Friday, October 30, 2015

"NORTH AND SOUTH" (1975) Review

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"NORTH AND SOUTH" (1975) Review

I had been a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel, ever since I first saw the 2004 television adaptation a few years ago. Mind you, I had never read the novel. And I still have yet to read it. Despite this, I became a fan of the story. And when I learned that the BBC planned to release an older adaptation of Gaskell's novel, which first aired in 1975, I looked forward to seeing it. 

As one would assume from reading this review, I eventually purchased a copy of the 1975 adaptation on DVD. And if I must be honest, I do not regret it. "NORTH AND SOUTH" proved to be a pretty damn good adaptation. Like the 2004 version, it consisted of four (4) fifty-minute episodes. Gaskell's novel told the story of one Margret Hale, who returns home after ten years to her cleric father's rector in Helstone, after attending the wedding of her cousin, Edith Shaw. Margaret's homecoming is short-lived when she and her mother learn that her father Richard Hale has left the Church of England as a matter of conscience, after he has become a dissenter. His old Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that the Hales move to the industrial town of Milton, in Northern England; where the latter was born and own property. 

Not long after the Hales' arrival in Milton, both Margaret and mother Maria Hale find Milton harsh and strange. Due to financial circumstances, Mr. Hale works as a tutor. One of his more enthusiastic students turn out to be a wealthy cotton manufacturer named John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. Appalled by the conditions of the poverty-stricken mill workers, Margaret befriends the family of one Nicholas Higgins, a union representative. She also develops a dislike of Thornton, finding him gauche and seemingly unconcerned about his workers' condition. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Thornton has grown attracted to her. The volatile relationship between Margaret and Thornton eventually plays out amidst the growing conflict between mill owners and angry workers.

As I had stated earlier, "NORTH AND SOUTH" proved to be a pretty good adaptation. I have a tendency to regard BBC miniseries produced in the 1970s with a jaundice eye, considering their tendency end up as televised stage plays. Thanks to the conflicts, social commentaries and romance featured in "NORTH AND SOUTH", the miniseries was never boring. Many viewers who have seen this version of Gaskell's novel claim that it was a more faithful adaptation than the 2004 miniseries. I cannot agree or disagree, considering that I have yet to read the novel. But I have never been too concern with the faithfulness of any movie or television adaptation, as long as the screenwriter(s) manage to come up with decent script that adheres to the main narrative of the literary source. Fortunately, David Turner did just that. His screenplay, along with Rodney Bennett's direction, explored all of the aspects of Gaskell's 1855 novel - the reason behind the Hales' move to the North, the labor conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, Margaret Hale's conflict/romance with John Thornton, the latter's relationship with his mother, Nicholas Higgins' conflict with fellow mill worker Boucher, and the fragmentation of the Hale family. Also, Bennett directed the entire miniseries with a steady pace that kept me alert.

It is a good thing that Bennett's pacing kept me alert . . . most of the time. Like many BBC productions in the 1970s,"NORTH AND SOUTH" did come off as a filmed play in many scenes. Aside from Margaret's arrival in Helstone in Episode One, the labor violence that erupts within the grounds of Marlborough Mills in Episode Two and the delivery of Boucher's body in his neighborhood; just about every other scene was probably shot inside a sound stage. And looked it. This even includes the Milton train station where Margaret says good-bye to her fugitive brother, Frederick. Now many would state that this has been the case for nearly all BBC miniseries productions from that era. Yet, I can recall a handful of productions from the same decade - 1971's "PERSUASION", 1972's "EMMA" and even "JENNIE, LADY RANDOLPH CHURCHILL" from 1974 - featured a good deal of exterior shots. And there were moments when some scenes continued longer than necessary, especially in Episode One. Margaret's conversation with her cousin Edith and Mr. Hale's announcement of his separation from the Church of England seemed to take forever. And due to this problem, there were moments went the miniseries threatened to bog down.

But as much as I liked Turner's adaptation of the novel, it seemed far from perfect. One aspect of the script that really irritated me was that Turner had a habit of telling the audiences what happened, instead of showing what happened. InEpisode One, following their arrival in Milton, Margaret tells her parents that she met the Higgins family. The miniseries never revealed how she met Nicholas or Betsy Higgins in the first place. The series never revealed the details behind Boucher's death in Episode Four. Instead, a neighbor told Margaret, before his body appeared on the screen. We never see any scenes of Fanny Thornton's wedding to mill owner Mr. Slickson. Instead, John tells Mr. Bell about the wedding in a quick scene between the two men on a train. Also, I found Margaret's initial hostility toward John rather weak. A conversation between the two about the mill workers took part after audiences met the Higgins family. It is easy to see that John's arrogant assumption regarding his control of his workers might seemed a bit off putting to Margaret. But it just did not seem enough for her hostility to last so long. And while the script probably followed Gaskell's novel and allowed John's regard for Margaret to be apparent before the end of Episode One, I never felt any growing attraction that Margaret may have felt toward John. Not even through most of Episode Four. In fact, Margaret's open declaration of her love for John in the episode's last few minutes seemed sudden . . . as if it came out of the blue.

The above mentioned problem may have been one reason why I found Margaret and John's romance unconvincing. Another problem was that I found the on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart, rather flat. In short, they did not seemed to have any real chemistry. The two leads gave first-rate, if somewhat flawed performances in their roles. Aside from a few moments in which I found Shanks' Margaret Hale a bit too passive, I thought she gave an excellent, yet intelligent performance. Stewart seemed as energetic as ever, even if there were moments when his John Thornton seemed to change moods faster than lightning. But they did not click as an on-screen couple. Also, Turner's screenplay failed to any signs of Margaret's growing attraction toward John. It simply appeared out of the blue, during the series' last few minutes. 

I certainly had no problems with the other performances in the miniseries, save for a few performances. Robin Bailey did an excellent job in portraying Margaret's well-meaning, yet mild-mannered father, Richard Hale. Bailey seemed to make it obvious that Mr. Hale was a man out of his depth and time. Kathleen Byron perfectly conveyed both the delicate sensibility and strong will of Margaret's mother, Maria Hale. I was very impressed by Rosalie Crutchley's portrayal of the tough, passionate and very complex Mrs. Hannah Thornton. I could also say the same about Norman Jones, who gave a very fine performance as union representative Nicolas Jones . . . even if there were times when I could barely understand him. Christopher Burgess' portrayal of Boucher struck me as very strong . . . perhaps a little on the aggressive side. And Pamela Moiseiwitsch gave a very funny portrayal of John's younger sister, Fanny; even if her performance came off as a bit too broad at times. It was a blast to see Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of Margaret's fugitive brother, Frederick Hale. I say it was a blast, due to the fact that Pigott-Smith portrayed Richard Hale in the 2004 miniseries, 19 years later. As much as I enjoyed seeing him, there were times when his performance came off as a bit hammy.

Overall, "NORTH AND SOUTH" is a pretty solid adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel. Aside from a few changes, it more or less adhered to the original narrative, thanks to David Turner's screenplay and Rodney Bennett's direction. And although it featured some fine performances, the miniseries did suffer from some narrative flaws and a lack of chemistry between the two leads - Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart. However, "NORTH AND SOUTH" still managed to rise above its flaws . . . in the end.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"HUGO" (2011) Photo Gallery



Below are images from Martin Scorcese's adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2007 novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret". The movie stars Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz and Ben Kingsley: 


"HUGO" (2011) Photo Gallery





































Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"CHARMED" RETROSPECT: (6.11) "Witchstock"

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"CHARMED" RETROSPECT: (6.11) "Witchstock"

During its eight season run, the fantasy-drama "CHARMED" has occasionally featured an episode dealing with the topic of time travel. These time travel episodes usually prove to be well-written or exceptional. However, there comes a time when the series produced a time travel episode that end up being a dud. The series' Season Six episode, (6.11) "Witchstock" proved to be the latter. 

Directed by James A. Contner and written by Daniel Cerone, "Witchstock" begins at least a month or two following the first-rate (6.10) "Chris-Crossed". At the end of the previous episode, oldest sister Piper Halliwell had suggested that younger sister Phoebe and even younger half-sister Paige Matthews leave the family's manor to pursue their romantic desires. Phoebe left San Francisco to live with her boyfriend, the very wealthy Jason Dean, in Hong Kong. And Paige left the manor to live with her own wealthy boyfriend, a male witch named Richard Montana. However, the sisters' separation proves to be a little problematic, since they have to deal with a magic-sucking slime found inside a local warehouse. Their new whitelighter from the future Chris Perry (in reality Halliwell) manages to bring Phoebe back from Hong Kong to vanquish the slime, but was not able to find Paige. Piper and Phoebe achieve their mission . . . somewhat. A piece of the slime manages to attach itself to Chris, and the latter inadvertently transport it back to the Manor.

When Paige shows up, she explains that she tried to leave Richard's manor without teleporting, due to his addiction to magic. During this conversation, Piper finds a pair of red go-go boots that once belonged to their grandmother, Penelope Johnson Halliwell. She gives them to Paige, who tries them on. Seconds later, Paige finds herself transported back to January 1967, due to the spell her grandmother had put on the boots. She also discovers that both her grandmother and grandfather (Jack or Allen Halliwell) were peace-loving hippies on a crusade to rid the world of evil through the magical power of love. They had also transformed the manor into a "magical be-in", unaware that one of their guests is a warlock. Meanwhile, Piper and Phoebe summon the ghost of their now dead grandmother to explain what happened. Grams informs them about her past as a hippie and the tragic circumstances that led to her first husband's death at the hands of a warlock. Piper and Phoebe realize they have to travel back to 1967 and prevent Paige from inadvertently changing the past. Meanwhile, Grams helps Chris and Piper's ex, former whitelighter-turned-Elder Leo Wyatt deal with the demonic slime that threatens to take over the manor.

Sounds exciting, right? I wish I could say that "Witchstock" was exciting. In the end, the episode proved to be a piece of crap. First of all, screenwriter Daniel Cerone failed to make any real connection between the demonic slime first introduced in the pre-titled sequence and Paige's initial trip back to the Age of Aquarius. The main villains of the episode - two warlocks portrayed by Jake Busey and Kam Heskin - proved to be rather lame. The demonic sponge featured in the early 21st century scenes proved to be even more lame. In fact, the demonic sponge reminded me of the lame electrical demon that the sisters had vanquished in Season Four's (4.07) "A Knight to Remember". Talk about lack of originality. 

Cerone also failed to create any real emotional connection between the sisters - especially newbie Paige - and their grandparents. The sisters seemed flabbergasted by Penny Halliwell's hippie persona, which was a far cry from the militant demon hunter who raised Piper, Phoebe and the now dead Prue. The episode had a chance for Paige to really get to know her grandparents - especially her grandmother - and it failed on all counts. Piper turned out to be the only sister who witnessed their grandfather's death. Yet, she reacted with very little or hardly any emotion. I realize that she had never met her grandfather during her lifetime. But the man was blood. The family carried his surname. Holly Marie Combs could have expressed some emotion . . . some sadness over the passing of her character's flesh-and-blood. Unfortunately, that never happened. Cerone's script was too busy treating the hippie personas of Penny, husband Allen (or Jack), and whitelighter Leo as jokes. Watching 1967 Leo act high and hit on Paige was embarrassing to watch. I felt sorry for Brian Krause in these scenes. I also felt sorry for Dorian Gregory, who was forced to portray Black Panther Luther Morris, who not only found himself in the same jail cell as Piper and Phoebe in a very cringe worthy scene; but also turned out to be the father of the Halliwells' police detective friend, Darryl Morris. 

The worst aspect of "Witchstock" proved to be the mistakes that heavily tainted this episode. In one early scene; Phoebe, who had become fascinated with Chinese astrology, informed younger sister Paige that the latter was born in the year of the Ox. WRONG! Paige was born in early August 1977, which meant she was born in the year of the Snake. The screenwriter could have easily looked this up . . . or else he failed to remember that Paige was born in 1977, not 1973. Also, Grams should have been portrayed by an actress old enough to pass for a woman in her mid-30s. This episode was set in January 1967. Which meant that Grams should have been 35 or 36 at the time. After all, her daughter Patty was born in 1950. And the episode was set three to four years before the birth of the latter's oldest daughter, Prue. Actress Kara Zediker, who portrayed the younger Grams, barely looked 30 years old. And I find the idea of a mid-30s Grams and her slightly older husband as hippies. Perhaps there were hippies from their generation. But their fellow witches all seemed to be five to fifteen years younger. Worse, you can hear Rare Earth's version of "Get Ready" being played in the background in one of the earlier 1967 scenes. This should be difficult, considering that Rare Earth's version of the song was released in 1969 . . . over two years after the setting of this episode. The latter should have featured the Temptations' 1966 version . . . or another song from 1966/67.

Was there anything about "Witchstock" that I liked? Well . . . thanks to Rose McGowan, I found Paige's initial reaction to the "Manor of Love" rather amusing and managed to chuckle at her handling of a womanizing Leo. Despite my dislike of the Penelope Halliwell character, Jennifer Rhodes injected a breath of fresh air into the episode. She also managed to create a nice chemistry with both Brian Krause and Drew Fuller; as Grams, Leo and Chris dealt with the demonic sponge. Although saddled with a lame character like the warlock Nicholas, I have to give credit to Jake Busey for attempting to infuse as much energy as possible into his performance. And Holly Marie Combs had a nice moment of personal angst for Piper, who silently lamented over her sisters' departure and her new-founded loneliness.  And Patrick Cassidy did the best he could with a thankless role as the Halliwell sisters' grandfather.


But despite these positive little moments, "Witchstock" was a disaster to me. Was it the worse "CHARMED" episode I have ever seen? Fortunately for director James A. Contner and screenwriter Daniel Cerone, my answer is no. I have seen worse from earlier seasons. And all I have to do is watch the series' Season Eight. There were plenty of horrors from that season to form a list of the series' worst episodes. But "Witchstock" was not a pleasure to watch. Not by a long shot.

Monday, October 26, 2015

"FANTASTIC FOUR" (2015) Review




"FANTASTIC FOUR" (2015) Review

Rebooting a superhero movie franchise is nothing new in Hollywood. Warner Brothers has released two different series featuring the D.C. Comics character, Batman. That particular studio has also released one series of films about Superman, and has made two attempts to reboot a new series - first in 2006 and recently, in 2013. As far as I know, Marvel has only done this twice. Marvel Studios, along with Columbia Pictures, have released two series featuring the Spider-Man character and is the process of releasing a third series. And recently, Twentieth-Century Fox has released its second film series featuring the characters, the Fantastic Four. 

This new version of "FANTASTIC FOUR", which was directed by Josh Trank, began with the first meeting of two friends, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, as young teenagers. Reed managed to recruit Ben into his new project - the creation of, the director of a government-sponsored research institute for young prodigies called the Baxter Foundation. Reed is recruited to jaid Storm's children, scientist Sue Storm (who is adopted) and the somewhat reckless engineering prodigy Johnny Storm, into completing a "Quantum Gate", which was originally designed by Storm's wayward former protégé, Victor von Doom. Professor Storm managed to lure Victor back to the project, due to the latter's unrequited feelings for Sue.

The "Quantum Gate" project proves to be a success. But the Storms, Reed and Victor are disappointed to learn that the Foundation's government supervisor, Dr. Harvey Allen, plans to send a group from NASA to teleport to a parallel dimension known as "Planet Zero". In a defiant movie, Reed, Johnny and Victor decide to test the "Quantum Gate" first. Reed also invites Ben, whom he had not seen in a while, to join them. The quartet makes it to Planet Zero successfully. But when Victor attempts to touch the planet's ground, it starts to erupt, causing the four men to return to the teleporting shuttle, just as Sue begins to bring them back to Earth. Unfortunately, Victor is unable to return to the surface. And when the teleporter explodes upon the other three's return, it alters Reed, Johnny, Ben and Sue on a molecular level, giving them super-human abilities. The new quartet find themselves struggling with their new physical state and at the same time, in conflict with Dr. Allen and the government, who wants to exploit their abilities for military purposes.

I am going to put my cards on the table. "FANTASTIC FOUR" is not a great film. Then again, I have noticed over the years that most movies released in the month of August are usually not that hot . . . with some exceptions. I feel that this new "FANTASTIC FOUR" reboot proved to be no better or worse than the 2005 film . . . but for different reasons. This new film could have better. I cannot deny this. But it was sabotaged by certain factors.

One; the screenplay written by Trank, Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg made the mistake of allowing the five major characters to be younger than usual - with the exception of the Johnny Storm character, who was always younger than his colleagues. I could have accepted this change in age. But it had a negative effect on one of the characters - namely Ben Grimes aka the Thing. Due to his lack of scientific skills and the fact that space flight was not involved, Ben was not really needed in this story. Trank and the other screenwriters could have given him scientific skills, as they did with the Johnny Storm aka Human Torch character. But for some reason, he was simply an old school friend of Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic, This made his trip to "Planet Zero" with Reed, Johnny and Victor seem like a flimsy afterthought. Another character that suffered from the screenwriters' changes was Victor von Doom. Instead of the brilliant inventor/leader from Latveria, Victor is a brilliant anti-social computer programmer from the same country, who has lived in the United States since a young child. I had no problem with these changes, but I did have problems with how the screenwriters handled his character in the movie's second half. He was missing from "FANTASTIC FOUR" for quite a while, between the incident on "Planet Zero" and his return to Earth. And upon his return, the narrative rushed through Victor's encounters with the U.S. government and Franklin Storm, before he made his attempt to destroy Earth to keep "Planet Zero" safe from humanity.

The screenwriters' handling of Victor von Doom in the movie's last half hour illuminated one last problem with the film. Not only was Victor's character arc rushed in the end, so was the entire movie. And I found this rather unsatisfying. Despite my hangups over the Ben Grimes character, I had no problems with most of the film's narrative. But once the NASA men brought Victor back to Earth, it seemed as if Trank and the screenwriters were hellbent upon completing the film as quickly as possible. Or perhaps I should blame the movie's producers or the 20th Century Fox bigwigs. I learned that right before its release, someone had ordered three action sequences cut from the film. Why they did it . . . I do not have the foggiest idea. Did it improved the film? Again, I do not know. But I cannot help but wonder if those cut scenes would have prevented the film from rushing to its conclusion.

Does this mean I regard "FANTASTIC FOUR" as the worst movie from the summer of 2015? No. No, I do not. The movie possessed virtues that made it more than watchable for me. Unlike the 2005 movie, this latest reboot took its time in setting up both the characters and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Fantastic Four. Unlike today's film critics and fans, I do not believe in rushing the narrative in order to wallow in the action scenes. Action scenes should not be the backbone of a film. Thankfully, Trank and the other screenwriters seemed to fill the same. They took their time in setting up the characters' meeting via Reed Richards' point-of-view. They took their time in portraying the creation of the "Quantum Gate", allowing the narrative to strengthen the characters' interactions - especially the relationship between Reed and Sue Storm. The screenwriters also took their time in portraying the characters' difficulties with adjusting to their powers and their dealings with the U.S. military. Only in the last half hour, did they screw up.

Another improvement over the earlier film proved to be the portrayal of Johnny Storm. The 2005 film more or less used Johnny as comic relief. And while I found his antics amusing, I also found them rather shallow and a little annoying at times. In this new film, Johnny is still a hot-headed action junkie. But thankfully, the screenwriters and actor Michael B. Jordan prevented him from being a shallow source of comedy. And with the addition of the Franklin Storm character, the movie allowed some angst-filled family moments between father, son and adopted daughter Sue. More importantly, the screenplay gave Johnny a plausible reason to be involved in the "Quantum Gate" and journey to "Planet Zero". In the original comics from the early 1960s, Johnny was a sixteen year-old who had accompanied his sister, Reed Richards and astronaut/pilot Ben Grimes on the space journey that eventually gave them powers. The 2005 movie portrayed Johnny as a pilot and former astronaut, which I found incredibly implausible. No space agency or private corporation would be dumb enough to hire or recruit a young pilot in his early 20s to co-pilot a journey to space. I find it also implausible that Johnny was a former astronaut in this film, in the first place. It seems ironic that a movie torn to pieces by critics and film goers alike, failed to realize that its portrayal of how Johnny had acquired his abilities seemed ten times more plausible than the original comics or the 2005 film.

One last aspect of "FANTASTIC FOUR" that struck me as very plausible proved to be the team's interactions with the U.S. government. Trank and the other screenwriters allowed the "Quantum Gate" project to be sponsored by the Feds, allowing the relationship between the government and the Fantastic Four, Professor Storm and Victor von Doom fraught with tensions - before and after the initial journey to "Planet Zero". While watching this film, I found myself wondering why this did not happen to the main characters in the original comics from the 1960s or in the 2005 film. I never understood why this tenuous relationship was never explored before this movie. Even if the "Quantum Gate" project had not been sponsored by the U.S. government, the latter would have eventually learned about it and the team's new abilities. Trank and the other writers seemed to realize this. No one else did - including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the screenwriters for the 2005 film.

If anyone had any complaints about the performances in the movie . . . well, I would be surprised. Personally, I thought"FANTASTIC FOUR" featured some very competent performances. Miles Teller did a stellar job of combining Reed Richards' nebbish personality, enthusiasm and energy. At the same time, Teller skillfully allowed his character to mature and learn to accept responsibility by the end of the film. Many Marvel fans raised a fuss over the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, due to him being African-American. Considering that Marvel has changed the ethnic background of a few characters in the past, I never understood the fuss. Not only that . . . Jordan gave an intense, yet skillful performance as the volatile Johnny, who learns to overcome his resentment toward his father's efforts to dictate his future. I have always considered the character of Sue Storm rather difficult for any actress to tackle, considering there is nothing theatrical about her. But Kate Mara did a very solid job of conveying Sue's quiet, yet no-nonsense persona. Jamie Bell really did not have much to do in the film's first half, due to his lack of presence. But once his character, Ben Grimes became the Thing, Bell did an excellent job of portraying the character's intense, yet quiet anger over what happened to him.

The last time I saw Toby Kebbell in a movie, he was chewing the scenery as John Wilkes Booth in the 2010 film, "THE CONSPIRATOR". Thankfully, he maintained full control of his portrayal of computer geek loner, Victor von Doom and instead, gave a surprisingly intense, yet subtle performance. "FANTASTIC FOUR" proved to be Tim Blake Nelson's second Marvel film in which he portrayed a scientist. But in this film, Nelson proved to be more interesting and complex as the insidious Dr. Harvey Allen, who used a fake jovial attitude to intimidate the Fantastic Four (or most of them) into cooperating with the government. But my favorite performance came from Reg E. Cathey, who portrayed Professor Franklin Storm. If one looked at Cathey's warm, emotional and forceful performance, his Professor Storm seemed to be the movie's heart and soul. More importantly, I walked away feeling that his Storm was the true creator of the Fantastic Four.

I am not going to pretend that "FANTASTIC FOUR" was a great film. Then again, neither was the 2005 movie. I had a few problems with the Ben Grimes and Victor von Doom characters. And I found the ending rushed. But the movie did featured some very skillful performances and a great one by Reg E. Cathey. And despite the flawed ending, I had no problems with most of the film's narrative and thought it featured some improvements on both the 2005 film and even the original 1961 comics. Because of this, I have great difficulty in accepting the prevailing view of it being the summer's worst film. In fact, I do not accept this view at all.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"JANE EYRE" (1943) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "JANE EYRE", the 1943 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles: 


"JANE EYRE" (1943) Photo Gallery

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Spoonbread

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Below is an article about the American dish known as Spoonbread: 


SPOOONBREAD

The dish known as spoonbread is a cornmeal-based specialty that is prevalent in the American South. Although named a "bread", the dish is closer in consistency and taste to many savory puddings, like Britain's Yorkshire pudding. According to some recipes, spoonbread is similar to a cornmeal soufflé. However, most Southern recipes for this dish do not involve whipping the eggs to incorporate air. 

The first published recipe for Spoonbread appeared in a book written by Sarah Rutledge in 1847. Another recipe appeared in the cookbook called "Practical Cook Book ", written by a Mrs. Bliss of Boston in 1850. She called the dish, "Indian puffs". However, Spoonbread dates long before the Antebellum period. European colonists probably first learned about the dish from Native tribes along the Atlantic seaboard. The traditional South Carolina low country version of Spoonbread was called Awendaw (or Owendaw). It was named after a Native settlement outside of Charleston. 

Although Spoonbread dated back many centuries, it became very popular with American around the turn of the 20th century. And the town of Berea, Kentucky has been home to an annual Spoonbread Festival, which has been held in September since 1997.

Below is a recipe from the Epicurious.com website for Fresh Corn Spoonbread:


Corn Spoonbread

Ingredients

2 cups whole milk
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 ears)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated


Preparations

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Bring milk, cornmeal, corn kernels, butter, and salt to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, stirring frequently, and simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then whisk in yolks.

Beat whites and a pinch of salt with an electric mixer at medium speed just until soft peaks form. Whisk one fourth of whites into cornmeal mixture in pan to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Spread mixture evenly in a buttered 9 1/2-inch deep-dish glass pie plate or 1 1/2-quart shallow casserole and bake in middle of oven until puffed and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately (like a soufflé, spoon bread collapses quickly).


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." (2015) Review

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"THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie's big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E."

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters - Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin - already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie's film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin. 

Although Napoleon's mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple's intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today's generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton's series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

"THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton's score for the movie's second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert's editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya's break-in of the Vinciguerras's shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert's editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya's attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me - in a negative way - of Paul Greengrass' direction of the second and third "BOURNE" movies.

However, my main beef with "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." proved to be Joanna Johnston's costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women's fashion in 1963:





Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:





I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston's designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie's 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki's costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie's costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, "X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS".

I certainly had no problem with the movie's plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram's plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series,"IT TAKES A THIEF". The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic anduber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram's script not only utilized a bit of "IT TAKES A THIEF", but also some characters from the TV version of "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s' series called (1.05) "The Deadly Games Affair" in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler's party. For "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.", I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby's Uncle Rudi. As for the movie's dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya - especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya's personality - his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character's talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn's performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen "A ROYAL AFFAIR". And I honestly do not recall her performance in "THE FIFTH ESTATE". But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya's mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby's intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.'s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in "THE GREAT GATSBY", I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby's Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009's "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS". And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby's snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS".

"THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.