell!”

Evelyn’s eyes fell upon the case. “Is that what I think that is?” Her voice projected muted emotion.

Rafe snapped open the case, revealing a small silver ring with a cluster of diamonds surrounding a small sapphire gem. A gasp escaped Evelyn’s lips. Rafe had purchased the ring at a jewelry store in Washington D.C.

“Evelyn,” he continued, staring into her dark eyes, “would you marry me?” Before she could answer, Rafe continued, “I realize you had expected to marry Danny, but with him gone and you expecting a baby . . . well, I’ll be more than happy to take his place.”

Evelyn’s eyes widened. “You will?” she whispered.

“Of course.” Rafe blinked at her unexpected response. Because I love you, he silently wanted to say. However, fear and pride prevented him from expressing his true feelings. Instead, he added, “Danny was like a brother to me. He would have wanted me to take care of you and the baby. And I swear, Evelyn, I’ll do just that.”

Rafe sat back into his seat, expecting a sign of approval from Evelyn. Instead, he found himself staring into a pair of very dark and angry eyes. Eyes that glared at him. Confusion whirled inside his brain. Why on earth was she angry? “Evelyn? What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Wrong?” Evelyn replied in a soft and deadly voice. Rafe felt even more confused when she opened the door and began to climb out of the car. Her large girth made it difficult, but she managed to get out before Rafe had the chance to help her. Then she marched toward the bungalow.

“Evelyn? Evelyn! What’s wrong?” Rafe cried as he rushed after her. It amazed him how a pregnant woman could move so fast. “Evelyn! Wait a minute! I just asked you to marry me!”

Evelyn reached the bungalow and inserted a key into the front door. Then she whirled upon him, her eyes flashing. “C’mon Evelyn,” Rafe begged. “Talk to me! Dammit, I just proposed to you and now you’re acting as if I had sullied your name!”

“You sullied a lot more!” Evelyn snapped, as she opened the door. “And by the way, you call that a proposal? As far as I’m concerned, Rafe McCawley, you know what you can do with your proposal! And where you can shove it!” She stepped inside the house and slammed the door on the face of a very bewildered pilot.

END OF PART 1

 

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

Many television viewers and moviegoers might be surprised to learn that Hollywood had aired a good number of television movies that featured the topic of U.S. slavery. One of those movies proved to be an offshoot of the 1977 miniseries,“ROOTS”. However, another was the 1994 television movie called “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”.

The 1994 television movie is a story about the Underground Railroad, a loose network of secret routes and safe houses occasionally used by willing 19th-century slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with occasional aid of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to their cause. Before one assumes this movie is about the history of the actual network . . . it is not. Instead, “RACE TO FREEDOM” told the story of four fugitive slaves from North Carolina, who made the journey north to freedom during the fall of 1850. Since their journey took place not long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, the four fugitives were forced to journey to Canada, instead of a Northern state above the Mason-Dixon Line.

The story began with two events – the capture of a slave named Joe, who is owned by a North Carolina planter named Colonel Fairling; and the arrival of a guest of Farley’s, a Canadian ornithologist (studies birds) named Dr. Alexander Ross. Fairling is an amateur bird watcher who had invited Ross to observe the migration of certain bird in the area. Unbeknownst to the planter, Dr. Ross is also an abolitionist and newly-recruited member of the Underground Railroad. He has also arrived at the Fairling plantation to offer help to any slaves willing to escape. In the end, four slaves take up his offer – a blacksmith named Thomas; two field slaves named Minnie and Walter; and a house slave named Sarah, who is also Thomas’ love and Joe’s younger sister. After his men’s failure to capture the four runaways, Fairling hires a professional slave catcher named Wort and his slave/tracker Solomon to find and capture them.

Unlike some people, I believe that stories (in novels, movies, television, stage plays) about slavery (in any country) can be told in a variety of ways – as a family saga, a historical biopic, or even as a comedy satire on the sanctity of American history. “RACE TO FREEDOM” turned out to be an adventure tale in the form of a road trip, with history, action and romance for good measure. It is not the first movie about the Underground Railroad I have seen. But it is one of my two favorite productions on the topic.

One of the reasons why “RACE TO FREEDOM” became such a favorite with me is that . . . well, screenwriters Peter Mohan and Nancy Trites-Botkin created a first-rate, solid screenplay. The pair did an excellent job of setting up the narrative with the two events mentioned – Joe’s capture and Dr. Ross’ arrival at the Farley plantation. The screenplay also allowed viewers to become acquainted with the movie’s four protagonists, as they debate over whether or not to make the bid for freedom. It did the same for the two antagonists – the slave catching duo of Wort and Solomon. Mohan and Trites-Botkin’s screenplay also did a solid job of presenting obstacles for the protagonists to overcome, as they made their way north from western North Carolina to Canada. And the screenplay also presented a northbound route that did not come off as implausible. I still shake my head in disbelief over the California-bound route that author George MacDonald Fraser plotted in one of his FLASHMAN novels. But more importantly, “RACE TO FREEDOM” proved to be a first-rate adventure filled with a well-written narrative, solid action, strong characterization, nail-biting suspense, a strong, if not perfect, grasp of history, and a surprising twist in the end.

As I had earlier stated, “RACE TO FREEDOM” featured some strong characterizations. And this would not have been possible without a first-rate cast. The movie included some solid performances from Falconer Abraham, Jennifer Phipps, Peter Boretski and James Blendick. Dawnn Lewis gave a funny and sardonic performance as the pragmatic Minnie. Also, Tim Reid, Nigel Bennett and Alfre Woodward all made solid cameo appearances as abolitionists Frederick Douglass andLevi Coffin, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. However, in my opinion, the movie featured five performances that really impressed me. Both Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance gave superb and subtle performances as the two of the four slaves who attempt the journey for freedom. Not only was I impressed by how they conveyed the complex aspects of their respective personalities, I was also impressed by their strong, screen chemistry. Michael Riley gave a very interesting performance as the Canadian ornithologist, Dr. Alexander Ross, who heart seemed to be in the right place, despite his obvious lack of experience with the Underground Railroad. I especially enjoyed his interactions with Vance’s character, Thomas. However, I feel that the two most interesting performances in the movie came from Glynn Turman and Ron White, who portrayed the two slave catchers, Solomon and Wort. The two actors did a superb job in conveying one of the most interesting and complex slave/master relationship I have ever seen on screen. Turman and White really made it easy for me to understand how emotionally complex that relationship can be.

There is a lot to admire about “RACE TO FREEDOM”. However, I did managed to spot certain aspects that I found questionable. The performances of the actors who portrayed Colonel Fairling’s neighbors struck me as wooden and bad clichés of the typical Southern planter found in antebellum South movie and television productions of the last forty years. Two, actor Tim Reid was too old to be portraying abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the time. I guess I should not be surprised. “RACE TO FREEDOM” marked the third time this has happened. Reid was almost fifty when this movie was in production. And the abolitionist was 32 years old during the movie’s setting of 1850. Finally, although I found Alfre Woodward’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman rather entertaining, I found myself wondering why the historical figure was in this movie. Tubman usually operated as an Underground Railroad conductor between the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Canada – which meant she never went anywhere near Cinncinati, Ohio. Yet, this movie had her escorting runaways from Cinncinati. Worse, Trites-Botkin’s screenplay strongly hinted that Tubman was a veteran conductor for the Underground Railroad. This is not true. Tubman had ran away from Maryland in December 1849. She did not begin her activities as a conductor until the late fall or early spring of 1850. During this movie’s time setting, she was as much of a newbie as Dr. Ross.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” may not be easy to find. The television movie first aired on a cable network (unbeknownst to me) some twenty years ago. And I would have never found out about it, if it were not for the channel guide I had received from my cable company on a weekly basis. And thank goodness I managed to stumble across it. The production became one of my all time movies – television or otherwise – about U.S. slavery. If you can find it in a store, on Netflix or even on the Internet, I highly suggest that you watch it.

“HOMEFRONT” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.”

HOMEFRONT_CAST

 

“HOMEFRONT” RETROSPECT: (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.”

There are only a handful of television shows that I am very emotional about. There are only a handful that I consider to be among the best I have ever seen on the small screen. One of them happened to be the 1991-1993 ABC series,“HOMEFRONT”. Not only do I view it as one of the few television series that turned out to be consistently first-rate from beginning to end, it also has one of the best pilot episodes I have ever seen.

“HOMEFRONT” followed the lives and experiences of a handful of citizens in the fictional town in Ohio, right after the end of World War II. In fact, its pilot episode, (1.01) “S.N.A.F.U.” picks up not long after the war finally ended with Japan’s surrender. Army war veterans Hank Metcalf and Charles “Charlie” Hailey are in New York City, awaiting a train to take them home to River Run, Ohio. Hank is unaware that his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Brewer, has been dating his younger brother Jeff, while he was overseas. And Charlie has an unpleasant surprise for his longtime girlfriend and fiancée, Ginger Szabo – he has married a British woman named Caroline. Other surprises loomed for some of the citizens of River Run. Hank’s sister, Linda, had been dating his and Charlie’s friend, Mike Sloan, before war. Yet, unbeknownst to her, he has married an Italian woman named Gina, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust. Both Linda and her mother, Anne Metcalf, employees at Sloan Industries during the war, were unceremoniously fired with other women employees to make room for returning male veterans. And the Sloans’ chauffeur and housekeeper, Abe and Gloria Davis, receive a surprise in the return of their son Robert from the war. They are even further surprised by his embittered attitude toward the racism he had encountered in the Army and that a job as janitor awaits him at the Sloans’ factory.

I really do not know what to say about “S.N.A.F.U.”. I had never paid much attention to it, when I last saw“HOMEFRONT” on TVLAND, during the summer of 2000. After my recent viewing of the episode, I cannot understand how I could have ever ignored it in the first place. Not only is “S.N.A.F.U.” an outstanding episode, I now realize it is one of the best in the series. Is it the best? I have no idea. I would have to become reacquainted with the other forty-one episodes. I will say this for “S.N.A.F.U.” – the screenplay written by Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick could easily compete with the 1946 movie, “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES” in regard to a narrative about World War II U.S. servicemen returning home. Not surprising, Latham and Lechowick’s transcript won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Long Form in Television.

In a way, I can see why this episode strongly reminded me of “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. For an episode that mainly focused on the return of River Run’s U.S. servicemen, it seemed filled with a good deal of bitterness, despair and a surprising tragedy. Discrimination seemed prevalent in this episode. The Metcalf women – Anne and her daughter Linda – lost their wartime jobs at the Sloan Industries because owner Michael Sloan decided women were no longer needed as employees, due to the war’s end. On the other hand, the episode revealed Robert Davis’ bitterness over the racism he encountered in the U.S. Army. This bitterness carried over when he discovered that the promised job at Sloan Industries turned out to be a janitor. “S.N.A.F.U.” featured one interesting scene regarding both the racism and sexism faced by some of the characters. In one scene, while office manager Sam Schenkkan fires Linda, he hires Robert for the janitor job. The emotional response expressed by both Robert and Linda proved to be very interesting. Bigotry against foreigners and anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in a story line that featured the Sloans’ discovery that their only son, Michael Sloan Jr., had married an Italian-Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor named Gina. Most of the episode featured the couple trying to find a way to annul their son’s marriage before his return.

Romance certainly proved to be a problem in “S.N.A.F.U.”. Both Linda and her best friend, Ginger Szabo, expected to resume their romances with respective boyfriends upon their return from the war. Linda, who was in love with Mike Jr., learned about his marriage to Gina, upon the latter’s arrival to Ohio. And Ginger, who had been engaged to her longtime boyfriend Charlie Hailey, discovered he had married a young British woman named Caroline, while stationed overseas. And Caroline, as this episode later revealed, will prove to be a handful throughout the series’ run. Thwarted romance also struck another member of the Metcalf family. While Anne Metcalf’s oldest offspring, Hank, was fighting in Europe during the war; his younger brother Jeff got caught up in an unexpected romance with Hank’s girlfriend and fiancée, Sarah Brewer. Both Jeff and Sarah had decided she would break her engagement with Hank, so that both could declare their love for one another. However, Jeff found himself at the losing end of the lollipop when Sarah decided to remain with Hank. I have seen my share of movies about war veterans returning home. But I have never come across so much aborted romances and betrayal in one production in my life. And yet . . . Latham and Lechowick, along with the actors and actresses who portrayed these characters, made all of this romantic entanglements and betrayals seem emotionally true, instead of the usual second-rate melodrama.

If I must be honest, I believe “S.N.A.F.U.” is a prime example of what made “HOMEFRONT” one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Like the other 41 episodes that followed, “S.N.A.F.U.” explored the post-World War II world with a skillful mixture of drama, melodrama, romance, history, comedy and some action. To be honest, no action was featured in “S.N.A.F.U.”. But it did manifest in a few episodes during the series’ two-year run. I also have to comment on Latham and Lechowick’s exploration of racism, sexism, class and other issues in such a seamless, yet believable manner. I can only think of one or two other television shows that managed to achieve this . . . even to this day. And the more I realize this, I cannot help but wonder if most of today’s television producers are incapable of dealing with more than one or two particular issues. If this is true, then “HOMEFRONT” managed to achieve something rare that may never happen again.

The excellent writing featured in “S.N.A.F.U.” could have come to nothing without the first-rate cast for this show. I tried to think of a performance that seemed out of place or just plain ineffective. But I could not. Everyone gave it their all, including the likes of Kyle Chandler, Tammy Lauren, Dick Anthony Williams, David Newsome, Ken Jenkins, Harry O’Reilly and Hattie Winston. But there were a handful of performances that especially impressed me. I once read that when A.B.C. eventually cancelled “HOMEFRONT” after two seasons, Mimi Kennedy had broke into tears in the privacy of her dressing room. If this is true, I can understand why. I think that the role of Ruth Sloan, the haughty and blunt-speaking wife of industrialist Michael Sloan Sr. may have been the best in her career. I have always been amazed at how she conveyed both the unpleasant and sympathetic aspects of Ruth. I also enjoyed Sterling Macer’s performance as the embittered Robert Davis – especially in this episode. There is one scene in which the returning veteran is being welcomed home by his happy mother, grandmother and their friends, while he sits at the kitchen table trying . . . and failing to share their happiness. With very few words and his eyes, Macer skillfully conveyed Robert’s unhappy memories of the Army and his eventual inability to share his family’s happiness over his return.

Another performance that caught my attention came from Jessica Steen, who portrayed Linda Metcalf – middle child and only daughter of Anne Metcalf. Looking back on it, I believe Steen had a difficult job in this episode. Her emotions seemed to be all over the place, due to what she had experienced in “S.N.A.F.U.” – brother Hank’s return, anticipating Mike Sloan Jr.’s return, discovering Mike’s marriage to an Italian war refugee, dealing with best friend Ginger Szabo’s anger over Charlie Bailey and losing her job. And yet . . . she kept it all together with some first-rate acting skills. I was impressed by one last performance and it came from Sammi Davis (1987’s “HOPE AND GLORY”) as Charlie Bailey’s war bride, Caroline Bailey. Caroline has never been a popular character with the show’s fans. Many found her selfish and manipulative. I had also felt the same. But . . . I also recalled that Caroline was such an interesting character, thanks to Davis’ excellent performance. And at times, I also found her likable. I found her very likable in “S.N.A.F.U.”. The scheming manipulator revealed her claws in her effort to regain the down payment Charlie had given to a landlord, who had welshed on them and I cheered. I also understood her anger and confusion from Ginger’s hostile attitude toward her, especially since she obviously had no idea why Ginger was being rude.

What else can I say about “S.N.A.F.U.”? That it was a superb premiere for a first-rate series like “HOMEFRONT”? I have noticed that most television shows with excellent pilot episodes tend to go downhill by the end of the first season or the beginning of the second. Fortunately, this never happened with “HOMEFRONT”. Like “S.N.A.F.U.”, it remained an excellent piece of television entertainment throughout its two-year run. And it is a damn pity that the entire series has not been released on DVD.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

When New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers first released the news that Peter Jackson would adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” into three films, I had not been pleased. I thought the novel could have easily been adapted into two films or even a single film. Now that Jackson’s third film, “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”, I realized that my feelings had not changed.

I still believe what I had originally stated . . . an adaptation of Tolkien’s novel could have easily been limited to a single film. I believe I would have enjoyed it, considering my feelings for Tolkien’s tale. But you know what? I do not regret that Jackson had spread the story into the three films. A single movie or a trilogy, I enjoyed Jackson’s take on the story about Bilbo Baggins and his involvement with a group of dwarves under the leadership of one Thorin Oakenshield. But when I learned that this third film would feature a long, detailed conflict known as “the Battle of the Five Armies”, I found myself not looking forward to the story’s conclusion for the first time, since the release of the first movie. The problem is that I still had memories of the battles featured in the last two movies of Jackson’s adaptation of “THE LORD OF THE RINGS”trilogy – “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. I did not enjoy watching them over a decade ago. And I felt certain that I would not enjoy watching the “Battle of the Five Armies”.

There were aspects of this third HOBBIT that made it less enjoyable for me than the first two films. First of all, Bilbo and his traveling companions reached their destination in the last act of the previous film, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. Which meant that the story ceased to be a road trip. With the exception of a few scenes that featured Gandalf the Gray at Dol Guldur and Smaug’s destruction of Laketown, the majority of the film was set at the dwarves’ kingdom of Erebor and the nearby town of Dale. A bit disappointing. I also found the movie’s limited focus on Thorin’s company of dwarves rather disappointing as well. With the exception of Thorin and one of his nephews, Kili, the screenplay focused less on the dwarves and more on the other characters – especially Bard the Bowman and King Thranduil. Another aspect of the plot that disturbed me, was that it made a big deal of Thorin’s greed in the form of “dragon sickness”. Yet, it barely focused on King Thranduil’s willingness to go to war against the dwarves for an elven necklace of white gems inside Erebor. Worse, the movie’s plot brushed aside Laketown resident Bard’s own greed. Yeah . . . I said it. I believe Bard had developed his own greed for some of the treasure inside Erebor. During the movie’s first half hour, he made it clear to Alfrid Lickspittle that he had no interested in the Erebor treasure (which he had regarded as cursed) and only wanted aid in the form of food, shelter and medicine from Thorin. Yet, within another half hour, he was demanding some of the treasure for himself and other Laketown survivors. What led to this turnabout in Bard’s demands? Why did the screenplay fail to explain it?

Remember when I had predicted that I would not like the battle sequence featured in this movie? Well . . . I was right. I did not like it. Let me correct myself. I did not like most of it. I found the majority of the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” ridiculously long and overblown . . . just like the other battle sequences in “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. Now that I think of it, the movie’s battle sequence also reminded me of “the Battle at Hogwarts” featured in the 2011 movie, “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”, with the constant number of interruptions that allowed the battle to last longer than necessary. It is only by the grace of God that I was able to tolerate the “Battle of the Five Armies” a bit more than the Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields, Black Gate and Hogwarts battles. And I will tell you why.

What made the Battle of the Five Armies a little more tolerable for me? One, it had began under unusual circumstances. Instead of a battle in which the Erebor Dwarves fought side-by-side with Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm Elves against the Moria Orcs, Goblins and Wargs; the battle nearly became a conflict between the dwarves and an alliance between the Dale men and the elves over the treasure inside the Erebor mines. But the appearance of an army of orcs, goblins and wargs led by Orc chieftain Azog quickly led to a shifting of alliances. I found that rather interesting. The Battle of the Five Armies may have began with rather odd circumstances, it ended with a good deal of poignancy and tragedy that left me in tears. And I cannot say the same for the battles featured in “THE TWO TOWERS”, “RETURN OF THE KING” and “DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”.

I have never read “The Hobbit”, so I have no idea if J.R.R. Tolkien had any plans to write “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy around the time when he wrote the 1937 novel. But I have to admire the way Peter Jackson and the movie’s other screenwriters – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – set up the events featured in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, both in this movie and the previous two films. This was especially apparent in moments that featured Bilbo’s use of Sauron’s One Ring; his eventual reluctance to inform Gandalf about it; Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman’s encounter with Sauron, during their attempt to rescue Gandalf from Dol Guldur; Saruman’s doom-filled decision to deal with the fleeing and formless Sauron; and Thranduil’s post-battle suggestion that Legolas meet with a young Dunedain ranger named “Strider”. The movie even ended where “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began – on Bilbo’s 111st birthday, setting in motion, the events of 2001-2003 movie trilogy. I have to say . . . good job.

However, what really impressed me about “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” was how the screenwriters handled the political chaos that seemed to mark the story. I am not criticizing the story in any way. I just found it rather amazing at how Gandalf’s concerns over Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield’s past history with Azog and his bout of “dragon sickness” brought about so much political chaos in this story. And I must say that Jackson and the other three screenwriters handled it so well. The continuing romance between Thorin’s younger nephew Kili and the Silvan elf guard Tauriel is also handled well in the movie. Their time together seemed less than it was in “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. But thanks to Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly’s performances, there were two scenes featuring the pair that really impressed me – Kili’s plea to Tauriel that she follow him to Erebor and their efforts to save each other from the Orc called Bolg. Aside from Kili and Tauriel, one of the most interesting relationships in the movie was that between Bilbo and Thorin. In fact, their relationship has been interesting since the moment Bilbo first rejected Gandalf’s suggestion that he join Thorin’s companay as a burglar in “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. Thorin’s bout with “dragon sickness” came close to seriously undermining the pair’s friendship that had thrived since the company’s escape from Moria in the first film. Which is why I found their reconciliation and final scene together so poignant, thanks to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage’s performances. But the one scene that really left me in tears featured Bilbo’s final good-bye to the dwarves that were part of Thorin’s quest. I felt surprised by how much I truly grew to like these guys. Even more so than the members of the Ring Fellowship from “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” only earned one Academy Award – namely a Best Sound Editing for Brent Burge and Jason Canovas. One technical nomination? One? That was it? No nominations for special effects, costume designs, or editing. There was not even a nomination for Andrew Lesnie’s outstanding cinematography, as shown in the following image:

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I discovered that “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING” received eleven Academy Award nominations . . . and won all of its categories. And I am appalled. Why? Despite its flaws, I still hold “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”in a higher regard. Now I realize that I am not the last word on the quality of any movie. But I am entitled to my own opinions. I am sorry, but I simply have a higher opinion of “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” than either the second and third films in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And I cannot take the Oscars seriously if the only nomination they could give this film was for Best Sound Editing.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Although I was slightly disappointed by the decreased presence of most of the dwarves in Thorin’s company, they still managed to give first-rate performances . . . especially Graham McTavish as Dwalin, Dean O’Gorman as Fíli, and Ken Stott as Balin. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprised their roles as Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White and gave solid, but not particularly earth-shattering performances. I could also say the same about Ian Holm, who returned as Old Bilbo in the movie’s final scene and Sylvester McCoy, who briefly appeared as Gandalf’s fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown. Two performances in the movie struck me as particularly funny – Ryan Gage as the greedy and imaginative Laketown official Alfrid, and Billy Connolly as Thorin’s loud and sardonic cousin Dáin. Lee Pace gave a colorful and fascinating performance as the complicated and not always likable Elvenking of Mirkwood, Thranduil. And Benedict Cumberbatch continued to send chills down my spine, thanks to his exceptional performance as the voice for the malignant dragon, Smaug.

Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly continued to generate sparks as the two star-crossed lovers, Kili and Tauriel. I found them especially effective in two scenes I had earlier mentioned. Both Orlando Bloom and Luke Evans gave excellent performances as Elven prince Legolas and Laketown archer Bard the Bowman. For the first time, I also noticed that the pair could have easily portrayed cousins. Honestly. Ian McKellen was excellent as usual portraying Gandalf the Grey – especially in his scenes with Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman. I like to think that the latter made his mark as the reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman did an excellent job of developing his character from the prissy homebody to the clever and brave Hobbit. But my vote for the best performance in the movie would go to Richard Armitage for his complicated and fascinating portrayal of the Erebor Dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield. Actually, I feel that Armitage had been knocking it out of the ballpark since the first film. But in my opinion, two scenes in “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” featured his best performances as the ambiguous Thorin – namely the latter’s final struggle with “dragon fever” that I found absolutely brilliant and the poignant farewell between his character and Bilbo.

I cannot deny that “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” is my least favorite of the three films based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy it very much, thanks to Peter Jackson’s energetic direction, excellent production values and some superb performances from a cast led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage.