Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1850s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1850s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1850s

1-Django Unchained

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this Oscar winning tale about a newly freed slave who searches for his still enslaved wife with the help of a German-born bounty hunter in Mississippi. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

 

2-The Charge of the Light Brigade

2. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1938) – Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland starred in this exciting adventure story set in both British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

 

3-Race to Freedom The Underground Railroad

3. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” (1994) – Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred in this television drama about the adventures of four slaves who escape from a North Carolina plantation, while being tracked by a pair of slave catchers. Don McBrearty directed.

 

4-Skin Game

4. “Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. starred in this dark comedy about a pair of con artists who clean up in a slave selling scheme in Missouri and Kansas, before their scam finally catches up with them. Paul Bogart directed.

 

5-Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

5. “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) – Stanley Donen directed this famous 1954 musical about six backwoodsmen brothers When a backwoodsman in the Oregon Territory, who decides to marry after their oldest brother brings home a wife. Jane Powell, Howard Keel and Russ Tambyln starred.

 

6-The First Great Train Robbery

6. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crighton wrote and directed this adaptation of his novel about three Victorian criminals who plot to rob a shipment of gold for British troops serving during the Crimean War, from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

 

7-Wuthering Heights

7. “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven starred.

 

8-Westward the Women

8. “Westward the Women” (1951) – William Wellman directed this excellent Western-adventure about a trail guide hired by a Californian rancher to escort a wagon train of women heading west to marry men who have settled in the rancher’s valley. Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel and John McIntire starred.

 

9-Mountains of the Moon

9. “Mountains of the Moon” (1990) Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen starred in this historical account of Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile River on behalf of the British Empire. Bob Rafelson directed.

 

10-Jezebel

10. “Jezebel” (1938) – William Wyler directed Oscar winners Bette Davis and Fay Bainter in this adaptation of Owen Davis Sr.’s 1933 play about a headstrong Southern woman, whose actions cost her the man she loves. Henry Fonda and George Brent co-starred.

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED” (2012) Review

Over three years following the release of his 2009 movie, “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Quentin Tarantino courted success and controversy with a new tale set the past. Called “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, this new movie combined the elements of the Old West and Old South and told the story about a recently freed slave-turned-bounty hunter in search of his still enslaved wife. 

The movie begins with a gang of male slaves being transported across Texas by a group of slavers called the Speck brothers. The group encounter Dr. King Schultz, a German-born dentist, who also happens to be a bounty hunter. Schultz offers to purchase Django, whom he believes can identify a trio of murderous siblings called the Brittle brothers, who had worked as overseers for Django’s previous owner. The Specks become hostile and Schultz kills one of the brothers. He then frees Django and leaves the wounded brother behind to be killed by the newly freed slaves. Django and Schultz come to an agreement in which the latter will give the former freedom, a horse and $75 for helping him identify the Brittle brothers. Once the pair achieve their goal at a Tennessee plantation owned by one Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, Schultz takes on Django as his associate and over the winter, collect a number of bounties. In the following spring, Schultz offers to help Django track down the latter’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft. They discover that she is owned by a brutal, yet charming Mississippi planter named Calvin Candie. The pair realize that in order to rescue Broomhilda, they would have to pose as potential buyers of a fighter slave in order to secure an invitation at Candie’s plantation called Candyland.

Even before its initial release in movie theaters in late December, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” managed to attract a good deal of controversy. Producer/director Spike Lee declared the movie as an insult to his ancestors in a magazine article and his refusal to see it. Others have criticized the film for its violence and its use of the word “nigger”. And some have criticized the movie for historical inaccuracy. They claimed that the practice of fighting Mandingo slaves never existed and that Tarantino depicted the Klu Klux Klan a decade before its actual existence. And Jeff Kuhner of The Washington Times complained that: “Anti-white bigotry has become embedded in our postmodern culture. Take Django Unchained. The movie boils down to one central theme: the white man as devil — a moral scourge who must be eradicated like a lethal virus.”

Mind you, I have my own complaints about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Actually, I have three complaints. One, I found the movie’s chronological setting rather confusing. According to the movie’s opening, it began in “1858 – Two years before the Civil War”. Judging by the weather, Django’s first meeting with Schultz in Texas occurred in the fall. Which probably means that the movie began two-and-a-half years before the Civil War, not two years. Yes, I am being anal about this. However, Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Only Tarantino can answer this. I also found the character of Broomhilda von Shaft slightly underdeveloped. Some have claimed that her character is passive. I would disagree, considering she was introduced being punished for attempting to run away from Candyland. But aside from a scene or two, I feel that Tarantino could have done a little more with her character. And three, I have mixed feelings about Tarantino’s use of flashbacks in this movie. Some of the flashbacks were well utilized – including those featuring Django’s memories of Broomhilda being whipped and branded as a runaway, Schultz’s trauma over witnessing the mutilation of a Candie slave named D’Artagnan, and Big Daddy organizing a group of night riders to attack Django and Schultz. But some of the flashbacks seemed to go by so fast that I found their addition to the film unnecessary.

As for the other complaints about the movie, I do have a response. Spike Lee is entitled to his decision not to see the movie. However, I do find his willingness to condemn the movie without seeing it rather strange. Criticism of Tarantino’s use of violence in his movies have become repetitive in my eyes. “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Can someone name one of his movies that did not feature any violence? Because I cannot. And his recent films do not strike me as violent as earlier films such as 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. Also, violence has played a part in many slave societies throughout history . . . including U.S. slavery. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan was first organized in the late 1860s, after the Civil War. But the Klan’s origins came from patrol riders, who were recruited by planters in many Southern states to maintain vigilance of both slaves and free black in local rural neighborhoods. So, the idea of “Big Daddy” Bennett organizing a group of local riders to attack Django and Schultz is not implausible.

In response to Jeff Kuhner’s accusation of anti-white bigotry, Tarantino not only created the German-born Schultz, who helped Django attain freedom and find Broomhilda; but also a Western sheriff portrayed by television veteran Lee Horsley (“MATT HOUSTON” anyone?), who seemed very friendly to both the German immigrant and the former slave. Tarantino also created Candyland’s head house slave, Stephen, who proved to be one of the film’s worst villains. So much for Kuhner’s accusation. A great deal of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is set in the pre-Civil War South and its topic happens to be about American slavery. The use of “nigger” is historically accurate for the movie’s setting. And I am surprised that no one has complained about the slur being used in Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, “LINCOLN”. Hell, the word is used throughout productions such as the two “ROOTS”miniseries, the three “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, “QUEEN”, the 1971 movie “SKIN GAME” and in a good number of other movie and television productions set in antebellum and Civil War America. Even the use of the slur in a production set in the 19th century North would be historically accurate. I also recall the use of racial slurs for whites in a few scenes. As for Tarantino’s use of Mandingo fighting slaves in the movie . . . I have no explanation for its presence in this film. There is no historical evidence of this particular sport. And I suspect that Tarantino was simply inspired by the 1975 movie, “MANDINGO” and Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel upon which the latter was based.

So . . . how do I feel about “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Frankly, I believe it is one of the best movies of 2012. And I also consider it to be another cinematic masterpiece by Quentin Tarantino. One of the aspects of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s ability to take a rather dark topic like slavery and fashioned it into a explosive mixture of action, drama, suspense and some comedy. Many have complained that the movie should have been a straight drama, considering its topic. But I disagree. Yes, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” could have been an effective straight drama. But Tarantino decided to take a rare and unique route in unfolding his tale. And in doing so, he managed to fashioned a fascinating story that allowed me to experience an array of emotions that left me more than satisfied by the movie’s last scene.

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” was not the first time comedy was used to reveal one of the darkest episodes in this country’s history. This has been done in “SKIN GAME” and in television shows such as “BEWITCHED” and the comedy sketch series, “KEY & PEELE”. Tarantino used the same mixture of pathos, horror, drama and comedy for many of his past movies – especially in“INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”. I found this use of humor especially effective in scenes that included the surviving Speck brother’s attempt to convince the slaves freed by Schultz not to kill him. I never knew that James Russo, who portrayed the surviving Speck brother, could be so funny. Django and Schultz’s little exchange regarding the former’s identification of the Sprittle brothers struck me as funny. I could say the same about Stephen’s reaction to Candie’s treatment of Django as a house guest and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly’s (Candie’s sister) futile attempts to attract Schultz’s attention. But the funniest sequence has to be the flashback featuring “Big Daddy” Bennett’s recruitment of night riders for an attack on Django and Schultz. In fact, that particular scene practically had me rolling with laughter.

Some people have complained that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale for African-Americans. I find this accusation rather odd, considering that Django’s main objective was to find Broomhilda and get her out slavery by any means possible. And despite the movie’s prevalent humor, Tarantino did not hold back in presenting not only the horrors and emotional traumas of slavery, but also racism. This was especially true in a handful of scenes in the movie. The opening scene featured an emotionally shell shocked Django being transported across Texas as part of a slave coffle. Other traumatic scenes include Candie’s little speech on the inferiority of blacks, the erruption of violence at Candyland that resulted in Django hanging from a barn’s roof, naked and bound and Stephen’s maleovelent revelation of Django’s fate as a slave for a Mississippi mining company. One horrifying scene that I found particularly brutal was a flashback featuring Broomhilda’s brutal whipping at the hands of the Brittle brothers, while Django desperately tries to convince one of the brothers to spare her.

I really do not know what to say about the performances featured in the movie. I realize there are no Academy Award nominations for ensemble casts. If there were, I would nominate the cast of “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. One, Tarantino cast old movie and television veterans in cameo roles. I have already mentioned Lee Horsley and James Russo. I also spotted the likes of Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Cooper Huckabee, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks and a humorus special guest appearance by Franco Nero. Both Bruce Dern and M.C. Gainey (of “LOST”) were especially scary in their brief appearances as Old Man Carrucan (Django and Broomhilda’s former owner) and Big John Brittle. Both Dana Michelle Gourrier and Nichole Galicia gave solid performances as Cora and Sheba, Candie’s housekeeper and concubine respectively. And Dennis Christopher’s performance as Calvin Candie’s obsequious attorney, Leonide Moguy, struck me as spot-on.

Don Johnson provided a skillful combination of charm, menace and humor in his role as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett, the Tennessee planter who served as the Brittle brothers’ current employer. Jonah Hill had a funny cameo as one of his night riders. I could say the same about Miriam F. Glover, who gave one of the movie’s funniest lines, while portraying one of Big Daddy’s house slaves. Ato Essandoh of A&E’s “COPPER” was very effective as D’Artagnan, the frightened fighting slave whose runaway attempt led to his brutal death. Laura Cayouette’s performance as Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Candie’s widowed sister, struck me as effective. On one hand, I found her attempts to seduce Schultz rather funny. On the other hand, her outrage over Candie’s attempt to display a naked Broomhilda during supper provided a great deal of tension in the scene. Walton Goggins gave a memorable and scary performance as one of Candie’s henchmen, Billy Crash. James Remar got to portray two intimidating characters – Ace Speck and Candie’s main henchman, Butch Pooch. And he did a damn good job with both roles.

Although I had been critical of Tarantino’s creation of the Broomhilda von Shaft, I must admit that Kerry Washington still managed to wring out a first-rate performance from the role. I especially impressed with her in scenes that featured Broomhilda’s tense encounters with Stephen; and her subtle, yet pleased reaction to Schultz’s purchase of her from Candie and her painful whipping by the Brittle brothers in one of the flashback. And I must admit that I found that last shot of her removing a shotgun from her saddle rather interesting. Perhaps after all that Broomhilda had endured, she was not taking any chances. I believe that the year 2012 will prove to be one of Samuel L. Jackson’s best years professionally. Aside from portraying Nick Fury in the year’s biggest hit, “THE AVENGERS”; he got to portray one of the most complex and villainous roles in “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as Candie’s trusted and malevolent head house slave, Stephen. Watching the movie, I was struck at how much Stephen reminded me of the Mr. Carson character from the British television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Both characters possessed the same blinding loyalty, snobbery, jealousy over his position within the slave hierarchy, and anger toward anyone from their background who managed to rise higher than they (for example: Django). Jackson did a superb job in not only conveying Stephen’s penchant for utilizing the old “Puttin’ on Old Massa” routine publicly, but also his intelligence while in the private company of Django, Broomhilda or Candie. And by the way, the man has a nice singing voice. Many people have expressed surprise at Leonardo Di Caprio’s portryal of the villanous, yet charsmatic Calvin Candie. I was not that surprised, considering I have seen him portray a villain before – as the cold-blooded Louis XIV in 1998’s “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”. But I do believe that Candie not only proved to be a more memorable villain, but also one of the actor’s best roles ever. He was fantastic as the charming, yet brutal Candie . . . and at the same time rather contradictory. It was obvious that Di Caprio’s Candie fervently believed in the superiority of whites; yet at the same time, he had no problems with allowing Stephen to handle the plantation’s finances or accepting the elderly slave’s intelligence and sharp observations about Django, Schultz and Broomhilda with very little reluctance.

Instead of portraying a villain, Christoph Waltz portrayed Django’s friendly, yet ruthless mentor and partner; the German-born dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. And he was fantastic. Waltz effectively portrayed Schultz’s cold-blooded pursuit of wanted criminals for profit, yet at the same time; conveyed the character’s disgust over the institution of slavery and open-mindedness toward Django, Broomhilda and other slaves. Waltz’s best moments proved to be Schultz’s encounter with the Speck brothers and Django in Texas, his taking down of the wanted Sheriff Bill Sharp (portrayed by Don Stroud), his reaction to D’Artagnan’s mauling and the revelation of his disgust toward Candie. And Waltz proved to have great screen chemistry with Jamie Foxx. I believe that the latter’s portrayal of the title character has proven to be vastly underrated by the majority of film critics and some moviegoers. I am a little disappointed, but not surprised. Django turned out to be a somewhat introverted character that was not inclined to speak very much . . . whether as a slave or a free man. Critics and filmgoers are not inclined to pay much attention to non-showy characters. Since Django proved to be a quiet character, Foxx resorted to good old-fashioned screen acting to convey most of the character’s non-speaking moments. And he did a superb job in portraying Django’s array of emotions – especially in the opening scene featuring the slave coffle in Texas, Schultz’s killing of the criminal, his first view of Broomhilda at Candyland, and the confrontation with Candie during the latter’s supper party. Ironically, another one of Foxx’s best moments proved to be quite verbal in which he attempts to con a group of slavers for a mining company to take him back to Candyland in order to collect on a fake bounty. In the end, Foxx did a superb job in developing Django from a slave in shock over the traumatized separation from his wife to the soft-spoken, yet self-assured man who could be very ruthless when the situation demanded it.

I also have to say a word about the movie’s behind-the-scene production. I was impressed by Sharen Davis’ costume designs. She did a solid job in re-creating the fashions of the late antebellum period. However, I noticed a few oddball designs for Candie’s slave mistress Sheba and a maid at a social club in Greenville, Mississippi; reflecting the planter’s penchant for anything French. I suspect this was a visual joke on Tarantino’s part. I was also impressed by J. Michael Riva’s production designs and Leslie A. Pope’s set decorations in the sequences for the Texas town featured in the movie’s first 10 to 20 minutes, Candie’s Napoleon Club in Greenville and especially the interiors for Candyland’s mansion. Robert Richardson did an excellent in capturing the beauty of California, Louisiana and especially Wyoming with his photography. As he had done for “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS”, Tarantino used already recorded music to serve as the score for his movie. I did notice that a few songs – especially one for the opening title sequence – seemed to have been written specifically for the movie. However, I do not know who may have written them.

It occurred to me that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” was Tarantino’s second period piece in a row. And I found myself wondering if he planned to write and direct a third period movie as part of some kind of semi-historical trilogy. Whether he does or not, I must say that I was impressed with “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. More than impressed. I believe it is one of the best movies I have seen released in 2012. And I feel that it is one of the writer-director’s more original works, due to superb writing, direction and an excellent cast led by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz.

P.S. Check out this photo:

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Ohmigod! It’s Crockett and Tubbs!

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About Slavery

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With the recent releases of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order: 

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

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“A Woman Called Moses” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries about the life and career of Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, who was the most successful conductor of the Underground Railroad during the last decade before the Civil War. Based on Marcy Heidish’s book, the miniseries was directed by Paul Wendkos.

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – Actor Tim Reid produced this television movie about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

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“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

 

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. 

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.

Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.

And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.

Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR”screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.

“THE FANTASTIC FOUR: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007) Review

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“THE FANTASTIC FOUR: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007) Review

I found myself surprised that 20th Century-Fox would green light a sequel to the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. When it was released, many critics panned the movie as a ghost of other Marvel cinematic hits such as the “SPIDER-MAN” and the “X-MEN” franchise or the DC comic hit, “BATMAN BEGINS”. Unlike these films and others such as 2003’s “DAREDEVIL”, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR” told the story of how four people with close connections ended up with super powers . . . and how they dealt with it. It also introduced the quartet’s main villain, Victor Von Doom. But it felt more like an comedic character piece than a costumed action film. Although this new sequel, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR: Rise of the Silver Surfer” managed to retain the comedic element of the first story, it turned out to be a suprisingly good action piece with strong character development.

The movie began with the arrival of a mysterious alien presence that caused havoc with the Earth’s resources in various locations. This alien turns out to be the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones and voiced by Laurence Fishburne). The movie soon shifted to more familiar ground – namely the upcoming marriage of Reed Richards aka “Mr. Fantastic” (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm aka “The Invisible Woman” (Jessica Alba). Or should I say . . . another attempt by the couple to get married. It seemed their past efforts at matrimony have ended up being delayed by either their roles as costumed super heroes, or Reed’s anal obssession with his work. With the threat of the new alien presence announced by Army General Hager (Andre Braugher in a rather intimidating role), Reed and Sue are forced to cancel their wedding plans once more and join other FF4 members – Ben Grimm aka “The Thing” (Michael Chiklis) and Sue’s younger brother, Johnny Storm aka “The Human Torch” (Chris Evans) – to save the Earth from the Silver Surfer.

The blue-suited quartet are eventually embroiled in other crisis as well. As I had stated earlier, Reed and Sue end up enduring an angst fest over their failure to get married. Johnny’s first encounter with the Silver Surfer ended up changing his DNA structure. Because of this, he is able to change powers with any of his colleagues with only a touch. Even worse, Johnny’s uncertainty regarding his powers and his failure to seduce General Hager’s beautiful aide – Captain Raye (Beau Garrett) – led him into an emotional crisis. Also, an old nemesis returned in the form of Dr. Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon). Claiming a desire to help the Army and the Fantastic Four deal with the threat of the Silver Surfer, Victor’ real agenda turned out to be a desire to claim the Surfer’s power source for his own use.

As I had earlier stated, the 2005 movie mainly told the story about how the quarter acquired their powers and became a costumed super hero team. The 2007 sequel, on the other hand, features a solid action-filled story on how the Fantastic Four battled the Silver Surfer, Victor von Doom, the U.S. Army and their own neurosis. Which is probably why this new story is a lot better than the original. Yes, the humor had remained. But the new movie seemed better paced, more solid . . . and dare I say it? More mature. Their interactions with both the Silver Surfer and General Hager turned the story from a basic comic book action flick into something more complex. And adding to the complexity were Reed and Sue’s further obstacles facing their relationship, and Johnny Storm’s troubles with his powers and his own self esteem.

Thankfully, the people at Marvel had decided to reunite director Tim Story with the cast of the 2005 film. Because of this, Story was able to maintain the style created two years ago and take the FF4 franchise to a more complex level. With the exception of Michael Chiklis and Julian McMahon, the returning cast managed to take their roles to a new level in characterization. Do not get me wrong . . . both Chiklis and McMahon did a fine job with their roles. But their characters were not able to shine as much as the others. I suspect this was due to possible conflicting schedules with their respective TV series (“The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck”). Andre Braugher’s tough and intimidating performance as General Hager seemed to have put the rest of the cast on their toes. Both Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba’s screen chemistry seemed a lot more believable in this film as their characters – Reed and Sue – struggle to take their relationship to another level despite the obstacles put in their paths. The real surprise turned out to be Chris Evans’ portrayal as the usually shallow Johnny Storm, who discovered their was more to his life than fast vehicles, women and his celebrity status as one of the Fantastic Four. Who would have thought that this superficially charming character could possess real pathos? Yet, Evans’ first-class performance made this possible. He also provided one of the movie’s funniest scenes, when he “accidentally” torched the bridal bouquet before his new girlfriend, Captain Raye, could catch it. Although I found the Silver Surfer’s abilities and his impact upon the Fantastic Four impressive, I must say that his personality struck me as a little too distant for me to really care about him. At least the revelation of his bondage to a powerful and destructive alien entity made his character a little more interesting than I had originally believed. And I have to give Laurence Fishburne kudos for doing a good job with the character’s voice over.

I would highly recommend “THE FANTASTIC FOUR: Rise of the Silver Surfer” if you are looking for some solid summer action. Granted, it does not have the level of angst or epic-like proportion of other Marvel movies such as the “SPIDER-MAN” or the “X-MEN” franchies, it is still a more complex and interesting story than its 2005 predesessor, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”.