“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. In Episode 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.

“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

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“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

I have never seen a movie from the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise before 2011. Never. I never had the inclination to see any of these movies, despite the series being a consistent cash cow for producer Neal H. Moritz and Universal Studios.  One might begin to wonder what led me to break that tradition and see the franchise’s 2011 entry, “FAST FIVE”

I might have to retract a little. I did see the first movie, 2001’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” seven months before the 2011 film was released.  Well, I only saw two or three minutes of one of the movie’s early scenes on a large screen television at my local electronics store. But those two or three minutes did not convince me to go see “FAST FIVE”. The movie trailer did. When I first saw it, I had rolled my eyes in disgust at the idea of a fifth FAST AND FURIOUS movie. When I saw the trailer for a second time . . . it intrigued me. Because of this, I decided to end my ban on the franchise and see the movie.

In order to understand the beginning of “FAST FIVE”, one would have to watch the past four movies – especially 2009’s“FAST AND FURIOUS”. That movie, featured law enforcement officer Brian O’Conner’s reunion with the Toretto family – street car racer/thief Dominic “Dom” and his younger sister, Mia – after he had allowed Dom to escape arrest at the end of the first movie. Dom and Brian investigated the murder of the former’s girlfriend, Leticia “Letty” Ortiz and her connection to a major drug lord. Brian made arrangements with the FBI for Dom’s release in exchange for the latter’s assistance in the drug lord’s capture. However, a Federal judge reneged on the deal and sentenced Dom 25 years to life in prison. The movie ended with Brian, Mia and two of Dom’s colleagues (Tego Leo and Rico Santos) attempting to free Dom from a bus en route to the Lompoc Penitentiary.

“FAST FIVE” picked up with Dom’s rescue from the prison bus. Dom, Brian and Mia are forced to leave the United States as fugitives from justice. Upon their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; they encounter Dom’s former colleague, Vince. He recruits them to participate in steal cars from a moving train, on behalf of a Rio businessman and crime lord named Hernan Reyes. When Dom realizes that one of their fellow thieves, Zizi, is only interested in stealing one car – the Ford GT40 – he has Mia steal the car, while Dom and Brian fight Zizi and his henchmen. The fight results in Zizi’s murder of three DEA agents on board the train. The murders are pinned on Dom and Brian. The trio discover a computer chip from the Ford GT40 that consists of details of Reyes’ criminal operation and locations of $100 million dollars in cash. They decide to rip off the crime lord’s money in order to start a new life, with the help of old friends. Dom, Brian and Mia also discover that a diehard U.S. DSS agent named Luke Hobbs is in Brazil to capture them for the murders of the DEA agents.

When “FAST FIVE” first hit the theaters, many fans and critics declared it to be the best in the franchise. Following my first viewing of the movie, I watched the other four that came before it. Two of them proved to be well-written entertainment; one of them seemed decent, but a little mediocre; and one barely maintained my interest. But “FAST FIVE” definitely turned out to be better than the first four movies. Although the movie featured an extreme car chase through the streets of Rio, it barely touched upon street car racing, a theme that dominated the other four films. In fact, the movie only featured two street car races – a good natured contest between four of the characters and another between Dom and Brian right before the movie’s end credits. In other words, “FAST FIVE” was more of a heist film. And although certain fans had complained about the limited emphasis on street car racing, the critics and other fans had expressed that the heist plot made “FAST FIVE” the best in the franchise. So far.

Not only do I believe that “FAST FIVE” is the best in the franchise, I feel that it is one of the better heist movies I have seen in recent years (aside from 2001’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” and 2007’s “OCEAN’S THIRTEEN”). Aside from a small quibble regarding the Vince character, screenwriter Chris Morgan’s plot turned out to be a strong continuation of the first, second and fourth films. Morgan’s utilization of characters from the previous films provided “FAST FIVE” with a strong ensemble cast. In fact, I happily noticed that none of supporting characters had been shoved into the background or overshadowed by the Dom, Brian and Mia characters. Most of the supporting characters have previous connections with Dominic, except for two – Roman Pearce and Tej Parker – who appeared in 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS” as Brian’s friends. This fifth film provided a warm and humorous private reunion between the three. And thanks to Morgan’s script, the franchise’s theme of family (especially fatherhood) resonated strongly. This theme also led me to view the Dominic/Brian friendship with a jaundiced eye.

The movie’s production also struck me as top notch. Aside from the train robbery sequence, many of the exterior scenes were shot in Puerto Rico and Rio. Director Justin Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon did a first rate job in conveying the elegance, color, chaos and squalor of Rio de Janeiro. I also have to commend Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner for their editing of the film – especially the foot chase through Rio’s Rocinha Favela (shantytown) and the chase sequence throughout the city.

Before I end up gushing over the movie, I do have a few quibbles. The train heist had been shot in Arizona . . . and looked it. I am aware of the scrub lands that exist in Brazil, but the train featured in this sequenced looked as if it was traveling through a very stark and dry looking terrain. And Morgan’s script never revealed how Vince ended up in Brazil. He had last been seen in “THE FAST AND FURIOUS”, being evacuated to hospital by a medivac, after being badly injured in truck heist gone wrong. Had he been convicted following his release from the hospital? How did he end up in Brazil in the first place?

Considering the number of performers featured in the cast of “FAST FIVE”, I figured it would take a separate article to write about them. If I must be honest, there was not a performance that hit the wrong note. I noticed that the movie seemed to have a strong sense of ensemble acting. Not only did the gang of thieves summoned by Dominic and Brian clicked with perfect magic, but Dwayne Johnson and the other actors who portrayed the DSS agents clicked very well as a team. And I could say the same about Joaquim de Almeida as crime lord Reyes and Michael Irby as his henchman, Zizi.

There were some performances that caught my eye. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker made an even stronger screen team, now that the latter’s character (Brian O’Conner) officially became a criminal. And Walker’s chemistry with Jordana Brewster seemed a lot stronger and more stable than it was in the first and fourth movies. Speaking of Walker (again), he was also able to re-create his strong chemistry with Tyrese Gibson, who portrayed his childhood friend Roman, from the second film. As for Gibson, not only did he have the worst line in the movie, he also had most of the best ones. He was dynamic as ever. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges gave a deliciously cool and sardonic performance as Tej Parker. Spanish-born actress Elsa Pataky really connected with Diesel and Johnson in separate films. And it was great to see Almeida in a strong role again. I found his character’s view on the differences between Spanish and Portuguese colonization rather interesting and chilling. Sung Kang (Han Seoul-Oh) and Gal Gadot (Gisele Harabo)’s characters created a surprisingly sexy romance. Tego Calderon and Don Omar made a hilarious screen team as Dom’s old colleagues from the Dominican Republic. And even Dwayne Johnson gave a slightly scary take on the “holy roller” Federal agent, Luke Hobbs.

Considering how long this article is, one would assume that I really enjoyed “FAST FIVE”. And that person would be right. And I find this surprising, considering my initial contempt, when I first saw the movie’s trailer. Not only did I really enjoy “FAST FIVE”, it became one my favorite movies of 2011, as well.  I am impressed.

Turk’s Head Pie

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Below is a small article about an old dish from the medieval era called Turk’s Head. I first learned of this dish, while watching the “SUPERSIZERS EAT . . .” series. Following the article is a recipe: 

TURK’S HEAD PIE

I believe many would be surprised to learn that Turk’s Head Pie is a basic meat dish made from leftover game meat. The origin of the dish’s name is pleasant and a lot more complicated. Turk’s Head Pie originated probably during the Crusades. European armies that fought during those wars – probably Norman – fed its soldiers by baking leftover game in pastry shells or crusts. These armies named the dish after their enemy – the Muslim soldiers that were known as “Turks”. Judging by the simple recipe, the Europeans did not mean to be complimentary.

The oldest version of the Turk’s Head pastry recipe can be found in an Anglonorman (Norman or French) manuscript from the 14th century. There is an even older recipe called “Teste de Turk” from an older Anglonorman manuscript dated 1290. However, this recipe is not a pasty. Instead, it calls for a pig’s stomach stuffed with pork, chicken, saffron, eggs, bread and almonds before it is boiled. 

The original recipe, which can be found in “Two Anglo-Norman culinary collections edited from British Library manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii”: Speculum 61 (1986):

Turk’s Head 

A sheet of dough, well filled(?): much in it, rabbits and birds, peeled dates steeped in honey, a lot of new cheese in it, cloves, cubebs, and sugar on top. Then a very generous layer of ground pistachio nuts, colour of the layer red, yellow and green. The head shall be black, dressed with hairs in the manner of a woman on a black dish, the face of a man on it.

Here is a more updated version of the recipe:

Turk’s Head Pie

Ingredients

300 gram (2/3 pound) minced meat (pork or veal) (optional)
4 hindquarters of a wild rabbit (or one rabbit)
4 quails, or 2 partridges or pheasants
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cubeb (or black pepper with a little piment)
200 gram (1 1/4 cup) dates
200 gram (3/4 cup) young, fresh cheese (sheep, goat, cow)
200 gram (1 1/2 cup) pistachio’s without shells
60 gram (2 Tbsp. or 1 fl.oz) honey
lard, suet or butter
salt
dough for pasties
1 egg (optional)

Preparation in Advance

Fry the minced meat in lard, suet or butter. 

Sprinkle rabbit and fowl with peper and salt. Heat lard, suet or butter in a large skillet, brown the meat quickly, then cover and simmer until it is done (about forty minutes). You can also roast the meat in the oven, baste regularly with the fat (suet, lard, butter). When it is done, let the meat cooluntil you can easily debone it. Cut into large chunks. 

Steep the stoned dates five to ten minutes in honey that is heated with two tablespoons of water. Drain the dates, but keep the honeywater. Cut the dates in quarters.
Crumbe the cheese, or chop it.
Put everything in a bowl – minced meat, rabbit and fowl, spices, chees, dates, sugar and honeywater, mix well.

The crust – make a pasty dough, or use some ready-made if you really think you must. But making your own is more fun, and you get a special dough.

Preparation

Heat the oven to 200 degrees (400 degrees Fahrenheit).

Take a springform or a pie dish that is large enough to contain the stuffing (that depends on how large your rabbit and fowl were, whether or not you added minced meat, or how much leftovers you had). Grease the form with butter and roll out your dough. Place the dough in the piedish. If you use a springform, it is best to assemble the pasty: first cut out the bottom out of a rolled sheet of dough and place that in the springform. Then cut a long strip of dough, a little broader than the springform is high, and cover the sides. Be sure to seal the side to the bottom sheet of dough by gently pressing the edges togehter. If you want to be sure, roll a thin strip of dough between your palms and press that against the edges. Let the dough that hangs over the top of the form be, you’ll use that to seal the cover.

Scoop the stuffing into the dough, cover with pistachio nuts. Close the pasty or pie with another sheet of dough. Press the edges of the cover and the sides together and cut out a small hole or two to let the steam escape. You can incorporate these holes into your decoration (eyes, mouth).

Now the name of the pasty becomes clear – use leftover dough to decorate the cover with a ‘Turk’s head’ or something else. Colouring and gilding is done after baking, but you can baste the dough with eggwhite (for a light glaze) or egg yolk (for a darker glaze).

Put the pasty or pie in the middle of the oven, bake for about forty minutes. Let cool five minutes after taking it from the oven befor demoulding. 
To finish the decoration apply food colouring paste with a small brush, and gold leaf or silver leaf.

To Serve

A pasty like this one can be served hot as well as cooled to room temperature. Cut the cover loose and lift it, and scoop out the stuffing. When eating the medieval way, you use your fingers to pick what you want, and eat it above your bread trencher.

 

“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

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“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

Several years ago, I had noticed that Hollywood has released a minor political thriller during the first or second month of a new year. And to my surprise, I discovered that I found all of them quite entertaining. The latest political thriller to hit the movie screens during the winter season is film starring Liam Neeson called “UNKNOWN”

Based upon Didier van Cauwelaert’s 2003 French novel published in English as “Out of My Head”“UNKNOWN” is about an American scientist named Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth, to attend a science conference held at an upscale hotel. Upon their arrival at the hotel, Dr. Harris discovers that one of his suitcases had been left behind at the airport. While Elizabeth checks into the hotel, Martin hires a taxi to take him back to the airport. Unfortunately, the taxi becomes involved in a serious accident en route, and Martin’s life is saved by the driver. Several days later, Martin wakes up from a coma and returns to the hotel. He discovers that his wife has checked into the hotel with another man assuming his identity. Not only is Martin taken aback by this turn of events, he becomes aware of a mysterious stranger that has made one or two attempts upon his life. Martin recruits the help of the taxi driver, an Eastern European immigrant named Gina; and a former Stasi agent named Ernst Jürgen to help him learn the truth behind the deception being perpetrated with his wife and the man assuming his identity.

I really did not know how I would react to ”UNKNOWN”, when I first saw the trailer. It struck me as one of those movies in which the best parts were featured in the previews. I had also suspected it would be another ”TAKEN” or ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, a lightweight thriller with a great deal of action and a simplified plot. As much as I had liked those two movies, I never really found them that impressive. On the other hand, ”UNKNOWN” seemed to possess more substance as a complex political thriller. The movie had mysteries and plot twists that took me by surprise, before its denouement.

Director Jaume Collet-Serr certainly did justice to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay. Whether they did justice to the novel is another matter, considering that I have never read it. But ”UNKNOWN” featured exciting and well-dramatized scenes that provided both depth and atmosphere to the movie. One of my favorite scenes featured the recently hospitalized Martin’s attempt to connect with one of the conference’s other scientists, a Professor Bressler. Unfortunately for Martin, the man impersonating him happened to be at Professor Bressler’s laboratory. And both Martin Harrises’ attempts to prove themselves as the real McCoy were both strangely humorous and frustrating . . . at least for Martin and the audience. The meeting between Martin’s longtime colleague, Professor Rodney Cole and Ernst Jürgen, the former Stasi agent, proved to be fascinating and tense, thanks to the first-rate performances by Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. And Martin’s first attempt to reunite with his wife, Liz, came off as rather creepy, due to both January Jones and Aidan Quinn’s skillful acting. 

However, I found myself greatly impressed by Collet-Serr’s direction of two major action scenes. One of those scenes featured the finale in which Martin attempts to prevent an assassination attempt that proved to be one of the plot’s surprising twists. I also enjoyed the action sequence at a Berlin hospital that began with the murder of a nurse and the first attempt on Martin’s life. But I must admit that I believe Collet-Serr did justice to what I consider to be the movie’s best sequence – another murder attempt on Martin’s life at Gina’s apartment that segued into an exciting car chase through Berlin’s streets.

”UNKNOWN” provided some first-rate performances by a cast that included Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, and Frank Langella. Diane Kruger proved to be a surprisingly effective action heroine that racked up a higher body count than the rest of the cast. January Jones gave one of the most enigmatic performances I have ever seen in quite a while. She effectively kept me speculating upon the reasons behind her character’s failure to acknowledge Martin as her husband. However, the movie really belonged to Liam Neeson, whose portrayal of the beleaguered scientist proved to be the movie’s backbone. Neeson perfectly captured all the emotions that his character experienced throughout the story, without missing a beat. My only complaint is that I found his American accent a bit stiff and formal.

I really had no idea on how I would accept ”UNKNOWN”, once I saw it. The only reason I went to see it in the first place was because I had nothing else to do. I am glad that I saw the movie. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it for a second time. And I enjoyed it even more.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

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“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

There have been two adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”. Well . . . as far as I know. I have already seen the recent adaptation that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series in 2009. Recently, I watched an earlier adaptation that aired on the BBC “MISS MARPLE” series in 1985.

Directed by Guy Slater, this earlier adaptation starred Joan Hickson as the story’s main sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The story begins in the London office of financier Rex Fortescue, who suddenly dies after drinking his morning tea. At first suspicion falls upon the employees of Fortescue’s firm. But the police coroner discovers that Fortescue had died from taxine, n alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Due to this discovery, Detective-Inspector Neele realizes that someone within the Foretescue household may have poisoned the financier during breakfast. Suspicion falls upon Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele after Neele learns of her affair with a local golf pro at a resort. However, Adele is murdered during tea, via poison. Even worse, a third victim, a maid named Gladys Martin, is found in the garden, strangled to death and with a peg on her nose. After Adele and Gladys’ murders are reported by the media; Miss Marple, who used to be Gladys’ employer, pays a visit to the Fortescue home to discover the murderer’s identity among the list of suspects:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient and mysterious housekeeper
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Aunt Effie Ramsbottom – Rex’s fanatically religious ex-sister-in-law

Despite Inspector Neele’s initial inclination to dismiss the elderly Miss Marple, he comes to appreciate her help in solving the three murders.

I like “A POCKETFUL OF RYE”. I like it a lot. I have always been a fan of Christie’s 1953 novel. And if I must be honest, I also enjoyed the 2009 adaptation, as well. Originally, one would be inclined to believe that this earlier adaptation is more faithful to Christie’s novel. Surprisingly, it is not. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen eliminated at least three characters from the novel and changed the murderer’s fate in the end. Otherwise, this adaptation was pretty faithful. But it is not its faithfulness to Christie’s novel that made me enjoy this production. I have read plenty of first-rate novels that translated badly to the television or movie screen. Fortunately, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” does not suffer from this fate. At least not too much.

Overall, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” is an entertaining and solid story that left me intrigued. It is also one of the few Christie stories in which the revelation of the murderer’s identity left me feeling very surprised . . . and a little sad. However, even sadder was the third murder . . . that of Gladys Martin. She was the only one of the three victims that was likable. Not only did I find her death sad, but also cruel. But it was also good drama. The movie also featured some strong characterization that I believe enhanced the story. Between the interactions between the members of the Fortescue family members, the interactions between Miss Marple and Inspector Neele, and the interaction between the latter and his assistant Sergeant Hay; this production reeked with strong characterization.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” did have its problems. One, I thought the movie’s pacing dragged a bit, following the death of Rex Fortescue. And because of this, the story took its time in reaching Miss Marple’s arrival at the Fortescues’ home. Another problem with Bowen’s script is that it strongly hinted the killer’s identity before Miss Marple could to the police. This problem has been a problem with the Joan Hickson movies throughout its run. For me, the real problem with “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be the killer’s fate. Apparently, Bowen and director Guy Slater decided that Christie’s version of what happened to the murderer was not enough. Instead, they decided to kill off the murderer in a convoluted manner via a traffic accident. Frankly, I found Christie’s original version more emotionally satisfying.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s performances. Joan Hickson was top-notch as usual, as Jane Marple. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s very entertaining performance as Inspector Neele. I find it hard to believe that it took another 13 years or so for him to achieve stardom. There were three other performances that I truly enjoyed. One came from Rachel Bell, who was first-rate in her portrayal the victim’s enigmatic daughter-in-law. Selina Cadell’s portrayal of housekeeper Mary Dove proved to be just as enigmatic and impressive. Both Peter Davidson and Clive Merrison gave interesting performances as the two Fortescue brothers, Lance and Percival, who seemed such complete opposites of one another. I also enjoyed Fabia Drake, who gave an excellent performance as the victim’s religious, yet observant sister-in-law, Effie Ramsbottom. The movie also featured solid performances from Timothy West (whose appearance was sadly too brief), Annette Badland, Stacy Dorning, Jon Glover, Frances Low and Martyn Stanbridge.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining and solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, thanks to director Guy Slater and screenwriter T.R. Bowen. The movie also featured excellent performances from a cast led by the always incomparable Joan Hickson. However, I do feel that the movie was somewhat marred by a slow pacing in the middle of the story and an early and unsatisfying revelation of the killer’s identity. Oh well. At least “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” was not a bust or even mediocre.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Five “Peleliu Landing” Commentary

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“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Five “Peleliu Landing” Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the fifth episode of “THE PACIFIC”:

Episode Five began with war hero John Basilone in the middle of a war bond drive with Hollywood actress, Virginia Grey. Everything seemed to be hunky-dory with the Marine. Many servicemen seemed recognize his face on sight. And the good sergeant is also enjoying more passionate moments with the actress. This brief scene into the life of Basilone also featured his reunion with his younger brother George, already a Marine sergeant. The younger Basilone tried to express hope that he would be able to live to the older sibling’s name and reputation. But John immediately warned him not to bother. The last thing Basilone wants is his younger brother getting killed in combat over some reckless attempt to live up to his reputation.

This episode also marked Eugene Sledge’s baptism of fire, as he join Robert Leckie and his other fellow Marines of the First Division land on Peleliu for a major assault in September 1944. Three months earlier, Sledge had arrived on Pavuvu, where he had a joyful reunion with his childhood buddy, Sid Phillips and engaged in a brief conversation with Leckie on the meaning of war. But the privations of Pavuvu proved to be minor for Sledge, when the First Marines land on the hellish beaches of Peleliu.

Around the same time Sledge arrived on Pavuvu, Leckie returned to How Company and enjoyed a happy reunion with his three buddies – Chuckler, Runner and Hoosier. In typical Leckie fashion, he kept silent about his experiences at the psych ward on Banika and his encounter with the mentally unstable Ronnie Gibson. But he did find the time for a brief conversation in which he expressed his slightly more cynical views on what the war really meant. Sledge’s expression seemed to hint a reluctance to consider Leckie’s view. Peleliu will end up providing a different lesson for the Mobile, Alabama native. As for Leckie, Peleliu – at least in this episode – provided both some pain and a great personal fear.

Producers Gary Goetzman, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made it clear that the Battle of Peleliu (which was fought between September and November 1944) would be shown in three episodes. Episode Five featured the First Marines Division landing on the island. And director Carl Franklin did a superb job in conveying the horrors that Leckie, Sledge and their fellow Marines had experienced in landing on the island and establishing a beach hold. The most interesting aspect of that landing came from Sledge’s point-of-view, as the camera followed him from his boarding of the amtrack (amphibious tracked vehicles) to the fury of battle on the beach.

With Sledge finally experiencing combat for the first time, the miniseries introduced new characters – Merriell “SNAFU” Shelton (Rami Malek); Bill Leyden (Brendan Fletcher); R.V. Burgin (Martin McCann); and Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane (Scott Gibson). Burgin barely uttered a word in this episode. I cannot even remember Leyden’s face. And Haldane seemed to be an officer in the tradition of Richard Winters of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Shelton is another matter. Judging from the comments on the Web, I suspect that many viewers had been looking forward to experiencing Malek’s performance as Shelton, as much as seeing Sledge experience combat for the first time. And the actor did not fail to deliver. He gave a riveting, yet eccentric performance as the slightly soulless Shelton.

As I had stated earlier, Peleliu provided a great deal of pain and anxiety for Leckie. One, his breakdown in Episode Four led Hoosier to fret over him during the Peleliu landing – much to his annoyance. The two eventually got separated from Chuckler and Runner before disaster happened. Poor Hoosier became seriously wounded in the leg. Although Leckie managed to summon a medic, poor Hoosier lost consciousness before he was carried away. Both Leckie and the audience were left in a state of anxiety over the Marine’s fate. Leckie finally managed to hook up with Runner. Unfortunately, both men seemed to be at a loss over Chuckler, who has yet to make an appearance. And they, along with Sledge and the rest of the First Marines Division were poised to begin the assault on the airfield on Peleliu.

In the end, Episode Five proved to be a solid and very interesting look into Eugene Sledge’s arrival in the Pacific Theater’s war zone. It also provided a peak into John Basilone’s experiences as a war hero on the homefront and what might possibly be the beginning of the end of Robert Leckie’s circle of friends. The episode provided some interesting moments. I enjoyed hometown friends Sledge and Phillips’ immediate reconciliation and its interruption by Sledge’s company commander, Captain Andy Haldane. For some reason, it reminded me of a scene from 1994’s ”FORREST GUMP” depicting the lead character’s arrival in Vietnam. Their reunion became more serious as Phillips tries to warn Sledge that combat was not as they had imaged when they were kids. Leckie’s reunion with his friends brought a smile to my face. I have grown accustomed to all four of them that much. Did anyone notice the grizzled sergeant who was practicing bayonet thrusts when Sledge first arrived on Parvuvu? Keep an eye on him. The episode also featured a poignant moment when Sledge discovered that Phillips had left Parvuvu for leave, back home in Mobile.

But the one scene that caught me by surprise centered on a brief conversation between Leckie and Sledge, inside the former’s tent. That the producers would feature a meeting between the two did not surprise me. After all, ”THE PACIFIC” is a historical drama, not a documentary. There were bound to be some historical inaccuracies. I have yet to see a historical drama that DID NOT have historical inaccuracies – including the much lauded ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. What I found surprising about this scene was that actors James Badge Dale and Joseph Mazello had made it clear in this ARTICLE that they did not have any scenes together. Guys? Lying is a big “no, no” to me.

The episode finally shifted to the First Marines Division’s landing on Peleliu and it was a doozy. The scene featuring Sledge’s beach landing struck me as surreal, especially in that brief moment when the sun shone in the Marine’s eyes as the amtrack conveying his regiment prepared to leave the ship and hit the water. The actual beach landings for both Sledge and Leckie were graphic and rather scary. The scene in which Sledge witnessed Shelton removing gold teeth from a Japanese soldier struck me as an ominous sign of more darkness for the naïve Sledge to encounter. But the biggest heartbreak – at least for me – was the moment when Leckie witnessed Hoosier being seriously wounded by Japanese artillery.

The acting, as usual, was up to par. Joseph Mazello gave a excellent performance as the intense, yet naïve Sledge. In fact, I have to point out that the actor really knows how to use his eyes to convey his character’s emotional state. I could probably say the same about James Badge Dale, who continued to give consistently first-rate performances as Robert Leckie. Both he and Mazello were perfectly understated in their one scene together. Jon Seda, whom we have not seen since Episode Three was solid as war hero John Basilone. I especially enjoyed his performance in a scene with Mark Casamento, who portrayed his younger brother George. As Sid Phillips, Ashton Holmes gave one of his better performances by perfectly balancing his character’s joy at seeing childhood friend Sledge and war weariness at trying to explain the realities of combat to his buddy. Many fans had been anticipating Rami Malek’s debut as Sledge’s very eccentric comrade, Merriell “SNAFU” Shelton. And Malek managed to brilliantly live up to Shelton’s reputation as an eccentric and somewhat cold-blooded warrior. However, I felt a slight disappointment that the Shelton character had already arrived at this emotional point upon his introduction. Considering that his character was already a veteran of the Cape Gloucester campaign, I am not surprised. But the audience will never get to witness Malek develop his character to that point, as we got to witness Ronnie Gibson develop from a rather nervous Marine, to a slightly demented warrior and emotional wreck.

Episode Five was a pretty damn good episode. Audiences managed to witness a full-fledged battle sequence in the daylight for the first time since this episode aired. But I have one major complaint. It ended too soon. I realize that the Peleliu campaign will stretch out in two more episodes, but I still believe that this particular episode should have had a longer running time. Other than that I am looking forward to Episode Six.

 

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director Kathryn Bigelow hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001.

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” had acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades after its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of planning to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign.  GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date for December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It was eventually proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and Golden Globe award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt and Mark Strong? All four had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle, Pratt and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry.  I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I found that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I had noticed how the media consistently labeled Quentin Tarantino’s movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, along with a Golden Globe win for Jessica Chastain. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It struck me as a bit too cold for my tastes.