“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

 

“INTO THE STORM” (2014) Review

When I first learned about the theater release of the 2014 disaster movie, “INTO THE STORM”, my first instinct was to go see it. The summer of 2014 proved to be a very hot and dry one for Southern California. And I had longed to see rain of any kind – even on the movie screen. But in the end, I never did.

Caution eventually overrode my desire to see “INTO THE STORM” and I had decided to skip it. After all, movie tickets these days are not as cheap as they used to be. I was enduring a period of financial straits at the time. And “INTO THE STORM” had been released in August . . . a graveyard period for summer movies. So, I decided to watch the movie after it was released on DVD. And you know what? The movie turned out to be everything I had imagined.

“INTO THE STORM” is basically as disaster movie about how a team of storm chasers and citizens of a small Oklahoma town deal with a series of major tornadoes and rain storms. The movie begins with the deaths of a group of teenagers killed by a major tornado in some nameless small town. Unfortunately, the storm chasers led by a wealthy man named Peter Moore, failed to be in the storm’s vicinity, thanks to the team’s meteorologist, Dr. Allison Stone. The latter eventually discovers another storm/tornado heading in the direction of Sillerton, Oklahoma. Among the Sillerton citizens unaware of the incoming storms are Gary Fuller, vice-principal of the local high school and his two sons, Donnie and Trey; and Donnie’s fellow classmate, Kaitlyn Johnston. Since his wife’s death, Gary has been somewhat withdrawn and brusque toward his sons. Donnie seems to resent his father’s cold behavior, despite his willingness to video record the upcoming graduation ceremony for the town’s time capsule. In fact, Donnie has no trouble handing over the video recording task to younger brother Trey, when the latter suggests he do the job. Instead, Donnie helps Kaitlyn video record a school project at an abandoned paper mill as a means to get emotionally close to her. In the end, the lives of the Fuller family, other Sillerton citizens, Allison, Pete and the rest of the storm chasing team are endangered by on coming hail storms and tornadoes.

I would never classify “INTO THE STORM” as a major disaster movie on the scale of “EARTHQUAKE” or “2012”. It felt more like a small scale production limited to a small town or farm community setting. To be honest, it reminded me of movies like“DANTE’S PEAK” or “TWISTER”. Especially the latter. And like the last two mentioned films, “INTO THE STORM” almost seemed to have a B-movie veneer. Only the film’s special effects, which impressed me very much, made it difficult for me to view it as a B-movie. In the end, I am not surprised that “INTO THE STORM” was released in August.

Brining up “TWISTER” reminded me that this movie has more in common with the 1995 movie than any other. Both featured the following – heavy rain, hail, tornadoes, storm chasers and a Midwest setting. “TWISTER” was publicized as more of an “A” quality film and featured well-known actors in the lead. And yet . . . I came away feeling more impressed with “INTO THE STORM”. How odd. Mind you, “INTO THE STORM” was not perfect. As I had earlier pointed out, it seemed to have a B-movie veneer about it, despite the production values and special effects. But the movie also possessed two aspects that failed to impress me. One, I could have done without the two yahoos who had decided to face the storms for the sake of thrills. I found their characters so idiotic and not worthy of remembering their names. And two, I was not that impressed with the movie’s dénouement in which the storms’ survivors express their relief over being alive and what their experiences meant to them. I found the sequence a bit wince inducing, pretentious and a bore. I honestly could have dealt without the “meaning of life” speeches.

Despite these annoyances, “INTO THE STORM” proved to be an entertaining movie for me. Director Steven Quale and John Swetnam’s screenplay kept the narrative taut, well-paced and to the point. Some might say that the screenplay could have delved more into the characters’ background before placing them in the midst of the storm. I am not sure if such a ploy would have been necessary. The few scenes that focused on the private lives of the Fuller family and the storm chasers pretty much told me all I needed to know about them. Swetnam was pretty blunt about the characters’ personalities and their situations in their lives before the storms hit Sillerton. I also have to comment on the movie’s production values. I was very impressed by Brian Pearson’s photography. Surprisingly, the movie was shot in Michigan, instead of Oklahoma. Michigan or Oklahoma, I cannot deny that I found Pearson’s photography sharp, colorful and rather beautiful. Pearson’s photography also enhanced the work of the movie’s special effects team. Speaking of speacial effects . . . I thought the movie makers did an outstanding job in creating both the storms and tornadoes featured in the movie. I was especially impressed by the movie’s last tornado and one particular scene in which one of the characters ended up in the center of the storm – namely the eye.

I was also surprised that “INTO THE STORM” avoided the usual cliché of a romance between the two leading characters. There was a great deal of potential for romance between the Gary Fuller and Allison Stone characters. Both were portrayed by very attractive performers. Gary Fuller was a widower with two sons and Allison Stone was a single mother with a five year-old daughter. Whether she was divorced or single, I have no idea. The chemistry between the two seemed pretty obvious when they first met. And yet Swetnam’s screenplay merely allowed them to become friendly acquaintances and co-survivors . . . and nothing else. I would have been disappointed, if I had not found their lack of a romance surprisingly refreshing.

Considering that “INTO THE STORM” was not exactly a major Hollywood production, I felt rather relieved that the cast managed to give decent performances. Aside from the two actors who played the two thrill seeking yahoos, I was very satisfied with the rest of the cast. Both Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies clicked on screen as Gary Fuller and Dr. Allison Stone, despite the fact that they were not portraying a romantic pair. And Armitage’s American accent struck me as a bit of an improvement over his accent in 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. Max Deacon and Nathan Kress gave solid support as Fuller’s two sons – Donnie and Trey. I could also say the same about Alycia Debnam Carey, who portrayed Kaitlyn Johnston, and the actors who portrayed other members of Pete Moore’s storm chasing team. Speaking of the Pete Moore character, he struck me as quite a pip. I could not decide whether to like or dislike him. And I have to give kudos to Matt Walsh for making him such an effectively ambiguous character. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie.

In a nutshell, “INTO THE STORM” did not strike me as a particularly mind blowing or memorable film. I am not saying that it was terrible or even mediocre. I would say that it was a pretty solid and entertaining film, despite its flaws or 89 minute running time. I thought director Steven Quale did a good job in creating a decent film, backed by superb special effects and competent acting by a solid cast led by Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” (2014) Review

When New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers first released the news that Peter Jackson would adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” into three films, I had not been pleased. I thought the novel could have easily been adapted into two films or even a single film. Now that Jackson’s third film, “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”, I realized that my feelings had not changed.

I still believe what I had originally stated . . . an adaptation of Tolkien’s novel could have easily been limited to a single film. I believe I would have enjoyed it, considering my feelings for Tolkien’s tale. But you know what? I do not regret that Jackson had spread the story into the three films. A single movie or a trilogy, I enjoyed Jackson’s take on the story about Bilbo Baggins and his involvement with a group of dwarves under the leadership of one Thorin Oakenshield. But when I learned that this third film would feature a long, detailed conflict known as “the Battle of the Five Armies”, I found myself not looking forward to the story’s conclusion for the first time, since the release of the first movie. The problem is that I still had memories of the battles featured in the last two movies of Jackson’s adaptation of “THE LORD OF THE RINGS”trilogy – “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. I did not enjoy watching them over a decade ago. And I felt certain that I would not enjoy watching the “Battle of the Five Armies”.

There were aspects of this third HOBBIT that made it less enjoyable for me than the first two films. First of all, Bilbo and his traveling companions reached their destination in the last act of the previous film, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. Which meant that the story ceased to be a road trip. With the exception of a few scenes that featured Gandalf the Gray at Dol Guldur and Smaug’s destruction of Laketown, the majority of the film was set at the dwarves’ kingdom of Erebor and the nearby town of Dale. A bit disappointing. I also found the movie’s limited focus on Thorin’s company of dwarves rather disappointing as well. With the exception of Thorin and one of his nephews, Kili, the screenplay focused less on the dwarves and more on the other characters – especially Bard the Bowman and King Thranduil. Another aspect of the plot that disturbed me, was that it made a big deal of Thorin’s greed in the form of “dragon sickness”. Yet, it barely focused on King Thranduil’s willingness to go to war against the dwarves for an elven necklace of white gems inside Erebor. Worse, the movie’s plot brushed aside Laketown resident Bard’s own greed. Yeah . . . I said it. I believe Bard had developed his own greed for some of the treasure inside Erebor. During the movie’s first half hour, he made it clear to Alfrid Lickspittle that he had no interested in the Erebor treasure (which he had regarded as cursed) and only wanted aid in the form of food, shelter and medicine from Thorin. Yet, within another half hour, he was demanding some of the treasure for himself and other Laketown survivors. What led to this turnabout in Bard’s demands? Why did the screenplay fail to explain it?

Remember when I had predicted that I would not like the battle sequence featured in this movie? Well . . . I was right. I did not like it. Let me correct myself. I did not like most of it. I found the majority of the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” ridiculously long and overblown . . . just like the other battle sequences in “THE TWO TOWERS” and “RETURN OF THE KING”. Now that I think of it, the movie’s battle sequence also reminded me of “the Battle at Hogwarts” featured in the 2011 movie, “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”, with the constant number of interruptions that allowed the battle to last longer than necessary. It is only by the grace of God that I was able to tolerate the “Battle of the Five Armies” a bit more than the Helm’s Deep, Pelennor Fields, Black Gate and Hogwarts battles. And I will tell you why.

What made the Battle of the Five Armies a little more tolerable for me? One, it had began under unusual circumstances. Instead of a battle in which the Erebor Dwarves fought side-by-side with Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm Elves against the Moria Orcs, Goblins and Wargs; the battle nearly became a conflict between the dwarves and an alliance between the Dale men and the elves over the treasure inside the Erebor mines. But the appearance of an army of orcs, goblins and wargs led by Orc chieftain Azog quickly led to a shifting of alliances. I found that rather interesting. The Battle of the Five Armies may have began with rather odd circumstances, it ended with a good deal of poignancy and tragedy that left me in tears. And I cannot say the same for the battles featured in “THE TWO TOWERS”, “RETURN OF THE KING” and “DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II”.

I have never read “The Hobbit”, so I have no idea if J.R.R. Tolkien had any plans to write “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy around the time when he wrote the 1937 novel. But I have to admire the way Peter Jackson and the movie’s other screenwriters – Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – set up the events featured in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, both in this movie and the previous two films. This was especially apparent in moments that featured Bilbo’s use of Sauron’s One Ring; his eventual reluctance to inform Gandalf about it; Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman’s encounter with Sauron, during their attempt to rescue Gandalf from Dol Guldur; Saruman’s doom-filled decision to deal with the fleeing and formless Sauron; and Thranduil’s post-battle suggestion that Legolas meet with a young Dunedain ranger named “Strider”. The movie even ended where “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began – on Bilbo’s 111st birthday, setting in motion, the events of 2001-2003 movie trilogy. I have to say . . . good job.

However, what really impressed me about “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” was how the screenwriters handled the political chaos that seemed to mark the story. I am not criticizing the story in any way. I just found it rather amazing at how Gandalf’s concerns over Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield’s past history with Azog and his bout of “dragon sickness” brought about so much political chaos in this story. And I must say that Jackson and the other three screenwriters handled it so well. The continuing romance between Thorin’s younger nephew Kili and the Silvan elf guard Tauriel is also handled well in the movie. Their time together seemed less than it was in “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”. But thanks to Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly’s performances, there were two scenes featuring the pair that really impressed me – Kili’s plea to Tauriel that she follow him to Erebor and their efforts to save each other from the Orc called Bolg. Aside from Kili and Tauriel, one of the most interesting relationships in the movie was that between Bilbo and Thorin. In fact, their relationship has been interesting since the moment Bilbo first rejected Gandalf’s suggestion that he join Thorin’s companay as a burglar in “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. Thorin’s bout with “dragon sickness” came close to seriously undermining the pair’s friendship that had thrived since the company’s escape from Moria in the first film. Which is why I found their reconciliation and final scene together so poignant, thanks to Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage’s performances. But the one scene that really left me in tears featured Bilbo’s final good-bye to the dwarves that were part of Thorin’s quest. I felt surprised by how much I truly grew to like these guys. Even more so than the members of the Ring Fellowship from “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy.

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” only earned one Academy Award – namely a Best Sound Editing for Brent Burge and Jason Canovas. One technical nomination? One? That was it? No nominations for special effects, costume designs, or editing. There was not even a nomination for Andrew Lesnie’s outstanding cinematography, as shown in the following image:

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I discovered that “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING” received eleven Academy Award nominations . . . and won all of its categories. And I am appalled. Why? Despite its flaws, I still hold “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES”in a higher regard. Now I realize that I am not the last word on the quality of any movie. But I am entitled to my own opinions. I am sorry, but I simply have a higher opinion of “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” than either the second and third films in “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And I cannot take the Oscars seriously if the only nomination they could give this film was for Best Sound Editing.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Although I was slightly disappointed by the decreased presence of most of the dwarves in Thorin’s company, they still managed to give first-rate performances . . . especially Graham McTavish as Dwalin, Dean O’Gorman as Fíli, and Ken Stott as Balin. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee reprised their roles as Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman the White and gave solid, but not particularly earth-shattering performances. I could also say the same about Ian Holm, who returned as Old Bilbo in the movie’s final scene and Sylvester McCoy, who briefly appeared as Gandalf’s fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown. Two performances in the movie struck me as particularly funny – Ryan Gage as the greedy and imaginative Laketown official Alfrid, and Billy Connolly as Thorin’s loud and sardonic cousin Dáin. Lee Pace gave a colorful and fascinating performance as the complicated and not always likable Elvenking of Mirkwood, Thranduil. And Benedict Cumberbatch continued to send chills down my spine, thanks to his exceptional performance as the voice for the malignant dragon, Smaug.

Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly continued to generate sparks as the two star-crossed lovers, Kili and Tauriel. I found them especially effective in two scenes I had earlier mentioned. Both Orlando Bloom and Luke Evans gave excellent performances as Elven prince Legolas and Laketown archer Bard the Bowman. For the first time, I also noticed that the pair could have easily portrayed cousins. Honestly. Ian McKellen was excellent as usual portraying Gandalf the Grey – especially in his scenes with Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman. I like to think that the latter made his mark as the reluctant adventurer, Bilbo Baggins. Freeman did an excellent job of developing his character from the prissy homebody to the clever and brave Hobbit. But my vote for the best performance in the movie would go to Richard Armitage for his complicated and fascinating portrayal of the Erebor Dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield. Actually, I feel that Armitage had been knocking it out of the ballpark since the first film. But in my opinion, two scenes in “BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” featured his best performances as the ambiguous Thorin – namely the latter’s final struggle with “dragon fever” that I found absolutely brilliant and the poignant farewell between his character and Bilbo.

I cannot deny that “THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” is my least favorite of the three films based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy it very much, thanks to Peter Jackson’s energetic direction, excellent production values and some superb performances from a cast led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage.

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” (2013) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” (2013) Review

The second part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel, “The Hobbit” recently hit the theaters. After watching it, I am amazed that I was ever against the idea of a three-film adaptation of the Tolkien’s story.

Titled “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”, the second film began not long after the first one left off. I take that back. The movie began with a flashback featuring a meet between the wizard Gandalf the Gray and the Dwarf prince, Thorin Oakenshield at the Prancing Pony Tavern in Bree. Those familiar with the trilogy, will remember that Froddo Baggins and his fellow Hobbits were supposed to meet Gandalf at the Prancing Pony and ended up meeting Strider aka Aragon, future king of Gondor. The audiences learn in this flashback that it was Gandalf, who originally kickstarted the adventure by convincing Thorin to obtain the Arkenstone in order to unite the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain.

Finally, the story begins where the last movie left off, with Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves evading the Orc chieftain Azog and his party. They eventually seek shelter at the home of a shapeshifter named Beorn, before they make their way to the Milkwood forest. There, Gandalf parts company with the others after discovering Black Speech graffiti imprinted on an old ruin. He heads toward the tombs of the Nazgûl in Dol Guldur, to investigate with fellow wizard Radagast. Meanwhile, Bilbo and the Dwarves get lost in the Milkwood forest and eventually captured by giant spiders. Using the One Ring to render himself invisible, Bilbo manages to free the Dwarves from the spiders’ webs. However, they end up being captured by a party of Wood Elves led by Legolas and Tauriel, who finish off the spiders. During the Dwarves’ captivity, Thorin gets into a conflict with the Wood Elves’ king, Thranduil; Kili becomes attracted to the Elves’ Chief of Guards, Tauriel. Again, Bilbo comes to the Dwaves’ rescue and help them escape, with their Orc pursuers close at their heels. And with the help of a barge man named Bard the Bowman (who is also a descendant of the last king of Dale), the travelers not only reach Lake-town, but eventually the Lonely Mountain and Smaug. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Thorin and the other Dwarves, Gandalf is captured by the Necromancer of Nazgûl, who reveals himself as the Dark Lord Sauron.

Many fans and critics tend to view “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” as superior to the first movie in this new trilogy, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. If I have to be brutally honest, I do not particularly share this view. On the other hand, I do not regard the first “HOBBIT” movie as superior to this second one. I really cannot make up my mind on which film is better. “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” does not have a first act that takes its time in introducing the character. On the other hand, “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” does not have an abrupt ending. And both films, in my opinion, are well written by screenwriters Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro. It featured further development of the major characters, development of the main narrative and some superb action sequences.

Before I wax lyrical over “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”, I might as well comment over its shortcomings. Thankfully, there are only a few. Two of them featured characters from the Wood Elves – Legolas and Tauriel. Orlando Bloom returned to portray the sixty years younger Legolas for this new trilogy. However, Bloom is over a decade older than he was when he portrayed the older Legolas. I wish I could say that he looked young enough to portray the younger Legolas. But I would be lying. And I am not being shallow. Bloom looked great. But I could tell that he looked older than he did in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. And for me, this did not gel very well, considering that he was portraying the same character at a younger age. I also had a problem with the new character, Tauriel, Chief Guard for the Wood Elves. I understand that she was created by Jackson and the other screenwriters, due to the dearth of female characters in this story’s chapter. Quite frankly, I have no problem with this, unlike the Tolkien “purists”. But there were times when I found her character a little too ideal. It is great that she is a badass. But aside from an initial show of bigotry toward the Dwarves, there seemed to be a lack of flaws in Tauriel’s characterization. Not only is she a badass fighter, she is the only Elf who seemed to be aware of a growing evil throughout Middle Earth and believes something should be done about it. Tauriel is practically a borderline “Mary Sue”. And like many moviegoers, I found the movie’s final scene rather perplexing. I realize that “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” is only the second of three movies. But Jackson had ended previous Tolkien movies – aside from “LORD OF THE RING: RETURN OF THE KING” – with the conclusion of a major action sequence. I had expected him to resolve the matter of Smaug before moving on to the last chapter of “THE HOBBIT”. He did not. And because of this, the movie ended on an erupt note.

As I had earlier stated, I cannot view “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” as superior to “AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”. On the other hand, I definitely do not view this second film as inferior to the first. First of all, it benefited from the establishment of the main characters and main narrative from the first film. I also have to give kudos to Peter Jackson for maintaining a steady pace throughout the movie – in both the action and dramatic sequences. I find that very impressive for a movie with a running time of two hours and forty-one minutes. The movie also continued Jackson’s track record with impressive production designs. I was especially impressed by Dan Hennah’s work for the Mirkwood Elves Realm, Lake-wood and the Lonely Mountain interior sequences. The costumes designed by Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor struck me as beautiful . . . especially those designed for the Wood Elves. I cannot forget Andrew Lesnie’s beautiful photography of New Zealand, which served as Middle Earth. And the makeup designs for the Dwaves characters and the Elves continued to impress me. But I cannot forget the visual effects used in this film. Most of the faces for the Orcs were computer generated, and I must say that I found that impressive. The visual effects team also did exceptional work for the Dol Guldur sequences – especially with Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron. And despite my dislike of spiders, I was also impressed by the visual work on the Milkwood Forest sequence that featured the protagonists’ encounters with the deadly beasts. But the one sequence that stands above the others – at least for me – proved to be Bilbo and the Dwarves’ encounter with the dragon Smaug. How can I put it? I found it breathtaking, mesmerizing . . . and extremely frightening. The visual creation of Smaug truly have to be the movie’s pièce de résistance. Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb voice performance greatly added to the terror . . . and I am being complementary.

However, “THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” was not all about visual effects. The movie also featured some top-notch action sequences and superb dramatic moments. Not even my negative opinion of spiders could blind me from the first-rate sequence that featured the Milwood Elves’ rescue of Bilbo and the Dwarves. It was an especially good moment for actors Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and those actors who portrayed the Dwarves had their chance to really shine in that outstanding sequence featuring Smaug within the great halls of Erebor. But my favorite action sequence featured Bilbo and the Dwarves’ escape from Wood Elves’ realm by traveling along a river inside empty wine barrels. Not even that brief, silly moment that featured Legolas balancing on the heads of two Dwarves, while fighting the pursuing Orcs could mar my enjoyment of that scene. If Jackson ever consider opening an amusement park, he might want to consider that sequence as an inspiration for an attraction. However, “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” was not all action and no drama. The movie certain featured some fine dramatic scenes. My favorites include two scenes featuring the growing romance between the Dwarf Kili and the Elf Guard Tauriel, Bilbo’s cat-and-mouse session with Smaug, and a wonderful moment in which Thorin manages to convince the citizens of Lake-town to support the Dwarves’ efforts to reclaim Erebor. But if there is one scene that really impressed me, it happened to be the stormy confrontation between the two leaders, Thorin and Thranduil, within the latter’s realm. I feel it was the dramatic highlight of the movie, thanks to superb performances from Richard Armitage and Lee Pace.

Speaking of performances . . . I really cannot say there was one that failed to impress me. Although I had some criticisms of the Legolas and Tauriel characters, I certainly had none regarding the two performers who portrayed them. Granted, Orlando Bloom may have been a bit old for portraying the younger Legolas, I must admit that I found his acting in this movie a lot more impressive than in the “LORD OF THE RINGS”. His Legolas in this film was a bit darker and more complex. And Bloom rose to the occasion perfectly. Evangeline Lilly’s portrayal of Tauriel was probably one of the best things in this movie. She has certainly come a long way since her early years as an actress. Tauriel might have been something of a “Mary Sue”, Lilly certainly injected a great deal of brilliance and excitement into the character. And she had great screen chemistry with Aidan Turner, who portrayed the youngest member of Thorin’s Dwarf band – Kili. Turner, who was such fun in the first “HOBBIT” film, did a marvelous job as the lovesick Kili. I especially enjoyed his one scene in which the barely conscious Kili not only poignantly expressed his love for Tauriel, but also his self-doubts about her feelings for him. Lee Pace added another eccentric character to his gallery of roles as the arrogant king of the Wood Elves, Thranduil. Mind you, Pace went out of his way to express Thranduil’s desire to protect his people from the growing evil. But he also did such a marvelous job in expressing Thranduil’s showy personality and arrogance.

Luke Evans made his debut in the trilogy as Bard the Bowman, an archer and descendant of the lords of Dale. And he was fantastic. Evans captured a great deal of the character’s grim charisma and presence with great ease. Some of the other actors who portrayed the Erebor Dwarves certainly made their presence felt in this film. Graham McTavish was deliciously surly as the aggressive Dwalin, the first Dwarf that Bilbo ever met. Ken Stott continued his outstanding portrayal of the elderly and very wise Balin. Dean O’Gorman continued his strong chemistry with Aidan Turner as Fili, Kili’s older brother. I was especially impressed by his performance in a scene in which Fili refuses to leave behind the injured Kili at Lake-town. A first-rate dramatic performance on his part. Stephen Hunter got to shine as the overweight Dwarf, Bombur. After his character was treated as a joke in the first film, Hunter had a great heroic moment when his character fought off several Orcs during the flight from the Milkwood Palace. Stephen Fry appeared in the film as the Master of Lake-town and gave a deliciously nasty performance as the self-involved and greedy leader of the community near the Lonely Mountain. In fact, I cannot recall him portraying such a negative character before. He should do it more often.

Ian McKellen continued his elegant portrayal of the wizard Gandalf the Gray. Like the second film in the “LORD OF RINGS” trilogy, his appearance was more limited than it was in the first. But he had some marvelous moments during the sequence that featured Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur. Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins developed in a way that I found both satisfying and disturbing. I have to give Freeman kudos in the subtle manner in which he conveyed Bilbo’s growing confidence in his role as a member of Thorin’s company. At the same, audiences could see the growing negative imapact of the One Ring upon his character . . . especially in the Milkwood Forest sequence. Bilbo’s character was not the only one growing increasingly darker. As much as I enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the heroic Aragon in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy, I must admit that I find Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield more rewarding. The character is so rich in its complexity and Armitage does a superb job in portraying the Dwarf prince’s moral ambiguity. I found it interesting that in this second film, Thorin begins to rely a lot more on Bilbo to help the company through its travails. Yet, the closer the company reaches its goal in Erebor, the darker Thorin’s personality becomes. It is fascinating to watch Armitage take this character down a dark road.

It is a pity that “THE HOBBIT” trilogy has not garnered as much critical acclaim as the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies. Quite frankly, I find them more enjoyable to watch. Unlike the trilogy from a decade ago, the two “HOBBIT” movies have managed to more than satisfy me. “THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG” may have possessed a few flaws, but it kept me fully entertained and fascinated right to the end. Right now, Peter Jackson seemed to be on a roll with this second trilogy. I only hope that the third and last film will not disappoint me.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

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“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” (2012) Review

I had nothing against the news of New Line Cinema’s attempt to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, “The Hobbit” for the screen. But I had no idea that the studio, along with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Brothers would end up stringing out the adaptation into three movies. Three. That seemed a lot for a 300-page novel. The first chapter in this three-page adaptation turned out to be the recent release, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”

Peter Jackson, who had directed the adaptation of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”trilogy over a decade ago, returned to direct an earlier chapter of the author’s tales about Middle Earth. He nearly did not make it to the director’s chair. Guillermo del Toro was the first choice as director. However, del Toro Del left the project in May 2010 working with Jackson and the latter’s production team, due to delays caused in part by financial problems at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He did remain with the project long enough to co-write the movie’s screenplay with Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. To my utter amazement, the efforts of the four screenwriters and Jackson’s direction has produced a good number of negative backlash against the film. Ironically, most of the film’s backlash has been directed at Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of high frame rate for the film’s look. Others have simply complained about the movie’s length and its inability to match the quality of the “LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy released between 2001 and 2003.

“THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” began on the elderly Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday (shown in the 2001 movie), when he decides to recount the full story of an adventure he had experienced 60 years ago, for his nephew Frodo. Bilbo first reveals how the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor was taken over by a gold-loving dragon named Smaug. The Erebor Dwarves are scattered throughout Middle Earth. The Dwarf King Thrór was killed by an Orc, when he tried to settle his people in Moria. His son, Thráin II, was driven mad from one of the Rings handed over to his ancestor by Sauron before dying. Thráin II’s son, Thorin Oakenshield, became determined to not only recover Erebor from Smaug, but also recover their treasure. At Gandalf the Gray’s suggestion, Thorin and his followers traveled to the Shire to recruit Bilbo’s help in achieving their goals (they need the Hobbit to act as a burglar in order to get their Arkenstone back). At first, Bilbo was reluctant to join their quest. But he caved in at the idea of an adventure and eventually joined the Dwarves and Gandalf. Their adventures led them to an encounter with three Trolls; pursuing Orcs who want Thorin’s head for cutting off the arm of their war chief, Azog; a respite at Rivendell, due to the hospitality of Lord Elrond; and deadly encounters within the Misty Mountains with Goblins and for Bilbo, the current Ring bearer Gollum. The movie ended on the slopes of the Misty Mountains with a deadly encounter with Azog and his orcs.

How do I feel about “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Well for one thing, I still believe it was unnecessary for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. It is simply not big enough, despite the fact that this first film is shorter than the three “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I really do not see how Jackson would be able to stretch an adaptation of the novel into three movies, each with an average running time of 160-170 minutes. Judging from the movie’s first 30 minutes, I see that Jackson is going to stretch it as much as he can. Many people have commented on the new high frame rate that Jackson and Lesnie used for the film. Yes, the movie has a sharper and more colorful look. In fact, the film’s visual look reminded me of the use of Blu-Ray DVDs. Do I care? No. Hollywood critics and moviegoers have a tradition of ranting against any new film innovation – sound, color, digital cameras, CGI . . . you get the point. It has been ten years since George Lucas first used digital cameras for “STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and people are still bitching about it. Did I have a few problems with “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY”? Sure. Although many people have problems with the movie’s first 20 to 30 minutes, claiming that the Shire sequence seemed to stretch forever. I only agree with that criticism to a certain extent. I had no problems with Bilbo’s humorous first encounter with the Dwarves. But I thought Jackson lingered unnecessarily too long on the sequence featuring the elderly Bilbo and Frodo. And although I enjoyed the mind game between the younger Bilbo and Gollum, I have yet to develop any fondness for the latter character. And if I have to be brutally honest, I found Howard Shore’s score for this movie less memorable than his work for the “LORD OF THE RING” films.

Despite the conflict over using three movies to adapt Tolkien’s novel and Jackson’s use of a new high frame rate, I have to say that I enjoyed “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I did the second and third movies from the “LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Like 2001’s“LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”, this new movie is basically a tale about a road trip. And there is nothing more dear to my heart than a road trip. Because Tolkien’s 1937 tale was basically a children’s story, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” featured a good deal of more humor than was found in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” films. A great deal of that humor came from twelve of the thirteen Dwarves, whom Bilbo and Gandalf accompanied. Four of the funniest sequences turned out to be the Dwarves’ arrival at an increasingly irritated Bilbo’s home in the Shire, the traveling party’s encounter with three Trolls obsessed with their stomachs, the Dwarves’ reactions to Elvish food in Rivendell and Bilbo’s mental duel with Gollum. Like the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, “THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY” also featured some outstanding action sequences – especially the flashbacks about the downfall of the Erebor Dwarves; the traveling party’s efforts to evade the Orc hunting party with the assistance of a wizard named Radagast the Brown; and their battles with both the Goblins, and Azog and the Orcs.

The movie featured some solid performances from the cast. It was good to see Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving as Lady Galadriel and her son-in-law Lord Elrond again. Although I am not a fan of the Gollum character, I must admit that Andy Serkis gave another memorable performance of the malignant changeling. However, I am a little confused by his portrayal of Gollum with a split personality, since the character’s moral compass was not challenged by any acts of kindness in this film. Ian McKellen was commanding as ever as the wizard Gandalf the Gray. And it was also nice to see Ian Holm and Elijah Wood as the elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins again. I was a little taken aback by the presence of Christopher Lee reprising his role of the wizard Saruman, but merely as a supporting character and not as a villain. But I have to give kudos to Lee for revealing certain aspects of Saruman’s personality that made his eventual corruption in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. I really enjoyed Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He did an exceptional job of projecting the character’s emotional development from a self-satisfied homebody to the adventurer who wins the respect of the Dwarves with his heroic actions by the end of the movie. I first noticed Richard Armitage in the 2004 television miniseries,“NORTH AND SOUTH” and have been impressed with this actor ever since. I realized that his character Thorin Oakenshield is being compared to the Aragon character from “LORD OF THE RINGS”. I would not bother. Thorin is a more complicated character. And Jackson chose the right actor – namely Armitage – to portray this heroic, yet prickly and hot tempered Dwarf. Thanks to Armitage’s superb performance, it was not hard to understand Gandalf’s frustrations over the character. If I must be honest, my memories of the twelve other Dwarves is a bit shaky. But there were two of them that stood out for me. Ken Stott was very effective as the elderly Balin, who provided a great deal of wisdom in the story. And I really enjoyed James Nesbitt as Bofur, who injected a great deal of charm and liveliness not only in his role, but also in the story.

I realize that “THE HOBBIT: AN UNDISCOVERED JOURNEY” has been receiving mixed reviews from critics. And honestly, I do not care. Mind you, it is not perfect and I see no need for a three-movie adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel. But I really enjoyed watching the movie. It reminded me of the joy I had experienced in watching the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie, “Fellowship of the Rings”. And I believe that Peter Jackson and a first-rate cast led by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage did an excellent job in adapting part of Tolkien’s novel.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

Sixteen years after the 1983 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” hit the movie screens, producer-director George Lucas returned to the world of STAR WARS for a new trilogy that depicted the years before the 1977-1983 movies, starting with the 1999 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” was received very poorly by critics and veteran STAR WARS fans when it was first released in 1999. Many believed that it failed to capture the spirit of Lucas’ saga first established in the first three films. Despite the negative opinions, the movie proved to be a blockbuster champion at the box office. But public opinion of the movie in the following thirteen years remained negative. In fact, public opinion has not been that kind to the two movies that followed. When Lucas announced his intentions to re-release “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in 3D, many either wondered why he would bother or accused the producer of trying to milk the STAR WARS cash cow even further. As for me, I received the news with mixed feelings. When the movie was first released in 1999, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much, even though I would never view it as one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. On the other hand, I despise the 3D process. I despised the use of it in movies like 2009’s“AVATAR” and my feelings for it had not changed when I last saw it used for “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”. But my love for STAR WARS overcame my distaste for 3D and I went to see the movie.

Like other STAR WARS, this one began in a galaxy, far, far away . . . thirty-two years before the events of the 1977 movie. Instead of an empire, this story is set during the Old Republic in which knights and masters of the religious Jedi Order serve as “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy” on behalf of the Republic Senate. A Jedi Master named Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice (or padawan) have been dispatched by the Senate’s Chancellor Finis Valorum to negotiate a peace between the planet Naboo and the Trade Federation, an organization who has decided to establish a blockade of battleships in response to a taxation on trade routes. The Federation has made this move on the “advice” of their partner, a Sith Lord (and enemy of the Jedi) named Darth Sidious. Unfortunately for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, the Trade Federation attempt to kill them on the order of Darth Sidious. Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape from the Trade Federation battleship and make their way to Naboo’s surface, during the former’s invasion of the planet. The pair enlists the help of Jar-Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans (Naboo’s underwater inhabitants) to reach Queen Padme Amidala, the planet’s 14 year-old ruler. They save her and her entourage, before making their escape from Naboo. Due to a failing power converter, the entire party make an emergency landing on the remote Tatooine in order to find the parts to fix the ship. In one of Tatooine’s major cities, Mos Espa; Qui-Gon, Padme (who is disguised as a royal handmaiden), and Jar-Jar meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker. It is not long before Qui-Gon Their meeting will prove to not only have major consequences on the outcome between Naboo and the Trade Federation, but also upon the galaxy.

My recent viewing of “THE PHANTOM MENACE” made me realize that after 13 years, I still love the movie. Nothing has changed my view of the movie, including the addition of the 3D effects. However, I cannot deny that “THE PHANTOM MENACE” is perfect. I have my complaints. My major complaint was Lucas’ addition of the 3D effects. They were not impressive. I had expected them to be, considering the outstanding 3D effects of the updated STAR WARS attractions at the Disney amusement parks. But the movie’s effects proved to be a poor comparison and a not-so-surprising disappointment. My second complaint centered around the use of Tatooine as a setting. In fact, the saga’s use of Tatooine has proven to be a major disappointment since the first movie, 1977’s “A NEW HOPE”. Aside from a few sequences, Tatooine proved to be a major bore. After Qui-Gon and Padme’s first meeting with Anakin, I had to struggle to stay awake before the podrace sequence. Lucas’ slow pacing and John Williams’ less-than-stellar score nearly put me to sleep. The only movie in which Tatooine proved to be interesting from start to finish was 2002’s“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. I realize that many STAR WARS fans dislike the Gungans and specifically, one Jar-Jar Binks. There are times that I feel I could write a detailed essay on the fans’ dislike of Jar-Jar, but this is not the time or place for such an article. Although I harbor no dislike of Jar-Jar, there were a few times when I had some difficulty understanding his and the other Gungans’ dialogue.

It may not be perfect, but I cannot deny that I found “THE PHANTOM MENACE” enjoyable as ever. George Lucas wrote a complex, yet comprehensive tale that set in motion the downfall of the Galactic Republic, the Jedi Order and most of the major characters.“THE PHANTOM MENACE” offered a great deal for all ages and tastes. It provided a complex political tale that culminated in an exciting military battle that freed Naboo from the clutches of the Trade Federation. It provided an exciting duel between the two Jedi – Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan – and Sith Lord Darth Sidious’ apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie provided characters such as a nine year-old Anakin Skywalker, his Tatooine friends and Jar-Jar Binks for children. But the one thing that really impressed me was the exciting Boonta Eve Podrace that Anakin participated in order to win parts for Qui-Gon, Padme and their ship. In fact, if I had to choose my favorite sequence in the entire STAR WARS movie saga, it had to be the one featuring the podrace. This sequence began with the Skywalkers, Qui-Gon, Padme and Jar-Jar arriving at the Mos Espa arena and ended aboard the Nabooan starship when Qui-Gon introduced Anakin to Obi-Wan, following his brief duel with Darth Maul.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” provided some solid acting, despite George Lucas’ cheesy dialogue. This is no surprise, considering that a combination of solid acting and cheesy dialogue has been the hallmark of STAR WARS movies since the first one in 1977. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ahmed Best, Hugh Quarshie, Terence Stamp, Andrew Secombe and Ray Parks all did solid work. It was nice to hear vocals from STAR WARS veterans Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker. The movie also featured brief moments for British stars such as Keira Knightley, Oliver Ford-Davies, Celia Imrie, Brian Blessed, and Richard Armitage. But there were a few performances that stood out. One came from Ian McDiarmid, who returned to portray Senator Palpatine of Naboo aka Darth Sidious for the second time in his career. Unlike his portrayal of Palpatine in 1983’s“RETURN OF THE JEDI”, his performance was a great deal more subtle and layered with much charm. Jake Lloyd may not have been the best child actor in existence, but I cannot deny that his Anakin Skywalker was like a ball of solar energy that charmed the pants off of me. The good-bye scene between Anakin and his mother, Shmi was one of the most poignant in the saga. Both Lloyd and Pernilla August did such a superb job that their performances brought tears to my eyes. And aside from a few wooden moments, I thought he handled the role rather well. But if I had to choose the best performance in the movie, I would select Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. First of all, he did a great job in conveying Qui-Gon’s warmth and appeal. He made it easy for many to see why both Anakin and Obi-Wan viewed him as a father figure.

Since this is a STAR WARS movie, one might as well discuss the technical aspects of “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Without a doubt, it is a beautiful looking movie. It was so beautiful that I did not know who to single out. But I can think of a few. First of all cinematographer David Tattersall did a beautiful job in photographing the movie’s locations of England, Tunisia and especially Italy. Thanks to Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s editing, the podrace and the Battle of Naboo proved to be two of the best sequences in the movie. And what can I say about Trisha Biggar’s dazzling costume designs? Just how beautiful are they? Take a look:

 

It seems a crime that Biggar’s work was never acknowledged by the Academy Arts of Motion Pictures and Sciences or the Golden Globes. At least she won a Saturn Award for the costumes in this movie.

However, it was George Lucas who put it altogether in the end. Twenty-two years had passed between the time he directed “A NEW HOPE” and “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Personally, I thought he did a pretty damn good job. The 1999 movie was not perfect. And if I must be perfectly frank, I was not impressed by the movie’s 3D effects. But I am glad that I went to see “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in the movie theaters again. It reminded me that the STAR WARS saga had not lost its magic on the big screen.

Top Ten Favorite Movies and Television Set During the Victorian Age

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I decided to revise my list of favorite movie and television productions set during the Victorian Age (1837-1901). Below is the list:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE VICTORIAN AGE

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1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch adapted this superb version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about a woman from Southern England living in the industrial North. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage star.

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2. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey adapted and Philip Saville directed this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy. Carla Gugino, Greg Wise, James Frain and Cheri Lunghi star.

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3. “Without a Clue” (1988) – Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in hilarious look into a premise in which Dr. Watson is the investigating genius and Holmes is a fraud. Thom Eberhardt directed.

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4. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) – Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland and Patric Knowles starred in this historically inaccurate, but fascinating look into British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

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5. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie returned to direct what I believe is a slightly better sequel to his 2009 hit. In it, Holmes battles James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star.

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6. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Although not considered the best adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel by many, it is certainly my favorite. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the movie starred Heath Ledger.

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7. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crichton wrote and directed this adaptation of his 1975 novel about a group of thieves plotting to steal the Crimean War gold from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

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8. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this entertaining and exciting take on the famous literary sleuth. Guy Ritchie directed.

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9. “The Way We Live Now” (2001) – Andrew Davies adapted and David Yates directed this biting adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel greed in Victorian England. David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew MacFadyen starred.

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10. “Jane Eyre” (2006) – Sandy Welch adapted this first-rate version of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens starred.

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Honorable Mention – “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – I rarely include an “honorable mention” on my FAVORITE lists. But I love William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel so much that I had to find a way to include it. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven starred.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uberpatriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character. 

My condescending contempt toward this new movie grew deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of “THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign up for the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with“WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used her character as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s“BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. And she did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. It was easy to see why Atwell’s Peggy fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies of this summer. And because of this movie, I am truly looking forward to “THE AVENGERS” next year. I only hope that it proves to be just as first-rate as “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel: 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it. 

Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.

But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view ”NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE – namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.

The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.

Many have compared ”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, ”NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.

The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as ”Master” – the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.

I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.

Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.

Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.

The only problems I had with ”NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.

”NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, ”NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.

One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.

Before I actually saw ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.

I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.

I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for ”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.

Notes and Observations on “STAR WARS: Episode I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”

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The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode I: The Phantom Menace”. I hope that you enjoy them: 

“STAR WARS: Episode I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”

*Both the Trade Federation and Darth Sidious seemed surprised that Supreme Chancellor Valorum had dispatched Jedi Knights to act as mediators between the Trade Federation and Naboo. Apparently, this discovery had led Sidious to order a premature invasion of Naboo.

*Why were the Trade Federation fearful of the Jedi, acting as ambassadors?

*Why would Boss Nass and the Gungans want Jar-Jar Binks banished for simply being clumsy? Why did his clumsiness bother him so much? Was this an indication of the Gungans’ lack of tolerance toward imperfection? Could one say the same about those STAR WARS fans who dislike Jar-Jar with a vengeance?

*”You overdid it.” – Was that Obi-Wan Kenobi admonishing his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, for making Jar-Jar too relaxed?

*Isn’t it ironic that it was Obi-Wan who led Qui-Gon, Padme and himself to Anakin, by suggesting that the Queen’s ship seek repairs on Tatooine?

*After two attempts, Qui-Gon discovered that the Jedi Mind Trick did not work on Watto and other Toydarians. Perhaps this is why he had failed to free both Skywalkers from slavery.

*Many have complained that Lucas should have shown the Nabooans suffering under the Trade Federation’s invasion. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But after Sio Biddle had sent that message to the Queen about the suffering on the planet, both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan expressed suspicion that the message might be a trick to lure the Queen back into the Trade Federation’s clutches. Of course, they were wrong.

*Darth Maul managed to track down the Queen’s whereabouts, via Sio Biddle’s transmission to Tatooine.

*Anakin told Qui-Gon and Padme that he had been working on a scanner to locate the transmitter in his head. As many know, the transmitter will blow up any slave attempting an escape. I wonder what would have happened if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had made an attempt to get Shmi away from Tatooine.

*Apparently, the idea to enter Anakin into the Boonta Eve Podrace was his own idea . . . supported very reluctantly by Shmi.

*”What if this plan fails, Master? We could be stuck here for a very long time.” – Obi-Wan’s remark seemed to foreshadow his own fate on Tatooine.

*Qui-Gon’s plan to free Anakin seemed to have been instigated by Shmi’s request that he find a way help Anakin leave Tatooine and slavery.

*If Watto believed that Sebula would win the race, why did he agree to support Qui-Gon’s backing of Anakin? I believe that Watto felt he would get his hands on Queen Amidala’s ship if Anakin had lost. And if the latter had won then he and Qui-Gon would split the victor’s fee. But Watto’s greed and lack of faith in Anakin allowed him to be manipulated by Qui-Gon into betting against his young slave.

*I LOVE the podrace sequence. I love every detail about it. Along with the Battle of Naboo, it is the highlight of the movie.

*Interesting. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Panaka and Anakin had all bowed before Valorum and Palpatine. Yet, both the present and future chancellors did not bow before Queen Amidala, upon the latter’s arrival on Coruscant.

*Amidala seemed certain of Valorum’s support in the Naboo/Trade Federation matter. Yet, Palpatine immediately set out to undermine Valorum in Amidala’s eyes . . . and suggest that a new chancellor be elected.

*Yoda seemed particularly aggressive when questioning Qui-Gon’s belief that Anakin might be the Chosen One to fulfill the prophecy.

*Why does Palpatine want Padme to accept the Trade Federation’s control of Naboo? What plans did he have for this situation, once he became chancellor?

*Many have accused The Phantom Menace of lacking in emotion. Yet, there seemed to be a heavy undercurrent of emotion in the movie. In the scene which featured the Jedi Council’s initial rejection of Anakin, Yoda, Mace Windu, Ki-Adi Mundi and other Council members seemed smug and arrogant over their decision. Anakin looked angry at the Council, and Qui-Gon . . . disappointed. But most surprisingly, Obi-Wan looked both surprised and angry at Qui-Gon’s support of Anakin. I suspect that he felt a little rejected.

*Why did Palpatine warn Darth Maul to allow Padme, the Naboo and Gungan forces, and the Jedi to make the first move?

*I never realized that Anakin had saved Padme, Panaka and the Nabooans in the hangar, by shooting at the droidekas.

*So . . . R2-D2 wanted Anakin to return to Naboo, once they had joined Ric Olie and the other Nabooan pilots in their battle against the Federation ships.

*Anakin had ended up inside the Federation ship, because his fighter had been hit. And he had accidentally destroyed the shield generator.

*Before striking down Qui-Gon, Darth Maul seemed frustrated by his inability to kill the Jedi Master.

*If the Jedi Council had finally approved of Anakin’s entry into the Order, why didn’t Yoda use a less strident manner to convince Obi-Wan to allow someone else – someone more mature – to train Anakin? Who knows? Perhaps he may have been more convincing.

*The moment the camera focused upon Palpatine’s face during Qui-Gon’s funeral, you can hear the cheers of triumph that would lead to the victory celebration.

*Both Anakin and Obi-Wan seemed uneasy in each other’s company during the celebration. In fact, Anakin seemed unusually sober . . . until he exchanged a smile with Padme. I suspect that Obi-Wan had noticed that exchange, judging by his expression.