Friday, July 29, 2011

"THE HANGOVER, PART II" (2011) Review

"THE HANGOVER, PART II" (2011) Review

Two years after the success of the blockbuster comedy, "THE HANGOVER", director Todd Phillips followed up with a sequel about the lead characters' adventures in Bangkok, Thailand, following another disastrous bachelor's party. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis returned to star in this sequel.

In this sequel, Phil Wenneck, Doug Billings, and Alan Garner accompany Stuart "Stu" Price to Thailand to celebrate his upcoming wedding a woman of Thai descent named Lauren at a beach resort outside of Bangkok. Much to Alan's dismay, Lauren's younger brother, a medical student named Teddy, joins them. Despite disapproval from Lauren's father, who compares Stu to rice porridge, the wedding party goes according to plan. Unfortunately, the four friends and Teddy take part in a mini bachelor's party on the beach. Although Phil insures that the beer they are drinking had not been tampered by the infantile Alan; he, Stu and Alan awaken the following morning at a dirty Bangkok hotel. Apparently, Doug had left the party a little earlier to join his wife at their hotel room. They also discover gangster Leslie Chow (whom they first met in Las Vegas) and a chain-smoking capuchin monkey. Stu has a face tattoo and Alan's head is completely shaven. However, the three friends cannot find Teddy. They only find his severed finger. And as Chow begins recalling the events of the previous night, his heart stops after snorting a line of cocaine. Panicked, the trio dispose of Chow's body in an ice machine and begin their search for the missing Teddy.

In conclusion, I must admit that I found "THE HANGOVER, PART II" very entertaining. One, I loved the Thailand setting and cinematographer Lawrence Sher's photography of the locations. Two, director Todd Phillips did a great job in maintaining the movie's pacing, ensuring that I would never fall asleep. Three, the chemistry between the main cast seemed as potent as ever. I noticed that Phillips continued the chemistry between Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis from the first movie. However, I was a little disappointed that Justin Bartha did not take part in the trio's adventures in this movie. Instead of being the missing person (as he was in the first film), his character left the bachelor party before it all went to hell.

However, Phillips did find a way to bring back Ken Jeong as gangster Leslie Chow. And he was as funny as ever. In fact, one of Jeong's funniest scenes featured the trio and Chow's arrival at a high-class hotel restaurant to meet an American gangster (and undercover Interpol agent) named Kingsley. Other funny scenes include Stu's discovery that he had drug-induced sex with a Kathoey prostitute, Phil's reaction to getting shot by a Russian gangster, Mike Tyson's surprise appearance and performance at Stu and Lauren's wedding, and a crazy car chase through the streets of nighttime Bangkok.

But was "THE HANGOVER, PART II" funnier or just as funny as the 2009 movie? I can honestly say . . . no. The first twenty minutes of the film did not strike me as particularly funny, no matter how much humor Scot Armstrong, Craig Mazin and Todd Phillips tried to wring from the script. The ending seemed a bit too cheesy and sentimental at times. And why on earth did they include a scene in which the trio and Chow dropped off the badly wounded monkey (who had been shot in the stomach) at a veterinary clinic. The movie also featured an appearance from Paul Giamatti, who was from funny in his role as fake gangster/undercover Interpol agent Kingsley. And this was a major disappointment, considering Giamatti's talent for humor. And I wish that Nick Cassavetes' cameo as a Bangkok tattoo artist could have been a bit funny. I suspect that if Mel Gibson had been in the role, he would have garnered a lot more laughs. I could say the same for Mason Lee (Ang Lee's son), who made a less funnier missing person than Bartha. As for Nirut Sirijanya, he seemed downright humorless as Stu's disapproving father-in-law-to-be. I realize that his character was humorless, but so was Melissa, Stu's former girlfriend. But actress Rachael Harris portrayed the humorless Melissa with a great deal of comedic skill. I cannot say the same for Sirijanya.

Many people had complained that "THE HANGOVER, PART II" more or less followed the same plot formula as "THE HANGOVER". And they would be right. Like in the first film, the characters experienced the following:

*a hangover from drugs fed to them by the socially challenged Alan
*a missing person who is locked in some space at the hotel they had awaken
*Stu experiences a physical impairment (a tattoo in this film, a missing tooth in the last)
*Stu becomes involved with a prostitute
*theft of someone's pet animal (in this case, a monkey)
*Phil is hospitalized
*a red herring situation regarding the missing person
*Stu sings
*Phil is forced to admit not knowing the location of missing person
*Stu figures out the location of the missing person

Well, you get the drift. The only reason I am willing to tolerate this lack of originality on the screenwriters' parts is due to the fact that I still managed to enjoy the movie. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis not only proved that they were still funny, but could also be an effective comedy team. Thanks to the movie's humorous story and performances, and the exotic Thai locations, I am certainly looking forward to the DVD release of "THE HANGOVER, PART II".

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"HORRIBLE BOSSES" (2011) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the new black comedy, "HORRIBLE BOSSES". Directed by Seth Gordon, the movie stars Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis:

"HORRIBLE BOSSES" (2011) Photo Gallery

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Defense of the Realm" [PG-13] - 8/14



During the four years since Piper's departure from Quake, the restaurant had not changed much - aside from the menu and the food's quality. Cole had never visited Quake before, but judging from Phoebe's reaction to their appetizers, apparently the food was not what it used to be under Piper's rule.

Cole reached for his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon wine and took a sip. "Perhaps we should have went to another restaurant." He fell silent, expecting a reply from Phoebe. She said nothing. Cole added, "Or perhaps I should have prepared dinner at home. Marbus had pointed out that we've been going out to dinner on a regular basis, lately." He chuckled slightly. "I think I may have come close to spending half of my paycheck, during the past two weeks."

Phoebe responded with a dim smile and reached for a dinner roll.

Realizing that Phoebe might still be distracted by his quarrel with Leo, Cole decided to confront the matter than pretend everything was fine. "Okay Phoebe," he muttered, "what's wrong? Other than criticizing the food here, you've barely said a word."

"Nothing's wrong," Phoebe quickly replied. "I'm fine."

Cole sighed. "Right. And that's why you're looking as if your favorite pet had died. Or you're about to flee for your life. I really can't tell which."

"Cole . . ."

"What . . . is . . . wrong, Phoebe?"

A silent moment passed before the dark-haired witch finally answered, "It's about tonight. Your fight with Leo."

Cole cast his eyes downward, now that his suspicions had been confirmed. "I see. Look Phoebe, I'm sorry that I had lost my temper, but I'm getting sick and tired of Leo treating me like an outsider every time I show up. I realize that I have a past that would make any sane person flee for his life; but who is he to judge, after the shit he had recently pulled?"

"I understand how you feel, Cole," Phoebe said. "Really, I do. And you're right. Leo can't really look down his nose at you, anymore." She sighed, and glanced up at Cole. "But you really need to keep your temper in check."

One of Cole's brows shot upward. "'I' need to keep hold of my temper?"

"Okay, maybe I can be a little temperamental also," Phoebe conceeded. "But Cole . . . you have to consider your powers. What if . . . what if you completely lose your temper and decide to use your powers? Who would be able to stop you?"

Cole smiled derisively. "Well, Olivia for one. I'm sure that she still have some of that potion . . ."


A sigh left his mouth. "Look, I'll try to control my temper, Phoebe. I swear. But Leo has to learn to do the same. And he needs to stop acting as if I'm plotting to murder all of you."

"I know. But . . ."

Warily, Cole stared at his ex-wife. "But what?"

Again, Phoebe hesitated. "Have you ever thought about . . . you know, stripping away your powers?"

Shit! He should have known. From the moment he and Phoebe had started dating again, Cole suspected that sooner or later, she would bring up the matter of his powers. Phoebe obviously wanted him back, but only as a mortal.

"Cole?" Apprehension crept into Phoebe's voice. "You're not mad at me, are you?"

Not mad, Cole decided. Just disappointed. He could imagine the 'I told you so' expression on Olivia's face. "No Phoebe. I'm not angry. It's just . . . considering the last two times I had lost my powers - disaster followed."

Her dark eyes now shinning brightly with hope, Phoebe leaned forward. "But those incidents were accidents!" she exclaimed. "You had lost your powers the first time, because that witch's girlfriend had thrown a power-stripping potion on you."

"Which you had left in your dresser drawer."

Phoebe ignored the dig. "And you had lost them the second time," she continued, "because Barbas had tricked you into asking Paige to strip them, so he could steal them. Cole, this time we can control the whole process. Make sure there are no unforeseen problems."

Cole wanted to shout, "Hell no!" He had no desire to re-experience the trauma of adjusting to complete mortality, again. Or feel like half a person. But he did not want to clash with Phoebe. Not again. Not after the last fifteen months of estrangement between them. And he simply could not bear to see the fear in Phoebe's eyes, whenever he lost his temper.

"All right," he finally said with a sigh. "I'll do it."

A bright smile lit up Phoebe's face.


Elder MacKenzie Grant sat inside his private chambers, as he examined reports from various whitelighters throughout the mortal realm. So far, no one had been able to track down Natalia Stopanova - who was last detected in one of the demonic dimensions.

An impatient grunt escaped his mouth. How could the Russian-born whitelighter have escaped from their detection so quickly? And so effectively? She had first been spotted in the Gimle dimension. Before the Council could retrieve her, she had moved on to the mortals' realm - namely the San Francisco area. And that is where she had disappeared. Vanished from their radar, as the mortals would say.

MacKenzie contemplated on who or what could have shielded Stepanova from the Council's detection. He eventually came to the conclusion that she was no longer on Earth, and that she must be hiding . . .

A bell signaled the arrival of a visitor to his chambers. "Yes?" MacKenzie cried out.

A voice replied, "Johann Bauer. I have the tea that you had requested from the kitchen."

MacKenzie waved his hand, allowing the door to slide open. The newly initiated Elder entered the chamber, carrying a tray with an earthen teapot and cup. "Johann, you did not have to bring me tea. Someone from the kitchen should have sent a whitelighter. You're an Elder, now."

"Oh, I don't mind, MacKenzie," Johann replied in his soft, Austrian accent. "Besides, I had to send the whitelighter on an errand for me."

Smiling, MacKenzie said to his colleague, "Well, you can place the tray on my desk. If you don't mind."

After Johann had done as he was asked, he stared at the senior Elder. "Is there anything else you need, El . . . MacKenzie?" The other Elder shook his head. Johann continued to stare. "Are you feeling well? You seem a bit exhausted. Perhaps you should drink your tea, now."

"Oh, I'm fine, Johann." MacKenzie sighed and picked up the teapot. "Just a little shaken by the latest events."

Johann nodded. "I understand. I'm . . . a little overwhelmed, myself. Especially after I had joined the Council." He paused. "I'm curious. Why did the Council select me to replace Elder Sylvester?"

MacKenzie stared at him, recalling the anonymous warning that the Council had received about Mathilda's plans regarding Belthazor. The Council knew that Johann had been one of the former Elder's protégées, and immediately guessed who had been the informant. MacKenzie opened his mouth to reveal all of this . . . but instead replied, "The Council simply believed that you would make an excellent Elder. Despite being a whitelighter for only five years."

The Austrian blinked. "Oh. Well . . . enjoy your tea."

Smiling at the junior whitelighter, MacKenzie poured tea into his cup. He then took a sip. Not bad. "I must commend Jodhi on her brewing." He drank the rest of his tea.

"Oh, Jodhi did not make the tea. I did." MacKenzie stared at Johann, who added, "I knew that it was time for your tea and prepared a pot."

Curious, MacKenzie asked, "Why?"

A wide, sinister smile curved Johann's lips, raising the hackles on the back of MacKenzie's neck. "So I could add poison from a darklighter's arrow into your tea." His smile widened. "And watch you slowly die."


Johann strode into Artemus' spacious library and bowed before the demonic CEO. "Your Eminence. I have some news."

The demon cast a wary eye at the darklighter. "I do believe you're being a little premature in calling me 'Eminence', Herr Bauer. I'm not the Source, yet."

"But once the Whitelighters Council is destroyed and you have assumed control of the . . ."

Artemus interrupted, "That particular incident will not make me the Source, Johann. Only the Grimoire can make me the Source. Or Belthazor's powers. And I doubt that he will be in the mood to hand them over. However, the idea of the Elders Council's destruction is rather appealing. It will also impress certain demonic circles and give me a little extra credibility . . . and power." He paused. "You were saying something about news?"

Johann nodded. "Yes. Two other Elders have been dispatched. One of them was," the Austrian whitelighter smiled, "Elder MacKenzie Grant." Artemus frowned. "He was one of the senior Elders, who had served on the Council for nearly 500 years, and has been a whitelighter even longer."

"Well, I'm sure that his colleagues will mourn him." Aretemus picked up a file from his desk. "And who will replace this MacKenzie?"

Johann shook his head. "The bodies of both MacKenzie and young Kevin have not been discovered yet. And the Council has not been able to replace the last three Elders."

"When the Elders finally decides to re-organize, you should suggest that Mathilda be accepted back on the Council." Aretemus opened the file.

Frowning, Johann asked, "Why? She's the only veteran whitelighter who is permanently out of the way."

Aretemus glanced up and stared at the darklighter. Who squirmed under his master's direct stare. "I do not want Mathilda out of the way. I want her dead. I want the Council destroyed. And since Mathilda is a veteran, she is the only one capable of re-organizing the Council." Artemus leaned forward. "I want Mathilda back on that Council, when you, Belinda and the others finally attack. Mathilda may be an arrogant bitch, but she is also a wily one. She will make sure that she has company, once the attacks begin. That way, no one will connect the murders to her. But once she is back on the Council, her guard will drop. And that is when you will kill her. Understand?"

The intensity of Artemus' eyes caused Johann to shiver. "Yes Artemus. I understand perfectly."


Phoebe descended the manor's staircase, her mouth stretched into a yawn. Expecting her family inside the kitchen for breakfast, she was surprised to find them gathered in the living room. Along with Chris. Everyone wore a tense expression - except for Chris, who looked grim. "What's going on?" she demanded, as she settled in one of the chairs.

Piper rocked Wyatt in her arms. "Apparently Chris has some bad news." She stared at the young whitelighter. "Which he has yet to tell us."

Chris hesitated. "Two more Elders have been killed." The Halliwells gasped with surprise. Leo looked as if his world was falling apart. "One back in the Whitelighter Realm and one here on Earth."

"Oh my God!" Leo exclaimed. "Natalia! Why haven't . . .? I mean, how was she able to kill an Elder in the Realm, when she was last reported on Earth?"

Shooting the older whitelighter a contemptuous look, Chris retorted, "First of all, Miss Stepanova is only a suspect. No one knows for certain that she's behind this. And if she was, she probably used her followers to commit . . . uh, to kill the Elders." Chris paused. "Just as Mathilda had used you to get rid of Belthazor."

"Okay! Just a damn minute!" Piper began angrily. She seemed upset at Chris' potshot at her husband. "Leo had made a mistake. There's no need to rub it in his face."

"Sorry," Chris muttered. Yet, Phoebe noticed that his expression remained unrepentant.

Leo asked, "Who had been killed?"

"Elder MacKenzie Grant," Chris replied. "Someone had added poison from a darklighter's arrow to his tea."

Paige added, "Just like that Elder who was killed in Paris."

Leo seemed shocked by the identity of the victim. "My God! Elder MacKenzie? He, Sylvester and Mathilda were the premiere Elders on the Council. MacKenzie had been around for nearly 600 years. Who was the other Elder?"

Chris answered, "He was a younger Council member. From the ticket that was found in his pocket, he must have just left a movie theater in Sausalito, when someone with a darklighter's weapon . . ."

"What was his name?"

Glaring at the other whitelighter, Chris mumbled a name. "Who?" Phoebe demanded.

"Kevin James," Chris said in a louder voice.

The name produced gasps from the Charmed Ones. "No!" Phoebe cried. "He can't be dead!"

Chris added, "The police had found his body in some alley, earlier this morning. The Council sent a whitelighter to claim his body."

"Oh my God! Kevin!" Paige shook her head in disbelief. "He was just a boy! Only thirteen."

"He was an Elder."

Frowning, Leo said, "That means there are only two original members of the Council left. Two out of seven."

"Two out of four," Chris corrected. "The Council hasn't replaced Elders Pivet, Davis and Kulle. They now have five members to replace."

Leo's blue eyes grew wide with shock. "There are only four members on the Council? With two of them, newcomers?"

Still grief-stricken over the news of Kevin's death, Phoebe said, "We have to help. We have to find out who's responsible for killing Kevin."

"And the other Elders," Leo added.

Piper said, "Then we should find this Natalia Stepanova. After all, she's the number one suspect."

"What about a warlock?" Phoebe asked. "Or a demon? Don't forget about that warlock who had managed to enter the Whitelighters Realm."

Chris shook his head. "Yeah, I heard about that. No whitelighters - other than the Elders - have been reported dead for quite a while. At least not during the last four months I've been here."

An uneasy expression appeared on Piper's face. "That would mean a whitelighter is responsible for the deaths," she said.

Leo nodded. "Natalia Stepanova."

"My bet is that your old buddy, Mathilda, is responsible," Paige countered.

As Leo opened his mouth to retort, Phoebe added, "I agree. C'mon Leo! You have to admit that she has the best motive. The Elders had kicked her off the Council."

"I have an idea," Piper said. "Why don't we check the area where Kevin's body was found? Maybe we can find a clue. Or Pheebs could get a vi. . .?"

Phoebe interrupted, "Uh, don't forget that Paige and I have jobs. Maybe we can do this on our lunch breaks." She turned to Chris. "Where was Kevin found?"

"Near a movie theater in Sausalito," the young whitelighter answered. "I'll meet you here at the house and orb you to the spot."

Piper snapped, "Just tell us where to go." Chris remained silent. She heaved an impatient sigh. "All right. I guess we can all meet here around noon. Okay?"

Everyone else nodded in agreement.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

TIME MACHINE: First Battle of Bull Run


Today marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia. Fought on July 21, 1861; the First Bull Run is considered to be the first major land battle of the U.S. Civil War.

About a month or two following the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the public throughout the Union began clamoring for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; which they believed would bring an early end to the war. Yielding to this political pressure, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to plan an advance across Bull Run Creek to face the equally unseasoned Confederate Army near Manassas Junction, under the command of Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard.

McDowell finally buckled under presidential and public pressure and formed an ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack against the Confederate left. Unfortunately, the inexperienced officers and troops failed to conduct a successful flank attack. However, due to the lack of experience of the Confederate troops, they initially found themselves at a disadvantage. The tide of the battle turned when Confederate reinforcements under the command of Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad.

A brigade of Virginians under a relatively unknown colonel from the Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.), Thomas J. Jackson, stood their ground and Jackson received his famous nickname, "Stonewall Jackson", accompanied by Colonel Wade Hampton and his Hampton's Legion from South Carolina; and Colonel J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry. The Confederate forces were able to assemble 13 guns for the defensive line, posted on the crest of Henry House Hill. And McDowell ordered the Union batteries of Captain James B. Ricketts and Captain Charles Griffin to move from Dogan's Ridge to the hill for close infantry support. Their 11 guns engaged in an artillery duel against the Confederate's 13. Unlike many other engagements in the Civil War, the Confederate artillery had an advantage in this battle. One of the casualties of the artillery duel was Judith Carter Henry, an 85-year-old widow and invalid, who was unable to leave her bedroom in the Henry House. When Ricketts began receiving rifle fire, he concluded that it was coming from the Henry House and turned his guns on the building. A shell that crashed through the bedroom wall tore off one of the widow's feet and inflicted multiple injuries, from which she died later that day.

At approximately 3 p.m., the guns from Captain Griffin's battery were overrun by the 33rd Virginia, whose men were outfitted in blue uniforms similar to those worn by Union troops. This caused Griffin's commander, Major William F. Barry, to mistake them for Union troops and to order Griffin not to fire upon them. Close range volleys from the 33rd Virginia and Stuart's cavalry attack against the flank of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the late Elmer E. Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves), which was supporting the battery, killed many of the gunners and scattered the infantry. Capitalizing on this success, Jackson ordered two regiments to charge Ricketts's guns and they were captured as well. As additional Union infantry engaged, the guns changed hands several times.

The capture of Rickett's Battery turned the tide of battle. At about 4 p.m., the last Union troops were pushed off Henry House Hill by a charge of two regiments from Colonel Philip St. George Cocke's brigade. To the west, two Confederate brigades from the Shenandoah Valley crushed Colonel Oliver O. Howard's brigade, which had been occupying Chinn Ridge. General Beauregard ordered his entire line forward. McDowell's force crumbled and began to retreat. The retreat was relatively orderly up to the Bull Run creek crossings, but it was poorly managed by the Union officers. Artillery fire overturned a Union wagon on a bridge spanning Cub Run Creek and incited panic in McDowell's force. As the soldiers streamed uncontrollably toward Centreville, discarding their arms and equipment; McDowell ordered Colonel Dixon S. Miles's division to act as a rear guard, but it was impossible to rally the army short of Washington. In the disorder that followed, hundreds of Union troops were taken prisoner. The wealthy and political elite of nearby Washington D.C. had come to picnic and watch the battle, expecting an easy Union victory. When the Union army retreated in disorder, panicking civilians blocked the roads back to Washington, attempting to flee in their carriages. Since the Confederate forces were also highly disorganized, Beauregard and Johnston did not fully press their advantage, despite urging from recent arrival Confederate President Jefferson Davis. An attempt by Johnston to intercept the Union troops from his right flank was a failure. Both Beauregard and Johnston squabbled with each other. Davis eventually called off the pursuit.

The First Bull Run was the largest and bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Union forces and civilians alike feared that Confederate forces would advance on Washington, D.C., with very little standing in their way. On July 24, Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe ascended in the balloon Enterprise to observe the Confederates moving in and about Manassas Junction and Fairfax. He saw no evidence of massing Rebel forces, but was forced to land in Confederate territory. Northerners were shocked by the defeat of their army when an easy victory had been widely anticipated. On July 22, President Lincoln signed a bill that provided for the enlistment of another 500,000 men for up to three years of service. He also replaced Irwin McDowell with George McDowell, as the head of the Army of the Potomoc. There was little public celebration throughout the Confederacy, as Southerners realized that the war would be longer and more brutal than they had assumed. Northerners came to same conclusion.

The name of the battle has caused controversy since 1861. The Union Army frequently named battles after significant rivers and creeks that played a role in the fighting; and the Confederates generally used the names of nearby towns or farms. The U.S. National Park Service uses the Confederate name for its national battlefield park, but the Union name (Bull Run) also has widespread currency in popular literature. Below are links to more detail information on the battle:

Manassas - National Park Service

Civil War Home

"HARPER'S FERRY WEEKLY - August 3, 1861

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Notes and Observations of "STAR WARS: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back"

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

Notes and Observations of "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE"

*Exactly who was in command of the Rebel Alliance base on Hoth – Leia or General Rieekan?

*What was Leia doing on Hoth with the Rebel Alliance military personnel? Why wasn’t she with the other political Rebel leaders?

*Ah yes! The ”I’ just as soon kiss a Wookie!” dialogue between Leia and Han. Charming, although slightly . . . childish.

*How . . . or should I say when did Han and Leia reach the point in which they became attracted to one another?

*It was interesting to see how Obi-Wan’s ghost faded with the emergence of Han on a tauntaun.

*”Why, you stuck up,... half-witted... scruffy-looking ...nerf-herder!” - Another charming, yet childish exchange between Leia and Han.

*Jealousy and ambition seem quite obvious within the Imperial command structure, if General Ozzel’s glare at Piett is anything to go by.

*I find it interesting that the exchange between Luke and Han before the commencement of the Battle of Hoth would be the last between them for at least a year.

*Vader’s ability to strangle Ozzel with the Force from such a large distance seemed very impressive for someone whose strength with the Force has been weakened.

*The pilots’ point of view of the Battle of Hoth seemed like another cliché of a World War II dogfight . . . like the Battle of Yavin.

*Luke was made commander of the Rebel pilots because he had destroyed the Death Star . . . with Han’s help? What about Wedge, who was also a competent pilot and more experienced?

*The Imperial AT-AT Walkers remind me of the Oliphaunts from the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” saga.

*Wasn’t Leia taking her duty just a bit too seriously by delaying her departure from Hoth?

*I noticed that Han never seemed to follow the ladies first rule. When he, Leia and Chewie and Threepio had escaped both from Hoth and the exogorth in the asteroid field, he made sure that he boarded the Millennium Falcon first. Not exactly a man of the Old Republic.

*Han really revealed how much of a hot shot pilot he was in this movie.

*”Into the belly of the beast” - This metaphor seemed to fit the Falcon’s entry into exogorth even more than Luke, Han and Leia’s brief adventures inside the Death Star’s trash compactor.

*The audience got a brief glimpse of the price Anakin paid for his past mistakes – namely his scalded head.

*”Feel like what?” - Yoda’s first words in any ”STAR WARS” movie.

*”Great warrior? Hmmm . . . wars do not make one great.” - Ironic words from the very being who led the first attack, during the first battle of the Clone Wars. His words also revealed the true Yoda behind the comic façade. I think Luke may have been too impatient or full of himself to notice.

*”You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life.” - One can only assume that Leia’s age – 22 years – and limited experience with men would explain why she bought that bilge pouring from Han’s mouth.

*”He’s just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.” - Surely these words must have hinted to Palpatine that Vader had been aware of Luke for some time?

*I see that Clive Revill has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor Palpatine in this DVD version of the movie. Which makes sense, considering that McDiarmid is more identified with the role.

*”This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away . . . to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.” - I believe that Yoda had just described himself and many other Jedi Masters and Knights of the Old Republic, nearly a quarter of a century ago. If he and Obi-Wan could learn to overcome this distraction from the future, why not Luke? Why was Yoda so reluctant to teach Luke? Is it Luke he doubts? Or himself as a teacher?

*”If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice.” - I hope that Yoda was trying to say that a person will always be affected by his or her earlier decision to take a dark path or commit dark acts. Because if he was trying to say that a person will always remain evil, after taking the dark path, I must say that I disagree.

*Han used a neat trick to evade the sensors of Captain Needa’s starship, after the Falcon left the asteroid field.

*”Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.” - A favorite line of mine.

*It was very clever of Han to attach the Falcon to an Imperial starship before disguising it as garbage to be disposed with the other. Unfortunately for him, Boba Fett had witnessed a similar trick pulled by Obi-Wan near Geonosis, some 25 years ago. Even worse, it is a shame that Han was so busy congratulating himself over his trick that he failed to realize that Fett was tracking him.

*”Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future... the past. Old friends long gone.” - I wonder if Yoda was thinking of Mace Windu.

*According to LucasFilm, it took the Falcon three months to reach Bespin without a hyperdrive. If only Lucas and the others had made this clear in the movie.

*The Falcon was practically escorted to one of the landing platforms on Cloud City. I wonder why.

*Great entrance for Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian.

*Was CP-30 really that dense in that he would be so easily distracted from the group by the sound of an R2 unit?

*”Stopped they must be. On this all depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor”. - Did that mean Yoda had never intended for Luke to help Anakin find redemption?

*Apparently, the original deal between Vader and Lando did not include Han being turned over to Boba Fett. And later, Vader broke his word and insisted that Leia and Chewie accompany him. Interesting. It is a miracle that the Sith Lord did not renege on the deal even further by destroying Bespin and its population.

*And why did Han and Leia fail to understand the situation that Vader had placed Lando? Were they too blinded by anger?

*I find it interesting that not once did Vader set eyes upon C3-P0, his own creation. Why? Because Chewbacca had the droid strapped to his back.

*How stupid were Leia and Chewbacca? It was obvious that Lando had released them from Vader’s stormtroopers. Yet, all they could do was lose their tempers. Chewbacca immediately began to strangle Lando and Leia encouraged the Wookie. Because their temper tantrums, they prevented Lando from rescuing Han from Boba Fett.

*I must admit that I found the dialogue during the Bespin duel rather irritating. The most important thing about the duel seemed to be Vader’s revelation as Anakin Skywalker . . . after the fighting stopped.

*Vader’s reaction to Luke and Leia’s escape from Bespin was an excellent moment of silent acting on David Prowse’s part. With his use of body language, he managed to express Vader’s regret over losing Luke . . . and the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s resurgence.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"TRANSFORMERS: Dark Side of the Moon" (2011) Photo Gallery

Below are images of "TRANSFORMERS: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON", the third entry in the TRANSFORMERS movie franchise. Directed by Michael Bay, the movie stars Shia LaBeouf:

"TRANSFORMERS: Dark Side of the Moon" (2011) Photo Gallery

Monday, July 18, 2011

"The Many Loves of Rafe McCawley" [PG-13] - 3/7


PART 3 - The Homecoming Queen

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK; DECEMBER 1940 . . . "Say Rafe? Are you still sore? That I talked Lila Deakins into driving you away, like that?" Danny glanced uneasily at his friend.

The pair slowly made their way to the next station. Rafe seemed distracted. Almost sad. Danny knew who was on his mind. The Shelby Belle. "It's okay, Danny," he said softly.

Danny blinked. "Huh?"

A sad smile touched Rafe's lips. "It's okay. About Lila. Hell, I forgave you about two hours after I left the Shelby House. It didn't take me long to figure out that you were simply trying to protect me."

"You seemed distracted for a moment."

Nodding, Rafe continued, "I guess I was remembering Lila on that last day. After I left the house, I had looked back and saw her staring out the window. Crying."

"Maybe you should have went back and . . ." Danny said, feeling a sudden burst of guilt.

Rafe shook his head. "No. I did the right thing. Actually, Lila did the right thing. I was too young. Hell, Sheriff Crawford would have put her behind bars if anyone had ever found out. Besides, she didn't stay around Shelby very long."

Danny remembered. Two months after Rafe's last visit to the Shelby House, the two friends had learned from local mechanic Farley Bates that Lila had departed for Memphis. Danny recalled that his friend had remained silent for nearly the rest of the day. Quite a feat for the usually talkative Rafe McCawley.

After the Shelby Belle's departure, Rafe had turned to girls of his age with a vengeance. Danny remembered that he did not remain with one very long, during those last three years in high school. He usually dated a girl for at least four to six months. Except for one who barely lasted a month.

"Say Rafe," Danny said out loud, "do you remember Eleanor Conway?"

A frown creased Rafe's forehead. "Ellie Conway? What made you think of her?"

Danny shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I was thinking of all the girls you've dated in high school. Then I realized that you didn't stay with Ellie Conway as long as you did with the others. Not that I'm complaining."

The two friends found themselves standing in line to have their reflexes tested. In a very long line. One of Rafe's brows quirked upward. "Is this your way of telling me that you didn't care for Ellie?"

Danny, in a rare moment of sarcasm, shot back, "Are you saying that you did?"

* * * *

SHELBY, TENNESSEE; OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1933 . . . Coach McCuffie blew his whistle and the Varsity football team of Shelby High gathered around him on the field. "Okay boys! That's enough practice for today. Don't forget that a bus will be in front of the school, tomorrow morning. And it will leave precisely at 9:30a.m. Now, hit the showers!"

Rafe McCawley and his fellow players, streamed off the football field. Some ran toward the Physical Education building, whooping at the top of their lungs. The remaining athletes, including Rafe, slowly made their way off the field. "Hey there, Rafe!" A high, silvery-voice stopped the seventeen year-old in his tracks. Was that . . .? He turned around. Behind him stood a nubile, pretty girl with elfin features, and blond hair. Eleanor Conway.

Everyone at Shelby High knew about Ellie Conway. Cheerleader. The new president of the Chatelaine Society Club. And recently elected Secretary of the Student Body. Not much brains upstairs, Rafe recalled, but very shrewd. Especially when it came to her social position. Her father happened to be the head manager of a local mortgage company. Another thing about Ellie Conway that everyone knew - she happened to be an ardent Hollywood movie fan. She had especially developed an obsession toward one of Hollywood's newest sex symbols - Jean Harlow. That explained why Ellie's usual honey-brown hair had been dyed platinum blond.

Rafe gave the cheerleader a polite smile. "Hey, Ellie. What can I do for you?"

Pale blue eyes flashed at him. "I'm having a little party at my house, tomorrow night. You know, to celebrate our victory?"

"What victory? The game isn't until tomorrow." Both Rafe and Ellie referred to the football game Shelby High would play against a high school at a nearby town.

A coy Ellie lightly slapped Rafe's chest. "Oh c'mon Rafe! This is Marshall High we're talking about. I reckon we can beat them blindfolded!"

Rafe could not deny the truth. Marshall High School possessed one of the worst football teams in this part of the state. Like Ellie, he figured that Shelby High would easily come out the winner.

Ellie continued, "Since it's certain our team will win, I decided to have a party, tomorrow night. Wanna come?"

"I don't know, Ellie," Rafe replied. "You see, I don't have a date." Just a week ago, his three-month relationship with Cora Hale had ended.

Ellie's pert nose crinkled. "That's okay. Why don't you bring Danny along, instead? I'm sure he would love to come."

Surprise overwhelmed Rafe. Although a popular guy himself, not many have been willing to include Danny in their parties. Being the son of the dead Lucas Walker had done nothing for the younger boy's popularity. "Well, that's really nice of you, Ellie," Rafe replied. "We'll be there."

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow." Ellie further surprised Rafe by planting a quick peck on his nose.

* * * *

"She invited me to her party?" Danny eyed the older boy suspiciously. "Ellie Conway?"

The two friends sat on the porch, outside the McCawley farmhouse. Rafe and Danny had just finished eating supper with Rafe's parents. While the latter remained inside the house to listen to the radio, the two adolescents had decided to sit outside for some fresh air.

Rafe nodded. "Look, I know you find that hard to believe . . ."

"You can say that again!"

Shooting his friend with a dark look, Rafe continued, "Well, believe or not, you've been invited."

"Why?" Before Rafe could answer, Danny continued, "I can't help how I feel. Aside with a few like Dick Hobbs and Rebecca McPherson, I'm not exactly a popular guy at school. The only reason I can think why Ellie is willing to invite me to her party is . . ." His brown eyes narrowed. "She's after you, ain't she?"


"Ellie. I heard she just broke up with Johnny Shaw. Caught him with Ginny Welland. And with Homecoming just a month from now, she needs a date. A Homecoming King. And who better than Rafe McCawley, football hero, member of the Shelby Science & Math Club, Student Body Sergeant-At-Arms and one of the few people in this whole damn county that can actually fly a plane. She's after you."

Rafe shot to his feet. "You got some kind of beef with me, Danny?" he growled. "Cause, I don't see no reason why you should be shouting at me."

A moment passed. Strains of Fred Allen could be heard from inside the house. Danny sighed. "No, I . . . I guess that sometimes, I get so tired of being treated like a second-class citizen at school. All because my daddy was a drunk. And now I have this feeling that Ellie only invited me because she wants you."

"I don't know what Ellie wants," Rafe said, as he sat back down. "But after Cora, I really feel like a party. And if you can be there. . ."

Danny let out a heartfelt sigh. "All right, I'll go."

Rafe smiled.

* * * *

The football game against Marshall High ended as Ellie had predicted. It ended in victory for Shelby High. Later that night, Rafe and Danny arrived at the Conway residence for the celebration. The party was already in full swing. Bing Crosby singing, "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" blasted from a phonograph. The two friends squeezed their way through the crowd.

"Rafe!" Ellie's high voice squeaked above the music. "You made it!" She threw herself into Rafe's arms and gave him a hug. After she stepped back, her eyes fell upon Danny. Ellie gave the latter a friendly smile. "Danny. Glad you could come to my party." To Rafe's relief, Danny responded with a friendly nod.

It wasn't bad as parties go. The food seemed pretty good to Rafe. Everyone seemed to be on a high, following the football team's victory over Marshall. Rafe noticed that the guests' good mood had spilled over to Danny. Aside from a few malcontents determined to shun the latter, most seemed as friendly as Ellie.

At least an hour later, Rafe found himself in a good mood. Of course, several cups of punch spiked with brandy from the liquor cabinet helped. Along with Ellie's company. A new song blared from the phonograph - "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes". Rafe's own eyes blinked through an alcoholic haze, as he watched Ellie sauntered forth. More like danced. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "Why don't we go outside for some fresh air?" Rafe immediately agree.

The pair made their way through the crowd. Rafe spotted Danny staring at him through narrowed eyes. Which he ignored. Once outside on the Conway back porch, Ellie again threw herself into Rafe's arms. "Hey," she whispered. Her breath smelled of fruit punch and brandy.

Rafe whispered back, "Hey yourself."

"You look a little drunk. Maybe you've drunk one too many glasses of punch."

"Don't you mean spiked punch?" Rafe added playfully.

Ellie giggled. Then her mouth inched closer. "How else can I get you out here, alone?" The small, pink mouth now hovered inches away from Rafe's. "Lord, you sure are one tall drink of water. Aren't you gonna kiss me?"

Why he hesitated, Rafe had no idea. After all, Ellie Conway was considered to be one of the prettiest girls at Shelby High. And one of the most popular. So why did he feel so reluctant to kiss her? "Well, I . . . uh . . ." Rafe began. Before he could say anything further, Ellie pressed her little pink lips against his.

Alcohol and lust overcame Rafe's reluctance and he drew Ellie into his arms. He gently forced her mouth open. What had begun as a small kiss, soon became a torrid meeting of tongues. At that moment, Rafe knew that Ellie had hooked him, line and sinker. And quite frankly, he did not care.

* * * *

Three days after Ellie's party, Shelby High's faculty announced it would accept nominations for the Homecoming court. Rafe had no interest about Homecoming or who would become its Queen. He only felt grateful that he had a date for the dance. Apparently, Ellie did not share his feelings.

"Say that again?" he demanded. Rafe and Ellie shared a table inside the school's cafeteria. He had been eating his lunch when she surprised him with a bombshell.

Ellie took a deep breath. "I said that it would be nice if you helped me campaign for Homecoming Queen."

Rafe stared at her. "What the hell for?"

"I thought it would be fun for me to run for Homecoming Queen." A pout formed on Ellie's lips. "And I thought you could help me."

Right. A dark suspicion entered Rafe's mind. Despite her words, he suspected that Ellie took this whole Homecoming business, seriously. Even worse, she needed to be associated with a popular man-on-campus, someone like Johnny Shaw or himself, to get elected Homecoming Queen. Ellie may be familiar on campus, but not even her popularity had reached the heights of Annabelle Parker, another cheerleader. But, he kept these dark thoughts to himself.

"Fun huh?" Rafe grunted. Then he sighed. "I reckon there's no harm in helping you. Maybe it would be fun."

A smile curved Ellie's lips. "I'm sure it will."

* * * *

Danny stared at Rafe with disbelief shining in his eyes. "You're gonna help Ellie Conway run for Homecoming Queen? What the hell for?"

Annoyance surged through Rafe. He sat behind the wheel of his 1927 Ford convertible. Danny sat next to him, in the passenger seat. The convertible sped along a rural road that led to the McCawley Farm. "Because I thought it would be fun," he snapped back. "You got a problem?"

An exasperated sigh escaped Danny's mouth. "C'mon Rafe! You gotta be kidding me! You, help Ellie Conway run for Homecoming Queen? What are you, her publicity manager?" He paused momentarily. Then, "Wait a minute! This is all Ellie Conway's doing, ain't it? She talked you into it!"

"Yeah Danny, she did. So what? It's just a goddamn dance. Nothing to get excited over."

"Nothing to . . ." Danny signed again. "Dammit Rafe! Can't you see? She's using you!"

"Using me for what?"

Danny rolled his eyes. "You know why! Johnny Shaw dumped her for Ginny Welland. And she's using you as a substitute for Johnny."

Now brimming with anger because he knew that Danny had hit close to the truth, Rafe drove his convertible off the road and stopped. He switched off the engine. "And why does she need me as a substitute, Danny? What's the matter. You can't say it out loud?" Rafe pierced his friend with a hard glare. Danny's eyes cast downward. Rafe heard him mumble under his breath. "What's that? I didn't hear you."

His face turning deep pink, Danny spoke louder. "Ellie needs you to become Homecoming Queen. Like Johnny, you're a popular guy in school. Ellie may be popular herself, but she hasn't a chance against someone like Annabelle Parker. She needs you."

"You're a real smart fellow, aren't you?" Rafe asked quietly. When Danny failed to respond, he sighed. There were times he hated facing the truth. Like now. "Has it occurred to you, Danny, that I may be using Ellie?

Danny frowned. "Using her? Why?"

Rafe stared directly at his friend. Then he murmured, "Lila."

Realization lit up Danny's eyes. Just a week before Rafe had ended his relationship with Cora Hale, the two boys had learned from Harley Bates that an obsessive customer had stabbed Lila Deakins to death, during a violet brawl in a Memphis whorehouse. "Is that why you and Cora . . .?" Danny began. He paused. "Did Cora know about you and . . .?"

Rafe snapped back, "Of course not! It's just . . . well, things weren't the same after Harley told us . . . told us about Lila."

"Oh." Again, Danny fell silent.

Rafe continued, "I know what you're thinking. Why would I raise a fuss over a dead whore. It's just that Lila was dif . . ."

"I understand, Rafe. I understand. Hell, I reckon you were the only fella in the whole county who didn't have to pay to see her after the first time." Danny added. "But how long can Ellie help you forget? Ever ask yourself that?" Silence fell between the two friends.

* * * *

Homecoming 1933. It was a magical time for the students at Shelby High. The night began on a high note, when the school's Varsity football team won a difficult victory over Boone High. The game ended with a final score of 21 to 17, after quarterback Rafe passed a 30-yard touchdown to a Shelby fullback name Donnie Cole. Both Rafe and Donnie became the heroes of the day.

Not that Rafe really cared. He had another matter on his mind. Namely, tonight's Homecoming dance. Rafe made sure that he was dressed perfectly in a black tuxedo he had rented for the evening. Since Danny also had a date, Rafe allowed his friend to borrow his Ford convertible, while he used his dad's Pontiac sedan. At exactly 6:30 p.m., he drove to the Conway residence to pick up Ellie. He had to admit that she looked beautiful in a slinky, pale pink gown that looked like something out of a Hollywood movie.

"You look very beautiful," he greeted Ellie, smiling. She responded with a peck on his lips. "Ready?"

Ellie nodded and the couple headed for the Pontiac. It took them five minutes to reach the high school. The Homecoming dance was being held inside the school's largest gymnasium. When Rafe and Ellie entered, a loud applause broke out. Looking like a cat with cream on its whiskers, Ellie squeezed Rafe's arm. "Oh Lord!" she nearly squeaked. "Isn't this exciting?"

Seeing the estatic look on her face, Rafe's pleasure in the evening immediately began to dim. The evening was beginning to look perfect. Maybe a bit too perfect. And Ellie seemed to be eating it up. Everyone gushed over her dress and congratulated Rafe in winning the game. Even Danny seemed to having a good time. Rafe spotted his best friend dancing with Rebecca McPherson. And both seemed lost in their own little world.

The evening's celebrations ended in triumph for Rafe and Ellie. Much to no one's surprise, Ellie was declared Shelby High's Homecoming Queen for 1933. She practically squeaked when the principal placed a small, plastic tiara on her head. Rafe expressed delight at Ellie's triumph. Or at least tried. If anyone had paid close attention, they would have noticed a subtle, yet lackluster expression on his face.

In fact, the evening went downhill for Rafe, after Ellie's crowning. He struggled to maintain a happy smile, while a photographer took photos of the "Court". Rafe felt a deep relief every time someone danced with Ellie. Including Johnny Shaw. His relief increased tenfold when the time arrived for him and Ellie to go home. Danny and Rebecca, he noticed, had already left.

Twenty minutes later, the McCawley Oldsmobile pulled up in front of the Conway residence. Ellie let out a sigh. "It's been such a wonderful evening, Rafe. Don't you agree?"

"Yeah," Rafe quietly replied. "Swell."

"Rafe?" Ellie gave him a quizzed look. "Is there something wrong?"

Rafe's gaze focused on the oak tree that rose from the Conway's front lawn. "No, everything's fine." He paused. Then he opened his mouth to continue, but Ellie spoke first.

"By the way, I'm organizing a hayride for next week. It'll start at the McBride's Farm. When can I expect you to pick me up?"

Rafe sighed. Long and hard. "Sorry Ellie," he finally said, "but I'll be busy, next weekend. Flying. You'll have to find someone else to take you. Why don't you try Johnny Shaw? You two seemed to be friendly."

Disbelief shone in Ellie's pale eyes. "What?"

"I said that you'll have to find . . ."

"I heard what you said!" Ellie screeched. She rounded on Rafe. "What the hell's the matter with you, Rafe McCawley? You've been a sour puss all evening! Don't think I haven't noticed!"

A smirk appeared on Rafe's lips. "Say Ellie, does your mama know that you use such language?"

"Stop it, Rafe! What's gotten into you?"

Rafe paused. He had started this. Might as well finish. "I'm bored, Ellie. With you." A gasp left her mouth. "Normally, I would feel mighty guilty for this, but in your case, I don't. In fact, I don't really care."

Ellie snarled, "What do you mean by that?"

"You don't need me anymore, Ellie," Rafe continued. "You got what you wanted. You're the Homecoming Queen. You even got the chance to rub that into Johnny Shaw's face. Let him know what he had missed. Why don't you be honest? You needed someone like me - 'a big man on campus' - to help you get the crown. And the only reason I let you use me is that I was using you to get over Cora." And Lila, he silently added.

A slender hand roundly smacked Rafe's left cheek. SMACK!! "You son-of-a-bitch!"

"Now that's certainly not proper language for a young lady such as yourself."

"You wouldn't know a lady if you met one, you scum!" Ellie screeched. "You and that white trash friend of yours!" She opened the car door.

Rafe sighed. "I guess this means you're leaving?"

"Just as fast as I can!" Ellie climbed out of the car. "And I swear to God that I'll never speak to you again, Rafe McCawley!"

Rafe playfully shot back, "Is that a promise?"

Ellie slammed the door, shut. She speared Rafe with her most withering glare and stalked toward the Conway front door. Rafe realized that if he was lucky, Ellie just might never speak to him, again. He never did like that squeaky voice of hers.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"DOWNTON ABBEY" – Series One Retrospective

"DOWNTON ABBEY" – Series One Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, "DOWNTON ABBEY", had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie, "GOSFORD PARK". And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation.

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, "DOWNTON ABBEY" was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

"DOWNTON ABBEY" did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" and "GOSFORD PARK" (which had a murder mystery attached to it). "DOWNTON ABBEY" had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that "DOWNTON ABBEY" certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that "DOWNTON ABBEY" is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and "GOSFORD PARK" seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as a swot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in "GOSFORD PARK" - namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

"DOWNTON ABBEY" proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that "DOWNTON ABBEY" will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS"? I guess we will have to wait and see.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"EMMA" (1996 TV) Photo Gallery

Below are images from "EMMA", the 1996 television version of Jane Austen's 1815 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, the movie starred Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong:

"EMMA" (1996 TV) Photo Gallery