“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

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“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

As a long time reader of Agatha Christie’s novels, I have been well aware of her first novel that was published in 1920, namely “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. I read the novel once. But if I must be honest, I never became a fan of it.

Due to my lackluster feelings for the novel, it took me a while to watch the television adaptation of it, which aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” back in 1990. But eventually I got around to it and was amazed to discover that it had been the second Christie novel to be adapted as a feature-length film on that series. Another amazing aspect of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is that it is the first of two or three episodes that was not set during the 1930s decade. In the case of this film, it was set in 1917, during World War I.

The movie opens in London with Captain Arthur Hastings on sick leave from military duty. Hastings seemed to be suffering from a mild case of post traumatic stress disorder. An encounter with an old friend named John Cavendish leads him to eagerly accept the latter’s invitation to visit his family’s estate – Styles – in Essex. During his visit, Hasting’s meets John’s family:

*Emily Inglethorp, John’s wealthy stepmother and mistress of Styles
*Alfred Inglethorp, her much younger new husband, who is viewed as a fortune hunter
*Mary Cavendish, John’s wife
*Lawrence Cavendish, John’s younger brother
*Evelyn Howard, Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion, who dislikes Mr. Inglethorp
*Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of a family friend

Hastings also reunites with an old acquaintance he had met before the war – a Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot, who has become a war refugee. Due to Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity, Poirot has managed to find a place in the nearby village to harbor his fellow Belgian refugees in the area.

When the Styles Court’s residents wake up to find Mrs. Inglethorp dying of strychnine poisoning, they learn from the local doctor that she had been murdered. Hastings recruits the help of Poirot to investigate the murder. They discover that John Cavendish will automatically inherit Styles Court upon his stepmother’s death, due to being the estate’s vested Remainderman. His brother Lawrence will also inherit a nice sum of money. However, the income left to Mrs. Inglethorp by the late Mr. Cavendish would be distributed, according to her will. However, Mrs. Inglethorp was heard arguing with a man about his infidelity – either her stepson John or her husband Alfred. She made a new will after the quarrel, but no one can find it. Two suspects would end up falling under the suspicions of the law before Poirot can reveal the murderer.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is the kind of adaptation that most fans of Christie’s novel absolutely adore. Due to Clive Exton’s script, it is a detailed and nearly faithful adaptation of the novel. And for most moviegoers and television viewers these days, a faithful adaptation to a literary source is very important to the quality of a production. My view on the matter is a bit more ambiguous. It all depends on whether a faithful adaptation translate well to the movie or television screen. In the case of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I would say that Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation served the story rather well. But the only reason I harbor this view is that I cannot think of a way how any change might serve the story. Because honestly? Christie’s 1920 novel did not exactly rock my boat. And I can say the same about this television movie.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is not a terrible story. It is a pretty solid tale that made it a little difficult for me to guess the murderer’s identity. The story also featured mildly interesting characters that actually left me wondering about their fates. I especially found the stormy marriage between John and Mary Cavendish particularly interesting. And I also found myself scratching my head over Mrs. Inglethorp’s marriage to the younger and obviously unlikable Alfred Inglethorp. I had originally assumed that this tale featured the first meeting between Poirot and Hastings. But as it turned out, the two men first met during a murder investigation in Belgium before the war. Pity. Come to think of it, “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” did not feature the first meeting between Poirot and Scotland Yard Inspector Japp. They had first met before the war, as well. But the story did feature the first meeting between Hastings and Japp.

Okay . . . look. “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is a pretty solid story. It is filled with competent performances from the cast, including David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, and Philip Jackson as Poirot, Hastings and Japp. I was especially impressed by Gillian Barge as Emily Inglethorp, Michael Cronin as Alfred Inglethorp, Joanna McCallum. I was especially impressed by David Rintoul and Beatie Edney as the emotional John and Mary Cavendish. I do have to give kudos to production designer Rob Harris of his re-creation of World War I England and also costume designer Linda Mattock. But in the end, this television adaptation of Christie’s story no more wowed me than the 1920 novel did. The most interesting aspects of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” proved to be the World War I setting and that it served as the beginning of Poirot’s relationship with both Hastings and Japp.

Before one comes away with the idea that I disliked “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I do not. Like I have been stating throughout this review, it is a pretty solid production. I am certain that many “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” fans would love this movie, due to screenwriter Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation. I liked the movie. But if I must be honest, my true reaction to it was simply – “Eh, not bad.”

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“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS & INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS & INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS & INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS & INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS & INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that his reputation has extended to film, resulting in a Best Actor Oscar over a year ago. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex and entertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.

“HEARTBREAKERS” (2001) Review

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“HEARTBREAKERS” (2001) Review

Directed by David Mirkin, HEARTBREAKERS” is a romantic comedy caper about an elaborate con set up by a mother-daughter team to swindle wealthy men out of their money, and what happens during their “last” con together. This 2001 comedy starred Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love-Hewitt as the mother-daughter pair, along with Gene Hackman and Ray Liotta as their wealthy marks.

The movie begins with Max and Page Connors (Weaver and Love-Hewitt) conning an auto-body shop owner and small time crook named Dean Cumanno (Liotta). The con, which is implied has been done a number of times before on other men, involves Max marrying Dean, passing out on their wedding night to avoid consummating the marriage, and then Page (posing as Dean’s secretary) luring Dean into a compromising position to justify Max’s immediate divorce and hefty settlement. Following the success of this con, Page decides that she wants her half of their money before going solo. Max relents, but the two learn from an I.R.S. agent (Anne Bancroft) that that they owe the government a considerable sum on top of the rest of their savings, which have already been seized. Page reluctantly agrees to work together with Max on one last con in Palm Beach (which would result in enough money to pay off the I.R.S. and set Page up to work on her own). For their target, they choose widower William B. Tensy (Gene Hackman), a tobacco millionaire and chain smoker who is addicted to his own product. Complicating matters is beachfront bartender named Jack Withrowe (Jason Lee), whom Page meets without her mother’s knowledge, while attempting to go after another target on her own.

Robert Dunn, Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur; who wrote the screenplay for ”HEARTBREAKERS”, were also responsible for movies like ”THE LITTLE RASCALS” and ”LIAR, LIAR”. But quite frankly, those two movies were chopped liver as far as I am concerned in compare to ”HEARTBREAKERS”. The movie’s story struck me as sly, witty and absolutely hilarious. Page’s romance with Jack; along with Max and Dean’s love stories were romantic and at the same time, sharp and unsentimental. Max’s attempts to seduce William Tensy, while impersonating a Russian expatriate featured some of the most hilarious moments in the movie – especially a particularly biting sequence that featured the Connors’ dealings with Tensy’s hard-nosed and grasping maid, portrayed by Nora Dunn. Between Tensy’s smoking and pallor and Max’s ordeal in being forced to consume steak tartare, this movie has put me off smoking and raw beef for all eternity. And if the Connors’ misadventures with Tensy were not bad enough, emotions jump a few notches when Dean arrives in Palm Beach in search of Max. It seems that he was really in love with her . . . and she has admitted to having feelings for him. Much to Page’s disgust.

It is not simply the script for ”HEARTBREAKERS” that had me in stitches. Weaver and Love Hewitt lead a first-rate cast that was just as funny as the script. Weaver (deservedly) earned a Golden Satellite Awards nomination as the elegant and quick-thinking Max. However, Love Hewitt matched her in screen presence and comedic skills as the equally intelligent, yet brusque Page. For once Ray Liotta’s intensity came into comedic use as Max’s faux husband, auto shop owner Dean Cummano whose love for the grafter/mother refuses to die, despite his discovery that Max and Page had conned him. Anne Bancroft gave a sly performance as Barbara aka Gloria Vogel, the I.R.S. agent who turned out to be Max’s mentor . . . and the woman who had stolen Max and Page’s bank funds. And of course, there was Gene Hackman, who played the chain smoking William Tensy. I loved his portrayal of the self-absorbed and caustic tobacco magnate. I could tell that he was truly enjoying himself. The only hiccup in this first-rate cast turned out to be Jason Lee. He played Jack Withrowe, the bartender who turned out to be owner of a beachfront bar and minor millionaire. Actually, the problem was not Lee’s performance. It was the writers’ portrayal of him. Quite frankly, Jack was a rather dull boy – a character unworthy of the talented and usually funny Lee. Not even the so-called one-liners they fed the character could not overcome his dullness.

”HEARTBREAKERS” turned out to be another example of a caper film featuring grifters that I find enjoyable. It had a first-rate plot, hilarious and complex characters (with the exception of Lee’s character), delicious scenery featuring Palm Beach and Southern California (standing in as Palm Beach) and a catchy score written by John Debney and Emmanuel Kiriakou. Director David Mirkin was given all of this – some at the last moment – and created comedy magic with it.

Peggy Olson’s Promotion in “MAD MEN”: (1.13) “THE WHEEL”

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PEGGY OLSON’S PROMOTION IN “MAD MEN”: (1.13) “THE WHEEL”

Many fans of “MAD MEN” have made a big deal of Peggy Olson’s promotion in the Season One finale, (1.13) “The Wheel”. Actually, many have focused upon Peggy’s upward mobility from the secretarial pool to her new position as one of the firm’s copywriters – a professional. I had just finished watching this episode and another thought came to mind.

It finally occurred to me that Don had given Peggy that promotion in order to spite Pete Campbell. Pete had informed Don that he managed to acquire the Clearsil account due to his father-in-law being an executive of the company. One could say that Pete was simply being an asshole by trying to shove the achievement in Don’s face. But I think that it was simply another tactic of Pete’s to win Don’s approval.

Unfortunately for Pete, the tactic backfired. I suspect that Don – feeling satisfied and perhaps a little smug over winning the Kodak account – had decided to strike back at Pete for the latter’s blackmail attempt in the previous episode, (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”. He promoted Peggy and handed the Clearisil account over to her in order to embarrass Pete. It was one of the most childish and despicable acts I have ever seen on that show. And yet, because Pete was (and probably still is) unpopular with many fans, a good number of fans failed to notice that Don had used Peggy to get back at Pete. I am not surprised that Don would use a twenty-one year-old woman with eight months of secretarial experience to get back at Pete. What I do find surprising is that the firm’s owners, Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, allowed him to get away with this act of spite.

I also find it amazing that both the critics and fans have accused both Betty Draper (Don’s wife) and Pete of being immature characters. Yet, time and again, Don has proven that he could be just as childish or even more so than either of these two or any other character in the series. But so many seemed blinded by his “man’s man” facade and good looks that they have failed to realize how emotionally stunted Don could be.