“SERENA” (2014) Review

(This review features spoilers of the 2014 movie, “SERENA” and the Ron Rash 2008 novel from which it is adapted. If you have not seen the movie or read the novel, I suggest you do not read this review.)

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

Seven years ago, author Ron Rash wrote a novel about a young socialite’s effect upon the lives of her new husband, their North Carolina timber business and the Appalachian community that relied upon it during the early years of the Great Depression. The cinematic adaptation of Rash’s novel hung around development for a while, before it finally became the 2014 movie, “SERENA”.

“SERENA” begins during the late fall of 1929, when the New England-born timber tycoon, George Pemberton, is forced to travel to Boston and secure more funds for his lumber business in western North Carolina. While attending a horse show with his sister, George meets Serena, the daughter of a businessman who had owned his own lumber business in Colorado. After a quick romance, the newlyweds return to Waynesville, North Carolina. There, Serena and George clash with the latter’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who regards the young bride as an interloper in his relationship with George. Serena also discovers that George had conceived a child with a local servant girl named Rachel Hermann. Although George reassures Serena that the infant boy means nothing to him, she discovers otherwise after she suffers a miscarriage. Deadly antics follow as the Pembertons deal with legal threats and grow apart over George’s illegitimate child.

When “SERENA” first reached the U.S. movie theaters, it sunk at the box office amidst negative reviews from the critics and fans of Rash’s novel. I have never read the novel. But I have read its synopsis after seeing the movie. And I have also read the reviews. There seemed to be a mixed reaction to the novel, despite its success. But the reaction to the novel seemed a lot more positive than the reaction to the film. Many have criticized director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle’s changes from the novel. Serena’s point-of-view was reduced in the film. Bier and Kyle added a background in the timber business for the leading character. They removed an early scene featuring a clash between George and Rachel Hermann’s father Abe (Harmon in the novel). They removed the Greek chorus of loggers and changed the ending. And you know what today’s moviegoers and television viewers are like. If a movie or series is going to adapt a novel, these fans usually insist or demand no changes. This is a very unrealistic or dangerous attitude for any filmmaker or television producer to have. To produce a film or a television movie, series or miniseries takes a great deal of money. And a producer needs to consider so much – especially in creating an adaptation of a literary source.

There were some changes made by Bier and Kyle that did not bother me. I felt more than relieved that they had decided to drop that violent encounter between George Pemberton and Abe Hermann (Harmon) at the Waynesville train station. While reading about it, I felt that such a violent encounter happened too soon in the story and it struck me – personally – as ridiculously over-the-top. Perhaps other fans missed it. I did not. According to some criticism of Rash’s novel, the Selena Pemberton character came off as a one-note monster with no real depth. Some have lobbied the same charge at George Pemberton. Since I have never read the novel, I do not know whether they are right or wrong. But I am grateful that the movie did portray both characters with some emotional depth. This was apparent in the couple’s intense regard for one another and the emotional breakdown that occurred, following Serena’s miscarriage. I also have no problems with Kyle’s decision to add a background in lumber in Serena’s back story. I thought her familiarity with a lumber camp gave credence to her ability to help George deal with the problems that sprang up within his camp. On the other hand, both Bier and Kyle managed to find time to focus on the Pembertons’ willingness to exploit the natural beauty around them for business and George’s penchant for hunting panthers. I also found the clash between the Pembertons’ efforts to maintain their business in the Appalachian Mountains and the local sheriff’s desire to preserve the surrounding forests for a national park rather interesting. I had no idea that the clash between those who wanted to exploit the land and those who wanted to preserve it stretched back that far.

I was surprised to learn that had been filmed in the Czech Republic and Denmark. However, looking into the background of the film’s crew and cast members, I found this not surprising. With the exception of a few, most of them proved to be Europeans. I have no idea which Czech mountain range where “SERENA” was filmed, but I have to give kudos to cinematographer Morten Søborg for his rich and beautiful photography of the country. But thanks to Martin Kurel’s art direction, Graeme Purdy’s set decorations and Richard Bridgland’s production designs did an admirable job of transporting audiences back to early Depression-era western North Carolina. As for the movie’s costume designs, I thought Signe Sejlund did a top-notch job. Not only did she managed to re-create the fashions of that period (1929 to the early 1930s), she also took care to match the clothes according to the characters’ personality, class and profession.

I never read any of the reviews for “SERENA”, so I have no idea how other critics felt about the cast’s performances. When I first learned about the movie, many bloggers and journalists seemed amazed that Jennifer Lawrence would be cast in the role of the emotional and ruthless Serena Pemberton. Personally, I was not that amazed by the news. The actress has portrayed ruthless characters before and she certainly had no problems portraying Serena. I thought she did a top-notch job in capturing both the character’s ruthlessness and the intense emotions that the latter harbored for her husband. There is one scene that truly demonstrated Lawrence’s talent as an actress. And it occurred when Serena discovered that George had been secretly keeping an eye on his illegitimate son. I was impressed by how Lawrence took the character from surprise to a sense of betrayal and finally to sheer anger within seconds. Bradley Cooper, who had co-starred with Lawrence in three other films, portrayed Serena’s ruthless, yet passionate husband, George Pemberton. Cooper not only conveyed his character’s businesslike ruthlessness, but also the latter’s moral conflict over some of his actions. My only complaint is that I found his New England accent (his character is from Boston) slightly exaggerated.

“SERENA” featured solid performances from the supporting cast. Toby Jones did a good job in portraying the morally righteous sheriff, McDowell. Ana Ularu also gave a solid and warm performance as Rachel Hermann, the young woman with whom George had conceived a child, when he used her as a bed warmer. Sean Harris was very effective as the conniving Pemberton employee, Campbell. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Charity Wakefield, and Blake Ritson. But the best performances amongst the supporting cast came from David Dencik and Rhys Ifans. Dencik gave a surprisingly subtle performance as George’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who resented his partner’s marriage to Serena and her increasing impact on their lumber business. In fact, Dencik’s performance was so subtle, it left me wondering whether or not his character was secretly infatuated with George. Equally subtle was Rhys Ifans, who portrayed Pemberton employee-turned-Serena’s henchman, Galloway. Ifans did an excellent job in infusing both Galloway’s emotional ties to Serena and ruthless willingness to commit murder on her behalf.

Contrary to what many may believe, “SERENA” has its share of virtues. But it also has its share of flaws. One aspect of “SERENA” that I had a problem with surprisingly turned out to be the cast. Mind you, the cast featured first-rate actors. But I was not that impressed by the supporting cast’s Southern accents that ranged from mediocre to terrible. I could blame the film makers for relying upon European (especially British performers). But this could have easily happened with a cast of American actors. Only two actors had decent (if not perfect) upper South accents – Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris. I have no idea how Bruce Davidson, one of the few Americans in the cast, dealt with an Appalachian accent. He barely had any lines. Another problem I had with the movie turned out to be the score written by Johan Soderovist. First of all, it seemed unsuited for the movie’s Appalachian setting. Worst, Susanne Bier and the film’s producer failed to utilize the score throughout most of the film. There were too many moments in the film where there seemed to be no score to support the narrative.

At one point of the film, Kyle’s screenplay seemed to throw logic out of the window. When George committed murder to prevent Sheriff McDowell and the Federal authorities from learning about his bribes, a Pemberton employee named Campbell who had witnessed the crime, blackmailed him for a promotion. Yet, later in the film, Campbell decided to tell McDowell about the murder and the bribes. The problem is that Kyle’s screenplay never explained why Campbell had this change of heart. It never revealed why he had decided to bite the hand that fed him. And I have to agree with those who complained that the film did not focus upon Serena’s point-of-view enough. The movie’s title is “SERENA”. Yet, most of the film – especially in the first half – seemed to be focused upon George’s point-of-view. I have no idea why Bier and Kyle made these changes, but I feel that it nearly undermined the film’s narrative.

My biggest gripe with “SERENA” proved to be the ending. If I must be honest, I hated it. I also thought that it undermined the Serena Pemberton character, transforming her into a weeping ninny who could not live without her husband. Kyle’s screenplay should have adhered a lot closer to Rash’s novel. I am aware that both Serena and George loved each other very much. But Serena struck me as the type of woman who would have reacted with anger against George’s lies about his illegitimate baby, his emotional withdrawal and his attempt to strangle her. She reminded me of a younger, Depression-era version of the Victoria Grayson character from ABC’s “REVENGE”. Both women are both very passionate, yet ruthless at the same time. And if the television character was willing to resort to murder or any other kind of chicanery in retaliation to being betrayed, I believe that Serena was capable of the same, as well. Rash allowed Serena to react more violently against George for his betrayal, before sending her off to Brazil in order to start a lumber empire. Yet, both Rash and Kyle seemed determined to kill off Serena. Kyle did it by having Serena commit suicide by fire, after George was killed by a panther. I found this pathetic. Rash did it in his novel by having a mysterious stranger who bore a strong resemblance to George to kill her in Brazil. In other words, after surviving Serena’s poisoning attempt and an attack by a panther, George managed to hunt her down in thirty years or so and kill her. I found this ludicrous and frankly, rather stupid. I would have been happier if Serena had killed George and left the U.S. to make her fortune in Brazil. She struck me as the type who would get away with her crimes. If the murderer in“CHINATOWN” could get away with his crimes, why not Serena Pemberton? I feel this would have made a more interesting ending.

It is a pity that “SERENA” failed at the box office. Unlike many critics, I do not view it as total crap. I have seen worse films that succeeded at the box office. I suspect that many had simply overreacted to the film’s failure to live up to its original hype, considering the cast, the director and the novel upon which it was based. But it was not great. I regard “SERENA” as mediocre. The pity is that it could have been a lot better in the hands of a different director and screenwriter.

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Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

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“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, there seemed to be this idea – especially with the British media – that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.

When I first read McQueen’s criticism of Hollywood’s failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three – and one of them is “AMAZING GRACE”, the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce‘s efforts to end Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Looking back upon “AMAZING GRACE”, I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “LINCOLN”. Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain’s Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States’ efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. “AMAZING GRACE” focused upon the end of Britain’s official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. “LINCOLN”, on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country’s participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.

“AMAZING GRACE” begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.

The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God’s work by fighting for the issue of Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce’s convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song, “Amazing Grace”. Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce’s efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.

I am going to be brutally frank. “AMAZING GRACE” did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as “LINCOLN”. I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of “AMAZING GRACE” that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of“LINCOLN”. I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce’s original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like “LINCOLN” and “DJANGO UNCHAINED” more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character – what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain’s abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.

I have one last problem with “AMAZING GRACE”. The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative’s past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie’s historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence’s erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that “AMAZING GRACE” is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain’s abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although “AMAZING GRACE” mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery – Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano’s tour of a slave ship and Newton’s verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, “AMAZING GRACE” also touches upon Wilberforce’s personal life – especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai’s credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.

“AMAZING GRACE” is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie’s overall visual style. In the case of“AMAZING GRACE”, the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury’s set decorations. And since “AMAZING GRACE” is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie’s time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.

All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for “AMAZING GRACE”, it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt’s idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician’s wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character’s own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce’s love interest.

Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce’s mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton’s pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain’s slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell’s very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N’Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983’s “MANSFIELD PARK” together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces’ close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Without a doubt, I regard “AMAZING GRACE” as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie’s visual style, intelligent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd made this film worthwhile for me.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

If I have to be perfectly honest, I do not recall the initial reaction to many Marvel fans, when the studio first released the news of the upcoming release of the second Captain America film. I do recall various comments regarding the first one – 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The comments for that film ranged from mediocre to box office disappointing. I found the latter opinion odd, considering that movie made a considerable profit at the box office. And besides . . . “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” proved to be a favorite of mine from 2011.

It was not until the release of this second Captain America film was less than a month away, when I finally heard some excellent word-of-mouth about it. Some were even claiming that it was better than the 2012 blockbuster hit, “THE AVENGERS”. Personally, I could not see how any comic book movie could top that. But I did look forward to seeing “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially after I learned that Robert Redford, of all people, had been cast in the film. I mean . . . honestly, can you imagine an actor like Redford appearing in a Marvel Comics movie? And yet . . . he appeared in this one. Either he was desperate for work, or he really liked Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” begins two years after the events of “THE AVENGERS”. Steve Rogers aka Captain America now works as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Washington D.C. During an early morning jog, he meets and befriends an Army veteran named Sam Wilson, before he is summoned by Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow for a new mission. Steve, Natasha and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Agent Brock Rumlow are ordered to free hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from a group of mercenaries. During the mission, Steve discovers that Romanoff has another agenda – to extract data from the ship’s computers for Director Nick Fury. When Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, to confront Fury, the latter briefs him on Project Insight, which consists of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats. After failing to decrypt Romanoff’s recovered data, Fury becomes suspicious about Insight and asks World Security Council member Alexander Pierce to delay the project.

Fury is later ambushed by assailants and a mysterious assassin named the Winter Soldier. After reaching Steve’s apartment and giving the latter a flash drive of the information acquired by Natasha, Fury is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Steve is summoned by Pierce to explain what happened between him and Fury. But Steve refuses to cooperate and is later declared a fugitive by Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. When Natasha helps him evade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she also becomes a fugitive. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that Steve’s old World War II nemesis, HYDRA, had been infiltrating the agency for years. They seek sanctuary with Sam Wilson, who turns out to be a former U.S. Air Force pararescueman, trained for combat and the use of an EXO-7 “Falcon” wingpack. The trio sets out to learn more details about HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their agenda, before they can do something about it.

If I must be brutally honest, I feel that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is not only one of the best Marvel Comics movies I have ever seen, but also one of my top favorite comic book movies. It is superb. Some have claimed that it is better than “THE AVENGERS”. I do not share that belief. I have yet to see a comic book movie that is better than the 2012 film. But this movie was fantastic. I could see why Robert Redford was willing to be cast in this film. I agree with many that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was reminiscent of the political thrillers released during the 1970s. But this particular film did more . . . it shook up the Marvel Movieverse in ways that no one saw coming. The revelation of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had a major impact on the ABC television series, “AGENTS OF MARVEL”, which is a spin-off of the Marvel films. I also have to say a word about the fight sequences. There have been fight scenes from other Marvel movies and the TV series “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” that I found admirable. But the fight scenes featured in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially those between Steve and the brainwashed Bucky – were probably the best I have ever seen in a Marvel movie, let alone in recent years.

Many film critics and some moviegoers have commented on the movie’s action sequences. To them, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” seemed to be a movie with a great deal of action sequences and very little dramatic moments. That was not the movie I saw. Mind you, Anthony and Joe Russo handled the movie’s action sequences very well. Their work was aptly supported by Trent Opaloch’s gorgeous cinematography, Jeffrey Ford’s excellent editing and the exciting work from the visual effects team. I was especially impressed by the following sequences: the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s rescue of the hostages; HYDRA’s attack upon Nick Fury on the streets of Washington D.C.; Steve, Natasha and Sam deal with a team of HYDRA agents led by the Winter Soldier; and especially the big finale in which the trio and Maria Hill attempted to stop HYDRA’s plans to use the three newly constructed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

But as I had earlier stated, I do not believe that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was all action and very little drama. The film featured some dramatic moments that not only brought out the best in the cast, but also struck me as very well written. There were a good deal of verbal confrontations in this film. And most of them seemed to feature the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. I was especially impressed by the drama and the acting in scenes that featured Fury’s two conversations with Steve – one regarding the helicarriers and the other about the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. I also enjoyed Fury’s final confrontation with Alexander Pierce inside the Triskelion. I was also impressed by how the screenwriters and the Russo brothers managed to inject some very good drama in the middle of Steve’s final fight against Bucky, while he tried to convince the latter to remember the past. Speaking of the past, this movie also featured a poignant moment that displayed the strength of Steve and Bucky’s friendship in a late 1930s flashback regarding the death of Steve’s mother. The movie also featured another friendship – the budding one between Steve and Sam. This was especially apparent in one poignant scene in which Steve and Sam discussed the latter’s experiences in Afghanistan.But the best scene, as far as I am concerned, featured Steve’s last conversation with a very elderly and dying Peggy Carter. That moment between the two former lovers seemed so sad that I found myself crying a little. How this particular scene managed to evade the memories of those who claimed that the movie was basically an action fest baffles me.

Was there anything about “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” that baffled me or turned me off? I found it hard to believe that Fury actually accepted Steve’s rather ludicrous suggestion regarding the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. Why he did not laugh in the super soldier’s face or told the latter that suggestion was dangerously naive is beyond me. Why did the movie make such a big deal about HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., when certain characters made it pretty obvious that it had infiltrated other government agencies . . . all over the world? And considering that Steve’s personality was not suited for espionage, I am still wondering why Marvel – both in the comics and in the movies – would have him join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And what happened to World Council Member Hawley in the movie’s climax? The movie never explained.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Once again, Chris Evans proved that he could be a first-rate dramatic actor in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. Although he injected a little more humor into his character – especially in the movie’s first half hour – he did an excellent job of expressing Steve’s continuing discomfort of being a man in the wrong time period, his penchant for making friends with people who are not Tony Stark, and his priggish nature. I should have known that since Evans, who can be a first-rate comedic actor, should also prove to be excellent in drama. He certainly proved it in his scene with Hayley Atwell, who reprise her role as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Peggy Carter. And she was marvelous as the aging Peggy, who wavered between joy at being with Steve again, sadness that they are now far apart age wise, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Evans’ leading lady in this film proved to be Scarlett Johansson, who reprised her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. And as usual, she was fantastic. I do not know whether she did all of her stunts, but she certain looked good. And . . . as usual, Johansson did a great job in conveying the agent’s ambiguous nature – especially in the film’s first half hour. I was especially impressed by her chemistry with Evans in this film. Mind you, they did a good job of projecting a newly developed friendship in“THE AVENGERS”. But in this film, there seemed to be an extra sexual charge between the two characters.

So far, Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in at least six Marvel films. Of the six, he has somewhat sizeable role in“IRON MAN 2”, and major roles in both “THE AVENGERS” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. He did such a marvelous job as the manipulative Fury in “THE AVENGERS” that I did not think he could repeat himself in portraying that aspect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director’s character. I was wrong. He not only did a great job in portraying Fury as manipulative as ever, but at the same time, conveyed Fury’s own anger at being a victim of his mentor’s betrayal. Speaking of which, a part of me still cannot imagine Robert Redford in a comic book movie. And I cannot help but wonder if he felt the same. I wonder who approached him – the people at Marvel or his agent? Nevertheless, I am glad he accepted the role of World Security Council Alexander Pierce. This is the first time I have seen Redford portray a genuine villain and he was great. His Pierce was intelligent, soft-spoken, friendly, manipulative as Fury, and cold-blooded. It is a pity that he did not portray similar roles in the past.

Anthony Mackie joined the cast as Steve’s new friend, Army veteran Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. And like the rest of the cast, he gave a great performance. Mackie injected a good of down-to-earth sensibility to the story, along with some much-needed humor – especially in scenes in which Sam expressed annoyance at the machismo of both Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow. I was especially impressed in one scene in which Mackie’s Sam recalled his time in Afghanistan and the death of a fellow Army comrade. Sebastian Stan reprised his role as James “Buchanan” Barnes, Steve’s old childhood friend. Only his Bucky Barnes in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is, like Steve, a man out of time. More importantly, he is a brainwashed amnesiac and super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. I have to give kudos to Stan for skillful portrayal this seemingly cold-blooded assassin, who seemed torn between his role as a HYDRA killer and a confused man haunted by memories of his friendship with Steve.

The movie also featured some solid supporting performances from Cobie Smulders, who portrayed Fury’s no-nonsense second-in-command Maria Hill; Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell; Frank Grillo, who portrayed the cocky Brock Rumlow; Gary Shandling as Senator Stern, and the members of the World Security Council – Alan Dale, Chin Han, Bernard White and Jenny Agutter. By the way, many fans will be amazed to see Jenny Agutter kick butt in one particular scene. And for fans of “LOST”, you might be able to spot Adetokumboh M’Cormack, who portrayed Mr. Eko’s brother in the series, as one of the mercenaries who took control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship early in the movie.

There may have been a few things that left me feeling a bit uneasy in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. But if I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best Marvel and comic book films I have ever seen . . . period. And one has to thank Kevin Fiege’s excellent control of the Marvel films that centered on the Avengers Initiative, the marvelous screenplay scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, Anthony and Joseph Russo’s superb direction and an excellent cast led by Chris Evans. Not only is this a superb film, but it managed to shake up the Marvel Movie Universe considerably.

“THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” (2013) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” (2013) Review

Despite my enjoyment of the 2012 movie, “THE HUNGER GAMES”, I must admit that I had regarded its sequel, “THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” with a wary eye. One, the movie franchise had replaced Gary Ross with a new director, Francis Lawrence. And two, a relative who had read all three of Suzanne Collins’ novels expressed a less-than-impressed opinion of the second installment, which this movie is based upon. But enamored of the first film, I decided to give this second one a chance.

“CATCHING FIRE” picked up not long after the ending of the first installment. The winners of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, have returned to their homes in the impoverished District 12. But due to their winnings, both now reside in upscale neighborhoods. Before they are scheduled to embark upon their victory tour of Panem, Katniss receives a visit from the tyrannical President Snow, who reveals that her actions in the recent Games have inspired rebellions across the districts. He orders her to use the upcoming tour to convince everyone her actions were out of genuine love for Peeta, not defiance against the Capitol. The victory tour goes off well, aside from an emotionally difficult and violent visit to District 11, the home of the deceased tributes, 12 year-old Rue (whom Katniss had befriended) and Thesh (who had saved Katniss).

Despite the tour and the installment of violent Peacekeepers in District 12 to crack down on any signs of rebellion, President Snow remains fearful of Katniss being used as a symbol of any possible upheavals. The new Head Gamekeeper, Plutarch Heavensbee, proposes a special Hunger Games called the Third Quarter Quell (the 75th Hunger Games), in which the tributes will be selected from previous victors. He believes the Games would either ruin Katniss’ reputation, or kill her. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is naturally selected. However, her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is chosen as the male tribute. Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. Haymitch informs the pair that most of the tributes are angry over being forced to participate again and suggests they make alliances. Although Katniss is against the idea, she and Peeta adhere to Haymitch’s advice and find themselves in competition that ends with surprising results.

Despite becoming a fan of “THE HUNGER GAMES”, I continued to resist watching Suzanne Collins’ novels. Perhaps one day I will read them. But due to my unfamiliarity with the plots, the end of “CATCHING FIRE” pretty much took me by surprise. And this is a good thing. The movie’s first third hinted of a growing rebellion against President Snow’s rule over Panem in scenes that included Katniss and Peeta’s harrowing visit to District 11, the beating of Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’ closest friend and possible lover) at the hands of the Peacekeepers, and Snow’s growing paranoia over Katniss. Even the scenes featuring Katniss’ participation in the 75th Hunger Games continued hint the growing rebellion against Snow’s administration and the Capitol through the characters like Haymitch, Katniss’ friend and costume designer Cinna, and those serving as tributes. Characters like Beetee Lasnier and Johanna Mason expressed their dismay or anger at being forced to participate in another Hunger Game during their pre-Game interviews with Caesar Flickerman. Even Peeta tried to manipulate Snow into stopping the Game with false hint that Katniss might be pregnant. And during the Game, I found it interesting that Katniss and Peeta ended up forming an alliance with Lasnier and his District 3 counterpart Wiress, Johanna, and the two tributes from District 4, Finnick Odair and Mags – the only tributes to express any hostility toward the Games and President Snow. I had figured that all of them would eventually openly defy Snow by getting out of the Games. But thanks to some very good writing from Suzanne Collins, along with screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn; the circumstances behind the beginning of the rebellion really took me by surprise.

Another aspect of “CATCHING FIRE” that took me by surprise, turned out to be its cinematography. With the change of director, the franchise acquired a new cinematographer, Jo Willems. And I liked the way Willems expanded the look of Panem in the film. I suppose one could thank the movie’s plot, which allowed viewers a look at the exclusive neighborhood of District 12, into which Katniss and Peeta moved following their victory at the 74th Games; the other country’s districts, and the tropical environment that served as the 75th Games’ new setting. But more importantly, Willems expanded the visual style of the Capitol . . . especially in a scene that featured Katniss and Peeta’s arrival. This expanded visual really took me by surprise. The movie also acquired a new costume designer, Trish Summerville. I have to be honest. I found her costume designs similar to the ones created by Judianna Makovsky. I really do not see the differences . . . especially for those costumes worn by the cast for the Capitol sequences. Mind you, they are just as imaginative and beautiful as the ones featured in the first film. I simply cannot see the differences. There was one outfit – worn by Elizabeth Banks – that I found very original:

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I understand that the song “Atlas”, written and performed by the group Coldplay have earned both Golden Globe and Grammy nominations. Congratulations to the band. However, I do not remember the song. Sorry. I simply did not find it memorable. I was also a little disappointed in how Lawrence (the director) seemed to rush the first third of the movie – namely the sequence featuring Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour and District 12’s problems with the so-called Peacekeepers that culminated in Gale’s beating. It seemed as if he was in a hurry for the movie to focus on the 75th “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games. And if I may be blunt, I was also not that impressed by Alan Edward Bell’s editing. It struck me as a little choppy – especially in the movie’s first half.

The performances by the cast struck me as first rate. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson did superb jobs in continuing the development of their characters, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark. I noticed in this film that Lawrence conveyed a great deal of realism in Katniss’ growing difficulty in containing her emotions regarding those she cared about. This was especially apparent in the scene following Gale’s public whipping, Peeta’s near death experience during the first day of the Games and the visit to District 11. Someone once described Peeta as a saint. I never could view him in this manner. He strikes me as a rather manipulative individual, who can also be a very good liar. What is amazing about Hutcherson’s performance is that he perfectly balanced Peeta’s manipulative skills with his near all consuming love for Katniss and willingness to do anything for her.

Liam Hemsworth got a chance to develop his portrayal of Katniss’ childhood best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Hemsworth, like Hutcherson, did an excellent job in balancing the different layers of Gale’s personality – namely his love for Katniss and his ever-growing obsession with rebellion against President Snow and the Capitol. Woody Harrelson continued to knock it out of the ballpark as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. I think this is the first time moviegoers got a real look at Haymitch’s hostility toward President Snow, especially in the scene which featured the announcement of past winners participating in the Quarter Quell. Harrelson portrayed that small moment with such intense anger. Donald Sutherland continued his brilliant portrayal of the brutal, yet manipulative politician, President Coriolanus Snow.

Sutherland perfectly captured Snow’s quiet machinations that could rival Palpatine from the STAR WARS franchise. Yet, the actor also did a subtle job in conveying Snow’s growing paranoia over Katniss’ popularity and growing role as a symbol of rebellion. I had greatly enjoyed Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Effie Trinket in the first movie. I loved her performance in this film, as the actress allowed filmgoers a deeper look into the chaperone’s persona, beyond her usual shallowness. I am also happy that Lenny Kravitz reprised the role of Cinna, Katniss and Peeta’s stylist for the Games. As usual, the actor/musician gave a warm and beautiful performance as Katniss’ emotional solace before the Games. One particular scene in which Cinna endured a brutal beating over a dress he had created for Katniss proved to be a very painful one to watch, thanks to Kravitz and Lawrence’s performances, along with the other Lawrence’s direction. Stanley Tucci was marvelous as ever in his continuing portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the Games’ announcer and commentator. Toby Jones reprised his role as Flickerman’s fellow commentator, Claudius Templesmith. But his role had been reduced considerably.

The movie also featured some newcomers to the franchise. Philip Seymour Hoffman gave a sly and subtle performance as the Games’ new Head Gamemaker, who schemes with President Snow to destroy Katniss’ reputation and possibly, her life. Sam Claflin continued to surprise me at how charismatic he could be, in his engaging portrayal of Finnick Odair, one of the tributes from District 4, during the 75th Games. Jena Malone was a hoot as the outspoken and aggressive female tribute from District 7, Johanna Mason. The strip scene inside the elevator is one that I remember for years to come. I was surprised to see Jeffrey Wright appear in this film. He gave a subtle, yet intelligent performance as the male tribute for District 3, Beetee Latier. Wright also clicked very well with Amanda Plummer, whose performance as Latier’s fellow District 3 tribute Wiress, struck me as deliciously off-center. Lynn Cohen nearly stole the show as Finnick’s fellow tribute from District 4, Mags. I thought she did a pretty good job, although I am at a little loss over the fanfare regarding her performance.

Many seemed to regard “CATCHING FIRE” as superior to the original 2012. I cannot agree with this opinion. I am not saying that “CATCHING FIRE” is a disappointment or inferior to “THE HUNGER GAMES”. But I certainly do not regard it as better. I would say that it is just as good. And considering my very high opinion of the first film, one could assume that my opinion of this second film is equally positive, thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, first rate direction from Francis Lawrence, and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

 

 

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 


FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.



2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.



3 - Rush

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.



4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.



5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.



6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.



7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.



8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.



9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.



10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About Slavery

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

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

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

 

9-Mandingo

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

 

2-Roots

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

 

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

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

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

 

4-North and South

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

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

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

 

10-The Journey of August King

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

 

8-A Respectable Trade

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

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

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

 

7-Human Trafficking

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

 

5-Amazing Grace

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

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

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

 

1-Lincoln

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

 

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