Characters in Costume Blogfest: A Few Good Men

Clothes maketh the man…

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The Characters in Costume Blogfest is being hosted jointly by Christina Wehner and Andrea at Into the Winter Lea, and seemed like a great opportunity to discuss one of my all-time favourite films, A Few Good Men (Dir: Rob Reiner, 1992).

The cynics amongst you are probably thinking this is simply an opportunity to post pics of the deliciously young Tom Cruise in his lovely white uniform. As if I’d ever be so shallow!

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No, indeed! It has always seemed to me that the use of uniforms in the movie, both overtly as one of the major plot points, and more symbolically throughout, is as important in conveying the meaning of the film as are the spoken lines. Since this is a discussion of the film rather than a review, it will be heavily spoiler-filled, so if you haven’t watched it and want to, I’d suggest you do that before reading. But do come back afterwards!

(NB To get it out of the way straight off, I have no idea whether the uniforms in the film are authentic and accurate or not, and I frankly don’t care. As far as I’m concerned they are part of the storytelling, and if the director has taken some liberties with the truth or simply got things wrong, I’m fine with that.)

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Khaki, camouflage and whites...
Khaki, camouflage and whites…

Briefly, the film tells the story of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a member of the US Navy’s JAG Corps, defending two marines who have been charged with murdering one of their colleagues. The plot hinges on whether they had been ordered to give the victim, Private William Santiago, a Code Red – a traditional form of internal disciplinary punishment recently outlawed. This is used as a basis to discuss codes of honour, attitudes to discipline within the armed forces, and the age old question of whether it is ever acceptable for soldiers to disobey orders given by an officer.

The first indication of the importance of uniform within the film is its absence. Every serving character in the film makes their first appearance in uniform – except Kaffee, who first appears in baseball kit. Daniel Kaffee is a young, recently qualified lawyer, intending to serve a few years in the JAG Corps because he feels his late father, himself a celebrated lawyer, would have wanted him to. He has no real loyalty to the Navy nor any desire to do more than plea-bargain his way through the cases he’s allocated. While others are proud of their uniforms, Kaffee gets out of his into civvies at every opportunity.

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One of the major themes is the divide in attitude between the officers in the JAG Corps, who are part of the navy, and the marines, who see themselves as the real fighting men. This divide is almost a matter of mutual contempt. The JAG officers see the marines as outdated relics of a more brutal past (remember, this is towards the end of the Cold War, when peace had been the norm for decades and everyone anticipated that we’d keep heading in that direction). The marines see the navy in general as an inferior branch of the service, and the JAG officers in particular as bleeding heart liberals with no code of honour and no understanding of the realities of facing an armed enemy. (At that time, the Soviets were still in Cuba and the marines at Guantanamo were the US’ first line of defence in the Cold War.)

Lieutenant Kaffee: Have I done something to offend you?
Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland): No, I like all you Navy boys. Every time we go someplace to fight, you fellas always give us a ride.

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When Kaffee and his colleagues JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) go to Cuba to start their investigation, Sam advises Kaffee to wear his white uniform because of the heat. Unlike the two men, who are first and foremost lawyers, JoAnne’s loyalty is to the service – she sees herself as an officer first and a lawyer second. JoAnne wears khaki. On arrival in Cuba, the two men are immediately told to don camouflage…

Corporal Barnes (Noah Wyle): I got some camouflage jackets in the Jeep, sirs. I suggest you both put them on.
Kaffee: Camouflage jackets?
Barnes: Yes, sir! We’ll be riding pretty close to the fence line. If the Cubans see an officer wearing white, they figure it might be someone they want to take a shot at.

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The white uniforms are shown even more clearly as symbolising everything the marines despise about these non-fighting officers when the commanding officer of the marines, Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), demands that Kaffee show him the respect he feels is his due…

Colonel Jessup: You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets and the bombs and the blood. I don’t want money and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggotty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.

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Kaffee doesn’t fare much better with his clients. Disgusted that Kaffee wants them to take a deal, Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) tells him…

Lance Corporal Dawson: You’re such a coward. I can’t believe they let you wear a uniform.

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The plot hinges on why Private Santiago didn’t pack on the day he died. He was apparently due to be transferred off base at dawn the following day for his own safety (having gone outwith the chain of command to report on a fellow marine), but Kaffee sees all his uniforms carefully hung up in his wardrobe. The realisation of the oddity of this comes to him when he later sees his own uniforms hung up in the same way. This leads to a courtroom scene where he demands to know from Colonel Jessup what clothes the Colonel packed when he came to Washington to testify. And it’s at this point that the trial begins to turn in Kaffee’s favour. So uniforms play an actual pivotal part in the story as well as being used symbolically.

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Perhaps the most powerful use of uniform in the film, though, comes when Jessup’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson (J. T. Walsh), is torn between loyalty and honour.

Lieutenant Colonel Markinson: I want you to know that I am proud neither of what I have done nor what I am doing.

As we hear his voice reading the last letter he wrote, to Santiago’s mother, we watch as he puts on his full dress uniform – the braided jacket, the belt, the shoes shiny as mirrors, the white gloves, the ceremonial sword, and finally his officer’s hat – then takes his service pistol and shoots himself in the mouth. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, showing how even at this extremity the uniform and all it symbolises is of ultimate importance to him.

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Finally, in the course of the case, Kaffee too has learned the meaning of duty and honour, and learned to admire these men who live by a code that he has come to understand a little better. And in return, he has changed the contempt of the marines he defended into respect. The young man we first met in his baseball gear is last seen in full dress uniform, receiving the salute of his client, and returning it with none of his earlier cynicism for the traditions of the marines.

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A great film, in which I think the three major actors, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, each give one of their best performances. And, you know, it has to be said… Tom does look awfully handsome in uniform…

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To read the other posts in the blogfest, pop on over to Christina’s blog for links. Thanks for hosting, Christina and Andrea!

Tuesday Terror! The Polar Express – The Movie…

…a chilling tale of child abduction, slavery and torture…

 

The innocent looking cover picture of this movie belies the dark horror that lies at its heart. This is not one for the faint-hearted as the script shows mankind (and elfkind) at their evil worst. So think hard before you read on – the images you are about to see may churn up bits of your subconscious better left unchurned, as we fearfully approach this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

The Polar Express – The Movie

 

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Right from the beginning an atmosphere of dread pervades the film, as our cute and adorable little hero (symbolically given no name so that we must assume he could be any child – perhaps even your inner child!) is told by his uncaring parents that during the night a strange man will enter the house while he sleeps. Then, laughing, they turn out the light and leave him alone in the dark. Restless and scared, he flees through the window into the clutches of a sinister stranger who offers to take him away to a place where he will be safe. Hah!

 

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Our hero is still suspicious, but succumbs to the temptation of gifts and hot chocolate. Soon he finds himself trapped on a train hurtling towards who-knows-where through a harsh and icy landscape filled with wolves, ghosts and other beasts of the darkness. And with him are many other children, each abducted from home on this bleak midwinter night.

 

polar express wolves

 

But the abductor (or, as he revealingly calls himself, the Conductor) is only the go-between – taking the children to meet the real evil mastermind, who hides his true identity behind an innocent-seeming alias: Santa. Our hero-boy realises something is amiss, but as he runs to the back of the train to escape, he is met by a diabolical form of torture that stops him in his tracks, and the most horrific aspect is that the torture is carried out by other children…

 

 

Carried against his will to Santa’s dungeons, our hero-boy is forced to witness some unforgettable atrocities. It transpires that Santa has enslaved all the elves and, not content with forcing them to work till midnight, he tortures them with the most horrible sights and sounds ever to assail human (or elven) senses…

 

 

Look! Look…if you dare…at that poor young female elf at the end, about to be tossed from a roof-top for the wicked pleasure of Santa and his evil henchmen! Too awful!! And then watch with terror as the monstrous Santa cruelly whips his enslaved reindeer while his diabolical laughter rends the night sky…

 

 

With great courage, our hero-boy finally escapes from the clutches of the gang and finds his way back home. He makes sure the door is safely closed and, exhausted, sinks into an uneasy sleep. But the worst is yet to come for, in the distance, we hear the tinkling of approaching bells and then, at last, a terrifying scraping, scrabbling sound is heard in the vicinity of the chimney…

 

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Never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for THEE!!!

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            Fretful Porpentine rating:                                  😯   😯   😯   😯   😯

                Overall story rating: santasantasantasantasanta

Bah! Humbug! Bleak House by Charles Dickens (BBC Drama 2005)

Bleak House is the best novel ever written.

 

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What? You don’t agree? Then let me give you just three reasons to try to convince you…

dickensApart from the usual Dickens’ stuff – the gorgeous language, the lush descriptions, the humour, the unforgettable characters, the social commentary and, of course, the romance – Bleak House could fairly lay claim to being the first modern crime novel, complete with the earliest appearance in an English novel of a police detective, Inspector Bucket. Wilkie Collins often gets the credit for this with his Sergeant Cuff, but I don’t know why, since he didn’t appear till a full fourteen years after Dickens’ creation and was clearly a derivation. Perhaps it’s because there is so much else in Bleak House that it isn’t primarily thought of as a crime novel, but the detection element is crucial, while the murder is central to the book, and is in fact one of the finest and most atmospheric pieces of writing in the English language. And Bucket is one of the most enigmatic detectives.

Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand to-night or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”

The novel is best known, however, for Dickens’ brilliant and excoriating depiction of the Courts of Chancery – a place of ruined hopes and ultimate despair, perhaps best summed up by Miss Flite in the naming of her birds, all to be set free on the Day of Judgement. Who but The Great Man could turn such a dry subject as the processing of wills into a sweeping saga of life and death, hopelessness, madness and cruelty? As always with Dickens, even when he’s in full social-rant mode, he shows his contempt through the human lens of the effect on his characters, major and minor.

“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”

The brilliance of his writing is shown in the reader’s willing acceptance even of his most extreme flights of fantasy. The spontaneous combustion scene paints a picture of such creeping horror – the stench, the drifting soot, the grease, the discovery – that the central incredibility is easily overlooked. A piece of horror writing that stands with the very best.

A thick yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”
“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.
And yet look here – and look here! When he brings the candle here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks, here lies in a little thick nauseous pool.

(Now that’s how to use the present tense!)

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This is all a lengthy preamble to introduce this week’s recommendation of how to ensure you…

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

 

bleak houseThe 2005 BBC production of Bleak House is my favourite of all the Dickens TV serials. Adapted by the brilliant Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P) this was originally produced as a series of half-hour episodes that were aired twice-weekly after one of our leading soap operas, in a largely successful attempt to draw in a new audience.

For the same reason, the casting is a mix of costume drama stalwarts, along with a strange mix of people drawn from popular culture who might be expected to bring their own audience. So we have Alistair McGowan, best known over here as an impressionist; Gillian Anderson, with her following from the hugely popular X-Files; and, most strangely, Johnny Vegas, a somewhat off-the-wall comedian. Lump them together with people of the stature of Charles Dance (a superb Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson as Mr Jarndyce and Pauline Collins as the most vulnerable Miss Flite of all time – and this should have been a complete mess. But somehow the directors (Justin Chadwick and Susannah White) pulled extraordinary performances out of everyone involved, lit the whole thing in contrasts of light and gloom, shot it in HD, and wove through it the beautifully atmospheric music orchestrated by Julian Kershaw; turning the whole thing into a feast for the senses.

The quality of the casting can be seen by looking at the three central young characters, all of whom have gone on to become leading lights in their profession – Anna Maxwell Martin, Timothy West and a very young Carey Mulligan in her first major role.

Go on – you know you want to…and Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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Bah! Humbug! The Mystery of Charles Dickens performed by Simon Callow

HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!

 

A Night-In at the Theatre…

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the mystery of charles dickensIt’s a measure of Dickens’ greatness that so many of our best writers and actors remain fascinated as much by the man as by his writing. The flamboyant showman side of his nature is a gift for dramatic presentations of his life. And Simon Callow’s exuberant and flamboyant style is a perfect match for Dickens’ own.

Written as a vehicle for Callow by Peter Ackroyd, Callow describes this one-man performance as a ‘living biography’. Ackroyd, of course, has written a huge ‘proper’ biography of Dickens. Unfortunately, it is so tedious detailed that I gave up on it when Dickens had only reached about the age of 10 by page 180 or so – and that was the abridged version! However, it does mean he knows his stuff about The Great Man’s life, and having to meet the requirements of a running time of roughly an hour and a half seems to have concentrated his mind wonderfully.

‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking!’

For Dickens’ geeks like myself, there are no great revelations in this. It’s a fairly standard run-through of Dickens’ life – the blacking factory, the marriage, the death of the sister-in-law, the writing success, his separation from his wife, Ellen Ternan, his reading tours. If it were only a biography it would be worthwhile and interesting. What brings it to life is Callow’s performance of excerpts from the various books in the first half and, in the second, the flavour he gives of what it might have been like to have attended one of Dickens’ own performances.

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There’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy in the readings – from Mr Jingle of Pickwick Papers and Mr Crummles of Nicholas Nickleby, to poor little Oliver Twist, made marginally less simperingly nauseating than usual by Callow’s performance of him as he leaves the workhouse, and a stunning performance of the Bill Sykes and Nancy murder scene at the end, modelled on Dickens own performance of it. Along the way we pop into Bleak House, get a quick blast of Uriah Heep, a nicely judged physical depiction of Sairey Gamp etc etc.

The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

Simon Callow

Filmed in front of a live audience at The Albery Theatre in London in 2002, the DVD itself is pretty basic. There are no subtitles and the only extra is a very brief snippet of Callow talking about the play. But the combination of Callow’s brilliant performance and Dickens’ immortal words makes this a wonderful night-in at the theatre. Remember to order interval drinks before the performance starts, then sit back and… Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

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