Sunday, February 28, 2016

"EL DORADO WEST" [PG] - Chapter Six

The following is Chapter Six of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849: 

Chapter Six - Gateway to the West

April 4, 1849
St. Louis. Finally! I have never felt so relieved to leave the floating death trap that was the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. Four more passengers keeled over before we finally berthed at St. Louis' levee. I wondered why the city officials did not put theSIMPSON's passengers under quarintine before we could disembark.

"Why bother?" Alice had replied. According to her, half of St. Louis' citizens have already keeled over from cholera since last December. She felt it would be a miracle if we manage to depart St. Louis . . . alive. Ever since leaving Cleveland, I have detected an increasing sharpness in my dear sister's tongue. Am I now facing the real Alice Fleming? I hope not.

The city's citizens have developed their own cure for the deadly disease - cholera masks. A person could perchase one for ten dollars. Alice says that I should not even bother. She claims that cholera came from bad food and milk, and not the air. Naturally, I could not take the word of a nineteen year-old girl from a well-to-do family over any respectable doctor. So I went ahead and purchased two masks. Alice refused to wear hers.

St. Louis struck me as a grander city than Cinncinati. I was informed by a deckhand on the SIMPSON that it was the biggest city west of Pittsburg. However, Cleveland seemed a lot cleaner. The river traffic that docked near the levee seemed twice the amount we had encountered in Cinncinati. Just above the levee stood an elegant white building with an olive green, dome-shaped roof. 

The mass of humanity that we had first encountered in Cinncinati seemed twice as big, here in St. Louis, only with added touches - red-skinned Indians, trappers, blue-coated Army officers and soldiers, and olive-skinned Mexicans. I gather that the latter were among those who drove the freight wagons along the Santa Fe Trail. And naturally there were slaves. After all, Missouri happened to be a slave state. Mind you, they were not the occasional fugitive slaves captured by bounty hunters. They were black men, women and children shackled together in long coffles and hearded into Lynch's, the city's slave pen on Market Street. What sad-eyed, ragged creatures they were! The expressions on their faces seemed to indicate resignation to their fate.

Alice suggested that we purchase more supplies for our trip west. I told her there was no need. We will have plenty of opportunities for that in Independence. "But the merchants there will charge the earth!" she insisted. Alice had learned this bit of news from an old fur trapper she had met aboard the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. When did she find the time to become aquainted with some trapper without my knowledge? This soothsayer of the Plains had recommended we travel to Independence by land, instead of a Missouri River steamboat. Alice added that it would be cheaper and we would not arrive at the jump-off point too soon.

"The perfect time for a wagon train to depart from Independence is early May," she added. Leaving Independence before that period of time meant the possibility of being snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. She also suggested that I trade the horses for mules or oxen. Horses were unsuited for pulling wagons over a long distance. And we should travel light as possible. "He also suggested that we never take short cuts."

Feeling slightly intimidated by my sister's surprising knowledge of traveling across the plains, I replied sardonically, "Anything else?"

Alice had nothing further to say. Thank goodness. I wish to God that mountain man had minded his own business. However, a voice at the back in my head whispered that I should heed the advice.

April 6, 1849
We spent two days in St. Louis, outfitting for our journey. We purchased lynch pins, rope, chains, barrels, flour, bacon, cornmeal, beans, dried apples, coffee and other equipment. And as Alice had suggested, I traded my team of horses for mules. It saddened me to bade farewell to those wonderful animals. They had accompanied us from Cleveland and I will miss them.

During our two-day shopping spree, our wagon joined three others to form a small camp not far from Jefferson Barracks - an Army outpost southwest of the city. Among our new companions were a middle-aged couple from Kentucky named Robbins. Alice managed to form a surprisingly quick friendship with Mrs. Robbins, a habitual gossip. We also became aquainted with two families from Pennsylvania on their way to Oregon. And lo and behold, the old trapper who had made Alice's acquaintance on the ALBERT P. SIMPSON had joined our little company. His name was Lyman James and he did not look as old as I had imagined. At least somewhere between fifty and sixty years old. Like the Robbinses, Alice and myself, he was bound for California. Only he chose not to travel by wagon . . . just his horse and a pack mule.

We spent our last night around a campfire, listening to Mr. James' recollections of his years as a mountain man. A night of tales about rendevouses, near escapes, Indian war parties and the Western landscape brought back memories of Mr. Whitman. I asked Mr. James if he ever knew my former benefactor.

"Ephraim Whitman?" he asked. A wistful expression appeared on his face. "By God! I haven't heard that name in years! One of the best trappers I have ever known. And a good friend. He taught me and Joe Wright all about the fur trade. Heard he had settled somewhere in Ohio."

I told him that Mr. Whitman had ended up in Cleveland. I also informed him about my benefactor's death, last month. The former trapper seemed to age within seconds. "Poor old Ephraim," he muttered. "At least he had lived a good life." It was the best epitaph anyone could have given Mr. Whitman.

End of Chapter Six

Friday, February 26, 2016

"MAD MEN": Wasted Partnership


Looking back on Season Two of AMC's "MAD MEN", it occurred to me that the rivalry between the series protagonist, Don Draper aka Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) and a supporting character named Herman "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses), seemed like a complete waste of time . . . story wise. Do not worry. I am not criticizing the writing of Matt Weiner and his staff. At least on this subject. Instead, I am criticizing the behavior of two male characters, who I believe had the potential to be a winning advertising team. 

Following senior partner Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) second heart attack in the Season One episode (1.11) “Indian Summer”, one of the Sterling-Cooper’s clients had advised Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), the firm’s other senior partner, to make Creative Director Don Draper a junior partner. Which Cooper did at the end of the episode. He also told Don that as one of the partners, he should be the one to find someone to replace Roger as the Director of Account Services. In the following episode, (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, Don hired Herman "Duck" Phillips.

In the Season One finale, (1.13) “The Wheel”, Duck seemed appreciative of how Don’s creative skills landed Kodak as a client for the firm. Yet, the early Season Two episodes clearly made it obvious that storm clouds were hovering on the horizon for the pair. In the Season Two premiere (2.01) “For Those Who Think Young”, Duck informed Roger that he believed younger copywriters with a bead on the youth of the early 1960s, should handle their new Martinson Coffee account, instead of veteran copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray). Don dismissed the idea, claiming that a bunch of twenty year-olds lacked the experience and knowledge on how to sell products. But Roger forced Don to go along with Duck’s plans and hire the latter’s protégées - Smith "Smitty" (Patrick Cavanaugh) and Kurt (Edin Gali). Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) father perished in the famous American Airlines Flight 1 crash on March 1, 1962 in the second episode of the season, (2.01) "Flight 1". And when Duck convinced Roger that Sterling Cooper should dump the regional Mohawk Airlines as a client and use Pete’s personal plight to win the bigger American Airlines (who sought to change advertising agencies following the disaster) as a new client. Naturally, Roger and Cooper dismissed Don’s protests and went ahead with Duck’s idea.

In the end, both men lost and won their arguments. Instead of gaining American Airlines as a new client, Sterling Cooper ended up with no client altogether. In (2.04) "Three Sundays", Duck informed the Sterling Cooper staff that their efforts to present American Airlines with a new campaign had been for nothing, when the airline fired Duck’s contact. Many fans saw this as an example that not only had Don been right about not dropping Mohawk, they also seemed to view Duck as someone who was no longer competent at his job. However, three episodes later in (2.07) "The Gold Violin", Duck proved to be right about hiring the much younger Smith and Kurt as copywriters for the Martinson Coffee account. Their efforts led to a new client for the Sterling Cooper agency.

But despite the success and failures of both men, Don and Duck continued to duke it out over the heart and soul of Sterling Cooper. Only once, in (2.08) "A Night to Remember", did both men seemed capable of working seamlessly as a partnership, when their efforts led to Sterling Cooper landing the Heineken Beer account. But this ability to work as a pair failed to last very long. One, both men seemed adamant that their particular expertise in the advertising business – whether it was Creative or Accounts - only mattered. Two, Don received most of the praise from Cooper and Roger for the success of the Martinson Coffee account in "The Gold Violin". Granted, Don tried to give some of the praise to Duck (who mainly deserved it), but he really did not try hard enough. And finally, Duck became so resentful of his failure to acquire a partnership in the firm that he maneuvered a takeover of Sterling Cooper by the old British advertising firm that he used to work for. The main conflicts between Don and Duck seemed to be twofold – Don’s preference to take the nostalgia route over the future in his advertising campaigns (unless forced to) over Duck’s willingness to look into the future of advertising (television ad spots and younger employees, for example); and each man’s belief that their respective expertise in the advertising field is the only one that matters.

Most viewers seemed to view Don as the hero of the conflict between the two men and label Duck as the villain. This preference for Don even extended to his belief that Creative was the backbone of the advertising industry. Personally . . . I disagree. Not only do I disagree with Don and many of the viewers, I would probably disagree with Duck’s view that advertising needed to solely rely upon images – especially television spots. Frankly, I am surprised that no one had ever considered that both Don and Duck’s views on the future of advertising are equally important. Don and other copywriters might create the message or jingo to attract the public. But it is Duck's (and Pete's) job to not only snag the client, but provide the client with the opportunity to sell his/her wares. Even if that means using television spots – definitely the wave of the future in the early 1960s.

But many fans seemed to be blinded by their own preference for Don over Duck. And both characters seemed to believe that their ideas of what the advertising business should be were the only ways. The problem with both Don and Duck was that business wise, they needed each other. Look at how well they had worked together in mid-Season Two over the Martinson Coffee and Heineken accounts. Duck needed Don's creative talent. Don needed Duck's business acumen and ability to foresee the future in advertising. Unfortunately, both remained stupidly resentful of each other. 

In the end, Don's career managed to survive, despite the failures of two marriage and the near failure of his career, due to personal problems, heavy drinking and shirking. Duck, a former alcoholic who resumed his old habit in later years, was simply plagued with bad luck. Sterling Cooper's British owners fired him after he had indulged in a brief temper tantrum. He worked at an advertising firm called Grey for a few years, before being reduced to a corporate recruiter. Copywriter Peggy Olson and Accounts executive Pete Campbell learned to maintain a balance between Creatives and Accounts whenever they worked on an account together. Yet, every now and then, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Don and Duck had managed to achieve the same.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"THE HATEFUL EIGHT" (2015) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the new Western-mystery film, "THE HATEFUL EIGHT". Directed by Quentin Tarantino, the movie stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Walton Goggins: 

"THE HATEFUL EIGHT" (2015) Photo Gallery

hateful 8 sam jackson final




Monday, February 22, 2016

"SHINING THROUGH" (1992) Review

"SHINING THROUGH" (1992) Review

Many years have passed since I saw "SHINING THROUGH". Many years. But after reading several reviews of the film over the years, I found myself wondering why I had enjoyed it in the first place. Why? Not many people really liked it. 

Based upon Susan Isaac's 1988 novel, "SHINING THROUGH" told the story of a woman of Irish and German-Jewish ancestry named Linda Voss and her experiences during World War II. The story begins when Linda applies for a job as a secretary at at prestigious Manhattan law firm. Linda is initially rejected, due to not being a graduate of a prestigious women's college. But when she reveals her knowledge of German, she is hired on the spot. Linda serves as a translator to an attorney named Ed Leland, who is revealed to be an O.S.S. officer after the United States enter World War II. They also become lovers. Despite personal conflicts and separations, Linda and Ed resume their working relationship, until she volunteers to replace a murdered agent in Berlin on short notice. Much to Ed's reluctance, Linda heads to Berlin and eventually becomes the governess to the children of a high-ranking Nazi officer named Franz-Otto Dietrich. 

I eventually learned that "SHINING THROUGH" has developed quite a bad reputation over the years. Many consider it inferior to Isaac's novel. It is even part of the "100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made" list by Golden Raspberry Award founder, John Wilson. This low opinion of "SHINING THROUGH" has led me to avoid it for years after I had first saw it. In fact, I became even more determined to avoid it after reading Isaac's novel. Then I recently watched the movie again after so many years and wondered what was the big deal. I am not saying that "SHINING THROUGH" was a great movie. It was not. But I found it difficult to accept this prevailing view that it was one of the worst movies ever made. More importantly, my opinion of the novel is not as highly regarded as it is by many others. Basically, I have mixed feelings about the novel and the film.

The technical crew for "SHINING THROUGH" did a first-rate job. Production designer Anthony Pratt did an excellent job in re-creating both the eastern United States and Germany during the early 1940s. He was ably assisted by cinematographer Jan de Bont, whose photography struck me as particularly rich, sharp and colorful. I found Peter Howitt's set decorations particularly effective in the Berlin sequences. I especially enjoyed the late Marit Allen's costume designs for the film. I thought she did an excellent job in ensuring that the costumes effectively reflected the characters' nationalities, gender, class and positions.

Before I discuss the movie's virtues and flaws, I have to do the same for Isaac's novel. I was very impressed by how the writer handled Linda Voss' relationships with attorney John Berringer, his wife Nan Leland and the latter's father, Ed Leland rather well. I found Isaac's handling of Linda's private life very romantic, complex, detailed, rather messy and very realistic. In fact, I remember being so caught up by Linda's personal life that by the time the story jumped to the Berlin sequences, I realized that this segment had taken up over half of the novel. But once Isaac's moved to the story to Linda's wartime experiences as a spy in Berlin, I found myself feeling very disappointment. It seemed so rushed and unfulfilling. I was also surprised by how my feelings for the novel seemed to be the complete opposite of my feelings toward the movie.

Unlike Isaac's portrayal of Linda's private life, I was not impressed by how David Seltzer handled the character's romance in the movie's first half. I had no problems with Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. They had a decent chemistry, if not particularly spectacular. But the Linda/Ed romance lacked the detailed complexity and realism of the literary romance. Instead, I found it turgid, somewhat simple-minded and a bad rehash of clichéd World War II romances found in many past movies. I even had to endure a rendition of the old wartime standby, "I'll Be Seeing You", while Linda and Ed hash over his disappearance during the war's first six months. I also noticed that Seltzer eliminated the John Berringer and Nan Leland characters, which reduced Linda and Ed's romance into a one-note cliché. All I can is . . . thank God the movie shifted to Linda's experiences in Berlin. I realize that many fans of Isaac's novel would disagree with me, but I feel that Seltzer handled the story's second half - both as the movie's director and screenwriter - a lot better than Isaac. I realize that this revelation might seem sacrilege to many of the novel's fans, but I stand by my opinion. Seltzer's screenplay seemed to go into more detail regarding Linda's mission in Germany - from the moment when the elderly, German-born Allied spy called "Sunflower" escorts her from Switzerland to Berlin; to Linda's search for her Jewish relations; and finally to when Linda and Ed's attempt to cross back into Switzerland. This entire sequence was filled with exciting action, drama, surprising pathos and some first-rate suspense - especially between Linda and two particular characters. My three favorites scenes from this entire sequence were the development of Linda's friendship with Sunflower's niece, Margrete von Eberstein; her outing to Berlin's zoo with the Dietrich children; and her showdown with a Nazi spy after escape from Dietrich's home. I found Linda's developing friendship with Margrete fun to watch. The entire sequences regarding both the visit to the zoo and Linda's showdown with a spy two very suspenseful, yet fascinating sequences.

As I had earlier stated, Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas did not exactly burn the movie screen as a romantic couple. But I thought they managed to create a solid romance . . . enough to rise above Selzer's turgid writing that seemed to mar the movie's first forty minutes or so. Griffith did a first-rate job as Linda Voss by conveying both the character's passion and clumsy skills as a spy. My only problem with Griffith's performance is that she did not seem to make an effective narrator. Her voice was too soft and Seltzer's words struck me as over-the-top. Michael Douglas portrayed Ed Leland - Linda's boss and eventual lover - and gave a very good performance. I thought he was very effective in conveying Ed's no-nonsense personality. But in my opinion, the best performance came from Liam Neeson, who portrayed Linda's second employer - Franz-Otto Dietrich. First of all, I have to give kudos to Neeson for portraying Dietrich without the usual negative overtones usually associated with on-screen Nazi officers. Neeson portrayed Dietrich as a soft-spoken and charming man, who also seemed to be a devoted father and very observant man. At the same time, Neeson took care to convey to audiences that Dietrich could also be very ruthless with great skill and subtlety.

"SHINING THROUGH" was the second time I had become acquainted with Joely Richardson. I was very impressed by her portrayal of Linda's only Berlin friend, Margrete von Eberstein, who happened to be Sunflower's niece and also a spy for the Allies. Richardson gave a particularly effervescent performance as the very charming Margrete. She also clicked very well with Griffith on screen. John Gielgud probably gave the most crowd pleasing performance in the film as Sunflower, the German aristocrat-turned-Allied spy. Gielgud provided some memorable zingers, while his character delivered scathing criticism of Linda's skills as a spy. The movie also featured brief appearances of veteran character actors Wolf Kahler and Thomas Kretschmann, who later became a rather busy character actor in the U.S. It also featured solid performances by Patrick Winczewski, Ronald Nitschke, Sheila Allen, Sylvia Sims, Francis Guinan; along with Anthony Walters and Victoria Shalet as the Dietrich children. 

Do I believe that "SHINING THROUGH" deserved the movie critics' contempt, along with the numerous Razzies awards it acquired? No. Not really. It is not the greatest World War II melodrama I have ever seen. And I certainly would not have placed it on a "best movies" list of any kind. "SHINING THROUGH" is basically a mixed bag, much like the Susan Isaac novel upon which it is based. Like the novel, the movie is a study in contradiction. Writer-director David Seltzer's handling of the Linda Voss-Ed Leland romance could be called a cinematic embarrassment. It is only a miracle that Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas' performances were not marred by such bad writing. On the other hand, Seltzer did an excellent job in writing and directing the sequences featuring Linda's adventures in Germany. If you are not expecting a cinematic masterpiece, I would suggest watching it . . . even if it means enduring the movie's first forty minutes or so.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Problem With Rey



I suspect that many do not want to hear or read this. But I have to say something. I feel that Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams went TOO FAR in their creation of Rey for “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. She is a Mary Sue. She is too perfect. And I am not afraid to admit it. 

Why is it that STAR WARS fans demand that the saga’s leading women characters should be written as ideal or perfect? That is not a good idea for a well written character. A well written character should have a balance of flaws and virtues. Rey is ALL VIRTUES. She has no flaws. Not really. In a short space of time, she learned to fly a spacecraft and tap into the Force in order to use the Jedi Mind Trick and use a lightsaber to defeat an opponent already trained with the ways of the Force – namely Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. If it were not for her interactions with the former stormtrooper Finn, I would find her completely boring.

This is why I prefer a character like Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. As a character, Bathsheba was an interesting mixture of virtues and flaws. She was a better written character than someone like Rey. Even STAR WARS characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala managed to be better written, due to the fact that the two characters possessed both virtues and flaws – despite fandom’s demand that they be regarded as ideal.

As for Rey, I hope and pray that Rian Johnson, who is now serving as director and screenwriter for “EPISODE VIII”, has made her character more complex. If not, I cannot see myself being interested in her story for the next two films.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW" (2004) Photo Gallery

Below are images from the 2004 science-fiction disaster film called "THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW". Directed by Roland Emmerich, the movie starred Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Sela Ward and Ian Holm. 

"THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW" (2004) Photo Gallery