Friday, May 24, 2013
"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" (1985) - EPISODE ONE "1842-1844" Commentary
The year nineteen eighty-two saw the publication of "North and South", the first novel of John Jakes' trilogy about the United States before, during and after the U.S. Civil War. This first novel, set during the United States' Antebellum Era, was adapted into a six-part miniseries in 1985.
This first miniseries, "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I", told the story of two families during the years before the Civil War. The Hazards are a wealthy family that owns a successful iron foundry in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania - not far from Philadelphia. Just as wealthy are the Mains, a family from the low country of South Carolina that owns a cotton plantation (a rice plantation in the novel) called Mont Royal. George Hazard and Orry Main first meet in New York City in the summer of 1842, as both make their way to commence upon their four years as cadets at West Point, the U.S. Army Military Academy. The two become fast friends, despite regional differences, as they endure trials and tribulations during their four years at the Point and the violence of the Mexican-American War. Due to the perseverance of their friendship, George and Orry's families also form bonds, leading to the friendship of another Hazard and Main at West Point in the 1850s and marriage between two members of the families. By the end of miniseries, George and Orry's friendship, along with the bonds formed between their families are tested by the growing conflict between Northerners and Southerners and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Episode One of "NORTH AND SOUTH" is set between 1842 and 1844. It is more or less an introduction of the two main characters, their families and the entire saga. Although it is not my favorite episode of the miniseries, I must admit that director Richard T. Heffron, along with the series' staff of screenwriters (that includes John Jakes), did a solid job in setting up the miniseries. I noticed that some significant differences were made from Jakes' novel. One, the writers excluded the novel's prologue altogether, which had introduced the Hazards and Mains' family founders in the 1680s. Unlike the novel, the miniseries began with Orry Main's departure from Mont Royal, the family estate; and his first meeting with his future love, New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Actually, what the writers did was switch the Hazard family's introduction with the Mains, Madeline Fabray and Justin La Motte (neighbor of the Mains). Whereas Orry first met all of the Hazards in 1842 New York City in the novel, he did not meet them until his and George Hazard's three-month furlough in 1844 in the miniseries. The character of Elkhannah Bent underwent a physical transformation. He went from an overweight and unattractive Ohio-born man in the novel to a handsome Georgia-born young man in the miniseries. But the character remained insane and maintained his hatred of both George and Orry. As it turned out, the television Bent was a combination of the literary Bent and a character from the second novel, "Love and War" called Lamar Powell. The miniseries also allowed viewers to experience the venal Justin La Motte's courtship of Madeline during the two years between her first meeting with Orry and his 1844 furlough. Because Orry and Madeline met two years earlier than they did in the novel, the pair exchanged letters until their correspondence was secretly interrupted by Madeline's father, Nicholas Fabray. He was determined that Madeline marry La Motte.
I also noticed that Orry's attitude toward slavery seemed to be less conservative than it was in the novel. I suspect that the writers decided to delete the character of Cooper Main, Orry's older brother, while incorporating some of his moderate political views into Orry. They had no problems with transferring all four Hazard siblings - George, Stanley, Virgilia and Billy - from the novel to the miniseries. Yet, they failed to do the same with the Main siblings. Only Orry, Ashton, Brett and Charles made it from the novel to the miniseries. Cooper remained missing until the third miniseries, "HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH - BOOK III". I found this strange. Why did the screenwriters feel it was necessary to delete Cooper's character from the miniseries?
There were some other differences that did not sit right with me. One, the episode featured George and Orry's journey from New York City to West Point via the railroad. There was no railroad service between New York City and the West Point Academy in the 1840s. In fact, there is still no rail service between the two locations. The miniseries also featured a swordfight between the two friends' cadet drillmaster, the insane Elkhannah Bent and Orry - with the latter defeating the older cadet. Both the novel and the miniseries made it clear that Orry struggled with his studies. Because of this, Jakes made it clear in his novel that Orry was never able to become an accomplished swordsman. Yet, Orry defeated Bent in the miniseries because he was a member of the Southern planter class. The screenwriters utilized a cliche to make Orry an accomplished swordsman. And to this day, I am still puzzled at Orry's lack of reaction to his eight to ten year-old sister Ashton's knowledge of overseer Salem Jones' sexual tryst with house slave Semiramis. Surely, he would be upset that his young sister would not only know but openly discuss such a topic.
But I was impressed by how the episode revealed the political conflicts that permeated the country during the early to mid 1840s. The miniseries mentioned such topics as the country's conflict with Mexico over Texas, Western expansion and its impact on the institution of slavery. I noticed that the Hazard family - George included - did not seem particularly concerned over the idea of Texas joining the Union as a slave state. Even more interesting was the family's contemptuous dismissal of Virgilia Hazard's pro-abolition stance. In one scene featuring Orry's dinner with the Hazard family at their Leigh Station home, the male members of the family tend to ignore Virgilia's comments altogether, until she was finally forced to raise her voice. The Hazard family's reaction to Virgilia's abolitionist stance seemed a true reflection of most Northerners' cool attitude toward the abolition of slavery. Another scene that took me by surprise featured a brief mention of Oberlin College in Ohio by Elkhannah Bent. During the 1830s, it became the first college institution to integrate blacks and women into its student body. Being a bigot, Bent naturally mentioned the college with a great deal of contempt.
Anyone familiar with Jakes' literary trilogy would probably realize that the saga's main topic centered around American slavery and its impact upon the country's political and social scene between the 1840s and 1860s. There were four scenes that perfectly emphasized not only the horrors of slavery, but also the growing conflict between North and South. One scene in the episode's second half featured Orry's return to Mont Royal during his furlough. In this scene, he comes across the plantation's new overseer, Salem Jones, whipping a slave named Priam. Priam happened to be the older brother of Semiramis, the house slave whom Jones has coerced to be his slave mistress. Not only did the sight of the whip being cracked across actor David Harris' back filled me revulsion, but also Jones' reason for authorizing the whipping in the first place - to guarantee Priam's obedience. However, a scene featuring Madeline Fabray breakfasting with Justin La Motte during a visit to the latter's plantation, Resolute; proved to be even equally effective. In the scene, a house slave named Nancy spills coffee on Madeline's sleeve. While the latter disappears into the office to change clothes, a tense moment ensues when La Motte punishes Nancy with a brutal slap and a warning.
The conflict between North and South first reared its ugly head in a confrontation between Orry and a Ohio-born cadet named Ned Fisk, who resented the financial competition that his father faced from Southern planters who used slave labor. But I thought there were two scenes that I believe more effectively conveyed the conflict between the two regions. One featured a scene in which Orry toured the grounds of Hazard Irons during his visit to Lehigh Station and commented rather negatively on the white immigrant labor used by the Hazard family at their foundry. His little comment nearly sparked the first argument between the two friends. But Virgilia's confrontation with Orry during a Hazard family dinner scene not only emphasized the Hazards' disregard toward the abolitionist movement, but also the conflict between abolition and the country's pro-slavery faction . . . especially in regard to American politics in the 1840s.
Production wise, Episode One looked gorgeous. Archie J. Bacon did an excellent job in bringing Antebellum America to the screen - both North and South. The miniseries was shot mainly in South Carolina and Mississippi and cinematographer Stevan Larner did justice to the locations, providing scenes with sharp color and elegance. I was especially impressed by the tracking shot that not only kick-started the miniseries, but also gave viewers a sweeping view of the operations at Mont Royal. Vicki Sánchez's costumes were beautiful to look at. I was especially impressed by the following dress worn by Lesley-Anne Down in one scene:
The cast provided solid performances in the miniseries. Mind you, the performances by some of extras struck me as rather wooden and amateurish. But the main cast seemed to know what they were doing. Both James Read and Patrick Swayze formed a perfect screen team as the two best friends - George Hazard and Orry Main. I enjoyed Lesley-Anne Down's portrayal of the New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Although she had decent chemistry with Swayze, I was never a fan of the Orry-Madeline romance. It always struck me as a bit too ideal or Harlequin Romance for my tastes. David Carradine was both smooth and menacing as neighboring planter, Justin La Motte. Andrew Stahl nicely balanced both Ned Fisk's resentment toward the Southern planter class and wariness toward Elkhannah Bent. Olivia Cole provided solid support as the Fabrays' free housekeeper, Maum Sally. And Lee Bergere gave a subtle performance as Madeline's manipulative, but well meaning father, Nicholas Fabray. But the two performances that really made me sit up and notice were Philip Casnoff's intense portrayal of the borderline insane Elkhannah Bent and Kirstie Alley's equally intense performance as the dedicated abolitionist Virgilia Hazard.
So far, "NORTH AND SOUTH" seemed to be off to a good start. Mind you, there were a few setbacks in regard to historical accuracy and characterization. With the episode ending with Orry and Madeline's declaration of love for one another, along with her marriage to Justin La Motte, viewers were bound to be drawn to the next episode.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
"G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" (2012) Review
Following the success of 2009's "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA", Hasbro and Paramount Pictures followed up with a sequel set a few years after the first film. Unlike the 2009 movie, this latest film was not directed by Stephen Sommers. And several cast members from the first film did not reprise their roles.
When the G.I. Joes are framed for stealing nuclear warheads from Pakistan, Cobra minion Zartan - in disguise as the President of the United States - orders their elimination at their camp in the Middle East via a military air strike. The latter kills most of the Joes, including one Conrad "Duke" Hauser, who had been awarded his own team of Joes following the incidents of the 2009 film. The survivors - Sergeant Marvin "Roadblock" Hinton, Alison "Lady Jaye" Hart-Burnett, and Dashiell "Flint" Faireborn - make their way to the U.S. to learn why the Joes had been destroyed by the President. When Zartan (as President) announces that COBRA troops will replace the Joes, Lady Jaye realizes that he is an impersonator. The trio seeks help from the original Joe, General Joseph Colton. Other Joe survivors include Snake Eyes, who has returned to his old order in Japan to train a new apprentice, Jinx. When COBRA operatives Storm Shadow (who had survived his duel with Snake Eyes in the 2009 film) and Firefly (an ex-Joe) rescue COBRA Commander and Destro from an underground maximum-security prison in Germany, the former sustains injuries during the escape attempt and heads for a Himalayan temple to recover. Snake Eyes' new order leader, the Blind Master, learn of Storm Shadow's new location and orders Snake Eyes and Jinx to capture him so that he can answer for the late Hard Master's death.
I might as well admit it . . . "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" was a disappointment. Many might be wondering about my disappointment, considering the prevailing view of the its predecessor, "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA". The 2009 movie may not have been a cinematic masterpiece or anything close to it. But I thought it was a fun movie filled with strong characterizations and a somewhat decent plot. This new "G.I. JOE" had its share of strong characterizations, but I cannot say that it was a lot of fun for me. Despite my disappointment, the movie did possess some virtues.
The main virtue turned out to be leading man, Dwayne Johnson. The man did the best he could to keep this movie together. And as he has done in his past movies, he gave it his all. I can say the same about Byung-hun Lee, whose portrayal of Storm Shadow proved to be even more interesting and complex in this second film. I was also impressed by the always talented and dependable Jonathan Pryce, who had the double duty of portraying the disguised Zartan and the real President of the United States. Adrianne Palicki injected some energy into the story with a lively performance as Lady Jaye Hart-Burnett. Despite his limited appearance, Channing Tatum seemed a lot more relaxed as Duke Hauser in this film. He also had a nice chemistry with Johnson. Also, the movie boasted one of the best action sequences I have seen in recent film. I speak of the Snake Eyes and Jinx's attempt to capture Storm Shadow from the Himalayan temple and prevent the latter's men from rescuing him. Director Jon M. Chu really outdid himself in that sequence.
So . . . what was it about the movie that I found disappointing? Despite Chu's outstanding direction in the Himalayan sequence, I was not that impressed by his work in the rest of the film. I missed Stephen Sommers. I also missed Channing Tatum's presence after his character was killed off 20-30 minutes into the movie. He went from leading man in the 2009 movie to a guest star in this latest film. Most of all, I missed some of the cast members from the first film. Not only did I miss them, I would like to know what the hell happened to them? What happened to Ripcord, who was Duke's longtime best friend? What happened to Scarlett, Heavy Duty, Breaker and General Hawk? Where they also killed during the airstrike against the Joes' Middle Eastern base? Did some of them leave the Joes before the events of this movie? What happened to them? What happened to Anna Lewis DeCobray? The end of the 2009 movie saw her in protective custody, awaiting for American scientists to remove nanomites from inside her body. Was she still in custody during the events of this movie? Did anyone bother to inform her about Duke's death? Apparently not, since she was never mentioned in the film.
Some of the new additions to the cast did not help this movie. I hate to say this but D.J. Cotrona's portrayal as G.I. Joe Flint Faireborn struck me as dull. Boring. Mind numbing. My God! Even Joseph Mazzello, who made a brief appearance as a Joe sharpshooter on Duke's team struck me as ten times more livelier. I love Bruce Willis. I have been a fan of his for years. But what in the hell was he doing in this film? I could have understood if he had replaced Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, commander of the Joes. Instead, Willis portrayed the original Joe, General Colton. Yes, he participated in the movie's final action sequence. And yes, he provided some arms to the team. But what was he doing in this film? His character seemed like such a waste. And Willis seemed as if he was going through the motions. Ray Stevenson gave a lively performance as ex-Joe turned COBRA minion, Firefly. The problem is that the screenplay failed to mention what led him to leave the Joes and join COBRA. Luke Bracey replaced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as COBRA Commander. And honestly? He was not that interesting. Not only did I miss Gordon-Levitt, I now believe the movie should have allowed Zartan (as the President) serve as the movie's main villain. What else can I say about "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION"? Other than the main villain's goal seemed similar to the villain's goal in the 2009 movie? Okay . . . I said it. Thanks to the screenwriters, the details of COBRA Commander's plot seemed different. But using arms to achieve world power seemed disappointingly familiar.
Despite the presence of Dwayne Johnson, Byung-hun Lee, a few others and an outstanding action sequence in the Himalayans; "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" proved to be a disappointing follow-up to its 2009 predecessor. Mind you, "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA" was no masterpiece. But it was a hell of a lot more fun and substantial than this piece of work.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Below are images from the 1980 movie, "STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK". Produced by George Lucas and directed by Irwin Kershner, the movie starred Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams:
"STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" (1980) Photo Gallery