Wednesday, December 31, 2014
"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - EPISODE FOUR "April-November 1864" Commentary
Episode Four of the 1986 miniseries, "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK 2" picked up at least seven to eight months after Episode Three left off. The miniseries arrived at a point in which the Civil War began to embark upon its last year. And yet, the miniseries itself had reached its mid point. I found it odd that producer David Wolper, director Kevin Reynolds and the production’s screenwriters would portray the war’s last year (in reality, eleven months) within three episodes. Oh well.
The episode began with a strong sequence that featured George Hazard's capture by John Mosby’s Rangers, while he and his men were transporting artillery guns and units to the front. The episode would return to George’s travails as a prisoner of war at Libby Prison in two more sequences. This first half hour also featured the beginning of Charles Main’s affair with Augusta, Billy Hazard’s return to the Sharpshooters’ regiment and the Battle of the Wilderness. Episode Fouralso portrayed the marriage woes of Ashton and James Huntoon, along with Elkhannah Bent’s attempt to woo Huntoon into his conspiracy against Confederate President Jefferson Davis; Madeline Main’s first meeting with former army officer Rafe Beaudine and her efforts to raise food and money for war refugees in Charleston; and Virgilia Hazard’s feud with her nursing supervisor, Mrs. Neal.
I have mixed feelings about Episode Four. I did not harbor a low opinion of it, as I did Episode Two and Episode Five. But I did not love it. I thought it began on a strong note with George’s capture and the Battle of the Wilderness. It also ended on a strong note with George’s experiences at Libby Prison and Virgilia’s troubles with Mrs. Neal. I must admit that I had a problem with the episode’s second act. Aside from the interesting scene that featured George’s arrival at Libby Prison and the revelation of the state of the Huntoon marriage, I had a bit of a struggle staying awake. One again, the 1986 miniseries managed to provide a battle sequence interesting enough to maintain my interest and impress me at the same time. Director Kevin Connor did an excellent job with this sequence by shooting it in a documentary style that gave it a stark and realistic look. And he was aptly supported by Jacques R. Marquette’s photography. For once, Marquette’s hazy photography served the narrative very well. The episode also benefited from Robert Fletcher’s lovely costumes, as shown in the images below:
I found General Ulysses Grant’s angry response to his staff’s fears over Robert E. Lee, following the Wilderness battle particularly enjoyable. What is interesting about this moment is that it actually happened. And I noticed that actor Anthony Zerbe not only used Grant’s actual words, but also improvised a few words into the speech. Actually, I felt it was the episode’s highlight, thanks to Zerbe’s performance. Another positive aspect of Episode Four turned out to be Ashton and James Huntoon’s marriage woes. Terri Garber and Jim Metzler did an excellent job of conveying how Ashton’s infidelity, Huntoon’s political failures and the war had put a toll on a marriage that had been loveless from the start. The venomous conflict between Virgilia Hazard and her supervisor, Mrs. Neal proved to be very interesting, thanks to Kirstie Alley and Olivia De Havilland’s excellent performances. I found both ladies unsympathetic, until Mrs. Neal decided to harass Virgilia, while the other was having trouble staying awake after long hours of work. I found the older woman's attitude simply bitchy. I also noticed that despite Mrs. Neal’s accusations of Virgilia’s poor ministrations to Confederate patients, the miniseries failed to substantiate her claims. And I found myself wondering if Mrs. Neal simply disliked Virgilia for the latter’s abolitionist leanings and marriage to a former slave.
Kirstie Alley had another chance to shine in a sequence that involved Virgilia's reconciliation with none other than Orry Main, who had been injured and captured by Union troops. No only did Alley give an excellent performance in this poignant sequence, but so did Patrick Swayze. I also have to give kudos to both James Read and Wayne Newton for the crackling hostility they managed to produce between George Hazard and his Libby Prison tormentor, Captain Thomas Turner. In fact, I never thought I would say this, but Newton made a damn fine villain. He nearly put Philip Casnoff, David Carradine and Terri Garber to shame. His performance certainly gave the Libby Prison sequence a creep factor that I found very effective. And if you look carefully, you might find actor Billy Drago (of "THE UNTOUCHABLES" fame) as one of the Union prisoners.
I do have several problems about this episode. One, I wish that Charles and Augusta's affair had begun a lot sooner than three years after they first met. In other words, I wish the screenwriters had followed Jakes’ original portrayal of their relationship. I believe this could have given Charles and Augusta’s affair more depth and paced a lot better. The portrayal of their affair developed into a major problem in Episode Six. Their affair began in the aftermath of one of the battles during the Wilderness Campaign. And for the likes of me, I could never understand what Charles was doing there, while wearing a heavy overcoat in the middle of May. The screenplay never explained why he was there.
Then we come to the problem of Billy’s return to his regiment after deserting for nearly ten months (he departed right after the Gettysburg battle in July 1863 and returned to his regiment either in late April 1864). The consequences he paid for deserting were ridiculous. Billy received a lecture from Colonel Hiram Burdan, passed over for a promotion to captain and threatened with court martial if he ever deserted again. What on earth were the writers thinking? Billy should have faced a court-martial or forced to resign his commission for being absent without leave for nearly ten months. Whoever had written this episode must have been completely ignorant of military protocol . . . or smoking something. And what was Berdan’s excuse for his leniency toward Billy? He needed all available men. Hogwash! This was the spring of 1864, when the Union Army's ranks were literally swollen for the remainder of the war, despite desertion. No other TV show, novel, play or etc., would have featured such a major writing gaffe. Then again, you never know. And why was Berdan still in command of the Sharpshooters in this episode? By keeping Berdan as Billy's commanding officer in this episode, the writers committed a historical gaffe. Berdan had decided to leave the Union Army by the late winter/early spring of 1864.
On the other hand, I found Madeline Main's efforts to help the poor – refugee slaves, free black and poor whites - in Charleston rather noble and dull as hell. Madeline’s first husband, Justin LaMotte, had contemptuously given her the nickname – "Madeline the Merciful" in the first miniseries. I hate to say this, but after viewing the beginning of this story line in Episode Four, I found myself sharing his contempt. Her actions were admirable, but I feel the writers went too far in portraying her in a noble light. Quite simply, one could easily accuse Madeline of harboring a savior complex – one that struck me as incredibly pretentious. This sequence also introduced a young former slave named Michael and his mother, who came from Tennessee. I really had a problem with this. Why on earth would Tennessee slave refugees head deep into Confederate territory, when they could have easily ended up in Union held cities like Nashville, Memphis and Vicksburg? However, this sequence featured a young Bumper Robinson as Michael, who managed to act circles around Lesley Anne Down (as if that were possible). And it also introduced the delicious Lee Horsley as a disgraced army officer-turned-wastrel named Rafe Beaudine, who came to Madeline’s aid against a band of scavengers. Horsley and Lesley Anne Down managed to create a sparkling screen chemistry that nearly put all of the other on-screen romantic pairings to shame.
In the end, Episode Four proved to be a mixed bag. It featured some excellent dramatic scenes and a well-shot battle sequence that helped me maintained my interest. On the other hand, it also featured some questionable writing that left me shaking my head with disappointment. It was not one of my favorite episodes, but was certainly not a disappointment either.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Below are images from the 2007 movie, "OCEAN'S THIRTEEN". Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Al Pacino:
"OCEAN'S THIRTEEN" (2007) Photo Gallery
Saturday, December 27, 2014
"BIG BUSINESS" (1988) Review
Between the mid 1980s and the early 1990s, Bette Midler was something of a box office power house for the Disney Studios. The latter released a good deal of her movies through one of its distribution labels, Touchstone Pictures. And one of those movie was the 1988 comedy that she co-starred with Lily Tomlin called "BIG BUSINESS".
Loosely based upon William Shakespeare's 1594-95 play, "The Comedy of Errors", "BIG BUSINESS" is a comedy of errors with a financial twist that involves two sets of identical twins who were mismatched at birth. The movie begins in 1940s with a wealthy New York couple, Hunt and a very pregnant Binky Shelton being driven through the West Virginia countryside, searching for the summer house of a friend. When Mrs. Shelton goes into labor, a local worker named Garth Raliff direct them to the local hospital in the nearby town of Jupiter Hollow. After the Sheltons drive away, Mr. Ratliff's wife Iona informs him that he is in labor. Mr. Shelton has to purchase a furniture producing store called Hollowmade in order to get medical attention for his wife, since the hospital is only for the company's employees. The Ratcliffs arrive at the hospital and the doctor is forced to deliver a pair of twin girls from both of his patients. The hospital's elderly nurse mixes up the twins, placing a Shelton and Ratliff twin in one bed for the Sheltons . . . and a second pair in another bed for the Ratliffs. Mr. Ratliff overhears the Sheltons deciding to name their daughters Rose and Sadie, and suggests the same names to his wife.
Some forty years later, the Shelton sisters are now co-chairwomen of the family's conglomerate called Moramax. Sadie Shelton, a ruthless businesswoman, plans off-load Hollowmade to an Italian business raider with the approval of the conglomerate's board of stockholders. Meanwhile, Rose Ratliff, now the ambitious forewoman of Hollowmade Factory and a union representative, learns about Moramax's plans. She sets out to travel to New York City and stop the sale, dragging her sister Sadie along. When the West Virginia sisters arrive in New York, they are mistaken for the Sheltons and find themselves checked into the city's famous Plaza Hotel, where the Moramax stockholders' meeting is being held. Sadie Shelton learns of the Ratliffs' intention to travel to New York and orders her more passive sister Rose and two Moramax executives, Graham Sherbourne and Chuck, to find the West Virginians and make sure they stay away from the stockholders' meeting. With two sets of twins at the Plaza Hotel, a great deal of chaos ensues before the big showdown at the meeting.
I might as well lay my cards on the table. "BIG BUSINESS" is a silly movie. There is no doubt about it. Some of the humor written by Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel struck me as so broad that it required a good deal of mugging from some of the cast. The two leads - Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin - certainly did their share of mugging. But silly movie or not, I also found it very entertaining. I cannot deny that "BIG BUSINESS" is a funny movie. It is not perfect. It certainly has its flaws. But dammit, it is funny! Every time I see the movie, it brings back memories of the excessive style of the 1980s. More importantly, aside from a narrative flaw or two, it is a good solid story about mistaken identity, family and high finance.
"BIG BUSINESS" featured some really funny scenes. One of my favorites is the movie's prologue set in the 1940s. Thanks to some stellar performances - especially from Deborah Rush, who portrayed the Shelton family's sharp-tongued matriarch - and cracker-jack pacing by director Jim Abrahams, the prologue is not only funny, but provided clear details on what led to the infant mix-up between the two families. Other first-rate scenes featured the Ratliffs' arrival in New York City and their meeting with Italian businessman Fabio Alberici, Sadie Shelton's encounter with her minions Graham and Chuck during her dinner with Signor Alberici, Graham and Chuck's evening with Rose Shelton and Roone Dimmick (who happened to be Rose Ratliff's boyfriend), Roone bunking with Graham and Chuck, and the four women's first encounter with each other in one of the Plaza Hotel's restroom. However, another first-rate scene that really benefited from Abrahams' direction and pacing was the breakfast sequence, which occurred just before the restroom scene. I was amazed at how Abrahams' direction, along with Pierson and Rubel's script, allowed the Sheltons and Ratliffs interchange at one restaurant table without anyone realizing they were speaking to the wrong twin.
As much as I enjoyed "BIG BUSINESS", it does have its flaws. There were times when the mugging got out of control. This was especially apparent in the bathroom scene. Speaking of that particular scene, although it seemed to start well, I thought it ended on a clumsy note when some of the hotel's employees, along with the men in the four women's lives spotted both sets of twins together. Even worse, the end of the scene featured too much mugging for my tastes. I had no problems with how Pierson and Rubel handled at least three of the four women's love lives. New York Sadie developed a nice, lustful relationship with Signor Alberici. Jupiter Hollow Sadie developed a warm relationship with the ex-husband of her New York counterpart. New York Rose fell in love with Jupiter Hollow Rose's boyfriend, Roone. But the one problematic relationship turned out to be the one between Jupiter Hollow Rose and the rejected fiancé of New York Rose, one Dr. Jay Marshall. The script allowed them to briefly meet outside of the hotel, with Dr. Marshall believing he had encountered New York Rose. They did not meet again until near the end of the movie. And I never understood why the script allowed them to hook up in the end, when their relationship was never explored in the first place. Talk about a badly written relationship.
I wonder how difficult it is for actors and actresses to portray twins. Both Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin did a fantastic job in this movie. Midler portrayed the two sisters born to the Shelton family - Sadie Shelton and Sadie Ratliff. As much as I enjoyed her warm portrayal of the good-hearted and slightly self-centered Sadie Ratliff, I really . . . really loved her portrayal of the ruthless and intimidating Sadie Shelton. Especially when she is allowed to shoot off sharp insults at the other characters. And Tomlin was not only marvelous as the warm and romantic Rose Shelton, who was both a homebody and slightly clumsy, she was a hoot as the sharp-tongued and suspicious Rose Ratliff, who was determined to protect the interests of her fellow workers and the citizens of Jupiter Hollow.
"BIG BUSINESS" also featured Fred Ward, who gave one of my favorite performances in his career. He was warm and sexy as the lovestruck and slightly dim Roone Dimmick. Edward Herrmann and Daniel Gerroll formed a hilarious screen team as New York Sadie's Miramax minions, Graham and Chuck. It is a pity those two never worked with each other again. Although his appearances were brief, Michael Gross gave a funny performance as New York Rose's frustrated fiancé, Dr. Jay Marshall. I read somewhere that Michele Placido had developed a reputation for action drama - either on television or in movies. It is a pity that his filmography did not include more comedies, because the man had a talent for subtle comedy - especially in reacting to madness around his character, Fabio Alberici. John Hancock, whom I have seen in both television and movies over the years, gave a funny performance as the Sheltons' sarcastic chauffeur, Harlan. But my favorite supporting performance came from Deborah Rush, who was hilarious as Sadie and Rose Shelton's sardonic and manipulative mother, Binky. Aside from Midler and Tomlin, Rush had some of the best lines in the movie. Sadie may have inherited her father's name, but thanks to Rush's witty performance, it is easily to see from whom she had inherited her personality.
Yes, "BIG BUSINESS" has its flaws, which included too much mugging, a badly written romance and some clumsy pacing in one major scene. But . . . it is still a very funny movie that handled mistaken identities and high finance rather well. Dori Pierson and Marc Reid Rubel wrote a very solid script. Jim Abrahams did justice to it, with the help of a very funny cast led by the always marvelous Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. After twenty to thirty years, I feel it still holds up very well.
Friday, December 26, 2014
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Below are images from "THE HUNGER GAME: MOCKINGJAY - PART I", the 2014 adaptation of the first half of Suzanne Collins' 2010 novel and second sequel to the 2012 movie, "THE HUNGER GAME". Directed by Francis Lawrence, the movie stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth:
"THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART I" (2014) Photo Gallery