A new year and a new review: North and South miniseries

Happy New Year!  Hopefully you didn't over-indulge last night.  We passed the evening quietly, which suited my mood after watching Michigan State's toothless offense give away yet another winnable game.

But let us move to happier topics.

One of my Christmas gifts was the complete North and South miniseries trilogy on DVD.  This sprawling epic can't be contained in a single review, and besides, I haven't finished re-watching all of them.  So today we will concentrate on the first entry, North and South (sometimes called North and South Book I).

Before digging in, it's worth recalling that this film is very much a creature of its time, when the "big three" networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) dominated the popular culture.  It's strange to read about shows "dominating" ratings these days with only a couple of million or so viewers out of a global audience, but the marketplace has gotten a lot more fragmented.  Back in the 1980s, however, you could have 60 million people watching a given show each week.

The advertising revenue generated by reaching such a vast population was considerable, and thus the networks would pull out all the stops to generate what they called "a major television event."

North and South was such an event.  Running over six consecutive nights, it had a cast of - well, if not thousands - dozens at least.  It was a hodge-podge of emerging talent (notably Patrick Swayze), contemporary network television stars (such as Inga Swenson and Robert Guillaume from "Benson") as well as tons of cameos from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Johnny Cash and Gene Kelly, to name but a few.

It's based on the book of the same name by John Jakes which I never bothered to read.  The plot has numerous twists and turns but we can summarize simply by saying it is a sprawling drama about the fates of two families - one from the north, one the south - in the two decades before the Civil War. 

At the heart of the tale are two men, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) who meet as cadets at West Point.  They will forge their lifelong friendship through the harsh hazing and discipline of the U.S. Military Academy and later on the battlefields of the Mexican War.

The families are set up as mirrors of each other, with the Mains being aristocratic planters in South Carolina while the Hazards are foundry owners in bustling Pennsylvania.  Each character is an archetype from the era. 

George's older brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes before he became Will Riker of Star Trek fame), is an unscrupulous businessman run by his ambitious wife.  George's younger sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley before the weight gain) is a fanatical abolitionist.  Rounding out the brood is youngest brother Billy, (John Stockwell), who will follow George to West Point when he's old enough.  Inga Swenson plays the matriarch who tries to keep everyone from turning on each other.

Meanwhile, south of the Mason-Dixon line there is Orry's father Tillett (Mitchell Ryan) and his wife Clarissa (Jean Simmons) plus their children: the afore-mentioned Orry and two daughters, Brett and Ashton

Brett is the baby of the brood, and the "good" sister, played by none other than Genie Francis, who was a household name when soap operas were still a culture touchstone (her character's wedding on General Hospital still holds the record for daytime viewership).  Brett's older sister Ashton (Terri Garber) is the wild child of the family, consumed by malice, lust and ambition.

The interactions of these two tumultuous families will keep things moving for 12 hours of serious melodrama.

And I do mean drama.  Everything about the show is dramatic, much of it due to the classic television tropes that were at their zenith.  Some might say they date the show, but everything is a product of its time and it's best to savor the closeup-before-cutaway transitions that drive the pacing.

Who could forget David Carradine's utterly over-the-top portrayal of a sadistic southern plantation owner whose chief delights are whipping slaves and beating his wife?  Kirstie Alley throws caution to the wind as her character literally turns into a raving lunatic.

Passion!  Violence!  Intrigue!  Betrayal!  It's all there, larger than life set on a historical stage that while not entirely accurate, helps elevate the show beyond the lurid plot lines of Dynasty and Dallas, it's contemporaries on the tube.

Some might wonder why a guy would watch this, given the soapyness, but there's tons of righteous action and made-for-tv violence.   All the chewing on scenery makes the inevitable fight sequences that much more satisfying when the time for talk is finally over.

Yeah, sometimes the historical situations or figures feel contrived, and there's something wonderfully awkward about how the characters try to work an American History lesson into their dialogue ("not all Southerners support slavery, you know"), but at least the costuming is great.

An undisputed strength is Bill Conti's theme and score, which rises to the occasion.  You may not know Bill Conti's name, but odds are you know his music. There is also excellent ambient music, much of it using instruments of the time.

Though it may seem a minor detail, I have to admit the title sequence to the show is outstanding, especially backed with Conti's soaring theme.  The line drawings of the characters and scenes have the look of actual sketches from the period.  Usually when binge-watching a show, I fast-forward over the credits, but not here.

In short North and South represents the television miniseries geared for a big audience at its zenith.   To bring relative unknowns onto the small screen with seasoned regulars and peppered with Hollywood legends playing bit parts just for fun and attention is something we simply don't see any more.

As to the story itself, it grows on you.  There is a level of cheesiness to the thing, but that only adds to its charm.  The fact is that there are some clunky moments but also great performances here, and it's easy to understand why so many careers took off after this series aired.

Movie Review: Air National Guardsman revisits Top Gun

Recently I got a hankering to watch Top Gun again.  Maybe it's part of the overall 80s nostalgia, but I thought it would be interesting to revisit the film after skipping it for decades.

I admit that I was expecting it to be both cheesy and awful, a schlocky collection of action-film tropes married with bad bad acting and improbably aerial displays.

I'm sure a large part of my antipathy towards the film stems from my great dislike of Tom Cruise and his participation in Scientology.  In an age where everything we do is supposed to be dictated by a political/ethical matrix of boycotts and moral exhibitionism, it's easy to fall into the trap of ruling whole classes of artistic endeavors as out-of-bounds.

Because I am reactionary by nature (that is, if you tell me I can't do something, I'll want to do it even more just to defy you), I decided to break the embargo and watch the film.  I was also curious how my decade-and-a-half of military service would influence my opinion of the film.

So I watched it.

And you know what?  I really liked it.  It's a solid film.  Some of the special effects are a bit dated, but the aerial sequences are more amazing than I remembered - partly because I now know more about how hard it would be to choreograph and film them.

As to the characters, they aren't the deepest people in the world, but it's a movie that takes place over a matter of weeks.  We really don't need flashbacks and a ton of expository scenes.  Too many modern films make that mistake, which is why I can't stand them.

In fact, I found the film did an excellent job of sketching out the characters and telling the audience all you need to know about them.  As a kid, I totally missed the whole "academy graduate" angle, which is very much a think in the military.  Iceman has a ring and flourishes it.  Maverick doesn't, and is acutely conscious of the fact.  The writers do us a courtesy of bringing it up later in dialog to help explain why Iceman is such a world-class jerk.

And yes, naval aviators are that arrogant.  I haven't known many, but they are a cut above Air Force fighter pilots when it comes to ego, and that's saying something. 

That may sound like a criticism, but it isn't.  The fact is one cannot function in that world without an almost super-human level of self-confidence.  The movie actually shows that without it, one can't do the job.

There are some sour notes, most notably Meg Ryan's hair.  Worst look ever.  However, the soundtrack is brilliant and far better than anything on the radio today.  The film is also unabashed in its support of the military, which is a refreshing change.

Basically, it is a movie that knows what it wants to do and does it very well.  That's increasingly rare these days. 

Even the super-hero movies bog themselves down in PC nonsense or lame character drama.  The other day I re-watched Darkest Hour on dvd and while Gary Oldman's performance remains brilliant (as the Academy recognized), the PC trope of having Churchill have to consult with the common people on the Underground to find his courage was even more jarring on the second viewing.

In fact, if we were to compare the two films on being true to the goal of staying within their genre and telling a good story, Top Gun unquestionably takes the trophy.

It is a strange thing for my military service to make me appreciate a Hollywood film more than I did as a civilian, but Top Gun managed to do it.