The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in chronological:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1980 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

“LOOPER” (2012) Review

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“LOOPER” (2012) Review

Time travel can be a tricky topic for a fictional story. Some writers can do wonders with a story featuring time traveling. Some writers start out well end up creating a mass of confusion. And other writers . . . well, they end up simply creating a bad story. When I first learned about the premise for the new science-fiction movie, “LOOPER”, I feared I was about to see a time travel movie with a bad plot. 

According to writer/director Rian Johnson’s tale, the United States is in a state of economic collapse in the year 2044. There is social decay, a high rise in crime and a mutation has developed within a small number of the Earth’s population that gives them a telekinetic ability. Thirty years later, time travel has been invented, but immediately outlawed. Tracking technology has made it impossible for criminals to dispose of bodies. Crime bosses use illicit time travel to send their victims back in time, where they are killed by assassins called “loopers”. These assassins are paid with silver bars strapped to the back of their targets. When the crime bosses want to end a looper’s contract, they send his older self back to be killed by his younger self, paying the latter with gold bars as a last payoff. Failure to kill the older self is punishable by death.

Joe Simmons is a looper in 2044 Kansas, whose boss – a time traveler named Abe – is sent back to the past to supervise him and his fellow loopers in the area. Best friend and fellow looper Seth tells Joe that he failed to kill his old self and that the latter informed him of a criminal mastermind named the Rainmaker, who is closing down all loops. Joe eventually betrays Seth in order to maintain his secret stash of silver. Joe’s older self eventually arrives from the past and Joe first kills him. But due to a tragic incident thirty years in the future, Old Joe changes time by escaping to the past on his own. He escapes and Joe tracks him down to a diner, where he tells Joe that the Rainmaker sent him back to be killed, and that Old Joe’s wife was killed during his capture. Old Joe killed his captors and traveled back to kill the Rainmaker as a child. Joe attempts to kill Old Joe and fulfill his contract, but both of them flee when they are attacked by Abe’s hit men or “Gat Men”. Due to a piece of a map in Old Joe’s possession, Joe finds a string of digits that leads him to farm owned by a woman named Sara, who lives with her son, Cid. Meanwhile, Old Joe uses the remaining digits on the map to track down the location of three candidates who might turn out to be the Rainmaker as a child. Old Joe intends to kill all three to prevent his future wife’s death.

Sounds complicated? Trust me, that was only the beginning. For reasons that escape me, Rian Johnson, along with Kimberly Amacker and the rest of the movie’s makeup team decided to use prosthetic makeup to ensure that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrayed the younger Joe Simmons, bear some resemblance to Bruce Willis. They hired Kazuhiro Tsuji for the job. Tsuji did his best in altering Gordon-Levitt’s looks, but in the end, it all depended more on the actor’s performance to make the transformation work. A part of me feels that his prosthetic makeup was not really necessary.

Also, complicated time travel stories such as the one for “LOOPER” tend to turn me off. Dealing with the subject of time travel is bad enough. But I tend to view complicated plot twists, such as the ones found in “LOOPER” as impossible to follow. But thanks to Rian Johnson’s direction and script, I found the movie surprisingly easy to follow . . . aside from one particular scene. I might as well talk about the latter. The sequence featuring Old Joe’s first escape from death at the hands of Joe ended with the latter falling out of the window of his apartment. The movie never made it clear whether he lived or died. But the next scene featured Old Joe’s reappearance at the fatal cornfield again. This time, Joe killed Old Joe, leaving me somewhat confused. Was there a time reset of some kind? It finally occurred to me that Johnson simply revealed that Old Joe had escaped death, left his fate a mystery . . . and then went back to how this scenario came to be. In other words, following Old Joe’s second appearance in the cornfield, audiences learn of the circumstances that led to that moment – Joe’s murder of Old Joe, his retirement as a looper, his years in China as a hired killer, his marriage and eventually, his wife’s death. The latter drove Old Joe over the edge and he set out time travel on his own, prevent his younger self from killing him and kill the younger self of the Rainmaker, before the latter can grow and cause the death of his wife. Now, I understood.

Once I realized what was going on, I was able to enjoy “LOOPER” a lot more. Not only did Johnson create a fascinating tale in which time travel played a heavy role, he created some fascinating characters – especially the leading one, Joe Simmons. Johnson did an excellent job in showing how the time traveling not only affected Joe Simmons’ character, but was also responsible for the creation of the Rainmaker. I was amazed at how Johnson’s story revealed the ugly consequences of time travel in a way no other writer or filmmaker has done before. His story also developed from the typical science-fiction action thriller into a poignant, character-driven tale about the consequences of grief and revenge. By the time I left the movie theater, I realized that I had seen one of the most original science-fiction thrillers in recent years.

“LOOPER” also had the good luck to have some first-rate performers to grace its cast. The movie featured interesting performances from the likes of Paul Dano, who gave an emotional performance as the looper Seth, who set things in motion by warning Joe about the Rainmaker. I also enjoyed the performances of Noah Segan, who gave a colorful performance as Abe’s main “Gat Man”, Kid Blue, who is eager to earn his boss’ respect by going after Joe; Piper Perabo’s sexy take on showgirl Suzy; Qing Xu, who projected the perfect air of sensibility and calm for Old Joe; and Garret Dillahunt, who oozed intelligence and danger as another “Gat Man”, who manages to track down Joe to the Kansas farmhouse.

But there were performances that really impressed me. One of them came from Jeff Daniels, who was an absolute delight as the sharp-tongued crime boss Abe. His advice to Joe about relocating to China upon retirement turned out to be one of the movie’s highlights. Emily Blunt acquired an impressive American accent for her role as Sara, the practical farm owner that gave Joe shelter. Not only was I impressed by her different accent, but also her performance and strong screen presence. I cannot say enough about Pierce Gagnon, the child actor who portrayed Sara’s son, Cid. Gagnon gave one of the best child performances I have seen in years . . . and one of the creepiest. Of the entire cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the most difficult role. Not only did he have to capture many aspects of Bruce Willis’ portrayal of the older Joe, but also the older actor’s speech pattern, body language and screen persona. And too my surprise, he stood up to the plate and knocked it out of the ballpark. I can also say the same Bruce Willis’ performance as Old Joe. Sure, his usual wise ass screen persona was there . . . somewhat. But he also took his character beyond the usual persona and to greater heights by portraying Old Joe as a man caught up in his grief over a dead wife and obsessed with vengeance and determination to change time.

I would not say that “LOOPER” was perfect. Instead of writing a clear and straight narrative that a story of this complexity needed, director-writer Rian Johnson tried to be a little clever in explaining Old Joe’s arrival in the past. And I feel that the prosthetic makeup for Joseph Gordon-Levitt was unnecessary. But despite these quibbles, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. Johnson, along with an excellent cast led by Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delivered one of the most original movies I have seen in years.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie’s stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful “IRON MAN” movies, helmed the director’s chair. At least five of the screenwriters – Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby – have been associated with projects like “LOST” and the “STAR TREK”. And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” remained one of the flops of this summer.Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word “pity” as a response to the movie’s failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed“COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde’s gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake’s former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film’s dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique’s photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie’s visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of “SUPER 8”, I had commented that it reminded me of an old “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode. I cannot say the same for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. But it did remind me of a “STAR TREK VOYAGER” fanfiction story called “Ashes to Ashes”. At least Jake’s experiences with the aliens before the movie began. And “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds” had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”, I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake’s history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” provided plenty of opportunities for character development – and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig’s super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s DOLLAR TRILOGY”. Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford’s usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde’s distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde’s performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution’s citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde’s performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution’s insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from “THE LAST AIRBENDER”), who portrayed the sheriff’s grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films from the summer of 2011.

Top Ten Favorite ROAD TRIP Movies

Below is a list of my ten favorite ROAD TRIP movies: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE ROAD TRIP MOVIES

1. “Midnight Run” (1988) – Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin starred in this hilarious movie about a bounty hunter who escorts his prisoner from New York City to Los Angeles. Martin Brest directed.

2. “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) – Burt Reynolds, Sally Fields, Jerry Reed and Jackie Gleason starred in this fun and witty tale about two Georgia truckers hired to illegally transport beer from Texarkana to Atlanta within 28 hours. Hal Needham directed.

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – This Oscar nominated film was the second adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about an expedition into uncharted African territory to locate a missing explorer looking for the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred.

4. “LORD OF THE RINGS: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – This first of three installments from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy saga about an epic quest to destroy an ancient and powerful ring is my favorite.Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellan starred.

5. “It Happened One Night” (1934) – Frank Capra directed Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in this Oscar winning classic comedy about a runaway heiress and a roguish reporter on a cross country trip.

6. “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad” – A small group of North Carolina slaves risk their lives for a cross country bid for freedom in Canada. Produced by actor Tim Reid, this excellent television movie starred Courtney B. Vance, Janet Bailey and Glynn Thurman.

7. HARRY POTTER and the Deathly Hallows, Part I” – David Yates directed the first half of the film adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s 2007 novel about Harry Potter’s attempts to find the means to destroy Lord Voldemort, while evading the evil wizard throughout Britain. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this emotional and satisfying adaptation of Charles Frazer’s novel about a Confederate Army deserter’s journey back to his North Carolina home during the Civil War. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Rene Zellweger starred.

9. “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004) – Walter Salles directed this excellent adaptation of Che Guevara’s memoirs about his 1952 motocycle journey across South America. Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna starred.

10. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) – Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed this entertaining comedy-drama about a family’s cross country trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to a children’s beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin and Oscar winner Alan Arkin starred.

“KNIGHT AND DAY” (2010) Review

“KNIGHT AND DAY” (2010) Review

Once more, Tom Cruise had put himself out on a limb by appearing in a movie, recently released last summer. The movie in question turned out to be a romantic comedy thriller called ”KNIGHT AND DAY”. Co-starring Cameron Diaz, the movie was directed by James Mangold. 

Surprisingly, seventy to eighty percent of ”KNIGHT AND DAY” was told from Diaz’s point-of-view. She portrayed an auto mechanic named June Havens who found herself swept into the adventures of an eccentric man claiming to be a former CIA agent named Roy Miller. Miller also claimed that he was trying to prevent a corrupt CIA colleague named Fitzgerald from finding a brilliant young inventor named Simon Feck and his new invention, a perpetual energy battery called the Zephyr, and selling both to a Spanish weapons dealer named Antonio. Unfortunately, his former director believes he is a rogue agent that has gone mentally off the grid.

I might as well be frank. ”KNIGHT AND DAY” did not strike me as an exceptional action film. The movie featured a series of minor scenes in which a drugged and semi-conscious June found herself being moved from one location to another by Miller. And since these scenes were shown from her point-of-view, I suspect this gave Mangold and screenwriter Patrick O’Neill the opportunity to move their characters around without any real detail. Personally, it seemed like a lazy way to progress the plot along. I was also confused over how Peter Sarsgaard’s character, Agent Fitzgerald, managed to arrange for other CIA agents to appear on the Wichita-Boston flight at the beginning of the movie as the entire crew and group of passengers. Nor did I understand why he bothered to keep June on that flight after Miller tried to ensure that she would miss it. Also, Mangold’s direction failed to infuse the movie with any special energy that could have made it memorable. Despite the somewhat eccentric plot, ”KNIGHT AND DAY” moved and felt like a typical action film.

But the movie also had its virtues. It featured some beautiful photography of Boston, Jamaica (which served as the Azores, off the coast of Portugal), Austria and Spain; thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The movie also featured one hell of a plane crash, supervised by Chris Brenczewski. O’Neill wrote a solid plot that I could easily understand – something that has been lacking in a good number of action films (comedy or otherwise) recently. ”KNIGHT AND DAY”also provided some first-rate action sequences. My favorites included Miller’s fight against his former CIA colleagues aboard the Wichita-Boston flight; the gunfight on one of Boston’s highways; and Miller’s fight against a young German assassin named Danny, aboard a train bound for Salzburg, Austria. Humor proved to be another one of the movie’s virtues. Not only did cast members such as Cruise, Diaz, Paul Dano and Marc Blucas provide some excellent comic performances, O’Neill’s script provided them with plenty of material to work with. At least two scenes struck me as particularly funny – Miller’s ”with me, you survive” speech; June’s encounter with Feck and Danny, the assassin, aboard the train; and her encounter with the arms dealer, Antonio. But my favorite scene turned out to be the encounter between Miller, June and her ex-boyfriend, Rodney inside a Boston diner. I really found that scene hilarious.

There were no bad performances in ”KNIGHT AND DAY”. But I must admit that not all of them struck me as impressive. Both Viola Davis and Jordi Mollà gave solid, yet humorless performances as the CIA Director and Antonio, the arms dealer. Peter Sarsgaard, who portrayed Agent Fitzgerald, seemed amusing at times. Otherwise, he came off as distant and slightly stiff. But the movie had its share of good performances. Dale Dye and Celia Weston provided plenty of laughs as Miller’s parents, who believed that their son was dead. Paul Dano proved that he also have a talent for comedy in his goofy and funny portrayal of Feck, the brilliant young scientist that created the Zephyr battery. But of the entire supporting cast, my favorite performance came from Marc Blucas, who portrayed June’s ex-boyfriend and a Boston fireman. Thanks to his two-season stint on television’s ”BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER”, I have always been aware of the actor’s talent for off-beat humor. But Mangold’s direction and O’Neill’s script provided him with a role that truly exploited his comedic talents. Blucas portrayed Rodney not only as a compassionate and duty-bound man, but also a self-absorbed and shallow jerk. And he managed to achieve this balance with great subtlety and skill.

But what really made ”KNIGHT AND DAY” work for me were the two leads, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. They had worked together before in the 2001 movie, ”VANILLA SKY” and it was easy to see that they both had a very good screen chemistry. Once again, Cruise proved his talent for both comedy and action as the slightly eccentric Roy Miller, whose idea of keeping his new companion safe was too keep her in a drugged state, as he carted her around the eastern United States and Europe. The actor also effectively conveyed his character’s self-assured nature without allowing it to be tainted by any signs of cockiness. This would not have been the case with a younger Cruise. What I liked about Cameron Diaz’s portrayal of June Havens was that she did an excellent job of conveying her character’s progression throughout the movie. Her June started as a reserved woman just recovering from the end of a trying relationship, progressed to the confused and frightened innocent caught up in intrigue and betrayal; and finally developed into a more confident woman who was self-assured about her love for Miller and what she needed to do to keep him safe.

”KNIGHT AND DAY” was not the best movie I had seen last summer. It certainly did not knock my socks off. But thanks to James Mangold’s direction, a solid script by Patrick O’Neill and an excellent screen team in the form of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz made it an entertaining movie.  It is not a perfect film, but it is certainly better than I had originally assumed.