Favorite Moments in MARVEL Movies and Television

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Below is a list of my favorite moments featured in Marvel movies and television: 

FAVORITE MOMENTS IN MARVEL MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004) – After a brutal fight with Doc Ock on top of a Manhattan El Train and saving the train’s passengers, an exhausted Spider-Man aka Peter Parker is unmasked by the latter in what I regard as the most poignant moment in any Marvel production.

 

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2. “The Avengers” (2012) – During its fight against invading Chitauri troops, director Joss Whedon gave audiences an iconic shot of the newly formed Avengers, before they continued the battle.

 

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3. “Iron-Man 3” (2013) – Iron Man aka Tony Stark saves the surviving passengers and crew of Air Force One in this breathtaking sequence, using aerodynamics, one of his Iron Man bots and his brains.

 

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4. “The Wolverine” (2013) – In this exciting sequence, the Wolverine aka Logan battles members of the Yakuza on top of a Tokyo bullet train, as he tries to prevent them from kidnapping the granddaughter of a recently deceased businessman that he had briefly met at the end of World War II.

 

 

5. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” (1.20) “Nothing Personal” – Agent Phil Coulson rescues his kidnapped subordinate Skye aka Daisy Johnson from HYDRA agents, who had hijacked the fallen agency’s C-17 plane, known as “the Bus”, with his sports car called “L.O.L.A.”.

 

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6. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – While staving off rogue HYDRA agents in Washington D.C., Captain America aka Steve Rogers has a brutal hand-to-hand fight with the assassin known as “the Winter Soldier”. Best fight scene in any Marvel production … at least for me.

 

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7. “Iron Man 3” (2013) – In this hilarious scene, Tony Stark finally comes face-to-face with the “terrorist” known as “the Mandarin”, who proves not to be what many had assumed.

 

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8. “The Hulk” (2003) – The opening credits of the 2003 movie featured the chilling efforts of Dr. David Banner to create super soldiers by introducing modified DNA sequences extracted from various animals to strengthen the human cellular response. This sequence gives me the chills whenever I watch the movie.

 

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9. “X2: X-Men United” (2003) – The second movie in the “X-MEN” franchise featured an exciting attack by a brainwashed Nightcrawler aka Kurt Wagner on the White House, in an attempt to assassinate the U.S. President.

 

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10. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury is attacked by HYDRA agents and the assassin known as “the Winter Soldier” on the streets of Washington D.C.

 

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11. “Iron Man 2” (2010) – S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow fights off security guards at Justin Hammer’s factory in order to prevent Ivan Venko from using James Rhodes in the War Machine suit from killing Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

 

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12. “Ant-Man” (2015) – Scott Laing aka Ant-Man attempts to infiltrate the new Avengers headquarters for a particular device, and has an unexpected encounter with Avenger Sam Wilson aka the Falcon.

 

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13. “Iron Man 3” (2015) – An Extremis enhanced Pepper Potts saves Tony Stark from villain Aldrich Killian by killing the latter.

 

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14. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – The recently enhanced Steve Rogers is recruited by a U.S. senator for a war bonds tour in this colorful montage, after the former is rejected by Colonel Chester Phillips when the super soldier formula is lost.

 

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15. “Thor” (2011) – Recently cast out from Asgaard by his father Odin, a now mortal Thor struggles to free himself from a hospital’s personnel before he is eventually drugged in this very funny scene.

 

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16. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – A group of extraterrestrial misfits uses one of the Infinity stones to defeat Kree supervillain Ronan the Accuser, who is bent upon destroying the Nova Empire’s capital city, Xandar.

 

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17. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – In this emotionally sad scene, S.S.R. Agent Peggy Carter gives in to tears, when communication with Captain America aka Steve Rogers is cut short, after he forces a HYDRA plane with deadly weapons into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

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18. “Spider-Man 3” (2007) – Another sad scene features Spider-Man aka Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson grieving over the dead body of their friend, Harry Osborn aka New Goblin, after the latter is skewered by villain Venom aka Eddie Brock.

 

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19. “Agent Carter” (1.07) “Snafu” – S.S.R. Chief Roger Dooley jumps to his death in order to save the lives of his subordinates from the bomb device that had been strapped to his body.

 

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20. “The Hulk” (2003) – Ang Lee directed this bizarre scene featuring the death of former military officer Glenn Talbot, after the Hulk aka Bruce Banner escapes from a military base.

 

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Honorable Mention: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) – Director Marc Webb directed this heartbreaking sequence in which Gwen Stacy falls to her death, after Spider-Man aka Peter Parker fails to save her from Harry Osborn aka the Green Goblin.
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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

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“IRON MAN 3” (2013) Review

One would think after the release of last year’s “THE AVENGERS”, Marvel Studios would call it quits on its saga about the team of superheroes who foiled an alien invasion in said movie. But the “THE AVENGERS” opened the possibility of a new threat to Earth, paving the way for a new slew of stories for the costumed Avengers. 

The beginning of this new group of films resulted in the release of “IRON MAN 3”, the third movie about the sole adventures of billionaire Tony Stark aka Iron Man. The alien invasion from “THE AVENGERS” had left its mark on Tony. He has become even more popular than ever with the public. The U.S. government (including S.H.I.E.L.D.) seemed to be leaving him alone for the moment. And his relationship with Pepper Potts seemed to be going strong. However, Tony also seemed to be in the process of ironing out the kinks for his new method of accessing his Iron Man armor – a method that turned out to be a technological copy of Thor’s habit of summoning the Mjölnir hammer. His chauffeur Happy Hogan has been promoted to Head of Security for Stark Industries. But Happy’s caustic “Super Friends” indicated the latter’s resentment toward Tony’s newly forged connections to the other Avengers. Worst of all, Tony has been experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the Avengers’ battle against the invading Chitauri aliens.

But these problems are nothing in compare to the re-emergence of an old acquaintance whom Tony first met at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Thirteen years earlier, a drunken Tony and his date Dr. Maya Hansen encountered the disabled scientist Aldrich Killian, who offered them positions in his new company, Advanced Idea Mechanics. However, Tony rejects the offer, humiliating Killian in the process. Sometime after this encounter, Killian met Dr. Hansen and used her Extremis virus – an experimental regenerative treatment intended to allow recovery from crippling injuries – to heal his own disabilities. However, Extremis also gives the individual superhuman strength and allows him or her to generate heat. As it turns out, Killian is working for the latest threat to strike into the heart of American intelligence, a terrorist known as Mandarin. The latter has been responsible for a string of bombings that have left the intelligence agencies bewildered by any lack of forensic evidence. But Happy’s encounter with Killian’s major henchman, a former Army officer named Eric Savrin, in front of the Hollywood Chinese Theater leads him badly injured. And a very angry Tony issues a televised threat to capture the Mandarin. Former paramour Dr. Hansen appears at Stark’s Malibu home to warn him about Killian and the Mandarin, but the latter orders Savrin to lead an attack on the house. Tony, Pepper and Dr. Hansen all survive. But the house is destroyed and Tony is forced to disappear to somewhere in Tennessee and discover a way to defeat the Mandarin.

I was surprised to learn that Jon Favreau did not return as director for this third IRON MAN movie. Although “IRON MAN 2” proved to be a box office hit, many critics and moviegoers claimed that it was not as good as the first movie,“IRON MAN”. It was not an opinion that I shared, but . . . it was an opinion that led Marvel Studios to ask Favreau to step down as director of “IRON MAN 3”. Star Robert Downey Jr. suggested that the studio hire Shane Black to direct this third film. Downey Jr. and Black had first worked with each other in the 2005 comedy, “KISS KISS BANG BANG”. Did changing directors help the IRON MAN franchise? I do not think so. I am not saying that “IRON MAN 3” was a bad movie. I thought it was far from bad. But a change in directors did not improve the franchise. It was a change that I believe was unnecessary in the first place. However . . . I still enjoyed this third film very much.

One of the best things I could say about “”IRON MAN 3” is that it presented Tony with a very formidable opponent. The Mandarin proved to be not only scary, but very intelligent. The attack on Tony’s Malibu home was mind boggling. But the manner in which the Mandarin managed to track Tony down to a small Tennessee town and steal the War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot) armor by tricking American intelligence and the military regarding his location, and luring James Rhodes (aka War Machine) into a trap struck me as pretty flawless. And in using the Hansen/Killian Extremis virus on disabled military veterans, the Mandarin managed to create a formidable private army. There were other aspects of Black and Drew Pearce’s screenplay that I found very appealing. Although I had no problems with the Pepper Potts character in the previous two movies, I enjoyed the fact that Black and Pearce really put her through the wringer in this one – dealing with Tony’s panic attacks, surviving the Malibu house attack, and becoming a prisoner. Pepper’s ordeals finally paid off when she played a major role in defeating the Mandarin. Although Rhodey had a small presence in the movie’s first half, his presence increased tenfold in the second half. And like Pepper, he played a major role in the Mandarin’s defeat that I personally found very satisfying.

The movie also featured some top-notch action sequences. For me, the second best of them all was the Mandarin’s attack on Tony’s Malibu house. But there were other sequences that I found impressive; including Happy’s encounter with Eric Savrin and another benefactor of the Extremis virus in Hollywood, Tony’s encounter with Savrin and Extremis muscle Ellen Brandt in Tennessee, and the final battle on an oil rig. Mind you, the latter was not perfect, but Pepper and Rhodey’s actions in this sequence made it memorable for me. If the Malibu house attack was my second favorite action sequence, my favorite turned out to be Iron Man’s encounter with Savrin aboard Air Force One and his rescue of the President’s personnel following the plane’s destruction. The use of free fall in Iron Man’s rescue of the Presidential passengers really blew my mind.

There were some complaints that Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be going through the motions in his portrayal of Tony Stark in this film. I cannot say that I agree with this opinion. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony seemed more sober or stressed out, due to the character’s inability to deal with the aftermath of the events in “THE AVENGERS”. Perhaps this is not a Tony Stark that fans and critics wanted to see. But I congratulate both Downey Jr., Black and Pearce for allowing audiences to see how Tony dealt with the aftermath of encountering invading aliens. I had been impressed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of a stressed out Pepper Potts in “IRON MAN 2”. Considering what she had endured in this movie, Paltrow pulled out the stops as she conveyed Pepper’s array of emotions from wariness to fear and finally to anger. Frankly, I feel this movie featured her best performance as Pepper. I noticed that Don Cheadle seemed a lot more relaxed in the role of Lieutenant-Colonel James Rhodes aka War Machine (re-named Iron Patriot). As I had earlier stated, his presence in the movie’s first half seemed rather minimal. But once the movie shifted toward Tony and the American government going after the Mandarin in Miami, his role became more prominent. Not only did Cheadle displayed his talent for comedy, but his James Rhodes proved to be just as much of a bad ass without his War Machine armor, as he was with it. Denied the director’s chair for this movie, the screenwriters gave Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan was allowed a bigger role in the story, when the injuries he suffered at Eric Savrin’s hands snapped Tony out of his lethargy to deal with the Mandarin. And Favreau gave a performance that I found both funny and poignant.

In one article I had read, Guy Pearce described his role in “IRON MAN 3” as merely a cameo. Frankly, I think he may have exaggerated a bit. Like Don Cheadle, Pearce’s presence in the movie’s first half seemed minimal. In fact, his presence as Aldrich Killian did not seem to fully develop until the movie’s last forty-five minutes or so. And his character slightly reminded me of the Dr. Curt Conners (the Lizard) character from last year’s “THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN”. But I must admit that Pearce did a great job of conveying the character’s development from a pathetic and desperate man eager to use science to heal his disabilities to a charming former acquaintance of Pepper’s and finally a truly scary and difficult-to-beat villain. I have never seen James Badge Dale portray a villain. But I have heard that he once portrayed a serial killer on two carryover episodes from “CSI: MIAMI” and “CSI: NEW YORK”. I need to see those episodes, but I found Badge Dale’s portrayal of henchman Eric Sevrin rather frightening and intimidating. Rebecca Hall portrayed Dr. Maya Hensen, the true creator of the Extremis virus, who found herself regretting her decision to work with Dr. Killian. Hall gave a sharp and witty performance, but I think her presence seemed pretty much wasted. William Sadler gave a solid performance as the President of the United States. Considering his talent, I do wish the script had allowed him to do more. I can say the same about Miguel Ferrer’s ambiguous portrayal of the Vice-President. I finally come to Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Many fans were upset over the changes that Black and Pearce made to the Mandarin character. I was not. I found their portrayal of the super villain amazing and mind boggling. And one has to thank Kingsley for giving what I feel was the most entertaining performance in the movie. In fact, I feel that the scene in which Tony meets the Mandarin for the first time is one of my favorite “hero-meets-villain” scenes of all time from any Marvel film. It is a scene I will always cherish.

I do have a few complaints about “IRON MAN 3”. I had already pointed out my slight disappointment at the limited manner in which the Maya Hensen character was utilized. Also, Tony’s trip to Tennessee seemed a bit offbeat to me. I did not need to watch his developing friendship with the kid Harley, which struck me as trite. And although I found some satisfaction in the oil rig sequence – especially in regard to Pepper and Rhodey’s action – I must admit that overall, it struck me as somewhat convoluted. It did not help that the entire sequence was shot at night. Between the night setting, Jeffrey Ford and Peter S. Elliot’s shaky editing and the numerous Iron Man droids, I almost found the sequence disappointing. Well, let me put it another way . . . I have seen better.

Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures are promoting this film as the best IRON MAN film ever. I cannot say that I agree. I feel it has a more complex story than the somewhat simplistic tale for “IRON MAN”. But it has a set of flaws that makes it difficult for me to declare it as “the best”. I guess “IRON MAN 2” is still my favorite. But I do believe that“IRON MAN 3” proved to be a very entertaining and exciting film. In the end, Shane Black did a top-notch job with the help of a decent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Robert Downey Jr.

“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

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“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called “The Wettest County in the World” back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant’s novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed “LAWLESS”, the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers – Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant – run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie’s arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers – including the Bondurants – give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes’ intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant – Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family’s shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes’ men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family’s moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

“LAWLESS” turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that “LAWLESS” had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie’s introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack’s role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, “LAWLESS” proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher Benoît Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg’s beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy’s production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson’s costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson’s costumes not only accurately reflect the movie’s period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes – including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie’s second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave’s introduction of the movie’s character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie’s overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected“LAWLESS” would end up as some dramatic version of “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD” with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. “LAWLESS” proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave’s script not only explored the Bondurants’ illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves – the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant’s character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009’s “PUBLIC ENEMIES”. He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie’s credits than Jessica Chastain.  I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant’s love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain’s, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants’ feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest’s attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman’s performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce’s over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce’s ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack’s best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County’s backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that “LAWLESS” is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character’s introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, “LAWLESS” still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the 2012 summer movie season.

“PROMETHEUS” (2012) Review

“PROMETHEUS” (2012) Review

When I first saw the trailer for director Ridley Scott’s new science-fiction thriller, “PROMETHEUS”, I had no desire to see it. For me, it looked like another “alien in the spaceship” thriller that I have ignored for years. But after some persistent urging from a relative of mine, I finally saw it in the theaters a few days ago. 

According to Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan and cultural hero who is believed to be responsible for the creation of man from clay. He also is also responsible for the theft of fire for human use, which enabled the latter to enjoy progress and civilization. Zeus punished Prometheus for the theft by sentencing the Tital to eternal torment. Zeus bounded Prometheus to rock, transformed to an eagle each day to feed on Prometheus’ liver. The latter would grow back and the eagle would feed on it again . . . day after day after day. What does this have to do with the movie, “PROMETHEUS”? Honestly, I do not know. I am not of the intellectual variety. Then again, I hear that Prometheus’ story is supposed to be a metaphor for human striving and quest for scientific knowledge, at the risk of unintended consequences. Hmmm. Now I understand why the filmmakers used this name.

Set in the late 21st century, “PROMETHEUS” is about the crew of the starship Prometheus that follows a star map discovered among the remnants of several ancient Earth cultures. Led to a distant world and an advanced civilization, the crew seeks the origins of humanity, but instead discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race. Although some members of the cast claim otherwise, it has been confirmed that “PROMETHEUS” was developed as far back as the early 2000s as a fifth entry in the ALIEN franchise, with both Scott and director James Cameron developing ideas for a film that would serve as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror film, “ALIEN”. The project remained dormant until 2009, when Scott again became interested. A script by Jon Spaihts served as a prequel to the events of the ALIEN movies. However, Scott chose a different direction for the movie, in order to avoid repeating the storylines of the past films. He recruited “LOST” producer/writer Damon Lindelof to co-write a new script with Spaihts. They created a story in which Scott claimed is not directly connected to the ALIENfranchise.

The movie began with a humanoid alien drinks a dark bubbling liquid, and then starts to disintegrate. As its bodily remains cascade into a waterfall, the alien’s DNA triggers a biogenetic reaction. The story jumps to the year 2089, when archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover a star map among several unconnected ancient cultures. The pair believes the maps are invitations from humanity’s creators or “Engineers”. Peter Weyland, the aging CEO of Weyland Corporation, funds the scientific vessel Prometheus to follow the map. The ship’s crew travels in stasis while the android David monitors their voyage, until they arrive at Moon LV-223. Mission director Meredith Vickers orders them to avoid making contact with any of the “Engineers” without her permission. The Prometheus lands near a large artificial structure, which a team explores. The expedition team manages to find an alien corpse and believe it to be an “Engineer”. Their expedition takes an ugly turn they discover that the “Engineers” and other life forms on the moon prove to be a lot more dangerous than they had imagined.

After my family and I watched the last reel of “PROMETHEUS”, the relative who had convinced me to see the movie leaned over and offered her apologies. She even offered to reimburse me for my movie ticket. Why? Because I discovered that my original reluctance to see the movie had been justified. I disliked “PROMETHEUS”. Wholeheartedly. It turned out to be the kind of the movie that I usually dislike. Not only did it turned out to be the typical science-fiction horror film that usually turned me off, I found the movie’s intellectual aspects of the plot pretentious and incomplete. Were there any aspects of “PROMETHEUS” that I liked? Well . . . the entire cast gave solid performances, aside from some questionable accents from at least two of the cast members. I cannot deny that Dariusz Wolski’s photography was breathtaking. Or that Pietro Scalia’s editing was first rate. And Ridley Scott did a great job in maintaining a steady pace for the movie, despite its 124 minutes running time. Other than that . . . there was nothing else about this film that impressed me.

I have few questions. Why did Elizabeth Shaw assume that the aliens who had created the star maps, were creators of mankind? How did she come to this conclusion? Because she had “faith”? Who was she supposed to be? A second-rate John Locke? Or a metaphor of the Titan Prometheus? And how did she come to the conclusion near the end of the movie that the “Engineers” were out to destroy mankind, after . . . uh, creating them? And what is it about this crew that they make such stupid mistakes that end up endangering them? A good example would be the geologist Fifield and the biologist Milburn, who lacked the good sense to run for their lives after spotting the snake-like alien. And could someone please explain how Shaw managed to walk and run around both Prometheus and the moon so soon after giving herself a brutal abortion to rid herself of her alien spawn? I have one last question. Why on earth would Elizabeth (the crew’s lone survivor) even bother traveling to the aliens’ homeworld at the end of the movie, now that she believes they are out to destroy humankind? Was it so important to her to learn about the aliens’ motives that she was willing to risk her life in such a stupid manner?

Moviegoers raved over Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David. I was too busy feeling confused about the character to consider any accolades for the actor. Exactly how are we supposed to regard David? As another Data from “STAR TREK NEXT GENERATION”? Or as one of the replicants from another Scott film, 1982’s “BLADE RUNNER”? At first, David seemed to be in thrall over human culture, Elizabeth Shaw and the moon in general. Yet, a reason that is never fully explained, he decided to spike Charlie Holloway’s (Elizabeth’s love interest and fellow archeologist) drink with a dark liquid he had found from one of the moon’s stone cylinders. Why did he do that? Again, the movie failed to explain. Some critics were also in thrall over Idris Elba’s performance as Prometheus’ chief pilot, Janek. I was too busy wincing at his attempt to re-create some kind of African-American accent. He had managed to do this successfully in the 2010 movie, “THE LOSERS”. What in the hell happened? As for Rafe Spall’s Southern accent . . . frankly my dear, it sucked.

I wish I could say that I liked “PROMETHEUS”. But if I did, I would be lying. I did not like it one bit. The movie tried to be some kind of profound tale that would leave many moviegoers asking questions. And in a way it did. But my questions about the movie only reinforced my disenchantment with it. What is really sad about “PROMETHEUS” is that it is the first Ridley Scott movie that has disappointed me since the 2001 movie, “BLACK HAWK DOWN”. Pity.

“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

When HBO first revealed its plans to air an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “Mildred Pierce”, many people had reacted in some very interesting ways. Some seemed thrilled by the idea of a new version of Cain’s story. But there were many who were not thrilled by the idea. And I suspect that this negative response had a lot to do with the first adaptation. 

Sixty-six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios had released its own adaptation of the novel. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie starred Joan Crawford in the title role and Ann Blyth as her older daughter, Veda. The movie received several Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress statuette for Crawford. Due to the film’s success and lasting popularity, many fans and critics viewed it as a definitive adaptation of one of Cain’s works. So, when they learned about HBO’s plans for a new version, many regarded the news with scorn. After all, how could any remake be just as good or superior to the classic Hollywood film?

Was “MILDRED PIERCE” as a miniseries just as good or better than the 1945 movie? I will give my opinion on that topic later. I will say that I truly enjoyed both versions. The miniseries benefited from Todd Haynes serving as the director, one of the producers and one of the writers. Oscar winning actress, Kate Winslet portrayed the title role. The miniseries also possessed a talented supporting cast that included Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, Brían F. O’Byrne, Mare Winningham, James Le Gros; along with Evan Rachel Wood (“TRUE BLOOD”) and Morgan Turner. And I cannot deny that I found the miniseries’ production designs first-rate, despite a few quibbles. But I have come across a good number of movies or television productions with everything in its favor that still failed to win me over in the end. Fortunately, “MILDRED PIERCE” did the opposite.

Todd Haynes had pointed out that his new miniseries would be more faithful to Cain’s novel than the 1945 movie. And he was good on his word. The biggest differences between the Michael Curtiz movie and Haynes’ new miniseries were the running times and the lack of a murder mystery in the miniseries. That is correct. Monty Beragon was never murdered in the novel and he certainly was not murdered in the new version. There were no flashbacks on Mildred’s life, following her divorce from her first (and third) husband, Bert Pierce. And I am grateful to Todd Haynes for sparing the viewers that nonsense and sticking closer to Cain’s plot. I believed that the murder plot unnecessarily dragged the Curtiz movie. And Haynes’ miniseries was long enough. Due to the lack of a murder mystery, the miniseries retained Cain’s slightly bleaker ending. Much to the dismay of many fans.

Since Haynes had decided to stick a little closer to the novel, the miniseries covered the story’s entire time span of 1931 to 1940. Which meant that “MILDRED PIERCE” gave viewers a bird’s eye view of the Depression’s impact upon Southern Californians like the Pierce family. Part One began in 1931 with Mildred preparing a pie to sell to one of her neighbors. Husband Bert has joined the ranks of the broke and unemployed, thanks to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the economic hijinks of his former business partner and friend, Wally Burgan. Bert seemed to spend most of his days engaged with chores like mowing the lawn or in an affair with a neighbor named Maggie Biderhof. Bert’s announcement that he might spend another afternoon and evening with Mrs. Biderhof proves to be the last straw for Mildred. The couple have a heated quarrel that ends with Bert’s departure from the family and eventually, a divorce.

Mildred realizes that she needs a steady income to support their two daughters, Veda and Ray. Unfortunately, Veda lacks any experience for a position outside of customer service. And being enamored of her upper-middle-class status, the idea of being a waitress, maid or housekeeper is abhorrent to Mildred. She also knows that such professions are abhorrent to her pretentious and class-conscious daughter, Veda. After rejecting jobs as housemaid to the future wife of a Hollywood director and waitress at a tea parlor, the realities of the Depression finally leads a desperate Mildred to take a job as waitress at a Hollywood diner. Unfortunately, Veda learns about the new job, which leads mother and daughter to their first major quarrel and Mildred’s decision to make plans to open a restaurant. The quarrel also marked the real beginning of what proved to be the story’s backbone – namely Mildred and Veda’s tumultuous relationship.

As much as I admire “MILDRED PIERCE”, it does have its flaws. I would view some of them as minor. But I consider at least one or two of them as major. One of the small problems proved to be Haynes’ decision to shoot the miniseries in New York, instead of Southern California. Aside from Mildred’s Glendale neighborhood, most of the locations in the miniseries do not scream “Southern California” – including the beach locations. The director claimed that he had chosen the area around New York City, because it was more cost-efficient than shooting around Los Angeles. He also claimed that it would be difficult to find “Old L.A.” within the city today. Speaking as an Angeleno who has spent many weekends driving around the city, I found these excuses hard to swallow. Los Angeles and many other Southern California neighborhoods have plenty of locations that could have been used for the production. And could someone explain how filming around New York was cheaper than Los Angeles?

“MILDRED PIERCE” has received charges of slow pacing and an unnecessarily long running time. I have nothing against“MILDRED PIERCE” being shown in a miniseries format. But I have two quibbles regarding the pacing. One, the sequence featuring Mildred’s job hunt dragged unnecessarily long. Haynes filled this segment with many long and silent shots of a pensive Mildred staring into the distant or dragging her body along the streets of Glendale and Los Angeles. I am aware that Haynes was trying to convey some kind of message with these shots. Unfortunately, I am not intellectually inclined and the sequence merely ignited my impatience. On the other hand, the speed in which Haynes continued Mildred’s story in Episode Three left my head spinning. Aside from the sequence featuring the opening of Mildred’s first restaurant, I felt that the episode moved a bit too fast . . . especially since so much happened to Mildred during the two to three year time span. I would have preferred if Episode Three had a running time of slightly over an hour – like Episodes Four and Five.

Complaints aside, this “MILDRED PIERCE” struck me as truly first-rate. As much as I had enjoyed the 1945 movie, I thank God that Todd Haynes did not add that ludicrous murder mystery into the plot. Cain’s novel was not about Veda getting her comeuppance for being an ungrateful daughter to a hard-working mother. The story was about a resilient woman, who was also plagued by her personal flaws – which she refused to overcome, let alone acknowledge. Some viewers and critics have expressed confusion over Mildred’s continuing obsession over her older daughter. Others have deliberately blinded themselves from Mildred’s flaws and dumped all of the blame for her downfall entirely upon the heads of others – especially Veda. But there have been viewers and critics who managed to understand and appreciate the miniseries’ portrayal of Mildred. I certainly did.

I have never understood the complaints that “MILDRED PIERCE” had failed to explain Mildred’s unwavering obsession over Veda. I thought that Haynes perfectly revealed the reasons behind her obsession. First of all, he revealed those traits that both mother and daughter shared in numerous scenes – aspirations for entry into the upper-class, desire for wealth, snobbery, and a talent for manipulating others. Mildred’s refusal to consider those jobs at a tea parlor and as the pretentious Mrs. Forrester’s maid struck me as signs of her ego blinding her from the precarious state of her family’s financial situation. And when she finally caved in to becoming a waitress at a Hollywood diner, Mildred considered quitting, because her sensibilities (or ego) could not fathom working in such a profession. Her contempt toward others suffering from the Depression after the successful opening of her Glendale restaurant was expressed in a scene with upper-class playboy Monty Beragon. Episode Five revealed her manipulation of Monty into marrying her . . . in order to lure Veda back to her seemed pretty obvious. But one scene not only revealed the core of Mildred’s character, but also the miniseries’ theme. While despairing over her decision to become a waitress at the end of Episode One, Mildred said this to neighbor Lucy Gessler:

“She (Veda) has something in her that I thought I had and now I find I don’t. Pride or nobility or whatever it is. For both my girls, I want them to have all the cake in the world.”

Judging from Mildred’s comments, it was not difficult for me to see that she viewed Veda as an extension of herself and in some degrees, better. I believe that the quote also hinted Mildred’s personal insecurities about living among the upper-class. This insecurity was revealed in a scene from Episode Three in which Mildred appeared at a polo field in Pasadena to pick up Veda, who was bidding her “babysitter” Monty good-bye. So, this argument that Haynes had failed to explain Mildred’s enabling behavior toward Veda simply does not ring true with me.

Despite my complaint about Haynes’ decision to shoot “MILDRED PIERCE” in New York, I must admit that I found myself impressed by Mark Friedberg’s production designs. The miniseries’ setting did not have a Southern California feel to me, but Friedberg certainly did an excellent job of re-creating the 1930s. He was ably supported by Peter Rogness’ art designs and Ellen Christiansen’s set decorations. But aside from Friedberg’s work, the biggest contribution to the miniseries’ Thirties look came from Ann Roth’s costume designs. Not only did she provide the right costumes for the years between 1931 and 1940, she also ensured that the costumes would adhere to the characters’ social positions and personalities. For example, both Roth and Haynes wisely insisted that Kate Winslet wear the same dowdy, brown print dress during Mildred’s job hunt in Episode One. One last person whom I believe contributed to the miniseries’ look and style was cinematographer Edward Lachman. If I must be honest, I was more impressed by Lachman’s photography of various intimate scenes reflecting the characters’ emotions or situations than any panoramic shot he had made. I was especially impressed by Lachman’s work in Episode One’s last scene and the Episode Five sequence featuring Veda’s betrayal of Mildred.

Along with Todd Haynes’ direction, it was the cast led by the uber-talented Kate Winslet that truly made “MILDRED PIERCE” memorable. First of all, the miniseries featured brief appearances from the likes of Richard Easton and Ronald Guttman, who each gave a colorful performance as Veda’s music teachers during different periods in the story. Hope Davis was deliciously haughty as the Los Angeles socialite-turned-movie producer’s wife with whom Mildred has two unpleasant encounters. In the 1945 movie, Eve Arden portrayed the character of Ida Corwin, which was a blend of two characters from Cain’s novel – Mildred’s neighbor Lucy Gessler and her diner co-worker Ida Corwin. The recent miniseries included both characters into the production. Fresh on the heels of her Oscar win, Melissa Leo gave an engaging performance as Mildred’s cheerful and wise friend/neighbor, Lucy Gessler, who provided plenty of advice on the former’s personal life. Aside from a two-episode appearance in the last season of “24”, I have not seen Mare Winningham in quite a while. It was good to see her portray Mildred’s blunt and business-savy friend and colleague, Ida Corwin.

At least three actors portrayed the men in Mildred’s life – James LeGros, Brían F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce. Although his sense of humor was not as sharp as Jack Carson’s in 1945, I must admit that LeGros managed to provide some memorably humrous moments as Wally Burgan, Mildred’s business adviser and temporary lover. Two of my favorite Wally moments turned out to be his reaction to the news of Mildred’s breakup from her husband and to the revelation of her romance with Monty Beragon. Brían F. O’Byrne earned an Emmy nomination as Mildred’s ex-husband, Bert Pierce. What I admired by O’Byrne’s performance was the gradual ease in which he transformed Bert’s character from a self-involved philanderer to a supportive mate by the end of the series. But the most remarkable performance came from Guy Pearce, who won a well-deserved Emmy for his performance as Monty Beragon, Mildred’s Pasadena playboy lover and later, second husband. Thankfully, Pearce managed to avoid portraying Monty as some one-note villain and instead, captured both the good and the bad of his character’s nuance – Monty’s friendly nature, his condescension toward Mildred’s class status, his seductive skills that kept her satisfied for nearly two years, his occasional bouts of rudeness and the hurt-filled realization that Mildred had used him to win back Veda.

Two remarkable young actresses portrayed Veda Pierce, the heroine’s monstrous and talented older daughter. Morgan Turner portrayed Veda from age eleven to thirteen and I must say that she did a first-rate job. In the first three episodes, Turner convincingly developed Veda from a pretentious, yet still bearable eleven year-old to an ambitious girl in her early teens who has developed a deep contempt toward her mother. My only problem with Turner’s performance were the few moments when her Veda seemed too much like an adult in a child’s body. Evan Rachel Wood benefited from portraying Veda between the ages of 17 and 20. Therefore, her performance never struck me as slightly odd. However, she miss the opportunity to portray the development of Veda’s monstrous personality. But that lost opportunity did not take away Wood’s superb performance. Despite the awfulness of Veda’s character, I must hand it to the young actress for injecting some semblance of ambiguity. Aside from portraying Veda’s monstrous personality, Wood did an excellent job of conveying Veda’s frustration with Mildred’s overbearing love and the end of her own ambitions as a concert pianist.

I have been a fan of Kate Winslet since I first saw her in 1995’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. There have been and still are many talented actors and actresses with the ability to portray multifaceted characters. But I believe that Winselt is one of the few who are able to achieve this with great subtlety. Her portrayal of Glendale housewife-turned-entrepreneur Mildred Pierce is a prize example of her talent for acting in complex and ambiguous roles. Superficially, her Mildred Pierce was a long-suffering and hard-working woman, who overcame a failed marriage to become a successful entrepreneur . . . all for the love of her two daughters. Winslet not only portrayed these aspects of Mildred’s character with great skill, but also conveyed the character’s darker aspects, which I had already listed in this article. She more than earned that Emmy award for Best Actress in a Miniseries.

Although many have expressed admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE”, these same fans and critics seemed to have done so with a good deal of reluctance or complaints. I will be the first to admit that the miniseries has its flaws. But I do not find them excessive. This reluctance to express full admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE” culminated in its loss for the Best Miniseries Emmy to the British import, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had objected to this loss on the grounds that the British drama – a television series – was nominated in the wrong category; and that I believe “MILDRED PIERCE” was slightly superior.

Flawed or not, I believe that Todd Haynes did a superb job in adapting James M. Cain’s novel. He wisely adhered to the literary source as close as possible, allowing viewers a more complex and ambiguous look into the Mildred Pierce character. Also, Haynes had a first-rate cast led by the incomparable Kate Winslet. As much as I love the 1945 movie, I must admit that this recent miniseries turned out to be a superior production. My admiration for Todd Haynes as a filmmaker has been solidified.