“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

 

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

One of the more popular story lines to emerge from Marvel Comics was the 2006 story called “Civil War” in which many comic book characters from the company’s franchise battled over a new law designed to have superpowered individuals act under Federal regulation. Kevin Fiege and Marvel Films decided to adapt this story line for the final film in their Captain America trilogy.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” features some differences from the Marvel Comics comic series. The latter featured the Superhuman Registration Act, which would force those with superhuman abilities to register with the U.S. government . . . even at the expense of their secret identies. All those with special abilities – via magic, science, extra-terrestrials and even gods – would be forced to register. The 2016 movie featured the Sokovia Accords, a set of internationally ratified legal documents that provide regulation and frame-working for the military/law enforcement deployment of enhanced individuals, particularly the Avengers. To be honest, the difference between the Superhuman Registration Act and the Sokovia Accords strikes me as rather minimal.

However, the plot for “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” began with a flashback to 1991 when a mysterious assassin intercepts an automobile on an isolated road, carrying a case of super-soldier serum. The plot jumped some twenty-five years later to Lagos, Nigeria; where a team of Avengers under the command of Steve Rogers aka Captain America stop a HYDRA team led by Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones from stealing a biological weapon from a lab in Lagos. When Rumlow blows himself up, hoping to kill Steve; Wanda Maximoff aka tries to displace the blast into the sky with telekinesis. Unfortunately, the blast destroys a nearby building, killing several Wakandan humanitarian workers. Because of the Lagos incident, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross informs the Avengers that the United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, which will establish a U.N. panel to oversee and control the team.

Some members of the Avengers support the Accords and decide to follow Tony Stark aka Iron Man, who continues to feel guilt over his creation of the A.I. Ultron and the latter’s destruction of Sokovia. Others decide to follow Steve, who remains suspicious of the governments’ use of enhanced individuals. But when a bombing disrupts a conference in Vienna where the Accords were to be ratified and kills King T’Chaka of Wakanda, security footage indicates that the bomber is James “Bucky” Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, whom T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa aka Black Panther, vows to kill. Steve, who has been searching for Bucky since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., becomes determined to find Bucky first before anyone else can harm him and find out what really happened in Vienna. The search for Bucky manifests into another story line when the latter and Steve begin to suspect that someone from HYDRA might behind

I must admit that when I first learned that the third Captain America movie would be an adaptation of Marvel’s “Civil War”, I was not happy. I felt certain that the movie would be more of an Avengers tale than another Captain America movie that would round off the character’s trilogy. But I had decided to put aside such fears and see the movie. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” had a great deal to offer. Exciting action sequences, plenty of travel, drama, thought provoking issues and especially some first-rate acting.

One aspect of “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” that really caught my attention were the issues presented in this story. And the issues in this story seemed to focus on guilt and responsibilities. This especially seemed to be the case for the Avengers in the wake of what happened in Sokovia and Lagos. Although Steve, Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, and especially Wanda feel guilty for what happened in Lagos; they would prefer to deal with the consequences on their own rather than allow the government to take control of their lives as Avengers. Tony, James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine, Vision and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow seemed to feel that the best course to deal with the consequences of the group’s actions is to allow the government to control their actions. What is interesting is that while various governments and especially Thaddeus Ross want the Avengers to pay a high price for what happened in Sokovia and Lagos, Ross refuses to acknowledge guilt or pay the consequences for the battle in Harlem between Bruce Banner aka the Hulk and Emil Blonsky aka Abomination in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. Someone had pointed out how friends found themselves on opposite sides of this conflict. I saw this theme played out with Natasha, who found herself opposing Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, Sam and Steve – three men with whom she had formed close friendships. This theme also played out with Wanda’s growing friendship with Vision, when the pair of them took opposing sides on the Accords issue.

The past seemed to weigh heavily in this movie, as well. The ghost of Steve’s past – in the form of one “Bucky” Barnes manifests on the heels of the Vienna bombing. Another ghost from Steve’s past manifested in the form of Sharon Carter, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, whom he had first met in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Both Steve and Sam were surprised to discover that Sharon was the great-niece of his former love, Peggy Carter. One could say the same for Bucky, whose past as the brainwashed Winter Soldier is not only used to frame him for the Vienna bombing, but also manifests in the discovery of Howard and Maria Stark’s fates. And while I found this revelation rather interesting, I did not find it particularly surprising, after the events of “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. In fact, many fans of the franchise did not seem surprised. Tony’s ghosts from the past also formed a cloud above this story. His and Bruce’s creation of Ultron not only led to Sokovia’s destruction, but also to his support of the Sokovia Accords. More importantly, Sokovia’s destruction led a colonel from an elite Sokovian commando unit named Helmut Zemo to seek revenge for the deaths of his family during the battle against Ultron. And the newly ascended King T’Challa struggled to deal with his father’s death, as he sought to kill Bucky for the death of his father King T’Chaka during the Vienna bombing.

But “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” is foremost an action film. And the movie featured some first-rate action sequences. Many film critics and moviegoers have been talking about the battle between the two Avengers factions at a Berlin airport. And yes, I found it impressive . . . somewhat. My favorite moment occurred when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man transformed himself into a giant, taking everyone by surprise. But if I must be honest, the airport sequence is not my favorite action scene in the movie. One of my favorites proved to be the chase sequence in Berlin in which the police, Steve, Sam and T’Challa pursued a fleeing Bucky. Another favorite turned out to be the movie’s first action sequence in which Steve’s Avenger team battled against Rumlow and his HYDRA team in Lagos.

The movie also featured some excellent acting. To be honest, I cannot think of a bad performance in this film. Once again, Chris Evans stepped up to the plate and provided another first-rate performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. For once, his Steve proved to be a more reflective man, who had learned to control his quick temper (until near the end of the film). I can also say the same for Robert Downey Jr., who gave another excellent performance as Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

Scarlett Johansson was excellent as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, who desperately tried to get Steve and Sam to cooperate with the government and sign the Accords. Anthony Mackie’s portrayal of Sam Wilson aka the Falcon proved to be a little more emotional and satisfying, as his character openly expressed contempt toward the Sokovia Accords and minor distrust toward Bucky Barnes’ re-appearance in Steve’s life. Sebastian Stan continued his excellent performance as Bucky Barnes, now a desperate man trying to keep both his memories and his life intact. Don Cheadle’s performance throughout most of the movie struck me as solid. But I must admit that he really stepped up his game and gave a very poignant performance in his last scene in which he and Tony discuss the near tragic circumstances of the Berlin airport fight. Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany clicked on screen as Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch and Vision. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Wanda becomes aware that Vision has been trying to prevent her from leaving the Avengers’ headquarters.

Chadwick Boseman made a very impressive debut as T’Challa aka Black Panther. Boseman did an excellent job in portraying T’Challa’s barely controlled anger over his father’s death and his obsession in exacting revenge. Eight years after “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, William Hurt repeated his role as Bruce Banner’s main adversary, Thaddeus Ross, who has become the U.S. Secretary of Defense and main supporter of the Sokovia Accords. And he was a lot more subtle and scary in this film than he was in the 2008 movie. Daniel Brühl gave a very subtle, yet intense performance as Helmut Zemo, the former Sokovian commando who wanted revenge against the Avengers for the deaths of his family. Alfre Woodard gave a very sublte, yet emotional performance as a woman who had confronted Tony about the death of her son in Sokovia. The movie also featured some solid performances from Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, John Slattery, Hope Davis and Frank Grillo.

Despite my admiration for the movie’s cast, the action sequences and some of the issues raised in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”, I had a major problem with it. In fact, I had several problems with it. First of all, the whole idea behind the Sokovia Accords really made no sense to me. I could say that this whole matter began because several Wakandan civilians were killed, when Steve and Wanda were trying to stop Rumlow from harming others through self-detonation. But it really began with the Chitauri invasion of New York in “THE AVENGERS”. Then came the fallout from the destruction of the HYDRA sponsored helicarriers in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, along with Iron Man and the Hulk’s battle in South Africa and the destruction of Sokovia in “AGE OF ULTRON” and finally, the Lagos incident in this film. For some reason, people like Thaddeus Ross want to solely blame the Avengers for the civilian fallout and not the villains. In the case of the events of “AGE OF ULTRON”, Tony, Bruce and Wanda were to blame. And Wanda . . . was not an Avenger at the time. What I could not understand is that neither Steve, Sam or anyone else who supported them had bothered to point this out. In fact, no one had bothered to point out Ross’ own involvement in the Hulk v. Abomination battle that nearly destroyed Harlem in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. You know . . . like Tony and Natasha?

Even if the Avengers had found themselves under government control, the possibility that innocent civilians might get hurt would always be possible. Not even the Avengers or any other costumed hero/heroine can save everyone. Yet, no bothered to point this out. I also noticed that Thaddeus Ross failed to mention the Hulk v. Abomination battle in Harlem. This is understandable, considering he was partially to blame for what happened. But why did no one pointed this out? And could someone please explain why the Accords were named after the Sokovia incident, instead of the incident in Lagos, which had kick-started the international community’s decision to create them in the first place? Martin Freeman portrayed a character from the Joint Counter Terrorist Centre, who helped Ross regulate the Avengers. The problem is that . . . he really did nothing in this movie, except show up and then sneer, first at Bucky and later, at the movie’s villain. Frankly, I found his appearance in this movie a complete waste of time. Speaking of waste . . . Frank Grillo, who had skillfully portrayed Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, reprised his character for this movie. And guess what happened to him? The poor schmuck was bumped off via a suicide bombing some twenty to thirty minutes into the film. Am I to believe that Rumlow, a major character in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, had been reduced to a cameo, a plot device for the Lagos sequence . . . and nothing else? I guess so. In the end, Marvel ended up wasted Grillo’s time, just as they had wasted Thomas Kretschmann’s time in “AGE OF ULTRON”. And what were the German special forces, the GSG 9 doing in Bucharest, Romania? Bucharest was Bucky Barnes’ home at the time. And it was at his apartment where the GSG 9 tried to arrest him. What were they doing in a foreign country, trying to arrest an American citizen for a terrorist attack (the Accords conference) that happened in another foreign country – namely Austria. What on earth was the GSG 9 doing there?

I also had a problem with Tony Stark’s discovery that Bucky Barnes was the HYDRA assassin who had killed his parents. This discovery led Tony to try to kill Bucky, and Steve to come to his best friend’s defense. Two years earlier, Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury had released top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files on the Internet, during the battle at the Triskelion in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Through these files, Helmut Zemo discovered that Bucky was a brainwashed assassin used by HYDRA to kill Howard and Maria Stark back in 1991. If Zemo had been able to gain access to those files, why did Tony or any Stark Enterprises employee failed to do so? Why did he not make any attempt to access the files? A man, whose own father had been one of the co-founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a former enemy of HYDRA’s? Considering Tony’s nature, I find it difficult to believe that he never bothered to make the attempt. I have a deep suspicion that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely may have deliberately ignored this issue so they would have an excuse for Tony to suddenly react to Zemo’s revelation. How sloppy . . . and manipulative.

And then there is the problem of Robert Downey Jr. The actor was first cast in “CIVIL WAR” in a supporting role. However, the actor refused to do the movie, unless he was made a co-star. And Marvel gave in to his demands, because they so desperately wanted him in another Marvel film. Why did they allow Downey Jr., who portrayed Iron Man, to become a co-star in a Captain America movie? The name in the movie’s title is Captain America. I do not recall the name of Iron Man being in the title. So, why did Kevin Fiege and Marvel allow Downey Jr. to hijack half of Chris Evans’ third solo film? Especially since Evans was the lead in one of Marvel’s biggest hits – both financially and critically. Why did a Captain America movie end up giving as much attention to Tony’s character arc as it did to Steve’s? Tony’s character arc had more screen time than Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson, who had stronger emotional connections to Steve than Tony. Why did the movie’s screenplay featured a five-to-ten minute scene in which Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker aka Spider-Man for his team and did not bother to show how Steve recruited Clint Barton and Scott Lang? In a Captain America movie?

You know, Marvel could have saved the Civil War story line for an Avengers film and wrapped up Steve’s connection to HYDRA in this film. This movie could have focused upon Steve’s efforts to help Bucky and put HYDRA behind him for good. The movie “ANT-MAN” featured former S.H.I.E.L.D. official/HYDRA mole Mitchell Carson alive and well at the end, with a sample of Darren Cross’ Yellow Jacket serum in his possession. They could have tied this up with the Winter Soldier program . . . or create another plot featuring HYDRA. The narrative for “CIVIL WAR” could have focused on the Winter Soldier program, allowed Helmut Zemo to remain a HYDRA agent, allowed Steve’s friendships with both Sam and Bucky to become more complex and allowed his relationship with Sharon Carter to develop at a decent pace. Instead, Fiege and Marvel decided to (temporarily?) end the HYDRA story arc with former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Phil Coulson and ATCU director Glenn Talbot blowing up HYDRA bases . . . off screen in an “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode called (3.18) “Singularity”. I found this so unsatisfying. And since Marvel and Fiege decided that this third Captain America movie should be more about the Sokovia Accords, this left Sam and Bucky engaged in a long and rather stupid running joke regarding their mutual competition for Steve’s friendship. The latter’s romance with Sharon proved to be very rushed. And instead of admitting this, some fans are blaming actress Emily VanCamp and the Sharon Carter character, instead of the movie’s screenwriters and producers. They have also began promoting the idea of Steve becoming bisexual and beginning a romance with Bucky (and not Sam, whom I suspect was not white enough for them). And I am not the only one who has noticed that Zemo’s motivation for revenge against the Avengers bore a strong resemblance to the Maximoff twins’ hostility toward Tony Stark in “AGE OF ULTRON”?

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” featured some excellent acting by a cast led by Chris Evans, some interesting issues on whether government intervention is a good thing or not, and some great action sequences, thanks to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. But for me, “CIVIL WAR” turned out to be nothing more than an Avengers movie shoved into a Captain America flick. And in the end, I found this rather unsatisfying and schizophrenic.

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How Iron Man Ruined “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR″ For Me

 

HOW IRON MAN RUINED “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” FOR ME

I am so disappointed with Marvel. And I am especially disappointed with its latest entry for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – namely “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”. I never thought I would be so disappointed with a Captain America film, considering how much I loved “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” and especially “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.

As for “CIVIL WAR”, I found it disappointing. Worse, I left the movie theater feeling unusually angry. And a great deal of my anger was focused on Tony Stark aka Iron Man’s role as the movie’s co-lead, which the writers had allowed to nearly dominate the film. Someone on the TREK BBS forum had pointed out that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” had sewn up the plot lines left dangling from “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. And the movie did so . . . WITH BAD WRITING!

“CIVIL WAR” started with a flashback of Tony’s parents getting killed in 1991. The screenplay tried to make a mystery of it, but even a dummy would have known who was the killer.
Steve’s romance with Sharon Carter was rushed, because the Sokovia Accords story line and Tony’s man pain made it impossible for the screenwriters to do justice to it. Now, we have fans demanding that Steve become a bisexual, so that he can have a romance with his old buddy, Bucky Barnes. One, I cannot believe that these fans are so unwilling to see how badly written that Steve and Sharon’s romance was that they would rather he become a bisexual. Really? Because the screenwriters had failed to follow up the promise of Steve and Sharon? And two, I find it ironic (or not) that they would not consider Steve having a romance with Sam Wilson, who is African-American.

Speaking of Sam and Bucky, I noticed that their relationship was never really explored. Instead, the movie presented their rivalry over the role of Steve’s “best friend” in a series of silly comedy routines in which they are mildly hostile toward one another. The movie spent 10 to 15 minutes showing how Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker (who really had no business being in this movie) for Team Iron Man. They could have saved this first meeting in MCU’s upcoming“SPIDER-MAN” movie. Yet, “CIVIL WAR” failed to explain or show why Scott Lang and Clint Barton had decided to side with Steve.

Zemo’s whole revenge plot was all about Tony finding out that Bucky, as the brainwashed Winter Soldier, had killed his parents in order to break up the Avengers for what happened in Sokovia. Again, it became all about Tony. The worst aspect of all of this is that Marvel ended Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s conflict with HYDRA in such a weak manner. The studio ended it on “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” – with Phil Coulson and Glenn Talbot coordinating a series of bombing on HYDRA bases . . . off screen. I found that incredibly pathetic. Someone on Tumblr had pointed out that Steve Roger’s personal arc in “CIVIL WAR” had been weakened by the screenwriters’ unnecessary focus on Tony Stark. After seeing this movie, I heartily agree. What is really sickening about this is that Marvel Studios came up with the idea to focus the Civil War arc in a Captain America movie in order to lure Robert Downey Jr. into another Marvel film.

You would think after the box office successes of movies like “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” and“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” that this idea was unnecessary. But apparently, Marvel thought otherwise and decided to shove an Avengers film into a Captain America movie . . . all because they could not do without the increasingly overrated Robert Downey Jr. And because of this decision, I have now developed deep contempt toward Marvel Studios.

“REAL STEEL” (2011) Review

“REAL STEEL” (2011) Review

Every once in a while, I would come across one of those movies in which I have to be forced to watch . . . against my will. This happened with Matthew Vaughn’s 2007 comedy-fantasy “STARDUST”. And it happened again with the 2008 movie, “SPEED RACER”. Since I ended up enjoying both movies, I finally allowed a member of my family to talk me into seeing the recent Disney movie, “REAL STEEL”

Partially based upon Richard Matheson’s 1956 short story called “Steel”, the movie told the story of a struggling promoter of boxing robots named Charlie Kenton in the year 2020. After his own boxing robot bites the dust in a match with bull owned by a promoter to whom he owns money, Charlie finds himself saddled with Max, an 11 year-old son he had conceived with an ex-girlfriend that recently passed away. The two stumbles across a discarded robot, whom they hope will rise to the top of the robotic boxing world. Along the way, Charlie and Max manage to learn about each other before the latter ends up in the custody of his aunt Debra and her husband, Marvin.

I understand that the majority of “REAL STEEL” was filmed in Michigan. I find this rather odd, considering that most of the movie was set in Texas. Oh well. The movie did a pretty good job of creating an atmosphere similar to eastern and central Texas, thanks to Mauro Fiore’s rich and colorful photograph. Unfortunately, the cast failed to convey the same atmosphere, considering that only one used a Texan accent.

But “REAL STEEL” is not about Texas. It is about the sport of boxing in which the contestants are no longer humans, but robots. Despite the fact that the movie is somewhat based upon a short story that also served as the basis of a“TWILIGHT ZONE” episode. What can I say? The movie failed to impress me. Boxing robots? Perhaps this story theme would have worked in the STAR TREK universe or even in that “TWILIGHT ZONE” episode. But this movie did not work for me. I simply could not find it within myself to care about the characters or whether the main protagonists’ robot, Atom, would prevail.

One of my problems with “REAL STEEL” was screenwriter John Gatins’ failure to make me care about Atom. The robot seemed more like a slightly contrived plot device created to manipulate tears and compassion toward it. If this movie had been about a human boxer, an android with strong human characteristics (think Data in “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”), or in the case of the “TWILIGHT ZONE” episode – about a human pretending to be a robot; perhaps I could have felt some sympathy or any kind of emotion toward it, instead of sheer boredom.

As for the story regarding Charlie and Max’s relationship, I found it very unoriginal and equally manipulative. This estranged parent-child plot line has been done to death in many movies either directed or produced by Steven Spielberg. By the way, “REAL STEEL” was released by DreamWorks, Spielberg’s production company. From a technical perspective, “REAL STEEL” seemed like a well made movie. But I found it so unoriginal – despite the premise of boxing robots – and emotionally manipulative that it occurred to me that I may never warm up to it.

Like the movie’s plot and production, the cast of “REAL STEEL” seemed technically on spot. I can honestly say that I could not spot a bad performance from the cast. Unfortunately, only two or three performances impressed me. One of them did not come from Hugh Jackman. Charlie Kenton was not the first slightly unsympathetic character he has portrayed. But his Charlie struck me as too much of a cliché for me to really care about. Even worse, Jackman portrayed a Texan with a Brooklyn (or New Jersey?) accent. On the other hand Kevin Durand managed to utilize a Texan accent. He portrayed a sports promoter named Ricky, to whom Charlie owned money. And I was not impressed. It was not Durand’s fault. The poor man found himself stuck with a character that was nothing more than a second-rate, one-dimensional villain. Anthony Mackie was clearly wasted as Finn, another sports promoter and Charlie’s friend. He gave it his best, but the character of Finn never struck me as interesting. And poor James Rehborn looked as if he could barely generate any interest in his character, the husband of Max’s aunt.

But there were performances that managed to impress me. Dakota Goyo gave a savy performance as Charlie’s estranged son, Max. Thankfully, he did not spend most of his screen time acting like many other petulant children, noisily resentful of being in the company of an estranged parent figure. Thanks to Gatins’ script and Goyo’s performance, Max struck me not only a lot more mature than his father; but also a far cry from being a cliché. I could say the same for Hope Davis’ portrayal of Max’s aunt Debra. Gatins could have easily written her character as a prim and cold-eye parental figure that would drive Max to his father’s arms. But Davis had the good luck to portray a warm and intelligent woman, whose desire to raise Max had more to do with love than cold responsibility to a blood relative. Evangeline Lilly had come a long way from her first season on “LOST”, seven years ago. I have never viewed her as a terrible actress. But I found her acting skills rather mediocre. Like I said, she has come a long way. Her performance in“REAL STEEL” made it apparent that she has become a solid and competent actress. In fact, I found her portrayal of Charlie’s childhood friend and potential love interest, Bailey Tallet, to be a breath of fresh air. Her Bailey was frank, emotional, witty and not tainted by any clichés.

But in the end, neither the performances of Goyo, Hope, and Lilly; along with Fiore’s photography could save “REAL STEEL”. At least not for me. The movie did turn out to be a hit. And a good number of critics actually enjoyed the film. The problem for me was that I found it difficult to share their opinions. Who knows? Perhaps one day I might change my mind.

“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.

“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

“INFAMOUS” (2006) Review

I have heard a lot about the two movie biographies based upon Truman Capote’s experiences while working on his famous non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”“CAPOTE” and “INFAMOUS”. I have watched them both, but have decided to discuss the second one . . . namely “INFAMOUS”, which was written and directed by Douglas McGrath. Although I could never compare the two movies, I might as talk about the one that featured British actor Toby Jones, as the diminutive writer.

To be honest, I did not know what to expect of “INFAMOUS”. Since it was the second Capote movie to be released, it failed to garner any prestigious critic awards or nominations – aside from an Independent Spirit Best Supporting Actor nod for Daniel Craig, who played one of the Clutters’ murderers, Perry Smith. After watching the movie, I found myself wondering why Toby Jones had failed to earn his own nomination. The man’s complex portrayal of Capote seemed all at once witty, sharp, manipulative, vulnerable and rather sad. In all, it was a brilliant performance. He seemed to revel in Capote’s legendary flamboyant wit and charm in all its glory. One of Jones’ funniest scenes involved Capote’s snappy repartees to prison inmates shouting lewd propositions at him, during his first visit to the prison. Yet at the same time, Jones also revealed the author’s talent for cold-blooded deception and manipulation, which he used to gain the trust of his New York friends, along with the citizens of Holcomb and the two killers, whose anecdotes he needed to complete his book. This talent for drawing out secrets . . . and disclosing them not only attracted the suspicion of Perry Smith, but also got Capote in hot water with his “swans” in the mid-1970s, thanks to an unpublished manuscript of his book, “Answered Prayers”. A few chapters managed to end up in the New York magazine, “Esquire”. But what is more interesting about Jones’ performance in the movie is that his experiences in Kansas ended up peeling away Capote’s flamboyant façade, forcing him to face the pain and sorrow created by an unhappy childhood.

Ironically, it was Capote’s encounters with convicted murderer, Perry Smith, which forced the author to face his personal demons. What can I say about Daniel Craig’s performance? Other than the British actor not only deserved his Independent Spirit Award nomination, but like Jones, he also deserved both a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination. His Perry Smith was a brooding, quiet man who projected vulnerability, intelligence and brutal menace. It was easy to see how Capote and Smith had developed a close relationship. Both shared a taste for intellectual and artistic pursuits that allowed them to hide from unhappy childhoods that included suicidal mothers. Both actors created an dynamic screen chemistry through two contrasting personalities that seemed to share similar childhood experiences. Craig brilliantly projected Smith’s varying personalities in two scenes – one in which he expressed polite distaste at Capote’s gift of pornographic magazines; and in another, his terrifying anger at the “In Cold Blood” title, which led to a threat of rape of the author.

“INFAMOUS” could boast a first-class supporting cast led by Sandra Bullock, who portrayed Capote’s close friend and fellow author, Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). Many critics seemed surprised by Bullock’s excellent portrayal of the warm and wryly amused Alabama author. Apparently, they must have been deluded by some belief that Bullock was only capable of light comedy. The actress was given to showcase her dramatic chops in one “documentary” interview scene in which she expressed Lee’s bitter anger at the public’s demand for an endless supply of entertainment by talented artists. I also enjoyed Jeff Daniels’ wry and sardonic portrayal of the Kansas Bureau Investigations officer in charge of the Clutter case, whose family eventually befriended Capote. His performance was highlighted in a favorite scene of mine that featured the development of Capote and Dewey’s friendship over an arm wrestling match.

Lee Pace portrayed Dick Hickock, Smith’s partner and the alleged brains behind the attempt to rob the Clutters. I found his performance rather humorous and gregarious, yet there were times it threatened to be a touch frantic. Since “INFAMOUS” gave the audience a wide glimpse into Capote’s New York lifestyle, the movie also included his circle of “swans”, whom he developed a close relationship until his disclosure of their secrets in the mid-70s. Those “swans” included Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) – the wife of CBS baron Bill Paley; Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), the fashion magazine editor; Slim Keith (Hope Davis), the woman who was married to Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward; and Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini), Italian-American princess who became a furniture designer and tastemaker. Also included in that group were publisher Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), novelist and Capote’s rival Gore Vidal (Michael Panes). I was especially amused by Stevenson’s humorous portrayal of the vivacious Vreeland, who seemed proud of her own eccentric nature and appreciative of Capote’s attitude toward it.

Some reviews have criticized McGrath’s tendency to switch the movie’s setting between Capote’s glittering New York world and the somber atmosphere of Holcomb, Kansas. I understood why he did it. Both settings seemed like metaphors for the writer’s contrasting psyche during those six years he worked on “In Cold Blood”. It started out with a glittering night with Capote and Babe Paley at the El Morocco nightclub (with a sultry Gwenyth Paltrow singing “What Is This Thing Called Love”) and ended with Capote unable to keep the dark memories of Kansas out of his mind. In fact, once Capote had finally set eyes upon Smith, Holcomb’s bleak setting slowly threatened to puncture the frivolous façade he had created, whenever he was in New York. The emotional cost from the book and his relationship with Smith resulted in his inability to write his next book – “Answered Prayers”, as shown in the movie’s final scene.

The only problems I had with “INFAMOUS” were “documentary” interviews shown during the movie’s first half-hour. Frankly, I believe that the movie could have started out with these interviews, before segueing into the story. And aside from Capote’s tour of the Clutters’ home, I found the sequence featuring his interviews with some of Holcomb’s citizens a little dull and hard to watch. Fortunately, the arrival of Smith and Hickcock ended the dull sequence and from there, my interest in the movie remained constant until the end.

Whether you are a fan of the Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “CAPOTE”, I do recommend that you watch “INFAMOUS” . . . or at least give it a chance. Hopefully, you will discover that in its own way, it is just as fascinating as the 2005 Oscar-winning film.

9/10 stars