The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

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Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

 

 

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

 

 

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

 

 

august and annalees

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

 

 

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

 

 

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.

 

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie.

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Francis Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bundy portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.

“TERMINATOR: GENISYS” (2015) Review

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“TERMINATOR: GENISYS” (2015) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not a major fan of the “TERMINATOR” franchise. It has never been one of my favorite pop culture obsessions. In fact, I have never seen the “TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES” television series, aside from two or three episodes. But I have seen all of the franchise’s movies, including its most recent one – “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”.

Directed by Alan Taylor (“THOR: THE DARK WORLD”), “TERMINATOR: GENISYS” seemed to be some kind of attempt to reboot the franchise’s main narrative. In other words, many fanboys believe that the 1991 film, “TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY” should have resolved the matter of whether Sarah and John Connor, along with the Terminator/T-800 (Model 101) cyborg, had permanently prevented Judgment Day (the date on which Skynet, an artificial intelligence general system, becomes self-aware and decides to exterminate mankind). In other words . . . there was no real need for the continuation of the franchise with 2004’s“TERMINATOR: RISE OF THE MACHINE” and 2009’s “TERMINATOR: SALVATION”. This is due to the virulent dislike of the two movies by many fans. But what these fans had failed to take consider is that director James Cameron had failed to resolve the matter and allowed the John Connor character to exist in the 1991 movie’s last reel. Producers David Ellison and Dana Goldberg must have realized this, along with screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier. Or else there would have never been a movie like “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”.

What this recent film did was pretty much reset the entire movie franchise – more or less. “TERMINATOR: GENISYS” began with Human Resistance leader John Connor launching a final offensive against Skynet in 2029. Before the Resistance can win the battle, Skynet sends a T-800 Terminator back to 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor. One of John’s aides, Kyle Reese, volunteers to travel back in time to stop the Terminator and save Sarah. This sounds very familiar, does it not? Guess what? The plot is about to get tricky. While floating in the time machine magnetic field, Kyle spots another Resistance soldier attacking John. He also has visions of his younger self back in 2017.

Upon its arrival in 1984, the Skynet T-800 is disabled by Sarah and the Guardian, a reprogrammed T-800 sent back to protect her when she was nine years old. Kyle eventually arrives and is immediately attacked by a T-1000. Kyle, along with Sarah and the Guardian, destroy the T-1000 using acid. Sarah and the Guardian also reveal they have constructed a makeshift time machine similar to the one constructed by Skynet. Sarah plans to travel forward to 1997 – allegedly, the year Skynet becomes self-aware. Realizing the timeline has been altered, Kyle is convinced that the future has changed due to the warning he had received in his vision. He persuades Sarah to travel to 2017 with him in order to stop Skynet. But in that year, a surprise awaits the trio in the form of John Connor, who had been transformed into a Terminator by the physical embodiment of Skynet, the Resistance solider who had attacked him during Kyle’s journey to the past.

I did like “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”. Honestly, I did. But if I must be brutally frank, the movie’s producers should have dragged the screenwriters out of bed and shot them for creating such a mucked up screenplay. I have not seen this many plot holes in a movie since 2009’s “STAR TREK”. It was a mess. First of all, Kalogridis and Lussier arrogantly ignored “TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES” by originally stating that Judgment Day happened in 1997. It was supposed to happen two years after the setting for the second film (1995), but Sarah, John and the first Terminator guardian prevented this from happening in“TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY”. The screenwriters forgot this. They also forgot or ignored that Judgment Day actually happened in 2004. They also decided to ignore the fact that John was married to Kate Brewster by 2029. She was no where to be found. Although Kyle Reese originally did travel from 2029, the Resistance did not launch its final offensive against Skynet until 2032. And as a slap in the face against the fourth film, “TERMINATOR: SALVATION”, the movie featured Kyle Reese as a boy between the ages of 10 to 13 or 14. In the 2009 film, Kyle was in his late teens – probably 17 years old . . . in 2018. I can only assume that the screenwriters (and possibly the producers) wanted to ignore what happened in the third and fourth films. And yet . . . they managed to ignore what happened at the end of the “highly acclaimed” second film, as well. To make matters even more confusing, John Connor was sporting a scar that he had acquired from a Terminator . . . in “TERMINATOR: SALVATION”. Go figure.

Another matter in the script that I found confusing was the vision that Kyle had received from his childhood. How did he know that the warning about Genisys had something to do with Skynet . . . or that Genisys was the beginning form of Skynet? How did he know that they had to go back to the year 2017? To that exact year? And there is the matter of “the Guardian”. I am speaking of the original Terminator T-800 who had been sent back to the 1970s to save and protect a very young Sarah Connor. This happens to be one of the movie’s major plot twists, since it never happened in any of the previous four films. The problem is that the movie never revealed who had sent the T-800 back to the 1970s. And how did Sarah spend the rest of her childhood, being raised by an emotionless (back then) cyborg? This movie opened a new can of worms that demanded its own movie.

In “TERMINATOR 2”, the Myles Dyson character (creator of Skynet) was killed by members of a SWAT team in 1995, while he and the Connors were breaking into Cyberdyne. If Sarah and Kyle’s time jump erased the events of “TERMINATOR 2”, this would explain Miles Dyson’s appearance in this film. Frankly, I wish he had stayed dead, because Courtney B. Vance, who portrayed Dyson, was literally wasted in this film. And the movie allowed Dyson’s son Danny, who was portrayed by Dayo Okeniyi, to be the force behind Genisys. And if this time jump allowed Dyson to remain alive, it probably erased the events of the 2004 and 2009 movies . . . along with the events of the second half of “THE TERMINATOR”. Which means . . . John Connor should have ceased to exist by the second half of “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”. Some fans claim that John’s father was the guy Sarah had been dating before she met Kyle in the 1984 movie. But . . . considering the change of events (namely Sarah spending the rest of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood with the Guardian), I guess that never happened. And since she and Kyle time jumped before they could conceive John in that motel room . . . why did he still exist in the movie’s second half?

By this time, one might be wondering why I liked this movie in the first place. Because I do like it. “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”was filled with some memorable moments. I could not help but smile at the re-creation of Kyle’s journey from the early 21st century to 1984. I also found the details surrounding Sarah and Kyle’s journey to 2017 also amusing. In the TERMINATOR universe, one has to strip naked before making a time jump. Watching Sarah and Kyle squirm with discomfort as they strip and prepare for their time jump, was quite enjoyable to watch. It seemed very obvious they were attracted to each other, yet seemed bent upon denying their attraction. This attraction between Sarah and Kyle proved to be one of my favorite aspects of “TERMINATOR: GENISYS”. In fact, I found the interactions between Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney more fun to watch than those between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn, who portrayed the same roles in the first film. It struck me as emotionally more complex and heated. And when the Guardian’s character was thrown into the mix, the relationship between all three made this film very bearable and at times, rather fun. This was especially due to a surprisingly lively performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. I might as well be frank. For me, the movie’s highlight proved to be the relationship between the Guardian, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese.

However, “TERMINATOR: GENISYS” had its share of some first-rate action sequences. I thought Alan Taylor did a well done re-creation of Kyle’s original jump back into time. This became even more effective when the re-creation took a left turn with the appearance of a more militant Sarah and the Guardian. I also enjoyed the trio’s encounter with the T-1000 (in the form of actor Lee Byung-hun) in 1984. And dealing with both the San Francisco Police in 2017 and the Terminator T-3000 (especially on the Golden Gate Bridge) proved to be quite exhilarating to watch.

I might as well be frank. “TERMINATOR: GENISYS” is not a perfect movie. I would not even regard it as a decent movie. It had too many plot holes for me to be comfortable with. And the movie struck me as an extremely clumsy way to reboot the franchise. As far as I am concerned the producers and screenwriters should have continued the franchise’s narrative from where“TERMINATOR: SALVATION” left off. But thanks to some action sequences well shot by director Alan Taylor and the dynamic screen chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney; I still managed to enjoy the film. Go figure.

Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

 

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

 

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

 

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

 

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

 

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

 

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

 

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

 

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

 

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.

Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.

“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.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

red-october

 

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have never been an ardent reader of Tom Clancy’s novels. Many who know me would find this strange, considering my penchant for the movie adaptations of his stories. The first I ever saw was “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”, the 1990 adaptation of Clancy’s 1984 novel of the same title.

The last remnants of the Cold War – at least the one between the United States and the Soviet Union – were being played out when “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” hit the screen. Realizing this, director John McTiernan, screenwriter Larry Ferguson (who also had a role in the film) and producer Mace Neufeld decided to treat Clancy’s story as a flashback by setting the movie in the year Clancy’s novel was published. The movie begins with the departure of the new Soviet submarine, the Red October, which possesses a new caterpillar drive that renders it silent. In command of the Red October is Captain Marko Ramius. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Navy submarine called the U.S.S. Dallas has a brief encounter with the Red October before it loses contact due to the Soviet sub’s caterpillar drive. This encounter catches the attention of C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan, who embarks upon studying the Red October’s schematics.

Unbeknownst to the C.I.A., Captain Ramius has put in motion a plan for the defection of his senior officers and himself. They also intend to commit treason by handing over the Red October to the Americans. Unfortunately, Ramius has left a letter stating his intentions to his brother-in-law, a Soviet government official. This leads the Soviet ambassador in Washington D.C. to inform the Secretary of Defense that the Red October has been lost at sea and requires the U.S. Navy’s help for a “rescue mission”. However, Ryan manages to ascertain that Ramius plans to defect. When the Soviets change tactics and claim that Captain Ramius has become a renegade with plans to fire a missile at the U.S. coast, Ryan realizes that he needs to figure out “how” Ramius plans to defect before the Soviet or U.S. Navies can sink the Red October.

I might as well put my cards on the table. After twenty-three years, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” holds up very well as a Cold War thriller. What prevented it from becoming a dated film were the filmmakers’ decision to treat Clancy’s tale as a flashback to the last decade of the Cold War. I have never read Clancy’s novel. In fact, I have only read two of his novels – “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”. Because of this, I could not judge the movie’s adaptation of the 1984 novel. But there is no doubt that “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate – probably superb thriller. Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart made another first-rate contribution to the script by not rushing the narrative aspect of the story. The movie is not some fast-paced tale stuffed with over-the-top action. Yes, there is action in the film – mainly combat encounters, a murder, hazardous flying in a rain storm and a shoot-out inside the Red October’s engine room. And it is all exciting stuff. However, Ferguson and Stewart wisely detailed the conversations held between Ramius and his fellow defectors, Ryan’s attempts to figure out Ramius’ defection plans and his efforts to convince various high-ranking U.S. Naval officers not to accept the Soviets’ lies about the Red October’s captain.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” also features some excellent performances. Sean Connery gave one of his best performances as the Red October’s enigmatic and wily captain, Markus Ramius. Alec Baldwin was equally impressive as the slightly bookish, yet very intelligent C.I.A. analyst, Jack Ryan. A part of me believes it is a pity that he never portrayed the role again. The movie also boasted fine performances from James Earl Jones as Ryan’s boss, C.I.A. Deputy Director James Greer; Scott Glenn as the intimidating captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso; Sam Neill as Ramius’ very loyal First Officer, Vasily Borodin; Fred Dalton Thompson as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter; Courtney B. Vance as the Dallas’ talented Sonar Technician, Ronald “Jonesy” Jones; Tim Curry as the Red October’s somewhat anxious Chief Medical Officer (and the only one not part of the defection) Dr. Yevgeniy Petrov; and Joss Ackland as Ambassador Andrei Lysenko. Stellan Skarsgård made a dynamic first impression for me as Viktor Tupolev, the Soviet sub commander ordered to hunt and kill Ramius. And Richard Jordan was downright entertaining as the intelligent and somewhat manipulative National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden (of “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”) and Peter Firth (of “SPOOKS”).

Before one starts believing that I view “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” as perfect, I must admit there were a few aspects of it that I found a bit troublesome for me. The movie has a running time of 134 minutes. Mind you, I do not consider this as a problem. However, the pacing seemed in danger of slowing down to a crawl two-thirds into the movie. It took the Dallas’ encounter with the Red October to put some spark back into the movie again. And could someone explain why Gates McFadden portrayed Ryan’s wife, Dr. Cathy Ryan, with a slight British accent? Especially since she was an American-born character?

Despite these minor quibbles, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate spy thriller that has withstood the test of time for the past 23 years. And I believe the movie’s sterling qualities own a lot to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a well-written script by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, and superb performances from a cast led by Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.