Sunday, October 31, 2010

"MANSFIELD PARK" (1999) Review

"MANSFIELD PARK" (1999) Review

From the numerous articles and essays I have read on-line, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, "Mansfield Park" did not seemed to be a big favorite amongst the author’s modern fans. In fact, opinions of the novel and its heroine, Fanny Price, seemed just as divided today, as they had been by Austen’s own family back in the early 19th century.

When director-writer Patricia Rozema was offered the assignment to direct a film adaptation of "Mansfield Park", she had originally rejected it. She claimed that she found both the novel and the Fanny Price character unappealing. In the end, she changed her mind on the grounds that she wrote her own screen adaptation. The result turned out to be an adaptation filled with a good deal of changes from Austen’s original text. Changes that have proven to be controversial to this day.

One obvious change that Rozema had made centered on the heroine’s personality. Rozema’s script allowed actress Frances O’Connor to portray Fanny as a talented writer with a lively wit and quick temper. Mind you, Rozema’s Fanny continued to be the story’s bastion of morality – only with what many would view as sass. Rozema also allowed the Edmund Bertram character to become romantically aware of Fanny a lot sooner than the character did in the novel. Because of this revision, actor Jonny Lee Miller portrayed an Edmund who seemed a bit livelier and less priggish than his literary counterpart. Characters like the Crawfords’ half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, failed to make an appearance. Fanny’s older brother, William Price, ceased to exist. And in this adaptation, Fanny eventually accepted Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal during her stay in Portsmouth, before rejecting it the following day.

But the biggest change made by Rozema had involved the topic of slavery. The writer-director allowed the topic to permeate the movie. Austen’s novel described Fanny’s uncle by marriage, Sir Thomas Bertram, as the owner of a plantation on the island of Antigua. Due to a financial crisis, Sir Thomas was forced to depart for Antigua for a certain period of time with his oldest son as a companion. Upon his return to England and Mansfield Park, Fanny asked him a question regarding his slaves. Sir Thomas and the rest of the family responded with uncomfortable silence. Rozema utilized the Bertrams’ connection to African slavery to emphasize their questionable morality and possible corruption. She also used this connection to emphasize Fanny’s position as a woman, a poor relation, and her semi-servile position within the Mansfield Park household. Rozema used the slavery connection with a heavier hand in scenes that included Fanny hearing the cries of slaves approaching the English coast during her journey to Mansfield Park; a discussion initiated by Sir Thomas on breeding mulattoes; Edmund’s comments about the family and Fanny’s dependence upon the Antigua plantation; oldest son Tom Bertram’s revulsion toward this dependence and graphic drawings of brutalized slaves. These overt allusions to British slavery ended up leaving many critics and Austen fans up in arms.

One aspect of "MANSFIELD PARK" that impressed me turned out to be the movie’s production values. I found the production crew's use of an abandoned manor house called Kirby Hall to be very interesting. Rozema, along with cinematographer Michael Coulter and production designer Christopher Hobbs, used the house's abandoned state and cream-colored walls to convey a corrupt atmosphere as an allusion to the Bertrams’ financial connection to slavery. Hobbes further established that slightly corrupted air by sparsely furnishing the house. I also found Coulter’s use the Cornish town of Charlestown as a stand-in for the early 19th century Portmouth as very picturesque. And I especially enjoyed his photography, along with Martin Walsh’s editing in the lively sequence featuring the Bertrams’ ball held in Fanny’s honor. On the whole, Coulter’s photography struck me as colorful and imaginative. The only bleak spot in the movie’s production values seemed to be Andrea Galer’s costume designs. There was nothing wrong with them, but I must admit that they failed to capture my imagination.

I cannot deny that I found "MANSFIELD PARK" to be enjoyable and interesting. Nor can I deny that Rozema had injected a great deal of energy into Austen’s plot, something that the 1983 miniseries failed to do. Rozema removed several scenes from Austen’s novel. This allowed the movie to convey Austen's story with a running time of 112 minutes. These deleted scenes included the Bertrams and Crawfords’ visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton; and Fanny’s criticism of Mary Crawford’s caustic remarks about her uncle. This did not bother me, for I feel that such editing may have tightened the movie’s pacing. Other improvements that Rozema made – at least in my eyes – were changes in some of the characters. Fanny became a livelier personality and at the same time, managed to remain slightly oppressed by her position at Mansfield Park. Both Edmund and Henry were portrayed in a more complex and attractive light. And Tom Bertram’s portrayal as the family’s voice of moral outrage against their connection to black slavery struck me as very effective. In fact, I had no problem with Rozema’s use of slavery in the story. I am not one of those who believed that she should have toned it down to the same level as Austen had – merely using the topic as an allusion to Fanny’s situation with the Bertrams. Austen opened Pandora’s Box by briefly touching upon the topic in her novel in the first place. As far as I am concerned, there was no law that Rozema or any other filmmaker had to allude to the topic in the same manner.

However, not all of Rozema’s changes impressed me. Why was it necessary to have Henry Crawford request that he rent the nearby parsonage, when his half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, resided there in the novel? If Rozema had kept the Grants in her adaptation, this would not have happened. Nor did I understand Sir Thomas’ invitation to allow the Crawfords to reside at Mansfield Park, when Henry had his own estate in Norfolk. I suspect that Sir Thomas’ invitation was nothing more than a set up for Fanny to witness Henry making love to Maria Bertram Rushworth in her bedroom. Now, I realize that Henry is supposed to be some hot-to-trot Regency rake with an eye for women. But I simply found it implausible that he would be stupid enough to have illicit sex with his host’s married daughter. And why did Maria spend the night at Mansfield Park, when her husband’s own home, Sotherton, was located in the same neighborhood? And why was Fanny in tears over her little "discovery"? She did not love Henry. Did the sight of two people having sex disturb her? If so, why did she fail to react in a similar manner upon discovering Tom’s drawings of female slaves being raped?

Many fans had complained about Fanny’s acceptance of Henry’s marriage proposal during the visit to Portmouth. I did not, for it allowed an opportunity for Fanny’s own hypocrisy to be revealed. After all, she claimed that Henry’s moral compass made her distrustful of him. Yet, upon her rejection of him; Henry exposed her as a liar and hypocrite, claiming the real reason behind her rejection had more to do with her love for Edumund. Unfortunately . . . Rozema seemed determined not to examine Fanny’s exposed hypocrisy and dismissed it with an intimate scene between her and Edmund; the revelation of Henry’s affair with Maria; and Edmund’s rejection of Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford.

This last scene regarding Edmund's rejection of Mary revealed how truly heavy-handed Rozema could be as a filmmaker. In Austen’s novel, Edmund had rejected Mary, due to her refusal to condemn Henry for his affair with Maria and her plans to save the Bertrams and Crawfords' social positions with a marriage between Henry and the still married Maria. Mary's plans bore a strong resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy's successful efforts to save the Bennet family's reputation following Lydia Bennet's elopement with George Wickham in "Pride and Prejudice". In "MANSFIELD PARK", Edmund rejected Mary after she revealed her plans to save the Bertrams from any scandal caused by the Henry/Maria affair – plans that included the eventual demise of a seriously ill Tom. The moment those words anticipating Tom's death poured from Mary’s mouth, I stared at the screen in disbelief. No person with any intelligence would discuss the possible demise of a loved one in front of his family, as if it was a topic in a business meeting. I never got the impression that both the literary and cinematic Mary Crawford would be that stupid. In this scene, I believe that Rozema simply went too far. The director’s last scene featured a montage on the characters’ fates. And what fate awaited the Crawfords? Both ended up with spouses that seemed more interested in each other than with the Crawford siblings. I suppose this was an allusion to some fate that the Crawfords deserved for . . . what? Okay, Henry probably deserved such a fate, due to his affair with Maria. But Mary? I would disagree.

Ironically, both Rozema and Austen shared one major problem with their respective versions of the story. Neither the Canadian writer-director nor the British author bothered to develop Fanny and Edmund’s characters that much. In fact, I would say . . . hardly at all. "MANSFIELD PARK" revealed Edmund’s penchant for priggish and hypocritical behavior in scenes that featured his initial protest against his brother’s plans to perform the "Lover’s Vow" play and his final capitulation; his argument against Sir Thomas’ comments about breeding mulattoes (which Fanny expressed approval with a slightly smug smile) and his willingness to accept his family’s dependence on slave labor; and his support of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. The above incidents were also featured in the novel (except for the mulatto breeding discussion). Not once did Fanny criticize Edmund for his hypocritical behavior – not in the movie or in the novel. Instead, both Rozema and Austen allowed Fanny to indulge in her own hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to Edmund’s faults. Worse, she used Henry Crawford’s flaws as an excuse to avoid his courtship of her and later reject him. Henry’s angry reaction to her rejection was the only time (at least in Rozema’s movie) in which Fanny’s hypocrisy was revealed. Yet, not only did Fanny fail to acknowledge Edmund’s flaws, but also her own.

For me, the best aspect of "MANSFIELD PARK" proved to be its cast. How Rozema managed to gather such a formidable cast amazes me. Unfortunately, she did not use the entire cast. Two members – Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram) and Hugh Doneville (Mr. Rushworth) certainly seemed wasted. Rozema’s script failed to allow the two actors to express their talent. Waddell’s presence barely made any impact upon the movie. And Doneville seemed nothing more than poorly constructed comic relief. I almost found myself expressing the same belief for actress Lindsay Duncan, despite her portrayal of two of the Ward sisters – Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price. Her Lady Bertram seemed to spend most of the movie sitting around in a drug-induced state from the use of too much laudanum. However, Duncan had one memorable moment as Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price. In that one scene, she gave emphatic advise to Fanny about Henry Crawford by pointing out the consequences of her decision to marry for love.

Victoria Hamilton fared better in her nuanced performance as the spoiled, yet frustrated Maria Bertram. She effectively conveyed how her character was torn between her pragmatic marriage to Mr. Rushworth and her desire for Henry Crawford. Frankly, I believe that Austen gave her an unnecessarily harsh ending. James Purefoy gave an interesting performance as the Bertrams’ elder son and heir, Tom. He expertly walked a fine line in his portrayal of Tom’s disgust toward the family’s involvement in slavery and penchant for a wastrel’s lifestyle. The late actress Sheila Gish gave a slightly humorous, yet sharp performance as Fanny’s other aunt – the tyrannical and venomous Mrs. Norris.

I believe that the movie’s best performances came not from the leads, but from three supporting actors – Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, and the late playwright-actor Sir Harold Pinter. The literary Henry Crawford had been described as a seductive man that quite enjoyed flirting with or manipulating women. Nivola certainly portrayed that aspect of Henry’s character with great aplomb. But he prevented Henry from becoming a one-note rake by projecting his character’s growing attraction to Fanny and the hurt he felt from her unexpected rejection. Embeth Davidtz gave an equally compelling performance as Henry’s vivacious sister, Mary. She skillfully portrayed Mary’s more endearing traits – humor and sparkling personality – along with her cynical views on authority and talent for cold-blooded practicality. However, not even Davidtz could overcome that ludicrous rip-off from 1988’s "DANGEROUS LIAISONS", in which her Mary briefly stumbled out of the Bertrams’ drawing-room, mimicking Glenn Close, following Edmund’s rejection. It seemed like a flawed ending to a brilliant performance. For me, the film’s best performance came from Sir Harold Pinter. His Sir Thomas Bertram struck me as one of the most complex and multi-layered film portrayals I have ever come across. I find it astounding that this intimidating patriarch, who considered himself to be the family’s bastion of morality, was also responsible for the corruption that reeked at Mansfield Park and within the Bertram family. And Pinter made these conflicting aspects of the character’s personality mesh well together. Rozema added an ironic twist to Sir Thomas’ story. After being shamed by Fanny’s discovery of Tom’s drawings of abused slaves, Sir Thomas sold his Antigua estate and invested his money in tobacco. However, since U.S. states like Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky were the world’s top producers of tobacco at the time, chances are that the Bertrams’ benefit from slavery continued.

I suspect that if actress Frances O’Connor had portrayed the Fanny Price character as originally written by Jane Austen, she would have still given a superb performance. O’Connor certainly gave one in this movie. Despite Rozema’s refusal to openly acknowledge Fanny’s flaws in the script (except by Henry Crawford), the actress still managed to expose them through her performance. Not only did O’Connor did a great job in portraying Fanny’s wit and vivacity, she also revealed the social and emotional minefield that Fanny found at Mansfield Park with some really superb acting. I first became aware of Jonny Lee Miller in the 1996 miniseries, "DEAD MAN’S WALK". I found myself so impressed by his performance that I wondered if he would ever become a star. Sadly, Miller never did in the fourteen years that followed the prequel to 1988’s "LONESOME DOVE". But he has become well-known, due to his performances in movies like "MANSFIELD PARK", "TRAINSPOTTING" and the recent miniseries, "EMMA". In "MANSFIELD PARK", Miller portrayed the younger Bertram son, who also happened to be the object of Fanny Price’s desire. And he did a top-notch job in balancing Edmund’s virtues, his romantic sensibility and his personality flaws that include hypocrisy. I realize that Edmund was not an easy character to portray, but Miller made it all seem seamless.

Considering that Austen’s "Mansfield Park" is not a real favorite of mine, I am surprised that I managed to enjoy this adaptation of the novel. I will be frank. It is far from perfect. Patricia Rozema made some changes to Austen’s tale that failed to serve the story. Worse, she failed to change other aspects of the novel – changes that could have improved her movie. But there were changes to the story that served the movie well in my eyes. And the movie "MANSFIELD PARK" possessed a first-rate production and a superb cast. More importantly, I cannot deny that flawed or not, Rozema wrote and directed a very energetic movie. For me, it made Austen’s 1814 tale a lot more interesting.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"The Staff of Fire" [PG] - 6/6


Part VI

"He's innocent," Cecile said to Olivia.

Olivia stood before the large oval mirror, inside the bedroom she shared with Cole. She adjusted the blue ceremonial robe she had just donned. "Who's innocent?"

Cecile replied, "Dennis. He didn't hire those warlocks."

"And how do you know that?"

The Vodoun priestess gave the witch a knowing look. Realization struck Olivia with the force of a whirlwind. "Oh. Oh, I see. You read his thoughts."

Cecile shrugged her shoulders. "He asked me to. When he found out about Fiona, he wanted to make sure that he was cleared."

Olivia shook her in disbelief. "This has sure been one strange day."

"Well, it's going to get stranger," Cecile added. "Like this ceremony, for instance. What exactly do you have to do?"

"I guess we'll find out, pretty soon."

Someone knocked on the door. A second later, Cole opened it, his figured framed by the doorway. "Olivia, everyone is waiting for you, downstairs."

A sigh left Olivia's mouth. "Yeah. Okay, I'm ready." She and Cecile left the bedroom and followed Cole downstairs. The found Fiona, Dennis, other members of the family and guests gathered in the castle's large foyer. Colin held an object in his hand. Wrapped in blue cloth.

Margaret Ferguson then led the entire group past a solid oak door and through a narrow passageway that ended at a clearing located several meters away from the castle's south wall. Five torches formed a ring around the clearing. "This is where many of the witches in the family used to hold gatherings in the past," the elderly witch explained. "And this is where all the past bearers of the Aingeal Staff have been initiated. At least since Fergus McNeill finished building this castle in 1287." She paused. "Well, are we all ready?"

Everyone nodded. Then Cousin Margaret ordered the family's other elders to stand in front of a torch. Among them included Olivia's father, Cousin Colin, Simon McNeill, Deborah McNeill Ness and Colin's only sister - Emma. Soon, each elder stood in front of a torch, with the exception of Margaret. The latter then glanced at the three contenders. "Now, who will be first?"

Olivia looked at her rivals. Granted, she felt nervous about taking part in the ceremony, but her cousins' reluctance took her by surprise. Especially Fiona. Dennis finally volunteered. "I'll go first," he said, stepping into the center of the ring.

Colin unwrapped the object in his hand and gave it to Dennis. The Staff of Aingeal. Olivia blinked, as her eyes examined the staff. She had to admit that it looked beautiful in a simple and elegant style. Made from pale oak, the staff possessed Celtic symbols carved on it. The gold knob, shaped as a dragon, held a crystal - a red carnelian stone that symbolized ambition, drive, positive courage and protection from negative emotions. The stone also seemed to serve as the dragon's eye.

"Wow!" Cole murmured in Olivia's ear. "It's beautiful!"

Olivia nodded. "It is, indeed."

The ceremony continued. Five of the McNeills who surrounded Dennis, stretched their arms out, while Margaret raised hers before chanting:

"This is a time that is not a time.
In a place that is not a place.
On a day that is not a day.
We gather tonight to stand;
At the threshold between the worlds;
Before the Veil of the Mysteries.

Then Simon McNeill continued, "Great Mother, Great Father, bless this creature of Air to your service."

"Great Mother, Great Father, bless this creature of Water to your service," chanted Cousin Deborah.

Colin became the next to speak. "Great Mother, Great Father, bless this creature of Spirit to your service."

"Great Mother, Great Father," Olivia's father continued, "bless this creature of Earth to your service."

Finally, the last McNeill elder, Cousin Emma, said, "Great Mother, Great Father, bless this creature of Fire to your service."

Margaret concluded, "By the blessings of the God and the Goddess, we summon the powers of the Elements to call forth the spirit of the Ancient One. We call upon Aoidh to bring forth the power of the Dragon's Eye and choose the new bearer of the Aingeal Staff."

Seconds later, gasps filled the clearing, as the Celtic symbols on the staff illuminated. The light slowly crept upward, until it reached the red carnelian stone that served as the dragon's eye. Dennis managed to hold onto the staff for a few seconds, but eventually he screamed in pain and dropped it. The staff returned to its natural appearance.

Fear gripped Olivia's mind. What had she gotten herself into? Did they really expect her to simply stand there and allow that staff to burn in her hand? "Oh Goddess," she murmured under her breath.

As she took a few steps back, a strong hand gripped Olivia's forearm. "Where are you going?" Cole whispered in a harsh voice.

"I'm getting the hell out of here," Olivia hissed back. She tried not to watch, as her mother and Cousin Leslie nurse Dennis' singed hand. "I'm not about to become the next burn victim."

"So, you had traveled thousands of miles to chicken out, at the end?" the half-daemon taunted.

Olivia struggled to wrestle her arm from his grip. "Dammit Cole! Let go of me! We're attracting attention!" She became aware of several pairs of eyes, staring at them.

Gran appeared behind the couple. "What's going on between you two?" she asked in a low voice.

"Nothing," Olivia replied.

Cole added at the same time, "Olivia's thinking of chickening out."

Disbelief shone in the elderly witch's eyes, as she stared at her granddaughter. "Don't tell me that you're afraid of a little heat, Livy! Not after having a fire power for five months."

"I'm not scared of the heat!" Olivia protested.

With a knowing smile, Cole said, "It's something else." Olivia glared at him. He had obviously remembered their conversation from a few days ago. Cole was right. Olivia did not really fear receiving a singed hand. What she really feared was becoming the staff's new bearer. Like she had once told Cole, all she really wanted was to be a witch and nothing else. But what if becoming the new Bearer of the Aingeal Staff entailed more? Did it mean that others would expect her to fulfill some kind of 'destiny' that involved battling a supreme evil being? Like the Charmed Ones? The idea horrified her.

At that moment, Cousin Margaret announced, "Next candidate."

Cole and Gran stared at Olivia. Feeling slightly uneasy, she did not know if she should step forward. Or if she wanted to. Before she could, Fiona volunteered. "Well, looks like Fiona is first," Olivia said. Cole's eyes expressed mild contempt.

The McNeill elders repeated the staff ritual for Fiona. When it illuminated for a second time, everyone held his or her breaths. Fiona seemed to be having no trouble in maintaining her grip. "Looks like we have a new bearer," Gweneth murmured. Conflicting emotions whirled within Olivia. She could not decide whether to be relieved that she would not be the new bearer . . . or disappointed that Fiona would. Realizing how she felt about her cousin, Olivia decided upon the latter.

A smug smile appeared on Fiona's lips. However, the smile did not last very long. A sizzling sound emitted from her hand. Fiona finally howled in pain, as she dropped the staff. "Bloody hell!" she cried, looking very disappointed.

Cole turned to Olivia. "You're next."

Olivia felt her stomach dropped several feet, as she slowly walked toward the center of the circle. Her father picked up the staff and handed it to her. "Here you go, Livy." She responded with a weak nod.

While her mother and Leslie to administer to Fiona's burned hand, Olivia waited for Cousin Margaret to begin the ritual. She became aware of the eyes staring at her. Eyes that belonged to Dennis, Fiona, the other cousins, her family, Cole, the Halliwells and especially Leo.

Margaret finally commenced on the ceremony for the third and final time. The other elders, including Jack, spoke their lines, while Olivia held her breath. Once they finished, Margaret concluded, "By the blessings of the God and the Goddess, we summon the powers of the Elements to call forth the spirit of the Ancient One. We call upon Niaghall to bring forth the power of the Dragon's Eye and choose the new bearer of the Aingeal Staff."

As before, the Celtic symbols on the staff illuminated, followed by the red carnelian stone. Olivia felt her heart thump loudly, as she expected the heat to follow. Instead, a surge of power seemed to grip her. The entire staff now glowed brightly. Feeling the full force of the staff's power, Olivia recalled the instructions given to her by Cousin Margaret. She raised her free hand and declared, "With this staff, I call forth the element of Air." A shot of flames left her hand and lit up the torch behind Cousin Simon. "With this staff, I call forth the element of Water." The torch behind Cousin Deborah soon flickered with flames. After lighting the torches behind Colin and her father, Olivia raised the staff:

"Oh God and Goddess! Summon the power of the Dragon's Eye!
I command the elements of Air, Water, Spirit and Earth;
To bring forth the Power of Fire! The Power of Aingeal!

Flames flickering from the staff's knob shot forth and lit up Cousin Emma's torch. Then to everyone's surprise, including Olivia, the staff's flames connected with those from the torches . . . creating a ring of fire. In the middle of that ring stood the new bearer of the Aingeal Staff, wondering what in the hell she had gotten herself into.


The woman watched Russell Pierce stumbled out of the woods and into the clearing that surrounded the Lindisfarne Crags. As he slowly made his way toward her, she noticed the large burn mark on his left leg. He finally stood before her, breathing heavily.

"What happened?" she demanded. "It's been over six hours, since you called."

Between gasps, Pierce replied, "We . . . uh, we ran into a spot of trouble."

"Really?" The woman's eyes returned to Pierce's wound. "Did this spot of trouble come into the form of one Gweneth Morgan McNeill?"

"That bitch had burned me!"

The woman allowed herself a smile. "I'm not sure if I should allow you to call her a bitch. Although I have done so on one or two occasions in the past year-and-a-half." After a pause, she asked, "But she was only one witch. You mean to say that she stopped you from snatching her daughter?"

"There were three others!" Russell protested. "Some long-haired bastard with the face of a horse."

The woman's mouth twitched. "That would be Jamie."

"Then there was a black woman. Short. Real good-looking bird with intense eyes."

"Cecile. She's a Vodoun priestess. You're lucky that she didn't get to you."

Pierce finished, "And there was this red-haired bird. I think she was one of the Charmed Ones."

"A red-haired Halliwell?" The woman's voice expressed surprise. "Are you telling me that a Halliwell took part in the rescue? Interesting. Which one? Phoebe? She's always changing her hair color."

The warlock shook his head. "Her name wasn't Phoebe. According to Keira and Dave, her name was Paige. Yeah, that's it. Paige. And her hair was red. A dye job, I reckon."

The woman frowned. "That's impossible! There's no Charmed One named Paige." After a brief pause, the woman continued, "Then I gather that Co. . . Belthazor didn't give you any trouble. The potion worked?"

A grimace tightened Pierce's lips. "Not quite. Mind you, it did keep him out of the way, but it sure as bloody well didn't knock him out. Just made him groggy."

"That's funny," the woman said with a frown. "That potion has worked on other upper-level daemons. Including those from the Thorn Brotherhood. Unless . . . this Belthazor might be more powerful? Is that it?" A red light illuminated the dark sky. The pair stared at it. "Looks like we have a new bearer of the Aingeal Staff." An arch smile formed on the woman's lips. "Any guesses on who that might be?"

"We can still get the staff," Russell Pierce added. His voice rang with desperation. "I'm a shapeshifter, and I can . . ."

The woman interrupted. "You can what? Sneak into her room and grab the staff?"


Stabbing the warlock with a shrewd look, the woman said, "You've forgotten one thing, Mr. Pierce. Thanks to you and your associates, everyone at the castle is on guard. And I'm sure they'll have some kind of protection spell surrounding the staff. Or have put it up, somewhere safe. By the time you finish searching for it, you'll be caught. And I can't have that. Besides, they're now looking for a shape shifting warlock with a bum leg."

"But . . ."

A lifted hand silenced the warlock. "Don't worry, Mr. Pierce," the woman added in soft tones. "I'll find another way to get my hands on that staff. I'm a patient woman."

"And what about me?" Pierce demanded. "I went through a lot of trouble for you, this week. I have a bum leg and me mates are behind bars. What do I get for compensation?"

The woman sighed. "You do have a point." Before the warlock could react, she stretched out her hand and enveloped him in a ball of fire. He screamed in agony, as the flames consumed him. Once they died down, all that remained of him was a pile of dust.

The woman reached inside her purse and removed an amulet. She chanted a few words in Gaelic, and a blue, shimmering appeared between the rocks, revealing a portal. After returning the amulet back inside her purse, she heaved a sigh. Then Olivia McNeill stepped into the portal to return to her own dimension.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Favorite Movies and Miniseries About 19th Century Journeys

Below is a list of my ten (10) favorite movies and miniseries about long distance journeys during the 19th century: 


1. "The Chisholms" (1979) - Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Ben Murphy starred in this television miniseries adaptation of Evan Hunter's novel about a Virginia family's trek to California in the mid-1840s. 

2. "Lonesome Dove" (1989) - Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones starred in this acclaimed, four-part miniseries about two former Texas Rangers that lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Based upon Larry McMurty's novel, the miniseries co-starred Robert Urich, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Chris Cooper and Anjelica Huston.

3. "Around the World in 80 Days" (1989) - Pierce Brosnan starred as Phineas Fogg, a British gentleman who takes a trip around the world in eighty days, due to a bet. Eric Idle, Julia Nickson and Peter Ustinov co-starred in this fun, three-part miniseries, based upon Jules Verne's novel.

4. "King Solomon's Mines" (1950) - Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in my favorite adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's novel about a British hunter hired to help find a missing Englishman searching for the legendary King Solomon's mines in 1890's East Africa. The movie earned a Best Picture Academy Award.

5. "Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad" (1994) - Courtney B. Vance and Janet Bailey starred as a pair of North Carolina slaves who embark upon a journey for Canada and freedom. 

6. "Cold Mountain" (2003) - Anthony Minghella directed this superb adaptation of Charles Fraizer's novel about a wounded Confederate soldier who deserts and embarks upon a long journey to return to his sweetheart. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renée Zellweger starred.

7. "Westward the Women" (1951) - William Wellman directed this fascinating tale about a trail boss that leads a group of "mail-order brides" from Missouri to California in 1851. Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel starred.

8. "Hidalgo" (2004) - Viggo Mortensen starred in this Disney adventure about 19th century distance rider, Frank Hopkins, his mustang Hidalgo, and their participation in the Ocean of Fire long-distance race across the Nadj Desert. Omar Sharif and Zuleikha Robinson co-starred.

9. "The Journey of August King" (1995) - Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle's novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market in 1815, who helps a runaway slave evade her master. Excellent story.

10. "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (1956) - This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"JANE EYRE" (1997) Photo Gallery

Here are some images from this gallery of "JANE EYRE", the 1997 television adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel. Directed by Robert Young, the movie starred Samantha Morton and Ciarán Hinds:

"JANE EYRE" (1997) Photo Gallery

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"THE AMERICAN" (2010) Review

”THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called ”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the year’s best movies. But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” might be one of this year’s more “interesting” films.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"The Staff of Fire" [PG] - 5/6"


Part V

If only he would stop talking. The litany repeated in Cecile's mind, over and over again. While sampling some of the food from the buffet table, Cecile found herself cornered by a McNeill witch who had discovered she was a Vodoun priestess. Soon, she ended up listening to his tales of travel in the Caribbean and West Africa - along with his enthusiastic encounters with houngans, mambos, sorcerers and other magical practitioners. Cecile would have shared his enthusiasm, if he were not so determined to dominate the conversation. And if only he lacked the tendency to drone on and on.

". . . most amazing sight I had ever beheld," Ronald McNeill continued. "Mami Labida explained to me that . . ."

A prickly sensation touched the base of Cecile's neck, followed by a vision that seemed to overwhelm her. It consisted of Olivia fighting two men near the lake's shore, followed her falling unconscious from a dart. The next vision revealed a car with five people approaching a crossroad. The car passed a road sign that read KILBOURN 41 KL. She recognized two of the people in her vision from the group of servants hired by Colin McNeill for the week. The vision ended with a burly, blond-haired man slitting Olivia's throat near a pile of rocks and boulders. Once the vision ended, she gasped aloud, interrupting her companion.

"I say," Ronald McNeill said, casting Cecile an anxious look, "do you feel well?"

Cecile shook her head. "I'm . . . um, I'm okay. I just need a little rest. Excuse me." She gave the witch a perfunctory smile and quickly walked away. As she rushed toward the castle, Cecile encountered Paige, sitting on the terrace. "Paige," she declared in an anxious voice. "Paige, I . . ."

A frown appeared on the Charmed One's face. "What's wrong?"

"Livy. I had a vision . . . she's been kidnapped." Cecile continued, "A group of men and one woman. I recognized the woman and one of the men. They took her near the lake. We have to go after her."

Paige sprung out of her chair. "Should we get help?"

A third voice asked, "Help for what?"

The two friends spun around. Behind them stood Gweneth McNeill and the laird's son, Jamie. "Mrs. McNeill!" Paige cried out.

The red-haired woman frowned. "Cecile said something about someone being taken. Do you mean kidnapped?"

Silence fell between the two women. Paige finally spoke. "Cecile just had a premonition of Olivia being kidnapped near the lake. By four men."

"And one woman," Cecile added. "I think she's one of those temporary servants that Jamie's folks had hired."

Mrs. McNeill's green eyes grew wide with shock. "Oh my God! Livy! How is she doi . . .? Have they hurt her?"

Cecile shook her head. "From what I saw, they've drugged her. I also saw them in a car, passing a sign that read Kilbourn, forty-one kilometers."

"I know where that is," Jamie said with a nod. "Kilbourn is a small market town, not far from here. There's a clump of rocks, known as the Lindisfarne Crags, outside of the town. It was known as a gathering place for witches. Including some from our family. I also know where that sign is located. Near a crossroad, about 20 kilometers from here. It's too bad we won't reach that crossroad before they will."

Paige added, "Actually, we can." The others stared at her. "Hello? Half-whitelighter! I can orb us to this crossroad."

Mrs. McNeill nodded. "Right. All we need are a few weapons . . . just in case. And have Paige orb us there. Let's go."

"What about extra help?" Paige asked.

"We don't have time to gather others." The older woman started toward the castle.

Once inside, Jamie led the three women to a room filled with an array of weapons - hunting rifles, shotguns, swords, sabers, axes and crossbows of different varieties. Both Cecile and Paige chose crossbows. Mrs. McNeill picked up a taser, generating curious stares from the younger women. "Trust me, it will come in handy. You'll see."

Jamie removed a revolver from a desk. It was a Glock. "Where did you get that?" Paige asked, pointing at the weapon.

"It belongs to me," he replied. "Police officer. Remember?"

"Oh. Okay." Paige glanced at the others. "Everyone ready?"

Cecile took a deep breath and nodded. She locked hands with the three witches and the Charmed One orbed them out of the castle.


The black Morris-Oxford continued along the narrow road, as it conveyed its passengers toward Kilbourn. "How long before we're there?" Len asked, as he drove the car.

"In another twenty minutes," replied Russell, who sat next to him in the passenger seat. "We should be meeting our client near the Lindisfarne Crags." He glanced at the trio sitting in the back seat. "And how is our supercargo?"

Dave, who sat between Keira and Liam, answered, "So far, she hasn't fallen out of the boot."

A smile touched Russell's lips. "Good. Now, once we reach our client, I will take her back to Dunleith. She can give me a lift. The rest of you can take the witch to a nearby cottage, just west of the crags, and kill her. Make sure the body won't be found before . . ."


The cry from Len took Russell by surprise. "What the hell is the mat . . .?" The last word died on his lips, as he spotted a figure in the middle of the road. A figure who bore a strong resemblance to their hostage. Only this red-haired woman held what looked like a taser. "Shit! Run her down, Len!"

"What?" The fair-haired man stared at Russell.

"Run the bloody bitch down! Now!"

Russell's command seemed to have finally reached Len's brain. The latter immediately pressed down on the pedal, accelerating the car toward the woman in the road. Before the car could reach her, a bolt of lightning burst from her raised hand. Everyone, Russell included, cried out in shock. The car careened toward the side of the road and into a ditch. And Russell cried, "Bloody hell!"


Gweneth marched toward the car, raising her hand in a threatening manner. "Where's my daughter?" she angrily demanded. Her three companions emerged from the underbrush, brandishing their own weapons.

A woman from the backseat climbed out of the car and waved her hand. Gweneth gasped aloud as all of their weapons - including her taser - flew out of their hands. The warlock was a telekinetic. At that moment, the kidnappers attacked.

Three of the men immediately went after Cecile, Jamie and Paige. Gweneth barely noticed, thanks to the female warlock, who sent the older woman flying away from the car. Sprawled upon the ground and stunned, Gweneth could only watch her companions fight off the warlocks' attack. She saw Cecile engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a slim, dark-haired man with blue eyes. Jamie seemed busy with another warlock - who, like the female, was also dressed in a waiter's uniform. And Paige seemed to be doing her level best to avoid the attack of a burly, fair-haired man.

As Gweneth struggled to her feet, she saw Cecile knock the dark-haired assailant to the ground with a well-aimed kick. The female warlock raised her hand for another attack, and the witch immediately attacked with a bolt of lightning. The warlock easily deflected the bolt toward Gweneth, using telekinesis. Fortunately, the older woman possessed even swifter reflexes. She held up her hand and cried, "Gwyro!" The electrical bolt immediately shot back toward the warlock's right shoulder, knocking the young woman to the ground. Unconscious.

"Keira!" A man, older than his companions, sprang from the car and stared at his female companion in horror. Then he glared at Gweneth with murderous gray-blue eyes. "You bitch!" Before the witch knew what was happening, the man had transformed into a Doberman Pincher. He let out a deep growl and leaped toward Gweneth. She quickly released another bolt of electricity, striking the warlock/dog in the hind leg. The warlock whined in pain and fell to the ground. Then to Gweneth's surprise, he transformed into a bird and flew away.

Turning her attention to the others, Gweneth noticed that the warlock fighting Jamie, had pulled a gun on the witch. The latter released a gust of cold wind, immobilizing the warlock into icy statue. The blond-haired man grabbed Paige from behind and cried, "Turn him back! Do it now, or I'll break this witch's neck!"

Before Gweneth or the others could do anything, Paige orbed out of the warlock's grip and reappeared behind him. Then she kicked an ankle and finally, his legs out from under him. He fell to the ground, crying in pain.

Gweneth marched up to the remaining conscious warlock, as he continued to howl. "Where's my daughter?" she demanded. "Where's Olivia?"

"Oh God! Bloody hell! The bitch sprained me ankle!" the blond man cried.

An energy ball formed in Gwen's hand. She took a step closer to the fallen man. "Unless you tell me where my daughter is, you'll experience pain that will be a hell of a lot worse. Now, where . . . is . . . she?"

Fear flickered in the warlock's blue eyes. "In the boot! She's in the boot!"

Paige frowned. "Huh?"

"The trunk of the car," Gweneth explained. "Cecile, Jamie . . ."

The other two needed no further explanations. They opened the car's trunk and Cecile cried out, "She's here! Olivia's here! Unconscious, but otherwise okay!"

Gweneth allowed the energy ball to dissipate, before she rushed toward the car to check on her daughter. Olivia's body laid inside the trunk, in a fetal position. Despite the small mark on the side of her neck and pale demeanor, she was breathing. Gweneth sighed with relief, as she helped Jamie and Cecile lift the unconscious woman out of the trunk. They gently placed her body on the side of the road.

Meanwhile, Paige whipped out her cell phone and called Colin. "Mr. McNeill is calling the police right now," she said, after hanging up. Then she glanced at the four warlocks sprawled about the road. The ice surrounding the one Jamie had frozen, began to melt. "I hope that ice is gone before the police gets here."

"No problem." Jamie held up one finger. It glowed red. After touching the frozen warlock with his finger, the ice surrounding the latter, melted away. Jamie immediately snatched the gun from the warlock. "Not only am I a cyrokinetic," he said, "but also a thermokinetic. I can affect the temperature of another object or my surroundings."

Paige stared at him with admiring eyes. "Cool."

Twenty minutes later, the police finally arrived at the crossroad to arrest the prisoners for kidnapping and assault. One constable noticed the burn mark on the female's right shoulder and Mrs. McNeill immediately explained that she had used a taser. Paige wondered if arresting the warlocks would say anything, especially since one of them happened to be a telekinetic.

"Don't worry," Jamie said, after she had expressed her doubts. "One of the constables is a fellow witch. He'll make sure that the warlocks' powers are bound. I don't know if that's the right thing to do, but at least she won't be able to escape custody."


Paige and her three companions eventually returned to the castle, with an unconscious Olivia in Jamie's arms. After he had delivered his unconscious cousin in her bedroom, Jamie followed Paige downstairs. Both were surprised to discover the arrival of Piper, Leo, Barbara and Bruce. While Jamie enjoyed a brief reunion with Bruce and Barbara, Piper revealed that Phoebe had decided to remain in San Francisco and baby-sit Wyatt.

"Leo and I were surprised to find you gone when we got here," Piper said, as her eyes roamed over the castle's elegant drawing room. Both she and Leo seemed in awe of their grandeur surroundings. "Where were you?"

With a shrug, Paige replied, "Rescuing Olivia." Her response drew surprised looks from the newcomers. "A bunch of warlocks tried to kidnap her. Have you guys been outside, yet? There's a picnic going on."

Leo shook his head. "No . . . uh, we had decided to wait for you." He paused, as disbelief shone in his blue eyes. "Olivia was kidnapped? Where was Cole?"

Jamie replied, "Poor bastard is upstairs and barely conscious. One of the kidnappers had drugged him, before snatching Olivia. Mother and Cousin Elise made some healing tea for him and Olivia."

Paige added, "Yeah, both of them are out of it, at the moment. Why don't you guys go outside? Enjoy the picnic?"

While Piper and Barbara accepted the suggestion, both Leo and Bruce insisted upon learning from the others on what happened to Olivia. The three witches and the whitelighter found other members of the McNeill family discussing the situation.

"And the last warlock," Colin McNeill was saying, "had escaped?"

Gweneth sighed. "What can I say, Colin? He transformed into a bird and flew away. I did manage to injure his leg."

Looking anxious, Gweneth's husband added, "Why did they attack Olivia in the first place? Why didn't they just wait to see if she would get the staff, if they wanted it that badly?"

Jamie replied, "From what one of the warlocks had said before the police arrived, they were hired by some woman to kidnap Olivia. Apparently, she wanted the staff for herself. Unfortunately, the only one who has met their client is this Russell Pierce chap. The shapeshifter."

"So, you have no idea of who wanted Olivia out of the way?" Leo asked. All eyes turned upon him. Jack introduced the whitelighter to the rest of the family gathered inside the room.

"Really Bruce," Mrs. Ferguson commented, "I had no idea that you, Olivia and Harry still maintained a whitelighter."

Bruce quickly replied, "Actually, Leo is more like a family friend to us." His reply caused Leo's face to turn red. "As for this mysterious client, I guess she'll remain a mystery. Unless that fifth warlock can be found."

"She?" Paige said.

Realization lit up Jamie's eyes. "She! Of course, she!"

Jack frowned. "What are you getting at?"

Jamie exclaimed, "Fiona! Who else, besides Dennis, has a reason to prevent Olivia from acquiring the staff?"

"But we don't know if Olivia will become the staff's next bearer," Margaret Ferguson protested.

"True, but Olivia's pyrokinesis had manifested before the others," Jamie continued. "If she, Fiona or Dennis dies, the chances for the surviving two of becoming the new bearer increases. And if dear Cousin Fiona is this mysterious client, she must believe that Olivia has the best chance of becoming the new bearer. Let's face it, Olivia has always been a more talented witch than either Fiona or Dennis."

Paige finally understood what Jamie was talking about. "Now I get it!" Her outcry attracted everyone else's attention. "It's like with me and my sisters. If Prue had lived, I would have never become part of the Power of Three. Even if my own powers had been restored. Only the three oldest living sisters were destined to be the Charmed Ones."

"And when Prue died," Leo added, "Paige became one. It's the same with Olivia, right? With her dead, this Fiona person obviously thought she would have a better chance of getting the staff. Only . . . why wait until the day of the ceremony to snatch Olivia?"

Colin grimly answered, "We will soon find out."


Harry stood inside a small room with his grandmother and Cecile, adjacent to the library. The three telepaths held their breaths and listened, while his parents and Colin questioned an angry Fiona.

"How dare you?" the Scotswoman exclaimed angrily. "How dare you suggest that I would stoop to kidnapping and murder to acquire the Aingeal staff?"

Colin's voice replied, "Those warlocks had claimed that a woman had hired them to kidnap Olivia. We cannot think of any other female with a reason to get Olivia out of the way."

"I'm sure there are plenty of other women who would!" Fiona retorted. "And for reasons, other than that staff!"

Harry exchanged glances with his two companions, while Jack said, "Do you expect us to believe that you had nothing to do with Olivia being kidnapped? Are you saying that Dennis is responsible?"

"And why not?" Fiona shot back. "He probably wants the staff, badly! For all we know, I was to be his next victim."

Gweneth's voice rang with steel, as she reminded Fiona that the warlocks in custody had all confirmed that their client was a woman. "And I certainly do not recall Dennis being a shapeshifter."

"I've had enough!" Colin demanded to know where Fiona was going. She snapped, "Back to the fete! I would have left, after being insulted like this. But I have a ceremony to participate in, tonight!" The sound of a door slamming shut, immediately followed.

Seconds later, Harry, Gran and Cecile filed into the library. Colin turned to them. "Well?" he demanded.

The three telepaths exchanged glances, before Gran finally spoke. "I believe she's telling the truth. She had nothing to do with Olivia's kidnapping."

Cecile added, "I agree. Fiona's innocent." She paused. "Unfortunately."

"Harry?" Jack asked his son.

As much as he hated to say it . . . "She's innocent," Harry said with a sigh.

"Well that's bloody marvelous!" Gweneth exclaimed. "Our only decent suspect is innocent. And the only person who can identify this mysterious culprit is now a bird, heading for God knows where!"

Harry added, "Maybe Fiona had a point about Dennis being the one. I mean he is a witch. It wouldn't be impossible for him to use some kind of shapeshifting spell."

The others stared at him and Harry found himself wishing he had kept his mouth shut. But the idea of Dennis transforming into a woman did not seem that impossible. Did it?