“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

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“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

I have been a fan of period dramas for a long time. A very long time. This is only natural, considering that I am also a history buff. One of the topics that I love to explore is the U.S. Civil War. When you combined that topic in a period drama, naturally I am bound to get excited over that particular movie or television production. 

I have seen a good number of television and movie productions about the United States’ Antebellum period and the Civil War. One of those productions is “BAND OF ANGEL”, an adaptation of Robert Warren Penn’s 1955 novel set during the last year of the Antebellum period and the first two years of the Civil War.

The story begins around 1850. The privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner named Amantha Starr overhears one house slave make insinuations about her background to another slave. Before Amantha (or “Manthy”) could learn more details, she discovers that Mr. Starr had the offending slave sold from the family plantation, Starwood. He also enrolls her in a school for privileged girls in Cinncinati. A decade later in 1860, Amantha’s father dies. When she returns to Starwood, Amantha discovers that Mr. Starr had been in debt. Worse, she discovers that her mother had been one of his slaves, making her a slave of mixed blood. Amantha and many other Starwood slaves are collected by a slave trader and conveyed by steamboat to New Orleans for the city’s slave mart.

Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Amantha comes dangerously close to be purchased by a coarse and lecherous buyer. However, she is rescued by a Northern-born planter and slave owner named Hamish Bond, and becomes part of his household as his personal mistress. She also becomes acquainted with Bond’s other house slaves – his right-hand-man named Rau-Ru, his housekeeper and former mistress Michele and Dollie, who serves as her personal maid. Although Amantha initially resents her role as a slave and Bond’s role as her owner, she eventually falls in love with him and he with her. But the outbreak of the Civil War and a long buried secret of Bond’s threaten their future.

Many critics and film fans have compared “BAND OF ANGELS” to the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Frankly, I never understood the comparison. Aside from the setting – late Antebellum period and the Civil War, along with Clark Gable as the leading man, the two films really have nothing in common. “GONE WITH THE WIND” is a near four-hour epic that romanticized a period in time. Although “BAND OF ANGELS” have its moments of romanticism, its portrayal of the Old South and the Civil War is a bit more complicated . . . ambiguous. Also, I would never compare Scarlett O’Hara with Amantha Starr. Both are daughters of Southern plantation owners. But one is obviously a member of the Southern privileged class, while the other is the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of a planter and his slave mistress. Also, Gable’s character in “BAND OF ANGELS” is a Northern-born sea captain, who became a planter; not a semi-disgraced scion of an old Southern family.

Considering the political ambiguity of “BAND OF ANGELS”, I suppose I should be more impressed with it. Thanks to Warren’s novel, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay and Raoul Walsh’s direction; the movie attempted to provide audiences with a darker view of American slavery and racism. For instance, Amantha’s journey from Kentucky to Louisiana as a slave proved to be a harrowing one, as she deals with a slave trader with plans to rape her, a traumatic experience at the New Orleans slave mart, Bond’s lustful neighbor Charles de Marigny and her attempts to keep her African-American ancestry a secret from a Northern beau later in the film. The film also touches on Rau-ru’s point of view in regard to slavery and racism. Despite being educated and treated well by Hamish Bond; Rau-ru, quite rightly, is resentful of being stuck in the role of what he views as a cosseted pet. Rau-ru also experiences the ugly racism of planters like de Marigny and slave catchers; and Northerners like some of the Union officers and troops that occupied New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the movie’s last half hour. I also noticed that the movie did not hesitate to expose the ugliness of the slave trade and the system itself, and the fate of a great number of slaves who found themselves being forced by Union forces to continue toiling on the cotton and sugar plantations on behalf of the North.

There are other aspects of the movie that I found admirable. Not all of “BAND OF ANGELS” was shot at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A good of the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. I have to give credit to cinematographer Lucien Ballard for doing an exceptional job for the film’s sharp and vibrant color, even if the film lacked any real memorable or iconic shot. If I must be honest, I can say the same about Max Steiner’s score. However, I can admit that Steiner’s score blended well with the movie’s narrative. Marjorie Best, who had received Oscar nominations for her work in movies like “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”and “GIANT”, served as the movie’s costume designer. I was somewhat impressed by her designs, especially for the male characters, ironically enough. However, I had a problem with her costumes for Yvonne De Carlo. Nearly every dress that the Amantha Starr character possessed featured a low cut neckline that emphasized her cleavage. Even her day dresses. Really?

After reading a few reviews about “BAND OF ANGELS”, I noticed that some movie fans and critics were not that impressed by the film’s performances. I have mixed feelings about them. Clark Gable seemed to be phoning it in most of the film. But there were a few scenes that made it easy to see why he not only became a star, but earned an Academy Award as well. This was apparent in two scene in which the Hamish Bond character recalled the enthusiasm and excitement of his past as a sea captain and in another in which he revealed the “more shameful” aspects of his past. At age 34 or 35, I believe Yvonne De Carlo was too old for the role of Amantha Starr, who was barely into her twenties in the story. Some would say that the role could have benefited being portrayed by a biracial actress and not a white one. Perhaps. But despite the age disparity, I still thought De Carlo gave a very strong performance as the passionate and naive Amantha, who suddenly found her life turned upside down. Ironically, I thought her scenes with Sidney Poitier seemed to generate more chemistry than her ones with Gable. Speaking of Poitier . . . I might as well say it. He gave the best performance in the movie.  His Rau-ru bridled with a varying degree of emotions when the scene called for it. And the same time, one could easily see that he was well on his way in becoming the Hollywood icon that Gable already was at the time.

There were other performances in “BAND OF ANGELS”, but very few seemed that memorable. The movie featured solid performances from Rex Reason, who portrayed Amantha’s Northern-born object of her earlier infatuation Seth Parson; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who not only portrayed Amantha’s later suitor Union officer Lieutenant Ethan Sears, but was already on the road as a television star; Carroll Drake, who portrayed Hamish Bond’s introverted and observant housekeeper Michele; Andrea King, who portrayed Amantha’s hypocritical former schoolmistress Miss Idell; William Schallert, who had a brief, but memorable role as a bigoted Union Army officer; and Torin Thatcher, who portrayed Bond’s fellow sea captain and friend Captain Canavan. Many critics had accused Patric Knowles of bad acting. Frankly, I found his performance as Bond’s neighbor and fellow planter Charles de Marigny effectively slimy . . . in a subtle way. Ray Teal was equally effective as the slimy and voracious slave trader Mr. Calloway, who conveyed Amantha to the slave marts of New Orleans. The only performance that hit a sour note from me came from Tommie Moore, who portrayed one of Bond’s house maids, the loud and verbose Dollie. Every time she opened her mouth I could not help but wince at her over-the-top and if I may say so, cliched performance as Dollie. I think I could have endured two hours in the company of Prissy and Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from “GONE WITH THE WIND” than five minutes in Dollie’s company. I guess I could have blamed the actress herself. But a part of me suspect that the real perputrators were screenwriter and director Raoul Walsh.

I wish that was all I had to say about “BAND OF ANGELS”. I really do. But . . . despite the movie’s portrayal of the ugliness of slavery and racism, it ended up undermining its attempt. Quite frankly, I found “BAND OF ANGELS” to be a very patronizing movie – especially in regard to race. And the figure of this patronizing was centered around the character of Hamish Bond. Someone once complained that although the movie initially seemed to revolve around Amantha Starr, in the end it was all about Bond. I do not know if I could fully agree with this, but I found it disturbing that the character “growths” of both Amantha and Rau-ru revolved around Bond and their opinion of him.

One aspect of “BAND OF ANGELS” that I found particularly bizarre was Amantha’s opinion of Hamish Bond’s connection to slavery. At first, she simply resented him for being her owner. But she eventually fell in love with him and opened herself to being his mistress. Amantha certainly had no problems with that ridiculous scene featuring Bond’s field slaves lined up near the river side to welcome him back to his plantation with choral singing. Really? This was probably the most patronizing scene in the movie. Yet, when Amantha discovered that his past as a sea captain involved his participation in the Atlantic slave trade, she reacted with horror and left him. Let me see if I understand this correctly. Once she was in love with Bond, she had no problems with being his slave mistress or his role as a slave owner. Yet, she found his participation in the slave trade to be so awful that she . . . left him? Slave owner or slave trader, Hamish Bond exploited the bodies of black men and women. Why was being a slave trader worse than being a slave owner? Not only do I find this attitude hypocritical, I also noticed that it permeated in a good deal of other old Hollywood films set in the Antebellum era. Even more disturbing is that after becoming romantic with an Union officer named Ethan Sears, Amantha has a brief reunion with her former object of desire, Seth Parsons. He reveals that knows about her mother’s ancestry and her role as Bond’s mistress; and tries to blackmail her into becoming his. In other words, Seth’s knowledge of her racial background and her history with Bond leads Amantha to run back into the arms of Bond. And quite frankly, this makes no sense to me. Why would Seth’s attempt to blackmail lead Amantha to forgive Bond for his past as a slave trader? The movie never really made this clear.

I found the interactions between Rau-ru and Hamish Bond even more ridiculous and patronizing. Rau-ru is introduced as Bond’s major-domo/private secretary, who also happens to be a slave. Despite receiving education from Bond and a high position within the latter’s household, Rau-ru not only resents Bond, but despises him. And you know what? I can understand why. I noticed that despite all of these advantages given to Rau-ru, Bond refuses to give him his freedom. Worse, Bond treats Rau-ru as a pet. Think I am joking? I still cannot think of the scene in which Bond’s friend, Captain Canavan, visited and demanded that Rau-ru entertain him with a song without any protest from Bond without wincing. This scene was really vomit inducing. What made the situation between Rau-ru and Bond even worse is that the former made an abrupt about face about his former master during the war . . . all because the latter had revealed how he saved Rau-ru’s life during a slave raid in Africa and – get this – some bigoted Union Army officer tried to cheat Rau-ru from a reward for capturing Bond. The former sea captain/planter ended up leaving his estate to Rau-ru in a will. How nice . . . but I suspect he did so after Amantha left him. If not, my mistake. And why did Bond failed to give Rau-ru his freedom before the outbreak of war? Instead, Rau-ru was forced to flee to freedom after saving Amantha from being raped by Charles de Marigny. In Robert Warren’s novel, Rau-ru eventually killed Bond. Pity this did not happen in the movie.

Overall, I see that my feelings for “BAND OF ANGELS” is mixed. There are some aspects of the movie that I found admirable. I might as well admit it. The movie especially benefited from Lucien Ballard’s colorful photography, an interesting first act and an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier. Otherwise, I can honestly say that “BAND OF ANGELS” focused too much on the Hamish Bond character and was a bit too patronizing on the subject of race and slavery for me to truly enjoy it.

“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes Five to Eight

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES FIVE TO EIGHT

Within the past year, I had developed a major interest in author Winston Graham’s 1945-2002 “POLDARK” literary saga and the two television adaptations of it. Series One of the second adaptation produced by Debbie Horsfield, premiered on the BBC (in Great Britain) and PBS (in the United States) last year. Consisting of eight episodes, Series One of “POLDARK” was an adaptation of 1945’s “Ross Poldark – A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Whereas Episodes One to Four adapted the 1945 novel, Episodes Five to Eight adapted the 1946 novel. 

Episode Four left off with the death of Ross Poldark’s uncle, Charles; leaving Trenwith, the family’s premiere estate, in the hands of his cousin Francis. Ross’ former kitchen maid and new bride, Demelza Carne Poldark, formed a friendship with Francis’ sister Verity and accompanied Ross to a rather tense Christmas celebration at Trenwith, which was further marred by an unexpected appearance of the noveau-riche Warleggan family and friends. Ross also learned that copper had been discovered inside his mine and that Demelza had become pregnant with their first child.

Episode Five began several months later with the arrival of a traveling theater company that includes a young actress named Keren, who attracts the attention of miner Mark Daniels. The episode also marked the arrival of two other players – Dwight Enys, a former British Army officer and doctor, who happens to be a former comrade of Ross’; and young Julia Poldark, whose birth interrupted her parents’ enjoyment of the traveling theater company’s performance. The four episodes featured a good number of events and changes in Ross Poldark’s life. Julia’s birth led to a riotous christening in which he and Demelza had to deal with unexpected guests. Francis lost his fortune and his mine to George Warleggan’s cousin Matthew Sanson at a gaming party. Ross learned that his former employee Jim Carter was seriously ill at the Bodomin Jail and tried to rescue the latter with Dwight Enys’ help. The tragic consequences of their attempt led to Ross’ ill nature at the Warleggan’s ball. Dwight drifted into an affair with Keren Daniels, with tragic results.

Ross and several other mine owners created the Carnmore Copper Company in an effort to break the Warleggans’ stranglehold on the mineral smelting business, while Demelza plotted to resurrect her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark’s romance with Captain Andrew Blamey. The success of her efforts led to an estrangement between Ross and Frances. Demelza’s matchmaking also led to financial disaster for her husband’s new business venture. A Putrid’s Throat epidemic struck the neighborhood, affecting Francis, Elizabeth and their son Geoffrey Charles. Not long after Demelza had nursed them back to health, both she and Julia were stricken by disease. The season ended with a series of tragic and tumultuous events. Although Demelza recovered, Julia succumbed to Putrid’s Throat. The Warleggans’ merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Poldark land and Ross alerted locals like Jud and Prudie Paynter to salvage any goods that wash up on the shore. This “salvaging” led to violence between those on Poldark lands and neighboring miners and later, both against local military troops. One of the victims of the shipwreck turned out to be the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson. After Ross insulted Sanson’s death in George Warleggan’s face, the season ended with the latter arranging for Ross’ arrest for inciting the riot.

I must admit that I liked these next four episodes a bit more than I did the first quartet. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed those first episodes very much. But Episodes Five to Eight not only deepened the saga – naturally, considering a they were continuation of the first four – but also expanded the world of Ross Poldark.

One of the aspects of Series One’s second half that caught both my attention and my admiration was the production’s continuing portrayal of Britain’s declining economic situation during the late 18th century . . . especially for the working class. Both Episodes Five and Seven featured brief scenes that conveyed this situation. In Episode Five; Ross, Demelza and Verity encounter a starving family on the road to Turo, begging for food or money. A second brief scene in Episode Seven featured Demelza baking bread and later, dispersing it to the neighborhood’s starving poor. However, the series also featured bigger scenes that really drove home the dire economic situation. Upon reaching Truro in Episode Five, both Demelza and Verity witnessed a riot that broke out between working-class locals and the militia when the former tried to access the grain stored inside Matthew Sanson’s warehouse. I found the sequence well shot by director William McGregor. The latter also did an excellent job in the sequence that featured locals like the Paynters ransacking much needed food and other goods that washed ashore from the Warleggans’ wrecked ship. I was especially impressed by how the entire sequence segued from Ross wallowing in a state of grief over his daughter’s death before spotting the shipwreck to the militia’s violent attempt to put down the riot that had developed between the tenants and miners on Ross’ land and locals from other community.

Even the upper-classes have felt the pinch of economic decline, due to the closing and loses of mines across the region and being in debt to bankers like the Warleggans. Following the discovery of copper inside his family’s mine in Episode Four, Ross seemed destined to avoid such destitution. Not only was he able to afford a new gown and jewels for Demelza to wear at the Warleggan ball in Episode Six, he used his profits from the mine to create a smelting company – the Carnmore Copper Company – with the assistance of other shareholders in an effort to break the Warleggans’ monopoly on the local mining industry. One cannot say the same for his cousin Francis, who continued to skirt on the edge of debt, following his father’s death. Unfortunately, Francis wasted a good deal of his money on gambling and presents for the local prostitute named Margaret. In a scene that was not in the novel, but I found both enjoyable and very effective, he lost both his remaining fortune and his mine, Wheal Grambler, to the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, at a gaming party. But this was not the end of the sequence. Thanks to director William McGregor and Horsfield’s script. The sequence became even more fascinating once the Poldarks at Trenwith learned of Francis’ loss, especially Elizabeth. And it ended on a dramatic level with Francis being forced to officially close Wheal Grambler in front a crowd. I realize the sequence was not featured in Graham’s novel, but if I must be honest; I thought Horsfield’s changes really added a good deal of drama to this turn of events. Not only did McGregor shot this sequence rather well, I really have to give kudos to Kyle Soller, who did an excellent job in portraying Francis at his nadir in this situation; and Heida Reed, who did such a superb job conveying the end of Elizabeth’s patience with her wayward husband with a slight change in voice tone, body language and expression.

I was also impressed by other scenes in Series One’s second half. The christening for Ross and Demelza’s new daughter, Julia, provided some rather hilarious moments as their upper-crust neighbors met Demelza’s religious fanatic of a father and stepmother. Thanks to Harriet Ballard and Mark Frost’s performances, I especially enjoyed the confrontation between the snobbish Ruth Treneglos and the blunt Mark Carne. It was a blast. Ross and Dwight’s ill-fated rescue of a seriously ill Jim Carter from the Bodmin Jail was filled with both tension and tragedy. Tension also marked the tone in one scene which one of the Warleggans’ minions become aware of the newly formed Carnmore Copper Company during a bidding session. Another scene that caught my interest featured George Warleggan’s successful attempt at manipulating a very angry Francis into revealing the names of shareholders in Ross’ new cooperative . . . especially after the latter learned about his sister Verity’s elopement with Andrew Blamey. Both Soller and Jack Farthing gave excellent and subtle performances in this scene. Once again, McGregor displayed a talent for directing large scenes in his handling of the sequence that featured the wreck of the Warleggans’ ship, the Queen Charlotte, and both the looting and riot on the beach that followed. Series One ended on a dismal note with Ross and Demelza dealing with the aftermath of young Julia’s death and Ross’ arrest by the militia for leading the beach riot. Although I found the latter scene a bit of a throwaway, I was impressed by the scene featuring a grieving Ross and Demelza, thanks to the excellent performances from series leads, Aidan Turner and Elinor Tomlinson.

If there is one sequence that I really enjoyed in Series One of “POLDARK”, it was the Warleggan ball featured in Episode Six. Ironically, not many people enjoyed it. They seemed put out by Ross’ boorish behavior. I enjoyed it. Ross seemed in danger of becoming a Gary Stu by this point. I thought it was time that audiences saw how unpleasant he can be. And Turner did such an excellent job in conveying that aspect of Ross’ personality. He also got the chance to verbally cross swords with Robin Ellis’ Reverend Dr. Halse for the second time. Frankly, it was one of the most enjoyable moments in the series, so far. Both Turner and Ellis really should consider doing another project together. The segment ended with not only an argument between Ross and Demelza that I found enjoyable, but also a rather tense card game between “our hero” and the Warleggans’ cousin Matthew Sanson that seemed enriched by performances from both Turner and Jason Thorpe.

I wish I had nothing further to say about Episodes to Eight of Series One. I really do. But . . . well, the episodes featured a good number of things to complain about. One, there were two sequences in which Horsfield and McGregor tried to utilize two scenes by showing them simultaneously. Episode Seven featured a segment in which both Demelza and Elizabeth tried to prevent a quarrel between two men in separate scenes – at the same time. And Episode Eight featured a segment in which both Ross and Demelza tried to explain the circumstances of their financial downfall (the destruction of the Carnmore Copper Company and Verity Poldark’s elopement) to each other via flashbacks . . . and at the same time. Either Horsfield was trying to be artistic or economic with the running time she had available. I do not know. However, I do feel that both sequences were clumsily handled and I hope that no such narrative device will be utilized in Series Two.

I have another minor quibble and it has to do with makeup for both Eleanor Tomlinson and Heida Reed. In Episode Eight, the characters for both actresses – Demelza Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark – had been stricken by Putrid’s Throat. Both characters came within an inch of death. Yet . . . for the likes of me, I found the production’s different handling of the makeup for both women upon their recovery from Putrid’s Throat rather odd. Whereas Elizabeth looked as if she had recently recovered from a serious illness or death (extreme paleness and dark circles under the eyes), the slight reddish tints on Demelza’s face made her looked as if she had recently recovered from a cold. Winston Graham’s portrayal of Demelza has always struck me as a bit too idealized. In fact, she tends to come off as a borderline Mary Sue. And both the 1970s series and this recent production are just as guilty in their handling of Demelza’s character. But this determination to make Demelza look beautiful – even while recovering from a near fatal illness – strikes me as completely ridiculous.

If there is one aspect of this second group of Series One’s episodes that really troubled me, it was the portrayal of traveling actress Keren Smith Daniels and her affair with Dr. Dwight Enys. After viewing Debbie Horsfield’s portrayal of the Keren Daniels character, I found myself wondering it Debbie Horsfield harbored some kind of whore/Madonna mentality. Why on earth did she portray Keren in such an unflattering and one-dimensional manner? Instead of delving into Keren’s unsatisfaction as Mark Daniels’ wife and treating her as a complex woman, Horsfield ended up portraying her as some one-dimensional hussy/adultress who saw Dwight as a stepping stone up the social ladder. Only in the final seconds of Keren’s death was actress Sabrina Barlett able to convey the character’s frustration with her life as a miner’s wife. Worse, Horsfield changed the nature of Keren’s death, by having Mark accidentally squeeze her to death during an altercation, instead of deliberately murdering her. Many had accused Horsfield of portraing Keren in this manner in order to justify Mark’s killing of her, along with Ross and Demelza’s decision to help him evade the law. Frankly, I agree. I find it distasteful that the portrayal of a character – especially a female character – was compromised to enrich the heroic image of the two leads – especially the leading man. Will this be the only instance of a supporting character being compromised for the sake of the leading character? Or was Horsfield’s portrayal of Keren Daniels the first of such other unnecessary changes to come?

Despite my disppointment with the portrayal of the Keren Daniels character and her affair with Dwigh Enys and a few other aspects of the production, I had no problems with Episode Five to Eight of Series One for “POLDARK”. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the first four episodes. With the adaptation of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” complete, I am curious to see how Debbie Horsfield and her production staff handle the adaptation of Winston Graham’s next two novels in his literary series.

Banoffee Pie

Below is an article about the English dessert known as Banoffee Pie

BANOFFEE PIE

While watching an episode of the British television series, “THE SUPERSIZERS . . .”, one particular dish caught my attention for the first time – namely a dish called Banoffee Pie. The latter is a dessert pie made from bananas, cream and toffee from boiled condensed milk. The mixture is placed on either on a pastry base or one made from crumbled biscuits and butter. Some versions of the recipe also include chocolate, coffee or both. The name of the dessert is a construct from the words “banana” and “toffee” and is spelled “banofee”.

The creation of Banoffee Pie is credited to Nigel Mackenzie (who passed away last year), owner of The Hungry Monk Restaurant in Jevington, East Sussex and the restaurant’s chef, Ian Dowding. The pair claimed to have created the dish in 1971 or 1972 by changing an American recipe for “Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie”. They created a soft toffee by boiling an unopened can of condensed milk for several hours. After trying other changes that included the addition of apple or mandarin orange, Mackenzie suggested they use banana and eventually, both realized they had made their dessert.

The dessert proved to be so popular with The Hungry Monk’s customers that Mackenzie and Dowding never took it off the restaurant’s menu. Mackenzie and Dowding’s recipe was published in their 1974 cookbook, “The Deeper Secrets of the Hungry Monk” and reprinted in their 1997 cookbook, “In Heaven with The Hungry Monk”. Dowding has claimed that his “pet hates are biscuit crumb bases and that horrible cream in aerosols”. The dessert was Margaret Thatcher’s favorite dish to cook. The recipe for Banoffee Pie was adopted by many other restaurants throughout the world. In 1984, a number of supermarkets began selling it as an American pie, leading Mackenzie to offer a £10,000 prize to anyone who could disprove their claim to be the English inventors.

Below is a recipe for Banoffee Pie from the Epicurious website:

Banoffee Pie

Ingredients

2 cups canned sweetened condensed milk (21 ounces)
1 (9-inch) round of refrigerated pie dough (from 15-ounce package)
3 large bananas
1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
Special equipment: a 9-inch pie plate (preferably deep dish)

Preparation

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F.

Pour condensed milk into pie plate and stir in a generous pinch of salt. Cover pie plate with foil and crimp foil tightly around rim. Put in a roasting pan, then add enough boiling-hot water to reach halfway up side of pie plate, making sure that foil is above water. Bake, refilling pan to halfway with water about every 40 minutes, until milk is thick and a deep golden caramel color, about 2 hours. Remove pie plate from water bath and transfer toffee to a bowl, then chill toffee, uncovered, until it is cold, about 1 hour.

While toffee is chilling, clean pie plate and bake piecrust in it according to package instructions. Cool piecrust completely in pan on a rack, about 20 minutes. Spread toffee evenly in crust, and chill, uncovered, 15 minutes.

Cut bananas into 1/4-inch-thick slices and pile over toffee.

Beat cream with brown sugar in a clean bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds soft peaks, then mound over top of pie.

Cooks’ notes:
• Toffee can be chilled up to 2 days (cover after 1 hour).
• Toffee-filled crust can be chilled up to 3 hours.

“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

“JOHNNY TREMAIN” (1957) Review

Sixty ago, the Walt Disney Studios produced a television movie set during a three year period that focused on the years in Boston, Massachusetts Colony prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. The name of that movie was 1957’s “JOHNNY TREMAIN”

Directed by Robert Stevenson, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” was an adaptation of Esther Forbes’ 1944 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel. It told the story of an arrogant adolescent named Johnny Tremain, who happened to be an apprentice for a silversmith living in Boston. Johnny has dreams of owning his shop one day and becoming wealthy and respected in the process.

When a wealthy merchant named Jonathan Lyte commissions his master to repair a family’s christening cup, Johnny takes it upon himself to do the actual repairs and win the arrogant Lyte’s patronage. Unfortunately, Johnny picked the Sabbath to repair Lyte’s cup. And in his haste to repair it before being discovered for breaking the Sabbath, Johnny damages his hand. While repairing Lyte’s cup, Johnny discovers that he is the merchant’s long lost nephew on his mother’s side. But Lyte refuses to acknowledge Johnny as his kinsman and has the boy locked up. Johnny’s difficulties with Lyte and in acquiring a job eventually leads him to join the Sons of Liberty, an organization dedicated to American independence from the British Empire. Along the way Johnny befriends several historical giants including Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren. The story reaches its climax with the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the American Revolution.

It had been a long time since I first saw this movie. A very long time. And considering that it had been originally produced as a Disney television movie, I was ready to harbor a low opinion of it. Considering the Disney Studios’ reputation for churning out a superficial take on American History, one would be inclined to dismiss the film. And if I must be honest, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” has a superficial take on the later years of the Colonial Era and the beginning of the American Revolution. Although there is some depth in the movie’s characters, there seemed to be lacking any ambiguity whatsoever. Well . . . I take that back. Aside from Johnny Tremain’s brief foray into arrogance in the movie’s first fifteen minutes, there were no ambiguity in the other American characters. Thankfully, screenwriters Esther Forbes and Tom Blackburn allowed some ambiguity in the British characters and prevented them from being portrayed as cold-blooded and one-dimensional villains. Even Sebastian Cabot’s Jonathan Lyte (Johnny’s British uncle) was saved from a fate of one-note villainy in his final reaction to Johnny’s decision not to accept his patronage.

Disney film or not, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” is an entertaining historical drama infused with energy, good solid performances and a somewhat in-depth look into American history in Boston, between 1772 and 1775. Despite a running time of 80 minutes, the movie explored some of the events during that period – events that included an introduction of some of the important members of the Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, the British closure of Boston’s port, Paul Revere’s famous ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It is also the first costume drama that revealed the establishment of slavery in a Northern state – or in this case, colony. In the midst of all this history, Forbes and Blackburn delved into Johnny’s personal drama – including his conflicts with his uncle, dealing with his physical disability and his relationship with Priscilla Lapham, his former master’s daughter – with solid detail.

With the use of matte paintings, colorful photography by Charles P. Boyle and Peter Ellenshaw’s production designs, director Robert Stevenson did a good job in transforming television viewers back to Boston of the 1770s. But the one production aspect of “JOHNNY TREMAIN” that really impressed me was the original song, “Liberty Tree”, written by Blackburn and George Bruns. The song struck me as very catchy and remained stuck in my mind some time after watching the movie. The performances are pretty solid, but not particularly memorable. Again, allow me to correct myself. There was one outstanding performance . . . and it came from the late Sebastian Cabot, who portrayed Johnny’s arrogant uncle, Jonathan Lyte. Everyone else – including leads Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten and Richard Beymer, who would enjoy brief stardom in the early 1960s – did not exactly dazzle me.

My gut instinct tells me that the average adult might lacked the patience to watch a movie like “JOHNNY TREMAIN”. Although historical drama remains very popular with moviegoers and television viewers, I suspect that Disney’s early superficial style of portraying history might be slightly off-putting. However, “JOHNNY TREMAIN” might serve as a first-rate introduction to American History for children. And if one is in the mood for Disney nostalgia, I see no reason not to watch it again. Even after sixty years, it is still an entertaining little movie.

“GHOSTBUSTERS” (2016) Review

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“GHOSTBUSTERS” (2016) Review

I cannot say that the summer of 2016 movie season produced a great number of first-rate films. There were a few that really impressed me. But I cannot deny that it has seen its share of controversy. One of the two controversies that ignited this summer proved to be over the casting for “GHOSTBUSTERS”, Paul Fieg’s reboot of Ivan Reitman’s pair of supernatural comedies from the 1980s.

The movie begins with physics researcher Dr. Erin Gilbert beginning her employment at Columbia University as a professor. However, her employment and bid for tenure is threatened when she learns that her former associate, Dr. Abigail “Abby” Yates had republished a book they had written together about the existence of paranormal phenomena such as ghosts. Erin decides to assist Abby and the latter’s new partner, engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, on a paranormal investigation. The trio witnesses and documents a ghost, renewing Erin’s belief in ghosts. Unfortunately, Abby has posted a video clip of their investigation and Erin’s reaction, causing the latter to lose her job and tenure bid at Columbia. She joins Abby and Jillian’s project, but they are fired from their position at a technical college, when the director learns the nature of their research. The trio eventually open an office to capture and study ghosts above a Chinese restaurant and name themselves, “Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination”. They also hire a dim-witted, yet handsome receptionist named Kevin Beckman.

Meanwhile, a MTA worker named Patty Tolan witnesses a ghost inside one of the city’s subway tunnels. She contacts the “Conductors” and the group investigates. They witness, document and capture the ghost, using Jillian’s proton containment laser, but their proof is dismissed. Despite this, the group continues its ghost investigations. Patty, who is also history buff, joins the team and provides a historic knowledge of New York City and a redesigned hearse dubbed “Ecto-1”. The newly formed quartet slowly becomes aware of the fact that ghosts are being summoned by an occultist/mad scientist named Rowan North, who hopes to bring about the Apocalypse.

When I first heard that a reboot of the old “GHOSTBUSTERS” movies was being made, I simply groaned with dismay. I would not have minded a second sequel to the 1984 movie. But since one of the stars, Harold Ramis, had recently passed away, I realized it would never happened. But I was not that thrilled by the news of a reboot. And when I heard that the leads would all be women, I privately accused the film’s producers (in which Dan Ackroyd is one of them) of resorting to gimmick casting. A lot of people did and the movie became shrouded by controversy. But I went to see the movie anyway, due to my own curiosity and the public hullabaloo over the four leads. And you know what? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed “GHOSTBUSTERS” so much that it has become one of my favorite movies of the summer.

Mind you, “GHOSTBUSTERS” was not perfect. I found a few aspects of it to complain about. One, I have slightly mixed feelings about the movie’s antagonist, Rowan North. Rowan was an interesting character on his own. But I found it hard to imagine any living person going out of his or her way to commit suicide in order to transform into a supernatural being and bring about an apocalypse. That seemed a bit too much. I have to give kudos to Paul Feig for providing more details into the creation of the four “Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination” . . . or Ghostbusters. But it seemed at times that the movie’s set up of the four characters sped by a bit too fast, despite the addition of more details. There were other moments in the film in which the pacing seemed a bit too fast. And I found the character of Dr. Jillian Holtzmann a little superficial. Thanks to Katie Dippold and Feig’s screenplay, she seemed to have less depth than the other three leads. In fact, she seemed to mainly serve as the team’s comic relief. I wish Feig and Dippold had done more with her character.

Otherwise, I had no problems with “GHOSTBUSTERS”. One, the movie benefited from a first-class screen team. All of them – Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon – had a great chemistry together. There were complaints that Jones’ character, Patty Tolan, was not a scientist – especially since the actress is an African-American. I was thrilled that Patty was a history buff and avid reader, which is what I am. I was also a little teed off that many did not regard historical knowledge as “intelligent” as scientific knowledge. I can only assume that many believe we actually live in the world of “STAR TREK”.

And although I thought the idea of a human committing suicide in order to become a destructive supernatural force was a bit too much, I must admit that I also found this plot line very original. And to be honest, this world needs some kind of originality in movies, which seemed to be really lacking in today’s world. Even more original, the “Ghostbusters” in this film are not immediately acknowledged for their pursuit of the supernatural. The quartet keep encountering nay-sayers (including one portrayed by former Ghostbuster Bill Murray) and government officials in the form of New York’s dippy mayor and two Department of Homeland Security agents, who want them to remain silent on their findings. Again . . . original, for this was never done before in the two previous movies.

What was the best thing about this movie? Well, I thought it was a bit scary – especially in the sequence featuring the Ghostbusters’ final encounter with the supernatural Rowan North. More importantly, this was a damn funny movie. Hell, it was hilarious. Some of the movie’s funniest moments featured the four Ghostbusters’ interactions with their personal “dumb blonde” receptionist, Kevin Beckman, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. Watching Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates react to Kristen Wiig’s infatuation with the idiotic and shallow Kevin was a joy to behold. Another hilarious scene featured the Ghostbusters’ encounter with a poltergeist at a live music venue. This led to a very close encounter for Leslie Jones’ Patty Tolan, who uttered one of my favorite lines:

“Okay, I don’t know if it was a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”

But it is not surprising that “GHOSTBUSTERS” proved to be so funny to me. Paul Feig and the movie’s casting director really did this movie proud with a first-rate cast. I have already commented on the chemistry between the four leads. Melissa McCarthy was in top form as the sardonic Dr. Abby Yates. I really enjoyed how she mixed her character’s enthusiasm for her profession and her cynical sense of humor. Kristen Wiig provided a fine contrast as the more reserved Dr. Erin Gilbert, who not only renew her friendship with Abby, but also develops a hilarious infatuation toward the group’s receptionist. Leslie Jones gave a sharp, funny and intelligent performance as the group’s historian Patty Tolan. She was especially in fine form in the sequence featuring the live music venue. Although I had complaints about Feig and Dippold’s handling of the Dr. Jillian Holtzmann character, I must admit that Kate McKinnon more than made up for their shortcomings with a very funny and entertaining portrayal of the character.

The movie also featured some very funny performances from the likes of Andy Garcia (who portrayed the dippy New York mayor), Charles Dance, Steve Higgins, and Cecily Strong. The movie also provided solid performances from the likes of Michael K. Williams, Matt Walsh, Zach Woods and Ed Begley Jr. Neil Casey gave a very interesting performance as Rowan North, who proved to be one of the most eccentric and odd villains I have ever come across. And then there was Chris Hemsworth. Many have expressed surprise at his hilarious portrayal of the Ghostbusters’ dim-witted receptionist, Kevin Beckman. I was not surprised . . . just vastly entertained by his performance. After all, I have been aware of Hemsworth’s talent for comedy for the past five years. Last, but not least, the movie featured some surprising cameos. The most enjoyable ones proved to be those cameos from the original cast from the 1980s – namely producer Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts.

Yes, “GHOSTBUSTERS” had a few shortcomings. I will not deny it. But for me, it had a lot more virtues. More importantly, it proved to be one of the most entertaining surprises I have encountered during the 2016 summer movie season. I feel that Paul Feig did an excellent job in rebooting Ivan Reitman’s two movies. He had ample help from the likes of screenwriter Katie Dippold and an excellent cast led by Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.

Five Favorite Episodes of “UNDERGROUND” Season One (2016)

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from the WGN series, “UNDERGROUND”. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “UNDERGROUND” SEASON ONE (2016)

1 - 1.05 Run and Guns

1. (1.05) “Run & Gun” – The attempt by the escapees from the Macon plantation to catch a northbound train out of the state is complicated at every turn; while Tom and Susanna Macon have the remaining slaves – especially Pearly Mae, who was captured while trying to run – questioned about their plans.

2 - 1.09 Black and Blue

2. (1.09) “Black & Blue” – One of the escapees, former house slave Rosalee, is captured in a small Kentucky town and held at a slaughter house, while fellow escapees Noah and Cato plot to rescue her. Underground Railroad agent John Hawkes (who is also Tom Mason’s brother) learns of his wife Elizabeth’s reckless action to save the orphaned escapee Boo from her ex-fiancé and U.S. Federal Marshal Kyle Risdin.

3 - 1.04 Firefly

3. (1.04) “Firefly” – A notorious slave hunter named August Pullman and his son Ben track Noah and Rosalee, following their escape from the Macon plantation at the end of the previous episode. The other slaves involved in Noah’s plot contemplate running, as well. Meanwhile, John and Elizabeth face a lethal predicament, when one of the runaways they are sheltering turns hostile.

5 - 1.01 Macon Seven

4. (1.01) “The Macon 7” – In the series premiere, Noah begins to plot an escape from the Macon plantation to the Ohio River and free states. He contemplates on choosing which slaves to be included in his plan, while dealing with a hostile Cato, who also happens to be one of the plantation field drivers.

4 - 1.07 Cradle

5. (1.07) “Cradle” – This episode featured a collection of vignettes about the younger characters – all children – facing the harsh realities of the world in antebellum America.

St. Paul Sandwich

Below is an article about the dish known as St. Paul Sandwich:

 

ST. PAUL SANDWICH

I am a California girl – born and bred. Yet, a part of me is also a Midwesterner. Most of my family – both paternal and maternal – are from St. Louis, Missouri. And I had spent part of my childhood in the Gateway City.  One of my fondest memories of St. Louis is the collection of various Chinese-American fast food joints spread throughout the city. I might as well say it. Some of the best Chinese-American fast food I have ever eaten was in St. Louis. And one of my all time favorite dishes to emerge from these eateries was the St. Paul sandwich.

The origin of the St. Paul sandwich dates back to the early 1940s, when it was created to appeal Midwesterners’ palates. In fact, the sandwich is believed to be an example of early fusion cuisine. According to legend, a cook or chef named Steven Yuen invented the St. Paul sandwich at an eatery called Park Chop Suey in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood near downtown St. Louis. Yuen named the dish after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Food writers James Beard and Evan Jones believed that the St. Paul sandwich was an early variation of another dish called the Denver sandwich, which originated in the Colorado city around 1907.

The St. Paul sandwich consists of an egg foo young patty; which is made with egg, mung bean sprouts, and minced white onions; between two slices of white bread. Included in the sandwich are dill pickle slices, white onion, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. The St. Paul sandwich also comes in different combinations and specials that include chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, and other varieties. Originally, the St. Paul sandwich contained four pieces of white bread with chicken and egg stuffed inside. Later, it simply consisted of an egg and hamburger on a bun.

The dish can be found in St. Louis and other cities in Missouri like Jefferson City, Columbia and Springfield. It can also be found in Chinese-American restaurants in California and Oregon, notably at the Lung Fung in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It is usually served with regional names like “Egg Foo Young on Bun”. I have eaten Chinese-American fast food in Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington D.C. and Chicago and have yet to encounter the St. Paul sandwich in any of these cities.

Below is a recipe for St. Paul sandwich from the Feast Magazine website:

St. Paul Sandwich

Ingredients

Canola oil, for deep-frying
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
¼ cup diced or thinly sliced onion
2 Tbsp diced green bell pepper
3 small cooked shrimp, peeled
3 Tbsp diced or shredded poached chicken
3 pieces cooked beef (1/8 inch thick, 1 inch wide and 1½ inches long)
1 large egg
¼ tsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 slices white bread
Iceberg lettuce leaf
2 thin slices tomato
3 to 4 dill pickle slices

Preparation

Pour about 4 cups oil into a deep-fryer or deep saucepan. Bring to 375ºF.

Break bean sprouts by crushing them lightly in the palm of your hand. Place in medium mixing bowl. Add onion, green pepper, shrimp, chicken and beef. Stir to combine.

Beat egg lightly with a fork in a small bowl. Mix in cornstarch. Pour egg mixture over the sprouts mixture. Stir well.

Place egg mixture in a shallow metal ladle 4¼ inches wide (big enough to hold it all).

Test the heat of the oil by throwing in a bean sprout. The sprout will immediately pop to the top if the oil is hot enough.

When oil is hot enough, gradually lower full ladle into hot oil, but don’t allow top of egg mixture to drop into the oil. The egg patty will cook in the ladle. Some hot oil will seep over the edges of the ladle. Cook until almost done, 2 to 3 minutes, then spoon a little of the hot oil over the top of the patty to finish the cooking.

Transfer egg patty to a slotted spoon. If any egg mixture drips out, return the patty to the ladle and place in the hot oil for an additional minute. The patty should be uniformly browned and sealed.

Spread mayonnaise on one slice of bread. Top with the iceberg lettuce and tomato slices. Slide the cooked egg patty onto the other slice of bread. Garnish with pickles. Close the sandwich. Wrap bottom in waxed paper and serve immediately.

Tester’s note: If you do not have a deep fryer, you can use a skillet, but the texture will not be the same. Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a 6-inch skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the shrimp, chicken and beef and then the egg-cornstarch mixture; cook, stirring constantly, until the egg is scrambled.